Tag Archives: time travel

Looking to the Past to Find Her Future

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The Firebird
Susanna Kearsley

9781402276637-PRNew York Times bestselling author Susanna Kearsley has, in her latest novel, blended history, romance, and the supernatural in a complex story within a story that bridges past and present.

The Firebird takes off when Nicola Marter touches a handsome wooden carving, launching her powers of extrasensory perception to reveal the intriguing history of a seemingly otherwise nondescript object. Nicola’s touch reveals stories, glimpses of the lives of people who have come before. It is a gift she rarely uses, one she denies to herself, a secret she keeps from others.

Nicola’s touch of the carving—and the vision it shares with her—sets her on a journey to discover its provenance, ostensibly to help the owner, a woman who hopes it will be valuable enough to finance her future. The journey becomes a path toward self-discovery, allowing Nicola to examine her gifts and to decide whether she will accept her abilities or deny them.

Why, when she is loathe to admit to her abilities, Nicola chooses to follow the path set in front of her is a bit of a mystery, as is her reason for helping a woman she really doesn’t know. Kearsley seems more focused on showing readers what will happen to Nicola than on explaining her motivations for helping a complete stranger. As the impetus for Nicola’s journey, it seems a bit weak.

That weak start, however, in no way spoils the book, which is reminiscent of both A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon. The Firebird is a thick tapestry, colored by rich details and interesting characters. Kearsley sets an enchanting stage, expertly capturing people, places, and periods of time and deftly moving from Nicola’s story to the parallel story in the book, that of Anna Moray.

Nicola’s initial vision of the firebird reveals Anna to her, sending her from England to Scotland (where she hooks up with an old flame and fellow psychic) to Belgium to Russia. With psychic friend Rob’s help, Nicola is able to see into the past and to track Anna as she herself follows her own journey, also one of self-discovery.

Despite the centuries that divide them, Nicola’s and Anna’s stories are not dissimilar. In fact, they may be too similar in some ways, particularly when it comes to the somewhat clichéd romances the two women fall into. Both, for instance, become smitten with men they resist. In Anna’s world the cliché is especially predictable: she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, she loves him. Nicola’s own romance is a bit trite as well: she loves him, she leaves him, she comes back to him, they fight, they get back together. No real surprises in either love angle, which may be a disappointment to some readers.

The somewhat hackneyed romances, however, aren’t enough to derail either storyline, both of which are punctuated with compelling history and interesting details about the art world. Kearsley has a lovely eye for scenery, drawing tableaux that create an evocative sense of time and place. Although the settings are gorgeous, Kearsey sometimes veers into explanations of key events that are much too facile, wrought seemingly in the desire to ensure that each of the various subplots of the novel culminates in a happy ending.

Not that there’s anything wrong with happy endings. Jane Austen made her name in happy endings. Because Nicola grows as a person, we can forgive the pollyannish aspects of the novel. Because the telling of the story is so rich, so well done, we can forgive both the flimsy foundation that sets Nicola on her journey as well as the overly simplistic way in which the tricky aspects of the novel are tied up, all neat and tidy.

Kearsley is a fine storyteller, even if she doesn’t exactly challenge the reader. For readers who like their romance with a little history, or their history with a little romance, The Firebird is a fine choice.

Three-Star Review

June 2013, Sourcebooks/Landmark
Fiction
$16.99, trade paperback, 539 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-7663-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Linking and Dividing Past and Present

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Long Division
Kiese Laymon

long division coverInventive. Experimental. Gimmicky. Compelling. Provocative. Challenging. Raw. Insightful.

Kiese Laymon, whose author bio describes him as “a black southern writer,” has seriously pushed some boundaries in this debut novel. Long Division is a bold, unusual book, a fast-paced, multifaceted story that explores race, family, celebrity, religion, and self-discovery.

Written as a book within a book, Long Division centers around Citoyen “City” Coldson, a chubby, fast-talking, black teenager who suffers an onstage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest. That meltdown, as is par for the course these days, lands on YouTube, turning City into an overnight sensation—to just about everyone except his mother, who, in shame, sends City south to spend some time with his grandmother.

But before the meltdown, and before the trip south, City is given a copy of an unfinished book called Long Division, a book that is strikingly similar in characters and events to City’s own life. The book changes City’s life. Indeed, City himself changes the course of his own story and, in fact, of the future itself.

Long Division unfolds as a complex story within a story featuring time travel, a missing girl, a kidnapping, a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, a baptism, and a bizarre revelation as City travels to and from 1964 to 1985 to 2013.

As if the story-within-a-story aspect weren’t enough, as if the time traveling weren’t enough, readers also must navigate a vernacular that at times feels like a foreign language. Long Division is peppered with contemporary slang to the nth degree.

At one point, City asks of an elder, “What do those sentences even mean?” He goes on to say, “I’m serious. That sentence doesn’t even make sense.”

Readers may well nod their heads (or roll their eyes) in agreement. Laymon’s voice is unique, a rarity in an era during which fiction tends all too often to chase trends: There are no werewolves, zombies, or wizards in these pages. Laymon has instead created a colorful, noisy, abrasive world of his own. But it is not a world for everyone: making sense of the slangy utterances of City and his brassy friends is by no means easy (especially for a white suburban Yankee girl).

At its heart, Long Division is a coming-of-age story. It is raw. It is in your face. It is crass and bold and adventurous. But that’s not to say Long Division isn’t rewarding. At times touching, at times poignant, Laymon more than once strikes a beautiful chord in the midst of what often feels gritty and intentionally provocative. Those touching insights make Long Division worth the effort, and readers who stick with the story (stories, actually) will find themselves thinking about City and the people in his life long after they close the book.

Two-Star Review

June 2013
Agate Publishing/Bolden
Fiction
$15, trade paperback, 274 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-932841-72-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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