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One of the joys of genre fiction is its ability to explore big ideas through a literary lens. Sci-fi in particular can display an audaciousness with regard to the concepts it espouses. It also offers a special sort of storytelling flexibility, its trappings and tropes opening up a long runway for writers to create something that is both thought-provoking and narratively engaging.

Matt Bell’s new novel “Appleseed” (Custom House, $27.99) is precisely that kind of engaging provocation. A tale told in tryptic, blending myth, near-future tech utopianism and climate apocalypse, the book winds together three disparate timelines, all connected by the shared roots of a goal that must be met in different ways in different times.

It’s also a book about humanity’s quest for connection, a quest that sometimes leads us down some counterintuitive paths, all in the name of finding that interpersonal closeness that we all seek. “Appleseed” illustrates that operating for the greater good can be noble, but it also depends on just who is deciding what that “greater good” should be.

Published in Buzz

A lot of the best comedy comes from darkness. For many of our funniest, the shadows are where they find the biggest laughs. As it turns out, one can mine a lot of jokes from battling with one’s demons.

Comedy connoisseurs are certainly aware of Tom Scharpling. He’s likely best known as the creator of the beloved long-running radio show-turned-podcast “The Best Show,” where he and his partner Jon Wurster have spent some two decades crafting a bizarre and absurdist call-in program that is probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite things.

And now, he’s written a memoir.

“It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!” (Abrams Press, $27) gives readers a window into who Scharpling really is. It’s an exploration of a troubled past rendered with self-deprecating frankness, walking us along the path that brought him to his current place. There’s an earnestness to it all, despite the constant self-awareness – an unwavering honesty, even in the face of clear misgivings about sharing these stories in their entirety.

Published in Buzz

Faith is a funny thing.

We all have it, in some way, shape or form. Everyone believes in something, whether it is an institution or an ideology or an individual, though that belief is often an entanglement of two or more of those things. We believe even in the absence of evidence. Sometimes, we believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. That’s part of how it works.

But what happens if the object of your faithfulness proves questionable in its worthiness?

Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel “God Spare the Girls” (William Morrow, $27.99) addresses just such a circumstance. Told through the eyes of a teenager living as part of an evangelical family in Texas, it’s the story of how the fallibility of others can cause one to struggle with one’s own faith. It’s about the pressures that come with expectation, of the need to maintain a public face even as one’s private world is crumbling. And it’s about family – both the connections that are and the ones we wish for.

It’s a compelling and beautifully written tale, a book that captures the hubris and hypocrisy that can come from institutionalized faith while also finding ways to acknowledge the value that such circumstances can bring. Delicately heartwrenching, driven by sad realizations and quiet humor, it’s an unforgettable read.

Published in Style

Video games are big business.

Now, anyone with any sort of cultural awareness understands that the video game industry is a big one, but when you stop to really look, the numbers are staggering.

We’re talking a LOT of zeroes here, to the tune of some $180 billion (yes, with a B) just last year. That number outstrips the global movie industry. It outstrips the North American sports industry. And oh yeah – it’s more than those two COMBINED.

So yeah – big money.

But with big money comes big pressure. The companies that make these games, whether we’re talking about the major-name studios doing the distribution at the top or the multitude of smaller shops that tend to the lion’s share of the developmental work to bring these games to life, are faced with massive expectations. When those expectations are not met, there are of course consequences, but even success is no guarantee.

Jason Schreier’s “Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry” (Grand Central Publishing, $17.99) takes a look behind the scenes at the video game industry, digging deep and investigating the stories that spring from every game development experience. Some of them are good, some not-so-good, all populated by designers and developers who want nothing more than to make great games – even if the success of those games doesn’t always trickle down to them.

Through first-rate reporting and dozens of first-hand interviews, Schreier walks us through the process of making games through the eyes of the people who make them. We also get to explore the business side of things, watching as executives insert themselves into the process regardless of whether they actually know anything about video games.

As they say – mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Published in Tekk

Sports biographies are tricky things.

The history of professional sports in this country is built on a foundation of legacy. The lionization of athletic giants is an underlying tenet of pro sports, with the games in a constant conversation with their own history. Protecting that history – that legacy – is paramount to many if not most pro athletes.

At the same time, leaving that history unexamined does a disservice to the reader. A simple and glowing account of an athlete’s feats, all buffed glossiness, is nothing more than hagiography – overly simplistic, unchallenging … and incredibly dull.

And it only gets trickier when the subject isn’t directly involved.

That’s the juggling act Scott Howard-Cooper has undertaken with his new book “Steve Kerr: A Life” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s the story of the rich and fascinating life lived by Steve Kerr. From his globetrotting boyhood to an underdog basketball journey to the pinnacle of his profession, Kerr’s is a tale almost too interesting to be real, marked by triumph and tragedy.

Published in Sports

The notion of Yankee ingenuity is one that has long been engrained into the cultural consciousness of New England. The twin tenets of “needs doing” and “making do” are huge parts of the region’s history, with generations of people finding ways to accomplish what needs accomplishing via utilizing what’s on hand through general cleverness.

As you might imagine, this also means that there is a lengthy history of invention and innovation that springs from the region. And a great deal of that inventing and innovating has taken place in the state of Maine.

Author and historian Earl H. Smith has taken it upon himself to celebrate Maine’s inventors with his new book “Downeast Genius: From Earmuffs to Motor Cars, Maine Inventors who Changed the World” (Islandport Press, $17.95). It’s a quick-hit breakdown of over 50 Mainers whose creations made an impact on the world – some big, some small, but all entertaining.

The work of these innovators spans the decades, reaching from the waning days of the 18th century to the cusp of the 21st. These inventions also impact a wide variety of industries, from the agricultural age to the electronic. And each of these people – and their work – is brought to our attention in eminently readable bite-sized fashion. A fun, quick read – engaging and informative.

Published in Style

Ever since the early days of baseball, there have been those who seek to gain a competitive advantage through various forms of chicanery. And while there are certainly rules regarding the way in which the game is played and the conduct maintained while playing it, players have always pushed the envelope, seeking to come as close to the line as possible … and sometimes crossing it.

The largest cheating scandal of the past few years involved the Houston Astros, who put together an elaborate scheme combining high- and low-tech techniques to steal the signs of their opponents and gain an advantage – an advantage that took them all the way to a World Series championship before later revelations brought the whole thing tumbling down.

Andy Martino’s new book “Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing” (Doubleday, $28) takes the reader inside that scheme, introduces us to the primary figures in its execution and discusses its aftermath. It also takes a trip through the history of sign stealing, a form of gamesmanship that has always been a part of the sport even as it has invited controversy along the way.

It’s a well-reported and well-written book, one that details the extent of the Astros’ sins while also showing that while this recent scandal might be the one most prominent in our memories, it is far from the only time that a team has crossed a line in its efforts to gain a better understanding of (and advantage over) their opponents.

Published in Sports
Tuesday, 08 June 2021 18:36

Downward spirals – ‘The Quiet Boy’

When the inexplicable occurs, who bears the blame?

That’s one of the central questions in “The Quiet Boy” (Mulholland Books, $28), the new novel from Ben H. Winters. It’s a bifurcated story – on one side, a medical mystery, on the other, a capital murder case – where both tales are connected through time by a tragic event that ultimately proves damaging to two different families.

Winters has never been one to be bound by genre constraints, so it’s no surprise to see the author venturing in a different direction. Here, he’s tackling the courtroom drama with the same genre fluidity and narrative inventiveness that he brings to all of his work. Sad and surprising, “The Quiet Boy” crosses all manner of literary borders to capture these myriad lives.

Published in Style

It’s hard to believe in a world that has been shrunk so significantly by technology, but there are still mysteries that remain to be solved. There are things that we can’t explain, no matter how hard we try. And when we do try, our efforts are dismissed as delusions or mistakes or hoaxes.

So it is with Bigfoot.

The legendary cryptid has been a part of American legend for hundreds of years. And while it is best known for roaming through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of other places in this country that could conceivably play host to the elusive beast.

Places like Maine.

Michelle Souliere’s new book “Bigfoot in Maine” (The History Press, $21.99) digs into the cryptozoological phenomenon’s history here in the State of Maine, delving deep into various archives and reaching out to a variety of eyewitnesses, bringing to life the beast’s ongoing presence in the Pine Tree State.

It’s a well-researched and well-written tome, built on a foundation of testimonies – some drawn from aged newspapers, others from the mouths of those who saw … something … with their own eyes. Souliere’s hypothesis is simple – Bigfoot has and may still walk the woods of Maine.

Published in Adventure

Some of the best narrative nonfiction springs from when an author is able to get really granular with the subject at hand. When the writer digs deep, vein after vein of precious literary gems can be unearthed, painting vivid and compelling portraits of people and places. These stories are captivating and enlightening in the best of ways.

Some of the WORST narrative nonfiction starts in the same place. These are the stories wherein the author treats the subject(s) as some sort of vaguely anthropological study, holding themselves above the people with whom they are engaging. They parachute into a place and imagine that their brief dalliance is enough to bestow actual understanding.

The State of Maine has unfortunately seen a bit more of the latter treatment than the former in recent years, with this place and its denizens being rendered simplistically and/or stereotypically – junk shop kitsch instead of fine art.

I honestly wasn’t sure which I was going to get from “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (Harper, $27.99), the new book from Gigi Georges. I’ve been around long enough to know that these efforts to somehow “unlock” the truth of rural America often wind up being little more than condescending confirmations of the author’s already-extant attitudes, cherry picked to prop up whatever thesis they sported upon their arrival.

This book is not that.

Published in Style
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