Salty, softhearted Emaline is the only truly memorable character, but evocative historical background and thoughtful social...

CROWN OF DUST

A girl posing as a boy finds a nugget and sets off a gold rush, with mixed results for the mid-19th-century town of Motherlode, Calif.

When Alex arrives, fleeing some unspecified trouble in San Francisco that requires her to disguise her gender, Motherlode is a ramshackle settlement presided over by Emaline, proprietress of the Victoria Inn. From there, she dispenses meals, whiskey and her favors to the rough men who are scratching the hills in hopes of making a strike. But her heart belongs to Jed, a fugitive slave who’s treated with grudging respect in this makeshift society by everyone except John Thomas, a nasty piece of work who also falsely asserts that Alex jumped his claim. Good-natured Limpy and his partner David force John Thomas to back off (though it’s clear he’ll be back to cause more trouble) and join Alex in the backbreaking work of sifting her claim to see if the nugget was part of a vein or just a fluke. David is disturbed by his attraction to someone he thinks is a boy, and Alex’s feelings for him begin to stir up unwelcome memories of her female past and a grimly unforgiving grandmother back in Pennsylvania. Emaline too is a refugee from the stricter ways of the East; she left a dead husband on the trail and changed the bleak name “Destitution Valley” to Motherlode to reflect her belief that she and all the other misfits can make a new future for themselves here. The story unfolds slowly—a little too slowly, with some simmering conflict (newly arrived, respectable women want to run Emaline out of town) but little real action until the bloody climax. Yet by accretion, Volmer paints a moving portrait of outcasts and nonconformists who build their own community.

Salty, softhearted Emaline is the only truly memorable character, but evocative historical background and thoughtful social observation make this a promising debut.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-56947-861-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2010

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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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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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