A moderately interesting story told in extremely broad strokes.



Two troubled families—are there any other kind in Leavitt’s novels (Pictures of You, 2011, etc.)?—grapple to cope with a 12-year-old boy’s disappearance.

Ava moved to Waltham, Mass., with her son Lewis after her divorce. Although her selfish husband, Brian, left them and Ava is working for a pittance at a plumbing company to support her son, the censorious neighbors disapprove of her dating and disdain her for being Jewish; in Leavitt’s less-than-nuanced portrait, these suburbanites are virtual caricatures of 1950s anti-Semitism, sexism and anti-intellectualism. Lewis, told “not to be so smart” by his teachers, finds best friends in also-ostracized siblings Jimmy and Rose, whose widowed mother, Dot, is sort of nice to Ava. But when Jimmy vanishes one afternoon, ugly rumors circulate. Wasn’t there something, well, strange about the boy’s relationship with Ava? Or maybe Ava’s new boyfriend, Jake—a jazz musician, so clearly no good—had something to do with the boy’s disappearance. Jake can’t take the pressure and splits. Ava, Lewis, Rose and Dot are traumatized in individual ways that don’t necessarily draw them together, though Rose continues to pine unrequitedly for Lewis. Seven years later, in 1963, Lewis is a nurse’s aide in Madison, obsessively caring for others but unable to share anything of himself. Orphaned Rose teaches third grade in Ann Arbor, freaking out any time she sees a child more than a few feet from adult supervision. Only Ava, still stuck at the plumbing company but baking magnificent pies in her spare time for a local cafe, seems to be rebuilding her life, when the discovery of Jimmy’s remains forces everyone to face their unresolved issues. The mystery of what exactly happened to Jimmy is cleared up via not one, but two incredibly contrived revelations, and neither Lewis nor Rose is a vivid enough personality for readers to care much whether they’ll ever get together.

A moderately interesting story told in extremely broad strokes.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61620-054-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

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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.


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...


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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