Still, Alexander creates an agreeably spooky atmosphere of impenetrable forests and blood lust, with no obvious howlers in...

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THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH

Despite its portentous title, this debut novel is neither a lost work by Tolstoy nor an ironic hipster comedy, but an occult thriller aimed at readers not yet sick to undeath of vampires. In case there aren’t any of those left, Alexander mixes in three or four other popular genres: historical fiction, serial-killer mystery, hints of zombies and touches of romance.

The vampires in question don’t swirl capes or turn into bats, but they do trace their origins to a remote castle in the Carpathians. As the novel opens, Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite alchemist, Doctor John Dee, and his assistant, Edward Kelley, flee from a pack of wolves on their way to visit the court of King Istvan Báthory, Voivode of Transylvania. The king’s niece Erzsébet—a historical figure infamous for murdering young girls—appears to be dying, and the king asks the alchemists to cure her. Meanwhile, in present-day England, a pair of witches is working to revive a young girl from her predestined death, since the blood of “revenants,” or “borrowed timers,” makes an effective cure for cancer. Can they keep her hidden from her pursuers: the police, a professor, an Inquisition priest and a mysterious woman who may herself be undead? The brief chapters flip back and forth between the two storylines in a way that may have been meant to emphasize parallels in the plots or themes, but it mostly just makes the book feel choppy; no particularly profound secrets of life and death emerge.

Still, Alexander creates an agreeably spooky atmosphere of impenetrable forests and blood lust, with no obvious howlers in the historical sections (unless you count those wolves).

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-4068-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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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