A likable if far-fetched jaunt; O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.

THE ROAD TO SAMARCAND

This adventure story, set in the Far East, was originally published in 1954; it predates the naval warfare novels that made O’Brian (1914–2000) famous.

Derrick, an American teenager in China between the World Wars, recently lost both his missionary parents, but don’t feel badly for him; he’s a spirited lad, enjoying his apprenticeship on a schooner in the South China Sea. He’s there because its skipper Sullivan, a resourceful man of action, is his uncle. They’re on their way to meet Professor Ayrton, an elderly English archaeologist and Derrick’s cousin; Ayrton wants the boy to attend school, the one thing Derrick dreads. As a palliative, the kindly prof suggests postponing school until they’ve made an overland journey to Samarcand, the legendary Central Asian city; there will be archaeological digs en route. The schooner is dry-docked, and the group sets off from Peking, joined by two sailors, a Scot and a Swede, the ship’s cook Li Han and three Mongols with their pack animals. They will travel the Old Silk Road on horseback, crossing the Gobi desert and Mongolia; the principal danger will be rival warlords. Sure enough, Sullivan and Ross, the Scotsman, are soon taken prisoner by the villainous Shun Chi, who’s in league with the Russians. The frail professor, discovering in himself a “transient thirst for blood,” leaps into action. By impersonating a Russian he frees the two men, and threatens a warlord with his own revolver. This is dramatic, but only up to a point, for we know the good guys will emerge unscathed. Only much later, when the group is forced to enter a valley in Tibet haunted by the Abominable Snowman and three of the group are left for dead, does the action have real bite. A miraculous escape in a Russian helicopter from some hostile monks completes the story.

A likable if far-fetched jaunt; O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.

Pub Date: July 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-393-06473-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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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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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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