Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.



The Colombian author’s previously untranslated 1999 debut novel is arguably her best: a ripping yarn that recreates an obscure historical incident.

In 1908, half-French Mexican Army officer Ramón Arnaud, who had been disciplined and cashiered for insubordination and cowardice, was sent to act as lieutenant governor on remote Clipperton Island. That outpost—named for a notorious English pirate who had sheltered there (and previously dubbed “Isle of Passion” by the celebrated voyager Magellan)—though ostensibly vulnerable to attack by France, is only a barren wasteland: a volcanic atoll virtually bereft of tillable soil, ringed by perilous underwater coral reefs and far from civilization, in the northern Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s western coast. Restrepo’s increasingly engaging narrative juxtaposes the Arnaud party’s ordeal (late-arriving supply ships, a catastrophic hurricane, a plague of scurvy that decimates the island’s small populace, the consequences of failed escape attempts) with a nameless journalist’s efforts, two centuries later, to interview the Clipperton adventurers’ surviving relatives, and thus piece together a separate history virtually ignorant of (though profoundly affected by) the Mexican Revolution, World Wars and the inevitable seepage of fact into legend. The story drags initially, as the narrative structure painstakingly reveals itself. But Restrepo energizes it with persuasive characterizations of conflicted, intermittently megalomaniacal Ramón, his courageous wife Alicia (who ultimately becomes the islander’s savior) and two splendidly imagined antagonists: German hydraulics engineer Gustav Schultz (engaged by a company that processes the Clipperton birds’ rich guano deposits), and the island’s own Caliban, lighthouse keeper Victoriano Alvarez, who rises eerily from the dead, tests the resourceful Alicia’s wits and will and precipitates a climactic battle that threatens her comrades’ last hope of rescue and survival.

Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-008898-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.


In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...


Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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