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Book Reviews
Speculative Los Angeles
By: Denise Hamilton (Editor) - Akashic Books, $16.95

Description: This debut title in a new city-based anthology series, features all-new stories with speculative, sci-fi, and paranormal themes - each using distinct neighborhood settings as a launching pad.

Verdict: As an incubator of the future, Los Angeles has long mesmerized writers from Aldous Huxley to Octavia E. Butler. With its natural disasters, Hollywood artifice, staggering wealth and poverty, and urban sprawl, one can argue that Los Angeles is already so weird, surreal, irrational, and mythic that any fiction emerging from this place should be considered speculative.

So, bestselling author Denise Hamilton commissioned fourteen stories (including one of her own) and did exactly that. In Speculative Los Angeles, some of the citys most prophetic and diverse voices reimagine the metropolis in very different ways.

In this totally enthralling, and of course, wholly speculative collection of tales set in, and around Los Angeles, CA, we get to delve into all manner of city wonderments.

Indeed, those overly familiar with the area might well be able to narrow in on some landscape they themselves are local too, but never had seen it in quite the same literary light as the ones being shone here.

That said, those very same city inhabitants might also find that not only has their current landscape changed from what it was before, but has also been somewhat changed to fit the narrative.

Regardless, and whether it be back in the day, the here and now or future envisions, set within alternate realities, there is something for everyone here, young and old, based in Los Angeles.

Indeed, within these pages you will encounter twenty-first-century changelings, dirigibles plying the suburban skies, black holes and jacaranda men lurking in deep suburbia, beachfront property in Century City, walled-off canyons and coastlines reserved for the wealthy, psychic death cults, robot nursemaids, and an alternate LA where Spanish land grants never gave way to urbanization.

My own personal favorite is the totally believable Where There are Cities, These Dissolve Too which sees a future where those less fortunate collect bits of garbage from a landfill by day, later turning it into fighting machines by night.

As with our city-based Akashic Noir Series, each story in Speculative Los Angeles is set in a distinct neighborhood filled with local color, landmarks, and flavor. Since the best speculative fiction provides a wormhole into other worlds while also commenting on our own, that is exactly what you will find here.

In closing, this book us highly recommended, especially for fans of Sci-Fi shorts and as much as it scans a lot of LA time and space, it always feel naturally grounded in the here and now, so to speak.

About the Author: Edgar Award finalist Denise Hamilton is the author of seven crime novels and the editor of the best-selling anthology Los Angeles Noir (which includes the Edgar Award-winning short story The Golden Gopher by Susan Straight) and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics.

She is a former Los Angeles Times journalist, a Fulbright Scholar, a noir and sci-fi/fantasy geek, and a proud LA native who refuses to speak only in English.

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Prayer for the Living
By: Ben Okri (Author) - Akashic Books, $24.95

Description: Playful, frightening, shocking these stories from a writer at the height of his power will make you think, or make you laugh. Sometimes they will make you want to look away, but they will always hold your gaze.

These are stories set in London, in Byzantium, in the ghetto, in the Andes, and in a printers shop in Lagos. Characters include a murderer, a writer, a detective, a woman in a dream, a man in a mirror, a little girl, a prison door, and the author himself.

Each one of these twenty-four stories will make you wonder if what you see in the world can really be all there is.

Verdict: Here in Prayer for the Living, renowned Nigerian author Ben Okri brings forth an examination of is what we take for granted really all there is out there; or can the relative boredom of our daily lives be changed if we only knew of the existence of some form of alternate reality?

This career-spanning story collection from the Booker Prize-winning writer is easily structured as a grouping of short fiction and contains 25 separate works, each one contemplating a diverse set of themes.

Such themes include the brutality of war and civil unrest, the longing to be somewhere else in the world, the power of the written word, the metaphysics of detective work, the travails of seeking a better life, and even the hidden horrors residing in a childs doll house and an evil mirror toboot!

At times a wee bit too brief - like, you are knee deep into his prose, loving every corner turn, every rut in the literary journey, but then he seemingly dead ends and just puts a cap on proceedings - but at others so engrossing, so alive that once read you do not move forward you simply re-read that last vignette, Prayer for the Living is a book that may well bring to light the harshness of the subject matter with both hands open, but always imbues it with just the right amount of bluntness and dreamlike state to ensure it remains engaging and thought-provoking.

About the Author: Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. His childhood was divided between Nigeria, where he saw firsthand the consequences of war, and London.

He won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road, and his novel Astonishing the Gods was selected as one of the BBCs 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.

His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. He also writes plays and screenplays. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a vice president of English PEN, and has been awarded the OBE as well as numerous international prizes and honorary doctorates.

His latest novel, The Freedom Artist, was published by Akashic Books.

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Face: One Square Foot of Skin
By: Justine Bateman - Akashic Books, $27.95

Description: Face is a book of fictional vignettes that examines the fear and vestigial evolutionary habits that have caused humans to cultivate the imagined reality that older womens faces are unattractive, undesirable, and something to be fixed.

Writer/director/producer/actor Justine Bateman examines the aggressive ways that society reacts to the aging of womens faces.

Verdict: Ms. Bateman was always known to me as an Actor, from a quite wonderful acting family, and not someone who I would expect to have the time to sit and write a book, in all truth.

But here in the totally enthralling and wholly engrossing from start to finish Face: One Square Foot of Skin, her distinctive voice can be heard throughout, delving into the fascinating psychology of present-day fame.

Via a series of fictional vignettes (which, for the record, once you start reading you immediately start to create faces and bodies for of those speaking), Bateman takes this topic for discussion back to its roots, where, within the injured psyche of every human, lies the perpetual need for an upgrade as they travel through this world.

In this book, Bateman gives many a sobering viewpoint, taken from many a differing social media landscape, about how the need for overlook has to be brought forth about most decisions we undertake as life moves on.

Seemingly encouraging herself to go deeper at all times, to exhibit some fearlessness within her own self-examination, Bateman undertakes what can only be described as some brutally honest, often times assumingly cathartic acts of illumination for us, in an attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of being a celebrity.

In closing summary, based on older face experiences of the author, Bateman, and those of dozens of women and men she interviewed, the book presents the reader with the many root causes for societys often negative attitudes toward womens older faces.

In doing so, Bateman rejects those ingrained assumptions about the necessity of fixing older womens faces, suggesting that we move on from judging someones worth based on the condition of her face.

Justine Bateman is a writer/director/producer/author with an impressive acting resume that includes Family Ties, Satisfaction, Arrested Development, and many more.

She has earned a Golden Globe nomination and two Emmy nominations. Bateman wrote and produced her directorial film short debut Five Minutes, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival and was chosen by seven more festivals, including the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Violet, Batemans directorial feature film debut of her own script, stars Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, and Justin Theroux, and was an official selection at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Her best-selling first book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, explores societys need for its presence, and was published in 2018 by Akashic.

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Hollywood Eden
By: Joel Selvin - House of Anansi Press, $25.20

Description: From the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean to the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas, here in Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise, acclaimed music journalist Joel Selvin tells the story of a group of young artists and musicians who came together at the dawn of the 1960s to create the lasting myth of the California dream.

Verdict: Wow! Simply wow! In what is, for all intents and purposes, a detailed and storied look at an influential California music scene prior to the arrival of folk rock and psychedelic music, Joel Selvin has meticulously, and seamlessly threaded together months upon years of personal recounting and garnered colorful flashbacks within history of everything from surf music to sunny day pop, to the lush vibes of the Beach Boys through to the vocal pop folk of the Mamas & the Papas here in the thoroughly captivating Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise.

Lovingly managing to capture the early seeds sown that would eventually flower into becoming a new, young generation whose early 60s metamorphosis would fast become the welcome blanket for the whole concept of a California Paradise, what is undeniably true is that from the mid-60s to the early 70s some of the most melodic, atmospheric, and subtly political American popular music was written by residents of, or those associated with, Laurel Canyon.

Inclusive of names such as, but not restricted to, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, J. D. Souther, Judee Sill, the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, the Eagles, Richie Furay (in Buffalo Springfield and Poco), and such, the earlier models included such notables as Jan & Dean, Nancy Sinatra, and future members of the Beach Boys ― who came of age in Los Angeles at the dawn of a new golden era when anything seemed possible.

Inclusive of notes on those behind the artists and their recorded hits, such as Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, an entire department at Columbia Records, and many, many more, Selvin manages to colorize those black and white images for us quite superbly with enticingly vibrant tales of glorious highs (reaching number one in the charts) and lows (band break ups and death) amongst the new In-Crowd.

Showcasing a generation that wholly created the magnificently colorful, and always sunny ideal of a modern California, with endless releases of joyous and uplifting music fit for all people, and with a high percentage of these dream makers having all gone to the same cluster of schools and universities at the time, from the Beach Boys California Girls to the Mamas & the Papas California Dreamin, their combined idyllic West Coast music craft was blossoming live for the entire world to see on a weekly basis.

A rock n roll opera loaded with violence, deceit, intrigue, low comedy, and high drama, Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise tells the story of a group of young artists and musicians who bumped heads, crashed cars, and ultimately flew too close to the sun - all whilst the music played on.

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A River Called Time
By: Courttia Newland - Akashic Books, $28.95

Description: The Ark was built to save the lives of the many, but rapidly became a refuge for the elite, the entrance closed without warning.

Years after the Ark was cut off from the world a world much like our own, but in which slavery has never existed a chance of survival within the Arks confines is granted to a select few who can prove their worth.

Among their number is Markriss Denny, whose path to future excellence is marred only by a closely guarded secret: without warning, his spirit leaves his body, allowing him to see and experience a world far beyond his physical limitations.

Once inside the Ark, Denny learns of another with the same power, whose existence could spell catastrophe for humanity. He is forced into a desperate race to understand his abilities, and in doing so uncovers the truth about the Ark, himself, and the people he thought he once knew.

Verdict: Wow! Simply wow! The award-winning playwright and screenwriter for Steve McQueens Small Axe, Courttia Newland has created one of the Top 5 books (already) for me in 2021!

For what Newland has created here over the 462 pages is nothing short of a richly imagined, layered, textured, and magnificently ornate, parallel London where colonialism and slavery never existed; whilst exploring timely themes of social inequality and more.

A quite splendid tale, and at the same time, a rather intimate portrait, that embodies the spirits of both love and loss, his characters delve deep in the psyche of these magical visions of his unbounded past, present and future.

A wholly immersive, and totally mesmerizing reimagining of the city from a grown formidable British voice, A River Called Time not only features so much within it to love, to admire, to breathtakingly imagine as if it could really have happened, but at the same time brings forth a hero, an Everyman of the people, who discovers his abilities are anything but ordinary.

Someone to root for, no matter color or creed, with him thrown into the parallel cities drawn out before him, across a multiverse of colors and shapes and ordinances, African cosmology belief systems ahoy, for what the pages finally reveal are quite an amazingly inspired achievement.

In closing, A River Called Time perfectly showcases Newlands firm grip on the mystical, the magical, and that tiny spark of wonderment that lies within all of us to see what else is out there: real or imagined.

He is, simply out, a masterful storyteller of the highest order and has brought forth a quite extraordinary tale, not only of astonishing speculative fiction, but one that embodies interrogating social inequality, the complexities of truth and the very essence of what it is to be human, all under the same book cover!

Courttia Newland is the author of seven books including his much-lauded debut, The Scholar. His last novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published by Akashic in 2013.

In 2016 he was awarded the Tayner Barbers Award for science fiction writing and the Roland Rees Bursary for playwriting.

As a screenwriter, he has written two episodes of the Steve McQueen BBC series Small Axe.

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