The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary...


Ohioan Michael Cunningham produced two well-received early novels, A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995), then expanded his range decisively with The Hours (1998). That moving novel, which juxtaposes Virginia Woolf’s final breakdown under the looming shadow of world war with emotional crises endured by two women of later generations, was widely and appreciatively read, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and Pulitzer Prize, and inspired an Oscar-winning film.

The method of The Hours is even more brilliantly employed in Speciman Days, Cunningham’s fifth novel, which tells three interrelated stories set in New York City in the historical past, near-present and imagined future. Each focuses on three characters: a physically or genetically deformed boy, a bereaved woman and a man whose fate influences, or is influenced by, their actions. “In the Machine” is set in the post–Civil War years dominated by the rise of industrialism. In it, an Irish immigrant family’s son, Simon, is mangled and killed by a machine at an ironworks that subsequently also employs his 13-year-old brother Lucas, a stoical “misshapen boy with…a habit of speaking in fits.” These “fits” are verses from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Lucas has memorized, and from which he infers a hopeful vision of eternal recurrence; human absorption into the universal; the faith that even amid death and dissolution, “We are part of something vaster and more mysterious than the living can imagine.” Lucas’s relationships with the ghost of Simon that he hears “singing” in the machines and with Simon’s grieving fiancée Catherine (a seamstress and prostitute) is echoed, with imaginative variations, in two subsequent narratives. The Catherine of “The Children’s Crusade” is “Cat” Martin, a black forensic psychologist employed by NYC’s “Deterrence” squad to profile preadolescent suicide bombers, presumably parentless members of a deranged millennial “family” announcing the apocalyptic “end of days.” Cat forsakes the safety offered by her affluent lover, Simon (a broker who “trades in futures”), bonding with a dwarflike boy who evokes memories of her own dead son, leading her toward a “strange new life, of which he confides, “You're in the family now.” The theme of escape from a destroyed planet is stated explicitly in “Like Beauty,” in which a scientifically created “simulo” (Simon), a lizard-like alien (Catereen) and a disfigured Jonah-like boy (Luke) meet, then separate—as other survivors of a nuclear “meltdown” are “setting out to colonize a new world.”

The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary idealism superbly underscore a symphonic poem of sorrow, loss, survival—and hope: Cunningham’s finest novel, and one of the important literary achievements of the new century.

Pub Date: June 7, 2005

ISBN: 978-0-374-29962-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2005

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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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  • New York Times Bestseller


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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A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.


A tightly wound caseworker is pushed out of his comfort zone when he’s sent to observe a remote orphanage for magical children.

Linus Baker loves rules, which makes him perfectly suited for his job as a midlevel bureaucrat working for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, where he investigates orphanages for children who can do things like make objects float, who have tails or feathers, and even those who are young witches. Linus clings to the notion that his job is about saving children from cruel or dangerous homes, but really he’s a cog in a government machine that treats magical children as second-class citizens. When Extremely Upper Management sends for Linus, he learns that his next assignment is a mission to an island orphanage for especially dangerous kids. He is to stay on the island for a month and write reports for Extremely Upper Management, which warns him to be especially meticulous in his observations. When he reaches the island, he meets extraordinary kids like Talia the gnome, Theodore the wyvern, and Chauncey, an amorphous blob whose parentage is unknown. The proprietor of the orphanage is a strange but charming man named Arthur, who makes it clear to Linus that he will do anything in his power to give his charges a loving home on the island. As Linus spends more time with Arthur and the kids, he starts to question a world that would shun them for being different, and he even develops romantic feelings for Arthur. Lambda Literary Award–winning author Klune (The Art of Breathing, 2019, etc.) has a knack for creating endearing characters, and readers will grow to love Arthur and the orphans alongside Linus. Linus himself is a lovable protagonist despite his prickliness, and Klune aptly handles his evolving feelings and morals. The prose is a touch wooden in places, but fans of quirky fantasy will eat it up.

A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21728-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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