This is a novel that doesn't really try to make you believe in it, or in much of anything, including cause and effect.

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A family tragedy inspires a professor to an act of heroism with strangers.

At the opening of the latest novel by the prolific, eclectic Everett (So Much Blue, 2017, etc.), first-person narrator Zach Wells doesn’t seem like someone who is likely to put himself on the line for others. He lives a very narrow life on automatic pilot, introducing himself as a man of “profound and yawning dullness.” He finds teaching to be rote; he considers his scientific research and publication to be all but pointless. His love for his daughter would appear to be the main thing holding his loveless marriage together. He initially deflects the pleas for support from a colleague making her tenure bid and the attentions of a student who seems to be flirting with him. “So often our stories begin at their ends,” he explains in the middle of establishing these plot details. “The truth was, I didn’t know which end was the beginning or whether the middle was in the true middle or nearer to that end or the other.” It's hard for the reader to find it interesting to be living inside Zach's head, since Zach doesn't find it very interesting. So, this is really a story about storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves, the way we shape them, and the way they shape our lives. Having introduced the elements of his plot, Zach sees the tenure case resolve itself in a shocking manner, and the flirtatious student simply disappears from the narrative. All of this feels somewhat arbitrary. The focus seems to narrow on the family, and the daughter in particular, who apparently starts to suffer from a rare disease that causes partial blindness, seizures, dementia, and death. It is “unusually progressive,” terminal, and there is no cure. It is hell in a world without God. Yet, in a plot device that might be called a deus ex machina, Zach receives a series of handwritten pleas for help in the pockets of clothing that he buys on eBay. Against his usual impulses, he acts on those pleas: “So that I might…redeem myself?” He doesn’t believe in redemption or a redeemer. But he has to do something.

This is a novel that doesn't really try to make you believe in it, or in much of anything, including cause and effect.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-64445-022-2

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: tomorrow

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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A trifle facile, but this decades-spanning drama is readable and engrossing throughout.

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A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA

Two refugees from the Spanish Civil War cross the Atlantic Ocean to Chile and a half-century of political and personal upheavals.

We meet Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938 as it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republican cause they support is doomed. When they reunite in France as penniless refugees, Roser has survived a harrowing flight across the Pyrenees while heavily pregnant and given birth to the son of Victor’s brother Guillem, killed at the Battle of the Ebro. Victor, evacuated with the wounded he was tending in a makeshift hospital, learns of a ship outfitted by poet Pablo Neruda to take exiles to a new life in Chile, but he and Roser must marry in order to gain a berth. Allende (In the Midst of Winter, 2017, etc.) expertly sets up this forced intimacy between two very different people: Resolute, realistic Roser never looks back and doggedly pursues a musical career in Chile while Victor, despite being fast-tracked into medical school by socialist politician Salvador Allende (a relative of the author's), remains melancholy and nostalgic for his homeland. Their platonic affection deepens into physical love and lasting commitment in an episodic narrative that reaches a catastrophic climax with the 1973 coup overthrowing Chile’s democratically elected government. For Victor and Roser, this is a painful reminder of their losses in Spain and the start of new suffering. The wealthy, conservative del Solar family provides a counterpoint to the idealistic Dalmaus; snobbish, right-wing patriarch Isidro and his hysterically religious wife, Laura, verge on caricature, but Allende paints more nuanced portraits of eldest son Felipe, who smooths the refugees’ early days in Chile, and daughter Ofelia, whose brief affair with Victor has lasting consequences. Allende tends to describe emotions and events rather than delve into them, and she paints the historical backdrop in very broad strokes, but she is an engaging storyteller. A touching close in 1994 brings one more surprise and unexpected hope for the future to 80-year-old Victor.

A trifle facile, but this decades-spanning drama is readable and engrossing throughout.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2015-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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