A clunky debut lacking suspense.

THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS

The final months of Ceaucescu’s dictatorship in Romania, as seen by a young British expat.

He’s a 21-year-old college dropout, yet he’s hired without an interview to lecture at Bucharest University, a first taste of how things work over there. The unnamed narrator is not sorry to be leaving. It’s 1989; cancer has just claimed his father, a hard-hearted man who mercilessly abused his mother, also dead. Waiting for him in a pleasant Bucharest apartment is another Brit, Leo, a faculty veteran who will be his mentor. Leo is “Bucharest’s biggest black-marketeer”; he needs a malleable front man, which explains why his young compatriot was hired. He’s an outsize character, not just a crook but a preservationist, cataloguing what’s left of the elegant inner-city neighborhoods before they disappear under the dictator’s bulldozers. Leo is man of contradictions, but not a convincing one, and a symbol of what’s wrong with the novel: its ruinous excess. McGuinness’ Romania is the standard picture of life under Ceaucescu: a sad, bleak place of fear (of the ubiquitous security goons) and deprivation (of life’s necessities). Instead of grounding Leo and his new sidekick (we never see them in the classroom), McGuinness spirits them into the heart of the dying regime’s power struggles. After a chance street encounter, the kid helps a wily old Party stalwart with his memoirs, while dating the coolest girl in town, who just happens to be the daughter of the deputy Interior Minister. There are wheels within wheels; nobody is who they seem. There’s a clandestine trip to the Yugoslavia border to help some dissidents escape, but it’s a moment without drama for the two lecturers, and it’s long after the fact that the now absent masterminds will be revealed as puppets of Party bosses. At the end, it’s not only the regime that falls apart, as the narrator dithers over whether to stay and confront his rumored nemesis. 

A clunky debut lacking suspense. 

Pub Date: May 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-60819-912-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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