A good-natured combination of hammy modern and more sensitive historical mysteries, amounting to something rather less...

THE CONJURER’S BIRD

The hunt for an ornithological marvel is entwined with a period love story.

BBC producer Davies (Mrs. Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, 2004, etc.) roots his twin-pronged story in historical fact. Captain Cook’s second voyage of discovery produced the only known specimen of the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, which ended up stuffed in the collection of Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Cook on his first voyage. Here, “the rarest bird ever recorded” becomes the subject of a double-crossing, three-way race involving unconventional British academic Fitz and his lovely young sidekick/lodger Katya. Invited to help find the bird by Gabby, Fitz’s old love (and wife) and her new, rich partner Karl Anderson, they think they are tracing a source of DNA to be added to the private Gene Ark project. But the bird’s display case is also reputed to contain rare botanical paintings, thereby bringing slippery American sleuth Emeric Potts to the party. Interleaved with the story of Joseph Banks and his mistress Mary Burnett, the modern tale moves sluggishly. Much greater animation infuses the historical chapters recounting the impossible love between Banks and the disgraced countrywoman he saves from penury and shame. Burnett moves to London as Banks’s kept woman and their briefly transcendent involvement inspires his suggestion that she accompany him on the second Cook expedition, disguised as a man. Burnett, whose drawing and painting skills are exceptional, meets the ship in Madeira, but Banks is not on board, having withdrawn, insulted, after a change in cabin arrangements. Although reunited, the couple can never marry and after the birth of their daughter Sophia, Burnett slips out of the picture, taking the gift of the bird. Back in the present, Fitz dupes Anderson and Potts. The paintings were lost in a fire; the bird will stay in the loving possession of Sophia’s descendants.

A good-natured combination of hammy modern and more sensitive historical mysteries, amounting to something rather less fabulous than The Maltese Falcon.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-9733-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 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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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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