This drama of nuclear dawn fails to launch.


A story of wartime romance amid the moral quandaries of the Manhattan Project.

Kiernan is known for tackling big topics—the depredations of war (The Baker’s Secret, 2017, etc.) and scientific overreach (The Curiosity, 2013)—and this novel attempts to follow suit. When Brenda Dubie, a talented, conservatory-bound organist, meets Charlie Fish, she’s not impressed by the gangling math whiz despite his Harvard degree. Their accounts of what ensues alternate: hers in first person, at times looking back from the vantage point of an old woman, and his, in third person. Charlie is working on top-secret wartime projects at the University of Chicago, but his superiors are also not impressed by him—he's banished to a basement, where he, and we, learns far more than we’d ever hoped to about the niceties of soldering electrical circuits. Egged on by a mother who regrets her own shrewish behavior now that her husband and son are off to war, Brenda cautiously embarks on a courtship with Charlie. But as Brenda strives to suppress her spunkiness in order to support a vision of masculinity that doesn't even appear to be Charlie’s priority, Charlie is sent to New Mexico. Turns out all that soldering instilled just the detonation know-how required for the nascent A-bomb, aka The Gadget. Charlie, kind and humane, hates the idea of being, in effect, the Trigger (his nickname) for civilization’s potential destruction. His internal conflict is far more interesting than the romance. Brenda’s retrospective musings reveal a long marriage to Charlie. Kiernan overcompensates for that loss of suspense, interposing obstacles in the path of true love—a half-hearted detour with a handsome airman on Brenda’s part—but they’re mostly snits and misunderstandings that aren’t believably characteristic of either protagonist. Kiernan’s view of American women’s roles in World War II seems outdated even for that time. Contemporaneous accounts of the homefront belie his apparent supposition that all women did was pine for manly, battle-hardened men.

This drama of nuclear dawn fails to launch.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-287844-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.


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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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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