Like McCarthy's Border Trilogy or Frazier's Cold Mountain, this is American literature at its best, full of art and beauty...

FALLEN LAND

Drawing from the shadows of America's epic tragedy, the Civil War, Brown's debut novel offers a tale of endurance and love in the face of adversity.

Teenage Callum, fleeing an Irish workhouse and an American orphanage, rides as part of the Colonel's Confederate partisan troop. In Virginia's mountains, they fight for “no reason but hunger and the Colonel's orders,” with “nothing but viciousness to keep them alive.” During a raid, Callum saves Ava, age 17, from rape, but he's wounded by a fellow partisan gang member. Only later does he learn Ava was raped—by the Colonel. That spurs him to desert the gang and return to Ava's house. The Colonel pursues Callum, intent on reclaiming his magnificent horse, Reiver, which Callum stole. Reunited, Ava and Callum, weary of violence and death—a “land full of all these haunts, sorely displeased at the meager terms of their departure”—set out for Callum's distant relative on south Georgia's seacoast. Finding the Colonel dead at Ava's farm (and not knowing he was killed by a trio of outlaws, not by Callum), the gang wants revenge. Led by the Colonel's slave-hunter brother, Clayburn, they pursue. In an epic saga of endurance and sacrifice rendered in a voice wholly Southern in dialect, rhythm, and reference, the narrative follows the pair as they approach Atlanta aflame—"churning in great towers against the sky, monuments raised as if to the wrong kind of god"—and follow Sherman's March to the Sea. Ava and Callum, heroes to cheer for, live among other memorable characters, including Swinney, who once saved Callum from the shipwreck of a Cape Fear blockade runner; Lachlan the Alchemist, a near-blind moonshiner who provides temporary refuge; and a nameless old woman in a rocking chair, knitting amid fiery destruction, waiting for her only surviving son to return from war.

Like McCarthy's Border Trilogy or Frazier's Cold Mountain, this is American literature at its best, full of art and beauty and the exploration of all that is good and bad in the human spirit.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-250-07797-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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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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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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