Cullen’s second historical novel about Renaissance-era Spanish royals, this time concerning the “Mad Queen,” Juana La Loca.

Cullen’s challenge is considerable: find a viable story in the life of Juana, daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand, who is known chiefly for having spent 46 years imprisoned by her family as a madwoman. And find it she does, although it only covers Juana’s brief pre-imprisonment life. Ranging from 1493, when Juana, a teenager, first spots the flaws in her parent’s supposedly idyllic marriage, to 1509, when all the shoes of fate finally drop, this is primarily a tale of a woman’s futile struggle against the entrenched patriarchy of her time. As Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) returns in triumph to her parents’ court, Juana is entranced by his son, Diego Colón. Soon, though, she is married off to Philippe the Handsome, a Burgundian archduke (and Habsburg heir) who rules Flanders. Far from home, she is at first infatuated with her Habsburg husband. However, as the licentiousness of Philippe's court compared to the relative austerity of Queen Isabel’s continues to shock, her Spanish ladies desert her, except for scholarly and chaste Beatriz. Philippe’s infidelities bring an end to the extended honeymoon, as does Juana’s delay in producing a male child. Their son Charles is born, but his deformed jaw (a Habsburg trait) impedes both nutrition and speech; however, Charles will continue the Habsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Emperor. A number of premature deaths has made Juana the heir apparent to the Spanish throne. But Philippe, by spreading rumors of her mental instability (due, he self-servingly claims, to excessive love for him, despite the fact that their marital relations are now mostly forced), manages to impugn Juana’s competence enough to elevate his own rank from King-consort to King. Juana’s ingrained ineptitude at both overt confrontation, and the more acceptable female route of subversive sabotage, will lead to her downfall, as will her passion for the commoner Diego. Although the outcome is known, the suspense never waivers.


Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-399-15709-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2011

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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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