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

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.

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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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With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally...

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NINTH HOUSE

Yale’s secret societies hide a supernatural secret in this fantasy/murder mystery/school story.

Most Yale students get admitted through some combination of impressive academics, athletics, extracurriculars, family connections, and donations, or perhaps bribing the right coach. Not Galaxy “Alex” Stern. The protagonist of Bardugo’s (King of Scars, 2019, etc.) first novel for adults, a high school dropout and low-level drug dealer, Alex got in because she can see dead people. A Yale dean who's a member of Lethe, one of the college’s famously mysterious secret societies, offers Alex a free ride if she will use her spook-spotting abilities to help Lethe with its mission: overseeing the other secret societies’ occult rituals. In Bardugo’s universe, the “Ancient Eight” secret societies (Lethe is the eponymous Ninth House) are not just old boys’ breeding grounds for the CIA, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and so on, as they are in ours; they’re wielders of actual magic. Skull and Bones performs prognostications by borrowing patients from the local hospital, cutting them open, and examining their entrails. St. Elmo’s specializes in weather magic, useful for commodities traders; Aurelian, in unbreakable contracts; Manuscript goes in for glamours, or “illusions and lies,” helpful to politicians and movie stars alike. And all these rituals attract ghosts. It’s Alex’s job to keep the supernatural forces from embarrassing the magical elite by releasing chaos into the community (all while trying desperately to keep her grades up). “Dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.” A townie’s murder sets in motion a taut plot full of drug deals, drunken assaults, corruption, and cover-ups. Loyalties stretch and snap. Under it all runs the deep, dark river of ambition and anxiety that at once powers and undermines the Yale experience. Alex may have more reason than most to feel like an imposter, but anyone who’s spent time around the golden children of the Ivy League will likely recognize her self-doubt.

With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31307-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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