Friday, June 24, 2016

Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey's short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story "Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot" appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story "The Witch Of Tarup" was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden.

Humphrey's new book is Spells of Blood and Kin, her first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I have three primary types of reading. The first is, of course, for my own enjoyment. The second is for research to support my writing. And finally, I work as a buyer for a book retailer, so I often read advance copies of books we’re considering, books we’ve commissioned or books publishers are promoting.

In reverse order: the most recent book I read for my job was Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin. Martin presents herself as a sociologist, living among the people of the Upper East Side for the purpose of studying their customs and culture; it’s a funny conceit at times, but a false one, as Martin is actually quite invested in “going native”, as she calls it, and becoming a fully-fledged member of this privileged society. Part gossipy pleasure, part cultural document, part personal memoir, this book doesn’t quite hang together, but it has some fascinating moments—I wouldn’t have imagined a whole chapter on purchasing a Birkin bag to be so interesting, but it really was.

For research: Forgotten Tales of Pittsburgh, by Thomas White. I don’t yet know what piece this research is for, but it’s a near-guarantee that I’ll write something about Pittsburgh soon; I’ve had a consuming crush on this city for a few years now and I can’t help but write about something I think about this often. The tales in this little book are presented in scattershot fashion, a bit like having a conversation with an erudite local over a pint. Some are serious, some are curiosities, some are dull. One, at least, will spark a story for me.

And for enjoyment: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Baru is a precocious child in one of the colonies of a large empire; she grows up under the wing of a merchant who ensures her education and helps her to a position as an economist in another of the empire’s conquered nations. A fantasy about economics initially struck me as a dry idea, but it’s so well-executed that I forgot my misgivings. It’s also a fantasy about colonization, about power structures, about privilege and intersectionality. I found the ending elegant, foregone; some others, I believe, found it surprising; we probably all felt the impact of the payload.

Next up will likely be something about hockey, because the Stanley Cup Finals will end within the week and I’ll be hungry for something to fill the summer off-season!
Visit Claire Humphrey's website.

The Page 69 Test: Spells of Blood and Kin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella vocal music on historical themes, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. She writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and fantasy-related matters at Tor.com.

Palmer's debut fiction book is Too Like the Lightning.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I’m a historian and a comics/manga reader as well as a lover of science fiction and fantasy, I’m always reading several different things at once, some F&SF, some comics, and some delightful weird historical things. Having the three categories to jump among, and lots of books going at once, helps me fit in little slices of reading into corners of time between tasks, which is the only way I can get any leisure reading in between writing and teaching and working on history research, and it lets me always have something I can read to get into the mood to work on any given project. At the moment I’m reading three of each: three history books, three comics, three F&SF.

My current oddball history choices are Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1516), The Miracles of King Henry VI (translated 1923) and The Miscellaneous Works of Charles Blount Esquire to Which is Prefixed the Life of the Author and an Account and Vindication of His Death (1695). Orlando Furioso is a huge, over-the-top Arthurian fantasy epic, written in the Renaissance but very Medieval in structure. It’s packed with knights, paladins, sorceresses, warrior maidens and Saracen champions, all wandering around having absurd adventures which are constantly interrupted by other absurd adventures, jumping from POV to POV to leave maximum cliffhangers at every turn. It has everything from globe-hopping hippogriffs to “the tomb of Saint Merlin,” an amazing fantasy overdose, though best read slowly short chunks at a time. The Miracles of King Henry VI is a collection of accounts dating from the reigns of Henry VI’s immediate successors Edward IV and Richard III in which people claimed they were rescued, blessed, cured or even resurrected by the ghost of murdered King Henry. These stories were collected to try to evaluate whether Henry VI should be considered a saint, and it’s fascinating for showing how much medieval people linked kings/aristocrats and saints together in their minds. And since Game of Thrones is very much based on the Wars of the Roses, it’s extra fun to imagine the same kinds of accounts being written in Westeros about dead leaders. As for the Charles Blount, he was a notorious radical Deist philosopher in the 17th century, an associate of Thomas Hobbes, so his works and the description of his suicide are great windows on a formative moment in the history of religious radicalism, and public acceptance/hostility toward it.

My current comic book binges are Astro City (Kurt Busiek), Dorohedoro (Q Hayashida), and A Silent Voice (Yoshitoki Ōima). Astro City is a beautiful humanizing superhero series, with a setting which invokes the hero-saturated worlds of Marvel and DC, but focusing on ordinary people’s experience of living in such a world, and on the more ordinary emotional sides of the heroes too. If you’ve ever wanted Superman and Wonder Woman to sit down themselves to talk about what it means that she’s a feminist symbol, or how a real, realistic person would feel caught in a comic book alternate future time travel loop, here you have your wish. Dorohedoro is a playfully violent urban grunge fantasy series with really amazing devil-centric world building a fabulous starting hook: its male lead has three problems, (A) amnesia, (B) an unknown sorcerer has turned his head into a dinosaur head, (C) if he grabs someone in his huge dinosaur jaws, a mysterious figure comes up out of his throat, looks at the person, and says “You’re not the one...” and then goes back down his throat again. What the?!?! And despite its action style and gory punk aesthetic it’s subtly feminist in an awesome way, since the female characters have exactly as much development and focus as the male characters (I made a chart!), and when someone gets kidnapped, rescued, fridged, or sleeping beautied, or is motivated solely by love, it’s often male characters that get plugged into those traditionally female roles, which makes the plot and characters take a lot of twists you’d never predict. But my biggest cliffhanger at the moment is A Silent Voice, a touching slice of life manga about a deaf girl and a boy who bullies her in elementary school, and how the long-term consequences of bullying culture affect them both over the years as they grow up. I usually go more for fantasy or science fiction but the tender, realistic characterization and serious conflict here has me checking every week for a new volume.

As for F&SF, I’m in the middle of The Weird, a big fat anthology of weird horror short stories edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The stories are organized chronologically and start in the 19th century, including lots of works by non-Anglophone authors. I love it because you get to know the style of each decade by reading lots of now-obscure authors, and then when you get to the famous ones like Kafka or Lovecraft you can suddenly see which aspects we associate with them were really signatures of that era, and which were unique to them. I’m also lucky enough to get books in advance from Tor sometimes, so I’m getting to start Malka Older’s Infomocracy (out in June) which is a very savvy near future political action novel about elections in a post-nation political system, very fun to compare to my own post-geographic-nation system in Too Like the Lightning, though mine is set a few centuries further in Earth’s future. I’m also getting to sneak an advanced look at Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide (out in April 2017), a novel I’ve been looking forward to all year, a sequel to her amazing short story “The Litany of Earth” which uses Lovecraft’s amazing horror world but turns his xenophobia on its head by reversing the perspective.

Those nine between them mean there’s always something I’m in the mood for, unless what I want is comfort reading. For that I’m also re-listening to Derek Jacobi’s audiobooks of the unabridged Sherlock Holmes and Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Iliad, and rereading Tristram Shandy and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. I’m always re-listening and rereading those four, and as soon as I get to the end I wrap around to the beginning, since they’re so meaty one can chew on them forever. Which is just right for me.
Visit Ada Palmer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Too Like the Lightning.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Erica Westly

Erica Westly is a journalist and author currently based in Tucson, Arizona. She has a MS in neuroscience and a MA in journalism, and has written articles for Popular Science, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications.

Westly's new book is Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I like to read a mix of fiction and nonfiction. I'm currently toggling between C by Tom McCarthy and Jan Cleere's Never Don't Pay Attention: The Life of Rodeo Photographer Louise L. Serpa, two very different books, although both are history-focused. I tend to be drawn to stories set in the past, particularly the first half of the twentieth century. In C, I get to experience World War I-era Europe through the eyes of a troubled but highly intelligent fictional character. The narrative is full of surprises, and the writing is beautiful. With Never Don't Pay Attention, personal letters and photographs bring the protagonist to life. Serpa, the first female photographer to be allowed into professional rodeo arenas, is a fascinating character, who, in the 1950s, left her New York society life behind and moved West to embrace the cowboy lifestyle. Reading about Serpa has also been enlightening for me because, before buying this book, I had almost no knowledge of rodeo photography or how dangerous it is.
Visit Erica Westly's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A.J. Hartley

A.J. Hartley is the bestselling author of mystery/thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, and young adult novels.

He was born in northern England, but has lived in many places including Japan, and is currently the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he specializes in the performance history, theory and criticism of Renaissance English drama, and works as a director and dramaturg.

Hartley's new novel is Steeplejack.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m currently reading the first book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven cycle, a book that was recommended to me by several friends and which instantly captivated me. It’s a contemporary paranormal YA centering on Blue Sargent whose family are all clairvoyant. Blue’s (somewhat disappointing) talent is that she amplifies the talents of her relatives while not actually being clairvoyant herself. During a seasonal festival in which those about to die manifest spectrally in the local graveyard, Blue is surprised and alarmed to find that not only can she can see and hear one of them—a boy close to her own age—she leaves certain that she is somehow to be responsible for the boy’s death.

It’s a compelling premise for an intriguing and atmospheric novel, but it’s the sentence level writing that really appeals to me. I like my fiction to contain a thread of poetry and Stiefvater’s prose is rich and evocative, without being precious or purple, often presenting unexpected observations and images that make you see or feel the moment more vividly. She has a light touch, so you don’t feel that the author is being intrusive or show offy. Story and character are aided by the writing, not upstaged by it. That’s not easy to pull off and it makes for a sensitively told and evocative story.

I’m a fan of audiobooks, partly because they allow me to “read” while doing other things, but also because I can share the experience with my family. In the hands of a good narrator, a book gets a nicely performative tweak, bringing out things the author has woven into the story, so that I find myself sometimes even more caught up in the book than I would be if I was merely reading it. I don’t tend to reread novels much, but the audio medium lends itself to repeat listening. I’m particularly a fan of Terry Pratchett’s extensive range of Discworld novels as read by Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, and I’ll often return to them while I’m doing busy work. I just finished listening to Lords and Ladies, one of the great series centering on Nannie Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and the other unconventional witches of their community. The books are wise and funny, a glorious hybrid of fantasy and social satire, and they are a study in how good writing can bend genre. Among my favorites are the Sam Vimes novels (particularly Night Watch, The Fifth Elephant, Thud and Snuff) which add mystery/thriller to the comic fantasy mix, and I find that as I return to them (as when I teach a Shakespeare play I have been reading for decades) I discover new themes, ideas, running jokes. Pratchett died last year and I still find myself suddenly struck with sadness that he will produce no more of these terrific novels.

And speaking of Shakespeare, I’m rereading Hamlet, not the usual text (based on the second quarto and Folio of 1623) but the first quarto of 1603, which is quite a different beast: short, action driven, messy and vibrant. I was involved in a production of the play last fall and am currently writing an article on the experience, trying to tap into what makes an apparently inferior text so compelling on stage. I think part of what makes it so exciting is that it is and is not the play people think they know; it contains, for instance, none of the play’s most resonant lines in the ways we are used to them, and even the most famous bit comes out unexpectedly: ‘To be or not to be? Aye that’s the point.’ The result is that the audience is always on its toes as the familiar becomes unfamiliar, pulling us in, making new and urgent what would otherwise be stale and predictable.

Lastly, I’m reading The Rough Guide to Japan, because I’m writing this as I ride the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, and because though I lived here a long time ago, I’m now a tourist, trying to make sense of what I see around me.
Visit A. J. Hartley's website.

The Page 69 Test: Steeplejack.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 20, 2016

Steven Rowley

Steven Rowley has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and screenwriter. Originally from Portland, Maine, he is a graduate of Emerson College. He currently resides in Los Angeles.

Rowley's first novel Lily and the Octopus.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I'm always reading three things at once. Am I alone in that? I think not. I have a book in every room. The worst thing that can happen to me is that I sit down and there's not a book within reach. The Worst Thing. (Hyperbole.)

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. I am the oldest of four, just as Leo Plumb is the oldest of four. Hopefully I don't cause the rest of my siblings quite as much distress. Families are rich (in emotion and shared history -- I make this distinction because the titular nest is the family trust) and complicated and impossible to understand from the outside. But there is no relationship like the sibling relationship and god help anyone who tries to come between brothers and sisters. Sweeney has created four fully-realized main characters -- each who could carry their own novel. Together, however, they join forces to create a real page-turner.

Grace by Natashia Deón. Full disclosure: I met Natashia at a Southern California writer's conference and got to hear her read her book's opening chapter. I was spellbound, in awe of the voice that poured from the very first sentences. She is an author that demands your attention and holds it with two breathtakingly entwined tales, those of fifteen year-old runaway slave Naomi and her half-white daughter Josey. There's little point in being jealous of another writer's ability, we all do different things. I'm just grateful for Natashia and thankful this book and I crossed paths.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon. Everyone Brave is a love story that begins in London in 1939 at the declaration of war. Inspired by the love story of Cleave's own grandparents, this book is rich in detail, heartbreak and crackling English wit. It's a beautiful window into another time. I'll wait and make sure he sticks the landing, but I'm pretty confident I can say this is Cleave's best book to date!
Visit Steven Rowley's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Steven Rowley & Tilda Swinton.

My Book, The Movie: Lily and the Octopus.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Jamie Brenner

Jamie Brenner is the author of The Wedding Sisters. She fell in love with books reading Judy Blume while growing up in suburban Philadelphia. After college at The George Washington University, she spent over a dozen years in book publishing as a publicist, scout, and agent before finally getting up the nerve to write her first novel. Her debut, the historical The Gin Lovers, was named by Fresh Fiction as one of the Top Thirteen Books to read in 2013. She lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

Recently I asked Brenner about what she was reading. Her reply:
I used to have a difficult time reading novels while I was writing a novel, but I missed reading so much I forced myself to get over it. Now I especially seek out books that are very strong in the area I have to work the hardest: description. Recently, I had the good fortune to read two books back-to-back (with titles that are the same just inverted -- strange, right?) that just astounded me in this department. The first was Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. She describes a woman’s cottage so vividly I think of it now as a place I’ve actually been. “I found the cottage’s only bathroom, painted a glossy magenta, and learned quickly it was a primitive affair, with a cracked, too-high mirror and two sinks -- the working one of which was turned on by a permanently affixed set of pliers -- and a decoupaged toilet that swayed dismayingly whenever weight was set upon it.” She describes another house as, “damp and alive, its floorboards curling in places, dirty paint peeling off as though the color were the skin a snake was shedding.”

The second novel is Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It’s set in the restaurant world, with lines like “The air vibrated like the plucked string of a violin” and “the skins on the nuts felt like gossamer wrappings.” She describes a slice of tomato, “The insides were tie-dyed pink and red.”

It’s books like these that keep me reading even when I’m writing.
Visit Jamie Brenner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 17, 2016

Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham has twice won the Theakston's Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel and also won the Sherlock Award for the best detective created by a British writer. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages and were made into a hit TV series starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne.

Billingham's new stand-alone novel is Die of Shame.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m about to head off on a US book tour, so I’m catching up with the latest from some of the people I’m going to be in conversation with at the various events. This is an unalloyed pleasure as, aside from being friends, they all happen to be fantastic writers. What, you think I’m going to be friends with writers who aren’t fabulous? So, I’ve hugely enjoyed Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake and while I would never use a phrase like “transcends the genre” because it’s one that both Laura and I dislike, this is so much more than a crime novel. It felt like a very personal novel on many levels and I love the fact that unlike many of her contemporaries, Laura eschews simple A-Z storytelling and is not afraid to weave a narrative that moves back and forth between past and present around a very flawed central character. I’m sure this is something we’ll talk about in Baltimore in a couple of weeks.

I’ve always got a music book on the go, and right now I’m engrossed in Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth. Hepworth is one of our most respected music journalists, who presented the UK leg of Live Aid as well as a seminal music show of the seventies and eighties, The Old Grey Whistle Test. In his book, he argues that 1971 was, quite simply, the greatest year in the history of rock music. It’s hard to argue considering that this was the year that saw the likes of David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Elton John achieve stardom and albums such as Blue, Tapestry, Hunky Dory and What’s Going On released. It’s wonderful stuff and not just for music nerds like me. I don’t want it to finish…
Learn more about the book and author at Mark Billingham's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Bones Beneath.

The Page 69 Test: Die of Shame.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Peter Newman

Peter Newman lives in Somerset with his wife and son. Growing up in and around London, Newman studied Drama and Education at the Central School of Speech and Drama, going on to work as a secondary school drama teacher. He now works as a trainer and Firewalking Instructor. He sometimes pretends to be a butler for the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, which he co-writes, and which has been shortlisted for a Hugo Award.

Newman's new novel is The Vagrant.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Liveship Traders #1 -- Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb)

I’ve been an unashamed fanboy of Robin Hobb’s ever since I read her Farseer Trilogy last year. To me, her books are like really expensive chocolates, in that they deserve to be savoured.

For those of you who don’t know, Ship of Magic is a fantasy novel. As you might expect from the title, there are living, talking ships. There are also pirates, monsters, magic and all the kind of things you’d expect. What sets this apart are the characters (and yes, I’m including the ships here). Each is wonderfully observed, flawed and understandable. Even the unlikeable characters make utter sense. Robin Hobb makes me care about them all, deeply, which can be tricky as her characters don’t have very easy lives.

But, much as I loved it, I’ve been reading other things before jumping into book two, such as…

Copper Cat Trilogy #3 -- The Silver Tide (Jen Williams)

More fantasy! This is the third and final book in the Copper Cat trilogy by Jen Williams. Again we have dragons and gods and monsters and pirates but in a much more traditional adventure, where a group of rogues get together in search of booty but end up having to save the world, and each other.

As with Hobb, it’s the characters that draw me through these books. They’re archetypical but not stereotypical, and the warmth they have for each other and their personal growth (stubbornly slow in some cases!) is lovely to behold. They’re big books but feel like fast reads. A neat trick.

Escapology (Ren Warom)

Ren Warom’s debut novel is set in a very bleak future, where humanity has flooded most of the world and now crams itself onto what remains of the land. Like Waterworld but with skyscrapers, street culture, a super advanced internet, swearing, and a lot more neon. The prose is hard, stark and often beautiful. I haven’t read anything like it in a long time. Worth a look.

Matilda (Roald Dahl)

I also read with my son. At the moment we’re enjoying the final pages of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. This is a treat for me, as it’s one of the few of Dahl’s books I’ve never read before. It’s the story of an incredibly bright and gifted girl who has the misfortune to be born into a nasty and corrupt family, and who goes to a school where the biggest bully is the headmistress.

I love the creativity and fun that permeates, but there is real depth here too, and it has led to some great discussions with my son about the nature of parenthood, bullying, and what he would do if faced with Matilda’s problems.
Visit Peter Newman's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Vagrant.

The Page 69 Test: The Vagrant.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Victoria Houston

Victoria Houston is the author of the Loon Lake Mysteries, which are set in the Northwoods of Wisconsin against a background of fishing – fly fishing as well as fishing for muskie, bass, bluegill and walleyes. The latest book in the series is Dead Loudmouth.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Houston's reply:
I was reading “By the Book” in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section this winter when a British author mentioned one of his favorites was Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Years ago I read Scoop and loved it — so I ordered this one and settled in. Talk about terrific. I is not a long book but it took me a while to read it because it’s one of those rare novels you sink into. The characters are really well done. No cliches but people you recognize and either like or dislike with enthusiasm. The writing is realistic, straightforward and fresh. The ending stays with you…permanently. I’d rank it one of my top ten. (FYI among my top ten is Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which gives you an idea of my taste.)

I’m currently deep into Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I don’t surf and I dislike the ocean but this book is drawing me in with its charm and honesty. Actually, I have windsurfed for years on lakes and having grown up in “lake country” I have to say water is in my bones — its beauty and its terrors. But this book is about more than just surfing.
Learn more about the book and author at Victoria Houston's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Insider.

My Book, The Movie: Dead Insider.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

John Farrow

John Farrow is the pen name of Trevor Ferguson, who has written numerous novels and plays, all to extraordinary acclaim. His Émile Cinq-Mars crime series has been published around the world and cited by Booklist as "one the best series in crime fiction today", while Die Zeit in Germany suggested that it might be the best series ever.

Farrow's newest novel in the Émile Cinq-Mars series is Seven Days Dead.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh, a first novel by a fellow Canadian, is set in 1908 during the French rule of Saigon. A reader senses the impending tragedy that is yet to come to Vietnam within the dynamics of a group of blundering revolutionaries, and the times are granted a clarity of language that is as captivating as it is illuminating. No, it’s not a crime novel, not exactly, although murder is afoot and the main characters will find themselves on the run. The story is intriguing, the setting seductive, and the complexity of the characters is portrayed with grit, wisdom and humour. Loved it.

As well, it’s been more than fifty years since I’ve read James M. Cain. I came across an Everyman’s Library collection of his novels a week or two ago, and found my memory of his work deficient. I wasn’t into crime fiction at the time, although Cain’s work transcends the form. As well, I’m a different reader now than I was fifty years ago, so I was curious to discover how I’d react. I’ve started with The Postman Always Rings Twice, and while this and that comes back to me as I go, it’s mostly a revelation. (Thanks, faulty memory. You do have a purpose.) So far, at least, I’m probably enjoying this second reading more than the first. Then again, I don’t really remember the first time. Oddly, I’m finding that I’m critical where I might not have been way back when, but also that I appreciate many of his moves even more.
Visit Trevor Ferguson's Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Seven Days Dead.

My Book, The Movie: Seven Days Dead.

--Marshal Zeringue