SOURDOUGH

Fluffy but overbaked.

A listless coder discovers inspiration—and some unusual corners of the Bay Area—via a batch of sourdough starter.

Lois, the narrator of Sloan’s second novel (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, 2012), works at a San Francisco robotics firm, where long hours move her to regularly order in from a sandwich shop. The place is peculiar—it’s delivery-only, and the two brothers who own it are vague about their background (“Mazg,” they say)—but the food is amazing, especially the sourdough bread. When the brothers leave town, they eagerly bestow their sourdough starter on their “number one eater,” and though Lois is hapless in the kitchen, she soon masters baking so well her loaves catch the attention of her employer’s in-house chef and, eventually, an elite invite-only farmers market in Alameda. Early on, the novel reads like a lighthearted redemption-through-baking tale with a few quirks: the starter seems to have moods of its own and the loaves’ crusts crack into facelike visages. But in time the story picks up—and becomes somewhat burdened by—a strenuously oddball supporting cast and various allegorical commentaries about human virtues amid the rush to process and automate everything, including food. (One of Lois’ coding challenges is teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg.) Among the characters are a collector of vintage restaurant menus, members of a club for women named Lois, the Mazg brothers’ forefathers, and a fellow baker who plays Grateful Dead bootlegs to encourage his own starter. Sloan’s comic but smart tone never flags, and Lois is an easy hero to root for, inquisitive and sensitive as she is. But the absurdities of the plot twists (in part involving her starter’s need to acquire a “warrior spirit”) ultimately feel less cleverly offbeat than hokey. “I oscillated between finding this vision totally ridiculous and finding it deadly serious,” Lois bemoans at one point. But the story increasingly leans toward the former.

Fluffy but overbaked.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-20310-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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DEVOLUTION

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

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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. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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NORMAL PEOPLE

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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