Well-written and researched, but emotionally unengaging and probably not to the taste of those who like their historical...

THE LITTLE RUSSIAN

Sherman’s stark debut tracks a fortune-tossed couple whose quarter-century odyssey encapsulates the plight of Russia’s Jews.

The novel opens with a gut-churning description of an 1897 pogrom in Little Russia (modern-day Ukraine). The 14-year-old boy who numbly watches a peasant beat his father to death, we learn, is Hershel Alshonsky. Seven years later, he catches the eye of Berta Lorkis, a restless grocer’s daughter who thinks Hershel will give her back the comfortable life she enjoyed as companion to a wealthy Moscow family. Berta doesn’t know that Hershel’s travels as a wheat merchant disguise his activities smuggling guns for the Bund, which aims to arm Jews against pogroms. They have nine happily married years before a gun raid gone wrong sends Hershel fleeing to America in early 1914. Berta refuses to join him, thinking she and her two children can remain secure in the affluence Hershel’s trade created; by the time she realizes her mistake, World War I has begun, and they are trapped. Scrambling to support her son and daughter, proud, cultivated Berta is reduced to a “house Jew” who digs up hard-to-find luxury goods and sells them to gentiles who admit her only at their back doors. The Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war only make matters worse for Russian Jews, persecuted by all sides. Berta manages to scrape by and learns in 1919 that Hershel has sent for her. If she can only get to the American Embassy in Warsaw, she can save herself and the one child she has left. Sherman paints a refreshingly unsentimental portrait of a woman beset and a nation in the throes of revolutionary change yet still bound by ancient prejudices—so unsentimental, in fact, that it’s hard to care much about vain, self-centered Berta even after she is transformed into a tough, resourceful survivor.

Well-written and researched, but emotionally unengaging and probably not to the taste of those who like their historical fiction more reassuring.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-58243-772-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2011

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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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