An assured, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction with an irrepressible female protagonist.

THE CLEVER MILL HORSE

In this delightful debut novel set in the early 19th century, a young woman fights to patent her flax-milling machine.

Ella Kenyon’s grandfather has a dying wish: that she finish designing and engineering the flax-milling device the two of them have struggled to develop. Finishing it represents not only the culmination of their work but the potential to remove herself and her family from the control of her abusive father, Amherst. But Ella is met with all manner of obstacles. The device works but imperfectly and impracticably. To patent the machine, she needs to trust the wealthy Mr. Emerston, who she knows is liable to steal her design. And perhaps more pressing, she must reconfigure her sense of self as aspects of her past—her real mother, her connection to her grandfather’s Native American assistant, Pete—come to light. While patenting a milling device may seem like dull territory for fiction, Lew-Smith’s greatest strength, among many, is ensuring that the plot is dramatic without being exaggerated, intricate without being convoluted. Allegiances shift and mutate, and characters show capacity for change and regret. Most arresting of these is Ella’s flawed and fascinating aunt Lucille, a woman who’d previously been only cold and distant to Ella but who has now taken a sudden interest in her success. When the need to patent the machine forces Ella to travel to Washington City, capital of the new nation, her cadre of friends and family help her get there, but it’s Ella who takes center stage. She’s headstrong and brilliant, unafraid of a scuffle and capable of tenderness beneath her rough exterior. While still more obstacles meet her on the journey—an exhilarating fire in the Pine Barrens, a kidnapping and torturing in Philadelphia—Ella remains steadfast in her determination to see her grandfather’s wish to its conclusion and, most importantly, to never become the victim.

An assured, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction with an irrepressible female protagonist.

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-0991341207

Page Count: 424

Publisher: Caspian Press

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2014

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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