Complex, funny, prescient, difficult: Kavenna's novel tackles nothing less than everything as it blurs the lines between...

ZED

Kavenna returns to the existential debate explored in her last novel (Come to the Edge, 2013, etc.) in order to further probe the question of free will in the age of deep data-mining.

In an alarmingly plausible near future, tech giant Beetle has risen to global prominence in the fields of transportation, communication, health, security, media, and everything else. The society it has engineered is safer, more efficient, and totally devoid of surprise until the insidious presence of Zed begins to derange the algorithm. In London, upper level Beetle Douglas Varley is awakened by his digital Very Intelligent Personal Assistant, or “Veep,” Scrace Dickens, to the news that something has gone terribly wrong. Without any prior warning from any of Beetle’s predicative programs, perfectly ordinary citizen George Mann has returned home from a night of anomalous hard drinking to murder his wife and two sons. In the hours that follow, the supposedly infallible Anti-Terror Droid, or ANT, sent to apprehend Mann makes a miscalculation and executes Lionel Bigman, an innocent bus driver and British Army veteran. A massive damage control effort follows in which the timorous Varley; Beetle’s narcissistic, youth-obsessed CEO, Guy Matthias; and the hacker-turned–Beetle IT guru Francesca Amerensekera attempt to tighten the already iron grip Beetle holds over the totally voluntary participants in its benign social revolution (which—as Beetle controls all currency and thus all means of social mobility—is everyone) while scrambling to stem the spreading chaos created by Zed, “the category term for instability.” Meanwhile, Eloise Jayne, a hard-nosed investigator for the Beetle backed National Anti-Terrorism and Security Office, and David Strachey, editor-in-chief of the Beetle-owned Times, Daily Star, Sun, and the Daily Record, seek the truth of Zed and its implications for a society used to the placidity of a near-total parent state. In the hands of a lesser writer, the novel’s convoluted plot, burgeoning cast of characters, and barbed use of Beetle brand tech-speak would leave the reader hopelessly tangled in the what of the novel before they ever got to the philosophical why. Kavenna, however, is a diligent scholar of her form, melding a massively complex plot à la Thomas Pynchon and the wicked social satire of Evelyn Waugh with a healthy dose of Gogol’s absurdist dysphoria thrown in for good measure.

Complex, funny, prescient, difficult: Kavenna's novel tackles nothing less than everything as it blurs the lines between real and virtual.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54548-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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