THE DEVIL HIMSELF

Dezenhall’s (Spinning Dixie, 2006, etc.) fifth novel takes a cast of characters from history— FDR, Walter Winchell, Meyer Lansky—sets the story during the bleak beginning of World War II, and adds a secret network of counter-spies who made their bones as gangsters.

Recurring narrator Jonah Eastman is the grandson of Mickey Price, an old man who earned a fortune rum-running during Prohibition and went semi-legit with an Atlantic City casino. Eastman is also a college intern at the Reagan White House. His boss there knows his family background and wants Jonah to interview “Uncle Meyer.” Meyer Lansky was the real-life shadowy genius behind much mid-century U.S. organized crime. The Reagan Administration has discovered that Lansky and his cohorts—the “Ferret Squad”—helped root out Nazi undercover agents during WWII. The politicians are unofficially interested in Lansky’s story because there might be something valuable to be learned to deal with Islamo-fascist terrorists threatening U.S. interests. The novel shifts back and forth in time, presented as Eastman’s report-from-notes made as he interviewed Uncle Meyer in Miami, mortally ill with lung cancer. Alternate scenes follow Lansky in the 1940s. Some dialogue is rendered in slang, which is sometimes overdone. Along with the background of the uneasy alliance between the Italian and Jewish gangsters who dominated the criminal enterprises around New York City, there are interesting character snippets of infamous gangsters like Lucky Luciano (whose Sicilian ties aid in the Allied invasion of that island), and Albert Anastasia, a rogue homicidal maniac, and Bugsy Siegel, as deadly as Anastasia but prone to follow Lansky’s lead. The author also fictionalizes— dramatically narrates—the participation of real-life Lieutenant Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden, chief administrator of “Operation Underground,” a man ill-used as bureaucrats grist-milled history in service of politics.

With “the fate of civilization rested upon a handful of weary sailors and patriotic crooks,” Dezenhall intrigues with well-imagined, little-known history.

Pub Date: July 19, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-312-66882-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2011

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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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