A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.


A long-retired moviemaker recalls the early days of silent films in Smith’s atmospheric follow-up to The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016, etc.).

In 1962, 85-year-old Claude Ballard lives in a run-down Hollywood hotel and spends his days gathering mushrooms and photographing street scenes. He has not made a movie since his “grand cinematic experiment,” The Electric Hotel, appeared in 1910. As his reminiscences to young film scholar Martin Embry unfold, we eventually learn the reasons for his decision, but first we get a wonderfully vivid re-creation of the spell cast by the earliest films, when photographer’s apprentice Claude sees the Lumière brothers’ first reels exhibited in the basement of a Paris hotel in 1895: “every inch of the screen was alive…you burrowed into the screen, dug it out with your gaze.” His work for the Lumières takes him to New York, where the audience’s loud response to a moving picture next door to her theater infuriates touring French actress Sabine Montrose. She winds up in bed with Claude and in the new medium; buccaneering producer Hal Bender finds them a studio perched over the Palisades in New Jersey, where he hopes to elude Thomas Edison’s litigious Motion Picture Patents Company. Smith skillfully blends film history with the adventures of his cast; a Stanislavsky-obsessed acting coach and an Australian stuntman are among the intriguingly idiosyncratic folks who join Sabine, Claude, and Hal, each haunted by damage a parent has inflicted, to joyously invent a new art form. The novel climaxes with a brilliantly detailed account of the filming of The Electric Hotel and its triumphant premiere, followed by multiple blows that have been deftly foreshadowed. The account of Claude’s traumatic experiences filming the devastation of World War I is something of a letdown, but a final scene with Sabine ties up emotional loose ends, and Martin’s screening of the restored Electric Hotel provides a moving finale.

A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-14685-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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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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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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