Not one of Hoffman’s best, but it may spark a desire to reread Hawthorne.

In this story of a young woman’s attempt to control her destiny, Hoffman combines a paean to reading and books—specifically one book—with time-travel fantasy.

Fifteen-year-old Mia Jacob lives unhappily in the Community, a modern-day cult in western Massachusetts, where women who fail to obey the rigid rules set by despotic leader Joel Davis must wear letters around their necks or branded on their arms. (Sound familiar?) Mia’s mother, Ivy, who came to the Community as a pregnant, runaway teen and reluctantly married Joel, now secretly encourages Mia’s small rebellions, steering her to read books, an activity Joel made Ivy abandon. Mia becomes obsessed with The Scarlet Letter after finding a first edition mysteriously inscribed “To Mia.” After Ivy’s death, Mia escapes the Community. Under the tutelage of Constance Allen and Sarah Mott, a loving couple of lesbian librarians in Concord (where Hawthorne is buried), she finishes growing up and becomes a librarian herself, although Joel continues hounding her. One day, while visiting Hawthorne’s grave, she makes a wish that she could meet the author. Poof! At its midpoint, Hoffman’s novel transforms from a relatively realistic story of female empowerment and the spiritual/psychological magic of reading into pure fantasy. Mia finds herself transported to 1837 Salem. Hawthorne, a struggling young writer whose book Twice-Told Tales has recently been a commercial flop, finds Mia asleep in the grass. She lamely announces, “I came from another time only to meet you,” and they fall rapturously in love, but the inevitable time-travel question arises: If she stays with him, will she alter history? Mia recognizes that The Scarlet Letter is her life story; if the book did not exist, would she? Hoffman makes Nathaniel dreamily appealing and creates a riveting voice for his sister Elizabeth, whose brilliance is thwarted by the times in which she lives, but Mia is more author’s puppet than character, and Hoffman’s worthy message concerning women’s rights feels repetitive and ultimately didactic. More important, the realism and fantasy never quite jibe.

Not one of Hoffman’s best, but it may spark a desire to reread Hawthorne.

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2023

ISBN: 9781982175375

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: May 24, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2023


If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?

McBride follows up his hit novel Deacon King Kong (2020) with another boisterous hymn to community, mercy, and karmic justice.

It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. He isn’t at all “feeble-minded,” but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. McBride’s well-established skill with narrative tactics may sometimes spill toward the melodramatic here. But as in McBride’s previous works, you barely notice such relatively minor contrivances because of the depth of characterizations and the pitch-perfect dialogue of his Black and Jewish characters. It’s possible to draw a clear, straight line from McBride’s breakthrough memoir, The Color of Water (1996), to the themes of this latest work.

If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2023

ISBN: 9780593422946

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 9, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2023


A reasonably charming urban fantasy that could have used a more rigorous edit before primetime.

The latest in a series of rereleases from a prolific fantasist’s previously self-published works is a contemporary spin on the fairytale “Godfather Death.”

Viola Marek is an aswang, a shapeshifting vampire from Filipino folklore. She’s also a Chicago real estate agent trying to sell a mansion even while the ghost of its last owner, Thomas Edward Parker IV, is doing his supernatural best to block the sale.  In a desperate attempt to earn her commission, she hires Fox D’Mora, Death’s mortal godson, to use his connection to get the ghost to leave. Unfortunately, Death is unavailable: He’s been kidnapped, and to get him back and prevent a worlds-spanning catastrophe, Fox, Vi, the ghost, and assorted other supernatural creatures will have to enter a high-stakes gambling game that usually only immortals can play…but rarely win. The story begins with an unusual blend of myth, fairy tale, and cosmology and inevitably descends to an almost unbearable level of sentimentality, which is simultaneously a refreshing change from Blake’s usual tableau of self-involved, selfish characters who seem driven toward tragedies of their own making. Blake could definitely do a better job at showing the love between characters rather than merely telling the reader that they’re in love. She also has an unfortunate tendency to skip potentially intriguing bits of backstory if they don’t immediately drive the plot along, which is why readers never learn anything about Fox’s childhood and what it was actually like having Death as a parent. Nor does she explain why only two of the four archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, play outsize roles in determining the order of the cosmos, while Uriel and Michael are nowhere to be seen. Bits of anachronism—like the use of a rubber band as aversion therapy 200 years ago or the presence of a magical wristwatch from a time long before watches were common—might be intended to be Pratchett-style humor or chalked up to magic? It’s hard to tell what’s intentional and what is simply careless. Now that Blake has a traditional publisher, perhaps the editors of her future novels will guide the author to address these issues when they arise.

A reasonably charming urban fantasy that could have used a more rigorous edit before primetime.

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2023

ISBN: 9781250892461

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2023

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