The profusion of narrative threads and historical detail doesn’t quite add up to a well-told story.



A novel about family, communication, and colonialism in a rarely discussed sphere of World War II conflict.

On March 13, 1942, the Durants—Claire, an aspiring anthropologist, and Shep, a British civil surgeon—rush to prepare their exit from Port Blair, a British penal colony on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, now under threat from Japanese forces. Claire and Shep pack up her field journals, arrowheads, and shell bowls collected from the native Biya and his medically useful plant specimens from their expeditions into the forest over the past five years. But the one thing they can’t locate is their 4-year-old son, Ty. Mute since birth, Ty’s strongest bond is with his Indian caretaker, Naila, a 13-year-old girl who understands his silent capriciousness better than his own mother. Shep, desperate to get his wife to stay on the ship to Calcutta and safety, drugs her and stays behind on the island to look for their son. He finds Ty almost immediately—he and Naila were napping in a banyan grove—but the family’s separation decisively changes the course of each of its members’ lives. As one of the few remaining British officials on the island, Shep is locked up by Japanese troops, but not before he sends Ty off into the forest with Naila and Leyo, a Biya family friend, to hide with the tribe. Claire, meanwhile, joins the war effort as a codebreaker, devising a code based on the Biya language for a mission that might just allow her to reunite her family. The plot is rollicking in précis but much less gripping in execution, bogged down by an unmanageable amount of detail, the result of Liu’s (editor: Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives, 2011, etc.) obviously meticulous research: “Claire gets to work making her final tests of the TBX-8 transceiver pack, which will be her primary responsibility, and the SCR-536 mobile Handie-talkie that Ward will use for voice communication back to the TBX.” At every turn, it seems, there’s another islander or British government employee whose backstory is meant to lend emotional heft to the novel. The result is a book that feels scattershot—even the most theoretically wrenching moments don’t quite land, and the reader comes away oddly unmoved by the entire cast.

The profusion of narrative threads and historical detail doesn’t quite add up to a well-told story.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59709-889-2

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.


Thriller writer Baldacci (A Minute to Midnight, 2019, etc.) launches a new detective series starring World War II combat vet Aloysius Archer.

In 1949, Archer is paroled from Carderock Prison (he was innocent) and must report regularly to his parole officer, Ernestine Crabtree (she’s “damn fine-looking”). Parole terms forbid his visiting bars or loose women, which could become a problem. Trouble starts when businessman Hank Pittleman offers Archer $100 to recover a ’47 Cadillac that’s collateral for a debt owed by Lucas Tuttle, who readily agrees he owes the money. But Tuttle wants his daughter Jackie back—she’s Pittleman’s girlfriend, and she won’t return to Daddy. Archer finds the car, but it’s been torched. With no collateral to collect, he may have to return his hundred bucks. Meanwhile, Crabtree gets Archer the only job available, butchering hogs at the slaughterhouse. He’d killed plenty of men in combat, and now he needs peace. The Pittleman job doesn’t provide that peace, but at least it doesn’t involve bashing hogs’ brains in. People wind up dead and Archer becomes a suspect. So he noses around and shows that he might have the chops to be a good private investigator, a shamus. This is an era when gals have gams, guys say dang and keep extra Lucky Strikes in their hatbands, and a Lady Liberty half-dollar buys a good meal. The dialogue has a '40s noir feel: “And don’t trust nobody.…I don’t care how damn pretty they are.” There’s adult entertainment at the Cat’s Meow, cheap grub at the Checkered Past, and just enough clichés to prove that no one’s highfalutin. Readers will like Archer. He’s a talented man who enjoys detective stories, won’t keep ill-gotten gains, and respects women. All signs suggest a sequel where he hangs out a shamus shingle.

Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-5056-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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