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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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