Friday, September 30, 2011

Nora McFarland

Nora McFarland is the author of the Lilly Hawkins Mysteries from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. The latest book in the series, Hot, Shot, and Bothered, was released last month.

A few weeks ago I asked the author what she was reading. Her reply:
On a recent flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles I had the pleasure of reading The Crime Writer by Gregg Hurwitz. It’s the best book I’ve come across in a long time. Aside from the excellent pacing and characters, it evoked everything I love about The City of Angels. The atmosphere of tarnished glamour and unexpected violence is skillfully rendered. This is Los Angeles as Ross MacDonald or Raymond Chandler might portray it, were they writing today.

The main character is a thriller-writer who’s been convicted of murdering his former fiancée. With no memory of the crime, and released after earning a verdict of temporary insanity, he begins untangling the threads of what really happened that night. He attacks the mystery the only way he knows how, as a writer working out a story.

One of my favorite things about this book is that, despite protestations of innocence, the main character’s investigation is driven by a fear that he might have actually committed the murder. When another woman is killed, the reader is sure of the protagonist’s innocence in that crime, but Hurwitz cleverly dangles the possibility of a copycat or even someone framing the main character out of revenge for the first murder, thus leaving open the possibility of his guilt in the original crime. I was unsure right up until the very end. Part of why The Crime Writer is a rare pleasure.
Visit Nora McFarland's website and join her on Facebook.

My Book, The Movie: Nora McFarland's A Bad Day's Work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Henri Cole

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956 and raised in Virginia. He has published eight collections of poetry, including Middle Earth (FSG, 2004) which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He has received many awards for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lenore Marshall Award.

His most recent collection is Touch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). He teaches at Ohio State University, is poetry editor of The New Republic, and lives in Boston.

Earlier this month I asked Cole what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been reading a jumble of things:

My Queer War by James Lord—I miss James Lord, the biographer and memoirist, who died in 2009. His sane, incisive remembrances of others are always shrewd self-portraits. This book traces his career in the armed forces, beginning in 1942, from Nevada and California to France and Germany, a journey which brings him to terms with his sexuality while making acquaintances with the likes of Picasso and Stein.

Dickinson: selected poems and commentaries by Helen Vendler—This book brought me closer to Emily Dickinson, like a lantern in the night. Its 150 short trenchant essays present a revisionist portrait of Dickinson who uses landscape (and its creatures) to mediate emotion in her epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, and funny poems. I agree with Seamus Heaney, who calls Vendler the “best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages.”

Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates—This hopeful collection of sixteen stories has subterranean themes of loss, grief, and trying to move on. It takes its name from the Sourland Mountain Preserve where the protagonist finds herself at the conclusion. Oates writes about people—some loving and domestic, others not at all—who make mistakes, gropingly and intuitively. I believe her world.

American Rendering by Andrew Hudgins—These dark, funny poems are chosen from seven previously published books. A literary descendent of James Dickey, Hudgins has a formal, descriptive, Southern Gothic imagination.

Next up in the pile of books beside my bed are new poetry collections by Rosanna Warren (Ghost in a Red Hat), Yusef Komunyakaa, (The Chamelion Couch), Dana Levin (Sky Burial), and Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems.

Also, I loved loved Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker (The Complete Correspondence)—A favorite poet is revealed worrying about all the things you and I experience: where is she going to live? where is she going to work? what about her retirement and her health insurance? who is going to love her? And on and on. It’s heartbreaking but shows us that no one is immune to these human concerns.
Visit Henri Cole's website.

Writers Read: Henri Cole (December 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dave Zeltserman

Dave Zeltserman was born in Boston and educated at the University of Colorado. A former software engineer, he is the author of nine horror and crime novels including Outsourced and Pariah.

His new novel is A Killer's Essence.

Zeltserman's reply to my recent query about what he has been reading:
I just finished Richard Stark's The Seventh. This is a classic crime novel where a heist gets pulled off successfully and then everything that can go wrong afterwards goes wrong. The title "The Seventh" comes from the book being Stark's (Donald Westlake's) seventh Parker novel, and that each of the seven members of the crew for the heist are going to split one seventh of the take, but the title also serves as a punchline at the end. Stark/Westlake wrote many great crime novels in the Parker series, but since there were so many of these books (26 of them) we tend to group them all together as a great series as opposed to singling out some of the books as great crime novels, which is a shame.
Visit Dave Zeltserman's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Small Crimes.

The Page 69 Test: Pariah.

The Page 69 Test: Outsourced.

Writers Read: Dave Zeltserman (February 2011).

My Book, The Movie: Outsourced.

The Page 69 Test: A Killer's Essence.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Valerie Frankel

Valerie Frankel is the author of Thin Is the New Happy and such chick lit favorites as The Accidental Virgin, The Girlfriend Curse and Hex and the Single Girl. The former articles editor at Mademoiselle, Frankel has contributed to the New York Times, O, Glamour, Allure, Self, Good Housekeeping, among many other publications.

Her new memoir is It's Hard Not to Hate You.

Recently I asked Frankel what she was reading. Her reply:
Just finished The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Not to minimize the wonderful use of language (including a few words I had to look up), the story is, basically, Harry Potter goes to college, gets drunk, gets laid and meets a gay person. The MC is Quentin Coldwater, a geeky smart boy in perpetual longing for something he can't quite name. Hogwarts is reimagined as Brakebills, a super selective college in upstate New York with classes on practical magic and theory. During his undergrad years, Quentin undergoes the personal discovery process and learns as much about himself as he does in the classroom. He drinks and sleeps around as a post-grad in NYC, and deepens his understanding about life, magic and how they intersect, in much the same way most of us did in our twenties whether we're magicians or not. With Quentin and his crew, the reader takes Narnian flight to other worlds, not always in human form. Evil is vanquished, friends won and lost. It's a thoroughly satisfying adventure, with rare insight and special nostalgia for the magic of youthful friendship.
Visit Valerie Frankel's website and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: It's Hard Not to Hate You.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jason Webster

Jason Webster was born in California and was brought up in England and Germany. After spells in Italy and Egypt, he moved to Spain in 1993, where he was inspired to write a number of highly acclaimed nonfiction titles. He lives near Valencia with his wife, the flamenco dancer, Salud, and their son.

His new novel is Or the Bull Kills You.

A few weeks ago I asked Webster what he was reading. His reply.
I’m attending the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland at the end of September and have been asked to talk briefly about a ‘lost classic’. So I’ve been flicking through a wonderful book that has been sitting on my shelves for some years now - What’s What! Published in 1902, it was meant to be something of an accompaniment to Who’s Who? But where the latter gave the names of the great and the good of the land, What’s What! was more an encyclopaedia, or an attempt to define what an Edwardian gentleman was supposed to know, and even think. ‘A guide for to-day for life as it is and things as they are.’

There are entries on everything from ‘Cataracts: Treatment of’ to ‘Comparison of English, German, French and Italian as singing languages’, ‘Devil-Worship in France’, ‘Hats, Prices of,’ and ‘The American Civil Service: its “sweet reasonableness”.’

Perhaps you’re suffering from consumption? Well, the authors have a list of all the best spas in Europe to go to for a cure, including train ticket prices and cost of accommodation. (Getting to Davos from London, for example, would cost you £6 12s. 4d. changing at Basle and Zurich, while a room would set you back anything from 13 to 19 Franks a day. ‘Drinks and drugs extra’.)

You’re wondering about women’s rights, and whether women should be allowed to work? There’s an article giving the standard viewpoint of the day on the topic, as well as whether it was healthy for ‘the fairer sex’ to ride bicycles.

And just what is this new thing called ‘electricity’? (An ‘invisible agent, of whose precise nature little is known…’)

History books and novels can give us a sense of the past, but I doubt I have ever quite had the same sense of travelling back in time as I do when reading these entries. Give me a town house in Mayfair, a top hat and a droopy moustache, and the picture would be complete.

Sadly, What’s What! was meant to be the first of many, supposedly annual, editions. And there is an appeal in the introduction from Harry Quilter, the prime mover of the project, for readers to send in information for updating and completing the work (amazingly, the 1,182 pages were written in about a year). But no further editions were published. As it is, it remains an indispensable resource for anyone contemplating writing a novel set in turn-of-the-century London.

I live in the city of Valencia, on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast. Like most of the country, it has a curious relationship with its complex history, not least the Moorish period, when this part of the world was ruled by Muslims.

Most people will tell you that Moorish Spain came to an end in 1492, with the fall of Granada. And that’s true up to a point. What many forget is that very large numbers of Moors continued living in Spain for another hundred years, until they were finally expelled in 1609. And Valencia had one of the largest concentrations of these ‘Moriscos’ - or little Moors, as they were then referred to.

I’m fascinated by the Moriscos, not least because they are a largely forgotten people. Muslims in North Africa tended to look down on them as tainted by living under Christian rule, while Christians were suspicious of them, fearing that they might ally themselves with the ‘Islamic threat’ from abroad and cause problems.

The parallels with our own times - the fears, mistrust and paranoias - are all too obvious. And so I was delighted when a friend gave me a book the other day on the subject, Entre tierra y fe (Between Land and Faith). A series of articles by experts detail everything from the way the Moriscos worked the land, to their traditional medicines, use of paper, artwork, and how they built their houses.

The book goes a long way to explaining how much of the world I see around me - and by extension the world beyond - came into being thanks to the centuries of Moorish presence here. Everything from the food I eat (oranges, artichokes, spinach, saffron, rice), to the clothes I wear (cotton cloth - light colours in summer and dark ones in winter), the games I play (chess) and even the way I think, can be traced back to Moorish Spain.

Finally, I picked up a copy of Robert Harris’s thriller Archangel yesterday and can hardly put it down. He is a master of drawing you in, bringing to life a world and a time you know a little about (this time Soviet Russia) and then telling you some of the darkest secrets that it holds.

Hooking the reader in, entertaining, informing and creating a whole and believable world to step inside - these are some of the most important skills for a writer, and Harris is a very clever technician.
Visit Jason Webster's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Or the Bull Kills You.

The Page 69 Test: Or the Bull Kills You.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 25, 2011

William Giraldi

William Giraldi teaches at Boston University and is Senior Fiction Editor for AGNI. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Georgia Review, Bookforum, Southern Review, The Believer, Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, Yale Review, The American Scholar, Antioch Review, TriQuarterly, and Salmagundi. His essay on amateur bodybuilding, “Freaky Beasts,” received a Pushcart Prize and was listed among Most Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2010. His essay “The Physics of Speed” was a finalist for a 2011 National Magazine Award.

His new novel is Busy Monsters.

Earlier this month I asked Giraldi what he was reading. His reply:
Alistair MacLeod's story collection Island is a solemn masterpiece. The solemnity is located primarily in the prose; though simple, declarative, and concrete – MacLeod has clearly been influenced by the early Hemingway – there is a fable-like eeriness to his style as he tells the stories of spiritually deprived people living an austere life in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. MacLeod’s is an austerity worthy of Jack London, and yet London cannot match the haunting beauty of MacLeod’s narratives and the prose that sustains them. Without purple poetics or elusive abstractions, the prose often builds to a lulling, hypnotic effect, and once it has pulled you into MacLeod’s world, it feels oddly like some grand, expensive narcotic. These are stories about fishermen, about great-great-grandfathers, about families with twelve children. In “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” a young man with an unnamed terminal illness takes a dangerous car ride to visit his dying grandmother; the news of his fate causes her to die that night, as if she refused to live another day with the knowledge that her grandson will not have a full existence. “The Closing Down of Summer” has a miner explaining his life but with no specific story to tell; he is soon off to a mine in Africa and fears imminent death; this is, perhaps, his final testament. “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” is really a ghost story whose spirit owes something not to London’s White Fang, but to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. It manages to be mythic and surreal and yet still strikingly appropriate to MacLeod’s time and place. Much of this collection feels ghostly, which is bizarre for stories so firmly rooted in reality, in the everyday struggle to survive. The dead are never far from the living; the landscape is forever white; the moaning wind grates the nerves; the icy waves explode ashore. As befits the climate, interaction between people is rare; dialogue is scarce. Long stretches of narration are interior, nearly Jamesian in their reflection. An outward, dramatic tension is often sacrificed to this interiority; the process of thinking, of reflecting and remembering, becomes the narrative drive. In another nod to Hemingway – specifically the Nick Adams stories – the facts of blood and bone, of rock and water, supplant the facts of narrative, and so it is not uncommon to be given only the subtlest hints as to a character’s situation. These are stories that crawl into you and live forever.
Visit the Busy Monsters website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 23, 2011

Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan by way of Ohio, Arizona, England, Finland, and the Czech Republic. She is the author of the story collection, This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellowship, and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished the short story collection For Sale By Owner by Kelcey Parker. The jacket copy describes these as “tales of twisted domesticity,” and I’d heard Kelcey read one of her stories out loud before I started her book, about a woman who gives up her family for Lent, sleeping at a local motel and eating fish sandwiches at the Hooters down the street. But somehow I still wasn’t fully prepared for how delightfully “twisted” these stories are: the characters have largely achieved the things they thought they wanted, the things they were supposed to want—husband, children, suburban McMansions. But they find themselves dissatisfied: “How had she ended up in this unfamiliar, even unreal, life? She hadn’t, like her daughter, wished to be a mermaid. She had not wished for the impossible.” This is a familiar refrain, in both life and fiction, but Parker strives mightily, and successfully, to make these stories giddily unfamiliar.

In “Domestic Air Quality,” a woman confesses her anxieties to the pages of a market research survey about the air in her home. Another woman lets a company build a road through her head. But the playfulness is always more than gamesmanship—in “The Complete Babysitter’s Handbook,” a series of titled sections (“Attempted Murder, Part I,” “Rob is Greeted With Hugs”) gradually paint a family portrait that is much more complicated than the reader initially guesses.

One of my favorite stories in the book, “I Heard a Fly Buzz,” is just a single page long. In it, a newlywed claims that she bumbled her vows because a fly flew into her mouth at the crucial moment. Her insistence is funny until she confesses that the fly is still there, inside her, “feeding, daily, upon my heart.” The women in Parker’s book make you sit up and notice their humor and originality, and then settle on in, striking at the reader’s heart with all their complex yearning.
Visit Caitlin Horrocks's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky is the author of Low Town.

According to Publishers Weekly, "Polansky hits all the right notes in his intelligent first novel, a blend of dystopian fantasy and hard-boiled crime....Sharp, noir-tinged dialogue and astute insights into class struggle mark Polansky as a writer with a future."

Polansky's reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
I just finished reading The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville, which was the first part of what was meant to be a meditation on the French Revolution comparable to his epic work Democracy in America, but which death stopped him from completing. I'm really fascinated by the French Revolution, and obviously Tocqueville is one of the great historical thinkers of all time so this was really a pleasure to wade into.

On a somewhat lighter end I also just put away Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré, which was awful fun although probably about 150 pages longer than it needed to be. I also think it's funny that, between Le Carré and Ian Fleming we've been given this impression of the British intelligence agencies as being hyper competent, when mostly all they did during the Cold War was leak information to the Soviets. Thanks Kim Philby!
Visit Daniel Polansky's website.

My Book, The Movie: Low Town.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dani Kollin

Dani Kollin is an advertising copywriter currently living in Los Angeles, California. He has also worked as a creative director and copywriter in the print, broadcast and new media fields. In addition to being happily married and the proud father of three children, Kollin is also an avid endurance cyclist and surfer. He and his brother Eytan are co-authors of The Unincorporated Man, The Unincorporated War, and The Unincorporated Woman.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Sex and Violence in Zero-G, Allen M. Steele

I just finished reading Allen M. Steele’s, Sex and Violence in Zero-G, a compilation of short stories about what the Hugo award winning author refers to as "Near Space." Because the stories all take place within relative spitting distance of Earth, they feel that much more real. In fact, one story, "Walking on the Moon" comes close to ranking up there with one of my favorite short stories of all time, Ray Bradbury's "The Wilderness." Both illustrate an aspect of the future that’s far more psychological than technical. And ultimately a good story needs to be visceral in order to succeed. Steele, like Bradbury before him, succeeds mightily with this collection.

The Citizen's Constitution: An Annotated Guide, Seth Lipsky

The Constitution is so often wielded around by politicians to shame the opposition into submission it might as well be rolled up and used as a spanking tool. I was bothered by my ignorance on the matter and determined to learn a little more about this pivotal document. Seth Lipsky’s book is essentially a Constitution for dummies. He takes every section of the U.S. Constitution and, in Talmudic fashion, patiently explains the history and context behind each. It’s a straightforward, unbiased and surprisingly delightful romp into our nation’s history.

Multiplex Fandango, Westin Ochse

There’s a good reason I'm a hard science fiction writer. I feel like the stuff Eytan and I write about is real enough that it actually can happen and that, for me at least, makes for a good read and even better visceral experience. Bram Stoker award-winning author Weston Oches’ Multiplex Fandango, a collection of his best short stories forced me to reconsider. This collection is kind of like having a drink that someone's slipped a ruffie into. One minute you're ambling along to the nice prose and lovely setting, the next you're being mind-#$#!ed. Even worse - you like it. Well, I was so enthralled by this collection that I convinced Weston to share some of his short stories with anyone out there willing to step off their "I only read" perch. Of the three he's allowed me to send, my absolute favorite is "Hiroshima Falling." If you only read one - read that.
Visit Dani Kollin's blog and The Unincorporated Man website.

Writer's Read: Dani Kollin (May 2010).

My Book, The Movie: The Unincorporated Woman.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kelli Stanley

The first book in Kelli Stanley's Miranda Corbie series, City of Dragons, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It was also named one of the 2010 Top Ten Mystery Thrillers by Oline Cogdill and one of the Top Ten Best Fiction by Bay Area Authors by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Her new novel City of Secrets.

A few weeks ago I asked Stanley what she was reading. Her reply:
I have a confession to make, and it’s a sad one.

I rarely get a chance to read for pleasure any more. Especially this year. Two book launches in one year is tough. Actually, one is tough and two are the equivalent of Lou Gossett, Jr.

On top of that—which is all good, more book launches mean more books published, which is, after all, the goal—on top of that, I’ve dealt with some personal stuff (like a home burglary). All in all, my life is compacted so tightly that I feel like one of those “socks in a pill” things that you dump in water during a sock emergency, only to find yourself the lucky owner of a pair of wearable (but wet) socks.

All this by way of saying that when I do read—which I do daily—it tends to be stuff I have to read. Mostly non-fiction research material for the book I’m working on (the third book in the Miranda Corbie series) or a novel another writer has asked me to blurb.

Today I’m reading a book called Secret Armies, by John L. Spivak.

This is a non-fiction expose, 1939-style. Written by leftist reporter Spivak, the book discloses fifth column activity at work in the U.S. and the dangerous affection between certain business elements (Henry Ford and others) and the Fascist powers.

Remarkably prescient, Spivak’s rat-tat-tat prose convincingly elucidates reasons why average, isolated Americans could no longer afford to be isolated ... and all this before World War II actually started.

I’d read another book of Spivak’s—The Shrine of the Silver Dollar—when I was researching City of Secrets, the second and newest novel in the Miranda Corbie series. He’s an eloquent writer and a convincing chronicler of dangerous times and an unsettled era, when the disposition of America was in flux and the outcome of a coming world war far from certain. It’s the world Miranda lives in. Books like Secret Armies help me make it come to life.
Visit Kelli Stanley's website and blog.

My Book, the Movie: City of Secrets.

The Page 69 Test: City of Secrets.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 17, 2011

E. Paul Zehr

E. Paul Zehr is a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and the newly released Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished reading Into That Darkness by Steven Price. It’s a novel in the post-apocalyptic or at post-cataclysmic genre and outlines responses to the devastation and conditions on the West Coast of Canada and the USA after a major quake. After “the big one” strikes, survivors in Victoria BC on Vancouver Island cull through the wreckage looking for loved ones and reflecting on their lives all the while remaining isolated from the mainland for many days. Price is an excellent descriptive writer and carefully reveals the best and worst of human animal behavior after the crisis. I was curious to read this book as it is the first of this genre set in a city I am living in and the author is also a colleague at UVIC. I found it kind of freaky to read about the destruction of places that I drive by on a daily basis. Overall a very powerful read.

I just finished the fabulous graphic novel Jinx by Brian Michael Bendis. It is a fantastic crime novella with a fascinating blend of illustration styles—from sketches, to photos, to dramatically inked panels—all linked together by the stream of consciousness writing style of Bendis. Amongst other things, he currently writes the monthly Marvel Avengers titles and it was backtracking from his great work there that I came across Jinx.

I also just put down The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by friendly neighborhood physics professor James Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes). That was a really fun and well delivered trip through (in? around? of?) the history of one of the most puzzling aspects of modern physics—the quantum world. Jim has an accessible and engaging writing style and weaves in many popular culture references to help provide context for what can often be a very confusing topic.

I am currently reading Clearing Away the Clouds: Nine lessons for life from the martial arts by Stephen Fabian. Fabian takes his distills his several decades of martial arts practice into some common concepts that have direct application to daily life. I very much appreciate his linking of historical and philosophical characters like Miyamoto Musashi and his Book of Five Rings to his narrative. I find these sorts of books to be very intriguing as I am quite interested in how the experiences of others in martial arts relate to my own (or not).

Lastly, I just cracked open The Affinity Bridge by George Mann. I am really getting into “Steampunk” as a genre and this book just looked interesting. Also, I recently opened up a collection of short horror stories edited by Peter Straub and entitled Poe’s Children. Too early to report critically on either, but fun so far!
Visit the official Inventing Iron Man website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Christine Cody

Christine Cody is the author of the new postapocalyptic supernatural Western Bloodlands series. The first book, Bloodlands, launched July 26, followed by Blood Rules on August 30 and In Blood We Trust September 27.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer I was on a mission: to catch up with the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin.

I had watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO, and I was so transfixed by the “what-comes-next” that I absolutely had to read ahead. The trick was, I had to experience all five books before I became utterly spoiled by the Internet. Unfortunately, there are people out there who delight in posting spoilers even under the most innocuous-seeming message boards, but I was going to arm myself against them, daggonit.

I read the books all in a row—A Game of Thrones through A Dance with Dragons, and the beauty of my experience was that I didn’t have to wait years and years for the next release. (I now join the ranks of the fans who have had to endure the sharp pins and needles of anticipation while wondering how long it’ll take Martin to publish the next book. Already, a month after his latest novel was released, I’m jonesing for more. This won’t be fun.) Truthfully, I haven’t been so involved in a cast of characters for a long time. Martin’s use of point of view is masterful, although I have to say I’m not a fan of most of the Greyjoys…except for one.

And that brings me to my favorite part of these books: Martin can write a redemption arc like no other. There’s a certain character in particular who I would’ve loved to have seen put to a justified death before A Dance with Dragons came along. Now, after the hell he’s been put through, I actually want to see him be a little happy before… Well, before he’s put to that justified death. If you’ve read the books, you know exactly who I mean. But the thing is, this once-reviled character has a story that is so moving that I can’t help but root for him a bit. My opinion about a character hasn’t been so completely turned around since I read Lolita, in which Nabakov was such a witch with his point of view skills that I found myself thinking that Humbert Humbert made some sense at times.

It’s fun to be put through the emotional wringer with a series. The “RW” sequence (I’m avoiding total spoilers here.) in A Storm of Swords still haunts me, and I’m sure the event will do that for a long time. I hate some things that happen in this series, but I have an awed respect for Martin because he had the juevos to subject his characters and readers to such brutal twists. These books reach the level of Greek tragedy, and the outcomes resonate.

The only bad part about reading this series is that I feel sorry for the next books I pick up. How can anything match my summertime experience?
Learn more about the book and author at the Bloodlands wesbite and on Twitter.

My Book, The Movie: Bloodlands.

The Page 69 Test: Bloodlands.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict is the author of six novels and five books of nonfiction. Her latest novel, Sand Queen, set in the Iraq War, was published in August 2011 by Soho Press. Culled from real life stories of female soldiers and Iraqis, Sand Queen offers a story of love, courage and struggle from the rare perspective of two young women on opposite sides of a war.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am currently reading The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. For years now, I’ve read nothing but war books as I worked on my Iraq War novel, Sand Queen, and my recent nonfiction about soldiers, The Lonely Soldier. I needed to get away from war, so I picked up Barrett’s novel. I’ve long been a fan of the scientific and historical detail knowledge she manages to weave into fiction, and this book does not disappoint. It is long and satisfying, the way Dickens can be, and also revealing of a certain period in our history (Darwin’s period) when great debates were going on about the shape of the earth and where humans came from. The writing is lyrical and moving, the story fascinating. Wonderful work.
Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work at her official website.

Writers Read: Helen Benedict (July 2009).

My Book, The Movie: Sand Queen.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne has worked in British television for twenty years. As a writer, director, and producer, he has worked on several award-winning shows, one of which won a BAFTA. He lives in England with his wife and family.

Sanctus, Toyne's recently released first book, is the first volume of the Ruin trilogy.

His reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
I’m about to set off on a book tour so I’m trying to read the books of the writers I’m about to meet on various panels.

As I write, my wife is packing for a trip to Switzerland where I’ll be on a panel with the UK crime novelist Mark Billingham and I’ve nearly finished Scaredy Cat’ his second book in the Inspector Thorne series. It reminds me a little of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon in structure – the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world – as it bounces back and forth between a serial killer and the cop trying to catch him. I’m slightly obsessed with second books in a series at the moment as I’ve just finished writing mine.

I’m also packing Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as she’ll be on the panel too. Everyone I know says it’s really funny and I could do with a bit of light relief after all the blood and guts of Billingham and my own books.
Visit Simon Toyne's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: Sanctus.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 12, 2011

Susan McBride

Susan McBride is the author of Little Black Dress and The Cougar Club, selected by Target Stores as a Bookmarked Breakout Title and named a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Booksellers Association. The Cougar Club also made More Magazine’s list of “February Books We’re Buzzing About.”

Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently devoured Barbara Delinsky’s latest novel, Escape, about Emily, a young lawyer in New York City, who realizes one day that her life’s become the proverbial rat race. She’s taking calls from people sickened by the client her firm is representing, and she’s sickened herself by having to put price tags on human suffering. Her husband’s devoted his days (and nights) to another Manhattan law firm, doing whatever it takes to make partner and putting the health of their relationship at risk. So one day, Emily picks up and leaves, driving away from the city and to a small town a few hours apart where she spent a memorable summer long ago. She doesn’t even tell James where she is, not for a few days, until she can shed the dust of the frantic life she left behind and just breathe again.

In the process of discovering what Emily really wants for herself—and her marriage to James—she confronts pieces of her past and begins to understand what it means to find peace; and what it feels like to sacrifice all you’ve known in order to achieve true fulfillment.

I’ve seen some very critical reviews of Escape, calling Emily’s actions “irresponsible” and “selfish.” But when I think of how technology and the fast-pace of our society have affected both the quality of relationships and the ability to form a sense of self (and sense of calm!), I honestly understand why Emily had to leave. It’s hard to say, “I can’t live this life any more, and I need to find something better.” Few people have the guts to do it. So I actually cheered Emily on as she dumped her unhappiness in order to discover her true passions. Escape was a lovely summer escape for me (since I didn’t get a real vacation!).
Visit Susan McBride's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 11, 2011

David Edgerton

David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London where he was the Founding Director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He is the author of the iconoclastic and brilliant The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford, 2007).

His new book is Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Javier Cercas, The Anatomy of a Moment (Bloomsbury 2011)
This astonishing account of what the Spanish call the ’23-F’, the attempted coup of 23 February 1981, much more incisive than most histories and imaginatively richer than most novels, is a masterpiece. It is a work of sparkling intelligence about the transition from Francoism, a huge political rupture which consumed its architects, three men who on the fateful day stayed seated in the Spanish parliament, in the certain knowledge that for them there was no escape. They, and Spanish democracy, survived.

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London (Chicago University Press 2005)
This account of men having sex with each other in various public spaces in early to mid-twentieth century London surprises on nearly every page – the story is unexpected and often inspiring. It is a poignant reminder of the poverty of public discussion about the realities of the world.

By contrast Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A venture in social forecasting (Basic Books, 1999) first published 1973 surprises hardly at all. While I am ashamed not to have read it till now, I need not have bothered. Like so much work on modernity, its wholesome conformity to the opinions of the great and good and powerful ensures it reproduced clichés and helped perpetuate them, in fact that is pretty well all it did.

Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2009) illustrates the contrast between Houlbrook and Bell rather well. It is a witty and original book whose central claim, that repairing a complex machine is more difficult and rewarding than most academic let alone office work. It is above and beyond a forceful indictment of the all too familiar present where, in so many spheres of life and work, process is all and outcome irrelevant.
Learn more about Britain's War Machine at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 69 Test: The Shock of the Old.

Writers Read: David Edgerton (May 2007).

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 9, 2011

Matt Potter

Matt Potter is a journalist, editor and broadcaster.

His first internationally published book, Outlaws Inc draws on his first-hand experience of the biggest, most secretive smuggling and trafficking network in history – all the way from the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the last, gun-running, money-laundering days of Slobodan Milosevic’s mafia-held Serbia, through opium-woozy Afghanistan and the contraband-thick waters of South America’s "Cocaine Coast." Perhaps best described as a non-fiction thriller, the story it tells is also an alternate history of the times we live in.

Recently, I asked Potter what he was reading. His reply:
I love to read for research – a good thing too, being a journalist. Luckily, it doesn’t feel like work to me. While I was writing Outlaws Inc, though – and specifically while tracking mercenaries through East Africa or dodging rocket fire over Afghanistan – a few books kept me sane. Among them were what might be called ‘mission-critical’ books with a bearing on my research, my quarry or my predicament of the day. Others just reminded me what I do this for in the first place. Four of the latter are chosen here.

The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman

That Linda Polman is fearless, as both a woman and a journalist, is beyond doubt. Her previous book, We Did Nothing, an account of the impotence, and at times complicity, of UN peacekeepers and aid workers in the field, from Rwanda and Bosnia to Haiti and Somalia. The Crisis Caravan, though, is something braver still: a calling to account of the global industry of aid. While there are truly shocking revelations – at least, to anyone who hasn’t seen the aid caravan’s failings with their own eyes in the world’s worst trouble spots – this is more than an exposé: Polman is at pains to point out that this is an industry notoriously bad at reforming itself, whether purging bad apples in its ranks (such as those who prey on the very people they are sent to help) or choosing its local partners (who often include the warlords and apparatchiks causing the humanitarian disaster). The Crisis Caravan is rich in anecdote, humanity – even humour – and memorable characters, guerrilla leaders, blundering Western politicians, fire-and-brimstone missionaries and dangerously blasé aid CEOs; but it’s also a hard-hitting indictment of how the road to perdition can be paved with noble intentions. Without her example, especially in the way she brings the bigger picture to bear on her encounters, rendering them rich with significance and background – Outlaws Inc would have been a very different beast indeed.

Life, Keith Richards
Back Bay

The big surprise here is just how completely Life defies expectations. Those expectations, naturally, were of a rake’s progress of drugs, debauchery and damn fine rock’n’roll; raconteurism bordering on voyeurism, stuffed with memorable one-liners and feats of bio-chemical endurance. Well, there’s some of that – how can there not be. But the fascinating heart of the book, and it takes up at least the first quarter, is Richards’ formative years in bombed-out, post-war South London. There’s a good reason for the way Richards’ memories shine brighter here, I suspect; for the luminous detail and the life in every sentence. It’s because this, really is the only part of the book that’s genuinely unrehearsed. He’s given a million interviews, been asked about riffs and gigs and heroin and girls so much that by the time we hit the Stones in their prime, Richards’ accounts seem oddly second-hand. (He even cedes the page to extracts from others’ memoirs at some crucial moments.) But when he’s recalling the abandoned WWII pillboxes that littered the Home Counties, the shortages, the tiny rituals of life for an English lower middle class slowly coming round to the fact that they were the post-empire British and the post-war poor, but never letting go of their grace, even under pressure, I’m reminded of my own (much later) childhood. At those moments in the book, I can taste the fog around the gasworks and feel the broken earth and brick of the bombsites beneath my shoes again, and I wouldn’t swap it for fame or fortune. Finishing Life, one can’t help but feel that somewhere deep down, Richards wonders whether he would make the same choices.

The Cloud of Unknowing, author unknown
Penguin Classics

A wild card this one, especially for an atheist like me. Even among the flightiest Hollywood spiritual tourists, the strain of medieval European mystical thought has been pretty much left alone; too obscure, too close to one’s own doorstep to be anything like as enlightening as orientalism and incense. And that’s our luck, because there are some incredible writings to be found that, when we read them today, carry a charge of genuine surprise. Medieval Europe had mystical writers whose books are worth reading for their sheer linguistic invention and philosophical insight as for anything like the closer apprehension of godhead they sought. The meditations of Germany’s Richard Rolle and England’s Julian (a woman, pronounced Julie-Anne) of Norwich weave a sensual, almost sexual, spell around their encounters with the divine; their books reason, relate, and seduce. But my favourite is the (appropriately, unknown) author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Likely a hermit, he followed the via negativa – the “negative way” – which is to say, he believed God could only be apprehended by knowing that he was unknowable; an emptying out of the world, revealing that which can never be known. The book’s prose is simply incredible; again and again, he attempts to describe the indescribable, to make language do what the intellect cannot – hence the downright strange ‘unknowing’ of the title – only to come up, again and again, against the certainty of that which cannot be expressed. For a deeper understanding of everything from medieval thought to the mores of modern Islam, and even ‘60s psychedelia, The Cloud of Unknowing is something of a Rosetta Stone.

The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, Andrei Soldatov
Public Affairs Press

Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov is a braver man than I’ll ever be. Born with an uncanny knack for being present during hostage crises, Chechen terrorist sieges, border shootouts and secret police SNAFUs, he’s been arrested, mock-imprisoned, harassed and surveilled enough to have become pretty comfortable with it. This book is something of a primer for the Western reader on the subject for which he’s become most famous: monitoring the resurgence and consolidation of a secret police state – now named the FSB, but in effect the KGB with a rebrand – in former KGB man Vladimir Putin’s “new Russia”. The strength of this book is its matter-of-fact understatement, even when delivering humdingers like the FSB’s role in “taking out” those considered undesirable, even on neutral territory; the parcelling up of the country’s and, sports clubs, business concerns and resources to FSB top brass; and the workaday reality of the career FSB man’s existence. He wears his erudition and his experience lightly, and the result is a book packed with insight and information that leaves the reader feeling he’s been in never less than fascinating, lugubrious company.
Visit Matt Potter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Brian Falkner

Brian Falkner lives on the sunny Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, where he writes YA novels, including The Tomorrow Code, The Project, Brain Jack, and The Project.

His reply to my recent query about what he has been reading:
Right at this moment I am reading two old Alistair MacLean novels simultaneously: Ice Station Zebra and Night Without End.

This is mainly for research as I am soon going to start the second novel in my Bzadian series, Ice War, which is set in an unforgiving artic environment. Alistair MacLean was a master of describing that kind of world: the blizzard conditions and cold below what any person is able to endure.

But there is more to it than just the descriptive passages. MacLean was also a master of suspense, and was my favourite author as a young reader. The series I am working on is partly an homage to his early thrillers, with traitorous villains; sudden, violent action; and heroes pushed to the limits of their mental and physical endurance.

MacLean not only influenced my style of writing, he influenced my decision to become a writer. I can still feel the heart-thudding excitement of a Friday night trip to the library to find that a new Alistair MacLean novel was available.

There was also a sense of loss, in some of his later novels, that did not live up to the promise of his name on the front cover.

Revisiting his books after so many years I have found them very readable, enjoyable thrillers. They are old friends, and even if they have faded and their covers wear the ravages of time; even if the characters seem a little one-dimensional, and the plot devices clunkier than I remember them; I still find my fingers flicking through the pages in my eagerness to find out what happens next.
Visit Brian Falkner's website, blog, and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: Brain Jack.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lesley Kagen

Lesley Kagen is the author of Whistling in the Dark, Land of a Hundred Wonders, Tomorrow River and Good Graces.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I read three to four books at a time. Usually one literary, one with a strong sense of humor, and one mystery. Depending upon the mood I'm in on any given day, that's the book I'll pick up.

I just completed Megan Abbott's The End of Everything. I was drawn to the subject matter, child abduction, as it's something that I write about as well. I was also intrigued by the fact that it was narrated from the POV of an adolescent girl. A captivating story with complex relationships. Intense and impressive.

Just beginning Domestic Violets by Mathew Norman. So far, so funny. Witty and fast paced. Life is hard. We all need some comic relief.

Also reading Felix Francis's Gamble. I'm a horse person. I've read and loved all of Dick Francis's books set in the racing world. I was hesitant, afraid I'd be disappointed by this first book written entirely by his son, but Felix is doing a great job caring on the series.
Visit Lesley Kagen's website.

Writers Read: Lesley Kagen.

My Book, The Movie: Good Graces.

--Marshal Zeringue