If you want a hint of where Hrbek is going, thematically, with this story, look to the title of a short story collection...

NOT ON FIRE, BUT BURNING

In which unthinkable calamity propels a nation—and a family—into a rapidly imploding dystopia and slow-motion apocalypse.

It begins with what seems at first like a plane heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, except that it’s “too bright” to be a plane but more “like something cosmic come at high speed through the atmosphere.” Whatever it is, Skyler Wakefield, a 20-year-old college student and aspiring novelist, sees it shatter the bridge and bathe everything around it in near-blinding radioactive heat. Years after San Francisco and most of its inhabitants perish, America is a tense, fragmented society of colonies, territories, and prairie internment camps for Muslims. (Early reports alleged the words “Air Arabia” could be seen on the projectile that hit the bridge.) Skyler’s baby brother, Dorian, is 12 years old and haunted by dreams of a dead sister who the rest of his still-traumatized family insists never existed. Meanwhile, the family’s next-door neighbor, a 71-year-old veteran of something called Gulf War III, has made his way to one of the detention centers to adopt a Muslim orphan named Karim, who’s the same age as Dorian—who, as it happens, is cultivating a hard-core prejudice against Muslims. His impromptu expression of an ethnic slur at a backyard barbecue leads to a bloody fight between him and Karim. More grievances accumulate, leading to more bigotry and malign conspiracies on both sides of the American and Arab divide...and greater horrors to come. Hrbek’s (Destroy All Monsters, 2011, etc.) engagement with themes of loss and recovery and his vibrantly lyrical prose style reach a peak in this dark, allusive fantasy, which seems intended as a metaphor for the anxieties still lurking in our post–9/11 universe. As one of the book’s characters says, “What are we living in now, if not fear?” Which, as Hrbek implies (and FDR once famously proclaimed), may itself be a worse enemy than any other we can find, or contrive, for ourselves.

If you want a hint of where Hrbek is going, thematically, with this story, look to the title of a short story collection written about 80 years ago in an America far different from ours: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61219-453-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

READY PLAYER ONE

Video-game players embrace the quest of a lifetime in a virtual world; screenwriter Cline’s first novel is old wine in new bottles. 

The real world, in 2045, is the usual dystopian horror story. So who can blame Wade, our narrator, if he spends most of his time in a virtual world? The 18-year-old, orphaned at 11, has no friends in his vertical trailer park in Oklahoma City, while the OASIS has captivating bells and whistles, and it’s free. Its creator, the legendary billionaire James Halliday, left a curious will. He had devised an elaborate online game, a hunt for a hidden Easter egg. The finder would inherit his estate. Old-fashioned riddles lead to three keys and three gates. Wade, or rather his avatar Parzival, is the first gunter (egg-hunter) to win the Copper Key, first of three. Halliday was obsessed with the pop culture of the 1980s, primarily the arcade games, so the novel is as much retro as futurist. Parzival’s great strength is that he has absorbed all Halliday’s obsessions; he knows by heart three essential movies, crossing the line from geek to freak. His most formidable competitors are the Sixers, contract gunters working for the evil conglomerate IOI, whose goal is to acquire the OASIS. Cline’s narrative is straightforward but loaded with exposition. It takes a while to reach a scene that crackles with excitement: the meeting between Parzival (now world famous as the lead contender) and Sorrento, the head of IOI. The latter tries to recruit Parzival; when he fails, he issues and executes a death threat. Wade’s trailer is demolished, his relatives killed; luckily Wade was not at home. Too bad this is the dramatic high point. Parzival threads his way between more ’80s games and movies to gain the other keys; it’s clever but not exciting. Even a romance with another avatar and the ultimate “epic throwdown” fail to stir the blood.

Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-88743-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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