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The Loves We Leave Behind: ‘Pages for Her’ by Sylvia Brownrigg

Pages for Her by Sylvia BrownriggIt’s not easy to write a love story devoid of the usual clichés such as the “meet cute” or unrealistically idealized physical descriptions, but author Sylvia Brownrigg does just that in her new novel, Pages for Her (373 pages; Counterpoint). The book is a sequel to 2001’s critically acclaimed Pages for You, in which the young and timid Flannery Jensen falls for her confident and much older professor, Anne Arden. Told in three parts, Pages for Her offers readers the chance to return to Flannery and Anne’s ardent, but lost, connection twenty years after their separation. While the time jump provides an eloquent exploration of memory, nostalgia, and individual growth for both Flannery and Anne, it is also filled with a lengthy recounting of mundane, everyday details which delays the reunion of these two characters. The languid pacing, which contains a myriad of tender and painful moments, deepens the bond between the reader and the characters, but somewhat diminishes interest in the central love story since the only trace of their romance resides in Anne and Flannery’s memory.

Instead, the strongest and most poignant parts of Pages for Her have less to do with plot and more the intimate relationships these women have apart from each other. It is a poetic and in-depth look at the self – as individual, writer, mother, wife, daughter, and lover. Flannery’s transition into motherhood becomes one of the most important aspects of Pages for Her; Brownrigg portrays her sometimes-limiting yet always unconditional love for her child, a love Flannery finds deep and life-altering.

The gentle exchanges between Flannery and her daughter Willa serve in stark contrast to Anne, who has proven unwavering in her decision to remain childless and lost Jasper, her partner of twenty-years, as a result. Anne and Jasper’s relationship is just unconventional enough to keep the reader’s attention, with their fresh take on monogamy being perhaps the most interesting part of Anne’s story. We feel Flannery’s marital and creative frustrations, we feel her primal instincts as a mother and the zealous love that accompanies it. We also feel Anne’s quiet but piercing grief over releasing the man she loves to a life she cannot agree to, and we feel her slow return to a lover she has long cherished but could never pursue due to her bond with Jasper.

These relationships comprise the backbone of Pages for Her, depicting the intricate, complicated, and beautiful moments that lead Flannery and Anne back to a relationship they both knew was unfinished. As in our own lives, no matter how many years (or pages) it takes, “[w]hen two people came together who were meant to, the night and the meeting were elemental, and the trappings ceased to exist. All that mattered were the bodies. And the selves.”

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In a Lonely Place, a Teen Boy Searches for Solace: ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Montpelier ParadeKarl Geary’s first novel, Montpelier Parade (217 pages; Catapult), presents us with the fraught experience of first love, told in beautifully doleful prose that sometimes exhibits Salinger-esque sparseness. Referring to his protagonist, Sonny, as “you,” Geary draws the reader into a hypnotic and haunting intimacy. The directness of the second-person point of view demands both Sonny and the reader are left weary by the cloudy Dublin skies and by the “howl of feeling.” It’s a delicate work that treats its subject with great sensitivity, ensuring we experience that same tenderness of feeling that Sonny does, and hear the words on the page like the brutally honest voice of a friend.

Sonny is a pitiful Irish teenager growing up on the decaying outskirts of Dublin. He longs to escape from the drab confines of his father’s expectations, his mother’s depression, and the mindlessness of his TV-consumed brothers. More than any of this, he longs to feel a sense of belonging and the soft embrace of a devoted lover. He is so alone he seems afraid of being noticed. A quiet and keen observer, Sonny breaks the reader’s heart in the most banal of ways. The moments of tragedy in Sonny’s life are delivered in the same quietly devastating manner as his mundane experience: the novel begins with the accidental death of a drunken man leaving the butcher shop at which Sonny works and ends with the suicide of a character he literally worships, yet Sonny reacts as though these events are no more momentous than the stale loaf that rests forgotten on his kitchen counter. All too accustomed to pain from every direction in his life, Sonny appears to regard suffering as both inevitable and unavoidable. All the while, his hunger for love proves so fundamental one wishes to somehow feed him. For Vera, the older woman who becomes both his secret lover and the hope he is terrified to possess, continues to deny Sonny––for she, too, is frightened by her own desperate need.

And so Sonny is left in that space between longing and pursuit, kept company by a slight boredom, the hum of the refrigerator, and the rustling of spiders. When he’s not in the shed fixing his bike with stolen parts or working at the butcher’s shop, he’s usually with his friend Sharon at the Cats’ Den. Sharon, the girl whose punches “hurt and were lovely and a comfort” and who’s been everybody’s girlfriend, shares her cigarettes with Sonny and follows him to the museum even when he’s thinking of Vera. It is Sharon who reminds him of the world he is expected to belong to, the everyday world his mother inhabits. Walking arm and arm with Vera, at one point, Sonny sees his mother struggling with the pull of “four or more plastic bags…like demanding toddlers,” but he never breaks his stride. He only turns to look back once she becomes a shadow, and is ashamed by his betrayal of the woman who raised him and never hugged him back. By the time Sonny’s two worlds collide––the world he lustfully imagines and the one that comprises his waking life––Montpelier Parade leaves us as it leaves Sonny, pondering how life can be both empty and full at once.

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Shadows That Take the Shape of Men: ‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert JohnsonIt’s the rare writer who is able to straddle the line between literary and horror fiction. For every author like H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson who has since been adopted into the canon, there are countless others who remain on the outskirts of the literary scene. Of course, working in the fringes of any genre allows one to take creative risks and make provocative choices. Readers who find themselves drawn to the new story collection Entropy in Bloom (252 pages; Night Shade Books) by Portland writer Jeremy Robert Johnson will likely believe that the author has indeed gotten away with something.

One of the pleasures of reading any collection that culls together stories produced over a span of time is witnessing a writer’s preoccupations and obsessions emerge on the page. With stories written between 2004 and 2011, Entropy in Bloom reads like a tableau of Johnson’s pet themes. Despite their Lovecraftian titles, stories such as “When Susurrus Stirs” and “Cathedral Mother” explore Johnson’s fascination with the way microscopic entities like parasites and tapeworms can alter human physiology for their own purposes. The idea of an invisible passenger in our bodies (“…I imagine the fibers of my spinal cord stretching out towards him like feelers”) has long been a potent theme in the genre, particularly in the body mutations conjured by filmmaker David Cronenberg, but in these tales Johnson tends to go for the gross-out rather than generate the lingering psychological effect of the best literary horror.

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When Home Isn’t Quite Home: ‘What It Done to Us’ by Essy Stone

What It Done to UsIn her first collection of poetry, What It Done to Us (66 pages; Lost Horse Press), Essy Stone writes about an early life spent immersed in a Southern culture she deems toxic, where oppression and tradition are rooted in the collective mentality, often at the expense of women and minorities. She describes a landscape that is as suffocating as it is unsettling, where mountains have “heavy hands” and the valleys lie “cursed by generations of sunburned famers.” Her poems address the unstated yet generally understood rule that if you are born in the South you are somehow fated to stay there, to follow in the footsteps of the generations that came before. Although much of her work focuses on how she fought against this expectation, she does not shy away from speaking frankly about her painful past, or the physical and emotional toll it takes to depart from the world one was raised in.

What It Done to Us reads as a memoir in verse, ordered chronologically from her troubled childhood and teenage years to her adulthood. From her earliest days, we sense she already possessed the rebellious spirit that would serve her well when she made the harrowing but necessary decision to leave the constraints of her hometown. She describes herself as a “teenage delinquent with eyes like black heaps/of coal that no great prophet could lift from their depths,” here also touching on her various confrontations with the “Devil,” a reappearing presence throughout the collection that alternates between being an external force she is helpless against and an undeniable part of herself.

What stands out in the book is the camaraderie between Stone and the other women who reside in her town; she observes their navigation of Southern life with both skepticism and sympathy. These women steel themselves against their various struggles and tragedies, acting tough rather then demure as they “growl through lipsticked teeth at the unseen hand that holds us here./Raise our chins to meet its invisible fist.” While Stone doesn’t minimize their strength of character, she criticizes the way they appear to have surrendered to the unfairness of their situation. Despite its occasionally defeatist language, there is still an undercurrent of resistance running throughout What It Done to Us, with lines such as “We never relax, our muscles ready, tensed/against this dense pressure waiting to erupt from within” and “you spend evenings/at the dam, praying for it to break. Something must burst,/must loose, must free itself & carry you.” The tension between Stone’s desire to follow her path and the pressure to abandon it nears its breaking point as she grows closer to realizing her escape.

What It Done to Us is a sharp and honest reflection of the East Tennessee town she was raised in, of her wounds manifested in the ongoing inner-conflict between guilt and religion, family and self-preservation, and of the pain of one’s memories and the desire to be rid of them. Stone eventually leads us to understand how an environment so shocking, so disturbing can maintain such a powerful hold on those who call it home.

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Door of the Soul: ‘The Accomplished Guest’ by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie’s career began, auspiciously, 40 years ago with the joint publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortions, a short story collection. It was an almost unheard of debut for a writer whose career had previously consisted The Accomplished Guestlargely of short stories in The New Yorker and a few other publications.

But she immediately captured critical attention with her pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of her contemporaries, shellshocked by political changes, struggling with the problems of dysfunctional relationships and trying to find a way to make sense of the senseless.

It didn’t hurt that she was also hip, strewing pop and drug culture references through her work like bread crumbs leading to an imaginary cottage. The startling directness and present-tense presence of her voice did not escape the attention of her peers, either.

“You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,’’ John Updike told her, at their first meeting.

Well, maybe.

Although Beattie’s formidable formal innovations are remarkable, it’s no disservice to her work, which now encompasses 19 books, to say she is working in the same arena as such contemporaries as Alice Munro, and predecessors from Mavis Gallant to Chekhov, or Maupassant.

She may not be squarely in their fictional lane – her style is uniquely her own – but they populate the same neighborhood of experience, and no doubt would find a way to successfully communicate over the garden fence. There has recently been an outpouring of work from Beattie, including the publication last year of The State We’re In: Maine Stories. (She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, divide their time between Maine and Key West). Her newest, just-released collection, The Accomplished Guest (288 pages; Scribner), is stunningly successful – reading it is like being hit by successive waves of emotion recalled – not so much in tranquility as in the vertiginous heat of a summer afternoon. The title pays homage to Emily Dickinson’s poem, which she chooses as an epigraph:

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The Ties that Bind: ‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug

An umbilical cord that cannot be cut –– even after death –– turns out to be less of an impediment than one might think in Knots (176 pages; FSG), Gunnhild Øyehaug’s eccentric collection of short stories. Emotional and mental knots are as binding and problematic as physical ones in these surreal and memorable stories, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.

Øyehaug’s stories run brief as they oscillate between the bizarre and the everyday. In the opening story “Nice and Mild,” a man suffering from anxiety ventures to IKEA to buy curtains for his son, while in “Grandma is Sleeping,” a woman refuses to let in her family inside her home. And the story “The Object Takes and Exalted Place in the Discourse” reads about as theoretical as it sounds.  Knots by Gunnhild Øyehaug

These vignettes are windows not only into the tangled lives of Øyehaug’s characters, but the possibilities of the short story form: some feel like scenes from a play, others contain footnotes that introduce a new character’s perspective. No matter how experimental, the stories benefit from Øyehaug’s skill at creating fully realized characters. She treats these individuals with compassion, humor, and occasional severity—and they in turn ensure the stories in Knots are consistently surprising and memorable.

While most of the stories in Knots are not overtly connected, repeated elements—allusions to Rimbaud, themes of longing and compulsion, and the motif of knots— give the collection a sense of cohesion.  At times, plotlines from one story will resume later: “Take Off, Landing” follows protagonist Geir until he watches his acquaintance Asle, stone in hands, jump off a dock—a hundred pages later, the story “Air” picks up from that very moment. “Deal” follows a young runaway as she receives a ride home from a local source of scandal, a man whose story continues in “Two by Two.”

In this way, Øyehaug utilizes the short story form to reveal how some things in life will always remain out of frame and out of focus. Later, Geir’s perspective of Asle cuts away, via footnote, to a “brilliant explanation” for why Asle is carrying a stone—yet we never explicitly learn just why Geir spends his days watching others from a van.

Knots begins with a quote from poet Christophe Tarkos: “One of two things: either the spiral/Or to be sent out into the air,” and Øyehaug fittingly embraces a lack of resolution, oftentimes leaving things unsaid. At the end of several pieces, an authorial voice enters to offer glib asides or lessons. After a conflict unfolds between two aliens in “Meanwhile, on Another Planet,” a clinical voice sums up the story’s moral: “What can we learn from this? That impossible situations can arise on other planets too. We don’t need to think that we’re the only ones who struggle and fight. Another striking feature is that they communicate through pictures.”  These rare moments of authorial intrusion are unsettling precisely because the rest of the stories, no matter how surreal they may become, feel genuine and earnest. Even with the presence of floralh-patterned UFOs, the most unexpected surprise in Knots is how moving the stories prove.

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Seeing the Self Between the Memories: ‘Meet Me in the In-Between’ by Bella Pollen

81d37Z56xlLSo often, the problem with words is their yielding to the things in our lives that don’t make sense or don’t want to make sense. In her new book, Meet Me in the In-Between (320 pages; Grove Press), Bella Pollen takes on the daunting task of containing her life in words even as she acknowledges that the self cannot be contained. Author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed The Summer of the Bear and Midnight Cactus, as well as a contributor to Vogue, Bazaar and the Times (UK), Pollen ventures into the realm of memoir with an account of her life as a Transatlantic writer and mother.

Pointedly astute, she carefully deploys every word so they serve as tiny twigs to build the nest of her story. Beginning with tales of her youth in New York City, including her vengeful harassment of a rental car clerk and her courtship with the manically violent son of a Mafia leader, the memoir follows Pollen’s whims both indelicate and tender. Ultimately stuck between her desperation to belong to someone and somewhere, and an obsessive yearning to escape from the banality of an ordinary life, Pollen finds herself haunted by the disparate junctures of the self.

This haunting becomes literal when, in what seems a fictive touch, Pollen is visited at night by a sexually dominating incubus who forces her to return to her past. With this hint of the surreal, Pollen recounts her life in a way that both mocks the gravity of events and magnifies her sincere quest for self-discovery. This divergence from the traditional form of a story becomes even more interesting when we learn about her obsession with other people’s stories, which itself mirrors readers’ attraction toward memoir.

Pollen’s need to fabricate narratives for other people—whether it’s the Tijuana parking lot attendant called “El Ganso” or the Hollywood agent she contacts to sell the story of her travels to Mexico—and her awareness of that need ultimately reveal how the search for meaning in our own lives can lead us to construct it for others. It’s as though Pollen finds that inventing stories for those around her allows a brief respite from the claustrophobia of constant introspection. But as Pollen discovers, this habit of projecting meaning onto others often causes one to neglect the work required to find her inner peace.

As the memoir whips us from place to place and time period to time period, Meet Me in the In-Between displays the disjointedness of a life, how whims and flings don’t make existence—or a woman—any less meaningful. It’s in the spaces among all these things that something magical breathes and resists capture. As Pollen illustrates in her sharp, nearly wry voice, it is not our memories that will lead us to an understanding of the self, but the act of maneuvering among them, as though they are a crowd blocking the self from view.

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Struggle for Humanity, on Earth, in Space: ‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of JoanThrough several books of fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch has developed a reputation for playing with language and confronting what a novel can be, both in form and purpose. In her work, plot steps aside for meditations on brutality, passion, lust, agony, and hope, all of which she ruminates on until, as if by magic, they approximate something like an undeniable narrative. Using characters and singular events to flesh out her more abstract points, she has the ability to dig into the more painful and at times disturbing aspects of feelings, resulting in rewarding books.

In her new novel, The Book of Joan (288 pages; Harper), Yuknavitch tries her hand at crafting a Heinlein-esque epic with a feminist twist, a political fable in which the protagonist Joan of Dirt—an unabashed stand-in for Joan of Arc—does her best to take down the misogynistic dictator Jean de Men. de Men has all but depleted Earth’s resources and created CIEL, a space station (and what he believes to be a utopia) for the wealthy who supported and aided his horrific rise to power. While it might seem unclear what his ultimate goal is (or what drove him to it), what is clear is that his designs threaten art and nature.

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Lost Addresses, Found Poems: Collections from Diann Blakely & Hélène Cardona

Lost Addresses“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.

“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”

Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)

Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:

Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored

With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose

Her resting place.

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A World with No Use for Her Perfect Queer Self: ‘Notes of a Crocodile’ by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a CrocodileIn 1994, the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin published Notes of a Crocodile (NYRB Classics; 254 pages), a masterwork of fiction that plumbs same-sex desire while satirizing homophobic society; a year later, she killed herself. An English translation by Bonnie Huie captures the urgent, confessional voice of a lesbian struggling to live with honesty and courage in a society that holds her in its thrall.

The novel’s anonymous narrator, known only by the nonsense nickname “Lazi,” reconstructs from old notebooks and deteriorating memories an account of her time as a college student at an elite university in Taipei in the late ’80s. Her narrative largely revolves around her romantic relationships with women, as well as the same-sex relationships she witnesses among her dearest friends. Punctuating Lazi’s journal entries are chapters from a parable about a green-skinned creature called Crocodile who, despite wearing a “human suit” to blend in with the rest of society, reports on her existence to the media out of a desire for fellowship and acceptance. This announcement touches off a media frenzy that manufactures pseudo-knowledge of “crocodile culture,” as well as clashing political movements to either eradicate or confine all crocodiles. By turns droll and horrific, the parable illustrates how a voyeuristic media can turn lesbian culture into an object for fantasy, mimicry, and oppression.

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A History of Missteps & Bad Luck: ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ by Bethanny Ball

What to do About the SolomonsAt first glance, What to Do About the Solomons (256 pages; Grove/Atlantic) by Bethany Ball may seem like just another story about a dysfunctional family. But as you get deeper into Ball’s first novel, it becomes apparent it’s less about a dysfunctional family and more about dysfunctional individuals within a family that—despite the internal dramas inevitable in any large family—have a strangely stable and even loving relationship with one another.

Much of the novel centers on the (arguably) most loveable member of the infamous Solomon family, Yakov Solomon, the family patriarch. He is a force of nature within the kibbutz: he is a successful businessman, a husband to Vivienne, who came to the kibbutz from Algiers and was known as a great beauty during the time of their courtship, and the father of five children whose lives are fuelled by a mixture of travel and minor tragedies that make up the majority of the kibbutz gossip. Yakov is in a constant state of despair over his children, and his non-stop neurosis seems almost ridiculous until the reader realizes Yakov might be onto something.

As you are introduced to the five children and their respective children and spouses, you learn that missteps and bad luck run in the Solomon family tree. There is Marc, the L.A. businessman who gets wrongly accused of money laundering; Dror, the family gossip who goes through a series of questionable wives and girlfriends; Karen, who married the madman/artist, Guy Gever; Ziv, who lives in Singapore with another man; and Shira, a once-aspiring actress who is growing ever-disillusioned both in her personal life and in her career prospects. There is also a smattering of equally eccentric supporting characters, whose lives and issues seem to get caught orbiting around the Solomon family. People in the kibbutz and beyond seem to gravitate toward the Solomons, even as they carry the weight of scandal or failure of varying degrees. The reader, too, feels the gravitational pull of the family’s charm, even when how they handle their individual struggles becomes almost embarrassing to watch. The dramas each endures almost pokes fun at itself, but instead of making the story trite, it reassures us that in the end, everything can and will work out for the Solomons, however much we may share Yakov’s despair.

Throughout her story, Ball subtly integrates to good effect the political conflicts informing the daily lives of the people living at the kibbutz. Many of the men in the Solomon family have served in the Israeli army, and the traumas brought on by what they experienced during war are shown in sporadic flashbacks. Also, Yakov owns a powerful construction business, one that comes with political entanglement, however indirectly.

These political and cultural tensions add complexity to the characters’ pasts and their current identities. But what makes us care about the Solomons is their affection for one another, even during the times they disagree or drift apart and despite however much they may judge each other.

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What Memories (and We) Are Really Made of: ‘Void Star’ by Zachary Mason

Void StarThe crux of speculative fiction is not always found in inventing new worlds but in skewing our own. Zachary Mason’s Void Star (385 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) does just that, chronicling the struggle of its misfit characters as they fight to survive on an Earth in which the oceans have risen and threaten to submerge the majority of the planet’s remaining landmass. As affluent technocrats revel in their riches atop skyscrapers, the poorest of society are corralled into filthy favelas below them. Nowhere is this stark divide epitomized better than Mason’s meticulously rendered version of San Francisco, a lurid cityscape where wealthy citizens augment themselves with neural implants and autonomous government drones patrol the Bay’s smog-strangled skyline. Into this world, Mason introduces us to the fraught lives of a trio of characters, each facing separate adversities, but each eventually colliding to reveal a city of supreme science, surprising surrealism, and lurking menace.

As a “computational translator” Irina employs her cerebral implant to convert computer code into words. Her rare ability allows her to know the “temperature” moment to moment, to hear “all the chatter of all the surveillance drones” or “see through their cameras” anywhere within the city. Her implant enables her to store memories at will, selectively saving sensory details, even if they’re only flickers of images, sights, and sounds. An intermediary between artificial intelligences and her wealthy but frequently less than human clients, Irina floats between states of liminal thought and interrelating with people, leaving her hollow. We inhabit her haze until, like all the characters in Void Star, she is awakened to a sinister plot after witnessing something on a computer screen she shouldn’t have.

Kern, on the other hand, has little time to contemplate his Spartan existence as he grapples with the sludge of the slums. A thief who has honed his body and trained in martial arts, Kern stays connected to the world through his laptop, his only possession he hasn’t pawned or stolen. When he robs the wrong target, Kern’s story takes us through the unrelenting hell that is the lives of the poor as his independence, his strength—what little he had left—is taken from him. The novel’s third narrative follows the life of Thales, a refugee and the sole surviving member of a Brazilian political dynasty. Thales suffers an unexpected blow when he’s captured by an unknown force and thrust into an inextricable matrix of corporate conspiracy and familial dread.

Void Star asks the reader to contemplate several questions. As Irina parses through code and electric symbols, we digitally dive into her and all of the characters’ consciousness, forcing us to consider which experiences matter, how our memories and the details we observe make us whole. Are we curating a facade of a personality through the artifice of civilization? Do human relationships matter when artificial intelligences are slowly supplying the same basic interactions? And how do we rectify unparalleled technological prosperity with global disparity?

Speculative fiction has long wrestled with these ethical quandaries, but rarely has it done so with the power of language and prescience found in Void Star. Mason’s prose is prodigious in scope and exultant in its decadent imagery of a pseudo-dystopian San Francisco. A combination of Gibsonian grunge and the existential intrigue of Philip K. Dick, Void Star explores the artifice of memory and the limits of man’s comprehension, all with a dash of Bay Area bedlam.

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