Though he navigates erratically within it, Machart has created a dense, vibrant world, achievement enough for his debut.

THE WAKE OF FORGIVENESS

A wager destroys a farm family in this risk-taking first novel about Czech immigrant landowners in early 20th-century South Texas.

Hard men are grabbing land any way they can. Vaclav Skala has been softened by a loving wife, who has borne him three sons, but when she dies giving birth to a fourth (Karel), he reverts to his old self, the hardest of taskmasters. He has his boys, not horses, plow the fields; they will be marked for life by misshapen necks. In 1910, their lives are upended by the arrival of Villaseñor, a hugely rich Mexican looking for land and husbands for his three comely daughters. He proposes a horserace to Vaclav; if he wins, he’ll marry off his girls. Vaclav, confident in his racehorse and Karel’s riding skills, agrees. The race is a fine set piece. Villaseñor, the superior strategist, has already won over the older boys, who will ignore some dirty tricks. Karel loses to Graciela, the Mexican’s youngest. There are recriminations. After a vicious fight, Vaclav banishes his three oldest, who marry the next day. What next? A violent blood feud? Not at all. Machart is after more than stirring melodrama. The cadences of his formal prose, punctuated occasionally by earthy dialogue, tell you that, just as his shuttling between 1910 and 1924 minimizes suspense. He is making a resonant statement about the deformities of a world in which men make the rules, and mothers are dead or powerless. This involves the introduction, in 1924, of benighted twins, teenage brothers, firebugs who have avenged their dead mother by burning to death the father who brutalized her. There is much more, including bootlegging rivalries and a second deadly fire, but the trouble is, Machart fails to integrate plot and theme, and the novel splinters into a variety of episodes, all of them rendered with flair.

Though he navigates erratically within it, Machart has created a dense, vibrant world, achievement enough for his debut.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-15-101443-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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