In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

A GAMBLER'S ANATOMY

Lethem’s 10th novel is a romp in which history, both personal and collective, can't help but assert itself.

Lethem's new novel tells the story of a backgammon hustler named Alexander Bruno who suffers from a pair of physical (or metaphysical) disorders: first, telepathy, or second sight, and then a membranous tumor beneath the surface of his face that does have the happy side effect of keeping his psychic abilities at bay. But when the tumor needs to be removed, Bruno encounters the key conundrum of this free-wheeling novel: that sometimes survival requires more than a bit of despair. Bruno discovers this when he returns to Berkeley, where he was raised, to confront the ghosts of his history, embodied in the figure of Keith Stolarsky, a childhood friend who, for his own reasons, decides to bankroll Bruno’s surgery and recovery. “Why had Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno?” Lethem asks. “What was his life for?” The question cuts two ways. For Bruno, the issue is life or death but also more than that, because the life he has built—traveling alone and playing backgammon as a way of walling off not just his gift (such as it is), but indeed his very heritage—must be altered, drastically. “You asked me to save you,” his surgeon reflects, “but to save you I had to destroy you. That is what I do.” Stolarsky’s motives are more elusive; a reclusive entrepreneur and hippie capitalist, he is, at heart, about control. As such, the novel turns, as it must, conspiratorial, although, as in most conspiracies, it is not always clear who is manipulating whom. Think Thomas Pynchon (whose books this one superficially resembles), especially in the scenes set in Berkeley, a landscape of hipster burger shops and lost souls still longing for a revolution that washed out in an undertow of drugs and dissolution decades before. That makes the novel a fitting follow-up to Dissident Gardens (2013), which traced a different (and not unrelated) set of radical breakdowns, those of New York in the 1950s and the communist left. Lest this sound weighty, it’s not, so much: Lethem takes real pleasure in the language and writes with a sense of the absurd that illuminates his situations and his characters. “Telegraph Avenue,” he writes, describing Berkeley’s famous open-air market of countercultural chaos, “the island of lost toys.” It’s a vivid metaphor.

In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53990-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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