A rambunctious, irreverent yet still serious study of the long reach of American institutional racism.

WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE

Four college students’ attempt to protest Southern folkways goes awry in a novel that blurs the line between academic satire and social realism.

D’aron, the hero of the second novel by Johnson (Hold It 'Til It Hurts, 2012), was raised in the small Georgia town of Braggsville, where he routinely absorbed homophobic abuse. So when he makes his escape to the University of California, Berkeley, he’s gratified by the atmosphere of tolerance. (Even if the definitions of tolerant behavior seem endlessly belabored: At one party, students apply dot stickers to the places on their bodies that are acceptable to touch.) D’aron quickly befriends Louis, an Asian aspiring comedian, Candice, an Iowa-born woman who claims to be part Native American, and Charlie, a black athlete. The quartet’s shared interest in social protest inspires them to head to Braggsville, where they plan to interrupt a Civil War re-enactment by staging the whipping and hanging of a slave. The novel’s opening third plays much of this as comedy, pitting college kids giddy on leftist jargon against retrograde Dixie, but the plan goes badly awry: Louis (in the role of the slave) winds up dead, and Candice (as slavemaster) is distraught, though what actually happened is deliberately vague. As D’aron falls under scrutiny from the town for concocting the plan, he’s forced to contemplate the racist underpinnings of Braggsville society and ponder what use his education is (or isn’t) when confronting it. Johnson is supremely savvy at capturing the students’ ideological earnestness, finding the humor in academic jargon (a faux glossary is included), and exploring the tense divides between blacks and whites in the South. And though the reader might occasionally feel whipsawed by Johnson’s shifts in tone from comedy to tragedy, the swerving seems appropriate to the complexity of its theme.

A rambunctious, irreverent yet still serious study of the long reach of American institutional racism.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-230212-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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