Cathartic and politically thoughtful, if didactic and clichéd.

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HENRIETHA

A pair of novellas about friendship and endurance in the face of hardship.

In the titular story, Johnson introduces an unlikely pair of friends: Joanna White, a white Canadian journalist struggling to overcome the breakup of her long-term relationship, and Henrietha Browne, a Jamaican woman who has seen her share of troubles. Henrietha relates her history of oppression and abuse as well as her quest to find autonomy in a world beset with racism, sexism and poverty. In the process, Joanna comes to a deeper understanding of her own oppression and how her identity, while playing a role in both her successes and failures, is more of a bridge than a barrier to her communion with women of all races and backgrounds. Waiting for the World to Change, a smaller novella, follows a similar structure as black lawyer Susan Ottawa seeks counsel with Jamaican housekeeper Anita Kingsley. As they share their feelings about men, religion and racism, Susan sees her life in a new light and slowly opens her heart to Anita’s brand of optimistic spirituality. The mirrored structures of both novellas tie them together, but at the same time this convention highlights the somewhat hackneyed style Johnson employs. Henrietha and Anita, while sympathetic and relatable characters, occasionally come off as tokenized mouthpieces for the author’s valuable political ideas rather than individuals in their own right. Henrietha’s choices and life story are a pileup of one tragedy after another, and while it is certain that many people have gone through what she has (and worse), her choices seem like a narrative excuse for Johnson to drive home her point rather than coming organically from Henrietha’s motivations. Both novellas’ climaxes—a revelation by Joanna and an epiphany by Susan—do not arise naturally from the stories’ plots but are tacked on for the sake of closure. Despite the book’s faults, the stories it contains look pointedly at injustices that go ignored and say things that need to be said.

Cathartic and politically thoughtful, if didactic and clichéd.

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 2010

ISBN: 978-1452039336

Page Count: 285

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2010

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally...

NINTH HOUSE

Yale’s secret societies hide a supernatural secret in this fantasy/murder mystery/school story.

Most Yale students get admitted through some combination of impressive academics, athletics, extracurriculars, family connections, and donations, or perhaps bribing the right coach. Not Galaxy “Alex” Stern. The protagonist of Bardugo’s (King of Scars, 2019, etc.) first novel for adults, a high school dropout and low-level drug dealer, Alex got in because she can see dead people. A Yale dean who's a member of Lethe, one of the college’s famously mysterious secret societies, offers Alex a free ride if she will use her spook-spotting abilities to help Lethe with its mission: overseeing the other secret societies’ occult rituals. In Bardugo’s universe, the “Ancient Eight” secret societies (Lethe is the eponymous Ninth House) are not just old boys’ breeding grounds for the CIA, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and so on, as they are in ours; they’re wielders of actual magic. Skull and Bones performs prognostications by borrowing patients from the local hospital, cutting them open, and examining their entrails. St. Elmo’s specializes in weather magic, useful for commodities traders; Aurelian, in unbreakable contracts; Manuscript goes in for glamours, or “illusions and lies,” helpful to politicians and movie stars alike. And all these rituals attract ghosts. It’s Alex’s job to keep the supernatural forces from embarrassing the magical elite by releasing chaos into the community (all while trying desperately to keep her grades up). “Dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.” A townie’s murder sets in motion a taut plot full of drug deals, drunken assaults, corruption, and cover-ups. Loyalties stretch and snap. Under it all runs the deep, dark river of ambition and anxiety that at once powers and undermines the Yale experience. Alex may have more reason than most to feel like an imposter, but anyone who’s spent time around the golden children of the Ivy League will likely recognize her self-doubt.

With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31307-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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