Ashe is more flag-bearer of the rampant Montfort lion than objective storyteller, but her sharp eye for human drama and...

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MONTFORT THE FOUNDER OF PARLIAMENT

THE VICEROY 1243-1253

A full-blooded second installment of Ashe’s historical fiction, in which the seeds of rebellion against Henry III’s economic tyranny are sown in the mind of Simon de Montfort, the founder of Parliament.

More assuredly ensconced in the saddle than she was in her first volume, a volant Ashe (Montfort the Founder of Parliament: The Early Years, 2010) charges ahead, taking the reader along on a largely gripping ride. This volume opens with dark tidings that Palestine, gloriously secured by Simon in the First Crusade, has fallen. Plunged into an orgy of grief, he lashes himself until he passes out. He wants to immediately jump on his horse and head to the Holy Land, but the king has other plans; Henry sends his finest general to subdue the notoriously rebellious French province of Gascony. Although the fine detailing of the three Gascony campaigns occasionally plods, Ashe does her best to mine it fully to build up the antagonism that will eventually explode into civil war. Pitted against a spiteful, changeling Henry who plies him with favors only to then humiliate him by trusting the word of the Gascon lords over his, Simon is tried for treason but acquitted. The official charge against him is his ruthlessness in Gascony, but the real treason has taken place in the bedroom, with Simon lapsing back into his affair with Queen Eleanor. In the background is a quiet but dangerous campaign launched by Simon’s archbishop-mentor and chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste, to curb Henry’s arbitrariness by appointing a council. This could be seditious but it has a deep appeal for the barons and clergy bled to death by a king addicted to wars and keeping his foreign in-laws in velvet (literally—the fabric was new to the court, as, incidentally, was Roger Bacon’s rudimentary canon). The sanctimoniously loyal Simon initially dismisses Grosseteste’s talk with “Henry is no Tiberius,” but, in a deftly turned phrase by Ashe, he is soon bitterly aware that trusting Henry is akin to “leaning on Aaron’s staff that would one day turn serpent and sting him.”

Ashe is more flag-bearer of the rampant Montfort lion than objective storyteller, but her sharp eye for human drama and historic detail, together with strong characterization, keep the reader absorbed to the very end.

Pub Date: May 27, 2011

ISBN: 978-1450574235

Page Count: 265

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 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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