A vividly written and stark chronicle of Nazism and its legacies.

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WUNDERLAND

A daughter strives to unlock the secrets of her mother’s past, which her mother has ample reason to hide, in Epstein’s (The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, 2013, etc.) third novel.

Three women carry the narrative weight of this searing novel, set in pre– and post–World War II Berlin and New York City in the 1970s and '80s. Now that she's a mother herself, Ava, a struggling artist in the East Village, is determined to confront her own mother, Ilse, who left her in an orphanage in the waning days of the war, eventually retrieving her but never telling her the identity of her father or much about her own past. Ilse’s sections, set in the '30s during the years leading up to Kristallnacht, make it abundantly clear why. Ilse joins the Hitler Youth female division, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, and becomes an enthusiastic Nazi, to the horror of her former best friend, Renate. As the noose slowly tightens around Berlin’s Jews, Renate and her family are not immediately affected by the oppressive racial laws, since she and brother Franz are Mischlings, only half Jewish; her mother, a psychiatrist, is “Aryan” and her father considers himself a Lutheran until the Nazi registration system exposes his Jewish ancestry. The stories of Ilse and Renate are viscerally quotidian in detailing how Nazism distorts their adolescence. Renate’s gradual ostracism by her school—formerly a top student, she is subjected to racism-dictated grade deflation—and even by those she counted as friends, is excruciating to read. The characterization of Ilse is more challenging, but her enthusiastic embrace of the lifestyle of a Hitler devotee is authentically depicted, as is her dogged refusal to be disillusioned despite various rude awakenings to the role envisioned for women in the Reich. Representing the German postwar generation, Ava holds her own here and is not merely an afterthought; her relationship with Ulrich, son of an Auschwitz victim, is particularly poignant and echoes the friendship of Ilse and Renate, which neither ever truly renounces, at least psychically.

A vividly written and stark chronicle of Nazism and its legacies.

Pub Date: April 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-57690-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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