Whatever its melodramatic excesses, Pitts’ novel, with urgency and passion, makes readers aware that the mistakes of the...

GRANT PARK

In the aftermath of this summer’s racially motivated mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist, there’s near-eerie prescience in Pitts’ historical novel, which juxtaposes events 40 years apart in the lives of its characters.

On Election Day 2008, Malcolm Toussaint, an African-American columnist for a Chicago daily, sets his career on fire by hacking an incendiary column about how he’s “tired of white folks’ bullshit” onto his paper’s front page the day the country’s about to elect its first black president. (Malcolm, embittered by a police shooting of an unarmed black man, is convinced Barack Obama’s going to lose, no matter what the polls say.) His white editor, Bob Carson, whose computer was used without his permission to post the column, is fired, and he sets off to have it out with Malcolm. But that confrontation may have to wait because Malcolm’s been abducted by a pair of white supremacists who plan to use the columnist in a terrorist attack on the eponymous park where the Obama campaign plans to celebrate its triumph that night. This Hitchcock-ian suspense story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1968, when a younger Malcolm, then a militant college dropout, encounters Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights leader's ill-fated trip to Memphis to aid striking garbage workers. There are also scenes during that same year of a younger, more idealistic Bob, whose interracial romance is sorely stress-tested by events in Memphis leading up to King’s murder. Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist making his third foray into fiction (Before I Forget, 2009; Freeman, 2012), sometimes seems to strain for effect while moving two very different narratives along. And the book's setup seems almost too prefabricated. (Yes, there were older black activists who neither liked nor entirely trusted Obama that year, but hardly any of them doubted toward the end that he’d win.) Yet the novel’s lapses are all but overwhelmed by its breakneck momentum, and it's infused with vivid characterizations and canny verisimilitude, especially in the ’68 passages. For example: in the relative hagiography of the present day, it’s hard for younger readers to believe that King didn’t enjoy unilateral support from all African-Americans, especially at the time of his death. Hence the sardonic labeling of MLK as “De Lawd” by Malcolm and other Black Power advocates.

Whatever its melodramatic excesses, Pitts’ novel, with urgency and passion, makes readers aware that the mistakes of the past are neglected at the future’s peril.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-932841-91-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Bolden/Agate

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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