Thoroughly engrossing historical fiction with dynamic characterizations.

KAJA

10,000 YEARS AGO

A young man finds himself stranded on foreign soil, where he encounters friendly townspeople and a hostile wizard, in this Neolithic-set debut novel.

After miraculously surviving a shipwreck, 17-year-old Kaja washes ashore on an apparently uninhabited island. He forages for food and later is surprised to see a young boy. This boy spots Kaja as well and sprints to his town, Ash, to tell folks what he’s seen. Though he describes Kaja as a “wild man” with matted, filthy hair—and dressed in rags—the boy’s friends Regis and Dogen discover a sickly figure who’s barely alive. They take him to Regis’ herbalist mother, Hypp, who nurses Kaja back to health. People in Ash and the neighboring settlements quickly accept the teen, despite his differences—they’re all White while Kaja’s skin is darker and adorned in tattoos. Kaja ultimately relays his story to the townsfolk (and readers): In his native land, men calling themselves Thurgans had enslaved him and his people, the Rishi. He and others escaped in a ship, but it seems only Kaja survived the ensuing wreck. Sadly, not everyone in Ash is amiable; the openly antagonistic wizard Sekh is convinced Kaja is a wizard, too, harboring “secret knowledge.” The villain plans on tormenting Kaja, including furtively drugging him, until the teen reveals his secret, which Sekh believes to be some form of magic. Even as Kaja insists he has no secret, the teen will have to complete a “mission” for Sekh if he wants the wizard to leave him in peace.

While offering an abundance of characters, Lombardo maintains a relatively simple plot. Language, for example, is rarely specified, and the dialogue appears in English like the narrative. At the same time, there’s a discernible, well-incorporated theme of discrimination, especially racial. Not only has Kaja fled slavery by the Thurgans, who are White, but some on the island deem him a “freak” or explicitly reference his cultural tattoos by calling him a “tattooed freak.” The protagonist is an appealing teen entirely out of his element; he makes musical instruments, and, as the Rishi have only tools, he’s shocked by the myriad weapons the townspeople sport. Among the extensive cast, Hypp shines brightest; she’s essentially Kaja’s surrogate mother. The compassionate woman soon considers him a son. The author’s prose is primarily unadorned but concise, with few notable instances of contemporary words or expressions. Narrative descriptions are eloquent, even when Kaja feels the effects of a hallucinogenic: “The mushroom was the perfect conduit, most perfectly enjoyed in solitude where the endless distractions and demands of society and other people were irrelevant. All that mattered to him on the trail, slowly advancing to nowhere, was the sight of a flower, or a dragonfly, or the light in the air.” Kaja’s story continues to intrigue into the final act, as he, with help from friends, tries evading Sekh’s frightening obsession. Similarly, there’s the fact that Kaja indeed has a secret, an unforgettable one that he doesn’t fully explain until much later in the book.

Thoroughly engrossing historical fiction with dynamic characterizations.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2020

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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