An entertaining blend of intrigue and romance, but the spycraft disappoints.

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SARAH'S WAR

In this historical novel, set during the Revolutionary War, a young Philadelphia woman takes on the dangerous job of spying for the patriots.

Eighteen-year-old Sarah Champion is a dutiful parson’s daughter, so when she’s sent from her Connecticut home to help her aunt, Elizabeth Sage, in Philadelphia, she makes no protest. When Sarah arrives, in September 1777, Mrs. Sage informs her that she plans to give her fine clothing, teach her deportment, and bring her into society, which puts the young woman in a moral quandary. Her twin brother, James, was killed fighting for Gen. George Washington; now she’s living among Loyalists and must often bite her tongue to stay polite. Meanwhile, Capt. Andrew Warren is trying to develop a spy network for Gen. Washington. He wants to find a woman who’d be welcomed at Gen. Sir William Howe’s parties, where she can overhear useful information—someone like Sarah. She agrees and proves herself to be both brave and determined, but she finds herself in danger from Capt. Ian Jamieson, a blackguard British officer. Meanwhile, she becomes close to the kind, humorous Capt. Charles Colborne, Sir William’s aide. As the British withdraw from Philadelphia in 1778, Sarah’s life undergoes major changes—and she’ll need every ounce of courage to survive a dramatic confrontation. West (Overkill, 2009, etc.) provides excellent ingredients in this well-told historical novel, including scheming, flirting, romance, and villainy. There is also some fine period detail that helps to set the scene, such as fashionable young ladies practicing papyrotamia (the art of paper cutting). However, the promising espionage theme isn’t very well-developed. There are no ciphers, no coded letters or invisible ink; indeed, Sarah gets only one real chance to tackle a mission while in disguise. Although some intriguing historical issues, such as back-alley abortion, are discussed, the novel misses out on an opportunity to more thoughtfully look at what the idea of independence means in a slave-owning society.

An entertaining blend of intrigue and romance, but the spycraft disappoints.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-943006-92-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: SparkPress

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2019

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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