A likable if rambling debut that never quite gels.

IT HAPPENED IN WISCONSIN

First-time novelist Moraff swings and occasionally hits in this homespun tale about a plucky baseball team during the Depression. This book won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough award in general fiction.

Ensconced in a nursing home and nearing the end of his life, the unnamed narrator, a former pitcher, recalls the Racine Robins, a ragtag team unified in their conviction that the common man deserves as much of a fair shake as a Wall Street millionaire. “We were working men,” he opines, “and we knew that luxury softens your resolve, that comfort weakens your character.” The Robins barnstorm through the Midwest, drumming up funds for struggling communities. A freak April snowstorm strands them at the John D. Rockefeller lodge in Wisconsin, where they meet Spencer, a wealthy blowhard who treats them all to lavish meals, attempting to influence them with his plutocratic views. He eventually wears down Mike (the narrator’s best friend and an incandescent talent on the ball field) by dangling promises of a glorious major league career as well as the hand of his own alluring daughter. Unsurprisingly, the Robins’ ultimate fates fail to match up to their youthful expectations. Moraff’s prose doles out its pleasures sporadically, as in a description of a meal at the Rockefeller: “The steaks were exhibits from some museum of butchery, trophies from a cattleman’s hall of fame. So juicy you could have squeezed them into a glass.” But too often the novel drifts aimlessly in its own warm bath of nostalgia, circling among a series of flashbacks that diffuse the impact of its class conflict. The narrator’s thwarted romance with a cafe waitress further thins the plot, leaving the sense that this novel might have worked better as a pared-down short story.

A likable if rambling debut that never quite gels.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4778-4818-0

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Amazon Publishing

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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