The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE

A biting critique of identity that lampoons genetic ties and ethnic stereotypes.

Debut novelist Stephens begins her story in Seoul, South Korea, where best friends and fellow Korean-American adoptees Mindy and Lisa have gone to find their birthparents with the help of the MotherFinders agency. Lisa is ambivalent about her heritage and too reliant on Mindy to fill the void left by an absentee adoptive father. Lisa struggles with the fact that “the adopted child is a lie, her family a fiction,” and one of the only ways she finds solace is by writing; Mindy suggested long ago that Lisa become a writer, but Lisa hasn’t yet found a way to make it her profession. As the book begins, the two friends are having a falling out over Lisa's partying, and Mindy kicks Lisa out of their hotel room. Lisa continues hanging out with Harrison, the MotherFinders’ uber-handsome fixer, who tricks her into traveling with him. The story takes a strange turn. Lisa is kidnapped and wakes up a prisoner in an extravagant compound, “the captive of a lunatic." She meets a cast of unusual international characters, several of whom look to be plastic surgery test cases; her captor forces her to change her appearance and records her every move. Stephens intersperses each chapter with quotes from famous adoptees, and Lisa’s fixation on the physical characteristics of race and identity twist the idea of ancestry like a fun-house mirror. “Was I, all along, someone else?” Lisa wonders, as she finally meets her mother, the surgically altered and cartoonish Honey LeBaron. Lisa learns that the heavily-surveilled compound is in North Korea, but the bigger surprise is her mother’s revelation about Lisa’s family line. Lisa re-evaluates everything she thought she knew about herself as she tries to unravel “the enigma of Honey, the anti-mother who had reached across the years and the continents to drag me back to her stone-hearted bosom,” and she plots her escape from her mother's lavish, bizarre prison. “I didn’t love her,” she says, ultimately confronting the darkness in herself, “but I recognized her, as familiar to me as my own self.”

The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944700-74-4

Page Count: 330

Publisher: Unnamed Press

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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