There’s a decent novel somewhere in here, but it’s obscured and trivialized by sentimental religiosity.

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THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

An enigmatic parable is grafted onto an impressively detailed retelling of the ordeals endured by William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, in a London-based Civil War buff’s unusual first novel.

The year is 1862, and Sherman’s division is poised to fight the bloody Battle of Shiloh when the gruff Union general encounters a young boy hiding in the woods, who answers to the name Jesse Davis, and rather portentously declares, “I came to serve you.” Jesse immediately becomes a godsend to Sherman’s exhausted troops, mastering nursing skills, writing letters for the men and reading to them, comforting the wounded and dying, speaking in “a voice that was neither feminine nor masculine but something in between, which could lift the lowest of spirits and transport the most downhearted, to a place of optimism and light.” Who and what Jesse really is may surprise the surgeons and officers who discover the ministering angel’s secret, but it won’t surprise many readers. Nevertheless, whenever Gylanders concentrates on military actions and behind-the-lines daily routines—whether tracking the vacillations of Sherman’s formidable intellect and fiery temper, detailing strategies planned and shared with U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac or charting the southward course that will lead Sherman toward Atlanta and near-Armageddon—the narrative becomes both absorbing and thoroughly convincing. It’s Gylanders’s bad luck that this novel will inevitably be compared with E.L. Doctorow’s very recent (and much superior) The March. But bad luck can’t be blamed for the numbingly banal iterations of both historical facts and genre clichés (e.g., “Whoring and boozing had been as much a part of the soldier’s life as marching and fighting since Roman times”). And the flagrantly symbolic figure of Jesse is much more a distraction than a crucial story element.

There’s a decent novel somewhere in here, but it’s obscured and trivialized by sentimental religiosity.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-6514-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2006

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT

A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 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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