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US CONDUCTORS

Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel...

A Canadian music critic shows exceptional poise and command in his debut novel, a first-person tale narrated by the Russian inventor of the theremin.

Lev Sergeyvich Termen is a real historical figure, a Russian scientist and inventor, but his voice here is all the author’s in a novel that somehow manages to feel both classically Russian (with echoes of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn) and very contemporary. It has an epic scope that spans decades and countries but retains a tight focus through the writing of Termen, who's confined to a ship. While he's supposed to be keeping a log, he recounts a life that extends from the high society of pre-Depression America to imprisonment under Stalin. “Sometimes I am writing you a letter, Clara, and other times I am just writing, pushing type into paper, making something of my years,” he explains. Clara is the narrator’s lifelong love, though not one of the two women he married. He met her after traveling to America to promote his invention, “a musical instrument, an instrument of the air,” its pitch controlled by the movement of the hands and their proximity to the antennae. “I was the Communist magician, the conductor of the ether, sent out by the state to show off my great discoveries,” he says. His invention offered him the possibility of great riches, as American corporations had visions of mass production and “a theremin in every home.” But it also offered an opportunity for Termen to serve his homeland as an ambivalent spy, with Russian handlers conducting his business affairs and monitoring his moves. The Depression brought an end to the dreams of riches, and the rise of Stalin returned the inventor who had prospered under Lenin to his homeland as a traitor and “a pauper in a land where I thought poverty had been abolished.”

Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel that feels both fresh and timeless.

Pub Date: June 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-935639-81-7

Page Count: 456

Publisher: Tin House

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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