An intricate, sexy historical narrative, exploring the triumph of individual will over masculine coercion.


Nicaraguan poet, novelist and memoirist Belli (The Country Under My Skin, 2002, etc.) offers a beguiling feminist take on the frustrated life of a 15th-century Spanish queen.

The tortuous saga of Juana of Castile, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, who spent 46 years of her life locked away as a madwoman, is evoked through an illicit modern-day love affair. Now 17, Lucía has been a student at a Madrid boarding school for four years, since her Latin American parents died in a plane crash. Much older Manuel, a professor specializing in the Spanish Renaissance, is obsessed with Juana’s story and much taken by Lucía because she looks remarkably like the queen. Manuel seduces the willing virgin by dressing her in a period costume and mesmerizing her with a longwinded narration of Juana’s life: Beginning with her birth in 1479, the tale takes a dark turn with Juana’s passionate marriage at age 16 to Philippe the Handsome, Archduke of Burgundy, whose ties to the Hapsburg line are politically desirable but later disastrous. The novel moves fluidly between the Renaissance and the present, with both stories narrated in the first person, as if Lucía is indeed possessed by Juana. The Spanish princess bears many children for Philippe and overlooks his infidelities while she grows increasingly isolated living away from her family. After a series of unexpected deaths, Juana is in line for succession as queen of Castile but is thwarted and imprisoned through the machinations of her husband, father and son (who became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). In the present, young Lucía becomes pregnant and is ensconced in Manuel’s childhood home, where his Aunt Águeda watches over her. Also surveying Lucía are the ghosts of Manuel’s ancestors, the Denias, who were appointed to guard Juana but ended up looting her effects. Belli’s historical savvy and skillful use of novelistic devices render these intertwined tales powerfully compelling.

An intricate, sexy historical narrative, exploring the triumph of individual will over masculine coercion.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-083312-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Rayo/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.


An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 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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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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