Very slow to gain momentum, but colorful background and a slam-bang finale almost make up for it.

THE BAREFOOT QUEEN

Another historical epic from best-selling Falcones (The Hand of Fatima, 2011, etc.), this one set among Spain’s fiery gypsies.

The busy tale begins with the arrival in Cádiz of Caridad, an African slave from Cuba liberated but stranded by the shipboard death of her master. She’s rescued after weeks of abuse at the hands of various brutal white men by Melchor, patriarch of the Vega clan of gypsies. Most of the action involves this odd couple, plus Melchor’s daughter, Ana, and granddaughter, Milagros. They are separated by the mass roundup of gypsies in 1749: Ana, like thousands of others, is jailed and endures years of torment; from prison, she disowns Milagros for marrying Pedro García, whose family has an ancient blood feud with the Vegas. There’s no question about who’s in the right, as Pedro proves to be a rotten husband who, when Milagros’ talents as a dancer and singer take them to Madrid, starts by cheating on her and ends by pimping her out by force to aristocrats, then branding her a whore. Meanwhile, feisty Melchor and annoyingly passive Caridad have various adventures while the author treats us to large doses of historical background poorly incorporated into his eventful fiction. The translator can perhaps be blamed for such anachronistic dialogue as, “No way!” and “Yeah, yeah,” but not for the whipsawing from one storyline to another that prevents readers from connecting with any of the characters until far too late. Only Falcones’ vivid portrait of gypsy culture—a proud, amoral and unabashedly sensual challenge to puritanical Spanish Catholicism—maintains interest as the plot twists on and on. The narrative does eventually arrive at a climactic confrontation and a moving affirmation of gypsy solidarity and tenacity, but it’s an awfully long slog to get there.

Very slow to gain momentum, but colorful background and a slam-bang finale almost make up for it.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3948-9

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

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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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