This novel has good bones obscured by too much flab.

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THE AMBASSADORS

A father fights genocide on the world stage while neglecting the domestic front.

Lerner’s debut novel has a nonlinear structure: It jumps around in time, from the years immediately following World War II, to the 1960s, ’70s and late ’90s. Three narrators alternate: Jacob, an American-born Jew who was part of the Allied liberation force in Europe; his now-estranged wife, Susanna, a renowned anthropologist who has recently been diagnosed with malignant melanoma; and their son, Shalom, who, much to Susanna’s disappointment, foreswore anthropology to manage rock bands. After Germany’s surrender, Jacob is forever marked by what he has learned of Nazi crimes and by his failure to protect an Auschwitz survivor, Judith. His motto becomes “Never again” as he dedicates himself to the creation of the Jewish homeland in Israel and, whenever summoned by a mysterious operative named Salik, goes off on secret missions to help populations threatened by genocide. At a Hannah Arendt lecture, he meets Susanna, whose entire family perished in the Shoah. (She escaped Poland aboard a Kindertransport plane). Susanna has become disenchanted with her husband’s frequent and unpredictable absences, and the decisive rupture occurs when his efforts on behalf of Homo sapiens interfere with her search for fossilized hominids. (On his rare returns, Jacob is not far away: He has been banished only to the basement of Susanna’s Brooklyn brownstone.) When Shalom—whose comparatively trivial pursuits (promoting an African salsa band, clubbing and dating another failed anthropologist) hardly justify his status as a third narrator—informs him of Susanna’s illness, Jacob deploys his considerable martial skills against an enemy that just may be invincible. Only one of Jacob’s missions (in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan massacres) is described in any detail, and even then his role seems peripheral and nebulous—the most riveting drama plays out much closer to home.

This novel has good bones obscured by too much flab.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60598-620-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Aug. 25, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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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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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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