A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

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HUMMINGBIRD SALAMANDER

The prolific VanderMeer moves from fantasy into noir territory with this version of an eco-thriller.

The natural world always takes a front-row seat in a VanderMeer yarn—see, for example, Borne (2017) or Dead Astronauts (2019)—even if it’s a natural world that has suffered at human hands and by human tinkering. That’s true of this story as well, which opens with a tantalizing puzzle: A mysterious woman named Silvina has left behind a coded message for a security expert who suggests that we call her “Jane Smith” and who adds that she is “here to show you how the world ends.” That clue involves a taxidermic hummingbird, the last of its kind, and, following a few ellipses in the accompanying note, the word salamander. No, not Salander, though Jane has a number of things in common with Stieg Larsson’s heroine: She can pound most dudes into tapioca, and she’s pretty handy with a gun and a computer, too. The story, as it develops by twists and turns, involves a very, very wealthy South American bad guy who’s been raping the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and doing a little exotic wildlife smuggling on the side while his daughter has become an eco-warrior who doesn’t mind the detonation of a few bombs in order to save wildlife. Naturally, the bad guy isn’t entirely bad, the good woman isn’t entirely good, and their stories intertwine in nicely tangled ways. It wouldn’t be a VanderMeer story, no matter what the genre, without a post-apocalyptic turn, and after all the assorted villains (one of them in particular very evil indeed) and oversized amphibians and mad-scientist taxidermists and exploding heads, it’s sort of nice to get to a future that no one will survive—one that strongly resembles 2020, for that matter.

A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-3741-7354-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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