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There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

Published in Buzz
Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 14:13

Tech-22 – ‘Zed’

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say. From the very beginning, sci-fi has used its trappings to examine and explore the (sometimes harsh) realities of the real world. It reflects and refracts, commenting on where we are and where we might be going.

We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous and a handful of people sit in control of the vast majority of the resources behind that technology. Those people, perhaps more than any elected official, are the ones who hold our societal destiny in their hands. But as we grow ever more reliant on the various forms of tech to live our daily lives, as it infiltrates every aspect of our everyday existence, we must ask ourselves – what happens if those people lose control? What happens if this omnipresent technology stops working the way it is supposed to?

That’s where Joanna Kavenna’s “Zed” (Doubleday, $27.95) takes us. This darkly comic dystopian novel imagines a world not too different from our own, a near-future in which a single company has risen to the top of the food chain and extended its influence into every aspect of society. This company provides the technology on which seemingly the entire world runs. And something’s wrong…

With a biting wit and a discomfiting plausibility, “Zed” offers up a portrait of what might happen if everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – was dictated by algorithmic whims … and what happens if those algorithms should start to crumble, leaving those at the top to make panicked choices aimed more at protecting themselves than the world around them.

Published in Tekk

There will always be a place for straightforward narrative fiction. There will always be stories that need to be told, tales that move from Point A to Point B and so on, following a linear path from beginning to end. Tales filled with heartbreak and humor, driven by plot and character.

But sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to get weird. And for those times, well … Jeff VanderMeer can help you out.

VanderMeer – one of our leading purveyors of the literary subgenre dubbed “weird fiction” – has a strange and exquisitely opaque new novel. “Dead Astronauts” (MCD, $27) is a prequel of sorts to his equally bizarre 2017 novel “Borne,” its title a reference to a line in that previous book. It brings us back to the ravaged future VanderMeer created for “Borne,” only slightly earlier in the timeline of that technocorporate dystopia.

It is a challenging experiment of a novel, marked by the vivid weirdness and repetitive complexity that features prominently in VanderMeer’s work. There’s a narrative fluidity to it all, marked by an odd combination of optimism about and suspicion toward technology and the way it impacts the world around us in ways both miniscule and massive.

Published in Style

True literary excellence is rare. At any given time, there exists a relative handful of writers capable of creating legitimately exceptional prose. There are plenty of GOOD writers out there (though perhaps not as many as we might like), but scant few GREAT ones.

The truly excellent are the ones who are not only capable of crafting greatness, but are also willing to push boundaries – both the establishment’s and their own. These are the writers who, in continuing to challenge themselves, burst through the literary ionosphere and hurtle toward undiscovered realms.

Zadie Smith is one such writer.

Published in Buzz

Writing is hard. Writing WELL is even harder. There are some writers who devote their lives to honing their specific craft, to finding ways to excel in their chosen niche. Some write fiction, some write nonfiction. Some lean toward the literary, while others revel in genre. Some are reporters and journalists. Some write essays or memoirs or comic book arcs. A person who is able to do any one of those things well is worthy of celebration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates does ALL OF IT.

The National Book Award winner and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient has made his first foray into the realm of fiction (leaving aside his magnificent Marvel turns on Black Panther and Captain America books); his newest work is “The Water Dancer” (One World, $28), a heartbreakingly powerful work of historical fiction and magical realism. It’s a fictionalized exploration of one young man’s struggle with (and against) the peculiar institution that remains our country’s greatest shame.

It’s also a story about the magic of memory and the power of stories, a look at how our pasts can shape our futures and how words can change the world. It’s a tale of love lost and rediscovered, all under the looming shadow of slavery. Freedom – real freedom – comes with costs both expected and surprising, but there are many who are willing to pay all that and more.

Published in Style

There aren’t many writers out there who are as thoughtfully scary as Joe Hill.

Hill has long shown a particular knack for telling stories that are, at their hearts, about the fears that we evoke in one another. Sure, there are supernatural or paranormal elements to some of his tales, but in the end, the real fear – the real impact – comes from man’s connection to man … and what happens when that connection is stretched, twisted or severed entirely.

Hill’s latest book is “Full Throttle” (William Morrow, $27.99), a collection of 13 stories aimed at stoking the coals of that fear, seizing hold of your imagination and pulling it into the depths. There are heroes and villains (although sometimes it can be a little tricky to tell the difference). There is justice and vengeance (although again – sometimes they look awfully similar). There are strange fantastic realms and there are places that look just like home, weird beasts and regular folks.

Published in Buzz

Speculative fiction has been used as a vehicle to comment on societal woes for about as long as there has been speculative fiction. In the right hands, the flexibility of genre opens up a tremendous literary toolbox, one that offers a combination of wildly vivid creations and complex cultural commentary.

Hands like Jesse Ball.

Ball’s latest novel is “The Divers' Game” (Ecco, $26.99). It’s a story of a society not so unlike our own, one extrapolated out from our current place into something darker - but not that much darker. Ball’s world is a challenging journey into the depths of man’s capability to other and the fractured functionality of a culture structured around that othering.

What elevates this work above the usual dystopian dive is Ball’s prose. His unique literary sensibility brings a bleak lyricism to the narrative, a fluidity of form. All of it devoted to creating not just the tragic segregation of this new world, but also the complicated characters that inhabit it.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 17:54

A lie of the mind - ‘The Institute’

Stephen King’s reputation is that of a master of horror, a writer who plumbs the depths and brings forth supernatural terrors to be confronted and defeated by regular people who have been thrust into irregular circumstances. And that reputation is well-earned.

But make no mistake – King is often at his horrifying best when his villains are ordinary rather than extraordinary. Finding the evil that lurks within the human heart – that’s a skill for which Mr. King doesn’t always get his full due.

Those are the villains in King’s latest novel “The Institute” (Scribner, $30), regular people willing to do unspeakable things simply because they have been told those things are necessary. There’s a timeliness to this book, an of-the-moment quality that also possesses a sense of universality. It is a look at the evil that men do when they believe their cause is just.

But while these villains may not be possessed of paranormal girts, the targets of their villainy certainly are – children. Children, stolen from their homes in the dead of night and confined to an isolated compound, selected for imprisonment and torture so that a shadowy cabal might somehow bring forth the full force of the children’s inexplicable talents.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 17:43

Slaying giants – ‘Quichotte’

There are certain stories that invite retelling. These are stories that have embedded themselves deeply into the collective psyche, demanding to be told and retold.

The story of Don Quixote has been one such story. Even from its inception some four centuries ago, when Miguel de Cervantes put pen to paper and spun out the tale that would become the most influential Spanish literary work in history, the work deemed by many to be the genesis of the modern novel, the tale of the erstwhile knight errant and his quest for love and chivalry continues to resonate.

The newest exploration of the classic story comes from Salman Rushdie, whose latest novel is “Quichotte” (Random House, $28). It’s a layered metafictional take on the tale, a story that succinctly blends the modern with the postmodern as well as a deft use of a classic touchstone to explore a much more current cultural landscape.

Reality and surreality collide as an elderly Indian-American man, his once-sharp mind somewhat addled by a steady diet of TV and travel, is swept up into a romantic notion – a notion for which he’s willing to cross the country. But there’s more to this man’s world than he could ever know, for despite his own resistance to the idea of a higher power, he is in fact subject to the whims of his own creator – though perhaps not in the way one might expect.

Published in Style
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