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As with most genre tropes, I’m a fan of time loops provided the execution is there. If the writer is lazy or uninspired, the loops quickly lose their luster, fading into a spiral of repetition that leaves us bored and disinterested.

But if the writer comes in hot, with thoughtful ideas and narrative clarity, the time loop can be a powerful storytelling weapon, providing an altogether different (but no less effective) path to character development.

Adrienne Celt comes in hot.

Her new book is “End of the World House” (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), a taut and tightly-told tale of one woman’s journey through the same day over and over again – a journey that leaves her entangled in mystery even as her memories begin to bleed together. The fact that the day in question just happens to be one where she has access to a private tour of the Louvre is just icing on the proverbial cake.

(In case you haven’t worked it out yet, the title of this review translates roughly as “Groundhog Day at the Louvre.” I frankly don’t care if you’re amused or not, because I am delighted with myself.)

This is a story that takes place in a world where the end is looming, where everything exists in a state of perpetual precariousness. And our heroine Bertie is left to navigate this world with companions who may or may not actually be there with her, a messy mélange of memory that leaves her questioning not just the reality of the present, but the truth of the past.

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Great fiction is born not just of the story itself, but the manner in which the story is told. It sounds simple, but from simplicity springs truth.

Narratives that are built around a central conceit while spinning out multiple perspectives, for instance – tricky business. When done well, they can result in absolutely mesmerizing literature. When done poorly, well … we’ve all seen what happens when the spinning plates begin to tumble from their poles.

Jennifer Egan’s new novel “The Candy House” (Scribner, $28) very much occupies the former space, a hypnotic decades-spanning tale reflecting the juxtaposed light-and-dark possibilities looming in our very near future. There is no crashing literary dishware here. Instead, we get a sweeping epic rooted in the potential (and potential ramifications) that comes with the logical endstages of our societal tendency toward the sharing of experience and memory.

All of it, by the way, conveyed through a series of interconnected stylistically diverse vignettes that run the gamut – some are more traditional narrative constructions, while others veer into the abstract and/or absurd. We have email exchanges and second-person instructions, stories of tech billionaires and music producers and unsettled housewives, with the overarching tale playing out over multiple generations and venturing from our more-or-less present into an all-to-plausible future.

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There’s no such thing as normal. All it takes is a little scratching at the veneer of the mundane to reveal the much stranger reality that surrounds us.

That effort to dig down into the bizarre – even when the bizarre isn’t buried all that deeply – can often result in marvelously strange stories. When weird fiction blurs those lines, giving the everyday that ever-so-slight tilt that sends it careening off into the shadows, it usually proves to be a rewarding reading experience.

And when the writer is also someone with a genuine gift for craft, well … that’s when you get something like Kate Folk’s “Out There” (Random House, $27).

This collection of 15 stories offers up precisely the sorts of funhouse reflections that you hope to find when digging into fiction that blends the literary and the speculative. Folk delves into the darkness that comes from our shared need for (and failure to find) connection. Perhaps we seek to connect with family or a lover. Perhaps we want to connect with an institution or an idea or maybe – simply – ourselves. Those quests can be bleak – particularly when they lead us down paths we aren’t prepared to traverse.

(Oh, and just for the record – all 15 of these stories are absolute bangers. Usually in these sorts of single-author story collections, you’ll find one or two that don’t resonate in quite the same way. Decidedly not the case here – “Out There” is top to bottom gold.)

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The collision of worlds can provide rich fodder for storytelling. Not in the literal sense, of course (although plenty of excellent speculative fiction has sprung from just such a scenario), but rather finding new ways to combine contexts in the service of a compelling tale.

Take “Secret Identity” (Flatiron Books, $28.99), the new novel from Alex Segura. It’s a mystery with noir elements, only set in the world of comic book publishing in the mid-1970s. It might sound strange, but these oddly shaped pieces have been fit together to form something altogether different, a story both of and beyond its parts.

Fast-paced and quick-witted, it’s a novel that takes full advantage of its disparate elements, finding room for moments seedy and sublime alike as it takes the reader on a twisting and thoughtful ride.

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There is no feeling quite like that of being transported by literature. Reading a book that sends you through time and space, to far-flung locales both physical and metaphysical. Engaging with a narrative that is compelling in terms of the story being told and the thematic foundation upon which that story is built.

Mastering that sort of layered storytelling is something that most writers – including some tremendously gifted ones – never quite manage. But when that mastery is achieved, the resulting work can etch itself upon your mind and upon your heart.

Emily St. John Mandel has achieved that mastery.

Her new novel is “Sea of Tranquility” (Knopf, $25), a beautiful and complex tale of creativity and love spread across centuries. Marrying the power of familial bonds with the passage of time, bound together through the rippling reflections cast by the motion of generations, it is a book that ensnares the imagination and buoys the reader forward into the known unknown.

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As someone who has been reviewing books for a long time, I’ve developed a pretty good curatorial sense with regard to my choices. The reality is that there are just too darned many books out there – there’s no hope of me reading them all. And so, I’ve gradually found a selection system that works for me.

But there’s no such thing as a perfect system.

And so, every once in a while, I find myself with a book that almost fell through the cracks. Usually, it’s a style or genre that I don’t ordinarily indulge in. For whatever reason, the title was never on my radar until one voice – usually a fellow critic or blogger whose opinions I respected – pushed it into my attention. Many times, that book still isn’t for me.

But sometimes, I get Tara Isabella Burton’s “The World Cannot Give” (Simon & Schuster, $27.49).

Set in an isolated Maine prep school, this is a story about the many shapes and flavors of fervor. It is a tale about the choices we make, about how we allow ourselves to be consumed by the outside influences that serve as flames to our moths. It is about sexuality and religion and the devotion that springs from them both.

It is also – if you’ll forgive the light blasphemy – one hell of a read.

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I’m on record as being a big fan of collections of short fiction. As someone enamored of both beginnings and endings, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about picking up a book that has plenty of both.

Now, there are those who ride hard for anthologies. It’s a proclivity that I understand, to be sure, but don’t quite share. Don’t get me wrong – love a good anthology – but to me, the big winner is always going to be a collection of work by a singular author, even if that means that I’m taking a bit more of a gamble on an individual’s style and substance. But when that gamble pays off? Jackpot.

“Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” (Tin House, $16.95) by Kim Fu offers the kind of payout you hope for when picking up a collection by an author with whom you are unfamiliar. So it is with me and Fu’s work – she’s written a couple of novels and this is her first published story collection, but I had never read her work before. Such is the joy of the book critic life – sometimes, you take a swing and see what happens.

In this case, what happened was an engaging, thought-provoking collection of stories. A dozen works of speculative exploration that utilize and subvert genre tropes in equal measure. These are stories that venture into the shadows without fear and travel darkened pathways with resolute boldness. Smart and sharp, riddled with unsettling bleak humor and emotional impact, “Lesser Known Monsters” is a first-rate collection for any fan of speculative fiction.

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Wednesday, 29 December 2021 13:03

‘Creative Types’ offers superb short fiction

All the best fiction is built around interesting ideas and/or individuals. It’s just the amount of time and space devoted to them that varies. While novels spend hundreds of pages delving into their core concepts and characters, short fiction tends to provide a much quicker hit.

And sometimes, the quicker hit is the one that hits hardest.

Tom Bissell’s new collection “Creative Types: And Other Stories” (Pantheon, $27) delivers a septet of such hits; we watch as people are forced to confront the realities around them on both micro and macro levels, leaving them to explore the impacts of actions on themselves and their larger worlds.

Whether we’re in the offices of a literary magazine or a Roman hotel room, discussing an interview with a masked vigilante or the aftermath of a PR misfire on the stage of “Saturday Night Live,” what Bissell does so wonderfully in “Creative Types” is illustrate just how much turmoil exists beneath the seeming placid surface attitudes of those who operate in a creative orbit.

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Monday, 29 November 2021 15:38

Turn the page: 2021's Recommended Reads

Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list – there are literally hundreds more great books that came out this year, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

I’m not arrogant enough to call these the best books of the year – it’s all subjective and this is just one man’s opinion. 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.

And now, without further ado, here are my recommended reads from 2021, divided into fiction and nonfiction and listed in alphabetical order.

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First things first: I love short fiction. There’s something wonderful about reading exquisitely crafted pieces that are not one word longer than they need to be. Maybe it’s 5,000 words, maybe it’s 500 – whatever it takes to tell the tale.

And while short fiction operates in the context of all genres, I’d argue that no genre is better suited for it than speculative fiction; the idea-driven nature of it allows for significant flexibility regarding how the stories are designed to play out.

Now, I’m a fan of anthologies, to be sure – there’s a lot of fun to be had when the works of a score of disparate authors is collected under one figurative roof, after all – but there’s nothing quite like sitting down to read an assemblage of short works by a singe author. You get to see the writer’s stylistic quirks and ideological idiosyncrasies laid out over the course of 10 or 12 or 15 tales, a snapshot of their ethos along with their stylistic strengths.

And in that respect, “Even Greater Mistakes” (Tor, $27.99) by Charlie Jane Anders definitely delivers.

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