While it lacks strong dialogue and graceful narration, this book still offers a fairly enjoyable tale about young...

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The Teenage Militia

In a Civil War novel, some adolescent Tennessee volunteers construct a fort.

George Leonard, age 14 at the tale’s start, is the only son of a wealthy plantation owner. Although the Leonards oppose slavery and use hired labor, they still back the Confederate cause. George’s father becomes a colonel for Tennessee’s army, while George and some other boys too young to officially fight decide—on what seems like a sudden whim—to build Fort Red Hawk. George suggests forming a militia (“Together, as a group, we can build a fort and fight off any Yankee invasion. It will work, if we fight together as one trained army”). Later, George, a self-declared first lieutenant, shelters children from a town ransacked by Yankees and thereby acquires three sister figures. They number among the novel’s notable female characters, along with George’s mother, with whom he is close, and Martha Kingston, a maid (and potential love interest). George meets Martha at an inn (“Though she was yet young, she was quite pleasant to look upon. Her hair was a pretty, thick brown. Her skin was of one who had worked under the sun, a soft tan”). These women help counterbalance the overweening male presence common to Civil War narratives. The appealing story, reasonably well plotted, offers climactic scenes in which the militia prepares to engage Union troops, and arranges a prisoner exchange at a Yankee encampment. But the action remains clumsily narrated, as in “The last drops of blood dripped from wounds in most any place of the bodies.” Moreover, the level of psychological reflection comes off as shallow: “Among all George’s mixed emotions, there was one of guilt for having killed another human.” And the novel delivers frequently stilted speech (“Speaking of Father, I wonder if they will soon return”) and inept approximations of African-American dialect (“Yows’sa, Mar’sa George, i’bee redee in fav minuts”). It appears Eryvine (Down the Path of Life: Volume 3, 2015, etc.) seeks to attract a young audience—“I minimize the horror, disgust, and misery of the war to make this book suitable for readers of all ages,” he writes in an opening letter. But talking down to readers dulls the volume’s potential power.

While it lacks strong dialogue and graceful narration, this book still offers a fairly enjoyable tale about young Confederate supporters.

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5035-7847-0

Page Count: 268

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2016

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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