A penetrating look inside a killer’s head; disquieting but insightful.


Criminal Zoo

A debut thriller tells the story of a killer imprisoned in a facility that may be more barbaric than the atrocities he’s committed.

Clemensville, Texas, native Samuel Bradbury’s murderous deeds have landed him at the Criminal Zoo in Colorado. The former Supermax, the brainchild of Colorado Gov. Jon McIntyre, calls its inmates “exhibits” because citizens can buy tickets to watch them like zoo animals. Or visitors can pay more and actively beat or torture an exhibit. Samuel’s the product of a troubled childhood, a mother who abandoned her family and a father who regularly abused him. His extended family’s likewise shunned him, blaming him for the death of cousin Jeremy, who, while in a barn with Samuel, fell off a haystack and landed on a pitchfork. The disturbed Samuel has a twisted interpretation of religion, namely his focus on a vengeful God. He initially sets out to kill someone in retribution, but the motive for a subsequent murder gets a little murky, though it’s clearly from an unhinged mind. When the law finally catches up to him, Samuel finds himself sentenced to death in the Confinement Center. He can choose instead the Zoo and, if he’s able to endure visitors’ maltreatment for a year, will reputedly spend a relatively painless life in a standard prison. But there’s another option that may offer absolution. The grim story isn’t easy to digest, an unwavering first-person perspective from Samuel. It’s teeming with brutality, whether it’s Samuel’s vivid description of a murder, or a visitor, usually an incensed stranger, donning a jumpsuit, booties, and gloves—for potential spatter. McDaniel’s middle-of-the-road approach, however, is certain to spark debate. For starters, it makes the death penalty seem more humane, while some readers will likely believe Samuel deserves his sadistic experiences at the Zoo. The author’s sure-handed writing, meanwhile, is an asset; Samuel’s occasional diatribes make surprising sense, like his confusion over the Bible attributing human emotions to God (for example, jealousy). A fitting end includes a twist or two but refrains from offering a simple solution to tie up the narrative: it’s largely open to interpretation, like the never-ending debate of capital punishment.

A penetrating look inside a killer’s head; disquieting but insightful.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9974407-0-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Rare Bird Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2016

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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