A vigorous display of the author’s mastery of his material, though it lacks the novelty and strong narrative drive of its...

THE COFFEE TRADER

Second-novelist Liss moves from 18th-century London to the mercantile culture of mid-17th-century Amsterdam.

The protagonist is Miguel Lienzo (a peripheral figure in A Conspiracy of Paper, 2000), a Portuguese Jew who has found both escape from the Inquisition and multiple opportunities for import and trade in the thriving Dutch metropolis. When one of Miguel’s clients, smoldering widow Geertruid Damhuis, introduces him to the pleasures of coffee, he senses an opportunity—and soon conceives a scheme (to be funded by Geertruid) to import the exotic new beverage, artificially manipulate its value, and realize a handsome profit. It’s a heady premise, and Liss handles both its details and the period’s thick ambience with considerable skill. But the narrative lags. Virtually every scene is clogged with “backstory”—lengthy explanatory flashbacks that focus on both Miguel’s personal history and his relationships with other major characters. These latter include: Miguel’s pinch-penny brother Daniel and his pregnant wife Hannah (a “secret Catholic,” secretly attracted to her brother-in-law); the vindictive specter of Joachim Waagener, a trader ruined by the collapse in sugar prices that also took Miguel’s first fortune; Solomon Parido, Lienzo’s declared enemy ever since Miguel eluded a contract to wed his daughter; and Alonzo Alferonda, a wily moneylender whose interpolated “Factual and Revealing Memoirs” offer an indeed revealing outside perspective on Miguel’s experiences. There are several centers of real interest: Miguel’s command appearance before the Ma’amad, the regulatory council that oversees Jews’ activities in this stranger country; a vivid climax at the Amsterdam Exchange, where Miguel turns tables on would-be betrayers and rivals; and back-alley intrigues involving a pair of variously employed servants. But the story is too long, and its tensions ebb and flow with frustrating regularity.

A vigorous display of the author’s mastery of his material, though it lacks the novelty and strong narrative drive of its terrific predecessor.

Pub Date: March 11, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-50854-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2003

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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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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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