In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

YEAR OF WONDERS

Painstaking re-creation of 17th-century England, swallowed by over-the-top melodramatics: a wildly uneven first novel by an Australian-born journalist.

The Year of the title is 1665: the date of the devastating bubonic epidemic chronicled in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Brooks’s tale, framed by reveries set a year and a half after the plague burns itself out (in “Leaf-Fall, 1666”), is narrated by Anna Frith, an earnest and highly intelligent young widow who buries her own multiple bereavements (first her gentle husband, later their two small sons) in work, aiding her (unnamed) village rector’s wife in treating the sick with medicinal herbs and traditional cures. Brooks is at her best in lyrical, precise descriptions of country landscapes and village customs, and makes something very appealing and (initially) quite credible out of Anna’s wary hunger for learning and innate charitable kindness. But the novel goes awry when the panic of contagion isolates her village from neighboring hamlets, a forthright young woman and her distracted aunt are accused of witchcraft and hunted down, and Anna’s drunken, violent father, who profits as a gravedigger for hire, resorts to providing corpses that will require his services. The excesses continue, as Anna’s stepmother, crazed with grief, seeks vengeance against rector Michael Mompellion and his saintly wife (and Anna’s mentor and soulmate) Elinor, and rise to a feverish pitch when Anna, having found a new innocent victim to nurture and raise, offends the powerful Bradford family and must flee to safety—ending up (in a borderline-risible Epilogue) in North Africa in the sanctuary of a kindly “Bey’s” harem. It’s all more than a bit much: Thomas Hardy crossed with Erskine Caldwell, with more than a whiff of Jane Eyre in Anna’s conflicted devotion to the brooding, Mr. Rochester–like Mompellion.

In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-91021-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2001

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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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