A thrilling peek into a portal of history, dramatic and moving.

WISCONSIN LOGGING CAMP, 1921

A BOY'S EXTRAORDINARY FIRST YEAR IN AMERICA WORKING AS A "CHICKADEE"

In Bastian’s historical novel, an orphaned boy flees war-torn Germany and finds work at a Wisconsin logging camp.

After Will Heinlein’s father dies fighting in WWI, his mother decides they have no future in Germany, and she sets her sights on the United States, where they have family. She dies in transit, however, and so Will arrives in New York in 1920 alone, unable to contact his uncle in Chicago. Fortunately, he meets Deiter Pzybylski, another lonesome traveler, a refugee from Poland who fought in the resistance against Russian occupation. Deiter takes Will under his wing with a casualness that belies the profound depth of his kindness, movingly depicted by author Bastian: “Hey, why not come with me? I’ve always wanted a little brother.” They travel to the frigid Wisconsin wilderness, where Deiter’s brother, Michael, waits for them. Will lands a job as a Chickadee, clearing icy, “serpentine trails” of impediments, including frozen “horse apples,” or turds, with a screwdriver. Once there, Will longs to graduate to the position of logger but has to contend with the perils of the work and environment, including Nyka, a dangerously violent logger. Bastian scrupulously researched historical records to create an impressively authentic portrait of the era. The pace of the plot is unrushed but never lags—Bastian draws the reader too deeply into Will’s cosmos for boredom to ever surface, and one can’t help but root for the protagonist. His prose, straightforward and unembellished but all the more powerful for its reserve, sets an affecting scene: “The more snow Nyka kicked away the clearer it became that it was a small body. I gasped when I realized I was staring into the hollow eye socket of a skull. The top of the skull was covered by a red knit hat.”

A thrilling peek into a portal of history, dramatic and moving.

Pub Date: Dec. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-934553-54-1

Page Count: 178

Publisher: Bower House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 5, 2020

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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