Historical verisimilitude worthy of a Ken Burns documentary but oh so much more lurid.

SUNFLOWER SISTERS

A saga of the Civil War gathers all the usual suspects—enslaved people, slave owners, abolitionists, soldiers, and nurses—but the result is far from clichéd.

Kelly’s ambitious tale begs to be called “sweeping,” but its chief virtue is the way it homes in on the microcosms, some horrific, inhabited by its three narrators. Georgy, from New York, one of seven daughters of the abolitionist Woolsey family, is determined to become a nurse. She studies with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female medical school graduate, and strives to batter down prejudice not just against women doctors, but women nurses. Despite her proven ability, she’s often replaced at battlefield hospitals by incompetent, drunken male nurses. Jemma’s family is enslaved on the Peeler tobacco plantation in the border state of Maryland, where the White population seems equally divided between Union and Rebel sympathies. Firmly in the second camp is Anne-May, who inherited the Peeler plantation from her elderly Aunt Tandy Rose, flouting her late aunt’s testamentary directive to free Peeler’s slaves. Anne-May is bad to the bone, whips Jemma regularly, employs a brutal overseer, spends her family’s dwindling funds on fripperies, is addicted to snuff, and takes advantage of her husband’s absence at the front to flagrantly carry on an affair with a local merchant. The affair turns into a spying mission for the Confederacy, involuntarily abetted by Jemma, who, more literate than Anne-May, is forced to write down Union secrets in Anne-May’s little red book. And that’s only the beginning of Anne-May’s moral bankruptcy. These alternating, intimate vantage points situate readers in the chaotic political, military, and social hellscapes of Civil War America, from Gettysburg to the draft riots. Cliffhangers closing each chapter keep the plot moving at a satisfying clip.

Historical verisimilitude worthy of a Ken Burns documentary but oh so much more lurid.

Pub Date: March 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5247-9640-2

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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An exhilarating ride through Americana.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

Newly released from a work farm in 1950s Kansas, where he served 18 months for involuntary manslaughter, 18-year-old Emmett Watson hits the road with his little brother, Billy, following the death of their father and the foreclosure of their Nebraska farm.

They leave to escape angry townspeople who believe Emmett got off easy, having caused the fatal fall of a taunting local boy by punching him in the nose. The whip-smart Billy, who exhibits OCD–like symptoms, convinces Emmett to drive them to San Francisco to reunite with their mother, who left town eight years ago. He insists she's there, based on postcards she sent before completely disappearing from their lives. But when Emmett's prized red Studebaker is "borrowed" by two rambunctious, New York–bound escapees from the juvie facility he just left, Emmett takes after them via freight train with Billy in tow. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who's been riding the rails nonstop since returning home from World War II to find his wife and baby boy gone. A modern picaresque with a host of characters, competing points of view, wandering narratives, and teasing chapter endings, Towles' third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). You can quibble with one or two plot turns, but there's no resisting moments such as Billy's encounter, high up in the Empire State Building in the middle of the night, with professor Abacus Abernathe, whose Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers he's read 24 times. A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles' novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history.

An exhilarating ride through Americana.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-73-522235-9

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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