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Everyone has gaps in their pop culture knowledge. There’s just too much content out there. Even someone like myself, a person professionally tasked with maintaining a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist, is bound to miss some things.

And those blank spots can occasionally lead to opportunity.

Take “Twilight,” for instance. Now, I have a general understanding of the overall mythos, as someone who was, you know, conscious during the mid-00s – the whole thing was inescapable – but I never read the books and I actually only saw the final two movies, based on the final book in the series (I was … let’s just say confused). So yes – a basic understanding without much knowledge of the specifics.

This confluence of circumstances means that I get to review Meyer’s return to the “Twilight” universe with eyes of unexpected freshness.

This new offering is titled “Midnight Sun” (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99); it’s a retelling of the events of the first “Twilight” book, only from a different perspective. Instead of the story unfolding from Bella’s point of view, we get to experience Edward’s interpretation of events. And boy oh boy are there some EVENTS.

Now, I can’t speak to the relative merits of this book as opposed to its predecessor – I don’t know how well Meyer has aligned this latest offering with the work that came 15 years before – but I can say that, while I might not have found “Midnight Sun” to be the most literarily brilliant work I’ve read, it certainly didn’t live up (down?) to the less-than-stellar stylistic reputation of the first four books. The writing isn’t spectacular, but neither is it spectacularly bad.

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There is a tremendous amount of craft that goes into writing a book. The meticulous attention to detail necessary to build a truly engaging narrative is incredible, folding together character development and plot and research, all with an eye toward continuity and consistency. And if it all comes together just right, you get a killer story.

Now imagine doing all that while constructing things so that the book can be consumed in a different order and still tell a killer story, albeit one with a different shape.

That’s what Alex Landragin did with his debut novel “Crossings” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), a marvelous puzzle box of a book that spans centuries and offers more than one way to consume its compelling story. It’s a novel in three parts, built to be read either in the standard front-to-back fashion or via an alternate to-and-fro chapter order.

Epic in scope, spanning a century and a half and featuring a cast of characters that is somehow both sprawling and small, “Crossings” is that relatively rare experiment in form that doesn’t sacrifice substance in the name of style. It’s conceptually cool, of course, but it’s also beautifully written and one hell of a riveting tale.

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It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

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The last decade or so has seen an explosion of indigenous voices in the realm of speculative fiction. Native American and First Nations authors have always used elements of their respective cultures in their work, but the last 10 years has seen a real growth of distinct and diverse voices in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and the like.

One of the most prolific – and most talented – indigenous genre authors working right now is Stephen Graham Jones. In many ways, Graham, with his two dozen books over the past couple of decades, has led the way – he’s definitely a huge part of the vanguard.

His latest novel is “The Only Good Indians” (Gallery, $26.99), a tense and thrilling work of horror fiction. It’s a tale of the consequences – both mundane and supernatural – that spring from the decisions that are made. A decade ago, four friends embarked on a fateful hunting trip – one whose aftermath cast a ten-years long shadow over their lives … and the price ultimately paid.

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Few writers are as fascinated by the intricacies of interconnectedness as David Mitchell. Fewer still have the literary skill to coherently translate those complexities to the page.

Yet the British author has built his entire oeuvre on doing just that. From his very first novel – 1999’s “Ghostwritten” – he has shown a propensity for creating layered stories featuring a multitude of perspectives from multiple points of view. And thanks to a wonderful narrative broadmindedness and wildly impressive attention to craft and detail, each of those meticulously-constructed books shares connections with all the other works in Mitchell’s canon, binding them all together in a sort of metanarrative – a David Mitchell Literary Universe (DMLU), if you will.

Mitchell’s ninth and newest book is “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30). It’s a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2020 13:32

A woman’s place – ‘Blue Ticket’

Imagine a world in which your future was determined for you at an early age, a world in which your path was plotted by a lottery ruled by a machine.

That’s the world of Sophie Mackintosh’s new book “Blue Ticket” (Doubleday, $26.95). This dystopian vision from the author of 2018’s acclaimed “The Water Cure” is a bleak and unrelenting glimpse at a world in which reproductive agency is disallowed. This is a place where a woman’s possibilities for motherhood are determined at the time of their first menstruation – and there is no appeal.

It’s a provocative and challenging book, one that offers a particular perspective of the slippery slope that is institutional control of bodily autonomy. It is tense and thrilling, combining in-depth character study with just the right amount of background. And while the setting is a speculative future, the woman on the run narrative is one that transcends its genre framework.

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Something I’ve learned in a decade or so of book reviews: Even when you think you know, you don’t always know.

Take “Antkind” (Random House, $30), the debut novel from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for example. As someone familiar with Kaufman’s body of work – his style, his sensibility, his thematic interests – I figured I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting into when I picked up his first work of literary fiction.

Reader, I did not.

Kaufman’s creative output is fluid, an elaborate and evocative liquid that takes the shape of whatever container it is placed into. Movies have strict delineations – there are unavoidable limitations of time and technology – and hence Kaufman’s work in that sphere is likewise limited. But on the page, there are no such limit. In that regard, “Antkind” is Kaufman unleashed, his careening creative brilliance utterly unfettered.

It’s … a lot.

This book is a sprawling, recursive metanarrative, one unbound by literary convention. It is the story of what happens when mediocrity is confronted with genius and forced to reckon with what happens when singular brilliance proves ephemeral. It is about a man in whom self-regard and self-pity do constant battle, forced to come to terms with how little he understands. It is about what it means to be tangentially touched by greatness, only to have that greatness escape your grasp.

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Anyone who has worked the same job for a long time likely has their share of stories. And if that job involves regular interactions with the public, they probably have even more. And if said public isn’t always thrilled about those interactions, well … you get the point. Stories. Lots of them.

Tim Cotton certainly has all of those bases covered as a veteran police officer, having served for more than three decades in a variety of capacities. He’s got the stories for sure. But unlike the majority of his peers, he’s taken the time to write some of them down.

That writing started in earnest with Cotton’s assumption of the position of Public Information Officer for the Bangor PD, a job whose duties included updating and maintaining the department’s Facebook page. He started sharing his thoughts and stories about the job on that page (along with a healthy helping of the Duck of Justice, an old stuffed duck whose origin has become the stuff of legend), as well as a delightful regular feature titled “Got Warrants?” where he related the week’s particularly ridiculous incidents.

Before long, literally hundreds of thousands of people – nearly 10 times the city’s population – were following the page, all of them eagerly anticipating TC’s latest bit of homespun hilarity. Soon, Cotton’s writing was appearing elsewhere, popping up in newspapers and on various websites.

The logical next step? Write a book!

Hence, we get “The Detective in the Dooryard: Reflections of a Maine Cop” (Down East, $24.95), a collection of thoughts, musings and anecdotes about the world as seen through the eyes of one particular (and kind of peculiar) police officer. These tales are brief, breezy reads that embrace the idea of sharing stories that might not make their way into the local paper’s police beat, but warrant (see what I did there?) telling nevertheless.

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America has always been fertile ground for those with … unconventional ideas. That fertility ebbs and flows, to be sure, with one of the high points – perhaps THE high point – being the middle of the 20th century. The odd energy of the post-war period manifested itself in a tendency for people to search for enlightenment in new ways. And once the notion of ETs and UFOs entered the picture, well – things got weird.

People didn’t understand … and people who don’t understand can be dangerous.

That weirdness and its generational aftermath, for those inside and outside alike, serve as the foundation of Brian Castleberry’s debut novel “Nine Shiny Objects” (Custom House, $27.99). This novel-in-stories of sorts takes a long look at the America of the latter half of the 20th century, viewing it through the lens of a short-lived fringe group of UFO fanatics and the traumatic fallout of the years following its collapse.

By following a variety of individuals via their connections to the group, we bear witness as the booming postwar years give way to the counterculture ‘60s, the hedonistic ‘70s and the go-go ‘80s. But even with the growing generational remove, all of the people we encounter bear the psychological repercussions springing from the too-brief life of that initial collective while also dealing with a changing America.

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We’re all searching for something. The problem is that we don’t always know what that something is.

Our quests for understanding – internal, external or both – aren’t always defined solely by ourselves. Oftentimes, particularly when we’re young, our personal journeys toward knowledge are unduly influenced by the people and places with which our lives are entangled. What we seek becomes conflated and even replaced by the pursuits of those close to us – sometimes without our even knowing that it is happening.

This confusing, convoluted search is central to “The Lightness” (William Morrow, $26.99), the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple. It’s a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

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