Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé.

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I'LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE

A thematically ambitious debut novel that draws from the writer’s experience yet isn’t simply a memoir in the guise of fiction.

Since “write what you know” is the axiom of most fledgling authors, it’s no surprise that the first novel by the acclaimed singer-songwriter who previously published a collection of short stories (Doghouse Roses, 2001) should be steeped in the cultures of San Antonio (his hometown), country music (his early musical focus) and drug addiction (which almost killed him). Yet this richly imagined novel not only takes its title from a Hank Williams classic, it audaciously employs Hank’s ghost as a combination of morphine demon and guardian angel, whose presence initially can only be witnessed by Doc, the novelist’s protagonist. Ten years earlier, Doc was Hank’s companion and fishing buddy, one of the last to see the country singer alive, and perhaps the cause of his death. By the time of this novel, set in 1963, Doc has lost his license, his home and any reason to live beyond his daily fix. He supports himself by performing cheap abortions, which is how he meets the teenage Mexican immigrant who will prove a miracle worker not only in Doc’s life but throughout the story. Graciela (who refuses to be called “Grace,” though that’s what she embodies) stays with Doc after he performs her abortion, helping assist him in a procedure that her religion considers a mortal sin, and somehow develops a miraculous healing power that not only helps Doc kick his addiction but provides salvation to so many of the San Antonio neighborhood’s other hookers and junkies. “There was something that was at once humbling and empowering about her very presence in his life,” Earle writes. With a plot that encompasses the Kennedy assassination along with the life and death of Hank Williams, and which draws a thematic line between spirituality and the religion which purports to embody it, the novel occasionally stumbles in its ambition but builds to a transcendent climax.

Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé.

Pub Date: May 12, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-618-82096-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2011

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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