Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

THE O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2019

Centenary volume of the esteemed short fiction annual, filled with standouts.

As the publisher writes, with welcome transparency, in an opening note, the choices in this volume are made by series editor and novelist/memoirist Furman (Ordinary Paradise, 1998, etc.); the jurors—in this case, Lara Vapnyar, Lynn Freed, and Elizabeth Strout—pick and comment on their favorite submission among the 20 Furman proffers. That understood, Furman appears to have broad tastes and no fear of sudden violence, something many of the stories exhibit. Perhaps the best—as with most prize volumes, especially those of limited scope, there’s not really a bad story in the bunch, but some are naturally enough better than others—is Canadian author Alexander MacLeod’s searing “Lagomorph,” whose title commemorates an unusually long-lived rabbit whose days are nearly ended by an unwonted visit outdoors and an encounter there with a hungry snake. The metaphor could be obvious in a story whose guiding arc is the deterioration of a long marriage, but MacLeod keeps his eye on the rabbit and firm control over a story packed with meaning: “I couldn’t feel anything out of place, and couldn’t tell if there was something else wrong, something broken deeper inside of him.” Speaking of control, Souvankham Thammavongsa turns the tables nicely with her story “Slingshot,” depicting a 70-year-old woman whose relationship with a 32-year-old man is sexual and sensual but whose terms she sets, quietly rebuking the noisy and nosy: “Old is a thing that happened outside,“ thinks her narrator when one bore reminds her of the age difference. The violence returns in John Edgar Wideman’s self-assured “Maps and Ledgers,” concerning a rising African American academic whose daily burden is by no means lessened when his father kills a man, while Rachel Kondo’s “Girl of Few Seasons” lays a memorable foundation for the reasons why a Vietnam-bound Hawaiian man must kill his flock of homing pigeons, “a steady heartbeat in his hands."

Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-56553-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Anchor

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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