While some will find this seasonal sweetness charming, others will find it maddeningly contrived.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT'S PAJAMAS

Bertino, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection Safe as Houses (2012), aims to pull heartstrings in her first novel, which is set in Philadelphia and follows a cast of cute/quirky characters hour by hour as their lives converge two days before Christmas.

Fifth-grader Madeleine Altimari is pretty much raising herself; her father has retreated into his bedroom in a drug-induced stupor to numb his grief since the death of Madeleine’s mother—a strip-club dancer and free spirit beloved by all who knew her. Madeleine is lonely, precocious and sassy, her tough exterior hiding her own heartache. Mrs. Santiago, the warmhearted widow who runs the neighborhood cafe, provides breakfast, lunch and grandmotherly affection, but Madeleine has no friends at her Catholic elementary school. Her solace is singing—she’s a natural who yearns to be a jazz singer. Madeleine’s day begins badly when Principal Randles, who resented Madeleine’s mother even when they were kids, first deprives Madeleine of a solo at the school’s morning Mass and later unfairly expels her. (A school in session on Dec. 23 and a principal expelling a child without some kind of parent meeting both hint at less-than-realistic storytelling.) Then Madeleine learns there's a jazz club in Philadelphia and decides to find it. Madeleine’s teacher, Sarina Greene, who also frequents Mrs. Santiago’s cafe, feels terrible about Madeleine’s expulsion, but what can she do? Besides, she’s coping with her own crisis: Having returned to Philly after a divorce, she's been invited to a dinner party with old friends, including a former boyfriend. Meanwhile, across town, the police warn Jack Lorca that he'll have to close his jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, if there are any more code violations. But he’s promised to let his musically talented, teenage (i.e. underage) son play in the house band tonight. As the hours pass, the various storylines thread together.

While some will find this seasonal sweetness charming, others will find it maddeningly contrived.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-4023-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her...

LITTLE GODS

Love and ambition clash in a novel depicting China's turbulent 1980s.

Jin's debut is at heart a mystery, as a young Chinese American woman returns to China to try to understand her recently deceased mother's decisions and to find her biological father. Liya grew up with a single mother, the brilliant but troubled physicist Su Lan, who refused to talk about Liya's missing father. Mother and daughter grew increasingly estranged as Su Lan obsessed over her theoretical research. Complicating Liya's search for truth is the fact she was born in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the very night of the government crackdown on the protesters at Tiananmen Square. Su Lan changed Liya's birth year on her papers to obscure this fact in America. The reader is meant to wonder if Liya's father perhaps died during the crackdown. However, this is not a novel about the idealism of the student reform movement or even the decisions behind the government's use of lethal force. Instead Jin focuses on the personalities of three students: the young Su Lan as well as Zhang Bo and Li Yongzong, two of her high school classmates who were rivals for her affection. The novel shifts point of view and jumps back and forth in time, obscuring vital pieces of information from the reader in order to prolong the mystery. Not all the plot contrivances make sense, but Su Lan is a fascinating character of a type rarely seen in fiction, an ambitious woman whose intellect and drive allow her to envision changing the very nature of time. The title refers to the thoughts of a nurse, musing about the similarities that she sees between the Tiananmen student demonstrators and the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution: "A hunger for revolution, any Great Revolution, whatever it stands for, so long as where you stand is behind its angry fist. Little gods, she thinks."

While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her ambition.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-293595-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Our Verdict

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  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Booker Prize Winner

THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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