A complex but rewarding epic of family ties, fading memories, and immigrants who—through hard work and luck—better the lives...

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ODESSA, ODESSA

A debut novel spins the multigenerational saga of one family’s journey from a shtetl in the Eastern European pale to the streets of 20th-century New York.

Rebbe Mendel Kolopsky and his wife, Henya, work hard and fear God, but their life is a hard one. As the tale opens, Henya discovers she’s pregnant at a relatively advanced age. Months later, she fears for the lives of her new daughter, Marya, born deaf, and her six other children. The family’s troubles escalate rapidly when another pogrom sweeps through Odessa—hordes of Cossacks murder and rape many of Mendel and Henya’s neighbors (Artson effectively describes “the screams of women, the menace of barking dogs”). Mendel is beaten within an inch of his life. As the family finally resolves to brave the journey to America, and to attempt a new life in a strange land, readers also learn the story of Mendel’s brother Shimshon (later, in the U.S., Samson). Disowned by his father, Shimshon is a revolutionary who asks Mendel: “Where was your God each time the Cossacks came to call?” Years later, Mendel’s granddaughter discovers Samson’s journal, and readers are given an even fuller picture of a single family’s captivating multigenerational tale, from Odessa to Brighton Beach (“A nice place to live, enough food, no Cossacks knocking down the door”) to a family reunion in Tel Aviv, where Henya’s daughter learns the extent of another people’s oppression. Century-spanning books are notorious for perplexing readers; Artson has taken wise steps to forestall such confusion with a long list of character names and identities preceding the text and an informative addendum. Even so, keeping track of who’s thinking what can be tricky when the point of view shifts from one paragraph to the next. That said, the vivid events and rich details of the intricate story are compelling and important—immigrants like the Kolopskys helped make America into the land readers recognize today (Israel, too). Readers should understand more of their world at the end of this engrossing novel than they did when they began it.

A complex but rewarding epic of family ties, fading memories, and immigrants who—through hard work and luck—better the lives of their progeny.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63152-443-1

Page Count: 341

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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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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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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