A blend of a Dickensian epic and Downton Abbey, with the author arriving at a conclusion that could allow sequels.


Tolkien (Orders from Berlin, 2012, etc.) draws from the World War I–era experiences of his famous grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien to spin a saga worthy of Masterpiece Theater.

When Adam Raine’s mother is accidentally killed during a violent strike in London, his father, a builder and labor activist, moves them both north to Scarsdale, a small coal-mining town, where his cousin got him a job working for the union. The early part of the book takes place in pre–WWI Scarsdale and presents a nuanced portrait of stolid Edwardian England, its class divisions, economic inequalities, and withering aristocracy. Workingmen suffered—"the mine was cruel and the mine was king"—with life belowground chillingly claustrophobic and always dangerous. Adam’s father is killed saving the life of the mine owner, Sir John Scarsdale, during a riot. Grateful, Sir John, sometimes trapped by an aristocracy that restrains his better instincts, becomes Adam’s patron, bringing him to live in the Scarsdale family home and directing his education. The calculating Lady Scarsdale fears Adam will usurp the place of her younger son, Brice. Adam and the devious Brice become rivals for the love of Miriam, the local parson’s daughter, allowing Tolkien further exploration of social mores, but it’s a thoroughly old-fashioned, chaste romance. As Adam and his contemporaries are drawn into the war and shipped off to France, Tolkien displays much empathy for the working class, most vividly rendered in Adam’s friendship with the miners’ sons on the front lines. Characters become the faces of stoic courage or bitter cynicism as an old society is fractured by mechanized murder. Told chronologically through a narrative that marches rather than soars, the story’s second half relates England’s initial jingoistic war fervor, every able-bodied man pressured to join the cause, but then confronts the ugliness a generation decimated by machine guns, massed artillery, and incompetent generals faced returning home to a jaundiced society. The carnage in the trenches of the Somme is depicted by corpses stacked to serve as defensive emplacements and young lives capriciously snuffed out by the snap of a sniper’s bullet.

A blend of a Dickensian epic and Downton Abbey, with the author arriving at a conclusion that could allow sequels.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-54197-8

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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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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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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A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.


Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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