A dense, highly detailed fictional yin to the yang of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

BELL OF THE DESERT

Gold (Bloodline, 2014, etc.) crafts highly detailed historical fiction from the unparalleled life of Gertrude Bell, English debutante–turned-explorer–turned World War I diplomatic intelligence officer.

Before there was Lawrence of Arabia, there was Bell, “Daughter of the Desert,” a woman of protean intelligence, political acumen and undying passion for Arabia who became a seminal figure in Arab nationalism. After her formal “coming out,” Bell found prospective suitors less than her intellectual equals. Then she met Hashemite sheik Abd al-Rahman as he consulted her uncle, a British ambassador, and began to passionately explore Arabia and its culture. She often journeyed alone, a shocking decision then. Gold has Bell meet young T.E. Lawrence at an archaeological dig at Carchemish. They develop a platonic love that carries on through WWI, as the fey young scholar becomes Lawrence of Arabia. Postwar, there are political machinations, “a seething mass of distortions, contradictions, lies, evasions, prejudices, denials, and demands,” as Britain and France remain blind to colonialism’s impending collapse. Bell and Lawrence, albeit enamored of Arabia, were burdened by their own prejudices, perceiving Arabs as a “medieval and patronizing bunch of chauvinistic jingoists.” While Gold’s fact-packed narrative recounts the transition of desert fiefdoms into unstable oil-rich states wracked by tribal tensions, his character sketches are what shines—including Churchill, “a likeable, devious and somewhat untrustworthy politician,” and the brilliant Faisal, third son of the Hashemite ruler of Mecca and Medina, installed as king of the Bell-created nation of Iraq. Beyond the political scheming, there’s romance, literary appreciation for outsized desert vistas, acknowledgment of Arabia’s intellectual contributions, illustrations of gender oppression, and a précis on the complex elements relating to Zionism and Palestine. Gold offers an interesting, imaginative chronicle of an extraordinary woman present at the creation of post-colonial Arab-Western tensions.

A dense, highly detailed fictional yin to the yang of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-63158-007-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Yucca/Skyhorse

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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