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►  Book World: Best science fiction and fantasy books to read in September

Through an almost satirical look into a near-future China, Maggie Shen King’s debut, “An Excess Male” (Harper Voyager), makes a compelling argument that marriage stands as a method of societal control. Set in 2030, after the one-child policy greatly skews the ratio of men to women, Wei-guo is one of many “leftover men” still unmarried at the age of 40. He works to save for a high dowry and market himself as a desirable marriage partner. He gets an opportunity to join a family as a third husband, the maximum allowed by law, and instantly falls in lust with May-ling. However, her family’s secrets threaten to put it – and Wei-guo – at odds with the state. We hear from Wei-guo, May-ling and her two husbands as they struggle to figure out how far they are willing to go for family or country. King writes distinctive and sympathetic characters, and her vision of a not-so-far future is unnerving and thought-provoking.


With “Provenance” (Orbit), Ann Leckie returns to the universe she built in her acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy. Ingray, the insecure foster child of a prominent politician, plans a dastardly scheme to cement her status in her mother’s eyes, pull one over on her jerk of a brother and regain precious artifacts highly coveted by her people. To pull this off, she must free an infamous thief from an inescapable prison. Plans go awry, and Ingray is thrust into a high-stakes interplanetary conflict. She and her retinue of charming criminals have to make new plans to save her world. Leckie introduces several new human and nonhuman cultures to the Radch universe, and the intricacies and oddities are a delight. The plot can get a bit convoluted, especially as Ingray’s motivations become unclear – does she want to be in power or does she want to be free? – but the novel is still a thrill for fans of heists and capers. While the book is intended as a stand-alone, it does help to be familiar with Leckie’s previous novels.


Marie Lu’s highly anticipated “Warcross” (Putnam) doesn’t waste any time thrusting the reader into the heart of the action with a thrilling chase by teenage bounty hunter and hacker Emika Chen. She is trying to make ends meet in a New York City not unlike our own – except the world has been changed by the invention of deeply immersive augmented reality glasses. Cities such as Tokyo have been completely redesigned with AR in mind, and a whole new black market has formed. The biggest cultural event is the Warcross Games, a tournament centered on an immersive video game where players can battle and quest in fantasy worlds. When Emika runs an untested hack during the opening ceremony, she is thrust into the spotlight and into the Warcross Games. Though billed as a young adult novel, Lu’s world will seem familiar to fans of Neal Stephenson’s adult classic, “Snow Crash.“ Lu sticks to her tried-and-true formulas here, but the book is as brightly hued as Emika’s sleeve tattoo and rainbow hair – a fast-paced, fun-filled adventure.

►  Billy Eichner: from ‘Street’ life to ‘American Horror Story’

Many viewers first met Billy Eichner in his guise as a manic quizmaster hammering pedestrians with cockamamie pop-culture queries like “When Matt Damon daydreams he’s running for the Senate, what state does he imagine he’s in?” and “Where were YOU when Kelly Osbourne left ’Fashion Police‴?

Eichner’s breathless “Billy on the Street” premiered on Fuse in 2011, then moved to truTV, where its fifth season hit the pavement last fall (and is up for an Emmy as outstanding variety sketch series).

Along the way, Eichner’s career as an actor has blossomed. Now he can be as hard to miss in his TV acting roles as he was on the street accosting puzzled passers-by.

He’s co-starring in the third season of “Difficult People,” the Hulu comedy where he and Julie Klausner play 30-something besties bonding in a snark attack on New York and the entertainment world they lackadaisically are trying to break into.

In Netflix’s comedy series “Friends from College,” he appears alongside co-stars including Fred Savage, Cobie Smulders and Keegan-Michael Key as a grumpy gynecologist.

And for something a little different, this week he bows as a supporting player on the second episode of “American Horror Story: Cult” (airing on FX Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern). No spoilers here. Let’s just say Eichner plays a quirky next-door neighbor of series star Sarah Paulson who keeps bees and likes guns.

“Cult” takes its cue from the election of Donald Trump, which itself constitutes an American horror story in the eyes of the series.

Trump’s presidency “is a topic that everybody’s talking about every single day,” says Eichner, “but it certainly hasn’t been talked about in this way. To combine political commentary with the horror and gore that ‘American Horror Story’ is known for is, I think, really cool.”

To discover Eichner off the “Street,” performing in roles other than his Billy alter ego, is to be surprised. And impressed. A commanding figure at 6-foot-3 with woeful eyes and a mouth that seems to alternately signal pique and wry amusement, he has much more to offer than his hysteric “Street” performance.

“I’m not sure people knew that acting was in my bag of tricks,” the 38-year-old Eichner says over a quiet cup of coffee on a recent day off from “Cult” filming. “But no one grows up saying ‘I want to do “Billy on the Street.’” That was just a funny idea I had, and thank God it got me in the door. But when I was growing up, I wanted to be some combination of Nathan Lane and John Malkovich.”

For him, the seeds were planted growing up in New York, the son of parents who loved the arts and show biz. His accountant dad read him the newspaper gossip columns by Liz Smith and Cindy Adams and together they watched “Entertainment Tonight.” With his parents, he saw movies and attended Broadway shows.

He appeared in school plays and took voice lessons, then headed for Northwestern University’s legendary drama school.

After graduation, back in New York, Eichner’s scramble began.

“I remember standing on some crazy line for an audition for some regional musical and seeing how many people there were. I thought, ‘This CAN’T be the only way in!’”

He set about writing his own stage show, called “Creation Nation.” It took the form of a late-night TV talk show — he played the excitable host — and it was staged all over town to increasing popularity.

As one of the evening’s bits, he introduced a pre-taped segment called “Billy on the Street.”

“The initial conceit, and it still makes me laugh, is the idea that I am interrupting normal people heading to work or the dentist or otherwise going about their day, and I’m forcing them to talk to me about Cate Blanchett! That becomes a comment on my own love-hate obsession with the entertainment industry.”

A TV series version naturally followed, which led to “Difficult People,” whose co-star and creator, Klausner, had first partnered with Eichner as a “Billy on the Street” producer.

“He’s a flavor that just wasn’t out there before,” Klausner said. “He makes choices that nobody else does. He commits like nobody else does. He never goes for the obvious thing.”

When time allows, he hopes to be back on the street as Billy — a character who by now, says Eichner, has come into his own.

“He was commenting on pop culture before, but now he’s PART of pop culture,” Eichner says. “I’m very proud of that. And I never in a million years would have thought that he would be my entry into acting.”

Even so, Eichner feels like he’s just getting started.

“Now I’m trying to become the guy that I always intended to become prior to ‘Billy on the Street.’ Giving it time and trusting the process and then delivering: I get what has to happen for me to be where I want to be.”

Where does he want to be?

“A lot of places.” A hearty laugh. “But I’m very aware of the work it’s gonna take to get there.”

►  Mariah Carey’s rap collaborations to be honored at VH1 event

Mariah Carey’s many collaborations with rap artists will be celebrated at the 2017 VH1 Hip Hop Honors.

VH1 said Monday the singer will be honored at the September 17 taping, dubbed “Hip Hop Honors: The 90′s Game Changers,” at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California. It will air September 18.

Carey, who has launched countless pop hits, has been known for her collaborations and remixes with rappers, including Jay Z, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Nas, Snoop Dogg and Diddy.

The event will be hosted by actress Regina Hall and will also honor actor Martin Lawrence. Missy Elliott will perform.

VH1 said the TV special honoring hip-hop’s foray into pop culture will also “recognize the victims of the hurricanes and provide viewers with ways to take action to help.”

►  A bit of Emmy drama: Which nominee will be named Best Drama?

Year after year, too many Emmy categories are laden with expected and oft-repeated winners. No drama then, when the envelope is torn.

But there is drama ahead in the drama categories that will be presented Sunday night.

Four of the seven nominated drama series are new on the scene. Consequently at least half of the Best Drama Actress, Actor and Supporting Actor nominees come from freshman shows, as do no fewer than five of the six Best Supporting Actress drama nominees.

No wonder the Best Drama field has confounded odds-makers. Any one of those nominees could take home the trophy.

Consider the wide range of contenders:

— “Better Call Saul.” On basic cable (AMC), with its third consecutive Best Drama nomination, yet thus far no Emmy wins in any category.

— “Westworld.” On premium cable (HBO). Its first year in contention.

— “The Handmaid’s Tale.” On a streaming channel (Hulu). Its first year in contention, and, potentially, Hulu’s maiden Emmy win.

— “House of Cards.” On a rival streaming channel already well-established with Emmy-winning content (Netflix), nominated for its fifth consecutive season.

— “Stranger Things.” Also on Netflix, in its first season.

— “The Crown.” Yet ANOTHER Netflix entry, also in its rookie season.

— “This Is Us.” A freshman series on NBC, a broadcast network that scored its first Emmy in 1949 but which, along with the other legacy broadcasters, has been shut out of this category for years. (CBS’ “The Good Wife” was these broadcasters’ last drama series to be nominated, in 2011, and ABC’s “Lost” was the last to win, way back in 2005.)

Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” reference book and editor of Gold Derby, an awards handicapping website, predicts “Stranger Things” will take the prize, but in the same breath he acknowledges that show is too young-skewing and too “genre” to be an Emmy slam-dunk. The drama category, he sums up, is “wide open. You could make a compelling argument for all seven nominees.”

But let’s set aside for a moment who will win, and focus on what these nominees say about TV today. For starters, more than half of the field come from streaming channels, a distribution system that wasn’t represented by the Emmys until “House of Cards” claimed three statuettes in 2013.

Both premium and basic cable are also represented. (And it’s fun to recall that, until 1988, Emmy didn’t even recognize cable shows.)

And as the category’s biggest surprise, broadcast TV, which once had the Emmys all to itself, has pulled an upset by a network denied a drama-series win for 14 years.

Another oddity about the Best Drama field this year: Here, at least, Emmy voters have kicked the habit of picking the same series time and again. (Consider the Best Comedy category, where “Veep” has been nominated yearly since its 2012 premiere and won twice — so far.) The last time as many as half the drama field was newcomers happened more than 30 years ago.

“The radical infusion of new blood in the Emmy race is largely due to the huge impact that streaming services are having on TV,” O’Neil notes. He pointed to how Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (which has landed eight Emmys in just two seasons for “Transparent”) “are having the same disruptive impact on the Emmys that they’re having on the TV industry.”

One explanation for drama’s fresh faces: The absence of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (which has been nominated for its entire six-season run but didn’t air during the 2016-17 qualifying year) and another trusty challenger, PBS’ “Downton Abbey” (which has now concluded), has freed up slots those shows claimed for years.

Meanwhile, recent revisions in how Emmy votes are cast and counted has potentially boosted the chances for more edgy entries. Last year, the academy switched from a ranking-and-points system to simply letting voters check off a single top choice. That could account for how Rami Malek, the star of USA’s dystopian drama “Mr. Robot,” upset voter-friendly candidates like Kevin Spacey, Bob Odenkirk and Kyle Chandler.

Of course, the Emmy has been a work-in-progress since its inception. Its policies and procedures have been in turmoil and dispute as far back as 1964, when ABC and CBS lashed out by boycotting the awards ceremony (aired on NBC that year) as unfair.

“The fatal flaw in the Emmy awards is the academy’s pathetic yearning to be liked at any price, to revise its systems of awards to meet whatever may be the latest wave of criticism,” wrote The New York Times’ Jack Gould after the 1965 Emmycast, which, in response to the ’64 kerfuffle, made some unbelievably dumb changes. “Refinements” included bunching all of the entertainment nominees into a single all-inclusive, non-competing category. A grab bag of 15 programs — variety, comedy, drama, even high-brow music — resulted, with four of these nominees scoring Emmys.

“An unmitigated disaster,” Gould says. The next year, conventional categories were restored. Obviously, who-will-win suspense was essential to viewers, no matter how much grousing might accompany it.

It still is. And this year’s drama category, with seven worthy contenders, is serving up guaranteed suspense. But will the winner, whichever it is, really be the “best” show?

“The Emmys have NEVER picked the best shows on TV,” O’Neil says with a laugh. He needs only to cite HBO’s “The Wire,” a permanent fixture on many best-shows-ever lists that, every one of its five seasons, got the Emmy brush-off (apart from a pair of writing nominations).

“There’s tons of outrageous examples you can point to,” O’Neil adds — “Lindsay Wagner won Best Dramatic Actress for ‘The Bionic Woman’!”

But it’s not so hard to understand, he explains: “The Emmys pick what they LIKE.”

--> Tuesday, September 12, 2017
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