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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, 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

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, 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
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 12:20

New novel proves a worthy ‘Foe’

What is it that makes us who we are? And just what would it take to create something that accurately captures that indefinable something?

“Foe” (Gallery, $25.99) by Iain Reid is structured around that deceptively simple question. We all think we know what it is that makes us tick, but what if there were someone out there who wanted – who NEEDED to find a way to accurately recreate you for reasons that were seemingly important yet unfortunately murky.

What Reid has built is a philosophical puzzle-box of a novel, a near-future speculative journey that explores the notion of self-determinism and the lengths to which we will go to execute our perceived duty – both to ourselves and to those about whom we care the most.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:50

Love hurts – ‘Heartbreaker’

Considering the wealth of recent works that marry genre conventions with literary fiction, you might think that there’s little left in the way of potential surprises. No matter how rich the vein might be – and it has proven to be rich indeed – you’d imagine that it would be difficult to mine something new and fresh from that lode.

And then you read something like Claudia Dey’s “Heartbreaker” (Random House, $26) and realize that there are creative powerhouses out there continuing to strike literary gold. It’s a novel about coming of age and motherhood and sexual politics wrapped in a sci-fi dressing of alternate history and cult dynamics. It is powerful and thought-provoking and unrelentingly weird – both in the tale and in the telling.

It shines.

Published in Style

What if you looked around one day and saw all the success in the world … only it wasn’t what you wanted?

That’s the central question being asked by Barry Cohen, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel “Lake Success” (Random House, $28). It’s a story of discontent among the one percent, a look-in on the lives of people whose problems are both wildly different and oddly similar to our own. It’s also a sharp and whip-smart deconstruction of the American Dream – one in which the dreamer discovers that maybe they didn’t want it to come true after all.

Published in Buzz

If you’re looking to read some YA genre fiction, you’ve got plenty of options. You can’t swing a cat in a bookstore without hitting half-a-dozen sci-fi/fantasy/whatever books aimed at younger readers. If you’re looking to read some GOOD YA genre fiction, well … you’re going to need to put the cat down.

The point is that there’s a glut of content out there, so don’t be afraid to shape your expectations accordingly. Look for something that speaks to you - whether it’s an author or a plot or a theme or an idea - and take a swing.

Will McIntosh’s “The Future Will Be BS Free” (Delacorte Press, $17.99) promises something that feels a little different. It’s the story of a near-future America under the sway of a despotic and corrupt President, one in which the truth has become so malleable and subjective as to be almost meaningless as a concept. Into this America, a group of gifted teens attempts to bring a beacon – an unfailingly accurate and foolproof lie detector. But their initial dreams of societal (not to mention financial) gain soon fall by the wayside as they discover that there are plenty of people out there with little interest in the truth.

Published in Buzz

There are those who will rail against the world, who will do everything in their power to strike back against any real or imagined powers that hold them down. And there are others who want nothing more than to simply remove themselves from the fight, to check out until such time as their problems have somehow miraculously solved themselves.

The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (Penguin Press, $26) falls very much into the latter category; she’s a young woman who on the surface appears to have it all, yet desires to completely ignore the world as it rolls on around her … and is willing to go to some extreme measures to achieve that ignorance.

Published in Buzz

Baseball as a metaphor has been a literary device since the game’s inception. It has proven fertile ground for stories of fathers and sons, of passion and regret, of failure and triumph.

Mark Di Ionno is the latest to bring our national pastime to the printed page with his novel “Gods of Wood and Stone” (Touchstone, $26). Now, this book isn’t ABOUT baseball – not really. It’s more that it is built AROUND baseball, using the game as a lens to focus the narrative. And what a narrative it is, a story of relationships and disappointments, about the regrets that haunt us and the damage caused by the decisions we make. It’s a tale of loneliness and obsessions and the power of passion.

Published in Sports
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