An unforgiving look at a brutal system.

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THE MARS ROOM

Another searing look at life on the margins from the author of The Strange Case of Rachel K (2015) and The Flamethrowers (2013).

Romy Hall killed a man. This is a fact. The man she killed was stalking her. This is also a fact, but, as far as the jury was concerned, the first fact mattered more than the second. That’s why she’s serving two life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley. Romy soon learns that life in prison is, in many respects, like her former life working at the Mars Room, a down-market strip club in San Francisco. The fight for dominance among the powerless looks much the same anywhere, Romy explains, and this novel is very much a novel about powerlessness. Romy is smart, she loves her son, but the odds were against her from the beginning, and most of the stories that intertwine with hers are similar in both their general outlines and their particulars. Chaotic family backgrounds, heavy drug use, and sex work are common themes. Several of the women Romy meets have been in and out of the jail for much of their lives. There are exceptions, like Betty the one-time leg model, who paid a contract killer to murder her husband for life insurance money and then put out a hit on the hit man because she was afraid he would talk. She becomes something of a celebrity inside Stanville. The cop who killed the hit man also becomes a major character. He’s different from the women in this novel because he once had considerable power, but he, too, has a history of abuse and neglect. Gordon Hauser, who teaches GED–prep classes at Stanville, has more agency that any other main character, but he quickly learns the limits of his ability to help any of the women he meets. This is, fundamentally, a novel about poverty and how our structures of power do not work for the poor, and Kushner does not flinch. If the novel lags a bit in the long sections of backstory, it’s because the honest depiction of prison life is so gripping.

An unforgiving look at a brutal system.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5655-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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