The appeal of Semsch’s novel is evident at the end when, knowing great changes lie ahead for the nation and its soldiers,...

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THE SOUND OF CAISSONS

This multigenerational epic follows heroine Julia Crockett’s journey from tomboy Army brat to military wife and beyond, from the Great Depression through Vietnam.

Historical novelist Semsch (The Lees of Menokin, 2009, etc.) allows her main character to be unlikable, manipulative, overly ambitious and irresistible in the mold of Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. “I want to be a general’s wife,” oft-abrasive Julia commands her colonel husband. Fortunately, Semsch’s deft depiction of the preteen who dreams of being a soldier nearly 50 years before women are allowed to do so provides enough context to Julia’s harsh manner and choices that the reader can’t help but wait and hope for her aha moment. But while the novel’s leading lady is compelling, she is inconsistent. Julia’s Catholicism becomes a stumbling block to true love, though Semsch hasn’t established the Church’s influence prior to wielding it as a plot device. The novel’s rawest, most memorable moments involve men at war. A soldier on reconnaissance in Korea deduces the nearby enemy is Chinese because he smells garlic cooking. Another allows himself to be lured into an ambush to put a wounded horse out of its misery. Julia’s gentle brother watches a young Vietnamese boy run away and thinks “what a sad thing that a child should fear him because he was an American.” Seconds later, he is blown to bits by a grenade the boy has left at his feet. These spare, searing scenes are perfectly executed, as is Semsch’s depiction of the luxe life of officers and wives in Tehran during the early days of the Shah. The dialogue is occasionally melodramatic and characters too self-aware, as when Julia confides, “I don’t want the familiar, the things I know and trust to end.” But such lapses are outweighed by the story’s forward motion and the rare glimpse into the life and “noble calling” of the career military.

The appeal of Semsch’s novel is evident at the end when, knowing great changes lie ahead for the nation and its soldiers, the reader can’t help wondering how Julia Crockett will confront them.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1463510749

Page Count: 569

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 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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