A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.

WASHINGTON BLACK

High adventure fraught with cliffhanger twists marks this runaway-slave narrative, which leaps, sails, and soars from Caribbean cane fields to the fringes of the frozen Arctic and across a whole ocean.

It's 1830 on the island of Barbados, and a 12-year-old slave named George Washington Black wakes up every hot morning to cruelties administered to him and other black men, women, and children toiling on a sugar plantation owned by the coldblooded Erasmus Wilde. Christopher, one of Erasmus’ brothers, is a flamboyant oddball with insatiable curiosity toward scientific matters and enlightened views on social progress. Upon first encountering young Wash, Christopher, also known as Titch, insists on acquiring him from his brother as his personal valet and research assistant. Neither Erasmus nor Wash is pleased by this transaction, and one of the Wildes' cousins, the dour, mysterious Philip, is baffled by it. But then Philip kills himself in Wash’s presence, and Christopher, knowing the boy will be unjustly blamed and executed for the death, activates his hot air balloon, the Cloud-cutter, to carry both himself and Wash northward into a turbulent storm. So begins one of the most unconventional escapes from slavery ever chronicled as Wash and Titch lose their balloon but are carried the rest of the way to America by a ship co-captained by German-born twins of wildly differing temperaments. Once in Norfolk, Virginia, they meet with a sexton with a scientific interest in dead tissue and a moral interest in ferrying other runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad. Rather than join them on their journey, Wash continues to travel with Titch for a reunion with the Wildes' father, an Arctic explorer, north of Canada. Their odyssey takes even more unexpected turns, and soon Wash finds himself alone and adrift in the unfamiliar world as “a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind…running, always running from the dimmest of shadows.” Canadian novelist Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues, 2012, etc.) displays as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as her main characters in spinning this yarn, and the reader’s expectations are upended almost as often as her hero’s.

A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52142-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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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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