Thought-provoking fiction for the Digital Age.

POPCO

The author of the agreeable but aimless Going Out (2004) finds a sense of direction in this ambitious novel, which quietly but scathingly critiques consumerist society.

Narrator Alice Butler, 29, invents new products for PopCo, a global toy company that sells “the things kids want”—or rather, creates those wants through such sinister marketing tactics as fake websites with fake kids “discovering” various PopCo products. Alice is mildly alienated by this as she heads to the company’s annual brainstorming session at its luxurious “Thought Camp” in Devon. But over the course of her stay, childhood memories come flooding back to reveal how far she’s strayed from the ideals of the grandparents who raised her after her mother died and her father vanished. Both were ace mathematicians and cryptographers: Her grandmother worked at Bletchley Park on cracking the Enigma code; her grandfather deciphered a manuscript that led to buried treasure, but refused to make use of it because the treasure lay in a wildlife preserve. He left the secret to Alice, who at “Thought Camp” finds herself increasingly repulsed by the shallow values of most of her fellow employees, who think that “no dress code, no rules and no set working hours” means they’re free, when in fact they’re as trapped as the workers who actually produce Popco’s stuff in dangerous Third World factories. Thomas passes along a lot of surprisingly interesting information about math and cryptography, plus some highly creepy material on toy marketing, as she connects her heroine with fellow rebels and suggests an alternative to mindlessly feeding the corporate desire machine. The conclusion may not be terribly plausible, but it provides a pleasing happy ending for morose but oddly lovable Alice—and a form of revolt that suits her wised-up, yet not entirely cynical, generation. Thomas has always been a sharp observer and deft creator of character; it’s a pleasure to see those skills employed in the context of a strong plot and stronger point of view.

Thought-provoking fiction for the Digital Age.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2005

ISBN: 0-15-603137-X

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2005

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s...

HOME FRONT

 The traumatic homecoming of a wounded warrior.

The daughter of alcoholics who left her orphaned at 17, Jolene “Jo” Zarkades found her first stable family in the military: She’s served over two decades, first in the army, later with the National Guard. A helicopter pilot stationed near Seattle, Jo copes as competently at home, raising two daughters, Betsy and Lulu, while trying to dismiss her husband Michael’s increasing emotional distance. Jo’s mettle is sorely tested when Michael informs her flatly that he no longer loves her. Four-year-old Lulu clamors for attention while preteen Betsy, mean-girl-in-training, dismisses as dweeby her former best friend, Seth, son of Jo’s confidante and fellow pilot, Tami. Amid these challenges comes the ultimate one: Jo and Tami are deployed to Iraq. Michael, with the help of his mother, has to take over the household duties, and he rapidly learns that parenting is much harder than his wife made it look. As Michael prepares to defend a PTSD-afflicted veteran charged with Murder I for killing his wife during a dissociative blackout, he begins to understand what Jolene is facing and to revisit his true feelings for her. When her helicopter is shot down under insurgent fire, Jo rescues Tami from the wreck, but a young crewman is killed. Tami remains in a coma and Jo, whose leg has been amputated, returns home to a difficult rehabilitation on several fronts. Her nightmares in which she relives the crash and other horrors she witnessed, and her pain, have turned Jo into a person her daughters now fear (which in the case of bratty Betsy may not be such a bad thing). Jo can't forgive Michael for his rash words. Worse, she is beginning to remind Michael more and more of his homicide client. Characterization can be cursory: Michael’s earlier callousness, left largely unexplained, undercuts the pathos of his later change of heart. 

Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s aftermath.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-57720-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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