Admirers of Yan’s work won’t be disappointed with this turn to straightforward narrative.

HARD LIKE WATER

Chinese novelist Yan sets aside the “mythorealism” of books past to deliver a gritty, memorable story of love in a time of choler.

Revisiting his The Four Books (2015), Yan takes us to a mountain village where just about everyone is descended from the Confucian scholars known as the Cheng Brothers, to whom a temple is dedicated. Gao Aijun, one young man outside the Cheng clan, has returned to Chenggang after serving in the army just in time for the Cultural Revolution. Married into the local Communist Party chief’s family—“it was precisely because he was Party secretary that I married his daughter,” he admits—Gao is a man on the make; he also confesses to harboring a desire to kill his wife. His bad behavior builds when he falls in love at first sight with a beautiful outsider who is married to the local schoolteacher, Cheng Qingdong, who “appeared very cultured and intellectual and looked as though he were about to be swept away by the revolution.” Wooing her with a timely pitch—“Hongmei, let’s pursue revolution together”—Gao goes about waging a war on the village leadership and, as Mao commanded, destroying the monuments of old, serving his own interests even as he carries on the affair. The two make love where they can, even inside a tomb where “the smell of death and decay mixed with the scent of damp straw,” unappealingly enough, even as, one by one, those who stand in their way disappear from the scene. Hongmei isn’t quite Lady Macbeth, but she still spurs Gao to commit more crimes so that, “when half of this town government is yours, we won’t have to sneak around like thieves anymore.” Their revolutionary ardor dims a touch when they run afoul of bigger party bosses, however, and Yan’s study of power and class struggle becomes, in the end, a near-classic tragedy with the subtlest of nods to his version of magical realism.

Admirers of Yan’s work won’t be disappointed with this turn to straightforward narrative.

Pub Date: June 15, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8021-5812-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME

When a devoted husband and father disappears, his wife and daughter set out to find him.

Hannah Hall is deeply in love with her husband of one year, Owen Michaels. She’s also determined to win over his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, who has made it very clear that she’s not thrilled with her new stepmother. Despite the drama, the family is mostly a happy one. They live in a lovely houseboat in Sausalito; Hannah is a woodturner whose handmade furniture brings in high-dollar clientele; and Owen works for The Shop, a successful tech firm. Their lives are shattered, however, when Hannah receives a note saying “Protect her” and can’t reach Owen by phone. Then there’s the bag full of cash Bailey finds in her school locker and the shocking news that The Shop’s CEO has been taken into custody. Hannah learns that the FBI has been investigating the firm for about a year regarding some hot new software they took to market before it was fully functional, falsifying their financial statements. Hannah refuses to believe her husband is involved in the fraud, and a U.S. marshal assigned to the case claims Owen isn’t a suspect. Hannah doesn’t know whom to trust, though, and she and Bailey resolve to root out the clues that might lead to Owen. They must also learn to trust one another. Hannah’s narrative alternates past and present, detailing her early days with Owen alongside her current hunt for him, and author Dave throws in a touch of danger and a few surprises. But what really drives the story is the evolving nature of Hannah and Bailey’s relationship, which is by turns poignant and frustrating but always realistic.

Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7134-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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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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