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Our country’s history is packed with stories. And while some of those stories are generally familiar, even those that we’ve dug deeply into time and again have new nuances waiting for us to explore. Take the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. It’s one of those vividly bleak moments in time with which the majority of Americans bear at least a passing familiarity.

But those trials, as horrible as they were, were not the beginning of the story. Those terrible acts didn’t take place in a vacuum, but were rather the culmination of a decades-long period of repression and hysteria.

Chris Bohjalian’s new book “Hour of the Witch” (Doubleday, $28.95) takes us further back, some 30 years before the horrors of Salem. It’s a look at one woman’s efforts to reconcile her religion and her beliefs with the pain and suffering – emotional and physical – inflicted on her by those around her. It’s the story of what it means to stand up for oneself, even in the face of a society that has little interest in protecting her.

Blending historical events with page-turning thrills, “Hour of the Witch” offers a propulsive and powerful tale of what can happen when a person who is pushed to the brink simply refuses to accept the status quo and pushes forward in a quest for justice – even if that person knows deep down that justice is almost certainly not forthcoming.

Published in Buzz

There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

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The world of fiction will always have room for fairy tales.

The genre fluidity that comes with literary fiction leaves plenty of space for writers to explore the vast expanse of fantasy and morality that springs from the classic fairy tale. And so when we see modern authors adapting the ethos and entities of those long-told tales, it can be engaging in ways both intellectual and visceral.

That’s the energy that Veronica Schanoes brings to her new book “Burning Girls and Other Stories” (Tordotcom, $25.99). It’s a collection of 13 stories, a baker’s dozen of fairy tale-inspired works driven by the dual powers of the fantastic and the feminist. It incorporates tropes of the fairy tale realm into stories of women fighting back against a society that devalues and others them; there are elements of punk rock and Judaism and revolutionary leftist political thought as well.

These disparate elements could have resulted in stories that were uneven and muddled, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monsters of overstuffed pastiche. Instead, Schanoes wields her razor-sharp craft like a scalpel, carving every one of these pieces into something distinct and idiosyncratic and undeniably powerful. Intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, it’s a collection packed tight with highlights.

Published in Buzz
Monday, 08 March 2021 16:52

You should read ‘Later’ sooner

Ghost stories are universal. One could argue that in some way, all stories are ghost stories. It’s all in the telling – and no one does that telling better than Stephen King.

His latest novel is “Later” (Hard Case Crime, $14.95), the author’s third release with the Hard Case imprint. It’s the story of a young man whose childhood is marked by an eerie ability to see the dead, an ability that leads him to help others in ways both honorable and ethically questionable.

What King has given us is a book that is part coming-of-age tale, part hard-boiled crime thriller and part paranormal ghost story. It’s an ambitious blend, to be sure, but one that King has long since shown capable of pulling off beautifully. His clear love of noir fiction joins forces with his horror bona fides and his still-strong ability to capture the fundamental truths about being a child, resulting in a lean and propulsive read.

Published in Style

What is love?

It’s a question without an answer to which we nevertheless try to respond. Artists have been seeking that answer since there has been art. And while we’ll never have a definitive answer – it’s not that kind of question – a lot of brilliant people have come up with a lot of brilliant responses.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has a few of those responses in his bibliography. His latest is “Klara and the Sun” (Knopf, $28), and it too is a response to that existential question, though that’s far from the only building block of the human condition the book explores. It’s a book that deftly embraces speculative elements in service to the telling of its very human story, all reflected through the eyes of someone who may or may not actually be … someone.

Published in Style

I’m always leery when I engage with a creative work from an artist who is operating outside their usual purview. It’s not that I question the ability to branch out – I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of multihyphenates – so much as that I recognize how difficult it is to excel in one aspect of creation, let alone more than one.

And so it was with trepidation that I approached Ethan Hawke’s new book “A Bright Ray of Darkness” (Knopf, $27.95). Specifically, I’ve been burned by actors-turned-novelists before, so you understand my caution. Hawke has four books in the rearview (though distant – it’s been 20 years since the last one) but I hadn’t read any of them, so again – maybe the most interesting part of the book is the name attached to it.

I needn’t have worried. Hawke has crafted an engaging work of literary autofiction, a story clearly drawn directly from his own personal experiences, yet rendered in such a way as to not feel bound to his life as it was lived. It’s something that many writers – many talented writers – fail to pull off, but he manages it quite deftly.

This tale of an actor struggling with his shifting reality – moving from a world of movie stardom to the Broadway stage, torn between accepting his crumbling marriage and striving to reassemble it – and making sometimes questionable choices in the process is tightly woven and densely packed, a meditation on masculinity and the value – both external and internal – of the redemption he seeks through his art.

Published in Style

We’ve all heard the old saw “Write what you know.” However, we don’t all agree on what that actually means.

For a writer like Susan Conley, it means carrying a deep, fundamental understanding of the sorts of people and places that you’re going to bring to life. That understanding – that knowledge – is what makes her work so engrossing and compelling.

Conley’s newest book is “Landslide” (Knopf, $26.95), a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles – the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood – marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective.

Grasping the importance of connection is a hallmark of Conley’s work – see 2019’s excellent “Elsey Comes Home” for a prime example – and she continues along that path with this one. She sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 13:22

The grievances of airing – ‘Talk Radio’

What does it mean to be part of a community?

In small towns all over this country, people are constantly seeking ways to connect. Even in places where everybody knows everybody else, we can struggle to really be heard. Finding an outlet – any outlet – where one’s voice can ring out (figuratively or literally) is a vital part of the human experience.

Ham Martin’s “Talk Radio” (Black Rose Writing, $20.95) offers a unique and idiosyncratic look at what can happen when the opportunity to be really and truly heard is offered up to the people of a small midcoast Maine town. Taking place largely over the airwaves of a small community-oriented radio station, it’s a story that explores that need for connection, that desire to be heard … and what happens when not everyone is willing to listen.

Published in Style

I love words.

The English language is a rich tapestry, one filled with weird lexicography and etymological dead ends. There are just so many words, with more coming into being every day. And of course, the reference of choice for any lexophile worth their salt is the dictionary.

But what if you found out that you couldn’t trust it?

In “The Liar’s Dictionary” (Doubleday, $26.95), the debut novel by Eley Williams, we find out. Unfolding in two distinct storylines – one past, one present – the book explores what it means to trust wholly in something that ultimately proves unreliable, either through one’s own actions or the actions of another. It is also a celebration of language and the people who devote their lives to studying and recording its many iterations.

All that and it’s wildly funny as well. Plus, you might learn something. For instance, did you know this word?

Mountweazel (n): the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and books of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

I’d never heard it before, but it plays a vital role in the action of this delightful book.

Published in Style

The end of the world has long been a mainstay of speculative fiction. Or at least, the end of the world as we know it. So many stories have been written about the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, something that has destroyed civilization, or at least radically altered it. You’ve got your post-apocalyptic stories, your dystopian stories – so many of them spring from that singular (and sometimes literally) Earth-shattering event.

What we get less often is the story of what leads up to that event, the tale that goes from the beginning of the end to the end.

That’s what Claire Holroyde’s debut novel “The Effort” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) gives us. It’s a story of mankind’s attempt to stave off the extinction-level event heading their way, all while dealing with the harsh reality of what it might mean when the fact that the end is nigh becomes widely known. It’s a taut, thrilling story of people committed to saving the world even as the world turns against itself.

Published in Style
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