In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

YEAR OF WONDERS

Painstaking re-creation of 17th-century England, swallowed by over-the-top melodramatics: a wildly uneven first novel by an Australian-born journalist.

The Year of the title is 1665: the date of the devastating bubonic epidemic chronicled in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Brooks’s tale, framed by reveries set a year and a half after the plague burns itself out (in “Leaf-Fall, 1666”), is narrated by Anna Frith, an earnest and highly intelligent young widow who buries her own multiple bereavements (first her gentle husband, later their two small sons) in work, aiding her (unnamed) village rector’s wife in treating the sick with medicinal herbs and traditional cures. Brooks is at her best in lyrical, precise descriptions of country landscapes and village customs, and makes something very appealing and (initially) quite credible out of Anna’s wary hunger for learning and innate charitable kindness. But the novel goes awry when the panic of contagion isolates her village from neighboring hamlets, a forthright young woman and her distracted aunt are accused of witchcraft and hunted down, and Anna’s drunken, violent father, who profits as a gravedigger for hire, resorts to providing corpses that will require his services. The excesses continue, as Anna’s stepmother, crazed with grief, seeks vengeance against rector Michael Mompellion and his saintly wife (and Anna’s mentor and soulmate) Elinor, and rise to a feverish pitch when Anna, having found a new innocent victim to nurture and raise, offends the powerful Bradford family and must flee to safety—ending up (in a borderline-risible Epilogue) in North Africa in the sanctuary of a kindly “Bey’s” harem. It’s all more than a bit much: Thomas Hardy crossed with Erskine Caldwell, with more than a whiff of Jane Eyre in Anna’s conflicted devotion to the brooding, Mr. Rochester–like Mompellion.

In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-91021-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2001

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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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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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