Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.

THE ESSEX SERPENT

The unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for this sweeping 19th-century saga of competing belief systems.

Widow Cora Seaborne knows she should mourn the death of her husband; instead, she finally feels free. Eschewing the advice of her friends, Cora retreats from London with her lady’s maid, Martha, and strange, prescient son, Francis. The curious party decamps to muddy Essex, where Cora dons an ugly men’s coat and goes tramping in the mud, looking for fossils. Soon she becomes captivated by the local rumor of a menacing presence that haunts the Blackwater estuary, a threat that locks children in their houses after dark and puts farmers on watch as the tide creeps in. Cora’s fascination with the fabled Essex Serpent leads her to the Rev. William Ransome, desperate to keep his flock from descending into outright hysteria. An unlikely pair, the two develop a fast intellectual friendship, curious to many but accepted by all, including Ransome’s ailing wife, Stella. Perry (After Me Comes the Flood, 2015) pulls out all the stops in her richly detailed Victorian yarn, weaving myth and local flavor with 19th-century debates about theology and evolution, medical science and social justice for the poor. Each of Perry’s characters receives his or her due, from the smallest Essex urchin to the devastating Stella, who suffers from tuberculosis and obsesses over the color blue throughout her decline. There are Katherine and Charles Ambrose, a good-natured but shallow society couple; the ambitious and radical Dr. Luke Garrett and his wealthier but less-talented friend George Spencer, who longs for Martha; Martha herself, who rattles off Marx with the best of them and longs to win Cora’s affection; not to mention a host of sailors, superstitious tenant farmers, and bewitched schoolgirls. The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things should prepare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands.

Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-266637-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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