Book List

Kirkus Indie Best Books of the Month - July 2016

A journey through the lives of young Eastern European Jews that’s not to be missed.

Somehow I Am Different

NARRATIVES OF SEARCHING AND BELONGING IN JEWISH BUDAPEST

Petersel’s debut explores the revitalization of the Hungarian Jewish community in 21 oral histories of millennial Jews.

Young Hungarians in cafes, synagogues, festivals, and conferences tell of their Jewish religious and cultural identities in this work. They include an Orthodox rabbi, a chef, a rapper, children of Holocaust survivors, a non-Jew with an anti-Semitic past considering conversion, and others, and their diverse personal and work histories result in multifaceted tales. Each person’s story demonstrates his or her winding path to embracing Judaism, whether it be in a historical context or in present-day Hungary. Some interviewees see a primary need to educate people about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism; others want to dispel images of Jews as victims and let the world know about the currently thriving Hungarian Jewish culture. Asuzsanna Fritz, who was unaware that she was Jewish until she was 16, explains, “we decided that we could create a positive Jewish identification. We created an open door and said whoever wants to come, we are happy to receive you.” Such visions of flourishing communities are tempered, though, by the recent rise of the right wing; the country is “becoming more and more nationalistic and conservative…more and more excluding toward minorities,” says one young adult. “The question is: Do I want to live in a country where the main tendency and the main values are not what I believe in?...I don’t have a clear answer for that.” With deft prose, Petersel seamlessly weaves together Jewish voices with evocative descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of her Hungarian surroundings. Her depictions of food, for example, induce pangs of hunger: “spicy mushrooms ignited my palate and my sinuses. Hints of sharp cheese mixed with the comfort of potatoes in the French stew.” An epilogue features excerpts of Petersel’s own journal and a contributed essay by Ákos Keller-Alánt on Hungary’s contemporary history, politics, and economy, which adds an important component to the work. Although the book focuses on Hungarian Jewish life, its historical context, provocative questions about identity and culture, and captivating writing will engage and educate a very broad audience.

A journey through the lives of young Eastern European Jews that’s not to be missed.

Pub Date: March 17, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-692-58411-8

Page Count: 342

Publisher: Acorn Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

A notably perceptive chapter book that invites empathy and understanding through the words of its engaging young narrator.

Gerald's Journal

THE LIFE OF AN EVERYDAY HERO

A gentle, observant boy with special needs records his ups and downs at his new school in this lively, journal-style children’s book.

How does a kid fit in when he leaves his special education school behind to attend a general education school? That’s the dilemma faced by a boy named Gerald, who writes down his feelings and observations as he makes his way through his first uncertain, friendless days: “When I am writing, I can take my time and say things just right,” he says. He experiences loneliness, and for a time, a bully calls him “dummy” and “retard” and plays mean tricks on him. But readers shouldn’t expect pathos (or bathos) here. McElhinny (Storm, 2002) has created a thoughtful, funny character who’s rooted in the love and support of his family and is naturally considerate of others. He does his best to make sense of his new circumstances even though he misses his old school, where “Everybody always wanted to play with me.” McElhinny doesn’t specify what exactly makes Gerald “different,” but the text reveals that he’s pulled out of class for speech therapy, reading, and gym time with other special needs kids. (He also loves pizza, movies, Frisbee, superheroes, playing the saxophone, and fishing with his grandpa.) In the end, due to his own good nature and a few fortuitous occurrences, he wins friends who appreciate him for who he is. The author gives Gerald a genuine-feeling narrative voice, which is further enhanced by the book’s black-and-white journal design that features kidlike printing with misspelled, crossed-out words, as well as stick figure drawings, on ruled paper. A deep understanding clearly informs this story, and this is underscored by McElhinny’s dedication of the book to his own son, who he says “makes this world a better place just by being himself.”

A notably perceptive chapter book that invites empathy and understanding through the words of its engaging young narrator.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-944613-00-6

Page Count: 88

Publisher: Armonia Publishing Co.

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

A vivid, multilayered tale that focuses on doctors in Auschwitz and their fates after the war.

The Oath

A debut novel about the Holocaust explores the role of physicians.

The book’s title refers to the Hippocratic oath, which is fitting since this story deals with the Holocaust and its aftermath from the point of view of doctors in Auschwitz and the parts they played. The chief villain (there are plenty) is Dr. Hans Bloch, protégé of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The conflicted hero is Dr. Michel Katz, a French Jew who is taken to the Nazi death camp. He curries favor with Mengele in a desperate hope to save his family from the lethal gas and the ovens. He winds up performing autopsies for Bloch. Other characters include Martin Brosky, a survivor and avenger, who witnessed the killing of his parents, and Tamara Lissner, a Czech teenager whom Katz hides after she miraculously survives the gas “showers.” Katz, Lissner, and Brosky lose all their loved ones to the Holocaust. The war ends, and the SS brass and others make desperate plans to save themselves. Bloch manages to get to the United States under Operation Paperclip (with Wernher von Braun, et. al), later changing his identity. Katz, a displaced person, arrives in the U.S., too, and resumes practicing medicine but as a haunted, half-broken man. Brosky tracks down the officer who killed his parents. Now he targets Bloch and enlists Katz, who, with Lissner’s help, has become almost morally whole again. The novel is beautifully written with rarely a misstep. At one point, Brosky reflects on identity: “It was inevitable, death. To some, it came when they forcibly removed you from your own home and placed you in the ghetto. For others, demise followed the forced march out of the squalid tenements to the train. Death of your soul commenced once the doors of the cattle car were slammed shut and locked. And if you lasted that long, upon entry to the camp, you became an invisible being—faceless, nameless, and without spirit.” Some of the descriptions (of firestorms, for example) are almost too vivid to bear. Stein, a doctor himself, fearlessly handles the numerous moral questions, with the characters’ responses to those issues subtly nuanced. There is much to think about even 70 years later (the author includes an extensive bibliography). The Holocaust reverberates here, as it should.

A vivid, multilayered tale that focuses on doctors in Auschwitz and their fates after the war.

Pub Date: Dec. 19, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9909345-0-9

Page Count: 428

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

An ambitious, insightful novel about two damaged people struggling to overcome their pasts.

The Finite Woman

A complex psychological tale examines grief and unlikely redemption.

In his debut novel, Salamon charts the slow and often torturous paths taken by his two main characters through the traumatic events of their lives as their arcs gradually converge. Margaret lives in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and we watch as her young life is marked by tragedies, including a hunting trip with her father that goes horribly wrong and the deftly orchestrated scene where she walks into her home seconds after her mother’s botched suicide attempt. Alternating with these episodes told from Margaret’s point of view are scenes from the perspective of Thomas Ackerman, a successful California doctor who finds his life derailed when his beloved wife is diagnosed with inoperable cancer and quickly dies. Margaret is seeking desperately to find a way out of the life she’s enduring. Thomas (the better-realized of the two characters throughout the book’s first half) simply checks out of his own life, becoming so paralyzed with grief that his son hires a preternaturally competent caretaker named Stephen (who “looked like an accountant with a killer weekend golf game”) to take care of the household. Shattered, sleep-deprived Thomas shambles through his days as a kind of emotional zombie, and although he reflects that “tragedy can pull a family together or push them apart,” his own family life seems every bit as poised on the edge of obliteration as Margaret’s, whose sense of isolation only deepens when she becomes a single mother. Salamon displays remarkably tight control over his complicated plot, often enlivening his strong narration with memorable descriptions (to dazed Thomas, a couple of nurses glimpsed at the hospital “seemed impossibly young, as if they were continuing a game of pretend they’d started at home”). The book’s parallel stories of wounded souls converge when Thomas’ son begins to fall in love with Margaret’s daughter, at which point the drama intriguingly multiplies. Fans of the sharp-edged, character-driven novels of Carol Cassella and Chris Bohjalian will find here a promising new author to follow.

An ambitious, insightful novel about two damaged people struggling to overcome their pasts.

Pub Date: April 25, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5078-5819-6

Page Count: 460

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

A frank and funny coming-of-age story with a rousing soundtrack.

My Name Is Tom

In this music-powered story, a young man sets out to reclaim his prized record collection after pawning it during a period of drug-fueled indiscretion.

The result of a teenage pregnancy in 1970, the protagonist is given up for adoption as a newborn and raised by a terribly uptight mother and a much more lackadaisical father in Birmingham, England. Thomas Luke Joyce isn’t terribly ambitious or clever, but when he buys his first single at the age of 13—The Style Council’s “Speak Like a Child”—he finds a reason for being. Throughout the 1980s, Tom amasses a massive collection of vinyl from the likes of The Cure, New Order, and The Smiths, working for his accountant father solely to make enough money to buy more records. But when his friend Gary introduces him to rave culture, everything changes. Despite hating the “rubbish” music with every fiber of his being, Tom finds himself spending every Friday high on Ecstasy, dancing until dawn. Soon, he starts selling his beloved records to fund his new lifestyle. But when one night out goes awry thanks to a tangle with some small-time drug dealers, Tom decides to go straight and starts working full-time so that he can rebuild his collection record by record. Yet his concern for his old friend Gary, still caught up in that troubled, drug-addled world, throws another complication into his efforts to lead a simpler life. Fans of Nick Hornby’s English-accented musings on music, obsession, and growing up will find much to love about Reeves’ debut novel. Tom is an insanely likable Everyman—he might not be an intellectual, but his smart-alecky sense of humor will endear him to most readers, especially when he spouts such gems as: “But then other things had positive names but weren’t always good. Take heroin, for instance, the name for a heroic lady but also something that makes you look like Gordon’s wife.” While the madcap climax is a bit too absurd and involves too many well-placed coincidences to be believable, it doesn’t stop this story from being enjoyable down to the last syllable.

A frank and funny coming-of-age story with a rousing soundtrack.

Pub Date: Dec. 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5049-9334-0

Page Count: 232

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

A dazzling war tale; fast-paced, gut-wrenching, and laced with uncertainty.

These Tumultuous Years

As World War II threatens to tear his country apart, a young Dutchman sails for America in this debut novel.

Emile van Driel twists the dials on his old radio to hear the “volume and hysteria” of an “upstart leader of the fledgling Nationalist Socialist Party” letting loose a volley of threats. A simple farmer from rural Netherlands, he senses darkness on the horizon and begins to prepare accordingly. Despite some skepticism from his wife, Helme, he arranges for their son, Johan, to set sail for the safety of America. Johan is 20 years old when he boards the Swift as a crew member—“young and inexperienced” for his age. His first days at sea prove a baptism by fire. Hampered by seasickness and lampooned by his crewmates, he learns that he must fight to make his mark on the world. During shore leave in Vancouver, he sees a sailor get his throat cut. Later, after finding bar work in New York, Johan shows his mettle by defending a tavern girl who has been set upon by a lecherous sea captain. The young man grows strong bodied and savvy as his journey progresses. Leaving the city, he secures a job working on an Amish farm until complications require him to again move on. His wanderings lead him across the United States before finding his true love, Emma van der Poole, his future wife, with whom he sets sail for Australia. As the momentum of World War II intensifies, Johan finds himself joining the U.S. Marines, taking his first tour of duty in Japan before returning to Europe. The unexpected introduction of a German sniper, Gunther Klause, adds a wicked twist to the narrative. Podbury is a skilled and intuitive writer. At times, his descriptions are painfully visceral: “The marine beside him screamed hideously as a burst of automatic fire laced his chest and the water by his side, effectively cutting him in half, and he fell forward into the breakers, his severed arteries bloodying the water around his still twitching corpse.” Yet the author is equally adept when penning Johan’s poignant letters home: “My dearest wife, I fear for my soul, if a man’s soul is what he truly is.” This is a detailed and emotionally sensitive account of a solitary man’s coming-of-age and his fight to stay alive for his family that should appeal to fans of war fiction and romance alike.

A dazzling war tale; fast-paced, gut-wrenching, and laced with uncertainty. 

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4917-8453-2

Page Count: 454

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: April 29, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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