A brief, powerful historical novel that reflects on the beauty and brutality of life in wartime.

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FORTY DAYS AND NINE MONTHS

A NOVEL OF THE 95TH PENNSYLVANIA IN THE OVERLAND CAMPAIGN AND THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG

In this gripping novel, Paul (Nothing is Strange with You, 2008) chronicles bloody Civil War battles fought by the 95th Pennsylvania regiment.

As the novel opens in May 1864, the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteers have dwindled from the infamous “Original Twenty-Five” to just 12. These young men, encamped in Virginia, introduce themselves in an opening sequence that relies on formulaic descriptions (“a twenty-two-year-old typesetter and aspiring journalist from Philadelphia”) but benefits from rollicking dialogue (“Oh, I’ll tell you about it soon.” “When? When we’re all dead and buried?”). Although Paul includes real-life historical figures in the story, such as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, he invented these dozen major characters. As the soldiers each discuss heroism and self-abnegation, they develop distinctive personalities. Their tone is often one of philosophical resignation—when “[g]ood men get killed every day,” “it ain’t always important whether you live or die,” one insists—but some soldiers are also devout religious believers, praying for God’s mercy for themselves and the Confederates. Paul effectively recreates the atmosphere of wearisome marches and gory warfare, and his combat scenes are matter-of-fact and graphic: There are gunshot and bayonet wounds but also crushed testicles and teeth-torn throats—as well as an unexpected erection in a scene of uncomfortably sexualized violence. The narrative often shifts to a single character’s perspective, only to have him suddenly shot to death. Such unsentimental bluntness, however, contrasts with Paul’s overall concern for his characters’ psychological back stories; Abbot, for instance, longs to join an English theater troupe, while Greisler is terrified of fire. The novel’s finest chapter details a wounded soldier’s struggle to escape an eerie forest and rejoin the company, and it balances irony and tragedy perfectly, juxtaposing tender flashbacks of the soldier’s prewar life against the blood-soaked present. As the novel concludes, with just a “quartet of survivors” remaining to parade through Philadelphia, the sadness is tempered by the prospect of new life ahead: “[Babcock] resumed walking forward—or backward—or sideways, or up and down—into what looked like the future.” Paul’s canvas may be limited in this novel, but his talent could easily sustain future works of epic historical fiction.

A brief, powerful historical novel that reflects on the beauty and brutality of life in wartime.

Pub Date: Dec. 13, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4936-9582-9

Page Count: 164

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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