An ingenious and satisfying tale about a single live oak.

TREE

A debut novel tells the story of life in a California valley through the eyes of a tree.

The hero of this book is, as the title suggests, a tree. Specifically, a live oak that germinates in Topanga in the 18th century. The tale begins, more or less, at the protagonist’s conception: a new acorn drops from a tree and is picked up by a blue jay, which is in turn snatched by a hawk. The acorn falls from the hawk’s talons high in the air and comes to rest in a crack on the dry valley floor. It waits for days in the arid dirt until a mountain lion kills and eats a deer over the crack, coating the acorn in blood: “And the acorn responded to sudden moisture as seeds do. Things uncoiled and uncurled inside.” From there, Watts takes the reader on a journey through more than two centuries of California history with Tree right at the center, from the struggles of the surrounding animals and plants who serve as the oak’s neighbors to the human settlers—Chumash, Spanish, American, and contemporary Angeleno—who alter the face of the valley. The saga of Tree becomes a window into the immensity of nature, simultaneously dynamic and everlasting, and the ways that humans have come to upset the ancient balance. Watts writes in an elegant, highly detailed prose that shows an incredible knack for chronicling the minutiae of the natural world. Even more impressive is her ability to wring narrative from the most common interactions, reminding readers of the Homeric drama unfolding all around them, at every level of life. She makes the most of the novel’s conceit, going so far as to use a Tree-specific pronoun: e instead of he or she. Far from cute, this book takes a serious look at the value of love, the impossibility of permanence, and the ways in which humans leave the world. For anyone wondering about the outcome, Watts closes the work’s first paragraph with the reminder that “there is no happiness. Only serenity lasts.”

An ingenious and satisfying tale about a single live oak.

Pub Date: April 22, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9976921-1-2

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Change the World Books

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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