Manilla’s compulsive embellishment can be wearying, and her ending verges on treacle, which is surprising after what has...

THE PATRON SAINT OF UGLY

Mermaids, maps, amulets and machismo all figure in this tall, busy tale about a girl’s coming-of-age amid plain and improbable family lore.

Manilla’s (Shrapnel, 2012, etc.) second novel features the sassy voice of Garnet Ferrari as she responds irreverently to a Vatican emissary’s questions about the origins of miraculous powers she denies having. Born covered with port-wine stains shaped like atlas cutouts, she seems to heal the skin problems of others. Flashbacks to her early life in the 1950s reveal a range of cruelties, from others shunning or mocking her to the favoring of her smart, beautiful brother and the bullying swagger of her uncle. The past also holds love and pain elsewhere in the family, especially an ill-fated triangle with roots in Sicily and thorny branches in the Ferraris’ U.S. home of Sweetwater, W.Va. Manilla plays with different shades of poverty and wealth as Garnet makes a Dickensian journey from low-income housing to a hilltop mansion. The transition includes visits and extravagance from her maternal grandmother, a rich Virginian with Mayflower antecedents. Her paternal counterpart is Nonna Diamante, long-suffering survivor of a bad marriage who melds Catholic faith and belief in malocchio (the evil eye). She’s a colorful soul and a frequent commentator whose accented English phrasings recall—cutely, then cloyingly—those of Chico Marx. There’s even an environmental lesson about clean water running through all this, a real issue in mining-scarred West Virginia. The narrative variety—from saintly myth to Twain-ian stretcher, shifting speakers, newspaper clippings, a 60 Minutes transcript and two pages covered with the letter Z—brings to mind another unusual autobiography, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Manilla’s compulsive embellishment can be wearying, and her ending verges on treacle, which is surprising after what has been at heart a cleareyed, touching fable of a girl learning the hard truths about herself and others.

Pub Date: June 17, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-14624-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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