The understated tone of this Everyman’s Citizen Kane perfectly suits Lehrer’s gifts, as he eschews his usual satiric stance...

OH, JOHNNY

A young ex-Marine pursues two ideals, a major-league baseball career and a young woman he knows only as Betsy, in Lehrer’s bittersweet 19th novel (Mack to the Rescue, 2008, etc.).

It’s 1944, and Johnny Wrigley is 17 and green as grass when the troop transport taking him from Baltimore to California stops off in Wichita, Kan. Though the stop lasts barely half an hour, it’s long enough for Johnny to lose his virginity with Betsy, one of the girls who came to meet the train with apples and smokes for the recruits. Johnny can see that Betsy is religious in an oddly directive way he’s never encountered before. But he also knows from the first that he loves her in a way he’ll never love anyone else, and in a series of letters he composes but never writes down, he pledges his love and vows that he’ll return. That turns out to be a tall order. First Johnny has to survive brutal combat on the island of Peleliu, where he’s been trained to use a flamethrower—an assignment that turns him into a target and gives him a worm’s-eye view of horrific casualties, including those he inflicts himself. Then, on his return stateside, he has to search fruitlessly through Wichita and environs for Betsy before giving up and returning home to Lafayette, Md. Eagerly embraced by his fond mother and the kid sister of a friend who was killed in Europe, Johnny reverts to his original dream: becoming a baseball star in the mold of his idol, Brooklyn Dodgers center fielder Pete Reiser. This dream also goes bad, leaving Johnny with nothing but a menial job and his hopes of returning to both baseball and Betsy. Eventually his dreams come true, but not quite in the way he expected.

The understated tone of this Everyman’s Citizen Kane perfectly suits Lehrer’s gifts, as he eschews his usual satiric stance for a warmhearted evocation of the road not taken.

Pub Date: March 31, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6762-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2009

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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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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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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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