A historical novel with vivid descriptions of its time and place but that would have benefited from some streamlining.


In the early 1860s, an orphaned Swedish girl comes of age in what becomes the Idaho Territory in this latest installment in the High Valley Home series.

The Larson family of Swedish immigrants first appeared in Dorris’ Sheepeater (2009, etc.), which focused on Erik Larson, a boy who was adopted by Indians. Here, Dorris turns to Erik’s sister, Katrine, who at 9 years old becomes separated from her family during their wagon-train trek west from Minnesota to the high valley north of Fort Boise. The kind Olafson family takes her in, however, and they treat her like a daughter. The immigrants face all the usual dangers and trials of breaking new ground with few supplies in a new country, but they slowly improve their rough lean-tos, sow crops, acquire livestock, set up schools of a kind for their children, and so on. Still, challenges and setbacks arise, including hailstorms, fires, mountain lions, and illness. But there are rewards, as well, including fertile ground, hot springs, and good neighbors. Katrine, meanwhile, grows up as a typical girl of her time and place, doing chores, going to school, playing with friends, and looking forward to special treats on such holidays as Midsummer’s Eve and St. Lucia’s Day. As she’s about to turn 15, Katrine stands on the brink of adulthood, engaged to marry. Still, the small community has some tragedies, as well. Overall, this is a well-researched account that vividly shows the daily hard work and special difficulties of life for pioneer settlers. The descriptions of handmade chairs, floors, and other items are entertaining, and the focus on Swedish culture and the Idaho setting enrich the story, taking it beyond what readers may already know from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous Little House books. However, excessive repetition slows the novel down and dulls its effectiveness; for example, readers are informed many times over that Katrine’s typical chores are getting water and gathering wood. The prose can also be overly melodramatic at times (“Katrine’s heart caught”; “Katrine felt her world going black”; “A numbing ache filled Katrine”).

A historical novel with vivid descriptions of its time and place but that would have benefited from some streamlining.

Pub Date: May 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5320-2006-3

Page Count: 414

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Aug. 8, 2017

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

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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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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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