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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.

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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.

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What if you never grew up?

Not in a magical Peter Pan sense or anything like that – you aged, you moved from being a child to an adult, you got a job and a life, but you simply never … grew up. You never crossed whatever indefinable thresholds necessary to live a grown-up life.

What if your coming of age story happened when you were 47 years old?

Brock Clarke’s latest novel gives us just such a hero. “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” (Algonquin, $26.95) features a titular hero who winds up venturing forth on a better-late-than-never journey where he’s finally confronted with the simple truth that he doesn’t really know who he is. Swept up into a whirlwind by an unexpected relative, whisked away to locales far more exotic than his small-town upbringing could ever have prepared him for.

It’s about figuring out which parts of you are the ones that matter and learning not to worry so much about the parts that don’t. It’s about coming to terms with a life lived on the path of least resistance and making the decision to let things be hard. It’s about family and faith and the nature of love.

Oh, and there’s a lot of John Calvin in here too.

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We all have times when all we want is to be alone, times when the presence of others is just too much for us to deal with. But even the most misanthropic among us has the occasional desire to see a face, to hear a voice, to interact with another person in some manner. How long could you go without that simple interpersonal contact?

And what would happen to you if you tried to find out?

Alix Nathan’s “The Warlow Experiment” (Doubleday, $26.95) tells the story of one such effort. It’s an evocative and atmospheric work of historical fiction featuring strong Gothic undercurrents and a relentless bleakness; a dark book packed with shadows both literal and figurative. The pull of the narrative is steady and strong, inviting readers into a world that will haunt their imaginations long after the final page is turned.

Inspired by a contextless advertisement from a real-life source, Nathan has imagined a vivid and unsettling place, one where the wealthy can indulge their whims without accountability and the poverty-stricken are willing to sacrifice everything for the perceived comfort money can bring. It is a tale of the power of isolation, the necessity of physical and emotional contact to the well-being of the social animal that is man.

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Some of the best speculative fiction comes when a writer is able to extrapolate forward in a manner that is both engaging and plausible. And when that speculation leans toward the dystopian? Well – go ahead and sign me up.

That’s what Rob Hart has done with his new novel “The Warehouse” (Crown, $27); it’s an exploration of a near-future that reads like nothing so much as a darkest timeline look at the future of our society as it relates to the corporate monoliths that consume all that lies before them in their quest for ever-increasing growth.

By spinning out the trends toward ubiquity among some of our larger corporations, Hart takes us deep into the shadows cast by the cheerful bright lights of “progress.” His tale of those tangled in that all-encompassing web – those at the top and at the bottom alike – offers a satiric, chilling and bleakly funny perspective on the potential endpoint of our cultural fascination with the biggest of big business.

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There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to choosing to dig into a literary series. The truth is that a lot of these series, while perfectly OK, are just that – OK. And if you’re OK with OK, well … OK. But if you’re someone who wants something more, someone who is looking for a much richer experience than you can get from the standard-issue sci-fi or fantasy series, taking the plunge can be tough.

Tom Miller’s latest is “The Philosopher’s War” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). It’s the second installment in a series begun last year with “The Philosopher’s Flight.” It is also a book that strives for that richness of experience, one replete with interesting ideas, compelling characters and an ambitious world. And while it might not quite reach the heights to which it ultimately aspires, it still soars plenty high indeed.

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There’s nothing quite like stumbling upon a great book.

Yes, we all have our favorite authors and our favorite genres, our favorite styles and favorite publishers, but every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we wind up with something unexpected in our hands. Maybe you read a review blurb, maybe a friend pointed it out to you – doesn’t matter how you got it, just that you got it.

“First Cosmic Velocity” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26) by Zach Powers is one of those books for me. It is an absolute gem of a book, a tale of tragedy disguised as triumph. It is a beautifully-crafted work of literary genre writing – part historical fiction, part sci-fi, with hints of family drama and magical realism thrown into the mix as well. It’s a story unlike anything you’ve read, told from a perspective unlike any you’ve experienced.

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Tuesday, 30 July 2019 22:02

Take a chance on ‘Chances Are…’

One of the realities of life is that as we grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto all of the pieces of our pasts. Parts of our lives that were earth-shattering at the time prove to not be nearly so important or even memorable. Our best friends at 20 are too rarely our best friends at 60 – and even if they are, all of us are so very different.

Time changes us all.

Few contemporary novelists capture that inevitability quite like Richard Russo. He has an incredible gift for treating the passage of time with honesty while also finding ways to accentuate the positives that come with age. His grasp of how relationships ebb and flow with time and place is largely unparalleled.

His latest is “Chances Are…” (Knopf, $26.95), a story of three men, former college roommates now in their mid-sixties, returning to the summer cottage where the paradigm of their relationship had forever changed one fateful decades-ago night. This might be the last time they’re ever together like this, so the question is – what is left to be said?

Russo’s many strengths come together here in one thoughtful and extremely readable package. His quietly elegant prose is perfect for rendering forth the emotional dynamic of the aging man; his knack for bringing small towns to life and his love of the coast come into play as well. And through it all, the steady tick-tock of time passing – a sound that is far less frightening when Russo controls the clock.

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Few writers today have been working the cultural criticism beat as long and as successfully as Chuck Klosterman. To many, his is THE voice when it comes to pop analysis and contextualization. But while his latest book might explore some of those same ideas, it does so through a different literary lens.

“Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction” (Penguin, $26) offers the same sort of quick-hit cleverness that permeates Klosterman’s nonfiction, but via a delivery medium of short fiction. Flash fiction, really – none of the 34 pieces that make up this collection is more than a handful of pages and some are considerably shorter.

The book’s subtitle is an accurate one – the tales contained within are brief, fictionalized explorations of the same ideas and hypotheticals that feature prominently in Klosterman’s nonfiction work. They are strange and offbeat, small and skewed glimpses of the zeitgeist through weird-colored glasses – think “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” only in a much bigger hurry. And while they vary in length, style and tone, all of them ring loudly with the author’s distinctive voice.

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There are good books. There are great books. And then there are books that are … more.

Books that marry deft, propulsive prose with potent, stomach-punch emotions and meticulously-conceived characters. Books that tell remarkable stories while simultaneously transcending the stories being told. Books that take hold of your brains and your guts with equally ironclad grips, demanding your attention and imagination.

Books like Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (Doubleday, $24.95).

Whitehead has long been considered among the best of his writerly generation; his last offering – 2016’s “The Underground Railroad” – won the Pulitzer Prize, among many others. The staggering thing is this: he’s still getting better.

“The Nickel Boys” is Whitehead’s seventh book – and arguably his best yet. He eschews the genre flourishes with which his previous storytelling ventures have been peppered, instead committing to a straightforward realism that allows just the briefest glimmers of hopefulness against a nigh-unrelentingly bleak backdrop.

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