One doesn’t need to be a buff of the Bard to love this well-told tale.

SHAKESPEARE AND THE LOST COLONY

Modern-day and Shakespearean-era murders align in this mystery by Shakespeare scholar Wharton.

The story opens in 1616 with Shakespeare lying upon his deathbed as a hooded and cloaked visitor approaches his bedside, leaving the reader to guess at his/her identity. The author then flashes back 22 years, when a young man and future lord, William Herbert, witnesses an experiment: an attempt by an alchemist to create the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s here that Herbert learns of the clandestine Order of the Rose Cross and the suspiciously failed endeavor by the group to colonize the New World. Among those gathered in the laboratory is Herbert’s mother, who advises him that the Order’s secrecy is imperative. Years later, Shakespeare is called on by a powerful lord to spy upon Herbert. Soon after, Herbert hears the words “rose” and “cross” in the dialogue of one of Shakespeare’s plays and assumes Shakespeare has knowledge about the secret order, as well as the lost colony. Though Shakespeare is unwitting, his interest is piqued; he soon risks life and limb to solve the mystery, and the narrative shifts into a complex whodunit. Many scenes contain sumptuous descriptions and smart dialogue. Alternating with the Shakespeare tale is an equally intriguing mystery, this one set in the present day. Charles Morgan is a divorced, disengaged composition teacher at a private college. Lionel Bunce, who is Morgan’s faculty mentor, as well as a Shakespeare expert, reveals to Morgan that he is on the brink of solving a mystery of historic proportions involving Shakespeare and “issues of state,” but he needs just one more piece to complete the puzzle. He reveals that he’s dying and makes Morgan promise that he will complete his work. But Morgan discovers that solving a centuries-old mystery is a hazardous gig; a man claiming to be a co-worker of Bunce asks for access to his writings and books. Morgan realizes that there is indeed a treasure hidden somewhere in Bunce’s dusty documents and prized books. Morgan races to unravel the mystery as he runs for his life. The ending comes to a clever full circle. With perfect pacing, the story alternates between the two engaging plotlines, and readers will find themselves turning pages at full tilt. Deliciously multifaceted, the novel is carefully constructed with a cast of unique and well-crafted characters.

One doesn’t need to be a buff of the Bard to love this well-told tale.

Pub Date: July 31, 2012

ISBN: 9781468157178

Page Count: 422

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2012

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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