A runaway train of a plot, in which our heroine suffers four marriages, two pregnancies, three tragic deaths and too many...

SECRET OF A THOUSAND BEAUTIES

Set in 1930s China, Yip’s latest intrigue follows a runaway “ghost wife” as she finds a place in the world amid imperial loyalists and the rumblings of revolution.

At 17, Spring Swallow is about to become a “ghost wife,” married to an unborn baby (he died during a miscarriage) and tied to her “husband’s” family. She runs away on her wedding day and is lucky enough to be taken in by Aunty Peony, who operates an embroidery studio. Spring Swallow lives and works there with the other sad-story girls, Purple, Leilei and Little Doll, while the imperious Aunty Peony teaches the ancient art of Su embroidery. They have a big commission from Peking and just six months to finish it, but Spring Swallow bristles at Aunty Peony’s rules—among them a vow of celibacy—and finds solace in climbing a nearby mountain. She writes poetry on the rocks and is surprised to find that someone has written back. She and Shen Feng finally meet, fall in love and are separated in short order—he’s a revolutionary on a mission. Meanwhile, Spring Swallow has been sneaking into Aunty Peony’s room and rummaging through her things. She discovers a shocking secret: Aunty Peony was an embroiderer for the royal household and mistress of the last emperor of China. After a series of tragedies, Spring Swallow is once again destitute but is hired by an embroidery shop whose owner wants her for a daughter-in-law. But her new husband is a scoundrel, and after a miscarriage (of Shen Feng’s baby), she is thrown out again, quickly finding a home with the Catholic missionaries and the love of an American priest.

A runaway train of a plot, in which our heroine suffers four marriages, two pregnancies, three tragic deaths and too many coincidences in a two-year span to be believable, yet the narrative has a certain cheeky, boundless energy that propels the reader to a gratifying conclusion.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-61773-321-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Kensington

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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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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