Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but an ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction.

IN THE DISTANCE

Violent, often surrealistic Wild West yarn, Cormac McCarthy by way of Gabriel García Márquez.

Håkan Söderström is a force of nature, a wild giant whose name, in the frontier America in which he has landed, is rendered as the Hawk. On the docks back in Gothenburg he was separated from his brother, Linus, and he has sworn to find him in a land so big he can scarcely comprehend it. The Hawk lands in California and ventures eastward only to find himself in all kinds of odd company—crooks, con men, prophets, and the rare honest man—and a tide of history that keeps pushing him back to the west. Along the way, his exploits, literary scholar Diaz (Hispanic Institute/Columbia Univ.; Borges, Between History and Eternity, 2012) writes, are so numerous that he has become a legend in a frontier full of them; for one thing, says an awe-struck traveler, “He was offered his own territory by the Union, like a state, with his own laws and all. Just to keep him away.” The Hawk protests that most of what has been said about him is untrue—but not all of it. As Diaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs his adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest dangers. One fine set piece is a version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which religious fanatics dressed as Indians attack a pioneer party—save that in Diaz’s version, Håkan tears his way across the enemy force with a righteous fury befitting an avenging angel. “He knew he had killed and maimed several men,” Diaz writes, memorably, “but what remained most vividly in his mind was the feeling of sorrow and senselessness that came with each act: those worth defending were already dead, and each of his killings made his own struggle for self-preservation less justifiable.”

Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but an ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-56689-488-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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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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