A historical novel richly detailed enough that it manages to be engrossing even though its hero is frequently just an...

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FROM AFRICANUS

A YOUNG MAN'S QUEST TO SAVE THE LAST ROMAN

From the Legend of Africanus series

Storm’s dazzlingly researched evocation of the Constantinople of Justinian and Theodora, the first in a proposed series, struggles to find a dramatically satisfying role for its young hero.

In 514 CE, a few years before the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, Valentinian Scipio Constans is born in the sleepy Greek fishing village of Volerus. His father is a humble rope maker, and his mother has died while giving birth. Nonetheless, it seems Valentinian has been marked for greatness, and his father enlists tutors to teach the boy everything from soldiering to philosophy. Valentinian is secretly descended from a noble Roman lineage. Centuries before, Scipio Africanus (foe of Hannibal and subjugator of Carthage) fathered an illegitimate child who was Valentinian's ancestor on his mother’s side. After telling his son of his heritage, Valentinian's father sends him to make a name for himself in Constantinople. Luckily, his tutor Leo is a friend of General Belisarius’ soon-to-be sister-in-law, a connection that quickly places Valentinian in the company of the illustrious. During this middle portion of the novel, Constantinople is described, and its history relayed, through characters’ conversations and storytelling, and the narrative momentum noticeably slackens. When the Nika riots break out during Belisarius’ wedding dinner, the story finds its pacing again as Valentinian plays a role in helping the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church escape an angry mob. Storm relates a thorough history of these riots, which nearly brought Justinian’s reign to a premature end, complete with the maneuverings of the Senate and the Imperial court. Storm uses muscular prose to pack these passages with his digested research, and they are both immediate and instructive. From a dramatic standpoint, however, the main character has little more than a peripheral role in the key events, leading to an abundance of scenes that are interesting without being exciting. Promisingly for future volumes, by novels’ end Valentinian is well placed to be on the frontlines of Justinian and Belisarius’ campaigns to reconquer the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire.

A historical novel richly detailed enough that it manages to be engrossing even though its hero is frequently just an observer of events.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-1466479821

Page Count: 262

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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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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