At times indulgent but a highly enjoyable debut novel.

YEAR OF THE POETS

In Ballard’s highly readable, character-driven debut novel, the summer of 1976 proves messy, seductive and life-changing for celebrated poet, wanderer and serial womanizer Arthur Honeyman and all who enter his orbit.

Created as a gesture of personal liberation by farmer’s widow Amelia, the Davenport Summer Retreat for Artists in Michigan is aptly named. The poets and assorted others who have converged on this 100-year-old family farm in 1976 are all in retreat, emotionally and from rocky affairs, troubled marriages, familial relationships, hard choices, former failures and successes. Arthur Honeyman, 59, itinerant carpenter and renowned poet, has hit a fallow stretch. (His lauded earlier work, fueled by rage and bitterness stoked by his now ex-wife, is juicily critiqued by Amelia’s staid son Charlie as “compressed, excruciating blasts of words—opaque stanzas like shrapnel.”) Honeyman also builds benches stenciled with quotes by the likes of Mao Zedong and Janis Joplin, waffles over reuniting with estranged son Pablo, and juggles affairs with married Samantha and nubile poetry phenom Flora. In a delightful little visual, Ballard describes Flora’s painted toes, wiggling in the grass “like the carapaces of hyper blue beetles,” although the author’s fondness for colorful simile can lead to such proximal overindulgences as “the Poet’s bags sat half-packed, lazing like patient hounds at the foot of their master’s bed” and “the farmhouse squatting like a Buddha in the gauzy twilight.” Ballard’s frequent referral to Honeyman as “the Poet,” without a discernable tongue-in-cheek tone, is another distraction. Is the seeming conceit meant to underscore Honeyman’s stature with others? That he lives solely for his art? Is it a sly nod to 19th-century Romanticism? The intent isn’t clear. Ballard maintains his narrative’s robust energy, however, even when plunging lengthily into character-study mode. Over the course of sexual pairings and road trips as far afield as Mexico, lives intertwine on and off the farm, and everyone at the retreat—including pothead and religious college dropout Gideon and Charlie’s secretly far left–leaning girlfriend, Natalia—searches for (and finds, to one extent or other) inspiration, affirmation or at least clarity of purpose.

At times indulgent but a highly enjoyable debut novel.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 431

Publisher: Loose Leaves Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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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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