Pearl is a smooth writer whose adoption of the ambling pace, digressions, and melodrama of an earlier literary era may not...

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THE LAST BOOKANEER

An entertaining adventure tale steeped in literary history tells of rival book pirates seeking their biggest prize, the last novel of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).

Pearl (The Technologists, 2012, etc.) extrapolates from a scrap of history about the illicit 19th-century trade in books before the international copyright law of 1891 to imagine a busy demimonde of bookaneers (he says in an afterword he found the term used as early as 1837) working in New York and London. He brings in the characters Whiskey Bill and Kitten from his 2009 novel, The Last Dickens, both central to subplots in the present novel. The main plot has the two leading bookaneers, Davenport and Belial, vying for the Stevenson prize by voyaging to Samoa, where the author of Treasure Island has established himself as a sort of philosopher-king. Davenport has a sidekick named Fergins, a former bookseller, who plays Watson to his companion’s Holmes. As usual with Pearl, sleuthing helps drive the story, especially when Davenport uses his keen eye and deductive skills to investigate Kitten’s death after her great coup, finding a Mary Shelley manuscript. Mostly the story dawdles on Samoa, waiting for the great author to finish his masterpiece and for a chance to outwit the devilish Belial. Pearl has fun with cannibals, a native beauty, an amorous dwarf, myriad literary references and allusions, and not one but two neat twists as the tale winds down. He also plays with narrative voices, delivering most of the story through Fergins’ memories of it but as told to Clover, a black railway porter befriended by the bookseller and a key figure in the final twist. The narrative device adds another layer of 19th-century literary atmosphere.

Pearl is a smooth writer whose adoption of the ambling pace, digressions, and melodrama of an earlier literary era may not suit today’s instant gratifiers, but he offers many of the charms and unrushed distractions of a favorite old bookstore.

Pub Date: April 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59420-492-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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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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