Intriguing historical fiction; a laudable interpretation of colonial life.

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BENJAMIN FRANKLIN'S BASTARD

Cabot debuts by bringing to life Ben Franklin’s wife, lover and illegitimate son.

History doesn’t identify William Franklin’s mother, but Cabot imagines a strong, courageous and intelligent woman named Anne, a refugee from ragtag Eades Alley in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia. Anne works at Penny Pot Tavern, there meeting the charming, young Ben Franklin, up-and-coming citizen and publisher of the Philadelphia Gazette. Young Ben beds Deborah Read, a tradesman’s daughter, but is denied permission to marry. He travels to England. "I am unlikely to return to Philadelphia anytime soon," Ben writes, and so Deborah marries a scoundrel and leaves him. Ben returns, prospers and charms Penny Pot’s Anne. That he offers her money for her desperate family seems irrelevant. Anne’s soon pregnant, but Ben reconnects with Deborah, taking her as a common-law wife. Realizing her sexuality offers money, and power, Anne entertains other men. Ben learns of William’s birth and persuades Anne to give him up, although unbeknownst to Deborah, Anne later maneuvers Ben to become William’s nanny for a short period, an affair ending badly. Lifelong tension burns between Deborah and William, exacerbated when Francis, Ben and Deborah’s son, dies of smallpox. Cabot defines colonial Philadelphia believably, captivating with her perception of Franklin as charming, intellectual and driven. This early narrative enthralls, but it makes an abrupt switch in focus as William reaches adulthood. Ben travels to England as colonial emissary. Deborah refuses to go along, but William agrees. Ben, "monogamous but not celibate," invites Anne, but she balks. The Franklins return, with William appointed New Jersey’s royal governor. The narrative then follows the father–son conflict over William’s loyalty to the king and Ben’s support of revolution, with Anne’s story fading into the background. Cabot shines in her descriptions of colonial life, in her fictionalized rendition of Ben Franklin’s charismatic personality and wide-ranging intellect, but especially in interpreting Franklin the man through Anne, a fully-realized, memorable character. It is Anne who brings imagined reality’s magic to the narrative.

Intriguing historical fiction; a laudable interpretation of colonial life.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-224192-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 25, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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