A worthy historical-fiction exploration of the African-American struggle for freedom.

WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED

In Greenburg’s debut, the McGhee family wends its way from Alabama slavery to Nashville’s unstable freedom to a hard-earned Indiana farm, never fully escaping Jim Crow’s shadows.

The Civil War over, James and Lily McGhee, with his parents, Amos and Clara, want land. Both men are woodworkers where there’s no work for blacks. The family settles briefly in Tennessee, and James’ oldest son, Clayton, whose point of view powers the narrative, finds a job in a mercantile store. James rides to Indiana searching for farmland, facing prejudice at every point, until LaFayette, where he stops two ruffians from committing rape. He’s jailed for his trouble, but after the affair is sorted out, he finds a derelict farm outside town. He’s also made a friend of the local sheriff, Colegrove, one of many intriguing characters who appear, play a pivotal, solid role, and then frustratingly disappear: Nashville storekeeper, Miss Lenore; Moberly, Fabrizio, and the Llewellyns, whites who help defend the McGhees when brutes acting for the rich Henderson Jeffries attack their farm; and Judah Furnish, a psychologically damaged veteran symbolic of war’s tragedies. Greenburg’s familiarity with the locale lends credence. His characterization of the McGhees and their enemies, the Jeffries, are of a type but nuanced. Other characters—an Irish gangster, a good-hearted Polish teamster—are more familiar. Leaping forward, the second portion compresses multiple years into exposition, establishing conflict between Henderson’s son, Peter, and Clayton. Peter schemes with the KKK–like Horse Thief Detective Association to seize Clayton’s farm. The drama here focuses more on the Jeffries family, with unhappy, laudanum-addicted mother Annabelle's fight to wrench her son from his father’s influence overshadowing the book's most powerful element—the post-bellum battle of African-Americans to prosper against prejudice: "Without your fear they have to kill you to stop you getting on with your life."

A worthy historical-fiction exploration of the African-American struggle for freedom.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-908737-87-8

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Dufour

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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