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Wednesday, 22 May 2019 12:15

Don’t miss ‘The Missing Season’

There are some people who will simply never give young adult fiction its due. These people, for whatever reason (*coughcoughsnobberycough*) will dismiss out of hand any work that happens to bear that label. And that’s too bad, because they are missing out on some phenomenal work, all to satisfy some sort of literary holier-than-thou nonsense.

They’re missing out on the work of Gillian French.

The Maine-based author’s latest book is “The Missing Season” (HarperTeen, $17.99). It’s a well-crafted mystery that also delves into what it’s like to be young. It’s about being the new kid and having crushes and coming of age in the midst of a small town’s slow fade. It’s about what it means to be afraid, whether it’s of the boogeyman in the woods or the secrets of those closest to us.

And it’s very good.

Published in Buzz

Speculative fiction tends to shine its brightest when it is given space to grow. World building is a key component to the most successful fantasy or sci-fi offerings – those fully-realized backdrops can grant the reader the immersive experience they often seek from this sort of genre offering.

Alternate history – a personal favorite – benefits no less from such world-building efforts, though a higher degree of delicacy is required, thanks to the real-world foundation upon which the narrative realm is built. If it goes awry, it can rudely yank a reader out of a story. But if it’s done right, well … you’re in for a treat.

And S.M. Stirling does it right.

His new book is “Theater of Spies” (Ace, $16), the sequel to last year’s excellent “Black Chamber” and – one can only hope – just the latest installment in what deserves to be an ongoing series. It’s the continuing tale of an alternate World War I and the espionage agency – also named the Black Chamber – tasked with protecting the United States and her interests both home and abroad during wartime.

Marrying meticulously-researched alternate history with a spy thriller sensibility, “Theater of Spies” is both propulsive and compulsive in its readability. Like the best work within the subgenre, it strikes that oh-so-delicate balance between fact and fiction and creates a world both fascinating and familiar.

Published in Buzz

If I were to tell you that someone was a mathematician, you’d have some pretty specific ideas about who that person was. If were to tell you that someone was a football player, you’d have some pretty specific ideas about who that person was as well. And you probably wouldn’t think that there would be a lot of overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

But then you encounter someone like John Urschel and you’re forced to reconsider your preconceived notions … because he has achieved great heights in both arenas.

His new book “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football” (Penguin Press, $27) explores the seeming disparity between Urschel’s passions. Along with his co-author (and partner) Louisa Thomas, Urschel walks readers along the parallel paths through which he pursued two dreams that were seemingly at odds. Few athletes ever approach the pinnacle of their sport. Few academics ever approach the pinnacle of their field. John Urschel – still a month away from his 28th birthday as of this writing – has done both.

Published in Sports

No American sport is as enamored of its own history quite like baseball. Even as today’s players take the field, the shadows of those who came before are omnipresent. Baseball is as much about what was as it is about what is.

But there are some moments that transcend even the game’s historical affection. These are the times that make the leap from history to legend, the instances and accomplishments that are the foundation of baseball’s long and intricate mythology.

Kevin Cook’s “Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink” (Henry Holt and Co., $28) is a thorough exploration of one such instance, a single game in 1979 that wound up as one of the greatest offensive explosions in the history of Major League Baseball. That game – a May 17 contest that saw the Chicago Cubs play host to the Philadelphia Phillies – ultimately went 10 innings, with a final score of Phillies 23, Cubs 22; it was the highest scoring game of the modern era.

(It was second only in MLB history to a 1922 game that, funnily enough, featured these same teams; the Cubs triumphed in that one, with a score of 26-23.)

Through a combination of personal interviews and meticulous research, Cook gives an inning-by-inning rendering of the game (known to many as simply “The Game”), breaking down every on-field moment while also delving into some off-the-field exploration into the lives of some of the major players. An historic and iconic MLB moment, the picture painted of a generational contest.

Published in Sports

While it certainly remains a significant destination, the Mount Desert Island of today is viewed very differently than the MDI of days gone by. Yes, there are still plenty of wealthy people who summer on the island, their vast estates surrounded by nature’s beauty. But a peek into the island’s history reveals that not long ago, MDI served as a summer playground for the elite of the elite.

And where the elite of the elite gather, scandals are never far behind.

Those scandals are the subject of “Bar Harbor Babylon: Murder, Misfortune, and Scandal on Mount Desert Island” (Down East, $26.95) by Dan and Leslie Landrigan. It’s a collection of some of the more salacious stories from MDI’s decades-long stint as the go-to getaway for the rich and unprincipled. This was a time when what happened on MDI definitely stayed on MDI. These are tales of deception and theft, of sex and murder – stories that once served as the kind of cocktail party gossip that only the truly privileged might encounter.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 24 April 2019 12:45

Machine à trois – ‘Machines Like Me’

“What if?” is the one the most entertaining questions that literature can ask. Whole sub-genres have been built around books asking and answering that single query. From pulpy paperback novels to elegant literary fiction, the power of what might have been can serve as the foundation for thought-provoking narrative.

Ian McEwan has turned his writerly eye in that direction with his latest novel “Machines Like Me” (Doubleday, $26.95). It’s a quirky and enthralling work of alternate history, a counterfactual conflation that brings forth a world quite different than our own, albeit populated by personalities that will ring all too familiar. It’s an exploration of relationships – our relationships with technology, our relationships with society … and our relationships with one another.

Rendered in McEwan’s indomitable and inimitable prose, “Machines Like Me” takes the reader inside a love triangle unlike any our world has ever seen, a romantic tangle involving a man, his upstairs neighbor – and a machine.

Published in Style

There’s nothing quite like a good coming-of-age-story.

Literature is riddled with great tales of young men and women dealing with that shift in circumstances between worlds, that transition from childhood to adulthood and the expansive gray area in the middle of it all. There’s something primal and undeniable about it all.

Dave Patterson’s “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” (Hanover Square Press, $25.99) tells the story of two young men growing up in small-town Vermont. The pair must navigate the strictures of their family’s Catholic faith while also coming to terms with their own gradual (and not-so-gradual) changes. As personal and professional problems threaten to overwhelm the family, the boys are left trapped by unappealing choices and hungry for a deeper understanding of the world – the world around them and the world within them.

Published in Style

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is defined by its stories.

None of our American pro sports leagues have the same lengthy history within the culture. Nor do they have the same reverence for that history. Baseball is about narrative, a constant tale-telling that is built around connecting the present to the past.

Ron Darling’s new book “108 Stitches: Loose Thread, Ripping Yarns, and the Darnedest Characters from My Time in the Game” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) is about telling those stories, all through the lens of his own experience in the game. And he’s got plenty of experiences to talk about – a 13-year major league career where he won 136 games as a starting pitcher and two decades in the broadcast booth.

Darling’s conceit is a simple one: A series of stories about the various figures with whom he crossed paths over the course of nearly four decades in professional baseball. All told, there are 108 tales – just like there are 108 stitches on a baseball.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a team game made up of individual battles, a series of one-on-one confrontations where one man throws a ball and the other attempts to hit it. Yes, the action evolves after that, but at its heart, baseball is about pitcher versus hitter.

The man at the plate has a weapon – his bat – and protection in the form of gloves, a helmet, perhaps some armor in the form of an arm guard or shin guard. The man on the mound has none of that. But he is not unarmed – he has the ball. And the ball can be a formidable weapon indeed.

That weapon is the focus of Tyler Kepner’s new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (Doubleday, $28.95). In it, the New York Times baseball writer digs deep into the myriad ways that players have tried to put the ball over the plate over the course of the game’s long history. It’s an exploration of one-half of that ever-present central conceit of hurler against striker.

Published in Sports

Superheroes have been ingrained in popular culture for nearly a century. Decades of extraordinary powers and extraordinary tales. Comic books led the way, of course, but superheroes have become key components in just about every entertainment medium, dominating televisions and especially movie screen over the past 15 years or so.

These characters and narratives benefit from being represented in a visually-oriented medium; brightly-colored costumes and superhuman feats of derring-do lend themselves well to the pages of a comic book, the animated cels of a cartoon or the CGI-powered exploits of a movie.

Meanwhile, the superhero hasn’t made the same sort of cultural inroads into the literary realm, though that too has begun to shift in recent years.

The latest effort in that direction comes from the pen of debut novelist T.J. Martinson. “The Reign of the Kingfisher” (Flatiron Books, $27.99) is a literary crime thriller, one shaded by the lengthy shadow cast by the titular Kingfisher, a largely-forgotten vigilante whose death, some three decades in the past, becomes central to a horrific murder spree in the present day.

An exploration of the dark side of superheroism, evocative of the work of comics legends like Frank Miller, the book digs deep into the ethical and moral quandaries that permeate the notion of vigilantism – costumed or otherwise – and offers a look at the consequences therein, some obvious, others less so.

Published in Buzz
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