A smartly conceived send-up of writerly ambition, imperfectly executed.

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FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL

Correspondence classes might not make you a great author, but they can sure tell you a lot about your teacher’s neuroses.

Wendell Newton, the name of his school notwithstanding, is not a famous writer: He wrote press releases in the Air Force, worked at an agricultural trade magazine and has one self-published novel under his belt. But he’s intelligent (and pompous) enough to take that résumé and coronate himself a writing expert, and he gets a steady stream of business through writers’ magazines. Carter (I Was Howard Hughes, 2003, etc.) concentrates on the relationships of three pupils: Rio, a torch singer and former grad student with whom Wendell tries to fire up a flirtation; Dan, who’s written a rambling but engaging Jim Thompson–esque trouble-out-in-the-sticks novel; and Linda, who has no real talent to speak of but (as it slowly becomes clear) has it in for Wendell, her ex. Making intentionally mediocre-to-bad writing into an engaging novel is a tough trick, but Carter pulls off its early portions by rendering Wendell a sublimely entertaining fool: He condescends to Dan by telling him his story ought to be sleazed up and submitted to porn magazines, and he enthusiastically embraces Rio’s early efforts by suggesting she publish in Upward Spiral—the literary magazine Wendell publishes. As for Linda, Wendell’s increasingly terrified by her letters about snooping inside his house and reading his diaries (which detail his infatuation with Rio and his plans to hijack Dan’s novel for his own purposes). Wendell eventually emerges as a layered, even sympathetic, character, but an epistolary novel requiring four characters is a complicated scheme for a story that has a fairly simple lesson about literary pretentiousness. And ultimately, it’s hobbled by Dan’s novel-in-progress, which takes up nearly half the book.

A smartly conceived send-up of writerly ambition, imperfectly executed.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2006

ISBN: 1-58243-356-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2006

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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