Traditional, inoffensive—probably a holiday hit.

THE HANDMAID AND THE CARPENTER

Just in time for Christmas, Berg (We Are All Welcome Here, April 2006, etc.) delivers a story about the Christ child, highlighting the romance between his young parents.

What to do with an iconic story known throughout the world? Berg does very little, keeping it safe and simple and with few deviations from the commonly accepted narrative, guaranteed to neither insult nor inspire. Sixteen-year-old Joseph meets 13-year-old Mary at a wedding (they are hiding, still children really, under a banquet table) and fall in love. They are betrothed, but will remain in their respective parents’ homes for a year, until their marriage is finalized with a wedding, and a wedding night. Mary, stubborn and inquisitive, is beginning to question her engagement to Joseph, who, despite his youth, is stern and proper, eager for Mary to adopt her submissive, wifely role. All is turned upside-down, though, when an angel visits Mary to tell her she is with child. Mary is sent off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, while her mother delivers the miraculous news to Joseph, at home in Nazareth. What man would accept the story of a virgin pregnancy from his wife? Not Joseph. But rather than focus on Joseph’s natural reaction, Berg shows his doubts dispatched by an angelic visit of his own, whereupon he agrees to the planned marriage. They settle into a happy union as Mary prepares to give birth, when they unexpectedly must journey to Bethlehem. The story of their plight—Mary’s anger at Joseph for making her travel so close to the birth; her fear of being without a midwife; his desperation in a strange city where no one will house them for the night—is nicely told, bringing humanity to a scene that is often reduced to greeting-card familiarity. After the birth of Jesus, the family lives happily in Nazareth until Joseph meets an early end, in love with his wife, but still skeptical of the virgin birth. Berg makes conventional, contemporary choices—Mary is spunky; Joseph conflicted—but shies away from any keener analysis of faith or marriage or miracles.

Traditional, inoffensive—probably a holiday hit.

Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-6538-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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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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