Despite some touching scenes near the end, Schlink doesn’t seem to have the creative wherewithal to bring his characters and...

THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS

At two points in time, three men find themselves involved with the same woman in this latest by the bestselling author of The Reader (1997).

While in Sydney for work, a lawyer, who narrates the story, sees a painting in a gallery that stirs up 40-year-old memories of one of his first cases back in Frankfurt. It involved a tug of war between an industrialist who commissioned a life-size nude of his wife and the artist who did the work and then ran off with the model. A conflict involving damage to and restoration of the canvas escalates to where the lawyer is asked to draw up a contract under which the artist regains ownership of the painting but returns the wife. Meanwhile, the lawyer, whose ethics prove increasingly elastic, has fallen in love with the woman and agrees to help her steal the painting and flee from both her beaux. He also assumes he will become her new paramour. Foolish man. She absconds altogether with her nude canvas self. Back in present-day Sydney, the lawyer surmises the woman is living nearby and hires a detective to find her, hoping to satisfy a surge of nostalgia and answer some old questions. In no time at all, Schlink (Summer Lies, 2012, etc.) has lawyer, industrialist, and artist all gathered in a remote area of Australia, where the woman has been living a kind of hippie life for many years. The painter and tycoon remain acquisitive and two-dimensional, while the woman’s post-flight life is dabbed with suggestions of color. The lawyer is revealed as a lifelong cold fish warming up to his one old flame. But who wins the hand of a once-fair maiden known for her fine birthday suit? Alas, that would be revealing one of the book’s few surprises.

Despite some touching scenes near the end, Schlink doesn’t seem to have the creative wherewithal to bring his characters and themes fully to life.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-87071-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

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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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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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