Evoking a not exactly unfamiliar chapter of 20th-century history, Kiernan succeeds in engagement but not much originality.

THE BAKER'S SECRET

While Europe awaits liberation from Hitler’s troops, one small Normandy village is held together by the resourcefulness of a 22-year-old woman with a talent for baguettes.

Through the hungry, despairing years of the Nazi occupation, hopes of an Allied invasion give most of the inhabitants of Vergers, a French northern coastal community, something to live for, but not baker Emmanuelle. “They will never come,” she repeats, burdened by the deportations and deaths of those she loves. Yet, despite her pessimism, Emma is waging her own one-woman war effort, bartering and distributing eggs, dribbles of petrol, and secret extra loaves to keep the village alive. Kiernan’s (The Hummingbird, 2015, etc.) portrait of the terrors and systematic cruelty of German rule is rooted in fact but softened by the conventions of the genre. There’s light humor, like a pigpen too smelly for the Nazis to search, and then there’s the cast of more-or-less predictable characters. The Germans, seemingly conscripted from central casting, are either cloddish or cunning (“The colonel…a bald man, who kept his monocle in place by maintaining a constant sneer”), while Emma and her community tend to follow stereotype: Resistance stalwarts, turncoats, beauties, and wise elders. When the D-Day landing does eventually begin, Emma, in special peril since her deceptions have been exposed by a dastardly Nazi captain, must finally accept that change has arrived. In fact she is brought to tears by witnessing the sacrifice of “whole cities of men” so that she, her family, friends, and neighbors can live freely, and here the novel does achieve emotional resonance before returning to more well-worn dramatic turns and heroics.

Evoking a not exactly unfamiliar chapter of 20th-century history, Kiernan succeeds in engagement but not much originality.

Pub Date: May 2, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-236958-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 7, 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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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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