Well-written and researched, but emotionally unengaging and probably not to the taste of those who like their historical...

THE LITTLE RUSSIAN

Sherman’s stark debut tracks a fortune-tossed couple whose quarter-century odyssey encapsulates the plight of Russia’s Jews.

The novel opens with a gut-churning description of an 1897 pogrom in Little Russia (modern-day Ukraine). The 14-year-old boy who numbly watches a peasant beat his father to death, we learn, is Hershel Alshonsky. Seven years later, he catches the eye of Berta Lorkis, a restless grocer’s daughter who thinks Hershel will give her back the comfortable life she enjoyed as companion to a wealthy Moscow family. Berta doesn’t know that Hershel’s travels as a wheat merchant disguise his activities smuggling guns for the Bund, which aims to arm Jews against pogroms. They have nine happily married years before a gun raid gone wrong sends Hershel fleeing to America in early 1914. Berta refuses to join him, thinking she and her two children can remain secure in the affluence Hershel’s trade created; by the time she realizes her mistake, World War I has begun, and they are trapped. Scrambling to support her son and daughter, proud, cultivated Berta is reduced to a “house Jew” who digs up hard-to-find luxury goods and sells them to gentiles who admit her only at their back doors. The Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war only make matters worse for Russian Jews, persecuted by all sides. Berta manages to scrape by and learns in 1919 that Hershel has sent for her. If she can only get to the American Embassy in Warsaw, she can save herself and the one child she has left. Sherman paints a refreshingly unsentimental portrait of a woman beset and a nation in the throes of revolutionary change yet still bound by ancient prejudices—so unsentimental, in fact, that it’s hard to care much about vain, self-centered Berta even after she is transformed into a tough, resourceful survivor.

Well-written and researched, but emotionally unengaging and probably not to the taste of those who like their historical fiction more reassuring.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-58243-772-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2011

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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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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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