Jewish generational memory and trauma can be a literary gold mine, but what Kertes has unearthed is only gold-plated.

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LAST IMPRESSIONS

Kertes (The Afterlife of Stars, 2017, etc.) returns to familiar terrain in his fifth novel, about a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor nearing the end of his life who, with the encouragement of his son, reluctantly revisits his mysterious, tragic past.

Zoltan Beck does not like to linger on the past. "He's a forgetter," one of his granddaughters notes. "He likes to forget." Having left Hungary in the 1950s and made his way to Toronto, Zoltan would rather enjoy the pleasures of life than dwell on his painful history, which he has mostly kept from his three sons. Even he does not know the circumstances of his beloved older brother's death amid the chaos of their escape from a labor camp. But as he approaches the end of his life, his son Ben begins to search—and encourages him to search—for answers to unasked questions. This quest ultimately leads the pair back to Budapest, where they must uncover the truth at last. The premise of the novel is not particularly original, but in the right author's hands, stories like these—no matter how frequently told—can be arresting and innovative. Sadly, that is not the case here. Although the novel has occasional moments of genuine tenderness, many of its emotional crescendos feel forced. When Zoltan discovers long-lost family in Budapest, for instance, his embrace of these strangers seems utterly at odds with every other aspect of his character. Furthermore, the female characters are flat and underdeveloped, the dialogue often strikes a false chord, and the shape of the plot is predictable. Kertes does manage to incorporate bursts of humor into otherwise heavy subject matter, and he uses music and literary references cleverly. But these incidental assets ultimately do little to improve a story that is hackneyed and sentimental.

Jewish generational memory and trauma can be a literary gold mine, but what Kertes has unearthed is only gold-plated.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-3821-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: tomorrow

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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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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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