For a reader who knows nothing at all about John Brown, this is a satisfactory but not altogether inspiring place to start.

THE INSURRECTIONIST

A docudrama about the insurgent abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859).

With racial conflict once again occupying center stage in the national dialogue, the present day seems especially ripe for a fresh new biographical portrait of the anti-slavery agitator whose scorched-earth campaign in the late 1850s presaged and likely hastened the Civil War. Weaving historical record with his own imaginings of what Brown, his family, and others may have said 160 years ago, Karl, the author of a teen novel, The Toom County Mud Race (1992), chronicles Brown’s three-year war against slavery. He begins with the 1856 incident in which abolitionist Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner is beaten bloody in the Senate chamber by a South Carolina congressman, which serves as prelude to Brown’s battle that same year against pro-slavery forces trying to keep Kansas in their column. The book climaxes with the ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to initiate an armed slave uprising and concludes with Brown’s subsequent arrest, trial, and execution. Karl’s overall depiction of Brown is that of a ruminative, intensely religious family man whose conversation is all but overrun with references to the divine. (“Everything moves in sublime harmony in the government of God…Not so with us poor creatures.”) He is also shown to be remarkably composed in battle and quietly insistent in conversation with such eminences as his great ally Frederick Douglass, who warned him of trouble at Harpers Ferry. Such factors offer a needed corrective to past portraits of Brown tending to paint him as a wild-eyed and ruthless fanatic. The problem is that Karl bends so far backward toward straightforward characterization that he mutes, if not altogether loses, so much of what made Brown colorful and vivid. The result resembles nothing so much as a grown-up version of biographies written for teenagers in which fact and fiction uneasily coexist in a diorama of historical events where surfaces are easier to perceive than the substance behind them.

For a reader who knows nothing at all about John Brown, this is a satisfactory but not altogether inspiring place to start.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61373-633-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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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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