Convoluted at times, but overall a fun ride.

Pleomorph

The threat of war—both conventional and biological—involving the United States, Russia, and China looms large in Mann’s debut thriller.

As a senior U.S. government adviser based in Beijing, Mark Richards is sent to investigate what appears to be a massive excavation project in a remote area of China. The Chinese insist it’s nothing more than a large-scale fossil discovery. However, the amount of heavy equipment being used, from trucks to aircraft, has led some to suspect it might actually be a military operation. Or maybe it’s simply a decoy to misdirect attention away from whatever China is really planning. Added to this are troubling reports of a virus that has wiped out thousands in the Chinese city of Kashgar—was it a chance tragedy or could it have been intentional? U.S. government officials scramble to put the pieces together when another event sends shock waves across the globe: several Russian provinces have circumvented the corrupt control of Moscow and, with their valuable natural resources, entered into trade deals directly with China. Access to these resources means China is poised to set up its own trade bloc—one in which the United States may have no share. Even as strategists, military officers, and politicians struggle to comprehend the situation, it escalates to the fever pitch of all-out war, as Russia and the United States threaten the borders of China—a war no one can truly win. Throughout, Mann maintains a high level of complexity in economic, cultural, political, and scientific details. He develops a vivid sense of place, made more remarkable given the vastly different locations described. Characters are largely realistic, though some readers may find the sheer number a bit overwhelming, particularly because Mann continues to add new characters until nearly the end of the story. Prose sometimes seems a bit unpolished—e.g., “Out of habit, his eyes darted furtively around the room out of habit”—but most will feel Mann makes up for it with a well-paced, inventive story. Heavy hints at a sequel should leave readers in happy anticipation.

Convoluted at times, but overall a fun ride.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-5028-7065-0

Page Count: 180

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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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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