LOVE AND TERROR

A workmanlike and intermittently interesting novel about the heyday of the guillotine, from the author of Mercedes and the House of Rainbows (1988) and Speak Sunlight (1996). Jolis’s somewhat frantic story, set in Paris in the Revolutionary year of 1793, is focused on the crises supervised and suffered by Robespierre’s “chief concealer, chief bloodhound and first spy” (a.k.a. police commissioner), former priest Joseph FouchÇ. While heads are rolling and “The Incorruptible One” orchestrates a continent-wide search for “the widow Capet” (Marie Antoinette), FouchÇ nervously pulls strings; his beloved mistress Nenette, who closely resembles the reviled Queen, is substituted for her when Marie escapes a jail cell on the eve of her trial. Robespierre, told that “a substitute” exists, orders her execution— precipitating FouchÇ’s plot to murder his master. It all gets pretty tangled, though Jolis has amassed an impressive amount of lively period detail. This is vitiated, however, by occasional anachronisms (“gang-raped”), romance-novel effluvia (“What a fool I was to believe you”), and melodramatic clichÇs (“FouchÇ is a spider, and his web spins out across all of France”). Short sentences and paragraphs are clearly intended to suggest the onrushing momentum of great events, but the story seems merely hurried. Characterizations are generally thin, even though cameo appearances are made by historical luminaries Danton, military commander (and sometime mercenary) Axel Fersen, and American radical Thomas Paine. The best single scene, in fact, details Paine’s plan “to spirit the Queen out of France” in order to save the Revolution’s reputation by denying it this single opportunity for bloodthirsty excess. If FouchÇ and Nenette were a little more like Bergman and Bogart and a little less like the protagonists of Now, Voyager, Jolis’s novel might have exhibited rather more of both emotions. Skip this one, and reread Les MisÇrables.

Pub Date: July 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-87113-715-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1998

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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 COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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