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A MAN OF GENIUS

A historical novel with a compelling premise falters in its execution.

In 1819 London, a writer of gothic novels is caught up in a plot of desire, compulsion, and revenge.

Ann St Clair has long made a living writing cheap, sensational novels for popular consumption. She’s unmarried and approaching middle age, but she’s established an independent life for herself: she pays for her rooms and her pleasant life without support from anyone. Then, at a dinner party, Ann meets a charismatic figure: Robert James, writer of a fragment of text considered brilliant by his small but reverential pack of followers. Ann finds herself entranced by Robert and swallowed up by his social circle. They begin an affair, but, after a while, Ann notices Robert becoming increasingly paranoid and erratic in his behavior. When he insists on leaving England, the pair travels to Venice. There, Robert only degenerates further, and Ann struggles to support him. This is the first novel by Todd, a formidable scholar of writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. It’s an ambitious work that draws ties between its heroine’s inner state, the occupation of Venice, and the torrid gossip then arising around Princess Caroline and the soon-to-be King George. But Todd’s storytelling is jagged and uneven, and the narrative proceeds in fits and starts. The historical context is rich but might not be immediately accessible to the casual reader. Finally, it’s difficult to sympathize with Todd’s characters. Robert’s theoretical discourses might be impressive to his followers, but they come across as obtuse almost to the point of nonsense. Then he becomes so grotesque so quickly that it’s hard to understand Ann’s feelings for him—indeed, her obsession with him. Once he becomes violent and mad, why, exactly, does she feel so powerless to leave him? Todd’s work is replete with history, politics, and even philosophy, but her characters seem to lack nuance and are occasionally flat.

A historical novel with a compelling premise falters in its execution.

Pub Date: April 28, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-908524-59-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2016

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

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. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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