In the author’s notes that end the novel, Löhr explains what is based on historical record and what he has invented, but...

THE CHESS MACHINE

Rich in detail and psychological depth, this historical novel of 18th-century Europe has plenty of contemporary resonance for American readers.

German journalist Löhr’s debut novel is based on a true story of deception, during a period when society was enamored with the previously unimagined possibilities of technology. A minor nobleman in the Viennese court, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen witnesses the queen’s infatuation with automatons that can accomplish basic tasks. A charlatan at heart, Kempelen promises that, within six months, he can construct an automaton that will play chess at the highest levels. Such a thinking machine clearly presages the computer, but the baron has neither the ingenuity nor the intent to meet the challenge. Instead, he happens upon an Italian dwarf who is a chess master (but whose size makes him vulnerable to attacks from those who play or bet against him). Though the dwarf is also a devout Christian, uncomfortable with the deception that the baron’s scheme requires, the baron coerces him into secreting his tiny frame into the chess-playing machine that Kempelen is building. Billed as the Mechanical Turk, a dark master from the inscrutable East, the chess-playing automaton becomes the rage across Europe, though at least one rival for the queen’s favor suspects the subterfuge. There’s an undercurrent of ethnic tension throughout the novel, with the exotic Turk, the Christian dwarf, the amoral Kempelen and his Jewish assistant embodying distinctions of class and religion, while the attempts to penetrate the secrets of the automaton result in espionage, deception, seduction and perhaps murder. Ultimately, the major characters seem to be enacting a real-life game of chess, one in which winning or losing has the most serious consequences.

In the author’s notes that end the novel, Löhr explains what is based on historical record and what he has invented, but this is a work of such marvelously creative imagination that it makes little difference what’s factual and what isn’t—it all rings true.

Pub Date: July 9, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-59420-126-4

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2007

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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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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