Masterfully written and researched but likely to appeal mainly to devotees of all things Tudor.

WOLF HALL

Exhaustive examination of the circumstances surrounding Henry VIII’s schism-inducing marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Versatile British novelist Mantel (Giving Up the Ghost, 2006, etc.) forays into the saturated field of Tudor historicals to cover eight years (1527–35) of Henry’s long, tumultuous reign. They’re chronicled from the point of view of consummate courtier Thomas Cromwell, whose commentary on the doings of his irascible and inwardly tormented king is impressionistic, idiosyncratic and self-interested. The son of a cruel blacksmith, Cromwell fled his father’s beatings to become a soldier of fortune in France and Italy, later a cloth trader and banker. He begins his political career as secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England. Having failed to secure the Pope’s permission for Henry to divorce Queen Katherine, Wolsey falls out of favor with the monarch and is supplanted by Sir Thomas More, portrayed here as a domestic tyrant and enthusiastic torturer of Protestants. Unemployed, Cromwell is soon advising Henry himself and acting as confidante to Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, former mistress of both Henry and King Francis I of France. When plague takes his wife and children, Cromwell creates a new family by taking in his late siblings’ children and mentoring impoverished young men who remind him of his low-born, youthful self. The religious issues of the day swirl around the events at court, including the rise of Luther and the burgeoning movement to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. Anne is cast in an unsympathetic light as a petulant, calculating temptress who withholds her favors until Henry is willing to make her queen. Although Mantel’s language is original, evocative and at times wittily anachronistic, this minute exegesis of a relatively brief, albeit momentous, period in English history occasionally grows tedious. The characters, including Cromwell, remain unknowable, their emotions closely guarded; this works well for court intrigues, less so for fiction.

Masterfully written and researched but likely to appeal mainly to devotees of all things Tudor.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8050-8068-1

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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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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