One of those books you can either roam contentedly around in for days, or devour at once, in a rush of pure pleasure. Take...

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ON AGATE HILL

The story of a self-described “ghost girl” who survives the Civil War devastation that claims her family is told in the North Carolina author’s rich, complex 12th novel (after The Last Girls, 2002).

Spirited orphan Molly Petree’s diary and correspondence describe her childhood at Agate Hill plantation, raised among the large extended family of her Uncle Junius Hall, a well-meaning patriarch too passive to resist tenant farmer’s widow Selena Vogell, who installs herself as housekeeper, marries him and emerges triumphant, as Agate Hill’s occupants disperse—among them adolescent Molly, claimed as the ward of her late father’s best friend and battlefield companion Simon Black. Molly’s student years at highfalutin’ Gatewood Academy are revealed through the diaries of its unstable headmistress Mariah Snow and her sensible sister, teacher Agnes Rutherford, who’ll accompany Molly on the next leg of her journey: to the one-room Bobcat School in the “Lost Province” of western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, where Molly seeks escape from Simon Black’s recurring reappearances by agreeing to marry a “rich boy” she doesn’t love. Fate then intervenes in the person of lusty country singer Jacky Jarvis, and, as his first cousin BJ discloses, Molly’s blissful union with Jacky endures despite a wrenching succession of stillborn children (their tiny graves “Just a row of rock babies up on the mountain like a little stone wall”), until he is murdered and Molly stands accused of the crime. Her story ends back on Agate Hill, once again in her diary’s words, as she nurses Simon Black during his last days, and finally learns the true nature of his claim on her. An authentic American saga, bittersweet as an Appalachian ballad, peopled with wonderfully vivid characters, so brilliantly constructed we never even notice the quilt-like artfulness of its design.

One of those books you can either roam contentedly around in for days, or devour at once, in a rush of pure pleasure. Take your pick.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2006

ISBN: 1-56512-452-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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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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