If this isn’t the Great American Novel, it's a mighty attempt at achieving one.

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THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS

A sprawling, ambitious debut novel that is as impassioned in promoting Black women’s autonomy as it is insistent on acknowledging our common humanity.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, the protagonist of this epochal saga, is a compelling mélange of intellectual curiosity, scathing observation, and volatile emotion. Though her grandmother may have preferred that she join the parade of medical doctors in their family, Ailey is destined to become a historian. Her journey toward that goal, fraught with heartache, upheaval, and conflict from her childhood through adolescence and collegiate years, is interwoven with the results of her inquiry into her family history. That history is deeply rooted in the Georgia town of Chicasetta, where Ailey’s Black ancestors were enslaved and exploited by a “White Man with Strange Eyes” named Samuel Pinchard, who not only brutalized and demeaned his slaves, but also haphazardly procreated with them over the decades before the Civil War. The “songs” interspersed throughout the book, chronicling in vivid, sometimes-graphic detail the antebellum lives of Ailey’s forbears, are bridges linking Ailey’s own coming-of-age travails in what is referred to only as the City. Precocious, outspoken, and sensitive, Ailey often tests the patience of the grown-ups in her life, especially her parents, Geoff and Belle, whose own arduous passage to love and marriage through the 1950s and '60s is among the many subplots crowding this capacious, time-traversing narrative. The story always swerves back to Chicasetta, where Ailey spends her summers, and her encounters with friends and relations, the most notable of whom is her beloved Uncle Root, a retired professor at a historically Black college where he’d first made the acquaintance of the novel’s eponymous scholar/activist. In her first novel, Jeffers, a celebrated poet, manages the difficult task of blending the sweeping with the intimate, and, as in most big books, she risks stress-testing some of her own narrative threads. Still, the sturdiest of those threads can throb with haunting poignancy, as in the account of Ailey’s promising-but-troubled sister, Lydia, which can stand alone as a masterful deconstruction of addiction’s origins and outcomes.

If this isn’t the Great American Novel, it's a mighty attempt at achieving one.

Pub Date: Aug. 24, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-294-293-7

Page Count: 816

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2021

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Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

A young woman finds herself at a Covid-induced crossroads in Picoult’s latest ultratopical novel.

Sotheby’s associate Diana O'Toole, age 29, and her surgical resident boyfriend, Finn, are planning a trip to the Galapagos in March 2020. But as New York City shuts down, Finn is called to do battle against Covid-19 in his hospital’s ICU and ER, while Diana, at his urging, travels to the archipelago alone. She arrives on Isabela Island just as quarantine descends and elects to stay, though her luggage was lost, her hotel is shuttered, and her Spanish is “limited.” What follows is the meticulously researched depiction Picoult readers have come to expect, of the flora and fauna of this island and both its paradisiacal and dangerous aspects. Beautiful lagoons hide riptides, spectacular volcanic vistas conceal deep pits—and penguins bite! A hotel employee known only as Abuela gives Diana shelter at her home. Luckily, Abuela’s grandson Gabriel, a former tour guide, speaks flawless English, as does his troubled daughter, Beatriz, 14, who was attending school off-island when the pandemic forced her back home. Beatriz and Diana bond over their distant and withholding mothers: Diana’s is a world-famous photographer now consigned to a memory care facility with early-onset Alzheimer’s, while Beatriz’s ran off with a somewhat less famous photographer. Despite patchy cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, emails from Finn break through, describing, also in Picoult’s spare-no-detail starkness, the horrors of his long shifts as the virus wreaks its variegated havoc and the cases and death toll mount. Diana is venturing into romantically and literally treacherous waters when Picoult yanks this novel off life-support by resorting to a flagrantly hackneyed plot device. Somehow, though, it works, thanks again to that penchant for grounding every fictional scenario in thoroughly documented fact. Throughout, we are treated to pithy if rather self-evident thematic underscoring, e.g. “You can’t plan your life….Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984818-41-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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