Tag Archives: Jennifer Miller

Book Review: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

                                 The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $24).

Iris Dupont, a budding high school journalist, carries on conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.  As she explains, “…Yes, I knew he’d been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?”  Odd?  Yes.  Then again, Iris is not your typical young woman.  Quiet, introspective, and highly intelligent, Iris is just one of the quirky characters who drive Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly.

Miller’s title is an apt one.  Socrates’s critics called him the gadfly of Athens: “No matter how hard his opponents tried to swat him away, he kept biting them with difficult questions.”  Like Socrates, Iris is the horsefly in this story.  She asks the hard questions, the queries everyone else wants to sweep under a rug.

Iris has had a difficult year.  Her best friend, Dalia, dies.  The death sends Iris into a depression.  Her family moves so that Iris can attend storied Mariana Academy, whose code is “brotherhood, truth, [and] equality.”  The family rents a house that once was home to the former headmaster of the academy.  Iris sleeps in a room where the headmaster’s daughter once slept.  Her name was Lily.  Iris feels odd living there: “…Maybe we were dopplengangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily).  Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises…Lilies…reeked of death.  Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.”

Foreshadowing is just one of the plot devices in which Miller shows off her skills.  Traveling to the school with her mother, Iris notices that “the mountainous peaks resembled teeth.  The road stretched between them like a black tongue.  And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.”  One cannot help but wonder if the school will swallow Iris.

To Iris, Mariana “screamed asylum more than school.”  Her journalistic nose senses something sinister within its walls, and her hunch is proven correct.  A powerful secret society called Prisom’s Party rules the school.  Prisom’s Party gets students expelled and even teachers fired.  What would Edward R. Murrow do?  She asks his ghost this question, and he answers her.

Iris decides she will investigate Prisom’s Party as she works on the school newspaper.  Miller makes it difficult for Iris at every turn.  And that is what makes this a good mystery.

Miller adds to the suspense by introducing two other characters and alternating the story among their distinctive points of view.  Jonah Kaplan is Iris’s teacher who once attended Mariana with his twin brother.  Because the story shifts back and forth through time, readers see the teenage Jonah, nerdy and unsure, and Mr. Kaplan, the instructor who instills fear and awe in his students.

Mr. Kaplan’s lessons are not only about biology; they are also about life: “Embracing extremity will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent–different from everybody else.”  Miller draws comparisons between adolescents and extremophiles (extreme-loving organisms) by illustrating how very few teens are left unscarred by adolescence.  The teenage years are difficult ones, and few emerge unscathed from those years.  Mr. Kaplan himself still carries the weight of his adolescence.

One of Miller’s biggest themes is bullying.  Prisom’s Party is, in all respects, the biggest bully on Mariana’s campus.  They may as well rule the school.  Miller shows how prevalent bullying is in schools all across the country and how dangerous bullying can be.

In a narrative that consists of flashbacks, Miller illustrates how Lily is bullied.  Lily is albino, and her difference makes her a target.  In contrast to the first-person narratives of Iris and Mr. Kaplan, Miller tells Lily’s story in the third person.  Yet the effect is not one of detachment.  Far from it.  Lily’s account may be the strongest in The Year of the Gadfly, especially when Iris finds a book called Marvelous Species that once belonged to Lily.  The book further intrigues Iris and plunges her deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding Prisom’s Party and Lily’s fate.

I recommend The Year of the Gadfly to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Miller’s story is intelligent, sharp, and eye-opening.  Miller shines as she describes the pain of adolescence and aptly compares high school to the political dealings of a Third World nation.  “In high school,” Miller warns, “you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend.”  Keep that warning in mind as you read The Year of the Gadfly.  As in Miller’s novel, our enemies sometimes disguise themselves as our friends.  Iris should be vigilant.

Look at the new paperback cover!

Look at the new paperback cover!

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Mother, May I Read a Book?

Happy May Day!  Ah, May, warm weather, blooming flowers, plentiful sunshine, and good books.  What more could we ask for?

May also brings us that most important of holidays: Mother’s Day.

Why not start a book club with your mom?  Include your friends, your mom’s friends, and their moms.  It’s a great way to get your nearest and dearest reading.

May I suggest these titles?

What to pick up now:

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman.  This book is Book Passage’s Signed First Editions Club pick for May.  Tilghman will be signing copies of his book and doing a reading at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 16.  The Right-Hand Shore  is about race, class, forbidden love, family history and secrets all in the wake of the Civil War.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  Boy, is this getting a lot of buzz!  Amina moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York.  She met George online and their marriage is an arranged one.  In the nineteenth-century, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride.  There is lots of hilarity, second guessing, and heartache in this one.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.  Fountain will read from and sign copies of his novel at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 23.  Billy and what is left of his unit are dubbed heroes after surviving a major battle in Iraq.  They are invited to a Dallas Cowboys football game and participate in halftime in this funny and heartwrenching story.

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones.  North Korea, forced labor camps, a math prodigy, sex slavery.  All these are topics in All Woman and Springtime, a novel that has been compared to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.  This novel will join the ranks of other recent books whose setting or topic is North Korea.  Should be interesting.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones.  This is set at the turn of the last century in England and will appeal to Downton Abbey fans, of which I am one.  A train wrecks, leaving passengers stranded.  They seek refuge with a family.  One of the passengers has a history with the lady of the house.  Sounds intriguing.

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer.  An outcast who loses herself in book attends Wellesley College.  Naomi’s past is tragic and she soon finds kindred spirits in the Shakespeare Society.

Coming Soon:

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of this one and let me tell you it is great!  Be sure to check back soon for my interview with the author.  Bullying, secret societies, insects, and Edward R. Murrow hallucinations make this a hit.  The Year of the Gadfly will be released May 8.

Home by Toni Morrison.  No one is like Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize.  The first Morrison novel I read was The Bluest Eye, a book that not only made me cry but also made me think.   Home explores the bonds of siblings and the aftermath of war.  If it is anything like Morrison’s other work, it is sure to be a hit.  It comes out May 8.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel.  Set in Florida during the economic collapse, this novel is a literary noir with lots of jazz.  Mandel explores the unreliability of memory in her novel, a very interesting topic.  The Lola Quartet will be released May 15.

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff.  Eliot is happy with her partner Grant and their three daughters, two of which are her stepdaughters.  Then, an old love comes back into her life with shocking consequences.  Medoff asks which of your children would you save if you could.  This one could be THE summer’s biggest beach read.  Look for it May 15.

What are you waiting for?  Get to reading!  And enjoy.

 

 

 

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The Year of the Gadfly Giveaway

I am interviewing Jennifer Miller, the author of the upcoming novel The Year of the Gadfly.  If you could ask Miller one question, what would it be?  Since I have my own set of questions, if yours is the same as one of mine, you will not win.  Your query must be unique.  What I am looking for in a winner, then, is the best question you come up with that I have not.

The winner will get his or her question included with mine (with credit to you, of course!) and will get an ARC of The Year of the Gadfly.  All responses must be in by 3 pm ET on Friday, April 27.  At that time, I will choose the winner.

So I would love to hear what you want to know most!

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Spotlight Book: The Year of the Gadfly

I am on page 158 of one of the best novels I have read this year.  Make that any year.  It’s smart, engrossing, well-written, mysterious, and it hooked me on the first page.  It’s Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly

So far, I’ve taken five pages worth of notes on my advanced reading copy.  It’s that good.  Miller previously wrote Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East.  This is her first novel and will be published May 8.  Her website is byjennifermiller.com and you can follow her on Twitter @propjen and tweet about the novel using #Gadfly.

Her novel is set primarily inside the hallowed halls of Mariana Academy, in which a secret society wreaks havoc.  Ms. Miller tells the story from the varying viewpoints of Iris, Jonah, and Lily; for me, Iris and Edward R. Murrow steal the show.  Edward R. Murrow?  Well, you just have to read it! 

I recommend it for fans of Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

I now have to go back to reading.  Hope to interview Ms. Miller on my blog.  Have lots of questions to ask!

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