A historical novel with a compelling premise falters in its execution.

A MAN OF GENIUS

In 1819 London, a writer of gothic novels is caught up in a plot of desire, compulsion, and revenge.

Ann St Clair has long made a living writing cheap, sensational novels for popular consumption. She’s unmarried and approaching middle age, but she’s established an independent life for herself: she pays for her rooms and her pleasant life without support from anyone. Then, at a dinner party, Ann meets a charismatic figure: Robert James, writer of a fragment of text considered brilliant by his small but reverential pack of followers. Ann finds herself entranced by Robert and swallowed up by his social circle. They begin an affair, but, after a while, Ann notices Robert becoming increasingly paranoid and erratic in his behavior. When he insists on leaving England, the pair travels to Venice. There, Robert only degenerates further, and Ann struggles to support him. This is the first novel by Todd, a formidable scholar of writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. It’s an ambitious work that draws ties between its heroine’s inner state, the occupation of Venice, and the torrid gossip then arising around Princess Caroline and the soon-to-be King George. But Todd’s storytelling is jagged and uneven, and the narrative proceeds in fits and starts. The historical context is rich but might not be immediately accessible to the casual reader. Finally, it’s difficult to sympathize with Todd’s characters. Robert’s theoretical discourses might be impressive to his followers, but they come across as obtuse almost to the point of nonsense. Then he becomes so grotesque so quickly that it’s hard to understand Ann’s feelings for him—indeed, her obsession with him. Once he becomes violent and mad, why, exactly, does she feel so powerless to leave him? Todd’s work is replete with history, politics, and even philosophy, but her characters seem to lack nuance and are occasionally flat.

A historical novel with a compelling premise falters in its execution.

Pub Date: April 28, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-908524-59-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 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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