Sharply observed, bitingly witty yet emotionally generous, and as ominous as the times deserve.

MIDDLE ENGLAND

Benjamin Trotter, friends, and family return (The Closed Circle, 2005, etc.) to observe, mostly with dismay, the run-up to Brexit in a divided Britain.

In April 2010, just after the funeral of his mother, Benjamin listens impassively for what is obviously not the first time as his father, Colin, rails about “political correctness” ruining everything once great about Britain. Ugly though usually veiled comments by others make it clear that those words are used to denigrate anything that acknowledges England is no longer an all-white, all-Christian nation; immigrants and people of color make easy scapegoats in the anxious years after the economic meltdown. As the narrative moves toward the Brexit vote in 2016, Coe, with his usual acuity, tells the story of a collective meltdown through its impact on individuals. Benjamin’s journalist friend, Doug, spars with vacuous Tory flak Nigel as David Cameron’s government blunders toward the referendum it thinks it can manipulate to its own ends. Benjamin’s niece, Sophie, an art historian, finds her new marriage to sweet, totally unintellectual Ian strained when the promotion he’d counted on goes to a nonwhite colleague and he starts listening to his genteelly racist mother, Helena. Helena is hardly worse than Doug’s daughter, Coriander, a nihilistic teen who incarnates every cliché about sanctimonious ultra-leftists. Coe’s marvelous humor is still in evidence, but it’s got a decided edge: There's a cruise on which elderly passengers keep dying, inept middle-aged sex, and a bemused friend’s suggestion, when confronted with Benjamin’s decades-in-the-making mess of a novel, “Have you ever thought of taking up teaching?” Actually, a very slimmed-down version gets Benjamin longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the semioptimistic touches (he loses) that include Nigel’s experiencing something almost like an attack of honesty post-Brexit and Benjamin’s sister Lois’ finally overcoming her PTSD from a 1974 Irish Republican Army bombing—because things are so much worse now. Coe’s empathy for even the most flawed people and a bedrock, albeit eroding, faith in human decency keep his text from being bitter, but it is deeply sad.

Sharply observed, bitingly witty yet emotionally generous, and as ominous as the times deserve.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-65647-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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