Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game.

THE CACTUS LEAGUE

A star left fielder for the Los Angeles Lions is in personal and professional free fall in this debut novel from the editor of the Paris Review.

Jason Goodyear is a major league star: He's got a Golden Glove, solid MVP votes, and a big deal with Nike. So why is he suffering through a divorce, damaging historical property, and losing prominent endorsements? That's the question an unnamed sportswriter, the casualty of an agonizing round of newspaper layoffs, sets out to answer. Instead of going straight to the source, however, he tracks the movements of everyone adjacent to Goodyear during the 2011 spring training season in Scottsdale, Arizona. There's Tamara Rowland, a down-on-her-luck divorcée who enjoys picking up ball players for a casual fling; Stephen Smith, a partial owner of the Lions and the only black man who has any power in the franchise; William Goslin, a rookie first baseman who is flattered into helping Goodyear get out of trouble; and even a chorus of "baseball wives" who know that spring training "is a party: luncheons and spa days, cocktails and color consultations, mornings at the furrier's and afternoons with the jeweler." What emerges, however, is less a picture of Goodyear during a moment of personal crisis than a portrait of Scottsdale and its residents as they recover from the 2008 recession. The sportswriter intersperses each chapter-length character study with his own digressive musings about everything from Goodyear's motivations to belabored geological metaphors for the draft. Unfortunately, this frame narrative for Nemens' ambitious, sprawling, and otherwise impeccably written debut is an often clunky and frustrating misdirection. Although the sportswriter insists readers can understand Goodyear's inner workings by examining peers, colleagues, and characters on the periphery, he never bothers to tell us how these character studies shed light on the star player. As it turns out, Goodyear isn't really at the heart of this book at all. He's a premise rather than a true-blue character. It's a strange choice on the part of Nemens, who created a narrator uniquely situated to deliver on his initial promises—or subvert them openly and purposefully. Nemens has instead written a novel about baseball and how it shapes the lives of athletes as much as the town that supports it—and a beautiful one at that. As our narrator would put it: "It's more, He did this, he said that, and then the whole world unfurled." It simply would have been nice to know that that was the only game we were playing.

Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-11794-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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