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There’s very little overlap in the writing Venn diagram of “funny” and “literary” – even most ostensibly humorous literary fiction definitely deserves the scare quotes around “funny,” while genuinely funny stuff doesn’t often have the requisite stylistic heft to warrant the literary tag – but Sam Lipsyte lives right square in the middle of it all.

Lipsyte’s new novel “Hark” (Simon & Schuster, $27) is another example of the author’s incredible gift for balancing poetry and potty humor, for blending the profound and the profane. This latest book – his first since the 2012 story collection “The Fun Parts” – once again places the American experience square in its sights, embracing the depths of inescapable weirdness that exist just beyond casual cultural perception.

It’s a quick-fire reading experience, with short chapters and frequent perspective shifts, capturing the kind of inner turmoil that can only come from discovering someone who you believe might actually have answers to the toughest of tough questions, namely: why?

Published in Style
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 14:04

‘Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography’

I’m never sure if I want to know more about my heroes. Specifically, literary heroes.

It’s not that I have any aversion to biography as a genre – I even enjoy a good memoir now and then – but for whatever reason, I tend to tread carefully when it comes to books about the people who write the books I love. There’s a separation between art and artist that just feels more important when it comes to authors I admire.

But then I stumbled across a graphic novel biography of Philip K. Dick and I couldn’t say no.

“Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography” (NBM Publishing, $24.99) – written by Laurent Queyssi and illustrated by Mauro Marchesi – tells the story of one of the most prolific and belatedly iconic science fiction writers of the 20th century. It follows Dick through the trials and tribulations of his life, from his early concerns to his later paranoia to his lifelong struggles with money. While there’s not much new here for longtime fans, those with limited knowledge of the writer whose work inspired movies like “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” and TV shows like “The Man in the High Castle” will encounter some surprises.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 09 January 2019 13:56

‘The Trash Detail’ a treasure

Too often, short fiction gets short shrift.

Allowing a piece to be just long enough isn’t easy. It’s a real skill, one that not every writer possesses. To create a good short story, the creator has to be willing to embrace their creation on its own terms. Shaving away the superfluous until all that is left is the tale that is to be told. The truly gifted are those who can find that tale again and again.

You’ll find plenty of that just-right fiction in “The Trash Detail” (New Rivers Press, $18), a collection of stories from local author Bruce Pratt. It’s an assemblage of 17 stories, each devoted to spending exactly as much time as necessary to complete their journey – no more, no less. These pieces are explorations of the sublime and the ridiculous, populated by men and women who seek to understand the world in which they live and the space within it that they themselves occupy. Every story is dry and sharp.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 13:42

Fantasy fun with ‘More Fun and Games’

What would you do if your fantasy became your reality?

That’s the question being asked by local author Dave Barrett in his new book “More Fun and Games,” the sequel to 2016’s “It’s All Fun and Games.” It’s the continuing story of a group of high school friends whose weekend of role-playing winds up turning into a life lived in a world far beyond anything they ever thought possible.

Published in Buzz

It has been yet another fantastic year for the written word, with many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2018.

Reviewing books is easily one of the best parts of my job. I’ve been lucky enough to read dozens of books over the course of the past year. While I’ll admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – that’s not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. I’m just one man – there are scores more books out there, exceptional literary works that I simply never got a chance to read. That said, I feel confident that these are quality selections.

So are these the best books of 2018? I don’t know – it’s all subjective. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

In no particular order, here are my recommended reads from 2018.

Published in Cover Story

Just how far are we prepared to go to protect the ones we love?

If someone dear to us is in trouble, we help them. Obviously. But where’s the line? At what point do the larger ethical and moral ramifications of our help become unconscionable to us? Where our assistance actually aids in the continuation of something we ourselves find abhorrent?

That’s the underlying concern in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dryly funny, no-nonsense debut novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer” (Doubleday, $22.95). An older sister with a wavering and resentful devotion to the younger – a devotion that extends to cleaning up some unpleasant messes – questions the motives behind that devotion. It’s a spare and biting look at just how deep our familial bonds can flow – and what blood relations do when another’s blood is spilled.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 13:58

Into the ‘Breach’

There’s probably no subgenre in all of speculative fiction that I enjoy more than alternate history. For whatever reason, the notions of experiencing familiar events filtered through an unfamiliar lens and seeing different ideas of how the world might move if there were subtle – or not-so-subtle – alterations are endlessly fascinating to me.

That isn’t to say that every effort is a good one. There’s as much lazy, formulaic writing in alternate history as there is anywhere else in the realm of genre fiction; it all comes down to keeping eyes and mind open and hoping the next one you grab is a good one.

W. L. Goodwater’s “Breach” (Ace, $16) is a good one. The first in a proposed series, this alternate history takes a look at the Cold War in a world where magic is real, a tool that has been weaponized in the service of battle. It’s a time period that sometimes gets short shrift in alt-history circles, but Goodwater more than makes up for that with a taut tale that offers a rich sense of a world that, despite the presence of magic, is not that different than our own.

Published in Buzz

The NFL is America’s sport. Football is as close to monocultural as it gets these days; even in a world with nigh-unlimited options available for our entertainment, a lot of us choose football. It is shared culture and it is BIG business.

These teams, these billion-dollar entities – their on-field well-being is placed in the hands of a single man. What kind of person is capable of being all things to all (or at least most) people, in the pocket and in the studio? What kind of person is capable of being a quarterback?

That’s what author John Feinstein wants to tell us in his new book “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League” (Doubleday, $27.95). He takes a deep dive into the realities of the position – what it means to play at an NFL level, of course, but also what goes into dealing with the pressures of being THE guy, the one who gets credit for the wins, yes, but also takes the blame for the losses.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 12:59

‘The Grandmaster’ makes all the right moves

“Chess is everything: art, science and sport.” – Anatoly Karpov

The game of chess is one with an ancient history. The game has been played for hundreds of years by millions of people from all corners of the globe. It is buoyed by its universality and its basic meritocratic structure – the more skilled player almost always wins.

You would think such a game would have deep appeal to the American psyche. That isn’t the case, however – not since the too-brief domination of the world stage by Bobby Fischer back in the 1970s has the United States paid much attention to the game.

But when the World Chess Championship landed in New York City in 2016, Brin-Jonathan Butler was there for it. His chronicle of that battle between Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen and Russian Sergey Karjakin - the first WCC contested on American soil in two decades - is titled “The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again” (Simon & Schuster, $26).

It’s an insider’s look at a match that was considered almost a foregone conclusion at the onset before turning into a battle for the ages featuring one of the greatest finishes in chess history. It is also an examination of the history of the game as well as the state of chess today, both here and abroad.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 12:27

‘The Labyrinth Index’ amazes

As a book reviewer, dealing with ongoing series can be tricky. Leaving aside the fact that you need to have started from the beginning – no mean feat when new books are constantly crossing your desk – you have to find ways to keep your own viewpoint fresh as an overarching narrative unfolds over six, eight, 10 books. So as a rule, I don’t usually wade into those waters.

But every rule has its exceptions. One of mine is Charles Stross and his Laundry Files.

Published in Style
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