AMBROSE BIERCE AND THE QUEEN OF SPADES

The veteran author of such high-spirited realistic romances as The Bad Lands (1978), among others, moves in on Caleb Carr’s territory with this colorful historical picaresque. Hall’s agreeable hero (and narrator) is 20ish Tom Redmond, an “apprentice journalist” working (in the early 1800s) for a San Francisco “satirical weekly” (The Hornet) who’s the wary protÇgÇ of celebrated writer and misanthrope Ambrose Bierce. Tom’s education moves into overdrive when Bierce’s interest is piqued by a series of vicious murders of women, whose bodies are left decorated by playing cards (all spades). The cub reporter’s tentative research leads to the discovery of a complex stock fraud that points—despite Bierce’s antimonopolistic suspicions (he believes the Southern Pacific Railroad guilty of everything)—to a mysterious cooperative: “the Society of Spades in Virginia City [Nevada], which was convened in order to purchase the Jack of Spades Mine.” But that’s only the beginning, in a beautifully paced thriller that also involves senatorial duplicity, a high-profile divorce, a bizarre case of concealed parentage that must have Wilkie Collins spinning in his grave with envy, and such deliciously devious supporting characters as procuress (and reported black magician) Mammy Pleasant, suspicious Chief of Detectives Isaiah Pusey, and “Highgrade Carrie” Stearns, “the Miners’ Angel” (in more than one sense). Tom weathers all the storms more than manfully—even if it seems he’ll never win the plucky Amelia Brittain. And Hall has the admirable good sense to surrender generous swatches of the narrative to “Bitter Bierce,” who declares himself “the sworn enemy of piffle,” not to mention Southern Pacific, organized religion, “femininnies,— and mogul —úeland $tanford,— among numerous others. And how can you dislike a curmudgeon capable of such invective as “This murderer’s adiposity is casting a shadow on my eggs that I fear will turn them rancid—? Superlative entertainment. Has Oakley Hall really been this good all along, and if so why isn’t his fiction better known?

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-520-21555-9

Page Count: 321

Publisher: Univ. of California

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1998

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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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