A short, bleak, capably written book, ironically titled, icy cold to the core.

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Prizewinning Norwegian Ørstavik (The Blue Room, 2014, etc.) follows the parallel courses of a single mother and her 8-year-old son during a night that moves unrelentingly toward tragedy.

Vibeke and her son, Jon, have recently relocated to a small town in northern Norway. Vibeke's mind is on a brown-eyed engineer at her new job. Jon is hoping for a train set for his birthday the next day and looking forward to the cake he imagines his mother making. A thoughtful boy, he has a way of blinking that annoys her and is concerned about torture victims around the world. "Dearest Jon," his mother calls him at dinner, but to herself she thinks, "Can't you just go...find something to do, play or something?" She remembers a dream that began at a glamorous party where a man admired her but ended in the "stench of urine," in "a wasteground of asphalt and ice." While she showers, Jon goes out into the wintry night to sell raffle tickets for the local sports center. He makes a friend and, dozing at her house later, also dreams: he and his mother return to their previous home and find it vandalized, his father at the table eating all their food and telling "sad stories about his life." A nightmarish sense of impending doom hangs over these carefully detailed, tightly controlled pages. Vibeke, thinking her son asleep in his room, also goes out. She has forgotten all about his birthday and goes bar hopping with a traveling carnival worker she meets. Her story and Jon's are told breathlessly close together, without page breaks, almost overlapping. When Jon returns from town, the house is locked, the car gone. It is at this point after 11 p.m.. Not once has it occurred to Vibeke to put her child to bed or even say good night to him. (Though this is clearly essential to the plot, it perhaps strains credulity.) She must have needed something for his birthday cake, he tells himself, and accepts a ride from a stranger in order to stay warm. "Aren't boys your age supposed to be in bed by now?" the driver asks. But it isn't creepy locals who pose the greatest threat or torture victims Jon should be worrying about.

A short, bleak, capably written book, ironically titled, icy cold to the core.

Pub Date: Feb. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-914671-94-7

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Archipelago

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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