Gorgeous prose and unforgettable characters combine to make a literary masterpiece.

BEASTS OF A LITTLE LAND

An epic novel brings complex 20th-century Korean history to life.

In this extraordinary historical novel, debut author Kim weaves together the story of friends and rivals trying to survive and thrive from the era of the Japanese occupation of Korea to the political purges of the mid-20th century. The book begins with a Korean hunter encountering a tiger in the snow when he is captured by a lost squad of Japanese soldiers. With its near-mythic evocations of several kinds of beasts, the prologue establishes the themes of the book. The majority of the novel follows Jade, whose impoverished farming family sends her as a young girl to work as a servant for a courtesan. Jade observes the rivalries of other girls in training, particularly Luna, the spoiled favored daughter of the head of the household, and Lotus, the spirited but plainer younger sister. Thanks to her intelligence and resourcefulness, Jade will grow up to become a celebrated courtesan and movie star in Seoul, where she and the two sisters end up as adults. Together they encounter various men, including the revolution-minded MyungBo, an intellectual fighting for Korean independence; the ever loyal JungHo, the leader of a street gang of orphaned boys; the slick and wealthy patron SungSoo; and the ambitious rickshaw driver HanChol. Jade, Luna, and Lotus fall in love with men from very different backgrounds, but their love and loyalty are not always returned. Kim shows clearly how patriarchy harms these resourceful women in one of the novel's major themes. Late in the book a Japanese general will remark, "How such enormous beasts have flourished in this little land is incomprehensible." He is referring to tigers, but he might as well be talking about the humans who fight here, too.

Gorgeous prose and unforgettable characters combine to make a literary masterpiece.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-309357-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS

The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams’ debut novel.

Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptorium—in reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED’s editors, toiled—accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women’s suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme’s personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.

Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-16019-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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