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Wednesday, 10 August 2022 14:31

‘Invisible Things’ demands a look

Genre fiction has long been a playground for writers who want to explore complex ideas. Science fiction in particular has proven fertile for authors who seek to dig into societal and ideological norms – it’s a hell of a lot easier to address nuanced concepts when you’re operating from within this kind of fictional framework. Now, that’s not always the case – sometimes a story is basically just a story – but when it works, you can wind up with a tale of the future that offers one hell of a commentary on the present.

That’s what Mat Johnson has given us with his new book “Invisible Things” (One World, $27). Johnson embraces certain sci-fi tropes – future tech, aliens, etc. – and uses them to take a hard look at the fundamentals of human nature, as well as the societal constructs that were built so long ago as to be utterly ingrained – isms that are baked in to the point of disappearing into the firmament while remaining omnipresent.

It's a story about how people, no matter how their circumstances may be altered, will too often default to previous beliefs and behaviors. Even when offered an opportunity of complete reinvention, they cling to what they knew before. All this, by the way, contextualized by a domed city located on one of Jupiter’s moons.

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There’s something to be said for literary lightness.

Sure, sometimes we like to delve into dense tomes packed with esoteric vocabulary and deep themes and complicated plotting, all wound together in a stylistic experiment. “Great” literature and all that. But there’s value in relative simplicity when it comes to books.

Please do not conflate simplicity with simplistic, however – that’s not what I’m talking about. I just believe that there can be just as much merit to a breezy read as you’ll find in something with ostensibly loftier aspirations.

“Flying Solo” (Ballantine, $28), the new novel from Linda Holmes, is very much the former … and that’s a good thing. This is a book about a woman who returns to her hometown out of the twin senses of love and obligation. The reasons for her return are steeped in sadness, but as her stay proceeds, she finds herself learning more about the people she loves … and about herself.

As she stands at the crossroads of her old life and her new one, she is struck by the dichotomy of past and possibility – represented in this case by a relic from one person’s history whose deeper meaning is both obvious and opaque. To wit: it means something, but she’s not certain what. And we’ve all been there, yes?

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I love talking to writers. Learning about their inspirations, their histories … it’s all a delight.

I particularly enjoy speaking to writers about their debuts. Authors whose first books are about to be thrust into the spotlight. Their darlings – the surviving ones, at any rate – set loose into the world, no longer under the control of their creator.

And if that author is a Mainer, well … so much the better.

Morgan Talty, whose debut book “Night of the Living Rez” has just hit shelves, covers all those bases. Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation, grew up in the area and lives here still. His memories and experiences from that time largely inform the (exceptional) stories that make up his newly published collection.

(Note: You can read my full review of "Night of the Living Rez" here.)

Mr. Talty was kind enough to speak to me recently about his new book. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the book, his writing process and how these stories pull from both his lived experience and the depths of his imagination.

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It’s a rare thing to be really and truly grabbed by a book. Sure, there are works that will hold your attention long enough to allow you to sink into them. And sometimes, that connection never bears out and you abandon ship. But for a book to seize you by the shirt, commanding and demanding your attention and refusing to let go from the word go, well … that doesn’t happen very often.

But it does happen. And when it does? Strap in, because you’re going on a journey.

Morgan Talty’s new book “Night of the Living Rez” (Tin House, $16.95) is going to take you on a trip, pulling you through a world with which you are likely unfamiliar, even as it exists alongside your own. This collection of a dozen stories is a reflection and exploration of Talty’s history and heritage as a member of the Penobscot Nation, bringing together moments of triumph and tragedy as it digs into the realities of what it means to be connected to one’s culture while also striving to live in the larger world.

Every one of these stories is effective on its own, brimming with a bifurcated and self-aware energy. But as they are consumed together, they feed on one another, spiraling upward on waves of simple joy and sadness and dark humor generated by the trials and tribulations of a singular young man. This is a book that is more than the sum of its parts, each tale a piece of the puzzle; it all comes together into a smart, thoughtful and utterly fascinating big picture.

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One of the joys of living in Maine is the wide array of environments you can enjoy. There’s the ocean, of course. There are mountains and forests. Lovely cities and idyllic small towns. Cold winters and warm summers. Few places run the gamut like the state of Maine.

That variety of place is reflected in the types of stories told about the place. We’ve got the Master of Horror, of course – hi, Mr. King! – but storytellers embrace all manner of genres, using the assortment of settings to bring to life literary fiction, sci-fi, mysteries, thrillers … the list goes on and on.

Every once in a while, though, you get a book that marries setting, style and story via that Maine lens that just clicks.

That’s what Adam White has done with his debut novel “The Midcoast” (Hogarth, $27), a crime drama that offers up a compelling story while also exploring the definitions of success in a small town. It is a taut, sharp thriller – one that balances the stressors of its storyline with the underlying laconicism that marks life on Maine’s coast.

It’s well-crafted and propulsive, a fast read that sweeps the reader along into its wake, pulling us into the disparate lives of the characters at its center.

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Full disclosure: I’m in the bag for Christopher Moore.

From the first time I read one of his books – my entry point was, as it was for so many others, the exquisite 2002 novel “Lamb” – I knew that this was an author who would resonate with me. Wildly funny, incredibly smart and unapologetically crass, Moore’s work clicked with me in a way that few authors ever had or ever would.

Seriously – think about how rare it is for a book to make you genuinely laugh out loud multiple times in the course of reading it. Moore does that for me EVERY TIME. His work is funny and weird with an at-times shockingly sharp satiric edge.

The tradition continues with “Razzmatazz” (William Morrow, $28.99), a sequel to 2018’s “Noir.” These books both celebrate and deconstruct the trope of the hard-boiled detective, starring a gentleman who consistently finds himself stumbling into situations that are both far beyond his ken and yet somehow suited to his particular set of skills.

It’s a madcap romp through post-WWII San Francisco, a comedic adventure wherein Moore explores the fundamental absurdities of the human condition. The real(ish) and surreal are practically interchangeable here, with ridiculous characters dealing with both the actions of their fellow man and influences that are far beyond mere humanity.

It gets weird, is what I’m saying.

Oh, and mixed in with all the lunacy is a surprising depth of detail regarding that particular time and place. Moore takes plenty of liberties, but the fundamental truth is there. They say you have to learn the rules to break them; well, Moore learned the landscape so he could alter it.

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Chris Bohjalian can write just about anything.

There are relatively few writers in the realm of popular fiction who possess the range that Bohjalian has brought to his oeuvre over the past few decades. His depth of research results in books that, no matter their subject, make for compelling and propulsive reads.

His latest is “The Lioness” (Doubleday, $28), a midcentury story revolving around a Hollywood movie star who embarks on an African safari for her honeymoon, bringing friends and professional associates along for the ride. However, when the adventure takes a deadly turn, the group is left facing dangers both animal and human … and not everyone will escape with their life.

Told via a constantly shifting perspective, with each chapter moving to the point of view of a different character, “The Lioness” uses the vagaries of Hollywood culture and the brutal beauty of the Serengeti to explore the meaning of perception – how we are viewed by others and, crucially, how we view ourselves.

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My affinity for the written word is no secret. I’ve been reviewing books in these pages for coming up on 15 years now, and I was a voracious reader even before it became part of my job.

I have my favorites, of course – who doesn’t? Anyone who spends significant time turning pages has authors whose work they find particularly appealing. And it’s always exciting when one of your favorites has a new book coming out.

But there’s something even more exciting than that – when TWO of your favorites EACH have a new book coming out.

Such is the case for me here in mid-May, when two authors whose work I very much enjoy have new novels dropping within a week of one another.

On May 10, Chris Bohjalian’s newest book “The Lioness” was published by Doubleday. It’s a sharp and propulsive work of historical fiction revolving around mid-century Hollywood types and a safari gone horribly wrong, with each chapter moving from character perspective to character perspective and featuring Bohjalian’s trademark meticulousness of research. It’s a real adventure of a read.

On May 17, literary clown prince Christopher Moore’s latest “Razzmatazz” dropped courtesy of William Morrow. A sequel to Moore’s excellent 2018 novel “Noir,” this one is also set in the past – post-WWII San Francisco, where we get to enjoy the continuing adventures of Sammy Tiffin, bartender and reluctant hero, as he tries to solve a mystery and save himself and his friends. Weird and laugh-out-loud funny.

(Our full reviews of "The Lioness" and "Razzmatazz" are available.)

Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve had two authors I admire release works so close together. So what makes this instance so special – special enough that I’ve chosen to make it our cover story for this week?

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As with most genre tropes, I’m a fan of time loops provided the execution is there. If the writer is lazy or uninspired, the loops quickly lose their luster, fading into a spiral of repetition that leaves us bored and disinterested.

But if the writer comes in hot, with thoughtful ideas and narrative clarity, the time loop can be a powerful storytelling weapon, providing an altogether different (but no less effective) path to character development.

Adrienne Celt comes in hot.

Her new book is “End of the World House” (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), a taut and tightly-told tale of one woman’s journey through the same day over and over again – a journey that leaves her entangled in mystery even as her memories begin to bleed together. The fact that the day in question just happens to be one where she has access to a private tour of the Louvre is just icing on the proverbial cake.

(In case you haven’t worked it out yet, the title of this review translates roughly as “Groundhog Day at the Louvre.” I frankly don’t care if you’re amused or not, because I am delighted with myself.)

This is a story that takes place in a world where the end is looming, where everything exists in a state of perpetual precariousness. And our heroine Bertie is left to navigate this world with companions who may or may not actually be there with her, a messy mélange of memory that leaves her questioning not just the reality of the present, but the truth of the past.

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Great fiction is born not just of the story itself, but the manner in which the story is told. It sounds simple, but from simplicity springs truth.

Narratives that are built around a central conceit while spinning out multiple perspectives, for instance – tricky business. When done well, they can result in absolutely mesmerizing literature. When done poorly, well … we’ve all seen what happens when the spinning plates begin to tumble from their poles.

Jennifer Egan’s new novel “The Candy House” (Scribner, $28) very much occupies the former space, a hypnotic decades-spanning tale reflecting the juxtaposed light-and-dark possibilities looming in our very near future. There is no crashing literary dishware here. Instead, we get a sweeping epic rooted in the potential (and potential ramifications) that comes with the logical endstages of our societal tendency toward the sharing of experience and memory.

All of it, by the way, conveyed through a series of interconnected stylistically diverse vignettes that run the gamut – some are more traditional narrative constructions, while others veer into the abstract and/or absurd. We have email exchanges and second-person instructions, stories of tech billionaires and music producers and unsettled housewives, with the overarching tale playing out over multiple generations and venturing from our more-or-less present into an all-to-plausible future.

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