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LANDFALLS

Literary art of the first order, intelligent and evocative in the way of the best of historical fiction.

Williams makes an entertainingly erudite debut with a prismatic reimagining of the doomed French attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the 1780s.

With their "scientific mission paramount, no reasonable expense to be spared," captains Jean-Francois de Galaup de Lapérouse and Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle, set sail in 1785 aboard the Boussole and the Astrolabe. As the "savants" onboard—geologists, physicists, botanists—prepare to study the exotic, Williams’ narrative focuses on the human. Especially poignant is her illustration of how native cultures are poorly interpreted by European explorers celebrating the virtues of Enlightenment. From overweening functionaries and pretentious colonialists, captains and savants are soon forced to decipher personalities and politics. First at Concepción in Chile, where Governor General Ambrosio O’Higgins seeks peace with the Arauca; then Alaska, where they're perceived as "Snow Men…in winged war canoes" by bemused Alaska Natives; next Monterey in Alta, California, that visit rendered from the points of view of the governor’s wife, mission priests, and others; next Macao, opium and disobedience; followed by Petropavlovsk in far eastern Russia. There, translator Barthélemy de Lesseps leaves to carry expedition reports to Paris across frozen Siberia by way of St. Petersburg. Finally, in the Navigator Islands, the captains face massacre and then shipwreck. Page upon page reveal characters like the scientist Lamanon, "a genius, he has no time for manners," unmourned after being killed by rock-pelting South Sea islanders; and the conscientious Capt. Lapérouse, whose cabin is decorated with busts of Rousseau and Capt. Cook. Amid the seesawing boredom and terror of days at sea, William crafts an elegant and entrancing narrative to match her dissection of the landfalls. A moving epilogue concludes the narrative with de Lesseps identifying wreckage discovered on Vanikoro, knowing that "the globe we had tried so hard to complete [had swallowed] us whole."

Literary art of the first order, intelligent and evocative in the way of the best of historical fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-18315-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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