A philosophically searching but overly moralistic tale.

PILGRIMAGE

In this fourth installment of a fictional series based on a true story, a teenage Egyptian experiencing a crisis of faith undertakes a meditative pilgrimage. 

In 2015, nearly two dozen Coptic Christians were taken hostage by the Islamic State group in Egypt and summarily executed. There was only one survivor, Mekhaeil Zacharias, a 16-year-old whose life was spared in order to become a living testament to the band’s unmerciful intent. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mekhaeil’s life continued to be a tumultuous one—he traveled to India, was hunted by IS assassins, became an international celebrity, and finally landed in New York City. In this volume, he now experiences profound spiritual confusion about who he is—removed from his native land, he’s unsure if he’s still a Coptic Christian or any kind of Christian at all. Father Bishoy, a kind of mentor to Mekhaeil, encourages him to replicate the pilgrimage once taken by St. James, El Camino de Santiago, which begins in France and concludes in northwestern Spain. During his journey, Mekhaeil meets and converses with many travelers and receives a series of lessons about the history of various world faiths, a litany that begins to feel like a textbook course on comparative religion. At one point, he tells a journalist: “I have learned about the Muslims and the Jews, the Buddhists and the Hindus, the Methodists and other Christian denominations, but I’m just not sure I believe everything I have been taught by my parents and the Coptic priests.” Kelley (Hiding in America, 2018, etc.) has based his series on the IS beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015; there were no survivors. In this installment, the author thoughtfully details Mekhaeil’s philosophical odyssey and his prayerful shift from thinking about God to addressing his concerns to him. While the narration in these pages frequently references the book’s predecessors, it’s understandable on its own. The author writes in lucid and affecting prose and powerfully limns Mekhaeil’s “beaten soul,” the consequence of his theological doubts as well as his survivor’s guilt. But Kelley tries too hard—laboriously and earnestly—to impart a lesson, which makes the novel feel didactic. For example, preceding the story are two introductory notes in which Kelley feels compelled to explain the work’s meaning in advance. 

A philosophically searching but overly moralistic tale.

Pub Date: June 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5320-5357-3

Page Count: 332

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Nov. 7, 2018

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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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An interesting premise imperfectly executed.

THE ORPHAN'S TALE

A Jewish trapeze artist and a Dutch unwed mother bond, after much aerial practice, as the circus comes to Nazi-occupied France.

Ingrid grew up in a Jewish circus family in Darmstadt, Germany. In 1934, she marries Erich, a German officer, and settles in Berlin. In 1942, as the war and Holocaust escalate, Erich is forced to divorce Ingrid. She returns to Darmstadt to find that her family has disappeared. A rival German circus clan, led by its patriarch, Herr Neuhoff, takes her in, giving her a stage name, Astrid, and forged Aryan papers. As she rehearses for the circus’ coming French tour, she once again experiences the freedom of an accomplished aerialist, even as her age, late 20s, catches up with her. The point of view shifts (and will alternate throughout) to Noa, a Dutch teenager thrown out by her formerly loving father when she gets pregnant by a German soldier. After leaving the German unwed mothers’ home where her infant has been taken away, either for the Reich’s Lebensborn adoption program or a worse fate, Noa finds work sweeping a train station. When she comes upon a boxcar full of dead or dying infants, she impulsively grabs one who resembles her own child, later naming him Theo. By chance, Noa and Theo are also rescued by Neuhoff, who offers her refuge in the circus, provided she can learn the trapeze. The tour begins with a stop in Thiers, France. Astrid is still leery of her new apprentice, but Noa catches on quickly and soon must replace Astrid in the act due to the risk that a Nazi spectator might recognize her. Noa falls in love with the mayor’s son, Luc, who Astrid suspects is a collaborator. Astrid’s Russian lover, Peter, a clown, tempts fate with a goose-stepping satire routine, and soon the circus will afford little protection to anybody. The diction seems too contemporary for the period, and the degree of danger the characters are in is more often summarized than demonstrated.

An interesting premise imperfectly executed.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1981-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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