A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

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HUMMINGBIRD SALAMANDER

The prolific VanderMeer moves from fantasy into noir territory with this version of an eco-thriller.

The natural world always takes a front-row seat in a VanderMeer yarn—see, for example, Borne (2017) or Dead Astronauts (2019)—even if it’s a natural world that has suffered at human hands and by human tinkering. That’s true of this story as well, which opens with a tantalizing puzzle: A mysterious woman named Silvina has left behind a coded message for a security expert who suggests that we call her “Jane Smith” and who adds that she is “here to show you how the world ends.” That clue involves a taxidermic hummingbird, the last of its kind, and, following a few ellipses in the accompanying note, the word salamander. No, not Salander, though Jane has a number of things in common with Stieg Larsson’s heroine: She can pound most dudes into tapioca, and she’s pretty handy with a gun and a computer, too. The story, as it develops by twists and turns, involves a very, very wealthy South American bad guy who’s been raping the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and doing a little exotic wildlife smuggling on the side while his daughter has become an eco-warrior who doesn’t mind the detonation of a few bombs in order to save wildlife. Naturally, the bad guy isn’t entirely bad, the good woman isn’t entirely good, and their stories intertwine in nicely tangled ways. It wouldn’t be a VanderMeer story, no matter what the genre, without a post-apocalyptic turn, and after all the assorted villains (one of them in particular very evil indeed) and oversized amphibians and mad-scientist taxidermists and exploding heads, it’s sort of nice to get to a future that no one will survive—one that strongly resembles 2020, for that matter.

A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-3741-7354-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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