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Thursday, 30 April 2020 10:20

Cult of personality – ‘Godshot’

Belief is a powerful thing, rendered all the more powerful when it is uncompromising. Cults weaponize that uncompromising belief, using it to entangle the vulnerable and establish control.

That controlling entanglement is a big part of why we find cults so fascinating. From the outside looking in, so many of their doctrines seem patently absurd on their faces, and yet people on the inside unwaveringly accept those ideas as bedrock truth. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel “Godshot” (Catapult, $26) offers a look at one such perspective. It’s the story of a teenage girl swept up in the fervor surrounding a charismatic religious leader, a man who many in her small town believe to be something more than mortal. Through her eyes, we watch as a small town crumbles beneath the weight of faith – faith that may well be misplaced.

It’s a bleak tale of desperate hope, an illustration of the personal horrors people are willing to endure for any possibility of redemption – even an illusory one – as well as exploring the courage it takes to defy the lockstep beliefs of those around you … and the consequences of that defiance.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 14:32

The space between worlds – ‘Vagabonds’

Speculative fiction has always been the literature of big ideas.

Granted, these ideas have often swathed in genre trappings that render them more palatable to less-suspecting readers. And there’s no denying that for decades, speculative fiction was relegated to the disreputable realm of luridly-covered cheap paperbacks and niche publications. Nowadays, of course, even the more “serious” readers and writers out there acknowledge the possibilities that come with genre exploration, allowing for a more “literary” understanding of the work.

But never forget: the ideas have always been there, right from the beginning.

Those big ideas are plentiful in “Vagabonds” (Gallery, $27.99), the first novel from Hugo Award-winning writer Hao Jingfang to be translated into English, courtesy of acclaimed author and translator Ken Liu. It’s a story of young people trapped between two worlds, sent to spend their formative years amidst another culture, only to discover that their home no longer fits them.

It’s a sharp and incisive commentary on how cultural differences can skew worldviews and hinder communication. It’s also an exciting, engaging narrative, driven by detailed plotting, strong characters and some first-rate world-building. As with all great speculative fiction, the quality of the ideas and the execution are well-matched.

Published in Style

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds” (Scribner, $30), the latest in his every decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

Published in Buzz

There are a million stories out there of people who went out into the world and took a shot with their talent. For all but a handful, that shot misses, leading them down a different path. Is there anything wrong with their allowing themselves to go in a different direction?

Emily Gould’s “Perfect Tunes” (Avid Press, $26) is one of those stories, a tale of a woman who makes her way to New York City at the very beginning of the 21st century, determined to make a name for herself. But her rapidly ascending star goes out too quickly, sending her life down a road of struggle, though she’s never quite fully removed from the possibility of what could have been.

It’s an exploration of what it means to just miss being a star and of the passion and motivation behind creation. It’s also a story of mothers and daughters (and parenthood in general) and of the consequences of compromises. It is also a wry and irreverent look at being an artist and how elusive popular creative success really is.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 14 April 2020 09:47

Standing guard – ‘Barker House’

The notion of crime and punishment has long been a subject of artistic expression. Those who commit misdeeds and those tasked with exacting retribution for those misdeeds allow for a wealth of character and thematic exploration. A society’s treatment of those it imprisons often serves as an effective lens through which to view the rest of that society.

Those grand ideas writ small are what make up “Barker House” (Bloomsbury, $26), the debut novel-in-stories of David Moloney. Through a series of interconnected looks at some of the corrections officers at a New Hampshire prison over the course of one year on the job, Moloney explores some of the grim realities of mass incarceration. By delving into these people on an individual level, he assembles a broader and much more vivid picture of the system as a whole.

What makes this book compelling – and it really is compelling – are those extended character studies. We learn about these people and what makes them tick. We find out about the circumstances that landed them in this job and the motivations that keep them there. There are rookies and lifers, each with their own ideas about how this job works. Some seek to better the system, others are content to simply get along.

And all the while, the machine grinds on … and the prisoners are not the only grist for the mill.

Published in Style

There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

Published in Buzz
Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 14:13

Tech-22 – ‘Zed’

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say. From the very beginning, sci-fi has used its trappings to examine and explore the (sometimes harsh) realities of the real world. It reflects and refracts, commenting on where we are and where we might be going.

We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous and a handful of people sit in control of the vast majority of the resources behind that technology. Those people, perhaps more than any elected official, are the ones who hold our societal destiny in their hands. But as we grow ever more reliant on the various forms of tech to live our daily lives, as it infiltrates every aspect of our everyday existence, we must ask ourselves – what happens if those people lose control? What happens if this omnipresent technology stops working the way it is supposed to?

That’s where Joanna Kavenna’s “Zed” (Doubleday, $27.95) takes us. This darkly comic dystopian novel imagines a world not too different from our own, a near-future in which a single company has risen to the top of the food chain and extended its influence into every aspect of society. This company provides the technology on which seemingly the entire world runs. And something’s wrong…

With a biting wit and a discomfiting plausibility, “Zed” offers up a portrait of what might happen if everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – was dictated by algorithmic whims … and what happens if those algorithms should start to crumble, leaving those at the top to make panicked choices aimed more at protecting themselves than the world around them.

Published in Tekk

There will always be a place for straightforward narrative fiction. There will always be stories that need to be told, tales that move from Point A to Point B and so on, following a linear path from beginning to end. Tales filled with heartbreak and humor, driven by plot and character.

But sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to get weird. And for those times, well … Jeff VanderMeer can help you out.

VanderMeer – one of our leading purveyors of the literary subgenre dubbed “weird fiction” – has a strange and exquisitely opaque new novel. “Dead Astronauts” (MCD, $27) is a prequel of sorts to his equally bizarre 2017 novel “Borne,” its title a reference to a line in that previous book. It brings us back to the ravaged future VanderMeer created for “Borne,” only slightly earlier in the timeline of that technocorporate dystopia.

It is a challenging experiment of a novel, marked by the vivid weirdness and repetitive complexity that features prominently in VanderMeer’s work. There’s a narrative fluidity to it all, marked by an odd combination of optimism about and suspicion toward technology and the way it impacts the world around us in ways both miniscule and massive.

Published in Style

True literary excellence is rare. At any given time, there exists a relative handful of writers capable of creating legitimately exceptional prose. There are plenty of GOOD writers out there (though perhaps not as many as we might like), but scant few GREAT ones.

The truly excellent are the ones who are not only capable of crafting greatness, but are also willing to push boundaries – both the establishment’s and their own. These are the writers who, in continuing to challenge themselves, burst through the literary ionosphere and hurtle toward undiscovered realms.

Zadie Smith is one such writer.

Published in Buzz
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