Despite tackling several serious themes, oversimplification takes the bite out of this historical drama.

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DON'T HANG MY FRIEND

A post–Civil War YA drama about a teenager who aspires to become a doctor, and his confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan. 

In the 1870s, teenager Tom Slocum lives in a small town on the Illinois River and dreams of traveling west in search of adventure; he’s particularly drawn to the idea of getting the opportunity to fight “Indians.” One day, he has a chance encounter with a doctor, Robert Steele, who arrives in town by steamboat from Scotland. An untethered, seemingly wild dog threatens Rachel, the girl whom Tom pines for, and Dr. Steele calmly shoots the dog dead. The owner of the dog, Murphy, a local Klan leader, is enraged by the killing, and no less upset when Dr. Steele protects a former slave, Isaiah, from his aggression. Rachel’s leg is badly wounded from a fall from a horse, and Dr. Steele saves it from amputation by countering the infection with carbolic acid, a foreign technique that’s largely rejected in the United States. Tom eventually helps Dr. Steele operate on a man’s chronically infected arm, and he’s persuaded to pursue a career as a doctor. But when Tom’s father dies, the teenager is sent to an orphanage that discourages education and works him mercilessly. He eventually escapes and reunites with Dr. Steele, who takes him on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, Murphy and his Klansmen terrorize the town; he never forgave Dr. Steele for killing his dog, or for his defense of former slaves, and a climactic showdown seems inevitable.  Raffensperger (The Diary of Young Arthur Conan Doyle, 2017, etc.) ambitiously combines a lot of complex elements into a brief novel, including the transformation of the country in the wake of the Civil War, the continued legacy of vicious racism, the immorality of arranged marriage, and the halting progress of medical science in the United States. Dr. Steele emerges as an engagingly contradictory character—educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Paris, he’s a model of cosmopolitan refinement and moral progressiveness. However, he’s also tough, hardened by the experience of war, and still considers himself something of a country boy. The principal draw of the book is his influence on Tom. But although the story unfolds briskly, the cast that surrounds Tom and Dr. Steele lacks depth. Of course, it isn’t easy to convert the febrile racism of the evil Murphy into a character with substance, but nevertheless, he’s depicted merely as a depthless scoundrel. Part of what makes the post–Civil War years such a captivating period of study are its endlessly complex moral contours, but Raffensperger only pits good vs. evil—moral enlightenment versus the defense of prejudice. Also, even though this is a relatively short novel, there are still too many gratuitous detours away from the central storyline; for example, one chapter is devoted to Dr. Steele’s reminiscences of romantic companionship in New Orleans—a subplot that could have been excised without any narrative cost. 

Despite tackling several serious themes, oversimplification takes the bite out of this historical drama. 

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-940773-31-5

Page Count: 206

Publisher: History Publishing Company

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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A killer thriller.

THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Black takes time out from chronicling the neighborhood-themed exploits of half-French detective Aimée Leduc to introduce a heroine as American as apple pie.

Kate Rees never expected to see Paris again, especially not under these circumstances. Born and bred in rural Oregon, she earned a scholarship to the Sorbonne, where she met Dafydd, a handsome Welshman who stole her heart. The start of World War II finds the couple stationed in the Orkney Islands, where Kate impresses Alfred Stepney of the War Department with the rifle skills she developed helping her dad and five brothers protect the family’s cattle. After unimaginable tragedy strikes, Stepney recruits Kate for a mission that will allow her to channel her newly ignited rage against the Germans who’ve just invaded France. She’s parachuted into the countryside, where her fluent French should help her blend in. Landing in a field, she hops a milk train to Paris, where she plans to shoot Adolf Hitler as he stands on the steps of Sacre-Coeur. Instead, she kills his admiral and has to flee through the streets of Paris, struggling to hook up with the rescuers who are supposed to extract her. Meanwhile, Gunter Hoffman, a career policeman in a wartime assignment with the Reichssicherheitsdienst security forces, is charged with finding the assassin who dared attempt to kill the Führer. It’s hard to see how it can end well for both the cop and the cowgirl. The heroine’s flight is too episodic to capitalize on Black’s skill at character development, but she’s great at raising readers’ blood pressure.

A killer thriller.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Soho Crime

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 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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