Unsworth’s luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly...

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THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL

A richly imagined novel of the Middle Ages, filled with questions of race, God and fidelity, from the Booker Prize–winning Unsworth (The Song of the Kings, 2003, etc.).

In 1149, King Roger ruled a Sicily of surprising diversity—wrestled from Arabs not 50 years prior, the island was a peaceable home for Jews, Moslems, Greeks, Lombards and the newly conquering Christian Normans. Praised for his shrewdness in keeping this cultural mix in harmonious balance, King Roger is now bending to a certain pressure, one that is demanding a singularly Christian Sicily. Moslems are losing land grants and becoming serfs on their own property; Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated; and the sovereign’s Greek mosaic artisans are being replaced by inferior Normans. But in the beginning, this is all beyond the scope of Thurstan Beauchamp, assistant to Yosuf Ibn Mansur, chief financial officer to the King. Thurstan, an innocent and a bit of a dandy, had his dreams of knighthood crushed when his father entered a monastery, taking with him all of Thurstan’s inheritance. Thankfully, Thurstan, adept at languages, was plucked from the King’s guard by Yosuf, who is grooming Thurstan for a career of back-room power. Sinister forces, humiliated by their defeat in the last crusade, have plans for Thurstan and his potential to betray Yosuf in the name of Christendom. In the various intrigues of state (negotiating with revolutionary Serbs, delivering money to an assassin, spying for Yosuf), Thurstan encounters his childhood sweetheart Alicia, now a rich widow back from Jerusalem and promising Thurstan marriage, a knighthood and a place in society. While he dreams of the pure Alicia, he beds the beautiful Nesrin, an incomparable dancer he procured for the King. Yosuf tutors Thurstan on the necessity of suspicion—but too late, for soon, Thurstan becomes an expendable pawn in an international power struggle. Told that Alicia has been kidnapped, Thurstan is asked to sign a declaration of treason against Yosuf, forced to choose between his own faith and ideals, and another’s.

Unsworth’s luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly inevitable human frailty.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2006

ISBN: 0-385-50963-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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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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