A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

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Shadows of fire

ROMANCE AND THE GREATEST 20TH CENTURY PLOT

Alsina’s debut novel, translated from the Catalan, is an unusual historical saga that touches on the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, deconstructionism, kidney transplantation and 1960s sexual liberation.

As the novel opens in 1932, Samuel Klein, a Freudian psychoanalyst in Berlin, and his fiancée, American pianist Ruth, face exile as Jews. Rather than exploring this dramatic pre-Holocaust situation in depth, however, the narrative quickly skips to 1963. Samuel and Ruth’s daughter, Sarah, is a recent University of California, Berkeley, graduate who’s passionate about political activism and feminism. She travels to France to study philosophy under Jacques Derrida. Samuel asks Sarah to meet with Armand Roare, the son of a Catalan doctor who saved his life in 1940; Armand is heading to Paris from Barcelona, to complete a nephrology residency. Over jazz concerts, Sarah and Armand grow closer, and through meetings with Samuel’s wartime colleagues, they uncover stories of his exploits. While a refugee, Samuel spied for the British, reporting on Nazi activity and leading Jews to safety through Spain. Professional ambitions lead Sarah and Armand in different directions, as he performs Barcelona’s first kidney transplant and she takes Derrida’s theories to the United States, but a hurried last section gives the lovers one final, bittersweet rendezvous. The author’s scenes of World War II and the Spanish Civil War provide a vibrant backdrop to its middle flashback section. However, long passages of redundant historical detail seem shoehorned in. The book’s political commentary is also rather shallow (“We Jews want to flee from our cages”; “[w]ars are always cruel for the vast majority of the population in all countries”). Unfortunately, the novel’s characterizations sometimes fail to rise above stereotypes (“He tended to gesticulate when he spoke, as people from the Mediterranean do”), and its explicit sex scenes, though convincing, are sometimes overwritten (“Lustfully, he felt himself immersed in a liberating burst”). Throughout the novel, characters’ backgrounds are often forced into dialogue: “Before going to Paris…we’d like to hear about your life experiences.” Ultimately, even the 1960s framing device seems unnecessary; the best portions of the book recreate wartime action, and they might have been expanded to fill a whole novel.

A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

Pub Date: May 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-1496168948

Page Count: 340

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2014

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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