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As a rule, I’m what you might call an omnivorous reader. My choices aren’t usually constrained by genre – I’ll read pretty much anything. That said, I do have certain types of book that I generally don’t pick up.

For instance, I don’t often get into jargon-heavy thrillers – the Tom Clancys and Clive Cusslers of the world. Just not my scene. I also tend to steer clear of fiction written by famous people who are not famous for being writers – I’ve been burned by too many vanity novels.

So the idea of a book that COMBINES those two things should be a hard no, right? Maybe so – but every rule has its exceptions.

“The Apollo Murders” (Mulholland Books, $28) is the fiction debut of decorated astronaut Chris Hadfield. It’s an alternate history of sorts, a reimagining of the Apollo 18 mission that is packed full of mystery and Cold War intrigue. It’s a new wrinkle to the space race in a world where it’s no longer about getting to space, but rather about controlling it.

Hadfield taps into his own experiences and vast knowledge base to craft a story that is absolutely overflowing with period-accurate detail while also offering up enough twists and turns to make for an engaging thriller. He blends real-life individuals with fictional creations to tell a tale rendered all the more compelling for its general plausibility.

Published in Tekk

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

Storytelling is baked into the human condition. Throughout the centuries, we have told one another stories intended to educate us or entertain us or simply to help us endure. They are the ties that bind us, the threads of the tapestry into which we are all woven.

Stories have power – power that drives us to preserve them, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Anthony Doerr understands that power as well as anyone. His new book is “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Scribner, $30), a segmented saga of wild ambition and staggering scope, spanning centuries as it follows a varied cast of characters through their trials and triumphs. From 15th century Constantinople to a 22nd century starship – with a few stopovers in mid-20th and early 21st century Idaho – Doerr takes us on a journey driven by the power of story. The stories we are told, yes, but also the stories we tell ourselves.

Binding all of it together? An ancient Greek text titled “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Antonius Diogenes. That tale – also an invention of Doerr’s – serves as this novel’s connective tissue, with excerpts introducing each chapter. That book’s journey within Doerr’s larger tale – lost, then found, then lost again and discovered anew – reflects the transitive nature of story; some live forever, while others disappear.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 22 September 2021 11:18

‘Bewilderment’ explores the stars and the soul

A good book can take us on a journey. Perhaps it is a journey outward, into the wider world and what lies beyond. Or maybe inward, an exploration of psyche and emotion and personal truth. A book that can do both with thought, precision and heart, however? That’s not just a good book – it’s a great one.

“Bewilderment” (W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95), the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers, definitely meets the criteria for the latter. A thoughtful deconstruction of the relationship between fathers and sons set against the backdrop of a troubled time and place that is a slightly skewed reflection of our own, it’s a story that manages to strike the perfect balance between looking out to the stars and into the soul.

Deftly plotted and constructed from the sorts of sentences that only Powers can craft, this is a book that is unafraid to explore the many forms that goodbye can take.

Published in Style

We have a tendency to want to categorize writers, to pigeonhole them. We like to label them by way of their output: sci-fi writers and literary writers and mystery writers and horror writers and romance writers and on and on and on. It’s easy to do and generally accurate – even authors who diversify tend to be primarily identified by one label, so when we get writers that aren’t so readily tagged, we’re not entirely sure what to call them.

Colson Whitehead is an author who defies those sorts of labels. He’s written speculative fiction – sci-fi and horror. He’s written historical fiction. He’s written immersive participatory nonfiction and literary satire. Really, one of the few descriptors shared across his body of work is “excellent.” As far as previous books go, he’s eight-for-eight.

His latest is “Harlem Shuffle” (Doubleday, $28.95), a crime novel of sorts that offers a vivid look at the Harlem of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s got potboiler DNA, packed with capers and unsavory elements, but all of it is informed by the narrative brilliance of the author. The result is a wild ride of a novel, one that focuses on one man’s inner struggle with his past and present, wherein he seeks to do right by his family while also being the man he wants to be.

Any book by Whitehead is an event – the guy’s last two novels each won the Pulitzer Prize (“The Underground Railroad” in 2017; “The Nickel Boys” in 2020) – but this one feels like something of a throwback. It’s plenty sophisticated and carries forward many of the themes Whitehead traditionally explores in his work, but “Harlem Shuffle” is a looser read, content to lean into the narrative and let the story be what it will be.

And what it will be is outstanding.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 15:05

‘The Actual Star’ burns bright

The power of story is significant, burning brightly across time and space. Our stories are what define us. Our stories turn the everyday now into history, the history into legend and the legend into myth. So much of our understanding of not just who we are, but who we were and who we may yet become, springs from story.

Monica Byrne understands that fundamental truth as well as anyone. Byrne follows up her excellent 2014 debut “The Girl in the Road” with a millenia-spanning triptych that marries past, present and future in a manner that’s not quite like anything you’ve read before.

“The Actual Star” (Harper Voyager, $27.99) is a stunningly realized work of literary fiction. Byrne blends elements of speculative and historical fiction to create a trio of timelines, each a thousand years apart, the individual stories serving to illustrate a fundamental truth of narrative power. The stories we tell, that we pass on, can come to define us in the eyes of those who follow. Flexible and fluid, these tales grow and evolve until they are both of us and not of us.

These stories – set in the years 1012, 2012 and 3012 – unspool as separate pieces that are nevertheless inherently bound up with one another. They are three, even as they are one. The book is intricately, densely plotted; narrative tendrils from each time reach out and entangle themselves with the other two. It could be knotty and difficult to follow; instead, thanks to Byrne’s gifts, it is simply a mesmerizing journey through three very different, yet very connected times.

Published in Style

What prompts people to reimagine a masterpiece?

Take the works of Shakespeare, for instance – for years, writers have been digging into the Bard and offering different takes on those classic tales. Sure, it makes a degree of sense; there’s a universality to Shakespeare’s plays, after all. If there weren’t, they would have long since faded into history rather than become a cornerstone of the Western canon.

But, you know – it’s Shakespeare. If you’re going to fiddle with greatness, there’s not much room for error. When your template is one of the great works of literature, you’d best come correct. I should note that I say this as someone who adores this sort of reimagining … so long as it’s done well.

Lyndsay Faye has done it well.

Her new book “The King of Infinite Space” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27) is a marvelous exploration of “Hamlet,” a thoughtful, inclusive and provocative interpretation of the tale. Modern and magical, it’s equal parts thriller and love story, built on a foundation of the classic work while also freely and gleefully embracing its own uniqueness. Like so many of the best reinterpretations, the original is still there, but deeply changed; the core of the tale, the spirit that makes it so great, remains, even as the narrative structure around it becomes something new.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 03 August 2021 11:29

The way of the gun – ‘Billy Summers’

Whenever anyone brings up horror fiction, the first name that inevitably arises is Stephen King. And there’s no question that he is the absolute master of modern horror, having given us some of the scariest stories ever to be put to paper. And if that was all he was, that would be more than enough.

But it isn’t. Not even close.

That’s not to demean his massive success in the horror genre, but we’ve seen plenty of work from King over the years to show that he is about more than genre. He transcends genre – the man is, above all else, a storyteller, unafraid to follow in whatever direction the tale takes him.

His latest novel is “Billy Summers” (Scribner, $30), a book in which King embraces a different kind of darkness. Not the supernatural shadows, but rather the bleak and sinister spaces within the hearts and minds of man. It’s a book more evocative of King works like the Bill Hodges trilogy or “Later” from earlier this year, one that digs into the author’s affection and affinity for pulpy noir fiction. There’s a gleeful griminess to it, even as he unleashes the full capacity of his storytelling prowess.

(In case you haven’t guessed yet, it’s VERY good.)

Published in Buzz

Every once in a while, a book will come along that makes you stop and say to yourself: “Now THAT is a GREAT f—ing idea.”

That was my immediate reaction to a brief synopsis I read for “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26), the latest novel by the delightful genre-bending horror author Grady Hendrix. From those few sentences that laid out the concept for me, I knew that this was going to be a book that I not only liked, not only loved, but made me the tiniest bit jealous that I hadn’t come up with the idea myself.

It is a smart, self-aware narrative, one that does one of the cleanest jobs you’ll ever see in combining subversion of and affinity for the tropes of a genre. It embraces some of the basest impulses of the horror world and turns them on their head by endowing them with verisimilitude. It looks beyond the stories we’ve always seen, and by doing so uncovers a much deeper – and in some ways scarier – tale to be told.

To wit: When the credits roll in a horror movie, what happens to the one who lives?

Published in Buzz

One of the joys of genre fiction is its ability to explore big ideas through a literary lens. Sci-fi in particular can display an audaciousness with regard to the concepts it espouses. It also offers a special sort of storytelling flexibility, its trappings and tropes opening up a long runway for writers to create something that is both thought-provoking and narratively engaging.

Matt Bell’s new novel “Appleseed” (Custom House, $27.99) is precisely that kind of engaging provocation. A tale told in tryptic, blending myth, near-future tech utopianism and climate apocalypse, the book winds together three disparate timelines, all connected by the shared roots of a goal that must be met in different ways in different times.

It’s also a book about humanity’s quest for connection, a quest that sometimes leads us down some counterintuitive paths, all in the name of finding that interpersonal closeness that we all seek. “Appleseed” illustrates that operating for the greater good can be noble, but it also depends on just who is deciding what that “greater good” should be.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 08 June 2021 18:36

Downward spirals – ‘The Quiet Boy’

When the inexplicable occurs, who bears the blame?

That’s one of the central questions in “The Quiet Boy” (Mulholland Books, $28), the new novel from Ben H. Winters. It’s a bifurcated story – on one side, a medical mystery, on the other, a capital murder case – where both tales are connected through time by a tragic event that ultimately proves damaging to two different families.

Winters has never been one to be bound by genre constraints, so it’s no surprise to see the author venturing in a different direction. Here, he’s tackling the courtroom drama with the same genre fluidity and narrative inventiveness that he brings to all of his work. Sad and surprising, “The Quiet Boy” crosses all manner of literary borders to capture these myriad lives.

Published in Style
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