A Manchurian Hot Zone this is not.

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THE WINTER STATION

In 1910 Manchuria, a doctor is baffled by a deadly epidemic.

Shields (The Crimson Portrait, 2006, etc.) may be the first novelist to tackle the mysterious plague that overtook Manchuria early in the last century. In Kharbin, a railroad hub under the joint control of Czarist Russia and the Chinese empire, Russian physician Baron von Budberg, the city’s chief medical examiner,, is frustrated when two corpses found near the railway station are spirited away before he can ascertain the cause of death. Soon, such deaths and disappearances are mounting exponentially, both in the hovels of the Chinese laborers and the mansions of the privileged Russian sector. As frigid winter descends, it becomes clear to the Baron and his hospital colleagues that a highly infectious plague has gripped Kharbin. The malady presents initially with mild symptoms, racing pulse and elevated temperature, followed within hours by wracking cough, hemorrhage, and death. The chief difficulty here is that Shields has trouble meshing the disease-thriller aspect of this novel with her almost worshipful character study of the Baron, a humanist equally at home with his Chinese wife, Li Ju, calligraphy lessons, and tea ceremonies as he is with vodka and caviar. Many colorful—or so they are clearly intended—characters cross the Baron’s path, including his venal boss, Gen. Khorvat, and his confidants Andreev, a fixer and smuggler, and the dwarf Chang, a tea master. Although his loyalty to less raffish friends as well as his meditative calligraphy practice may lend gravitas to the Baron’s persona, he remains a cipher. The depiction of the epidemic hews closely to the known facts: the discarded, frozen bodies, the brutal quarantine methods, and the initially scattershot official response. Unfortunately, though, the narrative is nearly devoid of forward momentum. Rather than do battle, the Baron seems content to ruefully observe the plague’s inevitable advance. Potential conflicts, like the Baron’s incipient rivalry with a Dr. Wu, whom he views as a young upstart, are never developed.

A Manchurian Hot Zone this is not.

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-38534-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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