An inventive, elegantly constructed, ably written peek into the secret lives of women from a historical perspective.

SISTER NOON

In Fowler’s latest (The Sweetheart Season, 1996, etc.), a shady lady from New Orleans crosses paths with a respectable spinster in Gilded Age San Francisco.

Rumor has it that Mrs. Pleasant passed for white when she arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush. A reputed voodoo queen, she was a beauty then and she’s rich now, even though she still works as a housekeeper for her first California lover, the mysterious Mr. Bell. Her specialty: arranging parties at which wealthy men meet wayward women and keeping track of the inevitable results: illegitimate children, many of whom she simply sells to the Chinese tongs. At least, those are the whispers Lizzie Hayes has heard. Fat, 40ish, and unmarried, Lizzie devotes her days to good works and her nights to romantic fantasies. She helps run the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home for Girls, and it’s here that she meets Mrs. Pleasant, with unhappy waif Jenny Ijub clinging to the old lady’s skirts. Mrs. Pleasant drops subtle hints regarding a wealthy father who may well be persuaded to support this wrong-side-of-the-blanket offspring. The Home’s officials won’t approve, but the organization is perennially short of funds, so Lizzie reluctantly agrees to take in Jenny. She has nothing against the sullen child, and she’s drawn to Mrs. Pleasant, whose herbal concoctions cure her migraines. Lizzie even pays a call on Mr. Bell’s faintly disreputable but luxurious household and his languorous young wife, a visit that fires her romantic imagination in more than ways than one. But her sense of duty wins out: when a strange, shabbily dressed man visits the Home and asks to adopt Jenny, Lizzie acts on instinct and hides the girl. It’s not long before the man reveals the secret of Jenny’s parentage, then demands cash to keep his silence. Lizzie’s ultimate decision will surprise everyone.

An inventive, elegantly constructed, ably written peek into the secret lives of women from a historical perspective.

Pub Date: May 7, 2001

ISBN: 0-399-14750-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2001

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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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