Saturday, December 14, 2019

Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo was born in Boston and raised in Revere, Massachusetts. He attended Brown University, where he obtained a bachelor of arts in Russian studies and a master of arts in Russian language and literature. The author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Breakfast with Buddha and The Delight of Being Ordinary, Merullo is the recipient of the Massachusetts Book Award, an Editors' Choice Award from Booklist, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, a Best of the Year award from Publishers Weekly, and was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Merullo's new novel is Once Night Falls.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Stay with me here; I’ll get to the reading part.

I have had a very full and varied life (I’m 66 and not quite ready to write the last chapter yet). I lived in a tribal society (Peace Corps Micronesia, on a tiny atoll way out in the Central Pacific), in a communist society (28 months over 13 years, working on USIA exhibits in the former USSR), spent a lot of time in social democracies (many months on vacation and doing book research in Europe), and here in the heart of capitalism (well, sort of: Massachusetts.) I was born in the city and spent my youth there, but have lived in the country for the last thirty years. I’ve worked as a carpenter (seven years), cab driver (three months), professor (over ten years or so, all told), coach of rowing, private editor, truck loader, toll collector, swimming pool builder, temp worker. Raised two fine girls, traveled a massive amount, played hockey, baseball, golf, rowed crew, studied karate intensely for two and a half years in my forties. Been in two bad car accidents. Been healthy and active, and also suffered with various long-term ailments too boring to talk about. Watched my kids be born and watched my brother die. Been married to the same woman for 40 years, with some hard patches and a lot of smooth sailing. Slipped into Croatia during the war there. Slipped into Cuba to write a golf article. I have a lot of friends, but I’ve also had stretches of intense loneliness—long time ago. I suffered with a bipolar tendency that was cured by a four-decades meditation practice. Been around a number of people—close friends and relatives—whose lives have been torn to shreds by addiction. And I’ve known others who’ve had great success and 80 years of good health, mental and physical. I’ve published 24 books, some of which sold very poorly, and a couple that sold very well.

Not bragging, not at all. I’ve had as many mixed-up times, have as many regrets, and made at least as many mistakes as everybody else. I’m saying all this because I don’t have a bucket list, not really. I would like to learn to ride a motorcycle, and I would like to see my daughters grown and happy, that’s about it. Beyond that, if I did have one thing I’d like to do before passing on to the next life, it would be learning Italian. There was a point in my life when I spoke Russian fluently (too rusty to say that now), and spoke Trukese well enough to get by, and I loved the feeling of being able to express myself in a tongue other than English. Loved what it did to the brain, how it broke the world out of its word-limits, or at least expanded them. I’d really like to get to the level in Italian, a language I heard in my house when I was growing up, studied formally for one year in college, and have been pursuing, in hit or miss fashion, over the past thirty years.

So now, when I have reading time (and I write two or sometimes three books a year, so there isn’t a lot of reading time, and when there is, I often want to do something physical—lift weights, walk, bang nails, play golf, swim), I try to read in Italian. Natalia Ginzburg’s All our Yesterdays. Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. I go over them and over them, often with a dictionary nearby, making notes in the margins, deciphering the grammar and sentence structure, struggling to increase my vocabulary.

Maybe I should be filling in the blanks in my English-language reading. I’ve never touched Don Quixote or Middlemarch, for example, have read hardly anything of Shakespeare. I know I’m missing out. But when I have a half hour’s worth of energy at ten o’clock at night, after a day in front of the computer, or with a stack of pages in my hands, what calls to me is the Italian language. As a little boy, I lived with my father’s parents, who were from tiny villages outside Naples, and something magical happens when I hear or read or speak Italian now. A deep part of my brain is reawakened and I’m cast back in time. They were unusually kind, generous, and warm people, and these deep reminders carry with them a memory of their love, of my own worth, of a part of my life when everything was fresh and new.

So I wrestle with the Italian subjunctive instead of Middle English, tales of World War II in Italy, rather than tales of windmills and kings. It makes me feel good, which is, I believe, one of the reasons we read.
Visit Roland Merullo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Richard Baker

Richard Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as a prolific game designer. This month marks the release of Scornful Stars, the third book in his military sci-fi series Breaker of Empires (preceded by Valiant Dust in 2017, and Restless Lightning in 2018). He’s also known for eleven novels set in the world of the Forgotten Realms, including the New York Times bestseller Condemnation.

Recently I asked Baker about what he was reading. His reply:
The two books sitting on my nightstand are The Fifth Season (by N.K. Jemisin) and Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (by Dan Jones). I’m cheating just a little bit here since I actually finished The Fifth Season a couple of weeks ago, but it looms large in my mind at the moment and I’m still thinking about the story. I realize that I’m late to the party since The Fifth Season won a Hugo for Best Novel in 2016 and you probably already know all about it already, but better late than never. Let me tell you why I picked up those particular books.

First, Crusaders: This is a new, well-written “pop history” exploring the tangled story of the Crusades. I read a lot of nonfiction, and several times a year I pick a book off a store shelf for no other reason than it deals with a subject I want to know more about. Author Dan Jones does a couple of interesting things with this one. First, he uses a strongly “people-centric” approach that builds around the stories of individuals caught up in the times rather than the more event-centered approach you might expect when recounting the wars of a thousand years ago. Second, he doesn’t limit himself to the story of Jerusalem and the crusader states—he also includes the Reconquista in Spain and the campaigns against the Baltic pagans in the broader narrative of the Christian world’s holy wars. I have no idea when or why I might need to know more about the Crusades, but as a writer, I like to just learn things. You never know when a bit of history might help to inspire your setting-building or suggest a great plot turn.

As for The Fifth Season, that was a little more random for me. Every now and then I realize I haven’t read a new author (meaning, someone I haven’t read before) in quite some time, so if something just catches my eye, I make a point of buying it to try out someone new. Most of my leisure reading is firmly in the realm of science fiction rather than fantasy these days, but the notion of a fantasy world built on the foundation of seismology and a modern understanding of things like hot spots and subduction caught my interest. I’m very glad it did: The Fifth Season turned out to be a brilliant bit of worldbuilding and a clever narrative structure that had me up late hurrying to find out what happens next. This was my first N.K. Jemisin book, and it definitely won’t be the last.
Visit Richard Baker's website.

The Page 69 Test: Valiant Dust.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 9, 2019

Ann Howard Creel

Ann Howard Creel writes historical novels about strong female characters facing seemingly impossible obstacles and having to make life-changing decisions. In her novel The River Widow, a former tarot-card reader turned widow and stepmother must escape the clutches of an evil family while also facing the crime she herself has committed. In The Whiskey Sea, a fierce young woman becomes one of the only female rumrunners on the Atlantic Coast during Prohibition. And in While You Were Mine, a New York City nurse must give up the child she has raised as her own during World War II.

Creel's new novel is Mercy Road.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m a voracious reader of historical fiction, and there’s no shortage of books in that genre that I could recommend. One that I just finished, Beyond the Horizon by Ella Carey, is a stand-out. Great openings always impress me, and this novel starts in a strong way that asks more questions than answers them. The author goes on to use parts of the same scene at the opening of each chapter. That device and the rest of the book illuminate the work of the WASPs—female pilots—during World War II, who completed many missions, but primarily moved airplanes all over the US, thus freeing the male pilots to fly overseas. (Yes, female pilots were not allowed to fly in war zones during World War II.) These interesting characters drew me in immediately, and the story was not predictable. The author surprised me several times. In addition to a great story, the research behind it is evident through details that are thorough but not overbearing. I can highly recommend this wonderful World-War-II-era novel.
Visit Ann Howard Creel's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mercy Road.

The Page 69 Test: Mercy Road.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 6, 2019

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the acclaimed author of over sixteen picture books and novels.

In 2013 she won the Silver Birch Fiction Award for Making Bombs for Hitler and the Red Cedar Award for Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Don't Tell the Nazis, and reported the following:
At the moment I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest, Talking to Strangers, and am really enjoying it. I just finished reading A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman. It's a novel about an idealistic American of Afghan heritage who decides to do research in a remote Afghan village that has become famous because of a memoir written by an American doctor who had spent time in the area. Parveen is certain that her presence will do the locals some good, but nothing is as it seems. Her presence sets off deep and unexpected ripples. Masterfully written with a nuanced cast of characters and attention to the contradictory and layered nature of the American presence in Afghanistan, this book is a must-read.
Visit Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's website.

The Page 69 Test: Don't Tell the Nazis.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Peter Riva

Peter Riva is the author of Kidnapped on Safari. He has spent many months over thirty years traveling throughout Africa and Europe. Much of this time was spent with the legendary guides for East African hunters and adventurers. He created a TV series in 1995 called Wild Things for Paramount. Passing on the fables, true tales, and insider knowledge of these last reserves of true wildlife is his passion. Nonetheless, his job for over forty years has been working as a literary agent. In his spare time, Riva writes science fiction and African adventure books, including the previous two titles in the Mbuno and Pero Adventures series, Murder on Safari and The Berlin Package. He lives in Gila, New Mexico.

Recently I asked Riva about what he was reading. His reply>
I thoroughly enjoyed This Is Not America: Stories by Jordi Puntí. First off, translations are always suspect. Cadence can get destroyed. Seeing Puntí’s reputation for cadence (tested by public readings for which his work is known to play well), this translation was likely to fall short. It does not. The cadence is fluid, intelligent, words carefully placed, and a joy to read aloud. Cadence here is critical for the flow of the words and impact on the psyche of the reader—absorbing the deeper message meant to be simple but impactful.

At first I was puzzled by the title as it links so firmly to the David Bowie song of the same name. Frankly, the book can be interpreted in the same musical vein and, of course (because Puntí is that brilliant), without. There is no doubt that seen from an ex-America perspective, there is deep humor here; humor that may slip by a more jaundiced American reader. Many of the stories carry the theme of the past forever encroaching on the present, coloring the future. Puntí is clever without ever being saccharine, literary in choice of phrase without ever being obtuse—always a joy to read.

The final “Kidney” passage of the protagonist’s niece, come to call, carries impact on many levels, reigniting the themes in the previous pages, setting up a crescendo conclusion: “She believed she was the only family tie between the two of them and, feeling this strongly, thought she had to try. Her father’s condition was worsening. It was no joke. He really needed a kidney, so please forget about his arrogance.... When the girl went quiet, he finally gave her the answer he’d been savoring all along.” Read aloud it works in a different way than when read silently. Try it! Good literature plays significantly better when read aloud.
Visit Peter Riva's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 2, 2019

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is a London-based crime writer. He was sixteen when his first magazine article was published and he’s been writing ever since. A love for genealogy inspired his first bestselling series, the Jefferson Tayte Genealogical Mysteries, and he is now expanding his writing to historical crime, another area he is passionate about.

Robinson's new novel is The Penmaker's Wife.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Robinson's reply:
I’m currently reading a book by Margaret Atwood, because when writing the blurb for my latest book, The Penmaker’s Wife, my publisher described it as ‘Alias Grace meets Peaky Blinders in this tale of obsession, ambition and murder in Victorian England.’ I hadn’t read Alias Grace before, any more than I had watched Peaky Blinders, so I had to find out why the comparison had been made. I’m very much enjoying Atwood’s semi-factual story about the life of the young Irish immigrant, Grace Marks, as she gives her account of the events that led to her trial and conviction for murder in 1843. It’s clear to me now why the comparison was made, although the two stories are quite different. As an author, I’m also very interested in stories that combine historical fact with fiction as it’s been central to my previous series, the Jefferson Tayte Genealogical Mysteries. I like how Atwood has woven letters into the narrative, and that at the end of the day you know Grace Marks was a real person. It adds a tangible truth that fiction can only attempt to emulate.
Visit Steve Robinson's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Declan Burke

Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), Absolute Zero Cool (2011), Slaughter’s Hound (2012), Crime Always Pays (2014), The Lost and the Blind (2014), and The Lammisters (2019). Absolute Zero Cool was shortlisted in the crime fiction section for the Irish Book Awards, and received the Goldsboro Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel in 2012. Eightball Boogie and Slaughter’s Hound were also shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards. Burke is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (2011) and Trouble is Our Business (2016), and the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books to Die For (2013), which won the Anthony Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime. Burke was a UNESCO / Dublin City Council writer-in-residence for 2017-18. He blogs at Crime Always Pays.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Burke's reply:
I always like to read a few books at the same time, picking up a particular book to suit a particular mood or need or time of the day. I also love the idea of the books cross-pollinating one another, with different styles and themes and sets of characters cross-hatching their way through my subconscious.

I’m reading Lee Child’s Blue Moon at the moment, because I’ll be interviewing him next week. I think what I admire most about Lee’s work is how deceptive his style is – it takes a hell of a lot of craft to make a book read so easily.

I’m also working my way through Moby-Dick for the first time, which I’m enjoying immensely, in part because the prose is so lusciously dense. I love a good sea-faring yarn – Conrad, Patrick O’Brian – and Moby-Dick is, among many other things, the grizzled old sea-dog of sea-faring yarns.

I’ve just finished Emma Donoghue’s Akin. Emma’s best-known book is probably Room, which won her all kinds of prizes, including an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay; Akin is about an elderly man, Noah, who is forced to take an 11-year-old grand-nephew he’s never previously met on a vacation to Nice in France, a city Noah hasn’t seen since he was evacuated from it as a child during WWII. It’s fabulous; funny, poignant and philosophical.

Another ongoing read, dipping in and out, is The Best of Myles, Myles na Gopaleen being the alter ego / nom-de-plume of Flann O’Brien – the book is a collection of the weird, wonderful and frequently surreal pieces O’Brien wrote for the Irish Times from the mid-’40s to the mid-’60s. Comic genius.

Finally, there’s a PG Wodehouse on the bedside locker, as there usually is – it’s Ice in the Bedroom at the moment. There’s nothing like a little Wodehouse last thing at night.
Visit Burke's Crime Always Pays blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 25, 2019

Rajia Hassib

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was twenty-three. She holds an MA in creative writing from Marshall University and her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, Steam Ticket, and Border Crossing magazines. She lives in West Virginia with her husband and two children.

Hassib novels are In the Language of Miracles and the recently released A Pure Heart.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Hassib's reply:
Women Talking by Miriam Toews

I read this novel a few months ago, and I still can’t get over how much it pulled me in, especially considering that it’s set in one place (a Mennonite colony) over the course of two days when women gather and, as the title reveals, talk. I could not put it down, and I remain in awe of how Toews managed to make these women, whom many would see as “others,” so familiar, and how she makes their dilemma so relevant to all women. It’s a wonderful exploration of the space women must negotiate when their cultural and religious identity becomes, suddenly, no longer a comfortable space to inhabit.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Exploring the aftermath of the killing of a Moroccan immigrant, The Other Americans brilliantly examines many of the most challenging issues surrounding immigration (xenophobia, belonging, the chasm between first and second-generation immigrants), while populating the novel with a diverse, varied cast of characters and giving them all their unique voices. The result is a truly poignant examination of some of today’s most relevant issues, all told within the captivating frame of a murder mystery. This is a beautiful novel that manages to combine a brilliant, engaging plot with a multitude of thought-provoking themes.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

In The Dutch House, Ann Patchett is, as always, in total and enviable control of her craft. Not a single scene or sentence feels out of place, the novel is brilliantly paced, and the characters of the siblings, Maeve and Danny, are thoroughly complex and engaging. The entire novel is told from the point of view of Danny, and, in addition to being a captivating read, it’s a seriously fascinating study of what an excellent writer can do with a limited point of view—what Danny sees and reflects on is constantly complimented by what he never gives much thought to, and the result is an experience any discerning reader should certainly relish.
Visit Rajia Hassib's website.

The Page 69 Test: In the Language of Miracles.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Dea Poirier

Dea (D.H) Poirier was raised in Edmond, Oklahoma, where she got her start writing in creative writing courses. She attended The University of Central Oklahoma for Computer Science and Political Science. Later, she spent time living on both coasts, and traveling the United States, before finally putting down roots in Central Florida.

She now resides somewhere between Disney and the swamp.

Poirier spends her days at her day job as a Director of Email and Lifecycle Marketing, and her nights writing Manuscripts.

Her new novel is Beneath the Ashes.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Poirier's reply:
My most recent read was #FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar. I picked up this book because I saw a blurb that pitched it as Dexter meets Devil Wears Prada, as a huge fan of both of those, I knew I had to pick this book up. I'm so happy to say that this book didn't disappoint, it was absolutely hilarious, deliciously dark, and a wonderful read overall.
Visit Dea Poirier's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Jones’s debut historical fantasy novel, The Desert of Souls (2011), was widely acclaimed by influential publications like Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, made Kirkus’ New and Notable list for 2011, and was on both Locus’s Recommended Reading List and the Barnes and Noble Best Fantasy Releases list of 2011. Its sequel, The Bones of the Old Ones, made the Barnes and Noble Best Fantasy Release of 2013 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. He is the author of four Pathfinder novels, an e-collection of short stories featuring the heroes from his historical fantasy novels, The Waters of Eternity, and the new novel from St. Martin’s, the second in a new fantasy series, Upon the Flight of the Queen, the followup to For the Killing of Kings, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Recently I asked Jones about what he was reading. His reply:
While my screen media intake has pretty much dwindled to documentaries and Bob’s Burgers, the kinds of material I consume via the written word changed and grew in the last decade. Lately I’ve spent less and less time reading in the genres where I usually write.

A recent discovery for me has been the work of Marvin Albert, who was writing from the 1950s until his death in the 1990s. Almost from the start his books were regularly adapted for the cinema, and he’s apparently revered in France, where he spent the last few decades of his life. I’ve seen some critics dismiss him because he’s never as good as the very best, and yet I find that he always delivers, whether it be with hardboiled westerns or detective yarns. As a matter of fact, I use his work as a kind of “safe base” to which I can return. I explore other mystery and western writers unknown to me with some regularity, and when I find that work wanting and desire a palate cleanser, I head back to my storehouse of Marvin Albert books. Just last week I finished off his three detective novels written under his Anthony Rome alias, featuring Miami private eye and boat owner Tony Rome. They are, in order, Miami Mayhem, The Lady in Cement, and My Kind of Game. The first two were made into Sinatra films I’ve never seen. I found all three to be taut, well-paced, surprising, and atmospheric. Albert always delivers enjoyable work. Maybe he doesn’t compare to Raymond Chandler’s best work, but neither did Chandler a lot of the time, and while Albert might not quite hit the supreme highs of the very best, after reading dozens of his book I’ve yet to see him hit any lows, or middles. There’s something to be said for a writer who is dependably good, and I think Albert may be overdue for a re-evaluation here in the states.

I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction, but haven’t kept close watch on the genre for the last few decades. Having heard great things about the award-winning work of Martha Wells, who has been kind enough to write beautiful things about my novels, I thought it high time to check into her Murderbot work. It happens that her acclaim was rightly deserved. Immediately upon finishing the first, All Systems Red, I began the second, and sheer willpower and a writing deadline held me back from immediately ordering the next two. They’re now on my Christmas list. Suffice to say that the self-labeled Murderbot is an engaging character who finds itself (Murderbot is a genderless biological entity with lots of mechanical parts) thrust into the middle of mysteries chock full of action and interesting characters, as well as a search for meaning and self-identity. It’s rousing, high quality fiction, and one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the holidays this year is so I can see what happens next with Murderbot.

Before starting Murderbot I had just polished off a Gold Medal western. To those in the know, Gold Medal in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s remains a safe landing place to go for hardboiled mysteries and noir. As it happens, it’s also one of the best places to turn for well-paced, hardboiled westerns. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get much of a line on what westerns are good and what westerns aren’t, and there were a whole lot of westerns being printed in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Gold Medal, though, seems to have had a smart and talented editorial team. I’ve found most of the westerns I’ve tried by them are at least decent, and some from their stable have sent me scrambling for other work from the same authors, previously unknown to me. I should preface by saying that I’m not a big fan of slow, rambling pieces – I want the plot to get into motion, and my characters to be acting rather than to sit around being acted upon. Apparently Gold Medal editors had similar preferences.

A case in point is Sabadilla, by Richard Jessup, published in 1960. Jessup also wrote under the Richard Telfair alias and later had success with many juvenile novels. This book is the third by him I’ve read, and the best so far. The titular Sabadilla is a former Mexican revolutionary exiled from his country who wanders into a small town feud. The town wants to lynch a murderous rich man’s son without a trial, and the scheming rich man will stop at nothing to free his son. It sounds like a familiar setup, but Jessup dropped in so many surprises I honestly had no idea where this one would go or how it would shake out. Sabadilla himself is incredibly competent both with his gun and his razor-tipped riding quirt, with which he slays a number of villains. He’s cool and sad and honorable and honestly such a cool character I’m hoping Jessup wrote more novels about him, but I’m pretty sure most of the rest of his are standalone. I see that he has three westerns about a character named Wyoming Jones, and I’ll probably be trying those soon.

I read to be entertained, naturally, but as a writer myself I’m always reading at two levels, the other being watching how the author achieves different effects, seeing how character and pacing are handled, etcetera. All three of these authors were incredibly entertaining and educational. Wells is one of the best modern genre writers I’ve read, and like these older writers she draws the readers relentlessly forward, doling out little bits of world building and character information rather than dumping it in your lap in a boring mass that you have to digest. Story is paramount, and part of what makes the characters compelling is the gradual reveal of who they really are, a process I greatly prefer to the often prevalent modern one of providing the reader with an entire back history of a character before the story can truly get started.
Visit Howard Andrew Jones's website.

View the animated book trailer for Upon the Flight of the Queen.

--Marshal Zeringue