A frenzied yet wistful monologue from a lover of literature under siege.

RIOTS I HAVE KNOWN

A hyperliterate prisoner who is barricaded in his sanctuary while a riot unfolds writes his last words.

Well-versed pop-culture writer Chapman (Conversation Sparks, 2015) offers a debut novel that is as eccentric as it comes but also fitfully funny and murderously wry in its humor. Our imprisoned narrator is, as happens in a lot of transgressive comic novels, nameless but for his prison moniker, “MF.” There’s really no character here—we only learn our nameless narrator is an immigrant from Sri Lanka whose previous gig was working as a doorman in New York City—but he serves as a convenient cipher who allows the author to wax poetic about the role of literature in society and the blunt cruelty of the American prison system while enabling his capricious doppelgänger to pen arch reminiscences of his paramours. These include the now-bitterly despised Betsy Pankhurst, with whom, in a flashback, the narrator has an intimately described conjugal visit, and a fellow prisoner named McNairy, with whom he has what he calls a “meet-cute.” It turns out that our narrator is the editor of a popular prison journal aptly dubbed The Holding Pen, and apparently one of his missives has triggered the very riot that now threatens his life. The book is purposefully messy—the prose is breathless, meandering, and riddled with pop-culture references and responses to real-time events on platforms like Instagram and Reddit, which the narrator has access to as editor of the paper—but Chapman demonstrates an arch humor that mimics French existentialism as much as it does traditional American satire. It’s even easy to gain an odd affection for our superarrogant narrator despite his supercilious tone and his sentence, which is, as we learn late in the game, for doing something genuinely terrible. This is certainly not a book for casual readers, but those who appreciate a genuinely original stylist and acidly dark humor will find it an odd treat.

A frenzied yet wistful monologue from a lover of literature under siege.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9730-7

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

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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 SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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