MONTFORT

THE REVOLUTIONARY 1253 TO 1260

In this riveting third volume of Ashe’s historical fiction, Simon de Montfort returns to England where he becomes embroiled in revolution against the king.

The deep but ultimately doomed filial love between Simon and Edward, heir to the throne—and, in Ashe’s telling, Simon’s illegitimate son—is poignantly developed. When the beautiful but vicious Edward orders an acolyte to prove his loyalty by gouging out the eyes of a peasant child, the whole kingdom is appalled. But Simon goes to Edward’s aid, admonishes him and then forgives him. England is now completely bankrupt, but Henry egregiously sets out on a Grand Progress through France, accompanied by an entourage swagged with gold and ivory. Ashe’s detailing of the procession is not only a forensic paean to foppery but a schadenfreuden build-up to a bonfire of vanities. Henry feels like a cheap Christmas tree when he is met by King Louis of France, dressed in drab penitential robes with a tiny cross as the only embroidery. Despite their sartorial differences, a personal chemistry kindles between the two monarchs, but Simon, caught between a changeling Henry and an insecure Louis, continues to be a nowhere man. It’s in France that he hears the second prophecy of parliament from an old Dominican monk, that in the New Age “our leaders will be chosen as monks choose their abbots. By election.” As famine and injustice ravage England and Henry foolishly pledges the Crown to the Pope so that he can have Sicily for his hunchback son Edmund, the barons finally revolt with Simon at the helm. Henry is defanged, the Magna Carta re-fanged and the Provisions of Oxford established. But unlike the idealistic Simon, the barons don’t want their unlettered tenants to be empowered. The poor still love St. Simon, but the barons now loathe him. He is arrested and sent to the Tower. As in the last two volumes, Ashe lards her tale with some informed guesswork and some wild speculation. The ghastly torture scene in the Tower with Henry III vomiting at the savagery is perfervid fantasy, but it works because it’s grafted onto a factual skeleton. An expertly told tale in which the star role is played by democracy, a poisoned chalice to be won only at the cost of treason.

 

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2011

ISBN: 978-1452844473

Page Count: 454

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 15, 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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