Brandoff’s debut novel has a few dissonant moments, but its detailed portrait of a self-destructive character retains a...

CORNELIUS SKY

A doorman in 1970s New York City makes a series of bad decisions regarding his livelihood, family, and sobriety.

The title character, also known as Connie, has a contrarian streak and a penchant for heavy drinking—both among the reasons he has difficulty holding down a job and why his wife has kicked him out of their home. Connie drifts in and out of various bars, as well as his place of employment, a posh Fifth Avenue building, having halting and philosophical conversations with people he encounters. Brandoff writes precisely about Connie’s mental state and lucidity: “His Rolodex of drunks included full-blown blackouts, wherein days and, in a handful of cases, weeks of the calendar got recessed for good, but more generally he browned out.” Eventually, Brandoff reveals that Connie’s father committed suicide in a way that also killed Connie’s younger brother. It’s a detail that helps explain why Connie feels compelled to numb himself and why his connections to his loved ones oscillate between tenderness and something more bitter. Certain details reinforce themes of dysfunctional families: Connie takes in a production of Eugene O'Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, and he befriends the 13-year-old son of a deceased former president who bears more than a passing resemblance to John F. Kennedy Jr. and is one of the tenants of the building where he works. But the presence of celebrity in this narrative never clicks with its focus on Connie, making for some awkward tonal shifts. When Brandoff focuses on the details of New York City life, he establishes an atmospheric, lived-in quality. But a tendency to sum up certain descriptions too neatly leaves some passages feeling heavy-handed.

Brandoff’s debut novel has a few dissonant moments, but its detailed portrait of a self-destructive character retains a haunting power.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61775-708-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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