Rollicking historical that’s certain to get the top shelf at the Harvard Co-Op.

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HARVARD YARD

The sequel to Back Bay (1979) gives the Michener treatment to our richest university as antiquities dealer and Harvard alumnus Peter Fallon hunts for a copy of a lost Shakespeare play.

Martin (Citizen Washington, 1999, etc.) uses the fortunes and foibles of the Wedge family, whose offspring have attended Harvard from its beginning, to show that, despite numerous curriculum changes, more than a few ignoble alumni, and some embarrassing controversies, Harvard really has fostered American self-determination and generosity of spirit. The generosity takes the form of paying for some, if not all, of the education of any student Harvard wants to admit, and, in the case of the fictional Wedge family, protecting the only surviving copy of Love’s Labors Won,” which Shakespeare himself gave to his friend, Stratford butcher, innkeeper, and book collector Robert Harvard, as a “talisman of good fortune.” John takes the play, with his collection of books, to New England, where his library and his financial bequest begin the university that bears his name. Stolen from the library by the college’s sadistic and corrupt first master, the play is retrieved by plucky Isaac Wedge, an impoverished student who hides it because of the 17th-century Puritan animosity to theater. The play is never far from later generations of the Wedge family, which has at least one child always attending Harvard through its history. Martin intercuts the historical scenes (we meet everyone from a stuttering Cotton Mather to a blustering Joseph Kennedy) with standard thriller high-jinks involving Fallon, who uses his alumni connections both for business and pleasure. Fallon is attempting to ensure his son’s acceptance to the college when a descendant of Isaac Wedge hints of a very valuable book once in his family’s possession. Fallon hooks up with his conveniently divorced old flame, finds himself pursued by organized crime thugs—and the chase is on.

Rollicking historical that’s certain to get the top shelf at the Harvard Co-Op.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2003

ISBN: 0-446-53084-0

Page Count: 582

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2003

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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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