A fine, compassionate, elegiac combination of human and courtroom drama—the author’s best yet.

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THE CRIMSON ROOMS

Another inventive, nuanced historical novel from McMahon (The Rose of Sebastopol, 2009, etc.), again focused on a progressive female protagonist constrained by the expectations of her era.

Evelyn Gifford, 30 and one of England’s first female lawyers, must not only struggle against mockery and prejudice at work but also grapple with her grief over the loss of her beloved brother James; she’s still bereft six-and-a-half years after he was killed in World War I. Evelyn’s cash-strapped London household, which includes her widowed mother, aunt and elderly grandmother, is further burdened by the arrival of Meredith and Edmund Duffy, James’ hitherto unknown lover and illegitimate child. McMahon captures the conflicts of class and impoverishment, work and privilege in telling detail through Evelyn’s professional dilemmas, which take her to slums, prisons, orphanages and society drawing rooms. At home, Meredith undermines James’ memory with her shocking recollections, but Evelyn is drawn to Edmund as the son she believes she will never have, since almost an entire generation of men has been lost to the war. Enter barrister Nicholas Thorne—“beautiful, intact, youngish…therefore a rarity”—who approaches Evelyn because she’s involved in the trial of an ex-soldier (employed by one of Thorne’s clients) accused of killing his wife. Quickly, Evelyn finds herself obsessed with the barrister; though engaged to another, he personifies all her yearnings for sexual and emotional fulfillment. But larger, darker, more complex forces may deny Evelyn easy solutions or happy endings, although they may not obstruct a resolute woman from moving forward.

A fine, compassionate, elegiac combination of human and courtroom drama—the author’s best yet.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-399-15622-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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