A deeply emotional, but unsteady first novel.

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TWENTY-SEVEN

Others live over a century—Sophia Nolan is expected to die at 27 in Woodsmith’s cautionary sci-fi novel.

The author confronts present-day obsessions with longevity and wellness in a future world where the human life span is almost doubled and the date of death can be foretold. Sophia is born with a life expectancy of 27 years. The story follows her from infancy to adulthood as she and her loved ones contend with the approach of inevitable death. As the pressure grows, family members and others show their true personalities, Sophia faces still more painful truths, and she resolves to try and outlive her PDA—Projected Death Age—despite all expectations. Most of the people in Sophia’s society value the quantity of years lived to a nearly obsessive degree; Sophia has no choice but to appreciate the quality of life and to question the validity of predicting its end. She becomes a sort of rallying figure for a divided society, and the story builds through 27 chapters to a thought-provoking end. Despite showing a future world that has a sprinkling of robots and “thanatometers” attached to people’s wrists (in an apparent nod to Logan’s Run), the author hews closely to a naturalistic account of everyday life among ordinary people. The central conceit of Sophia’s short life expectancy is an intriguing metaphor for terminal illness. Sophia herself is sympathetic and fairly multifaceted, as are most of the characters. The book is marred by some uninspired passages and somewhat awkward “infodump” sections, but the pace and tone are well-served by its deliberate brevity and urgency. Woodsmith seeks to tell a very human and topical science fiction tale that calls into question our expectations of life and medicine, faith and mortality. Although slightly unpolished, the novel has fiber.

A deeply emotional, but unsteady first novel.

Pub Date: June 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-1470068004

Page Count: 222

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2012

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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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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A meditation on a dystopian future that maintains a careful balance between social satire and purposeful provocation.

THE ARREST

After the apocalypse, two former Hollywood pals find themselves at odds with one another.

Lethem is an odd duck on the best of days, so it’s no wonder his new novel imagines the end of the world through a peculiar lens. After his Big Lebowski–esque version of noir in The Feral Detective (2018), here he takes on the end of the world in a strange amalgamation of 1970s disaster movie, '80s yuppie comedy, and seemingly whatever else came out of the kitchen sink. The lead here is Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, who, in the wake of a major disaster called the Arrest that wiped out (gasp!) television and then eventually the internet and all contemporary communications, became essentially a modern version of David Brin’s The Postman (1985), here called Journeyman. Our guy divides his time between making deliveries and studying under the local butcher. The Journeyman got stuck in rural New England when everything went to hell, visiting his sister Maddy’s farm in what seems to have become a feudal community in Maine. Things go sideways when Sandy’s old Yale roommate and Hollywood writing partner Peter Todbaum turns up in a nuclear “supercar” called The Blue Streak—modeled on the vehicle out of the old '70s post-apocalyptic movie Damnation Alley—that can apparently tunnel underground and operate underwater, among other things. The backstory is that the two men were working on a project in Hollywood (“Todbaum the bullshitter, Journeyman the hands on the keyboard”). But then something uncomfortable happened between Todbaum and Journeyman’s sister. Lethem is certainly capable of having gone full-on Cormac McCarthy here, but instead this is pretty much a sly play on post-apocalyptic fantasies, with the operative word being play. Superminimalist writing, short chapters, interstitial images from the Journeyman’s scrapbook, and Lethem’s unusual perspective make for odd bedfellows, but it’s a decent distraction from the real world right now.

A meditation on a dystopian future that maintains a careful balance between social satire and purposeful provocation.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-293878-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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