This book is good news for Hijuelos fans, but considering its flaws, it's tantalizing to think of what it would have been...

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TWAIN & STANLEY ENTER PARADISE

Posthumous publication of an ambitious, atypical historical novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.

When Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1989, etc.) died of a heart attack in the fall of 2013, he had been working for more than a dozen years on this 19th-century epic concerning the unlikely but close friendship of two of the most famous men in America. They had met working on a riverboat, a couple of aspiring writers, well before one would travel to Africa in search of Dr. Livingstone and the other would become a beloved humorist under the pen name of Mark Twain. Since Hijuelos has long been known for voluptuary narratives of Cuba and Cuban America, filled with song and sex, the Victorian primness of the various tones he employs here stands in stark contrast (though a trip to Cuba proves pivotal). The novel encompasses long stretches of unpublished manuscripts purportedly written by Stanley and his wife, as well as extended correspondence between each of them and Twain. Stanley had been an orphan taken under the wing of a benefactor (whose surname the young man took), and there’s a sense throughout that the way Stanley portrays his life is not the way it actually transpired. With Stanley’s health and that of Twain’s wife in parallel decline, there’s a hint of romantic triangle, what Dorothy Stanley calls “some kind of autumnal infatuation,” though history left that attraction unrequited, as she remarried shortly after her husband’s death. The meditations on time and death in the book’s last third are particularly poignant given the author’s own untimely passing, but the whole of the novel is unwieldy, with awkward dialogue (“I am wondering what you can tell me about yourself”) and juxtapositions (a section titled “Clemens in That Time” follows Lady Stanley’s extended account of her husband’s death). An Afterword by Hijuelos' widow explains that he was working on the novel up to his death, having written “thousands of pages that he attempted to winnow down to publishable size, even as he continued to expand upon the story.”

This book is good news for Hijuelos fans, but considering its flaws, it's tantalizing to think of what it would have been like if the author had managed to finish it himself.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4555-6149-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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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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