An admirable if stiff portrait of a noble heart.

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CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE

The final volume of Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy (Becoming Marie Antoinette, 2011, etc.) grimly details the queen’s sad and, to contemporary eyes, terribly unjust end.

As a rabble invades the Palace of Versailles, Louis XVI still believes that his people wish him no harm. But his wife, Marie Antoinette, is more realistic: After years of being defamed by the French, ever since she was brought from Austria to marry Louis, she knows that the revolutionary mob’s threats to have her head are no mere rhetoric. From the sacking of Versailles to the royals’ removal to the Tuileries “for their own protection,” the dismantling of the French monarchy is minutely dissected. Unfortunately, the depiction of outcomes we already know can be less than dramatic if suspense and conflict cannot somehow be generated, and here, they are not. The royal family’s ill-fated escape attempt, engineered by Antoinette’s paramour Axel von Fersen, is vividly reconstructed, as is every permutation of the revolutionary process as various political factions dispute whether or not the royals should remain in place as constitutional rulers, be banished, or, finally, be tried and executed. Time and again, Antoinette pins her hopes on Axel and on some of the secret loyalists among her guards and jailers, but these hopes are repeatedly dashed as the Parisians prove that their barbaric rampaging trumps the machinations of even the canniest demagogue or courtier. It is excruciating to read about the humiliations Antoinette is forced to endure: the massacre of her faithful retainers, the execution of Louis, and separation from her daughter and her son, the dauphin, who, beaten and starved, is “reeducated” to vilify her. It is almost with relief that readers witness Antoinette’s own eventual march to the scaffold. Perhaps the tedium of this novel is partially due to the characterization of the queen herself. Despite all the indignities she suffers, she is never allowed to entertain or voice thoughts that are less than saintly and forgiving.

An admirable if stiff portrait of a noble heart.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-345-52390-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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