BY THE HANDS OF MEN

BOOK ONE: THE OLD WORLD

In the midst of World War I, a relationship develops between an English lieutenant and a young Russian nurse—a surprising tenderness against the backdrop of war.

With elements reminiscent of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Griffis’ (The Big Bang: Volume One of The Lonesome George Chronicles, 2008) first book of a two-part series, subtitled “The Old World,” features English lieutenant Robert meeting 18-year-old Russian nurse Charlotte Braninov as she tends to a severely wounded soldier at a Casualty Clearing Station during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. While she considers Robert chivalrous from the outset, she initially tries to ignore any thoughts of romance, given their setting; she knows her focus must be on tending to the injured soldiers. But when their paths cross again shortly after at the base hospital where they are both stationed to work, several seemingly small incidents reveal Robert’s true character to Charlotte, and a romance develops. Their courtship is not without challenges, though; the hospital is under constant threat of attack, and Robert’s career has all but stalled. His assignment at the hospital is a form of punishment for an incident on the battlefield. Griffis provides rich detail about the action, both in war scenes and in the calmer interactions between Robert and Charlotte, but the reader must often piece together the story, as at times the nonlinear storytelling is disorienting with each of the five parts of the book taking place in a different location and often in different timeframes. It isn’t always clear at the outset whether the scene is set in present day or in previous weeks or even years. Yet, the level of detail helps to overcome this difficulty. While the focus is heavily plot-oriented rather than deep explorations of the characters, the reader gets a glimpse into the characters’ beliefs and values in the way they interact with each other and in how they carry out their official duties. Still, the reader is left wanting to know more about the characters and, as a result, the story feels incomplete. Readers must wait until Book Two to complete the picture, but with likable characters, spending more time in the Old World is an appealing prospect.

 

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 2011

ISBN: 978-1466398047

Page Count: 262

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 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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