Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but...

CIRCLING THE SUN

A full-throttle dive into the psyche and romantic attachments of Beryl Markham—whose 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic in a two-seater prop plane (carrying emergency fuel in the extra seat) transfixed the world.

As conceived in this second historical by novelist McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011, etc.), Markham—nee Beryl Clutterbuck—is the neglected daughter of an impecunious racehorse trainer who fails to make a go at farming in British East Africa and a feckless, squeamish mother who bolts back to England with their older son. Set on her own two feet early, she is barely schooled but precociously brave and wired for physical challenges—a trait honed by her childhood companion Kibii (a lifelong friend and son of a local chief). In the Mau forest—“before Kenya was Kenya”—she finds a “heaven fitted exactly to me.” Keeping poised around large mammals (a leopard and a lion also figure significantly) is in her blood and later gains her credibility at the racecourse in Nairobi, where she becomes the youngest trainer ever licensed. Statuesque, blonde, and carrying an air of self-sufficiency—she marries, disastrously, at 16 but is granted a separation to train Lord Delamere’s bloodstock—Beryl turns heads among the cheerfully doped and dissolute Muthaiga Club set (“I don’t know what it is about Africa, but champagne is absolutely compulsory here”), charms not one but two heirs to the British crown at Baroness Karen Blixen’s soiree, and sets her cap on Blixen’s lover, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’ll have him, too, and much enjoyment derives from guessing how that script, and other intrigues, will play out in McLain’s retelling. Fittingly, McLain has Markham tell her story from an altitude of 1,800 feet: “I’m meant to do this,” she begins, “stitch my name on the sky.” Popularly regarded as “a kind of Circe” (to quote Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman), the young woman McLain explores owns her mistakes (at least privately) and is more boxed in by class, gender assumptions, and self-doubt than her reputation as aviatrix, big game hunter, and femme fatale suggests.

Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night “bloody wonderful.” Readers might even say the same of McLain’s sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.

Pub Date: July 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-345-53418-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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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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