From Bradbury (for adults, Quicker Than the Eye, 1996, etc.), a fantasy with moments of brilliance swamped by mystical befuddlement. Ahmed, a young boy, gets lost in a sand storm while trekking across the desert with his father’s caravan. He stumbles on a gigantic buried statue, which his tears awaken. The statue is an ancient god, Gonn-Ben-Allah, Keeper of the Ghost of Lost Names. Gonn-Ben-Allah takes Ahmed through space and time, tracing the history of human efforts to fly (an analogy for the ability to imagine and invent). Bradbury is at his best when he describes past flyers who tried and failed; pterosaurs are called “boney kites” and a balloon is described “as ripe as a peach.” There’s also an aviator, a collector of butterflies who sewed up “a thousand small bright wings”—a captivating image—that attempts flight. Ahmed takes in all that Gonn-Ben-Allah shows him, and when the god “dies,” Ahmed follows in the deity’s footsteps, becoming a flyer himself. The exotic setting is exhilarating, although Gonn’s ornate speech comes across as puffed-up posturing, often stalling the plot and sidelining the story’s purpose. Clearly labeled a fable, the tale has instruction built into most passages, but those passages are occasionally breathtaking.

Pub Date: Nov. 11, 1998

ISBN: 0-380-97704-4

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Avon/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1998




A complex tale of obsession is precisely distilled into a haunting character portrayal, in this second novel from the gifted British author (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2007).

The subtitle denotes four years (2006–02) in the life of protagonist and narrator Wilberforce (his first name initially withheld), who creates a successful computer software company, sells it in order to accept an irresistible offer and thereafter devotes himself to the cultivation and enjoyment of a prized wine collection. That collection is bequeathed, with strings attached, to Wilberforce by his older friend Francis Black, a bachelor whose inherited wealth has gone to amass a huge array of choice Bordeaux (and other wines), kept in a vast vault (“undercroft”) beneath his family’s estate Caerlyon, outside London. Caerlyon suggests “Corleone” so much so that the reader suspects there’s more to Francis Black than the benign mentor he appears to be. Torday keeps us guessing, as precise imagery suggests the younger man’s immersion in what is perhaps a religious vocation, perhaps a surrender to temptation. Or both, we surmise, as Wilberforce’s story unspools in reverse order, beginning with the upshot of his love for Catherine, a vibrant beauty betrothed to another man; offering a poignant picture of his unhappy foster childhood and all but empty young adulthood; and climaxing with a (brilliantly described) grouse hunt, during which an episode of “innocent happiness” vibrates with the strains of an ironic prophecy of his future. Eventually, we learn Wilberforce’s first name and understand his reluctance to reveal it. But the heritage of sorrow that imprisons him within limits he both has and has not set for himself makes us think of Fitzgerald’s “great” (and, ultimately, unfulfilled) Gatsby. This elegantly conceived novel also reminds us from time to time of another Great Expectations, minus that classic novel’s unconvincing happy ending.


Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-15-101354-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009



Jason's family is making their ``third move in five years''; once again, Jason says good-bye to his friends and packs his belongings. Meanwhile, he finds comfort up in a dogwood tree. It listens to his worries and even answers, and when it's time to leave an old Ilana Davita Chandal is the New York-born daughter of Michael and Anne, both Communists of the Thirties. Michael is a Maine native and newspaper writer; Anne (once Channah) is a brilliant ideologue with a bitter European-Jewish past(her rabbi-father's paternal neglect, pogroms); they are atheistic, committed, peripatetic. (Party cell meetings necessitate many moves to different apartments throughout the city.) And, now and again, the Chandals give respectful shelter to an old friend of Anne's from Europe, Jakob Daw, a tubercular writer of political allegories. As liana Davita grows up, then, Daw introduces her to the widened-out perimeters of the imagination. Meanwhile, David Dinn—a Jewish boy living next door to the Chandals at the Seagate beach one summer—introduces her to an almost opposite world: the strange, beguiling forms of religious observance. So, while her father goes to Spain to cover the Civil War, Ilana Davita begins to attend a local synagogue on Saturdays (against her mother's wishes); then her father is killed at Guernica—and mother Anne loses her political faith with the Stalin/Hitler pact. There's still more loss ahead: Jakob Daw, deported from refuge in the US because of his politics, dies in France. And eventually Ilana Davita and her mother—both cast adrift—come ever closer into the orbit of consolation that religion can provide: Anne nurses Michael's devoutly Christian sister Sarah; Ilana Davita enrolls in a yeshiva; later Anne marries David Dinn's father, an immigration lawyer she knew from Europe, an Orthodox Jew who tried to help with Jakob Daw's fight to remain in the country. Thus, the reclamation of Jewish heritage is complete at last—Yet Potok refuses to end the novel on this uplifting note. Instead, the theme of justice rises at the finale—as Ilana Davita, a crack student at the yeshiva, finds herself discriminated against because of her sex: Potok seems to be arguing both for sexual equality in Judaic practice and for a more liberal Torah hermeneutics, involving allegory and imagination. As in The Book o Lights, Potok's themes in this long novel are developed slowly, sometimes repetitiously often undramatically; Ilana Davita's narration, which has a somewhat YA-ish quality, tends to underline each point rather too heavily. Still, despite the faulty pacing, the ideas here are rich, provocative, thickly interesting: the soul's desire for a sustainable faith, the tension between political, worldly justice and religious, spiritual justice. And, for readers who've been happy to settle down and tackle Potok's previous ventures into philosophical fiction, this will not be a disappointment.gardener gives him a sapling that promises similar comfort in his future home. Stagily wistful, overwritten, long, and punctuated with pointless scenes, this well-known novelist's first children's story has little to recommend it. Auth captures some of the atmosphere that goes with any big childhood change, but can't compensate for the story's unwieldiness and inconsistencies. At one point, the mother's ``sacrifice'' for the move is that she'll give up her travel-agency job. That idea is dropped, and readers are given a scene of her at her parents' graves: ``It's hard for me to leave them.'' It would be, if there were any emotional authenticity within these pages—but there's not. Picture book. 5-9)

Pub Date: March 11, 1985

ISBN: 0449911837

Page Count: 386

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1985

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