A historically intriguing investigation that falls flat as a panoramic drama.

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OGHAM

A historical novel explores the biblically undocumented years of Jesus’ life.

When Jesus is only 12 years old, his great uncle Joseph of Arimathea—generally referred to as Rama—decides his nephew is ready for a deeper educational experience, one that will chasten his tendency to be “falsely sure of himself.” Rama once studied under the famously wise druids in Britannicum—they have “educated members of the noble and royal families of most of the world”—at Ynys Witrin, a remote place, and he believes Jesus would benefit from the same opportunity. Rama takes him on one of his business trips—he supervises the mining operations all across the Roman Empire—and leaves Jesus under the care of the druids for years. There, he learns Ogham, a hermetic language devised to confound the first Roman conquerors. Saunders tracks the religious relics that are a historical testament to Jesus’ educational experience, including a record of his own thoughts etched in Ogham of extraordinary scriptural experiences: “The lance and the cruets are suggestive, but this skin with Ogham is the equivalent of other Apocrypha; it is a fifth Gospel, the Gospel according to Jesus. As short and direct as it is, it is more powerful and valuable than all the others.” The author also conjures two chronologically disparate subplots. In the 16th century, Abbot Richard Whiting refuses to relinquish the relics to King Henry VIII, who plans to use them to legitimize the establishment of his own church outside of papal authority. Before they can be taken by force, Whiting spirits them to the king of Spain, Carlos I. And in a contemporary narrative thread, Bo Chancellor, a New Orleans lawyer, is unwittingly drawn into the search for the relics and their explosive theological significance.

Saunders’ historical research is as impressively erudite as it is inventive—the highlight of the book is the attempt, more creative than rigorously scholarly, to imagine the lost years of Jesus’ life. In the process, the author also deftly fills in the blanks of Joseph of Arimathea’s existence too, “a virtual unknown in the Bible until the last chapters of the four Gospels.” Still, for all of its intellectual strengths, the ambitious novel struggles as a literary drama—simply too much is crammed into it, and it often reads like a congested history textbook more than a vibrant fictional tale. It doesn’t help that Saunders’ prose inclines to the melodramatic and can be unwieldy. At one point, Whiting’s interrogator clumsily declaims: “Then you shall all three be damned to hades for what you have done and continue to do. For we shall continue our search and, when we find all we need, you shall regret that you did not respond to the most generous offer of leniency from His Majesty. You shall feel the wrath.”

A historically intriguing investigation that falls flat as a panoramic drama.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64559-495-6

Page Count: 500

Publisher: Covenant Books

Review Posted Online: March 19, 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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Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

ONE GOOD DEED

Thriller writer Baldacci (A Minute to Midnight, 2019, etc.) launches a new detective series starring World War II combat vet Aloysius Archer.

In 1949, Archer is paroled from Carderock Prison (he was innocent) and must report regularly to his parole officer, Ernestine Crabtree (she’s “damn fine-looking”). Parole terms forbid his visiting bars or loose women, which could become a problem. Trouble starts when businessman Hank Pittleman offers Archer $100 to recover a ’47 Cadillac that’s collateral for a debt owed by Lucas Tuttle, who readily agrees he owes the money. But Tuttle wants his daughter Jackie back—she’s Pittleman’s girlfriend, and she won’t return to Daddy. Archer finds the car, but it’s been torched. With no collateral to collect, he may have to return his hundred bucks. Meanwhile, Crabtree gets Archer the only job available, butchering hogs at the slaughterhouse. He’d killed plenty of men in combat, and now he needs peace. The Pittleman job doesn’t provide that peace, but at least it doesn’t involve bashing hogs’ brains in. People wind up dead and Archer becomes a suspect. So he noses around and shows that he might have the chops to be a good private investigator, a shamus. This is an era when gals have gams, guys say dang and keep extra Lucky Strikes in their hatbands, and a Lady Liberty half-dollar buys a good meal. The dialogue has a '40s noir feel: “And don’t trust nobody.…I don’t care how damn pretty they are.” There’s adult entertainment at the Cat’s Meow, cheap grub at the Checkered Past, and just enough clichés to prove that no one’s highfalutin. Readers will like Archer. He’s a talented man who enjoys detective stories, won’t keep ill-gotten gains, and respects women. All signs suggest a sequel where he hangs out a shamus shingle.

Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-5056-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2019

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