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 The novel encompasses long stretches of unpublished manuscripts purportedly written by Stanley and his wife, as well as extended correspondence between each of them and Twain.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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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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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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