A lively, emotionally charged medieval trot.

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MONTFORT THE FOUNDER OF PARLIAMENT

THE EARLY YEARS 1229 TO 1243

Ashe presents a jousting first installment of a four-volume fiction on the deeply contentious founder of parliament, Simon de Montfort.

Historical novels allow writers to braid fact with fantasy, and Ashe’s work is a smooth result of this flexible license. This first volume deals with Simon’s meteoric rise, fall and rise again in the intrigue-ridden Plantagenet Court, where he starts out as an unpopular foreigner from France and grows to be the king’s go-to man. Ashe conjures up a fanatically religious but tormented youngster who marries King Henry III’s nun sister, cuckolds the king, is banished from England and joins the Crusades. While his warts, such as the tyrannical violence visited upon Jewish money-lenders, are not elided, Ashe clearly empathizes with her hot-headed knight and plays up his positives, be it his dexterity on the battlefield, his loyalty to Henry (deftly portrayed as a weak, willful sapling on whom Simon refuses to spy for Louis of France) or the manner in which he tries to scour his sexual guilt by lashing himself with a nail. If the novel is thoroughly researched as Ashe’s is—from descriptions of medieval latrines and houseboys called “Garbage” to the decadence of Europe’s emperors—it is all the more thoroughly imagined. The slightly salacious plotting that makes Simon into the queen’s stormy lover and thereby biological father of Edward, heir to the seemingly impotent Henry III, is worthy of Hollywood, but Ashe, a playwright and screenplay writer, presents the affair persuasively, allowing the reader’s inner-romantic to be seduced. A riveting prophecy by Simon’s archbishop-mentor that Simon and his firstborn will die on the same day and by the same hurt, and the veiled announcement by Henry that he wishes Edward to be brought up by Simon “as his own son” so that he can be schooled in the art of warfare, inject a frisson into the narrative that make the second installation worth waiting for.

A lively, emotionally charged medieval trot.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2010

ISBN: 978-1439264669

Page Count: 319

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 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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