History here gets a compelling human face through an artist’s dramatic brilliance.

HARSH TIMES

The Peru-born Nobel Prize winner crafts a vivid story centered on the U.S.–backed 1954 coup in Guatemala.

Vargas Llosa turns, after two lighter novels, to a pivotal moment in Latin American political history. He starts with a chapter on the propaganda machine deployed by United Fruit—aka the Octopus—to retain its monopoly and tax-free status in Guatemala. Using stories planted in American media and the support of Washington, the company portrayed the government of Jacobo Árbenz as a seedbed of Soviet communism. Vargas Llosa portrays it as a democratic and progressive administration seeking to distribute land more fairly while reining in the Octopus. In subsequent overlapping narratives, he keeps the historical reality more or less in view while developing characters, scenes, and tension in imagined vignettes—not a historical novel so much as colorized history. A few recurring figures provide helpful landmarks in a busy, time-shifting chronicle. Most impressive of the fictional players is Martita Borrero Parra, who is impregnated by her father’s friend at 14, forced to marry the man, and disowned by papa. She abandons her child a few years later and seeks the protection and bed of Carlos Castillo Armas, the man who led the push to oust Árbenz and replaced him as president. She becomes his secret adviser and remains influential in politics elsewhere after he’s assassinated. The chapters that cover the preparations for that killing and its fallout provide another narrative thread. However much fiction or bias Vargas Llosa has added to the historical record, he makes a persuasive case, supported by West’s lucid translation, that Washington’s big-footing in '54 “held up the continent’s democratization for decades at the cost of thousands of lives.”

History here gets a compelling human face through an artist’s dramatic brilliance.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-60123-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2021

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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