MONTFORT THE ANGEL WITH THE SWORD

1260 TO 1265

Ashe brings her expansive, intricately worked saga on Simon de Montfort to a tragic, juddering close.

His knees, ankles and shins may have been shattered by Henry III’s rack, but Simon’s spirit remains unbroken. Like moth to flame, he is drawn back to the political maelstrom in England. Henry, whom Ashe portrays with consummate skill—describing the “flaccid drapery” of his palsied face and his neurotic breakdown into a haggard, gray cadaver—has turned the barons against Simon but has been unable to quell the populace, who has risen in revolt. To Simon’s utter dismay, the cult of him as the angel of the Lord who will usher in a just new age has taken hold. He protests that he wants only to secure the Provisions of Oxford, not grab England’s crown, but no one believes him. The novel’s arresting central tension emerges from the increasingly poisonous face-off between Simon and Prince Edward, whose treachery and ruthlessness is matched only by his strapping beauty. When jeering Londoners empty their chamber pots onto Queen Eleanor’s head as she travels down the Thames, Edward swears revenge. Camp Simon is initially victorious at Lewes, but in the 1265 Battle of Evesham they are fatally outnumbered. As the archbishop prophesied, Simon and his eldest son are slain on the same day, with Simon’s body being brutally mutilated. Miraculously, from under his headless torso a spring begins to gush, validating the widespread belief that he was indeed a saint. Ashe’s belabored detailing of petty campaigns and aristocratic rivalries can get exhausting—and the detour that leads Simon to meet Robin Hood, while charming, is far too long—but the more worrying concern is the sentimental halo she bequeaths on Simon, one of the most contentious figures in English history. On the whole, however, her polished, taut prose and love of historic detail brings alive the ghosts of history in all their scheming angularity. A deeply sketched, thoroughly researched, wildly imagined labor of love that is hugely enjoyable.

 

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2011

ISBN: 978-1452844237

Page Count: 525

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2011

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 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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