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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
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
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