In spite of promising material, the question of who will emerge victorious loses its urgency along the way, and the ending,...

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NORMA

Award-winning Finnish-Estonian novelist Oksanen (When the Doves Disappeared, 2015, etc.) tackles the global exploitation of women and the entwined secrets of two families in this story of a woman with magical hair.

Intensely private Norma Ross has just lost her mother and closest confidante in an apparent suicide. A stranger named Max Lambert accosts her at the funeral and tells her they have "unpleasant business" to take care of. As Norma attempts to uncover the truth behind her mother's death, she finds herself threatened by powerful factions within the Lambert clan, all vying for control of a global hair salon operation with sidelines into darker business ventures. Norma's miraculous hair is both blessing and curse, making her incredibly sensitive to smells and giving her the ability to detect lies and communicate with a dead ancestor whose own magical hair committed a double murder. Smoked in a pipe, Norma's hair also serves as a drug that drives at least one character crazy. Inside the Lambert family, alliances form and shift, no one is safe, and everyone wants to discover the source of the hair Norma's mother had been selling before she died. As the entangled plots wind tighter, surrogacy and baby farming are added to the clan's nefarious activities: "Girls and children were so cheap in Nigeria, and the hair business created a perfect front." Oksanen raises some important points. As one character puts it, women "still don't take home the profits even though we provide all the material and all the labor for the beauty industry. Century after century we've given our faces, our hair, our wombs, our breasts, and still the money ends up in men's pockets." But too many characters feel underdeveloped, and the writing is often weak: "Their kind dwelled endlessly on a tragedy until all the blood and marrow had been sucked out of it, gnawing at possible underlying factors with the same devotion as dieters who try to lose weight with gimmicks like slow chewing."

In spite of promising material, the question of who will emerge victorious loses its urgency along the way, and the ending, though surprising, fails to satisfy.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49352-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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

DEVOLUTION

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. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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