An offbeat, strangely satisfying adventure through a land full of (literal) ghosts.

SMOKE CITY

Rosson (The Mercy of the Tide, 2017) presents a surreal road novel about misfits on a journey to Southern California.

Mike Vale is a Portland, Oregon–based artist who once sold his paintings for incredible sums before his career and personal life took nose dives. Now he’s a raging alcoholic who hasn’t painted in years. He has a job at a fast-food restaurant but gets fired for assaulting a customer. Then Mike finds out that his ex-wife has died suddenly of an apparent brain hemorrhage, and he vows to make it to Los Angeles for the funeral, through hell or high water. Mike sells the last painting he can, secures a used 1998 Chrysler minivan, and hits the road. On his way south, he picks up a one-eyed record-store owner named Marvin Deitz who insists that he’s the reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the executioner responsible for lighting the pyre that killed Joan of Arc. Later, he picks up a young man, aptly named Casper, who wants to create a reality show about ghosts. The kicker is that ghosts—sometimes referred to as “smokes”—have been appearing all over, particularly in California; their sudden appearances have caused traffic accidents and other problems, so they’re monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What will befall the heroes as they venture to LA under such circumstances? Rosson tells a tale of peculiar men living in a peculiar time, and the narrative easily moves them along their way. The author weaves events from Mike’s and Marvin’s pasts into the story to create a truly strange, though never unbelievable, journey. The very different backgrounds of the men in the van also allow for comedy, as when Mike attempts to explain why Casper’s T-shirt’s image of a bald eagle driving a truck and holding a beer is “ironic.” Rosson provides potent descriptions, such as of police lights that are “robbed of their power in the light of day.” Although the novel’s conclusion may reek of Hollywood-style happiness, the destination is secondary to the journey.

An offbeat, strangely satisfying adventure through a land full of (literal) ghosts.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-946154-16-3

Page Count: 325

Publisher: Meerkat Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2018

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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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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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