Breezy and enjoyable despite some southern-fried clichés.

THE BAD BEHAVIOR OF BELLE CANTRELL

Young widow tosses caution—and bloomers—to the wind in 1920s Louisiana.

After losing her husband Claude the very day he returns from WWI, “flower of southern womanhood” Belle Cantrell bobs her hair in a symbolic gesture of emancipation that transforms her life, and shocks her small town of Gentry. Her narrow-minded neighbors should not be so surprised, since Belle is a remarkably forward-thinking former child bride who named her daughter after pioneering suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and who pays her loyal black employee Luther a “white man’s wage.” With Claude gone, Belle struggles with the guilty belief she may have “killed” her husband, who died in a saloon fight ostensibly defending her honor. (Seems there were some photographs of her being arrested in New Orleans on an “indecency” charge for swimming while wearing a too-revealing wool swimming costume.) Her grief is considerably eased when she takes up with Rafe Berlin, the shell-shocked vet brother of her best friend Rachel, who just happens to be Jewish. And a Yankee. And married. As if that were not enough, Belle tangles with Cajun scoundrel Beauregard “Bourrée” LeBlanc, a sinfully attractive young man she hires to help her run the thriving farm Claude partially left to her. Belle’s ill-advised dalliance with Bourrée—whose idea of a wholesome family outing is to take Belle, her daughter and mother-in-law to a Ku Klux Klan picnic—sets in motion a rip-roaring chain of events. Soon, Belle is called upon to save Rafe and his family after the spurned Bourrée convinces his white-sheeted “brothers” to go after the only Jews in Gentry. In this often funny prequel to The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc (2001), former screenwriter Despres demonstrates a fine ear for witty dialogue, even if the moronic Klansmen and assorted bigots Belle squares off against make easy targets.

Breezy and enjoyable despite some southern-fried clichés.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-051524-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2005

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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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