Heavy-handed preaching gratuitously embedded in an uncompelling novelistic drama.



An American soldier wrestles with his faith in God as catastrophe suddenly envelops the world. 

Maj. Christopher Barrett is a soldier in the Army, part of an elite team called the Omega Group. He’s tasked with recusing a French journalist held prisoner by ISIS in Iraq, but the mission goes terribly wrong, and the journalist dies in the process. That reporter turns out to be the niece of the French prime minister, and as a result, the Omega Group, and Barrett’s future career, is imperiled. Meanwhile, Barrett struggles with his lack of connection to God, an absence of faith that has led to an estrangement from his deeply religious wife, Erin. He’s compelled to reconsider his commitment to God when Russia and Iran jointly attack Israel, an assault apparently biblically foretold, one of many opportunities for didactic sermonizing in debut author Phillips’ novelistic turn at proselytization. The aggressors are crushed inexplicably—they’re pulverized by massive hailstones and “rolling waves of lightning sweeping the skies, engulfing the enemy planes”—which leads some, including Israeli Gen. Benjamin Havid, to believe that the defensive response was executed by God. Absolute chaos ensues when millions of people suddenly disappear and die and fire engulfs the planet, signs that the rapture has arrived. Barrett continues to lead the Omega Group on dangerous missions, while the president of the European Union, Draven Cross, assumes the role of the Antichrist and, under the spiritual guidance of Satan, attempts to convince the world that it’s on its way toward lasting peace rather than final judgment. The plot is mostly formulaic and shopworn—Christian eschatology grafted onto contemporary geopolitics. Israel and the United States are unambiguously the forces of good, Iran and Russia emissaries of evil, and the European Union a conduit of Satan. The plot itself seems like an afterthought or a device meant to deliver an instructive religious message about faith in a Christian God. Barrett reads long sermons from a religious soldier’s journal that are shared by the author at great length, and characters frequently share their own tales of spiritual devotion with aching earnestness. Phillips’ knowledge of the Bible is impressive—especially anything related to end times—and his work is a genuinely illuminating fount of information regarding the scriptural foundation of Christian final judgment. The novel, however, is more catechism than narrative, and the writing, especially the dialogue, is wooden and inauthentic. For example, here the president of the United States shares his own conversion experience: “God is easy to understand, Gabriella, once you allow yourself to see His presence all around you. I could have been the leader of the show-me-and-I-will-believe-it thought brand. It only took two minutes of being briefed on what the world was facing a few days ago for me to realize I just needed to see the world as it was, instead of how I wanted it to be.”

Heavy-handed preaching gratuitously embedded in an uncompelling novelistic drama. 

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4003-2571-9

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Elm Hill

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2019

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


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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