Emotionally dry, but historical fiction doesn’t get much better.

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MALINALLI OF THE FIFTH SUN

THE SLAVE GIRL WHO CHANGED THE FATE OF MEXICO AND SPAIN

Historical fiction strives to restore the virtue of La Malinche, the infamous slave and confidante of Hernán Cortés, through an intimate coming-of-age tale.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the peoples of Latin America faced massive upheaval as Spanish conquistadors arrived to spread Christianity and claim the land’s fortune for themselves. The most noteworthy of these conquistadors was legendary Hernán Cortés, a man of many resources, though perhaps none greater than the multilingual slave and recent convert Marina. With her aid and council, Cortés and his fellow Spaniards were able to ally themselves with the Tlaxcalans to defeat the Aztecs; and with her love, Cortés fathered one of the first mestizos, a child of both European and Latin American descent. But before she was Marina, she was Malinalli, a Nahua girl from a well-to-do family, who, by the machinations of self-serving men, was sold into slavery. Only through her inquisitive spirit was she able overcome her hardships and learn the skills that made her invaluable to Cortés, establishing her as one of the most important—and often maligned—women in Mexican history. Heavily researched, Gordon’s (Voice of the Vanquished, 1995, etc.) narrative tackles Marina’s story with a distinctly contemporary voice, modernizing even the dialogue to make it both relevant and approachable and to more easily parallel present-day topics such as politics, family values, religion and gender roles. Despite this modernization, the tale doesn’t neglect the bygone cultures it portrays; instead, it highlights the nuances of the unique people, customs and languages Marina encounters. Though strong overall, the narrative has a few flaws: Some character developments feel rushed, especially Malinalli’s quick acceptance of Christianity, where perhaps complex emotion has been sacrificed for historical accuracy. Similarly, the text seems so intent on restoring honor to Marina that it greatly simplifies the struggle between her birth culture and the invading Spaniards’, which is particularly noticeable in the narrative’s less than robust criticism of colonialism. In Malinalli’s story, spiritual omens, Christian or otherwise, often feel Shakespearean in nature—befitting of the story’s emphasis on the joy and tragedy in the life of the controversial “mother of the new Mexican people.”

Emotionally dry, but historical fiction doesn’t get much better.

Pub Date: Dec. 16, 2011

ISBN: 978-1462064953

Page Count: 672

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

THE PULL OF THE STARS

A nurse in a Dublin hospital battles the ordinary hazards of childbirth and the extraordinary dangers of the 1918 flu.

Donoghue began writing this novel during the 1918 pandemic’s centennial year, before COVID-19 gave it the grim contemporary relevance echoing through her text: signs warning, “IF IN DOUBT, DONT STIR OUT,” an overwhelmed hospital bedding patients on the floor, stores running out of disinfectant. These details provide a thrumming background noise to the central drama of women’s lives brought into hard focus by pregnancy and birth. Julia Power works in Maternity/Fever, a supply room converted to handle pregnant women infected with the flu. The disease makes labor and delivery even more high risk than normal. On Oct. 31, 1918, Julia arrives to learn that one of her patients died in the night, and over the next two days we see her cope with three harrowing deliveries, only one of which ends well. Donoghue depicts these deliveries in unflinching detail, but the gruesome particulars serve to underscore Julia’s heroic commitment to saving women and their babies in a world that does little for either. Her budding friendship with able new assistant Bridie Sweeney, one of the ill-treated “boarders” at a nearby convent, gives Julia a glimpse of how unwanted and illegitimate children are abused in Catholic Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, the common saying “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve,” referring to children, reveals total indifference to women’s health and their children’s prospects. Donoghue isn’t a showy writer, but her prose sings with blunt poetry, as in the exchange between Julia and Bridie that gives the novel its title. Influenza gets its name from an old Italian belief that it was the influence of the stars that made you sick, Julia explains; Bridie responds, “As if, when it’s your time, your star gives you a yank.” Their relationship forms the emotional core of a story rich in swift, assured sketches of achingly human characters coping as best they can in extreme circumstances.

Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

Pub Date: July 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-49901-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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