Deftly moves through a complex web of personal relationships, religious zeal and political fervor.

BY FIRE, BY WATER

Debut novelist Kaplan depicts a turbulent period in 15th-century Spain, focusing on the story of Aragon’s royal chancellor.

Luis de Santángel’s grandfather was a converso, one of the many Jews forced to convert to Christianity. The chancellor retains an interest in his Jewish heritage, a dangerous prospect given the “New Inquisition” that has recently come to Spain. While Luis is influential and has the ear of King Fernando, he feels threatened by Chief Inquisitor Pedro de Arbués, charged with ferreting out apostates and all those who may have fallen from the true faith. Luis colludes in Pedro’s assassination, but faces more danger when Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada arrives to track down the conspirators. Torquemada captures Luis’s brother Estefan, and we learn in grisly detail how the Inquisition extracted “confessions of faith” from those who legitimately felt they had nothing to confess. Religious issues become even more complicated when the forces of Fernando and Ysabel push south into Granada to expel the Moors, an act prompted partly by religious fervor, partly by political expediency. When Ysabel finds out about a spurious anti-Christian manuscript entitled Toledoth Yeshu, she is led to an act of intolerance—the expulsion of all Jews from the kingdom—that rivals the cross-examinations and tortures of the Inquisition. Meanwhile, Cristóbal Colón, desperately trying to get funding for his voyage of discovery, needs to persuade those in power that going west is indeed a viable route to the Indies. Luis becomes Colón’s influential advocate at court, even putting up some of his own considerable fortune to fund the expedition. The chancellor’s political life becomes intertwined with his personal life when Luis falls in love with Judith, a beautiful Jew and talented silversmith.

Deftly moves through a complex web of personal relationships, religious zeal and political fervor.

Pub Date: May 18, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59051-352-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2010

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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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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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