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THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES

A fast-paced and richly engaging story about an intriguing historical figure.

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A historical novel about the great 16th-century humanist Juan Luis Vives.

In the framing device of Ellis’ novel, an electrician in the present-day College of Bruges in Belgium opens the wall of a study and finds a centuries-old book. It’s the secret journal of one of the city’s most famous citizens: Juan Luis Vives, who was born in Spain in 1493, spent most of his life in the Netherlands, and made a fateful and contentious visit to Henry VIII’s England in the early 1520s. Vives was friends with fellow humanists Erasmus and Thomas More, and during the first part of his time in England, he was a tutor to King Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Mary (“this was to be my catapult to greatness, the chance to realise my dream,” Vives thinks when More arranges the position for him). Ellis’ tale follows the adventures of young Vives as he leaves his native Spain and encounters the strange world of England, where he must become accustomed to his new, Anglicized name (“John Lewis of Oxford”) and the shifting tensions between Henry and Queen Catherine of Aragon, whose turbulent marriage becomes the central topic of the land. Henry seeks to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, claiming that she’d previously had sex with his late brother, Arthur, which she adamantly denies—to Henry. However, she impulsively tells Vives that the claim is true and also that her baby boy, fathered by Arthur, was taken away from her on the pretext of it being stillborn. As the narrative moves forward, Vives must juggle his own domestic struggles with the possibility that he has “talked [himself] into treason.”

Ellis writes all of this with marvelous gusto that’s more reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) than of a more traditional Tudor novel. Vives not only addresses his diary as though it were a person; it also sometimes seems to address him right back. As a confidant of the queen, Vives refused to accept the validity of the king’s annulment and, as a result, he only narrowly escaped England with his life; in Ellis’ telling, the danger was compounded by the fact that Vives was also secretly an adherent of Judaism. As the story goes on, Ellis can’t resist the occasional bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing. When Vives visits the shrine of Thomas Becket with More, for instance, More says, “See how even the king’s greatest friend, his most favoured subject, can fall? But if God is with me, whom should I fear?” Months later, of course, More himself would be executed on the orders of his friend the king. However, the boisterous vivacity of Vives as a character remains appealing throughout. Early on, he discovers that he is “human rather than humanist,” and this canny emphasis is the guiding light of the book, allowing readers to avoid Vives’ forbiddingly abstruse scholarly writing. With this novel, Ellis effectively allows readers to root for a person that many may only know as a footnote to the story of More.

A fast-paced and richly engaging story about an intriguing historical figure.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-228-83437-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Tellwell

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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