While it’s sometimes verbose, this engrossing tale delivers plenty of 19th-century cultural details and a satisfying...


A historical novel weaves a complicated web of interlocking relationships as it shows the gruesomeness of the Civil War and the bitterness of the South’s defeat.

In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, Asa Young was committed to a “state lunatic asylum” for “drawing objects of morbid representation” and never speaking. Four years later, he is taken in by Lt. Col. Jameson and his wife, Agnes, in the hope they can “help him get back his wits.” Asa was one of the soldiers Jameson had written Agnes about after the Siege of Petersburg. Now Asa is suffering from PTSD. A deep understanding develops between Flora, the couple’s 10-year-old daughter, and Asa, with the child parenting the man: “Don’t forget to wipe your feet on the mat.” Asa is the thread that connects, in one way or another, the many characters, lengthy subplots, and themes that make up the complex narrative. There is Asa’s father, Neville, who worked on a whaling ship and, through a variety of misadventures, wound up in Australia. He is rescued by Mallabal, an Indigenous Australian who eventually comes to America, where he again faces racial discrimination. Then there are the ex-Confederate Timpson brothers, Lucas and Dennet, “a pair of dog-hungry drifters,” who trigger the novel’s denouement. Through effective battle-scene flashbacks, readers live through Asa’s traumas: his horror at hearing “the pitiful cries” of the wounded horses and seeing the “many crimson tributaries springing from limbs, severed and punctured.” Avery’s (The Fortune Teller, 2018) prose is often wordy, but it creates vivid images. Here is Asa setting an animal free: “He stood before the fence and placed the rabbit by the hole folding its ears down and then nudged the head through. It resisted, so he pushed it again.” As the subplots unfold, the author deftly portrays the harshness of life on a whaling vessel, the destruction of aboriginal culture in Australia, the plight of blacks in post-Civil War America, and even the fight for women’s suffrage. The story’s conclusion is both unpredictable and rewarding.

While it’s sometimes verbose, this engrossing tale delivers plenty of 19th-century cultural details and a satisfying surprise ending.

Pub Date: May 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5439-6338-0

Page Count: 398

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2019

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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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