Behrens is an effective storyteller, but his idiosyncratic vision is not yet fully formed.

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THE O'BRIENS

Spanning 60 years, this chronicle of an Irish-Canadian family is the second novel from the Canadian Behrens (The Law of Dreams, 2006). 

It’s 1900, and the five O’Brien siblings are struggling to survive in barren rural Quebec. Their father has died fighting overseas; their sickly mother has married again, a wastrel. Everything depends on 13-year-old Joe, the oldest. When he learns their stepfather has been molesting his two sisters, he passes an early manhood test by stomping him half to death, then becomes a breadwinner (small logging jobs). At 17, his mother dies, and, needing room to grow, he heads West with brother Grattan, having parked the three youngest with nuns and Jesuits. Waiting for him there, though she doesn’t know it yet, is lovely Iseult, another refugee from the East, another orphan. She has bought herself a bungalow in Venice, Calif.; Grattan was the realtor. By now Joe is 25 and building a railroad in the Canadian Rockies. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry, the perfect couple, tempered by hardship yet ready for more risk. So far, so good; there are glimpses of the elemental in human nature. But then Behrens stops digging, becoming an observer of a marriage with the usual personal and historical markers. Babies: they lose one, keep three. Business booms, more construction projects after the railroad. Returning East, to Montreal. World War I. Grattan, a fighter pilot and decorated hero. Prohibition. Grattan bootlegging. Marital crisis; Iseult bolts. Reconciliation. World War II. Letters from the front. A son dies; a son-in-law survives. The jerky forward motion begs some profound questions, left unanswered.

Behrens is an effective storyteller, but his idiosyncratic vision is not yet fully formed.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-37993-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 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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