Rollicking and engaging. A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work.

THE OBSERVATIONS

In her entertaining debut, a British writer hands the job of storytelling to a saucily streetwise servant in Victorian Scotland.

Daisy O’Toole (aka Bessy Buckley) leaps to irresistible life on page one of this historical mystery/romp—she’s a savvy, earthy, comical and compelling character in search of decent work, having already earned her stripes as a child prostitute and live-in concubine when she was probably no older than 14. Despite her salty tongue and seen-it-all attitude, she charms her way into employment at Castle Haivers, working as the “in and out girl” (i.e., maid) for Arabella Reid, who is secretly writing Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, for which she obliges Daisy to write a (semi-literate) journal. Harris neatly layers these texts, with their omissions, embellishments and varied versions of the facts. Daisy learns from Arabella’s book that a previous maid, Nora, a model servant, met a nasty end under the wheels of a speeding train. Daisy uses her own journal to exploit her mistress’s nerves and Arabella has a breakdown, her mental health now given over to the care of her husband and a doctor keen to apply punishing contemporary remedies. (While Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith took a different, more terrifying look at Victorian treatment of the insane, the authors have in common an invigorating modern approach to historical fiction.) Harris’s story, though light on plot, is rich in character, its strength deriving almost wholly from Daisy’s irrepressible and ripe narrative voice. A helter-skelter conclusion combines farce (Arabella escapes confinement and beats with a shovel the pompous cleric responsible for Nora’s downfall), tragedy (another death on the railway line) and moral improvement (Daisy’s virtues recognized), takes a few sideswipes at the publishing business and still leaves the door open for what Daisy might do next.

Rollicking and engaging. A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work.

Pub Date: June 19, 2006

ISBN: 0-670-03773-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2006

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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