Elegant, enigmatic, and haunting.

THE SPECTATORS

A mass high school shooting prompts a reckoning for a controversial talk show host and those around him in duBois’ (Cartwheel, 2013, etc.) third novel.

“He was Matthew Miller then,” remembers a man named Semi, the host's lover in the 1970s, who knew him as an idealistic lawyer and then a candidate for mayor of New York. But in 1993, when The Mattie M Show publicist Cel is struggling to defuse reports that two high school boys who gunned down multiple classmates watched his show regularly, Mattie presides over a TV carnival of people confessing to “vices and depravities the average viewer didn’t even know existed.” The show’s evolution from a substantive public affairs program to a wildly popular venue for “rubbernecking and mayhem” is more explicable than Mattie himself, an empathetic interlocutor of the damaged and deranged on camera but a mystery to his staff off the air. Semi’s recollections of their affair and break-up intertwine with Cel’s story to create an atmospheric chronicle of New York’s bohemian gay subculture in the freewheeling 1970s, a keening depiction of the AIDS-stricken '80s, and a poignant portrait of Cel, who got out of the rural working class via Smith but still lacks the self-confidence to claim—or even know—what she really wants. Mattie remains remote and enigmatic, even in his final encounters with Semi, which move him toward a fateful change of direction without readers ever really understanding him. This is not a fault but simply a given of duBois’ accomplished narrative, which ranges widely to investigate contemporary culture through the complicated human beings who inhabit it: Cel’s party-girl roommate and a judgmental pal from Smith, a predatory journalist, the TV show’s seen-it-all producer, and one of the shooters (via a scarily thoughtful letter to Mattie) are among the other characters sketched with acuity and perception. The ending respects Matte’s opacity but allows him to make some kind of amends to Semi, while Cel gets the fresh start she deserves.

Elegant, enigmatic, and haunting.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9588-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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