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When does a villain become a villain? At what point does a person reach the tipping point that sends them spiraling into the darkness? Is it a singular event? Or simply the culmination of a thousand smaller moments? Does it even matter?

These are the sorts of questions that power Suzanne Collins’s “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (Scholastic, $27.99), a return to the world of her blockbuster “Hunger Games” series. Set over 60 years before the events of that first novel, this latest installment looks at the origins of Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem and general big bad of the initial trilogy.

But what goes into the making of a man so brutally and single-mindedly devoted to the systemic dystopia that is Katniss Everdeen’s Panem? This book introduces us to a young man who desperately wants to be perceived a certain way by the world, who wants nothing so much as to be restored to what he deems his rightful place in society … and who uses a combination of aristocratic charm and subtle ruthlessness to try and achieve that goal.

Published in Buzz

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

There’s an undeniable magic to the city of Paris. And while there has always been a romanticism attached to it – particularly by folks from this side of the pond – one could argue that one of the peaks of that magic came in the 1920s. The arts were alive and thriving, with expatriated folks from all over the world finding their way to the fabled City of Lights.

In his new book “The Paris Hours” (Flatiron Books, $26.99), author Alex George offers a look at the magic of the city through the perspectives of four people who live there. Over the course of a single day in 1927, he shows us some of the ways that a city such as this one can shine, but also recognizes that a place with so many lights casts a multitude of shadows.

Through the eyes of this quartet, we get a sense of the place in terms both general and specific. We get to know them and the challenges they face even as they cross paths – fleetingly or otherwise – with some of the preeminent figures of the era, luminaries like Proust and Stein and Baker and Hemingway. And yet, titans though those luminaries may be, they serve as supporting characters here, moving in service to the stories of our central foursome as they live their relatively everyday lives.

Published in Style

Making someone laugh is hard. Making them laugh with nothing but words on a page is REALLY hard.

That’s why the contenders for great comedic literature are so limited; while most writers worth their salt can elicit a few chuckles over the course of a novel, only a scant handful can use comedy as a literary foundation. It’s the difference between books with some comic aspects and legitimate comic novels. There are plenty of the former and surprisingly few of the latter.

Of course, then you have someone like Christopher Moore who totally throws off the curve. See, Moore’s entire bibliography is packed with capital-C Comic novels, including a couple that warrant inclusion among the very best ever (though even lesser Moore is funnier than 99.9% of the self-styled comedic literature out there).

His latest is “Shakespeare for Squirrels” (William Morrow, $28.99), the third in his ongoing series of parodic pastiche featuring the erstwhile fool Pocket of Dog Snogging. Like its predecessors “Fool” and “The Serpent of Venice,” this latest offering drops its nimble, quick-witted and foul-mouthed protagonist into a setting spun off from the brilliance of the Bard.

Moore brings his usual satiric edge and keen sense of the absurd to the table, mingling it exquisitely with a thoughtful depth of knowledge with regards to the works of Shakespeare. The resulting combination is bitingly funny and awash in coarse charm, a familiar narrative turned on its head. This book is fast-moving, smart … and utterly, unwaveringly hilarious.

Published in Buzz

Baseball is a sport of interlocking contradictions. It is a team sport built on a foundation of individual battles. It is rigidly structurally defined initially – three outs, nine innings, nine players – while also being utterly open-ended – there’s no clock and extra innings could technically extend to infinity. It is many things in one and one thing among many.

And so, obviously, the game makes for a wonderful framework in which to discuss Buddhism.

That discussion is at the center of Donald S. Lopez’s new book “Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings” (St. Martin’s Essentials, $19.99). Dr. Lopez is considered by many to be this country’s preeminent public Buddhism scholar, having published a number of books exploring Buddhist concepts in accessible ways. However, this latest offering might be the most accessible yet.

Lopez has been entangled with the study of Buddhism, first as a student and then as a professor, for half a century. However, his connection to baseball – specifically, his beloved New York Yankees – extends even long, all the way back to his childhood. By bringing his two passions together, Lopez is able to use each to build upon the other, creating a thoughtful and wryly funny book that entertains even as it enlightens.

Published in Livin'

Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with his new book “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

By walking us through the conscious and unconscious influences that impact how baseball works, Law gives us a new perspective on the intricacies of the sport – a perspective that matches the more data-driven and analytically-inclined model followed by 21st century practitioners of the game.

Published in Sports
Thursday, 30 April 2020 10:20

Cult of personality – ‘Godshot’

Belief is a powerful thing, rendered all the more powerful when it is uncompromising. Cults weaponize that uncompromising belief, using it to entangle the vulnerable and establish control.

That controlling entanglement is a big part of why we find cults so fascinating. From the outside looking in, so many of their doctrines seem patently absurd on their faces, and yet people on the inside unwaveringly accept those ideas as bedrock truth. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel “Godshot” (Catapult, $26) offers a look at one such perspective. It’s the story of a teenage girl swept up in the fervor surrounding a charismatic religious leader, a man who many in her small town believe to be something more than mortal. Through her eyes, we watch as a small town crumbles beneath the weight of faith – faith that may well be misplaced.

It’s a bleak tale of desperate hope, an illustration of the personal horrors people are willing to endure for any possibility of redemption – even an illusory one – as well as exploring the courage it takes to defy the lockstep beliefs of those around you … and the consequences of that defiance.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 14:32

The space between worlds – ‘Vagabonds’

Speculative fiction has always been the literature of big ideas.

Granted, these ideas have often swathed in genre trappings that render them more palatable to less-suspecting readers. And there’s no denying that for decades, speculative fiction was relegated to the disreputable realm of luridly-covered cheap paperbacks and niche publications. Nowadays, of course, even the more “serious” readers and writers out there acknowledge the possibilities that come with genre exploration, allowing for a more “literary” understanding of the work.

But never forget: the ideas have always been there, right from the beginning.

Those big ideas are plentiful in “Vagabonds” (Gallery, $27.99), the first novel from Hugo Award-winning writer Hao Jingfang to be translated into English, courtesy of acclaimed author and translator Ken Liu. It’s a story of young people trapped between two worlds, sent to spend their formative years amidst another culture, only to discover that their home no longer fits them.

It’s a sharp and incisive commentary on how cultural differences can skew worldviews and hinder communication. It’s also an exciting, engaging narrative, driven by detailed plotting, strong characters and some first-rate world-building. As with all great speculative fiction, the quality of the ideas and the execution are well-matched.

Published in Style

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds” (Scribner, $30), the latest in his every decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

Published in Buzz

There are a million stories out there of people who went out into the world and took a shot with their talent. For all but a handful, that shot misses, leading them down a different path. Is there anything wrong with their allowing themselves to go in a different direction?

Emily Gould’s “Perfect Tunes” (Avid Press, $26) is one of those stories, a tale of a woman who makes her way to New York City at the very beginning of the 21st century, determined to make a name for herself. But her rapidly ascending star goes out too quickly, sending her life down a road of struggle, though she’s never quite fully removed from the possibility of what could have been.

It’s an exploration of what it means to just miss being a star and of the passion and motivation behind creation. It’s also a story of mothers and daughters (and parenthood in general) and of the consequences of compromises. It is also a wry and irreverent look at being an artist and how elusive popular creative success really is.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 14 April 2020 09:47

Standing guard – ‘Barker House’

The notion of crime and punishment has long been a subject of artistic expression. Those who commit misdeeds and those tasked with exacting retribution for those misdeeds allow for a wealth of character and thematic exploration. A society’s treatment of those it imprisons often serves as an effective lens through which to view the rest of that society.

Those grand ideas writ small are what make up “Barker House” (Bloomsbury, $26), the debut novel-in-stories of David Moloney. Through a series of interconnected looks at some of the corrections officers at a New Hampshire prison over the course of one year on the job, Moloney explores some of the grim realities of mass incarceration. By delving into these people on an individual level, he assembles a broader and much more vivid picture of the system as a whole.

What makes this book compelling – and it really is compelling – are those extended character studies. We learn about these people and what makes them tick. We find out about the circumstances that landed them in this job and the motivations that keep them there. There are rookies and lifers, each with their own ideas about how this job works. Some seek to better the system, others are content to simply get along.

And all the while, the machine grinds on … and the prisoners are not the only grist for the mill.

Published in Style
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