A beautifully written, effortlessly measured historical novel.

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ORPHAN IN AMERICA

Three generations of a family venture west in this engaging, intricately embroidered 19th-century historical epic by Avery (Jars in a Pioneer Town, 2010, etc.).

The novel opens with a young boy, Alex, watching his mother die, marking the beginning of a desperately mournful early life. Despite being raised in abject poverty in a New York slum, he remains steadfastly true to his father and is horrified when representatives of a child welfare program rap on his front door and forcibly separate him from his beloved Pa. Alex is put on an orphan train, a service that relocated more than 250,000 vulnerable children from East Coast urban slums to the rural Midwest between 1853 and 1929. After he arrives at his destination, he’s thrown into an experience reminiscent of a cattle auction, in which stern-faced farmers and their wives eye each child carefully for potential adoption. No sooner is he introduced to his new parents than he’s set to work on a farm. A quiet, removed child, Alex finds more solace in nature than he does with his adoptive family. He forges a strong bond with the farm’s workhorses, Delilah and Dandy, and shares all his secrets with them. Avery juxtaposes Alex’s story with that of Will and Libby Pickard, a couple in industrial England. They head for America’s Eastern Seaboard on a ship, the Elijah Swift, and soon become embroiled with the powerful Cambridge family of Baltimore, leading to a number of dark, unexpected plot twists. The author spent several years immersing herself in the history and lifestyle of 19th-century rural America, and it shows; by comparison, the English environments seem quaint, but this doesn’t detract from the overall story. The author’s prose charts a close proximity to the land; for example, in one touching moment, young Alex sifts through dirt and finds a tiny seed. He turns “the seed over several times in his fingers,” sensing its importance without fully understanding its potential to yield new life. On occasions such as these, Avery makes readers remember what it’s like to see aspects of the natural world for the first time. She also captures some of the terse correctness of the classic 19th-century epic novel, but her tone also has a contemporary easiness that makes it approachable and pleasurable.

A beautifully written, effortlessly measured historical novel.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1495433405

Page Count: 626

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 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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