An uneven first-contact thriller that adroitly handles its ecological themes.

THE SCENT OF DISTANT WORLDS

In County’s (Oasis at the Bottom of the Sea, 2015, etc.) sci-fi yarn, a scientist on a deep-space mission to exploit a distant planet discovers that alien plant groves may be sentient, intelligent, and hostile.

On a future, overpopulated Earth, exobiologist Cassie Clearwater, the granddaughter of a Seminole shaman, joins the first interstellar space expedition. The ship, called the Far Traveler, uses a revolutionary, superfast propulsion drive, provided by the powerful MicroWeight Corporation, to visit a habitable planet 12-and-a-half light years away. Its profile suggests diamond-rich geology and colonization potential. Cassie must establish whether the alien life there is intelligent, which would render the world off-limits. But there’s greed and subterfuge afoot on the Far Traveler. Even Cassie conceals a secret—her pregnancy by fellow astronaut Jonas Jefferson, son of ruthless MicroWeight tycoon Tobias Jefferson. After landing, the team does find diamonds—but also groves of mushroom-shaped growths and burrowing creatures that spit powerful acid. When something pulls Jonas into a mudbank, the remaining humans prepare for hostilities. The narrative then shifts to tell the story from the perspectives of the alien plants. They are indeed sentient, with a rich heritage to match that of humanity, whom they regard as grotesque “monsters.” When Jonas reappears, resurrected and altered, only Cassie is brave enough to avert a tragedy for both species. County offers a bouquet of twists in this novel, with a botany-focused plot that suggests an intricate rethink of Murray Leinster’s classic 1946 short story “The Plants.” The author includes clever whodunit aspects, as well as the worldview of a rooted, chlorophyll-based society that communicates via odor and chemical secretions. Some may find it overly precious that plant characters bear the names of herbs (Pepper, Sage, Tarragon); also, the human characters include a gangster-ish Russian and a libidinous, Asian dragon lady caricature. However, the book asserts that MicroWeight calculatingly loaded the Far Traveler with international ethnic stereotypes as a public relations move: “Reverse political correctness. A blatant appeal to the sensibilities of the masses instead of the intelligencia.” Aspects of Native American mysticism make an unsteady entrance but pay off well.

An uneven first-contact thriller that adroitly handles its ecological themes.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2019

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 314

Publisher: Summit Scribes Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 25, 2019

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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