A demanding but rewarding religious story.

THE WRONG SIDE OF ETERNITY

A PRESENT-DAY PASSION

This novel, set alternately in Uganda and California, offers a paradigm of struggle between faith and the secular world.

Mendenhall’s (Michael and the Ice Princess, 2011) protagonist is Stephen O’Connell, a Mexican-Irish-American who’s a talented musician and actor. In the 1970s, he finds Christ and enrolls in Scholars Bible College, but it turns out to be a very conservative, rigid, airless place with teachers and students who often seem to hew the letter of the Bible, instead of its spirit. Stephen doesn’t last very long at the school, but during his time there, he does make fast friends, including Bryce Everett and Margaret Whitman, who reappear later in the story. Later, in the 1990s, Stephen and his wife, Julie (along with their son, Sam), are in Uganda as missionaries and AIDS workers. Readers are reminded that back in the 1970s, Uganda, under the rule of Idi Amin, was a place of unspeakable atrocities; in the ’90s, there’s genocide in neighboring Rwanda. As portrayed in this novel, Africa is a beautiful but tragic place, and the O’Connells are right in the thick of what’s happening within it. Other characters in Uganda include school headmaster Geoffrey Mahoro and his niece, Charity Ntambara, who was raped by Amin’s soldiers and bears the spiritual and cultural scars years later. Julie is nearly killed by a religious fanatic, and yet another religious fanatic comes after administrative assistant Madeleine Everett later, back in California. This is a complex book, and even the title itself presents a puzzle and a challenge. That said, the book is well-organized and engagingly written. Its characters are believable throughout, and readers will have sympathy for even the flawed ones (such as Madeleine). Mendenhall is a believer in the Christian faith, but her work doesn’t come across as Pollyannish or polemical. Indeed, there are no easy answers here, and certainly no deus ex machina. The O’Connells are the closest thing to true saints in Mendenhall’s world, but she still succeeds, for the most part, in making them seem human. Even non-believers will find this world engrossing, particularly as it may be one that’s new to them. 

A demanding but rewarding religious story.

Pub Date: July 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5195-0260-5

Page Count: 374

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 13, 2016

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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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