A blend of a Dickensian epic and Downton Abbey, with the author arriving at a conclusion that could allow sequels.

NO MAN'S LAND

Tolkien (Orders from Berlin, 2012, etc.) draws from the World War I–era experiences of his famous grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien to spin a saga worthy of Masterpiece Theater.

When Adam Raine’s mother is accidentally killed during a violent strike in London, his father, a builder and labor activist, moves them both north to Scarsdale, a small coal-mining town, where his cousin got him a job working for the union. The early part of the book takes place in pre–WWI Scarsdale and presents a nuanced portrait of stolid Edwardian England, its class divisions, economic inequalities, and withering aristocracy. Workingmen suffered—"the mine was cruel and the mine was king"—with life belowground chillingly claustrophobic and always dangerous. Adam’s father is killed saving the life of the mine owner, Sir John Scarsdale, during a riot. Grateful, Sir John, sometimes trapped by an aristocracy that restrains his better instincts, becomes Adam’s patron, bringing him to live in the Scarsdale family home and directing his education. The calculating Lady Scarsdale fears Adam will usurp the place of her younger son, Brice. Adam and the devious Brice become rivals for the love of Miriam, the local parson’s daughter, allowing Tolkien further exploration of social mores, but it’s a thoroughly old-fashioned, chaste romance. As Adam and his contemporaries are drawn into the war and shipped off to France, Tolkien displays much empathy for the working class, most vividly rendered in Adam’s friendship with the miners’ sons on the front lines. Characters become the faces of stoic courage or bitter cynicism as an old society is fractured by mechanized murder. Told chronologically through a narrative that marches rather than soars, the story’s second half relates England’s initial jingoistic war fervor, every able-bodied man pressured to join the cause, but then confronts the ugliness a generation decimated by machine guns, massed artillery, and incompetent generals faced returning home to a jaundiced society. The carnage in the trenches of the Somme is depicted by corpses stacked to serve as defensive emplacements and young lives capriciously snuffed out by the snap of a sniper’s bullet.

A blend of a Dickensian epic and Downton Abbey, with the author arriving at a conclusion that could allow sequels.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-54197-8

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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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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