An engrossing look at the realities of aid work that veers somewhat off-course.

TOKOLOSI

In this debut novel, a team of drought-relief workers faces challenges in early 1990s sub-Saharan Africa. 

The plot intertwines the stories of Tsabo Mashedi, a young man from the village of Katama in an imagined African nation, and Harry Burke, a retired management consultant who is drafted to aid the drought-relief efforts in that country. Tsabo is born into poverty but is able to attend a mission school, eventually earning a scholarship to study law at Oxford. There, he is tutored by Harry’s cousin Dermot, befriending the retired consultant in the process. After Tsabo graduates, he returns home to assist his family. Harry is soon coincidentally assigned by the United Nations to help organize relief work in Tsabo’s country. Harry arrives in Kolokuana, the southern province’s major city, and discovers that he’ll be working with Tsabo, who has taken on a role with the U.N. The third main member of their team is Jack, a retired civil servant and a less-than-eager worker. Jack’s reticence is just one of the hurdles they must face in crafting a bottom-up aid plan; they must also deal with a corrupt and often unhelpful local government, the increasing prevalence of HIV, and the difficulty of reaching and providing help to remote villages. As they slowly make headway in the project, the group’s progress is threatened by the nation’s increasing civil unrest. Skinner adeptly balances lighter and darker moments throughout the story; although the problems the characters encounter are monumental, there is still space for humor and compassion within the plot. The main characters have some depth to them, although some side players lapse into caricatures. But the author’s narrative frame is needlessly complicated; Dermot narrates the book, but he constantly interrupts the tale to say that he is recording these impressions from diaries he has received from the other two main characters. He only becomes centrally involved later in the volume. But Dermot’s own story does not match the tone of the rest of the novel, turning a mostly realistic portrait of relief efforts into an international thriller of sorts. 

An engrossing look at the realities of aid work that veers somewhat off-course.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5144-9925-2

Page Count: 398

Publisher: XlibrisUK

Review Posted Online: March 23, 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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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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