This is a funny, inventive exploration of the dangers inherent in our overmedicated culture. Readers who enjoy a dash of...

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LESS THAN HERO

Browne’s (Big Egos, 2013, etc.) latest novel is a social-satire–meets–amateur-superhero saga that deftly skewers the money-grubbing slickness of the pharmaceutical industry—as well as American culture’s propensity to pop a pill for absolutely anything that ails us, regardless of how outrageously unpredictable the side effects may be.

Our narrator is Lloyd Prescott, an aimless, slacker-ish 30-year-old on New York City’s Lower East Side who abandoned his stalled marketing career five years ago after realizing there was money to be made in volunteering as a guinea pig for experimental phase 1 clinical drug trials. Having endured more than 150 drug trials in that time, Lloyd has amassed a misfit crew of five fellow professional–guinea-pig buddies who meet up monthly to compare notes on the various meds' side effects. Lloyd has picked up on something bizarre during his current cycle: whenever he yawns, people around him fall asleep, as if the side effects he’s enduring are being passed on to regular folks around him. His friends are noticing similar issues—for instance, when one of them, Vic, feels nauseous, a woman near him suddenly vomits, and another, Randy, appears to be making people mysteriously break out in rashes. Perplexed, they set out to determine what, exactly, is behind this madness. The fun supernatural-lite themes kick into gear as the gang learns that the problem may be bigger and stranger than they’d imagined; enter a gaggle of evil foes with “powers” similar to those of Lloyd and company. Browne’s voice is smart, engaging, and approachable, and Lloyd is a guy we’ve all met in real life: you know, that one in a five-year domestic partnership who remains terrified of settling down; the dude who’d rather panhandle on the street than sell his soul by working for The Man.

This is a funny, inventive exploration of the dangers inherent in our overmedicated culture. Readers who enjoy a dash of sharp wit with their comic-book shenanigans should enjoy tagging along on Lloyd’s everyday-superhero exploits.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1174-4

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2015

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

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THE CITY WE BECAME

This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).

When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.

Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-50984-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Orbit

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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