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Space has always been scary. There’s this unsettling blend of known and unknown when it comes to space – we can see a lot, sure, but there’s so much more that we can’t. It’s a vast mystery whose extreme inhospitality and infinite size make a battle out of every new discovery.

It is this place of wonder and fear that so fascinates Andy Weir. The engineer-turned-author returns to those harsh environs with his new book “Project Hail Mary” (Ballantine, $28.99), venturing deeper into space than in his previous offerings (“The Martian” and “Artemis”) while still maintaining the distinctive wonkiness that renders his work so idiosyncratically enjoyable.

This is a story about one man’s fight to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, bringing to bear every bit of cleverness and intuition in an effort to solve a huge problem. It’s a story of isolation, friendship and the looming specter of incomprehensible loss – all refracted through a prism of well-researched and joyful nerdery. And of course, the science is sound (and in more ways than one).

Published in Buzz

Our country’s history is packed with stories. And while some of those stories are generally familiar, even those that we’ve dug deeply into time and again have new nuances waiting for us to explore. Take the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. It’s one of those vividly bleak moments in time with which the majority of Americans bear at least a passing familiarity.

But those trials, as horrible as they were, were not the beginning of the story. Those terrible acts didn’t take place in a vacuum, but were rather the culmination of a decades-long period of repression and hysteria.

Chris Bohjalian’s new book “Hour of the Witch” (Doubleday, $28.95) takes us further back, some 30 years before the horrors of Salem. It’s a look at one woman’s efforts to reconcile her religion and her beliefs with the pain and suffering – emotional and physical – inflicted on her by those around her. It’s the story of what it means to stand up for oneself, even in the face of a society that has little interest in protecting her.

Blending historical events with page-turning thrills, “Hour of the Witch” offers a propulsive and powerful tale of what can happen when a person who is pushed to the brink simply refuses to accept the status quo and pushes forward in a quest for justice – even if that person knows deep down that justice is almost certainly not forthcoming.

Published in Buzz

There’s wonder in water.

Whether we’re gazing across a mirror-smooth lake or bouncing over crashing ocean waves or simply skipping stones across a swiftly moving stream, we find wonder in water. There’s a quiet power to it, an energy that is as undeniable as it is indefinable. There is joy and knowledge and yes, there is magic.

Maine author Ellen Booraem offers up some of that wonder in her new book “River Magic” (Dial Books, $16.99), her latest offering for younger readers. This fantasy tale – aimed at readers 10-12, but accessible to readers on either side of that range – is a story of what happens when magic intrudes on real life. It’s a story about grief and loss and the many ways – some healthy, some not so much – that we deal with those feelings.

It’s also about thunder mages and dragons, a story of inadvertent adventure that celebrates the meaning of family and friendship even as it offers wild weirdness aplenty.

Published in Buzz

There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

Published in Buzz

The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

Published in Style

“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve all heard a million times before, this idea that where we wind up is less important than how we got there. And it’s a true one, albeit a bit of a cliché at this point.

Sometimes, though, we have no idea what someone’s journey actually entails until that person shares their story.

Erin French is known for her celebrated restaurant The Lost Kitchen, based in a renovated grist mill in the tiny Maine town of Freedom. She has received accolades from all over the culinary universe, with big names and big outlets all clamoring to shower her with praise for the amazing dining experience that she has built in her tiny corner of the world.

What you might not now is just how much she went through to get here.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” (Celadon Books, $28) is the story of French’s journey in her own words. It is a story of one woman’s voyage of self-discovery and the many dizzying highs and shattering lows that came along the way. It’s a work of reflection and at-times brutal honesty, dotted with revelations and confessions. There are tears aplenty, but also more than a few laughs as well; it’s a portrait of a sometimes fractured and always full life.

Through it all, the indomitable spirit of Erin French shines through. Even in those moments where she seems to be at her lowest, when her world is crumbling around her, that fortitude is obvious. This is a woman who took every shot that life could throw at her and simply refused to stay down. That resilience is on full display throughout this book, and it is only that resilience that allowed her to become the person that she is today.

Published in Style

One could argue that all literature has the writer opening themselves up to the reader. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But very few writers can truly invite the reader in, laying bare everything and inviting our examination.

Haruki Murakami invites you in.

His latest is “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28), a collection of eight stories that are all told – you guessed it – in the first person, tales of absurdity and magic and passion. Whether we’re getting accounts of talking monkeys or sweetly weird looks at first love or poems about baseball, it all springs from the same never-ending font of humanism, melancholic though it may sometimes be.

These are stories about being apart, being other. They’re stories offered up from the perspective of eight similar-but-different characters, only one of whom cops to the name that in truth they all fundamentally share – Haruki Murakami.

Published in Buzz

Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves” (Penguin Press, $28) is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Published in Tekk

Of all American professional sports, baseball is the one that is most enamored of its own history. Celebrating the past is a big part of the game, looking back at the legends and comparing the players of today with those from previous generations.

The thing with history, however, is that it isn’t always good. And baseball isn’t immune from that reality; there are plenty of unfortunate truths scattered throughout the misty fictions of the game’s rose-colored retrospect.

Among the most scandalous of the pastime’s past times is the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox. Dubbed the Black Sox scandal, this was the story of eight players from the White Sox conspiring with gamblers to fix the Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. But despite rumors and whispers about the fix that began before that Series even reached a conclusion, it wasn’t until the fall of 1920 that the wheels of justice truly began to turn.

Eight players – first baseman Chick Gandil, third baseman Buck Weaver, shortstop Swede Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson – would ultimately be banned from the game for life for their actions, though they took varying degrees of responsibility; some confessed, some recanted and some professed their innocence until their dying day.

Baseball historian Don Zminda’s “Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920” (Rowman & Littlefield, $36) offers an in-depth look at the White Sox during that 1920 season, digging into the details in an effort to illustrate how the looming shadow of the scandal may have impacted the team – both on the field and off – all while also addressing the other historic happenings of that season, from the cultural explosion of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking bat to the tragic death of Ray Chapman, the last MLB player to die from being struck by a pitched ball.

It’s also a look into the convoluted path that justice took, with backbiting and infighting among the game’s supposed guardians leading to sham investigations and other CYA behaviors that would ultimately result in the powers that be deciding that baseball needed an arbiter, thus leading to the creation of the office of the Commissioner, first occupied by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose lengthy tenure would create ripple effects of its own.

Published in Sports

The world of fiction will always have room for fairy tales.

The genre fluidity that comes with literary fiction leaves plenty of space for writers to explore the vast expanse of fantasy and morality that springs from the classic fairy tale. And so when we see modern authors adapting the ethos and entities of those long-told tales, it can be engaging in ways both intellectual and visceral.

That’s the energy that Veronica Schanoes brings to her new book “Burning Girls and Other Stories” (Tordotcom, $25.99). It’s a collection of 13 stories, a baker’s dozen of fairy tale-inspired works driven by the dual powers of the fantastic and the feminist. It incorporates tropes of the fairy tale realm into stories of women fighting back against a society that devalues and others them; there are elements of punk rock and Judaism and revolutionary leftist political thought as well.

These disparate elements could have resulted in stories that were uneven and muddled, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monsters of overstuffed pastiche. Instead, Schanoes wields her razor-sharp craft like a scalpel, carving every one of these pieces into something distinct and idiosyncratic and undeniably powerful. Intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, it’s a collection packed tight with highlights.

Published in Buzz
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