An elegantly conceived tale—boasting a culturally and historically astute plot—that demands to be read.

ODD BIRDS

A tragic twist of fate leaves a revered artist destitute in Texas in this novel.

Seventy-year-old Cosimo Infante Cano was born in Cuba but forged a reputation as a modernist painter living and working in Paris. In 1961, he finds himself experiencing the same “nightmarish anxiety” he felt while fighting in the Great War as he wanders the streets of San Antonio with very little money. His plan was to make a passage from Europe to America to join his lover, Sara Hunter, whom he met in Paris and has known for 14 years. Yet, after his arrival in the United States, he discovers that his suitcases containing his “street clothes and address book” have been stolen. On reaching San Antonio, he then learns that Sara has been killed in a car accident. The wealthy Hunter family chooses to distance itself from him, making his situation even more precarious, as he had entrusted $45,000 to Sara to keep until his arrival along with two trunks packed with his clothes, tools, and brushes. Cosimo barely has the money to find himself a clean bed for the night, let alone the resources to sue the Hunters. Meanwhile, he faces a society where racial prejudice is commonplace. His appearance and bohemian attire mark him immediately as an outsider, or an “odd bird,” as one passerby remarks. Treated as a second-class citizen on account of his race and a vagrant because of his clothes, the city tries to prevent Cosimo from gaining a foothold, but the aging artist’s resilience may be underestimated. Cosimo’s struggle against the odds is absorbing from the get-go. Yet the manner in which Perez (Willa Brown, 2016, etc.) employs several layers of narrative, backtracking to detail the protagonist’s artistic life in ’40s Paris as well as alluding to the horrors he witnessed in World War I, adds richness and depth. The author diligently pins the main narrative to key political events of the era, most significantly the reluctant cessation of racial segregation in the South, which Ruthann Medlin, an openly bigoted San Antonio librarian, bemoans: “That was President Kennedy’s doing. Mixing all the races.” The compelling tale is driven predominantly by strong dialogue, with Perez capturing the sharpness and wit of bohemian cultural repartee, as when Sara playfully comments on a novel she has been translating: “The author’s characters are pale Edward Hopper creatures living in bleak hotel rooms. Having sex, not for pleasure mind you, but out of boredom. It’s as if they’re playing a winless game of tic-tac-toe.” The bond between Cosimo and Sara is also described in satisfyingly tender detail: “She reached out and took his hand, drawing him from the table to the settee. She found his slender fingers with nails trimmed into impeccable crescents particularly sensual.” There’s only one minor flaw: Because Cosimo is such a multifaceted, intricately drawn character, all the other players appear underdeveloped in comparison. Still, this does not detract from a captivating story that orchestrates a clever collision of artistic liberalism with the conservative values of the age.

An elegantly conceived tale—boasting a culturally and historically astute plot—that demands to be read.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87565-729-5

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Texas Christian University Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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