An awkwardly executed work with a by-the-numbers plot.

HEAVENLY

In Duffy’s fantasy novel, an ordinary man is sent from heaven back to Earth, reborn into a new body.

John Robinson is middle-aged, underemployed, and unremarkable when he’s struck by a stray bullet and killed. He then enters a farcical and vaguely bureaucratic afterlife with “officers” and “assistants” filling in rank-and-file positions in an office-park heaven. Because he lived such a mundane life, Andrea—one of God’s main subordinates and the officer in charge of John’s file—informs him that his case for getting into heaven is on shaky ground. In a show of benevolence, however, God and his team agree to give John a do-over, returning him to Earth in the form of an infant named Peter but giving him a strict timeline of “40-years to find a wife, a family, and a good job to support them” and, of course, none of his memories from his past life or of his time in heaven. This novel begins with a fun, tongue-in-cheek romp through the afterlife—a diverting, if familiar, concept. However, it fails to maintain its momentum. Duffy’s prose is strongest in the managerial world of heaven; the scenes there feel lively, with tongue-in-cheek idioms like “the big guy,” referring to God, and John’s entire life slimmed down to a small file (“I read it quickly but know all the details very well,” Andrea blithely remarks). Yet the depiction of heaven is just a framing device for what is ultimately a predictable and rather preachy tale. John-as-Peter fumbles through life, working at a dead-end job in a Catholic high school and failing to make meaningful romantic connections—until he meets Teresa, a stereotypical sex worker with a heart of gold, with whom he starts to form an earnest relationship. Although the narrative has a ticking clock, the story of Peter’s life and hopeful redemption is just as unengaging as John’s previous existence. The often stilted prose in these sections doesn’t help, nor does the character’s post-reincarnation proselytizing, although more devout readers may warm to this novel’s religious overtones.

An awkwardly executed work with a by-the-numbers plot.

Pub Date: March 16, 2021

ISBN: 979-8-71-898467-5

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2021

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Murder most foul and mayhem most entertaining. Another worthy page-turner from a protean master.

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BILLY SUMMERS

The ever prolific King moves from his trademark horror into the realm of the hard-boiled noir thriller.

“He’s not a normal person. He’s a hired assassin, and if he doesn’t think like who and what he is, he’ll never get clear.” So writes King of his title character, whom the Las Vegas mob has brought in to rub out another hired gun who’s been caught and is likely to talk. Billy, who goes by several names, is a complex man, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who’s seen friends blown to pieces; he’s perhaps numbed by PTSD, but he’s goal-oriented. He’s also a reader—Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin figures as a MacGuffin—which sets his employer’s wheels spinning: If a reader, then why not have him pretend he’s a writer while he’s waiting for the perfect moment to make his hit? It wouldn’t be the first writer, real or imagined, King has pressed into service, and if Billy is no Jack Torrance, there’s a lovely, subtle hint of the Overlook Hotel and its spectral occupants at the end of the yarn. It’s no spoiler to say that whereas Billy carries out the hit with grim precision, things go squirrelly, complicated by his rescue of a young woman—Alice—after she’s been roofied and raped. Billy’s revenge on her behalf is less than sweet. As a memoir grows in his laptop, Billy becomes more confident as a writer: “He doesn’t know what anyone else might think, but Billy thinks it’s good,” King writes of one day’s output. “And good that it’s awful, because awful is sometimes the truth. He guesses he really is a writer now, because that’s a writer’s thought.” Billy’s art becomes life as Alice begins to take an increasingly important part in it, crisscrossing the country with him to carry out a final hit on an errant bad guy: “He flopped back on the sofa, kicked once, and fell on the floor. His days of raping children and murdering sons and God knew what else were over.” That story within a story has a nice twist, and Billy’s battered copy of Zola’s book plays a part, too.

Murder most foul and mayhem most entertaining. Another worthy page-turner from a protean master.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982173-61-6

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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