The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

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Grade A

With dizzying inventiveness, Tal M. Klein’s sci-fi and sci-fantastic The Punch Escrow rivals the best of Wells and Bradbury in ideas per page. This is an incredibly smart, witty, imaginative 22nd century thriller that is ostensibly about teleportation in the future gone awry, but ultimately a sly, speculative warning shot about our insatiable (and unsustainable) need for technological advancement in the hands of corporate interests. If I’m making this sound like a slog of a science lesson/cautionary tale, it’s anything but. Sure the novel is annotated throughout as Klein footnotes each technological future marvel with definitions and scientific explanation, but nothing here is obtuse; this is pure fun and the story barrels along as we follow Joel Byram (an app salter, don’t worry, Klein will explain), his wife Sylvia (a high level employee at a teleportation company that controls more than just travel in the future), and Joel Byram (yep, Joel again…) between New York, rendered in brilliant futuristic clarity, and Costa Rica on a vacation that goes horribly wrong during teleportation. I found each imaginative detail in Klein’s novel delightful and, dare I say, more prescient than not. Klein creates such a vivid, rich future in this novel that it’s Hollywood’s loss if they don’t snap this up and spin this into cinematic gold. Highly recommended.

The Punch Escrow available July 25, 2017.

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The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

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Grade A

Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods joins Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild as a classic of the genre of possibly introverted, maybe misanthropic young white men named Chris who throw it all away to live hermetically in isolation in the wilds.

That’s my reductive review because it would be an easy reductive review, only Christopher Knight, the possibly introverted maybe misanthropic focus of this deserved best-seller is a far tougher subject to figure out than Christopher McCandless of Into The Wild. McCandless had the bravado and fearlessness of youth on his side, fearlessness that was misguided and ultimately fatal. Knight, in contrast, parked his car in the 80s, walked into the Maine woods—not, incidentally, hundreds of miles from civilization in the Alaskan bush, but a mere few hundred of feet from the summer cabins around a popular lake—and lived in a makeshift hideout for 27 years in isolation under the unsuspecting noses of the local residents whose stolen food, furniture, and toiletries kept Knight alive through season after season.

Finkel documents Knight’s capture and incarceration for, by some accounts, over 1,o00 felony burglaries over 27 years by baffled local authorities, retracing his steps, and visiting his abandoned hideout while trying to get a sense of how Knight lived and survived under circumstances that are nearly unprecedented. Knight ultimately remains an enigma by the end, perhaps because there just aren’t many, if any, characters or stories like Knight’s to compare his behavior with.

It’s difficult for most of us keeping an often exhausting pace on the treadmill of modern society to imagine living without other people, or showers, or computers, or phones, or even a roof over our heads for any amount of time, much less 27 years. Finkel has rendered a fascinating, compassionate portrait and there isn’t a wasted word in this relatively short but economical book.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit available now.

South and West by Joan Didion

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Grade A-

Many of my recent reviews seem to be peppered with statements such as “especially in this day and age,” “in this political climate,” and “in these dangerous times.” These are strange days, indeed, and so many new books as of late have taken on a deeper meaning as they purposefully or inadvertently reflect our country today or hold a mirror to our country’s past. I’m not sure if Joan Didion intended her new—let’s call it a notebook rather than a book—notebook to be some sort of parable or treatise on the state of the nation, but this collection of musings, notes, observations, interviews, and lists is a travelogue of sorts of Didion’s journey through the south in the early 70s and I couldn’t help but relate her musings on race, local government, poverty, and even climate to where we are as a country (and especially where the south is as a mythical region) 47 years later. I’m not sure America or the south have come that far and it gives this book somewhat of an elegiac tone of nostalgia. If anything, Didion paints a south that feels like it is slowly accepting its new diversity and desegregation in 1970 far more than the south of today, a south that often appears more like 1950 than 2017. Didion’s writing in South and West is as unhurried and relaxed as the Mississippi heat she depicts in sweltering detail and her prose. Even here in note taking form, it’s still as vivid and erudite as we’ve come to expect from such a masterful writer. The setting abruptly switches from the south to Patty Hearst and Berkeley, California as quickly as the plane Didion and her traveling companion, husband, and author John Gregory Dunne board to whisk them out of the south. The Berkeley/Hearst section is even more ramshackle than the south section as some passages and pages feel like nothing more than Didion dusting off some leftover writing from decades ago, a literary yard sale if you will. Nonetheless these leftover writings are a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the creative process of Joan Didion and, perhaps more so, a sobering and contemplative glimpse into the psyche of the south and our nation’s moral trajectory. It’s a quick, evocative read and worth every note of it.

South and West: From a Notebook available now.

The Last Machine in the Solar System by Matthew Isaac Sobin

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Grade A+

Matthew Isaac Sobin’s novella is a beautiful, mournful, elegiac meditation on humanity by a machine named Jonathan who after being brought to life by his creator on Earth begins a billion years-long journey into the outer and future reaches of the solar system. On his journey across the stars, Jonathan describes the slow burn and death of our solar system while ruminating on the demise of the human race, which he laments was sadly well before the demise of the solar system around us, and well before our demise was necessary. I was mesmerized by the rich visual language and the massive scope of such an intimate tale, and I was equally horrified and saddened by the ignorance of humanity, ignorance that ultimately led to our extinction. A sobering lesson for a world in the grips of a sobering part of history. Illustrator Jack Katz also contributes gorgeous artwork to accompany the narrative. Just an exceptional read all around.

The Last Machine in the Solar System available April 11, 2017.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking

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Grade A-

Meik Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge (pronounced Hoo-ga) is a warm, fuzzy read about the Dane’s warm, fuzzy traditions regarding coziness. It goes down like hot cocoa in front of a fire and that’s exactly how the Danes would want it. Wiking makes the case that Hygge is one of the main reasons Denmark is consistently rated as the happiest country in the world and I’m hard-pressed to disagree with his assessment what with all of the blankets and candles and hot apple cider and dinner parties and naps and vacations on display here. Curl up, enjoy and prepare to envy the great Danes.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living available now.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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Grade B

Agatha Christie meets Alien in Mur Lafferty’s new sci-fi thriller “Six Wakes”, a claustrophobic, sometimes gripping, often mind-bending novel that could be also just as easily be called “Attack of the Clones”. There are no “Star Wars” references to be found, but there are a group of clones (and perhaps a human imposter…), all ex-cons, who have been charged to man a civilization-transporting spaceship to a distant planetary system hundreds of years from now. What could go wrong? Everything, to be precise. After the skeleton crew of clones wake to a gory bloodbath of bodies on the ship, their previous bodies, they are left to solve the mystery of just who murdered their previous clone selves as they unravel the connection that had brought all six of them together aboard the ship. Lafferty executes the narrative with assurance and bits of imaginative speculation about the future, but I just didn’t connect with the story and I found it rather tricky to navigate both the murder mystery and the science fiction. Hardcore sci-fi fans will probably devour this, though.

Six Wakes available now.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Grade A

The  release of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo feels like an important cultural moment in a most uncertain time, and rightfully so. A potential critical and commercial blockbuster that doesn’t feature “The Girl Who/That/On ____” in the title, Lincoln in the Bardo is a rare exception that is worthy of all the accolades it will undoubtedly accrue. It’s almost impossible to give a review that does justice to the novel, Saunders’ first, because Lincoln breaks all of the typical rules of popular fiction. A history lesson, a play, a meditation, a eulogy,  a staged reading, a treatise, a speculation, an examination of political history, a rumination on life and death, an indictment of racism, a justification for war, Lincoln in the Bardo is all of these things and none of them. It’s unlike anything that you’ve probably ever read, loosely the story of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie who, after succumbing to typhoid, remains in an afterlife limbo with a greek chorus of other lingering souls as both he and his father come to terms with the finality of loss. At times heartbreaking, at others hilarious, Lincoln is always unpredictable and brilliant and a must-read that will be considered a masterpiece for generations to come.

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel available now.

The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino

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Grade A

Tim Lapetino’s lovingly detailed The Art of Atari is the warm, fuzzy throwback to your childhood that you didn’t realize you’d been without. Beautifully compiled and exhaustively researched, Lapetino shines a spotlight on the artists who brought the minimalist Atari games of the 70s and 80s to life through gorgeous packaging and promotional illustrations that elaborated on the initially crude graphics of the iconic Atari console games by creating visual stories that gave players a narrative to enhance the minimalist gameplay. From Asteroids to Yar’s Revenge, every remembered and forgotten game is here along with the behind the scenes stories of the distinctive artists who created the art that gave each title identities that still resonate today. Nostalgia in the best sense, Lapetino has outdone himself with this throwback to an era and an emerging technology, the meteoric rise and fall of a game-changing company, and subsequent home gaming market that ended up altering the cultural landscape.

Art of Atari available now.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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Grade A

Katherine Arden’s brilliant, mesmerizing fairy-mare (or is it night-tale?) is a magical and often spooky story about the peculiar goings on of a small Russian village in the distant past and a young girl named Vasya who channels and interacts with far more benevolent and malevolent creatures than the other villagers and members of her own family would like. Rich, engrossing, and hypnotic, I found myself thinking of both Alice in Wonderland and Pan’s Labyrinth throughout this mythical story as the tension built while Vasya, a tough, independent girl in a time when such characteristics labeled a girl a witch, clashed with her wicked stepmother and the deceitful village priest, finding a precarious alliance and friendship with the animals and otherworldly creatures that populate both her property and the mysterious forest that surrounds it. This is a stunning first novel with the details and language both pitch perfect and prose that flows lyrically and mellifluously from page to page. I was equally enchanted and filled with dread as the story reached its fantastical and sometimes gruesome climax. This is apparently part of a trilogy and as much as I tend to steer away from series, I very much look forward to following these characters further. A superb debut from a major new literary voice.

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel available now.

Void Star by Zachary Mason

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Grade C-

Void Star, Zachary Mason’s apocalyptic techno thriller, is like a mind-meld of Philip K Dick and David Mitchell, telling the story of three people whose paths eventually cross as they battle to retain memory under the oppression of AI. Or, I think it is, anyway. Incredibly dense, rambling, and challenging, Void Star was as equally frustrating as it was thought-provoking. Mason is clearly an extremely talented writer, capable of towering world building such as the favelas that have come to engulf the future Bay Area and mind-bending technical prowess such as the inner-workings of AI server farms, but this book was overly long for me and I could sense early on that the payoff wasn’t going to pay off the way I wanted it to. Certainly an achievement and dystopian sci-fi heads will probably love it, but I just didn’t connect to the characters or the exhausting interweaving of their respective narratives.

Void Star: A Novel available April 11, 2017.