A runaway train of a plot, in which our heroine suffers four marriages, two pregnancies, three tragic deaths and too many...

SECRET OF A THOUSAND BEAUTIES

Set in 1930s China, Yip’s latest intrigue follows a runaway “ghost wife” as she finds a place in the world amid imperial loyalists and the rumblings of revolution.

At 17, Spring Swallow is about to become a “ghost wife,” married to an unborn baby (he died during a miscarriage) and tied to her “husband’s” family. She runs away on her wedding day and is lucky enough to be taken in by Aunty Peony, who operates an embroidery studio. Spring Swallow lives and works there with the other sad-story girls, Purple, Leilei and Little Doll, while the imperious Aunty Peony teaches the ancient art of Su embroidery. They have a big commission from Peking and just six months to finish it, but Spring Swallow bristles at Aunty Peony’s rules—among them a vow of celibacy—and finds solace in climbing a nearby mountain. She writes poetry on the rocks and is surprised to find that someone has written back. She and Shen Feng finally meet, fall in love and are separated in short order—he’s a revolutionary on a mission. Meanwhile, Spring Swallow has been sneaking into Aunty Peony’s room and rummaging through her things. She discovers a shocking secret: Aunty Peony was an embroiderer for the royal household and mistress of the last emperor of China. After a series of tragedies, Spring Swallow is once again destitute but is hired by an embroidery shop whose owner wants her for a daughter-in-law. But her new husband is a scoundrel, and after a miscarriage (of Shen Feng’s baby), she is thrown out again, quickly finding a home with the Catholic missionaries and the love of an American priest.

A runaway train of a plot, in which our heroine suffers four marriages, two pregnancies, three tragic deaths and too many coincidences in a two-year span to be believable, yet the narrative has a certain cheeky, boundless energy that propels the reader to a gratifying conclusion.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-61773-321-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Kensington

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 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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