At times lyrical, at times puzzling and frustratingly opaque, and at times as dry as desert dust, this novel is nevertheless...


The Sword and the Well

Chamberlin (The Sword of God, 2012, etc.) delivers the last volume in her trilogy of historical novels tracking the tumultuous lives of three main characters and a cast of thousands as Muhammad’s folowers spread his religion before and after his death.

In the seventh century, yin and yang and monotheism and polytheism fight it out in the desert as the Muslim religion spreads. Khalid ibn al-Walid abu Sulayman, a brilliant general who at first resists Muhammad but then converts to become his “sword of god,” fights his way through Arabia but meets a tragic end; the mysterious Sitt Sameh (aka Sejah bint al-Harith), Khalid’s “bastard daughter,” clings to pre-Muslim ways, resisting the spread of the new religion and fighting against Khalid; and Rayah, Sameh’s 12-year-old daughter, journeys from girlhood to womanhood and superficially embraces the new religion, marrying a Muslim and carrying his child while keeping the faith with the old ways from “the Time of Ignorance,” including her magical healing powers and a jinn as an alternate husband. Along the way, the novel plumbs family feuds and secrets—including the near-matricide of Sejah by Rayah and the shabby treatment of Khalid by his rival and distant cousin, Omar ibn al-Khattab. Chamberlin has woven a colorful if complicated tapestry chronicling the difficult birth of a new religion. Her evocation of the harsh world of the desert, its peoples and its spiritual aura is at times brilliant and beautiful. Her insights into the differences between men and women are often acute, though they are sometimes skewed by feminist dogma; in this tale, the only truly sympathetic male is a eunuch. Parts of the novel are plodding, and its numerous narrators and disparate strands will make it hard going for many readers. And despite a helpful dramatis personae and family tree, the yarn is made harder to understand by its throngs of characters with complicated Arabic names (sometimes belonging to more than one person). By spreading the limelight over so many characters, Chamberlin’s novel diminishes insight into each.

At times lyrical, at times puzzling and frustratingly opaque, and at times as dry as desert dust, this novel is nevertheless worth the trek for those interested in Middle Eastern history.

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2014


Page Count: 306

Publisher: Epigraph Publishing

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2014

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 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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