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Wednesday, 22 May 2019 12:15

Don’t miss ‘The Missing Season’

There are some people who will simply never give young adult fiction its due. These people, for whatever reason (*coughcoughsnobberycough*) will dismiss out of hand any work that happens to bear that label. And that’s too bad, because they are missing out on some phenomenal work, all to satisfy some sort of literary holier-than-thou nonsense.

They’re missing out on the work of Gillian French.

The Maine-based author’s latest book is “The Missing Season” (HarperTeen, $17.99). It’s a well-crafted mystery that also delves into what it’s like to be young. It’s about being the new kid and having crushes and coming of age in the midst of a small town’s slow fade. It’s about what it means to be afraid, whether it’s of the boogeyman in the woods or the secrets of those closest to us.

And it’s very good.

Published in Buzz

Speculative fiction tends to shine its brightest when it is given space to grow. World building is a key component to the most successful fantasy or sci-fi offerings – those fully-realized backdrops can grant the reader the immersive experience they often seek from this sort of genre offering.

Alternate history – a personal favorite – benefits no less from such world-building efforts, though a higher degree of delicacy is required, thanks to the real-world foundation upon which the narrative realm is built. If it goes awry, it can rudely yank a reader out of a story. But if it’s done right, well … you’re in for a treat.

And S.M. Stirling does it right.

His new book is “Theater of Spies” (Ace, $16), the sequel to last year’s excellent “Black Chamber” and – one can only hope – just the latest installment in what deserves to be an ongoing series. It’s the continuing tale of an alternate World War I and the espionage agency – also named the Black Chamber – tasked with protecting the United States and her interests both home and abroad during wartime.

Marrying meticulously-researched alternate history with a spy thriller sensibility, “Theater of Spies” is both propulsive and compulsive in its readability. Like the best work within the subgenre, it strikes that oh-so-delicate balance between fact and fiction and creates a world both fascinating and familiar.

Published in Buzz

There’s nothing quite like a good coming-of-age-story.

Literature is riddled with great tales of young men and women dealing with that shift in circumstances between worlds, that transition from childhood to adulthood and the expansive gray area in the middle of it all. There’s something primal and undeniable about it all.

Dave Patterson’s “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” (Hanover Square Press, $25.99) tells the story of two young men growing up in small-town Vermont. The pair must navigate the strictures of their family’s Catholic faith while also coming to terms with their own gradual (and not-so-gradual) changes. As personal and professional problems threaten to overwhelm the family, the boys are left trapped by unappealing choices and hungry for a deeper understanding of the world – the world around them and the world within them.

Published in Style

Superheroes have been ingrained in popular culture for nearly a century. Decades of extraordinary powers and extraordinary tales. Comic books led the way, of course, but superheroes have become key components in just about every entertainment medium, dominating televisions and especially movie screen over the past 15 years or so.

These characters and narratives benefit from being represented in a visually-oriented medium; brightly-colored costumes and superhuman feats of derring-do lend themselves well to the pages of a comic book, the animated cels of a cartoon or the CGI-powered exploits of a movie.

Meanwhile, the superhero hasn’t made the same sort of cultural inroads into the literary realm, though that too has begun to shift in recent years.

The latest effort in that direction comes from the pen of debut novelist T.J. Martinson. “The Reign of the Kingfisher” (Flatiron Books, $27.99) is a literary crime thriller, one shaded by the lengthy shadow cast by the titular Kingfisher, a largely-forgotten vigilante whose death, some three decades in the past, becomes central to a horrific murder spree in the present day.

An exploration of the dark side of superheroism, evocative of the work of comics legends like Frank Miller, the book digs deep into the ethical and moral quandaries that permeate the notion of vigilantism – costumed or otherwise – and offers a look at the consequences therein, some obvious, others less so.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 20 February 2019 14:04

‘Aerialists’ a literary high-wire act

There are a number of ways for an author to assemble a collection of short fiction. Some just repurpose whatever stories they’ve published in various literary magazines and other outlets and put them together. Others develop their stories around some sort of shared thematic or stylistic tendencies. Still others use go the “novel in stories” route, using their tales as chapters of a connected whole. And some follow more than one of these tenets.

Mark Mayer’s collection “Aerialists” (Bloomsbury, $26) falls into the latter category. This collection of nine stories draws from Mayer’s previous work – three of these stories have appeared elsewhere. His stories are rich in characterization, very internal and bleakly funny. And as his framing device – his connective tissue, as it were – he uses the notion of the circus.

Now, that’s not to say that these stories are all about the circus. In fact, none of them are. Their names are derived from circus figures, from the opening “Strongwoman” to the titular tale to the collection’s closer “The Ringmaster.” But while these names aren’t to be taken as literal representations of circus tradition, they are meant to evoke the unique feeling inspired by the circus, that mélange of joy and fear and unsettling otherness that you can’t get anywhere else.

Another common bond that these stories share – a very important one – is that they are excellent.

Published in Style

From its very beginnings, speculative fiction has been used to comment on the world in which we live. Sometimes, it’s a lens that allows closer examination and subsequent extrapolation; other times, it’s a mirror that forces us to look at a potentially unsettling reflection. The very best often does both.

The new collection “A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers” (One World, $17) – edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – offers numerous examples of just how good that very best can be. They are stories that look forward from our current fractured place and project just how our societal journey might progress if we remain on certain paths. There are bleak prophecies and optimistic hopes, tragedies and triumphs – all of them springing from similar starting points.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 30 January 2019 13:40

To tell the truth – ‘Golden State’

What would it be like to live in a world where there was no greater crime than telling a lie? And what if you were one of the few people with the ability to detect said lies – as well as the official state-sponsored authorization to venture outside the truth?

“Golden State” (Mulholland Books, $28), the latest novel by Ben H. Winters, takes a look at just such a world, a skewed near-future state in which pure, unadulterated truth is mandated by law. Interactions are defined through basic, unassailable facts – with no room for anything more.

While we might believe that absolute truth would be the way to go, the reality is that massive gray area between truths and lies is where the lion’s share of human relationships live. When truth is all that is allowed, it’s not long before free will begins to fade.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 22 January 2019 20:43

What dreams may come – ‘The Dreamers’

In a world where sleep may be never-ending, what manner of dreams may come?

That’s the foundational question posed by Karen Thompson Walker’s literary sci-fi novel “The Dreamers” (Random House, $27) … but it’s a question with many answers. Through an inexplicable epidemic, Walker offers up an illustration of how tenuous our grasp on a collective reality truly is. We all see the world differently whether we’re awake or asleep - and it doesn’t take much to make everything change.

Published in Style

I’ve been a book reviewer for over of a decade. As such, I have seen a lot of books cross my desk – so many, in fact, that there’s no way that I could ever read them all. Some cuts are easy, while others are genuinely hard decisions.

One such cut I made back in 2011 was Susan Conley’s memoir “The Foremost Good Fortune.” It was one of the hard ones, but I made it. And when I finally revisited the book some years later, I realized that not only was the decision difficult … it was wrong. I promised myself I wouldn’t miss out on another offering from such a talented writer.

Hence, when I received my copy of Conley’s new novel “Elsey Come Home” (Knopf, $25.95), I immediately dug in. And what I got was a beautiful, ethereal piece of writing – a look at the power of family, the nature of creativity and the dynamics of addiction. It’s an exploration of one woman’s psyche, a look both deep and broad into what makes a person tick, packed with emotional resonance and deftly-turned phrases.

Published in Buzz

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
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