Not great literature, but great fun.

THE JAMES BOYS

A NOVEL ACCOUNT OF FOUR DESPERATE BROTHERS

A debut novel that imagines that two sets of real-life James brothers, novelist Henry and psychologist William, and desperadoes Frank and Jesse, are related.

Liebmann-Smith (co-creator of the animated TV show The Tick) sets the book mainly in 1876. While Henry James, crossing Missouri after a western lecture tour, is talking to vivacious Elena Hite, their train is ambushed by the James Gang. In the melee, Henry and his younger brother Jesse recognize each other. Henry goes as a quasi-hostage to the gang’s farm redoubt. By summer’s end, he’s dragged into their schemes and plays a minor role in the infamous botched robbery at Northfield, Minn. Meanwhile, Elena, a feminist, devout sensualist and estranged daughter of a railroad magnate, gets entangled in the James boys’ lives. She comes to the farm, where she masquerades as Henry’s wife and embarks on a torrid affair with Jesse. Then she becomes William’s patient, endangering the infatuated scientist’s engagement; he sends her to Paris with sister Alice. If this sounds ridiculous, it is—but charmingly so. The story sometimes gets swamped by bookish apparatus, and one may long for more concentrated attention on the brothers, rather than constant quotations of reference material and celebrity-spotting (at one point in Paris, the detective William Pinkerton, trying to arrest Henry, is pummeled into humiliation by a group of writers including Turgenev, Zola and others—this happens at the salon of Flaubert, with whom well-traveled Elena is having a fling). Yet Liebmann-Smith mostly makes it work, thanks to a playful style and a lively humor. His command of the source material is impressive, and his ingenious plot manipulations illuminate some of the mysteries and gaps in the biographies of William and Henry James.

Not great literature, but great fun.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-345-47078-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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TRUE BETRAYALS

Thoroughbreds and Virginia blue-bloods cavort, commit murder, and fall in love in Roberts's (Hidden Riches, 1994, etc.) latest romantic thriller — this one set in the world of championship horse racing. Rich, sheltered Kelsey Byden is recovering from a recent divorce when she receives a letter from her mother, Naomi, a woman she has believed dead for over 20 years. When Kelsey confronts her genteel English professor father, though, he sheepishly confesses that, no, her mother isn't dead; throughout Kelsey's childhood, she was doing time for the murder of her lover. Kelsey meets with Naomi and not only finds her quite charming, but the owner of Three Willows, one of the most splendid horse farms in Virginia. Kelsey is further intrigued when she meets Gabe Slater, a blue-eyed gambling man who owns a neighboring horse farm; when one of Gabe's horses is mated with Naomi's, nostrils flare, flanks quiver, and the romance is on. Since both Naomi and Gabe have horses entered in the Kentucky Derby, Kelsey is soon swept into the whirlwind of the Triple Crown, in spite of her family's objections to her reconciliation with the notorious Naomi. The rivalry between the two horse farms remains friendly, but other competitors — one of them is Gabe's father, a vicious alcoholic who resents his son's success — prove less scrupulous. Bodies, horse and human, start piling up, just as Kelsey decides to investigate the murky details of her mother's crime. Is it possible she was framed? The ground is thick with no-goods, including haughty patricians, disgruntled grooms, and jockeys with tragic pasts, but despite all the distractions, the identity of the true culprit behind the mayhem — past and present — remains fairly obvious. The plot lopes rather than races to the finish. Gambling metaphors abound, and sexual doings have a distinctly equine tone. But Roberts's style has a fresh, contemporary snap that gets the story past its own worst excesses.

Pub Date: June 13, 1995

ISBN: 0-399-14059-X

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1995

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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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