Smart, savvy, atmospheric work from a promising new talent.

A TENDER THING

A stage-struck Wisconsin farm girl discovers that musical theater is no refuge from real-world problems.

When Eleanor O'Hanlon hears that her favorite Broadway composer, Don Mannheim, is having an open-call audition to replace the star in his current hit, she cashes in the war bonds her parents have been saving for her wedding day to pay for a train ticket to New York. “I’m not some girl who wants to be on Broadway for the fame or glamour,” she tells Mannheim when someone else gets the part. “I understand this. I understand you….This is my life.” Intrigued, he hires her instead for the lead in his musical work in progress, A Tender Thing. An interracial love story is daring stuff for Broadway in 1958, and Eleanor is thrilled by the chance to work with her idol. Debut author Neuberger, who studied musical theater and writing at NYU, clearly knows the world she’s depicting; she brings to life with nice historical detail the rehearsal milieu, complete with a martinet director, unabashedly gay chorus boys, and a production taking shape with daily rewrites and new songs. Eleanor, who knows everything about musical theater and not much about real life, may be the only person in the company who doesn’t get why Don takes a special interest in her creatively and displays no interest in her increasingly open romantic overtures. She also doesn’t really think about what the public—let alone her parents—might think about Don’s deliberately button-pushing subject matter until scarily hostile protests erupt during Boston previews, although her savvy African American co-star, Charles Lawrence, has warned her. Charles is among the novel’s many sensitive characterizations, most notable of which is brilliant, conflicted Don: desperately lonely but coldly making use of others’ lives to feed his artistic needs. It’s Eleanor and Charles who show him the realistic finale his musical demands, and Eleanor’s happy ending is a highly qualified one suggesting that she, like Don, will find her deepest relationships in art.

Smart, savvy, atmospheric work from a promising new talent.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-08487-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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