An often moving story about the corrosive power of shame.



In Abbott’s (Pearl of Baxter Grove, 2009, etc.) novel set in the 1950s, a 16-year-old girl discovers a diary and becomes obsessed with deciphering a cryptic entry within it.

Emma Lankersham grew up on the Murphy Manor in Oklahoma, as her father, Jack, was the property’s foreman, employed by Geraldine Murphy, the estate’s owner. Emma stumbles upon a diary in the loft of a barn, and in it, she discovers an enigmatic lament about a motherless infant. Emma has no idea to whom the diary belongs or to whom the entry refers, but she’s intent on finding out. Later, she discovers another clue—a cookie cutter with a tag that has the name “Gwendolyn” inscribed on it. She has no recollection of anyone ever mentioning that name in the house, and everyone whom she asks about it stonewalls her. The reader quickly learns that Geraldine’s husband, J.T., a wildly successful businessman, was also a horrid man and philanderer, and that their union was a fraught and loveless one. Meanwhile, Emma falls in love with Hank Thompson, Geraldine’s grandson, but Geraldine forbids any relationship between them due to the insuperability of their class divide and the embarrassment of having to explain Emma’s congenital disfigurement, affecting two toes on her left foot. Geraldine treats her staff, some of whom are descendants of slaves, with savage disregard—a despotism caused in part by her own suffering and the weight of the secrets she bears. Macie Mae, a servant who grew up on the estate and Emma’s best friend, bears Geraldine’s venom with equanimity, although she knows more about Murphy Manor’s past than she’s willing to share. The author intelligently captures the precarious position of African-American laborers in the mid-20th century, who were legally free but limited by white people’s prejudices and their own poverty. The writing is clear and sometimes powerful, and the characters, particularly Macie Mae, are deeply developed. Abbott also deftly depicts the social significance of reputation, which could be of extraordinary utility to women of the time but could also be used as a weapon against them. The author tells the story from an omniscient, third-person perspective, and reveals early on that the house is haunted by two scandalous secrets, both of which Geraldine zealously protects. However, these two secrets soon become a source of tedium, due to seemingly incessant references to them; the power of the mystery is only diminished by the relentless discussion of it. Further, the transformation of Geraldine’s character, late in the novel, happens too fast and too completely to be plausible. Hank, meanwhile, is depicted as weak and entitled, which makes it difficult to understand why Emma falls for him. Still, despite these flaws, this remains an emotionally affecting tale overall. Emma is a beautifully drawn character, humbled by her disability but not without pride. She hunts for the truth, regardless of the consequences—some of which prove to be a heavy weight on her shoulders. 

An often moving story about the corrosive power of shame.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5470-4945-5

Page Count: 350

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2017

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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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