A sweet and diverting story, witty and sincere, from a promising newcomer.


Steampunk meets philology in a century-hopping debut novel.

A pair of budding lexicographers working on the same dictionary, one at the end of the 19th century and the other at the beginning of the 21st, alternate chapters and narratives in this confection of love and language. Winceworth, a neurotic young editor with an affected lisp, is working on the S section of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, then a flourishing enterprise. Meanwhile, more than a century later, Mallory takes an internship at what’s left of the dictionary: cases of blue index cards covered with definitions housed in a magnificent, crumbling Victorian building on a prime block of London. In between their eras, World War I stopped the dictionary in its tracks, sending the young workers off to the trenches and melting down the printing presses for ammunition; the entries for Z remain unfinished. In her half of the novel, Mallory performs the disturbing twin assignments of fielding threatening phone calls and hunting down “mountweazels”—made-up words deliberately inserted into the dictionary. In his half, Winceworth broods over office politics and invents the words that Mallory is rooting out. Williams, a charming stylist, is at her best when she’s writing breathlessly about the blossoming of romantic love: Mallory’s for her girlfriend and Winceworth’s for a colleague’s fiancee. Plentiful events—explosions, trysts, betrayals—give the impression of a lively plot, though key mysteries remain unresolved, particularly in Winceworth’s narrative. (What is the real identity of the mysterious beauty? What is the bully’s motive?) Surprisingly, the least exciting aspect of the novel is the vocabulary words, many of which word mavens may well already have encountered in listicles of, for example, color terms or names for body parts (glabella, philtrum, pons). Nevertheless, people who read dictionaries for fun will likely enjoy the selection.

A sweet and diverting story, witty and sincere, from a promising newcomer.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-385-54677-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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An exhilarating ride through Americana.


Newly released from a work farm in 1950s Kansas, where he served 18 months for involuntary manslaughter, 18-year-old Emmett Watson hits the road with his little brother, Billy, following the death of their father and the foreclosure of their Nebraska farm.

They leave to escape angry townspeople who believe Emmett got off easy, having caused the fatal fall of a taunting local boy by punching him in the nose. The whip-smart Billy, who exhibits OCD–like symptoms, convinces Emmett to drive them to San Francisco to reunite with their mother, who left town eight years ago. He insists she's there, based on postcards she sent before completely disappearing from their lives. But when Emmett's prized red Studebaker is "borrowed" by two rambunctious, New York–bound escapees from the juvie facility he just left, Emmett takes after them via freight train with Billy in tow. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who's been riding the rails nonstop since returning home from World War II to find his wife and baby boy gone. A modern picaresque with a host of characters, competing points of view, wandering narratives, and teasing chapter endings, Towles' third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). You can quibble with one or two plot turns, but there's no resisting moments such as Billy's encounter, high up in the Empire State Building in the middle of the night, with professor Abacus Abernathe, whose Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers he's read 24 times. A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles' novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history.

An exhilarating ride through Americana.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-73-522235-9

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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