Mallon’s version of history is close enough to fact to revive faded memories, while his imagining of who thought and said...

FINALE

A NOVEL OF THE REAGAN YEARS

Covering a momentous several months in 1986, this is an intriguing, humorous, even catty backstage view of the Reagan presidency from an artisan of the historical novel.

Mallon (Watergate, 2012, etc.) picks up the political narrative a couple of years after his previous, Nixon-era novel. Reagan is preparing for his second summit with Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament. His wife, Nancy, who confers with her astrologer about the president’s actions and with Merv Griffin on everything else, wields considerable influence in the White House. Also perfectly coiffed and politically muscular is the $100 million widow of Averell Harriman, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, whose funding and machinations on the Democratic side expose the complex horse-trading ahead of that year’s midterm election. To a four-page list of historical figures, Mallon adds a few fictional ones tied mainly to the Iran-Contra spectacle and Washington’s gay insiders—dubbed the Homintern by Christopher Hitchens. The late journalist, a major character here and a subplot unto himself as he pursues the early inklings of Iran-Contra, was the dedicatee of Watergate and is described in this book’s acknowledgements as a “beloved friend.” The main plot, aside from history itself, concerns a popular president’s sudden faltering amid crises abroad and at home. Mallon doesn’t go far in plumbing the Reagan enigma that has stumped so many, but he creates revealing moments in the first couple’s marriage. Historical fiction at this high level satisfies the appetite for speculation or even titillation through restraint as much as research, and Mallon rarely overdoes it—though he seems to have a weakness for insults, as in this small sample: "Pity anyone near Teddy’s Cutty-Sarked breath during the delivery of all those aspirated aitches” (Hitchens on Edward Kennedy); “that little patent-leather martinet” (Nancy on John Tower); “a Fabergé egg that talks” (Pat Nixon on Nancy).

Mallon’s version of history is close enough to fact to revive faded memories, while his imagining of who thought and said what presents some of the coherence and delights of fiction without the excesses of those “what if” rethinks scribbled by Newt Gingrich et al.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-307-90792-9

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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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