An entertaining coming-of-age tale that earns its operatic tone.

THE BELLS

A young man endures hardship, abuse and mutilation on the path to musical glory in 18th- century Vienna.

When we first meet Moses, the hero and narrator of Harvell’s debut, he’s growing up in degraded circumstances in the Swiss Alps. His mother is a deaf-mute who is taken advantage of by a local priest, banishing both mother and child to the church belfry in the name of secrecy. She takes her revenge by aggressively pounding the church’s massive bells loudly enough to blast the eardrums of all who approach—except Moses, who has a preternatural musical talent. Cast out by the priest, Moses is soon discovered by two monks, Nicolai and Remus, who exchange Abbott and Costello–style banter as they take the boy under their wing. Moses’ singing ability keeps him from being sent to an orphanage, but the abbey is full of its own humiliations: He’s ostracized by his fellow choirboys, the sons of wealthy men who are financing a massive church construction; Nicolai and Remus are expelled under accusations of homosexuality; and as Moses nears puberty he’s castrated in the hopes of making him a musico. The sole bright spot in his life is Amalia, a young woman seduced by his singing and eager to escape the clutches of her controlling aunt. Harvell’s storytelling is fast-paced and deliberately melodramatic, as the plot threads converge on Vienna, where the debut of Gluck’s Orfeo serves as the novel’s climax. Like Orfeo, the plot of this novel is built on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, though Harvell gives his story a few contemporary twists. Nicolai and Remus provide an opportunity to comment on the struggles of homosexuals at the time, both inside and outside the church; Amalia reveals a proto-feminist eagerness to stop living under the thumb of parents or a husband; and in rounding out this motley crew, Moses himself undercuts the era’s conservative notions of faith and masculinity. Harvell doesn’t press those points, but they do add gravitas to his likable historical page-turner.

An entertaining coming-of-age tale that earns its operatic tone. 

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-307-59052-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2010

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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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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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