Semel’s imagined history might have been more convincing if her smaller details had held together: her characters, for one,...

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ISRA ISLE

What if the world’s Jews had resettled in North America instead of in the Middle East?

Simon T. Lenox is an American police investigator reluctantly pursuing Liam Emanuel, a man gone missing. Emanuel, an Israeli, arrived only recently in the United States. He arrived and then disappeared. Lenox traces him to Niagara Falls, where it seems Emanuel has an inheritance waiting for him. It turns out that in 1825, an American Jew purchased an island, downriver from the falls, intending it to be a homeland for Jews from all over the world. Semel (And the Rat Laughed, 2008, etc.) has rooted her most recent work of fiction in what is apparently historical fact. A man named Mordecai Noah really bought Grand Island with the grand intentions that, as we know, came to nothing. The first portion of Semel’s novel, set in September 2001, concerns Lenox’s search for Emanuel, a descendant of Noah’s. The second part goes backward in time to see Noah buy the land in question from the Native Americans currently settled there. The last part imagines an alternate world in which Grand Island became a real refuge for Jews. It is called “Isra Isle,” and it has effectively replaced a certain nation with a similar-sounding name. This is an odd—a deeply odd—piece of fiction, and it is even odder in Semel’s telling. That’s partly because she packs in so much that is tangential to the story: 9/11, for one, but also the fact that Lenox, the investigator, is of Native American descent—and not only that, he experiences visions. It’s hard not to see this as cultural stereotyping, especially since Lenox, like Semel’s other characters, is otherwise as flat as a piece of cardboard.

Semel’s imagined history might have been more convincing if her smaller details had held together: her characters, for one, and their motivations, manners of speaking, and so on—but they don’t.

Pub Date: Oct. 25, 2016

ISBN: 9781942134190

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Mandel Vilar Press

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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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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