A well-researched rags-to-riches tale that’s told with confidence and enthusiasm.

FAR AWAY BIRD

Burton’s debut historical novel, the first in a series about the Byzantine Empress Theodora, charts her journey from destitution to the throne.

The novel opens in Constantinople in the year 512. A rebellion is brewing in the city, and 14-year-old Theodora, along with her sister, Comito, is searching for their father, a bear-keeper named Acacius. The following morning, the siblings tragically discover that he has been killed in the unrest. Magister Origen, a local judge, suggests that their mother, Maximina, marry Samuel, a candidate for the bear-keeper post, in order to keep the profession in her family. Maximina agrees to this course of action, but she puts her foot down when the magistrate also recommends that both of her daughters be sent to dance school, where they’ll learn how to entertain men as actresses—and as courtesans. Despite her mother’s protests, Theodora agrees to attend the school, declaring that she wants to be “on stage for all to see. Someone beautiful and important.” Theodora goes on to fall in love with the Hippodrome and theater life in general. This idyllic existence ends, however, when Magister Origen rapes her, and one night, she slashes him with a knife and flees for home. The magistrate then withdraws financial support for the family, and soon they face dire poverty. Their savior comes in the form of a handsome Roman officer who’s later revealed to be an important figure. He asks 19-year-old Theodora to work for him as a spy to get information from various men in power, by whatever means necessary. However, she later finds that she’s falling deeply in love with her new employer. Over the course of this novel, Burton offers an elegantly written historical tale in which he effortlessly weaves sweeping emotion and fine detail into compact sentences: “Maximina pulled her daughters in closer, forming a protective embrace. Theodora saw how the white gowns spilled down like milk upon the dark brown of the track, her mother rising above.” He also smoothly supplies accurate historical details as the story goes on, as when the aforementioned Roman officer gently corrects Theodora regarding the identity and occupation of his powerful adoptive father: “But yes, he’s Count of the Excubitors.” However, the author also sometimes offers occasional moments of physical description that can be a bit off-putting, as when he notes that “Theodora rubbed her teeth against her bottom lip.” British author Stella Duffy’s 2010 novel Theodora, which deals with the same main character, is far more brazen in its depictions of sex scenes than Burton’s is, although some readers will likely prefer the latter’s relatively genteel approach, which mostly veers away from sensationalism and focuses more on characterization. Theodora, in particular, is revealed to be a charming and strong-willed yet emotionally conflicted young woman, and she engagingly endeavors to exert her influence in a male-dominated society. The overall storyline is generally strong and compelling, and the writing is, for the most part, sharp and learned.

A well-researched rags-to-riches tale that’s told with confidence and enthusiasm.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-73302-210-1

Page Count: 394

Publisher: Silent Music Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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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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