A gripping and historically rigorous account of a harsh America.

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CHASING KLONDIKE DREAMS

A historical novel follows the intersecting lives of three troubled travelers hunting redemption in the Alaska Gold Rush.

In 1897, the prospect of quickly acquired wealth drew both adventurous and desperate sorts to Alaska in search of gold. But others were driven by the desire to escape their former lives and reinvent themselves anew. Kaplan (Over the Edge, 2006) chronicles three such self-exiles whose lives improbably but serendipitously intersect. Maggie Saunders is a prostitute working at a brothel in St. Louis, carefully stashing away money to eventually go out on her own. But a physically imposing customer brutalizes her, leaving her for dead. Maggie helps herself to an involuntary gratuity from his purse of gold, and when he finds out, he attacks her savagely. She defends herself with a stiletto knife, inadvertently killing him. She disguises herself as a young man and furtively hops a train out of town. Meanwhile, Jared Monroe plans to dash his father’s designs for him to earn a doctorate of divinity from Yale and rejoin the family farming business. But his father and brothers all rebuff his return dismissively—one of the brothers beats him to the precipice of death. Jared, too, hops a westward train to start fresh with his loving dog, Brutus. And Alex Stromberg is the son of a successful San Francisco merchant, Mordecai, who constantly squashes the young man’s entrepreneurial dreams. Alex kills a man in a bar fight and is forced to flee San Francisco in order to elude a plot to exact revenge upon him. All three end up in Skagway, Alaska, their lives financially and emotionally intertwined. Kaplan cleverly collapses the three parallel stories into one coherent narrative, at first by sheer happenstance and then by shared existential purpose. His prose is simple and largely unadorned by literary embellishment, but that straightforwardness is the chief source of its resonance. For example, an old man succinctly captures Jared’s despair at the world’s nihilistic inhumanity: “Ain’t no right or wrong...You get away with what you can get away with. That’s the law of the Yukon.” The drama is briskly paced, with no deficit of spectacular violence and suspense. But the author’s true gift is for vividly revealing the way sparks of goodness strain to light an otherwise morally dark landscape. The combination of avarice and desolation is harrowingly depicted. Furthermore, the author’s historical research is impeccable. His meticulous descriptions of otherwise minor details—the geography, the supplies needed for a gold expedition, the currency of exchange—color the work with an aura of authenticity. The United States more than a century ago is nearly unrecognizable to contemporary eyes, still so unexplored and ungoverned by stable laws. Kaplan expertly portrays this strange cosmos, so foreign and yet so unmistakably American. The torrid action alone turns this into a worthwhile read, but the historical accuracy makes the book worthy of an unabashed recommendation.

A gripping and historically rigorous account of a harsh America.

Pub Date: May 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5320-1479-6

Page Count: 413

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2018

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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.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

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...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

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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