THE RIVER WITHIN

In 1955, postwar Britain’s socio-economic changes play out in the small Yorkshire village of Starome as local estate Richmond Hall swims against a tide of mounting taxes and death duties.

Then the drowned body of Danny Masters, a village local, is discovered at river’s edge by 17-year-old Lennie Fairweather, her older brother, Tom, and their friend Alexander Richmond. As Danny’s aunt says, “That river’s always been dangerous.” Never named, it winds dangerously enough through the lives of Powell’s four protagonists: quiet Lennie, whose father’s job as private secretary at Richmond Hall has left her in social limbo, fully accepted neither by the village nor the gentry; Cambridge student Alexander, heir to Richmond Hall, who has begun a romantic relationship with Lennie while in confused, angry mourning over his father Angus’ recent death; Alexander’s mother, Venetia, whose stately role as Lady Richmond belies her insecurities and passions as a wife and mother; Danny himself, a village boy in unrequited love with Lennie though his boyhood friendships with Tom and Alexander ended years before when the two of them left for boarding school. (Intellectually gifted but resentful Tom, whose schooling Angus paid for, represents the angry young men of 1950s British fiction and film.) While Danny remains relatively innocent—pining for Lennie, his only real secret is the volume of Tennyson he’s purchased and keeps meaning to give her—his death forces Alexander, Lennie, and Venetia to confront unspoken jealousies and guilts, some more deserved than others. Love triangles abound, as do deaths with unclear causes. But this is not a murder mystery. Despite an unfortunately dated representation of mental illness, Powell shows hard-nosed empathy in portraying individuals’ private demons in the context of social realities. Her novel about love, class, and secrecy in 1950s England reads as if it were written in the era the characters inhabit, her style and tone reminiscent of an earlier generation of reticent yet emotionally brutal writers like Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene.

A mesmerizing escape.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-60945-615-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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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