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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

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

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
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:40

Words like violence, break ‘The Silence’

When we’re talking about the best American writers of the past half-century, everyone’s going to have a different list, but there are certain names that will likely appear on most of them. One of those names is Don DeLillo, who has written some of the most impactful literature of his generation. Books like “White Noise,” “Underworld” and others are significant parts of the 20th century canon.

And he’s still going strong.

DeLillo’s latest novel – his 17th, but who’s counting? – is “The Silence” (Scribner, $22), a slim volume that takes a look at what it might mean for our precarious and codependent relationship to technology to be unceremoniously ripped away, leaving nothing but the quiet echo of our own thoughts. How has this proliferation of tech impacted our ability to engage with one another – and are we able to get back what was lost.

“The Silence” is a lightning-fast read – just 128 pages – but no less engaging for its brevity. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a quick-hit of a novel one assumes is intended to mirror the bite-sized rapid consumption encouraged by our current relationship to media both old and new.

Published in Style
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.

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

If history were different, how different would it be?

That’s the underlying notion behind most alternative history stories, books and series that look into the past, alter something fundamental … and then see what happens. That forward-moving extrapolation of what changes – large and small – might come about because of that singular shift.

Like any speculative fiction, what we actually get in terms of quality varies wildly. Narrative complexity, world building, historic verisimilitude, strong characterizations of people both fictional and non – it all depends on the talents of the author in charge.

S. M. Stirling’s talents are formidable, which is what makes his latest offering so good.

“Shadows of Annihilation” (Ace, $18) is the newest installment in Stirling’s “Black Chamber” series. It’s a long look at an alternate World War I, one where Teddy Roosevelt has regained the presidency and consolidated his power and hence is at the helm during the war. One of his many weapons utilized against the enemy is the Black Chamber, a sort of proto-CIA involving espionage, assassination and a score of other below-board activities designed to fight America’s foes and advance her interest.

Published in Style
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

Speculative fiction has been used as a vehicle to comment on societal woes for about as long as there has been speculative fiction. In the right hands, the flexibility of genre opens up a tremendous literary toolbox, one that offers a combination of wildly vivid creations and complex cultural commentary.

Hands like Jesse Ball.

Ball’s latest novel is “The Divers' Game” (Ecco, $26.99). It’s a story of a society not so unlike our own, one extrapolated out from our current place into something darker - but not that much darker. Ball’s world is a challenging journey into the depths of man’s capability to other and the fractured functionality of a culture structured around that othering.

What elevates this work above the usual dystopian dive is Ball’s prose. His unique literary sensibility brings a bleak lyricism to the narrative, a fluidity of form. All of it devoted to creating not just the tragic segregation of this new world, but also the complicated characters that inhabit it.

Published in Buzz
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