Beautifully written and—perhaps fittingly—over too soon.

MRS. ALWORTH

A brilliant young woman ponders love and death in 1920s New Jersey in Castano’s brisk novel.

When 19-year-old Amanda Bannon receives a terminal diagnosis for a chronic illness she’s battled since childhood (nameless but possibly a form of leukemia), her father, Joseph, a police captain, promises to fulfill her deepest wish: “I have to be able to do something....Anything you want, Amanda. Anything in the world.” Normally reserved and bookish, Amanda stuns her family (and it’s hinted, herself) by requesting to marry Orest Alworth, a mysterious young friend of her father’s and one of his fellow officers. Orest’s acceptance of the odd proposal (Mr. Bannon does the asking) also comes as a shock, but despite the awkwardness, wedding prep begins. The Bannons scramble to orchestrate Amanda’s last wish—albeit in the quickest, quietest way possible. Castano dusts off traditional archetypes and makes them feel new; the cast includes Cecilia, a deceptively zany single aunt; Margaret, Amanda’s critical but ever worried mother; and Elizabeth and Catherine, Amanda’s teenage sisters, who witness the first hints of Amanda’s feelings for Orest. A few plot twists feel hazy, but Castano’s writing is cinematic, with gorgeous, delicate imagery that feels true to the time period. Amanda’s deadpan observations are also consistently enjoyable throughout. In one of many dinner scenes, she verbalizes her feelings of separateness from her parents and sisters: “Wide-jawed, brown-eyed and chestnut hair, Dad and Catherine. Blonde, green-eyed and fine-boned, Mom and Elizabeth. Me? Slate-gray eyes dug up from some quarry. A head covered in an earth-colored tangle.” Amanda and Orest’s relationship takes shape slowly, more spiritual than romantic, even as interfering family members, gossip, revelations about Orest’s murky past, and the ever present specter of Amanda’s illness threaten to encroach.

Beautifully written and—perhaps fittingly—over too soon.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-73438-358-4

Page Count: 226

Publisher: New Meridian Arts

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2021

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Strangely stuffy and muted.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

The little-known story of the Black woman who supervised J. Pierpont Morgan’s storied library.

It's 1905, and financier J.P. Morgan is seeking a librarian for his burgeoning collection of rare books and classical and Renaissance artworks. Belle da Costa Greene, with her on-the-job training at Princeton University, seems the ideal candidate. But Belle has a secret: Born Belle Marion Greener, she is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, and she's passing as White. Her mother, Genevieve, daughter of a prominent African American family in Washington, D.C., decided on moving to New York to live as White to expand her family’s opportunities. Richard, an early civil rights advocate, was so dismayed by Genevieve’s decision that he left the family. As Belle thrives in her new position, the main source of suspense is whether her secret will be discovered. But the stakes are low—history discloses that the career-ending exposure she feared never came. There are close calls. J.P. is incensed with her but not because of her race: She considered buying a Matisse. Anne Morgan, J.P.’s disgruntled daughter, insinuates that Belle has “tropical roots,” but Belle is perfectly capable of leveraging Anne’s own secrets against her. Leverage is a talent of Belle’s, and her ruthless negotiating prowess—not to mention her fashion sense and flirtatious mien—wins her grudging admiration and a certain notoriety in the all-White and male world of curators and dealers. Though instructive about both the Morgan collection and racial injustice, the book is exposition-laden and its dialogue is stilted—the characters, particularly Belle, tend to declaim rather than discuss. The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life, particularly her affair with Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson and the sexual tension between Belle and Morgan. But Belle’s mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life.

Strangely stuffy and muted.

Pub Date: June 29, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-10153-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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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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