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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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We’re all searching for something. The problem is that we don’t always know what that something is.

Our quests for understanding – internal, external or both – aren’t always defined solely by ourselves. Oftentimes, particularly when we’re young, our personal journeys toward knowledge are unduly influenced by the people and places with which our lives are entangled. What we seek becomes conflated and even replaced by the pursuits of those close to us – sometimes without our even knowing that it is happening.

This confusing, convoluted search is central to “The Lightness” (William Morrow, $26.99), the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple. It’s a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

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Few men have had as outsized an impact on recent world history as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. As the director of the Manhattan Project, he led the massive team of thousands of scientists and others in their single-minded mission to develop the atomic bomb. And in 1945, this incredible, terrible aim was achieved, bringing World War II to an end. By all accounts, the reality of Oppenheimer’s contribution left him riddled with guilt and doubt.

But what if that project led to the discovery of an even greater potential threat – one existential far beyond the actions of even the most power-mad governmental regime? A threat whose cataclysmic impact could only be combatted by the continued collaborative effort of the world’s greatest minds? Who but Oppenheimer could administrate such an effort?

That’s the gist of “The Oppenheimer Alternative,” Robert J. Sawyer’s latest book (and the first new novel in four years from the Canadian author). It’s an alternate look at the scientist’s life, one that hews closely to his early years before veering into an entirely new realm as he’s forced to confront a bleak discovery – one that could, even more than his weaponizing of the atom, result in the end of the world if he and his fellow scientists can’t stop it.

With typical stylistic verve and a remarkable degree of research, Sawyer has crafted a world that is an apt and accurate reflection of our own while also folding in the shifts and changes that create this alternate reality. It is a compelling portrait, both in terms of who the man was … and who he might have been.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 26 May 2020 15:43

Hillary minus Bill equals ‘Rodham’

There are few literary questions I find more engaging than “What if?” I’ve always been drawn to narratives that offer a glimpse at an alternative version of our world, guessing at what might have been had something – anything, really – been different.

These questions tend to be more the purview of speculative fiction, but sometimes become devices used in the telling of altogether different kinds of stories.

That’s the category in which “Rodham” (Random House, $28), the latest from bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld, falls, a book that asks and answers a singular question:

What if Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton?

From this fundamental premise, a complex and inventive narrative unfolds, spread over three time periods – the early ‘70s, the early ‘90s and the 2016 presidential campaign – following the career of Hillary Rodham as she works her way through the American political landscape of the last half-century. Sittenfeld offers a portrait of a political life unlived, one that paints an engaging and sometimes surprising picture of what might have been.

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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.

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“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.

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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
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
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