Melodramatic for sure, but the author manages to avoid stereotypes while maintaining a brisk pace.

THE KITCHEN HOUSE

Irish orphan finds a new family among slaves in Grissom’s pulse-quickening debut.

Lavinia is only six in 1791, when her parents die aboard ship and the captain, James Pyke, brings her to work as an indentured servant at Tall Oaks, his Virginia plantation. Pyke’s illegitimate daughter Belle, chief cook (and alternate narrator with Lavinia), takes reluctant charge of the little white girl. Belle and the other house slaves, including Mama Mae and Papa George, their son Ben, grizzled Uncle Jacob and youngsters Beattie and Fanny, soon embrace Lavinia as their own. Otherwise, life at Tall Oaks is grim. Pyke’s wife Martha sinks deeper into laudanum addiction during the captain’s long absences. Brutal, drunken overseer Rankin starves and beats the field slaves. The Pykes’ 11-year-old son Marshall “accidentally” causes his young sister Sally’s death, and Ben is horribly mutilated by Rankin. When Martha, distraught over Sally, ignores her infant son Campbell, Lavinia bonds with the baby, as well as with Sukey, daughter of Campbell’s black wet nurse Dory. Captain Pyke’s trip to Philadelphia to find a husband for Belle proves disastrous; Dory and Campbell die of yellow fever, and Pyke contracts a chronic infection that will eventually kill him. Marshall is sent to boarding school, but returns from time to time to wreak havoc, which includes raping Belle, whom he doesn’t know is his half-sister. After the captain dies, through a convoluted convergence of events, Lavinia marries Marshall and at 17 becomes the mistress of Tall Oaks. At first her savior, Marshall is soon Lavinia’s jailer. Kindly neighboring farmer Will rescues several Tall Oaks slaves, among them Ben and Belle, who, unbeknownst to all, was emancipated by the captain years ago. As Rankin and Marshall outdo each other in infamy, the stage is set for a breathless but excruciatingly attenuated denouement.

Melodramatic for sure, but the author manages to avoid stereotypes while maintaining a brisk pace.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4391-5366-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2009

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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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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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