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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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There’s no such thing as normal. All it takes is a little scratching at the veneer of the mundane to reveal the much stranger reality that surrounds us.

That effort to dig down into the bizarre – even when the bizarre isn’t buried all that deeply – can often result in marvelously strange stories. When weird fiction blurs those lines, giving the everyday that ever-so-slight tilt that sends it careening off into the shadows, it usually proves to be a rewarding reading experience.

And when the writer is also someone with a genuine gift for craft, well … that’s when you get something like Kate Folk’s “Out There” (Random House, $27).

This collection of 15 stories offers up precisely the sorts of funhouse reflections that you hope to find when digging into fiction that blends the literary and the speculative. Folk delves into the darkness that comes from our shared need for (and failure to find) connection. Perhaps we seek to connect with family or a lover. Perhaps we want to connect with an institution or an idea or maybe – simply – ourselves. Those quests can be bleak – particularly when they lead us down paths we aren’t prepared to traverse.

(Oh, and just for the record – all 15 of these stories are absolute bangers. Usually in these sorts of single-author story collections, you’ll find one or two that don’t resonate in quite the same way. Decidedly not the case here – “Out There” is top to bottom gold.)

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There is no feeling quite like that of being transported by literature. Reading a book that sends you through time and space, to far-flung locales both physical and metaphysical. Engaging with a narrative that is compelling in terms of the story being told and the thematic foundation upon which that story is built.

Mastering that sort of layered storytelling is something that most writers – including some tremendously gifted ones – never quite manage. But when that mastery is achieved, the resulting work can etch itself upon your mind and upon your heart.

Emily St. John Mandel has achieved that mastery.

Her new novel is “Sea of Tranquility” (Knopf, $25), a beautiful and complex tale of creativity and love spread across centuries. Marrying the power of familial bonds with the passage of time, bound together through the rippling reflections cast by the motion of generations, it is a book that ensnares the imagination and buoys the reader forward into the known unknown.

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As someone who often finds himself defending the literary merits of speculative fiction, I sometimes forget that, for all the thematic and narrative complexity that genre can evoke, it’s okay for a book’s primary aim to be entertaining the reader.

In short: sometimes you just want a thrilling, compelling yarn, one that is exciting and funny and imaginative. One where the other stuff – the “important” stuff – is still present, but still less vital to the experience than the pure story.

At the risk of damning him with faint praise, John Scalzi is one of the best around at crafting these sorts of high-concept, humorous sci-fi riffs. Best known for works like “Old Man’s War” and “Redshirts,” as well as his bestselling Interdependency trilogy, Scalzi’s latest is “The Kaiju Preservation Society” (Tor, $26.99). It’s a smart and timely and often hilarious work, a quick page-turner that fills the reader with a sense of speculative adventure even as its underlying ethos worms its way into your brain.

Plus, it has giant monsters in it.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 23 February 2022 13:26

I think we’re a clone now – ‘Mickey7’

What is it that makes you you?

It’s a question that often arises in the speculative fiction realm, whether we’re talking about cloning or duplication or digitization of consciousness. What is it that fundamentally marks us as the person we are? And if your consciousness – your thoughts, your memories, your hopes and your fears and whatever else – is meticulously recreated and placed in a body that is genetically identical to your own … is it still you?

Edward Ashton’s new novel “Mickey7” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) revolves around that specific question, raising all manner of ethical and logistical concerns about what it even means to be a person. And at what point does a person stop being a person and become something other? If you can’t tell the difference, is there a difference?

Now, while this is definitely some high concept sci-fi, it’s also a taut, fast-paced narrative. You’ve got some action, some mystery, some comedic hijinks, all wrapped together to create a sharply written and smart story.

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I’m on record as being a big fan of collections of short fiction. As someone enamored of both beginnings and endings, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about picking up a book that has plenty of both.

Now, there are those who ride hard for anthologies. It’s a proclivity that I understand, to be sure, but don’t quite share. Don’t get me wrong – love a good anthology – but to me, the big winner is always going to be a collection of work by a singular author, even if that means that I’m taking a bit more of a gamble on an individual’s style and substance. But when that gamble pays off? Jackpot.

“Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” (Tin House, $16.95) by Kim Fu offers the kind of payout you hope for when picking up a collection by an author with whom you are unfamiliar. So it is with me and Fu’s work – she’s written a couple of novels and this is her first published story collection, but I had never read her work before. Such is the joy of the book critic life – sometimes, you take a swing and see what happens.

In this case, what happened was an engaging, thought-provoking collection of stories. A dozen works of speculative exploration that utilize and subvert genre tropes in equal measure. These are stories that venture into the shadows without fear and travel darkened pathways with resolute boldness. Smart and sharp, riddled with unsettling bleak humor and emotional impact, “Lesser Known Monsters” is a first-rate collection for any fan of speculative fiction.

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First things first: I love short fiction. There’s something wonderful about reading exquisitely crafted pieces that are not one word longer than they need to be. Maybe it’s 5,000 words, maybe it’s 500 – whatever it takes to tell the tale.

And while short fiction operates in the context of all genres, I’d argue that no genre is better suited for it than speculative fiction; the idea-driven nature of it allows for significant flexibility regarding how the stories are designed to play out.

Now, I’m a fan of anthologies, to be sure – there’s a lot of fun to be had when the works of a score of disparate authors is collected under one figurative roof, after all – but there’s nothing quite like sitting down to read an assemblage of short works by a singe author. You get to see the writer’s stylistic quirks and ideological idiosyncrasies laid out over the course of 10 or 12 or 15 tales, a snapshot of their ethos along with their stylistic strengths.

And in that respect, “Even Greater Mistakes” (Tor, $27.99) by Charlie Jane Anders definitely delivers.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 22 September 2021 11:18

‘Bewilderment’ explores the stars and the soul

A good book can take us on a journey. Perhaps it is a journey outward, into the wider world and what lies beyond. Or maybe inward, an exploration of psyche and emotion and personal truth. A book that can do both with thought, precision and heart, however? That’s not just a good book – it’s a great one.

“Bewilderment” (W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95), the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers, definitely meets the criteria for the latter. A thoughtful deconstruction of the relationship between fathers and sons set against the backdrop of a troubled time and place that is a slightly skewed reflection of our own, it’s a story that manages to strike the perfect balance between looking out to the stars and into the soul.

Deftly plotted and constructed from the sorts of sentences that only Powers can craft, this is a book that is unafraid to explore the many forms that goodbye can take.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 15:05

‘The Actual Star’ burns bright

The power of story is significant, burning brightly across time and space. Our stories are what define us. Our stories turn the everyday now into history, the history into legend and the legend into myth. So much of our understanding of not just who we are, but who we were and who we may yet become, springs from story.

Monica Byrne understands that fundamental truth as well as anyone. Byrne follows up her excellent 2014 debut “The Girl in the Road” with a millenia-spanning triptych that marries past, present and future in a manner that’s not quite like anything you’ve read before.

“The Actual Star” (Harper Voyager, $27.99) is a stunningly realized work of literary fiction. Byrne blends elements of speculative and historical fiction to create a trio of timelines, each a thousand years apart, the individual stories serving to illustrate a fundamental truth of narrative power. The stories we tell, that we pass on, can come to define us in the eyes of those who follow. Flexible and fluid, these tales grow and evolve until they are both of us and not of us.

These stories – set in the years 1012, 2012 and 3012 – unspool as separate pieces that are nevertheless inherently bound up with one another. They are three, even as they are one. The book is intricately, densely plotted; narrative tendrils from each time reach out and entangle themselves with the other two. It could be knotty and difficult to follow; instead, thanks to Byrne’s gifts, it is simply a mesmerizing journey through three very different, yet very connected times.

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One of the joys of genre fiction is its ability to explore big ideas through a literary lens. Sci-fi in particular can display an audaciousness with regard to the concepts it espouses. It also offers a special sort of storytelling flexibility, its trappings and tropes opening up a long runway for writers to create something that is both thought-provoking and narratively engaging.

Matt Bell’s new novel “Appleseed” (Custom House, $27.99) is precisely that kind of engaging provocation. A tale told in tryptic, blending myth, near-future tech utopianism and climate apocalypse, the book winds together three disparate timelines, all connected by the shared roots of a goal that must be met in different ways in different times.

It’s also a book about humanity’s quest for connection, a quest that sometimes leads us down some counterintuitive paths, all in the name of finding that interpersonal closeness that we all seek. “Appleseed” illustrates that operating for the greater good can be noble, but it also depends on just who is deciding what that “greater good” should be.

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