A well-paced historical soap opera.

AMERICAN RIVER: CURRENTS

BOOK TWO OF THE AMERICAN RIVER TRILOGY

O’Connor (American River: Tributaries, 2017, etc.) returns with the second volume of her trilogy about three California families (the McPhalans, the Moraleses, and the Ashidas) whose members’ lives have repeatedly intersected over the past century.

This novel picks up in 1963, just after the tragic death of Julian McPhalan, which marked the end of the series opener. Kate McPhalan is now married to Carl Fitzgerald (née Carlos Estevan Morales), a trained symphony conductor in San Francisco. Owen McPhalan, the family patriarch and owner of the Mockingbird Valley Ranch, is a representative in the state legislature in Sacramento. Marian, his ex-wife and the mother of the three McPhalan children, is an aspiring artist in Boston. In Cleveland, the youngest McPhalan, Alexandria, nicknamed “Alex,” is studying concert piano under the tutorship of Hungarian musical genius Stefan Molnar. After Alex leaves Boston, Marian moves to New York City, where she finds a warm reception for her paintings. Meanwhile, Tommy Ashida is spending a semester in Japan, having been chosen to participate in an international studies program in architecture at the University of Kyoto. Tommy’s father once worked at Owen’s ranch, and Tommy and Kate had once been a couple. In Kyoto, Tommy meets Emiko Namura, and, for the first time since his relationship with Kate, falls in love again. O’Connor follows her characters from January 1963 to May 1970, constantly moving the action from one location to another—California, Ohio, New York, Japan, and Mexico. Many of the central characters suffer from some sort of artistic angst, and the narrative is fully loaded with fragile egos, overwrought emotions, and selfish preoccupations. In this atmosphere, Kate’s general stability is welcome relief, even as she wrestles with a few demons of her own. The complex relationships and family crises effectively parallel the turbulence of the era that provides the backdrop for addictive melodrama. A fight to establish a farm workers union, as well as references to the Vietnam War and the 1970 Kent State shootings, establish an underlying layer of tragedy. Still, the deaths of multiple characters will come as a surprise to readers.

A well-paced historical soap opera.

Pub Date: March 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4808-5885-5

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2018

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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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