The sheer historical gravitas of this ambitious book often threatens to submerge the individual struggles of the three...

NIGHT IN SHANGHAI

Mones’ breathless and enlightening account of an African-American jazzman and his circle in prewar Shanghai.

In 1936, weary of America’s race barriers against black musicians, Thomas Greene is lured to Shanghai by jazz promoter Lin, adopted son of Du, boss of a crime syndicate that controls most of Shanghai’s commerce, including its nightclubs. Hired as a bandleader, Thomas, used to a life of squalor, suddenly finds himself ensconced in a mansion, attended by servants. A classically trained pianist, Thomas cannot really play jazz, as the musicians under his direction soon realize; however, his diligence in learning improvised riffs from sheet-music transcriptions wins them over. From afar, Thomas admires Song, an educated, multilingual young woman who accompanies Du as a translator. In fact, she is the kingpin’s indentured servant. A clandestine communist, Song spies on Du’s operations and dreams of escaping to the northern cave enclave where the party’s leaders are planning campaigns against both Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the Japanese, who already control much of northeast China. When the Japanese finally invade and occupy Shanghai, the city’s nightlife diminishes. Du flees to Hong Kong, Thomas and his band members disperse, and Song, after an impassioned tryst with Thomas, leaves for the north. By 1939, Thomas is scratching out a living playing with David, a Jewish violinist. Their chamber concerts in local hotels attract many members of Shanghai’s émigré Jewish community, now 25,000 strong, thanks to the efforts of Chinese consul Ho Feng-Shan to issue exit visas from Austria. Rumors of a Japanese sneak attack on America, pressure from Berlin to eliminate Shanghai’s Jews and Lin’s involvement in a daring scheme to resettle 100,000 more Jewish refugees in China keep the suspense mounting until the end.

The sheer historical gravitas of this ambitious book often threatens to submerge the individual struggles of the three principals, but perhaps Mones’ point is that, as stated in Casablanca, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-547-51617-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

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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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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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