Although Lowell and Susan become reconciled, this is a sad, angry book, full of raw emotions elegantly phrased.

OUTSIDE VALENTINE

Revisiting the 1950s murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, romanticized in the classic 1973 movie Badlands, Ward, in her first novel, places her sympathies clearly with the victims.

The author follows three characters at different moments in their interwoven lives. In 1991, Lowell Bowman is a Manhattan antiquities dealer whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. We soon realize that Lowell’s parents were murdered by Starkweather and Fugate in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he was a boy. His wife Susan wants him to go to their former home in upstate New York and retrieve a safe deposit box he has secretly rented for years. Emotionally closed on many levels, racked by survivor’s guilt, he reluctantly travels upstate, not sure if he’s leaving Susan for good. In 1959, Susan is a 13-year-old whose troubled family has just moved to Lincoln. She’s first drawn to the Starkweather story for its adolescent romanticism, but as her mother moves toward abandoning Susan and her father, the girl shifts her obsession to the tragedy of the Bowmans’ orphaned son. While saving her best friend’s mother from possible suicide, Susan at last meets Lowell, and their attraction is immediate. In 1957, Caril Fugate is a dull-witted but conniving 14-year-old girl wildly infatuated with Starkweather, and, as his murder spree begins, she plays the part of passive participant. When she and Starkweather come to the Bowman home, she’s drawn to Mrs. Bowman but does nothing to help her when the opportunity arises. Ward, who has based the Bowmans on her own family, shows no sympathy for Fugate, portraying her as stereotypical white trash. In prison in 1976, Fugate still denies blame, viewing herself as victim. The obvious irony lies in the way guilt stains the life of the victim more than of the perpetrator.

Although Lowell and Susan become reconciled, this is a sad, angry book, full of raw emotions elegantly phrased.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-8050-7598-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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