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It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

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The last decade or so has seen an explosion of indigenous voices in the realm of speculative fiction. Native American and First Nations authors have always used elements of their respective cultures in their work, but the last 10 years has seen a real growth of distinct and diverse voices in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and the like.

One of the most prolific – and most talented – indigenous genre authors working right now is Stephen Graham Jones. In many ways, Graham, with his two dozen books over the past couple of decades, has led the way – he’s definitely a huge part of the vanguard.

His latest novel is “The Only Good Indians” (Gallery, $26.99), a tense and thrilling work of horror fiction. It’s a tale of the consequences – both mundane and supernatural – that spring from the decisions that are made. A decade ago, four friends embarked on a fateful hunting trip – one whose aftermath cast a ten-years long shadow over their lives … and the price ultimately paid.

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This beloved game show host and television icon has a new book out in which he looks back on a long and storied career.

Who is … Alex Trebek?

The longtime host of “Jeopardy!” has written a memoir, titled “The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life” (Simon & Schuster, $26). It’s a chance to not just celebrate who Trebek has become, but to remember the earlier parts of the journey that led here – and to do so in his own words.

It’s a gentle voyage, to be sure. In a lot of ways, the book offers up its titular answer in much the spirit of the game show that came to define him – simply, concisely and accurately. The book matches the man, largely genial but with just a hint of remove.

As it should be.

(This is where I remind everybody that I was a contestant on “Jeopardy!” In fact, I was reading this book two years to the day after I got the call that I was going to be on the show. Obviously, this influenced the way that I experienced this book and I’m not going to pretend full objectivity. Nor am I going to ignore an in-context opportunity to mention it. I apologize for nothing.)

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Few writers are as fascinated by the intricacies of interconnectedness as David Mitchell. Fewer still have the literary skill to coherently translate those complexities to the page.

Yet the British author has built his entire oeuvre on doing just that. From his very first novel – 1999’s “Ghostwritten” – he has shown a propensity for creating layered stories featuring a multitude of perspectives from multiple points of view. And thanks to a wonderful narrative broadmindedness and wildly impressive attention to craft and detail, each of those meticulously-constructed books shares connections with all the other works in Mitchell’s canon, binding them all together in a sort of metanarrative – a David Mitchell Literary Universe (DMLU), if you will.

Mitchell’s ninth and newest book is “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30). It’s a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

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Celebrity memoirs are generally a tough sell for me. The notion that a famous person is going to tell me anything of substance about themselves – particularly in a book – seems unlikely. So often, these books are baldly self-celebratory with nary a hint of genuine introspection.

Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown, $27) isn’t the worst celebrity autobiography you’ll find. Jost, a longtime writer and “Weekend Update” host for “Saturday Night Live,” knows how to write and is unafraid to look foolish – a solid combination for someone presenting a book about their own life. While it might not be as thoughtful or reflective as you might like, Jost does pull back the curtain a little bit, particularly when it comes to his family and his Staten Island roots.

Again, it’s not some sort of soul search, but nor is it merely a wad of rehashed “SNL” backstage anecdotes (though it’s closer to the latter). Instead, we get a pleasant, perfectly cromulent memoir – one that focuses largely on the goofy stories, but still leaves room to talk a little bit about the stuff that matters.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 13:32

A woman’s place – ‘Blue Ticket’

Imagine a world in which your future was determined for you at an early age, a world in which your path was plotted by a lottery ruled by a machine.

That’s the world of Sophie Mackintosh’s new book “Blue Ticket” (Doubleday, $26.95). This dystopian vision from the author of 2018’s acclaimed “The Water Cure” is a bleak and unrelenting glimpse at a world in which reproductive agency is disallowed. This is a place where a woman’s possibilities for motherhood are determined at the time of their first menstruation – and there is no appeal.

It’s a provocative and challenging book, one that offers a particular perspective of the slippery slope that is institutional control of bodily autonomy. It is tense and thrilling, combining in-depth character study with just the right amount of background. And while the setting is a speculative future, the woman on the run narrative is one that transcends its genre framework.

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Something I’ve learned in a decade or so of book reviews: Even when you think you know, you don’t always know.

Take “Antkind” (Random House, $30), the debut novel from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for example. As someone familiar with Kaufman’s body of work – his style, his sensibility, his thematic interests – I figured I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting into when I picked up his first work of literary fiction.

Reader, I did not.

Kaufman’s creative output is fluid, an elaborate and evocative liquid that takes the shape of whatever container it is placed into. Movies have strict delineations – there are unavoidable limitations of time and technology – and hence Kaufman’s work in that sphere is likewise limited. But on the page, there are no such limit. In that regard, “Antkind” is Kaufman unleashed, his careening creative brilliance utterly unfettered.

It’s … a lot.

This book is a sprawling, recursive metanarrative, one unbound by literary convention. It is the story of what happens when mediocrity is confronted with genius and forced to reckon with what happens when singular brilliance proves ephemeral. It is about a man in whom self-regard and self-pity do constant battle, forced to come to terms with how little he understands. It is about what it means to be tangentially touched by greatness, only to have that greatness escape your grasp.

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BANGOR – To think that it all started with a Facebook page.

Odds are good that if you live in or around these parts, you’re familiar with the work of Tim Cotton of the Bangor Police Department. You might not necessarily know it, but you are.

Cotton – or TC, as he often identifies himself – is the driving force behind the social media phenomenon that is the Bangor PD Facebook page. Over the course of a few years, Cotton built the page’s following into a genuine grassroots juggernaut, with literally hundreds of thousands of people checking in to see what TC had to say.

The page’s success hinged on TC’s unusual approach to social media. He eschewed every bit of conventional wisdom with regards to building a page’s profile. They say you should always have pictures; TC rarely includes them. They say you should keep posts short and sweet; TC stops when he’s finished and not a word before.

And yet – it works. It probably shouldn’t, but it does.

It works because Cotton brings a consistent collegiality to the proceedings. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor that manages to carry a little bit of snark without ever becoming mean-spirited – no easy feat. He is someone who is passionate about his work and his community – a passion that carries through everything that he writes. There’s nothing disingenuous here; everything comes from a place of honesty.

But now, it seems that he has written something a good deal longer than even his longest Facebook post – a book.

Cotton’s new book is titled “The Detective in the Dooryard,” published by Down East Books. It’s a collection of short pieces that do a wonderful job in encapsulating the TC experience. It is packed with the same genial storytelling that made the Facebook page such a success.

(It’s worth noting that the book is proving wildly popular. Be sure to reach out to your local bookstore to place an order if you haven’t been lucky enough to land your copy already.)

As you might imagine, TC’s a pretty busy guy right now, what with a book hitting shelves added to his duties with the Bangor PD. And yet, despite all of that, he was generous enough to take the time to answer a few questions The Maine Edge sent his way. He discusses how the book came about and what his process is like, as well as the people and ideas that influenced him as a writer. 

(Check out our full review of the book here.)

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Anyone who has worked the same job for a long time likely has their share of stories. And if that job involves regular interactions with the public, they probably have even more. And if said public isn’t always thrilled about those interactions, well … you get the point. Stories. Lots of them.

Tim Cotton certainly has all of those bases covered as a veteran police officer, having served for more than three decades in a variety of capacities. He’s got the stories for sure. But unlike the majority of his peers, he’s taken the time to write some of them down.

That writing started in earnest with Cotton’s assumption of the position of Public Information Officer for the Bangor PD, a job whose duties included updating and maintaining the department’s Facebook page. He started sharing his thoughts and stories about the job on that page (along with a healthy helping of the Duck of Justice, an old stuffed duck whose origin has become the stuff of legend), as well as a delightful regular feature titled “Got Warrants?” where he related the week’s particularly ridiculous incidents.

Before long, literally hundreds of thousands of people – nearly 10 times the city’s population – were following the page, all of them eagerly anticipating TC’s latest bit of homespun hilarity. Soon, Cotton’s writing was appearing elsewhere, popping up in newspapers and on various websites.

The logical next step? Write a book!

Hence, we get “The Detective in the Dooryard: Reflections of a Maine Cop” (Down East, $24.95), a collection of thoughts, musings and anecdotes about the world as seen through the eyes of one particular (and kind of peculiar) police officer. These tales are brief, breezy reads that embrace the idea of sharing stories that might not make their way into the local paper’s police beat, but warrant (see what I did there?) telling nevertheless.

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America has always been fertile ground for those with … unconventional ideas. That fertility ebbs and flows, to be sure, with one of the high points – perhaps THE high point – being the middle of the 20th century. The odd energy of the post-war period manifested itself in a tendency for people to search for enlightenment in new ways. And once the notion of ETs and UFOs entered the picture, well – things got weird.

People didn’t understand … and people who don’t understand can be dangerous.

That weirdness and its generational aftermath, for those inside and outside alike, serve as the foundation of Brian Castleberry’s debut novel “Nine Shiny Objects” (Custom House, $27.99). This novel-in-stories of sorts takes a long look at the America of the latter half of the 20th century, viewing it through the lens of a short-lived fringe group of UFO fanatics and the traumatic fallout of the years following its collapse.

By following a variety of individuals via their connections to the group, we bear witness as the booming postwar years give way to the counterculture ‘60s, the hedonistic ‘70s and the go-go ‘80s. But even with the growing generational remove, all of the people we encounter bear the psychological repercussions springing from the too-brief life of that initial collective while also dealing with a changing America.

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