Saturday, October 28, 2023

R.W.W. Greene

When R.W.W. Greene isn’t writing, he teaches college English and keeps bees. His new book, Earth Retrograde, is the end of a story started in 2022’s Mercury Rising.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Greene's reply:
I read a lot. This year I tried to keep track of it all, and according to GoodReads, I’ve put 96 books in my brain since Jan. 1. I read mostly for pleasure, sometimes for education, occasionally seeking a model for my own writing.

The day before yesterday, I finished Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars. It’s a wonderfully strange mashup of sci-fi and fantasy, doughnuts, competitive-violin playing, online sex work, and found family. I loved it.

Right before that, I read The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey. You might recognize him from his Sandman Slim stuff, but this is not that. It’s morphine- and burlesque-drenched post-apocalyptic urban fantasy/sci-fi with androids, genetically-modified organisms, and a bike-messenger hero. Just gorgeous stuff. Each page reeks of coal smoke.

Yesterday, I read The Secret Sky Express or Slim Tyler Saving a Fortune, a 1932 ‘book for boys’ by Richard H. Stone. I read it for the first time back when it was more age appropriate and picked it up again because I’m writing some pulpy adventure stuff and wanted to have that voice in my head. Not all of it. Slim Tyler and his pals have a tendency to ‘ejaculate’ words when they’re excited, and I like to stick with ‘said’.

What’s next? I shant tell you the title, but it’s a sci-fi book that I’ve opened several times in the last couple of days but keep bouncing off of. I can’t get any traction on the paragraphs, and I’m not sure if it’s a problem with me or with the book. I’m going to give it one more try tonight.

If you want to see all ninety-six that I’ve read so far, you can check out my GoodReads page. I’m R.W.W. Greene there, too.
Visit R.W.W. Greene's website.

The Page 69 Test: Mercury Rising.

Q&A with R.W.W. Greene.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Yoon Ha Lee

A Korean-American sf/f writer who received a B.A. in math from Cornell University and an M.A. in math education from Stanford University, Yoon Ha Lee finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas. Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit won the Locus Award for best first novel, and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards; its sequels, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun, were also Hugo finalists. His middle grade space opera Dragon Pearl won the Mythopoeic Award for Children’s Literature and the Locus Award for best YA novel, and was a New York Times bestseller. Lee’s short fiction has appeared in publications such as, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Audubon Magazine, as well as several year’s best anthologies.

Lee’s hobbies include composing music, art, and destroying the reader. He lives in Louisiana with his husband and an extremely lazy catten.

Lee's new novel is Fox Snare.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m reading a few things right now, but the current standouts are:

S. L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws, a delightful genderspun take on the Chinese classic novel Water Margin (I have not read that one). Larger-than-life adventure, martial arts, and wuxia-style magic and derring-do! I am especially taken with the way the monk Lu Da is introduced: among other things, she was expelled for missing curfew 173 times due to drunkenness.

C. J. Cherryh’s Heavy Time, which is part of her long-running Alliance-Union universe. So far it’s a claustrophobically tense thriller through the viewpoint of two spacers who rescue the survivor of a ruined starship that may be the key to a terrible secret. It’s followed by Hellburner, which I am told raises the stakes even more. If I’m honest, I’m also reading to find out what the heck it is strategist/captain Conrad Mazian, who I met in Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, does in Hellburner!

I was lucky enough that Django Wexler sent me an ARC of his book How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying (forthcoming May 21, 2024), which is a delightful take on portal fantasy (or isekai if you like Japanese light novels/manga/anime). The villain protagonist, Davi, is stuck in a Groundhog Day-like time loop, which she uses to her advantage to defy a shitty Chosen One destiny and claw her way to the winning side. I am on Team Davi forever! Also because I don’t want her to destroy me for opposing her!

(Maybe I can sic Master Arms Instructor Lin Chong, Conrad Mazian, and Dark Lord Davi on each other and run away in the confusion? That’s my strategy, because I am a gigantic coward…)
Visit Yoon Ha Lee's website.

The Page 69 Test: Revenant Gun.

My Book, The Movie: Ninefox Gambit.

Q&A with Yoon Ha Lee.

The Page 69 Test: Fox Snare.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 22, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Robert Penn Warren's All The King’s Men:
In the l930s, during the Great Depression, there were those who feared that democracy might not survive. All you had to do was look at what Huey Long was doing in Louisiana to see that the danger was real. One of the most brilliant men in politics, Huey Long, studying sixteen to twenty hours a day, had finished law school at Tulane in eight months, instead of the three years it took everyone else, and became a member of the Louisiana bar when he was only twenty-one. Fourteen years later, when he was thirty-five, he was elected Governor and changed Louisiana government out of all recognition. Local government was all but abolished, and election commissioners were appointed by the state, which meant that Long could make sure the vote was whatever he wanted it to be. And in case anyone should challenge on constitutional grounds anything he wanted to do, he filled the Supreme Court with men completely loyal to him.

Government was corrupt, but no one much cared. Huey Long got things done; more than that, Huey Long was what everyone wanted to be. When he spoke, he said what everyone in the crowd had always felt, but could never find the words to say. He was their idol, what they would give anything to be themselves. He had so much popular support, so much control over what went on in Louisiana that he once walked onto the floor of the state legislature and directed passage of 44 bills in 22 minutes, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Two years after he was elected Governor, he was elected to the United States Senate. Governor, Senator, the only thing left was the presidency, the only question whether it would be in l936 or 1940. He knew exactly what he was going to do: create a third party, destroy the Democratic and Republican parties, serve four terms, and govern the country the way he governed Louisiana. Far from hiding his ambition, he described to a reporter for the New York Times how he was going to become the first American dictator. Franklin Roosevelt thought him one of the two most dangerous men in the country.

While Huey Long was creating a system of free healthcare and education, and building highways where only dirt roads had run, while he was showing how someone with a mass following could trample on all the safeguards of democracy. a young teacher in the English department at Louisiana State University, fascinated by what he saw, started thinking about writing a novel. Huey Long’s slogan had been “Every man a king;” Robert Penn Warren called his novel All The King’s Men. As the title suggests, the novel is not about the king, the Governor, Willie Stark; it is about the people around him.

The central character is Jack Burden, who tells the story the way a Southern writer used to tell a story, with long, sometimes endless, sentences, like the one that describes his first glimpse of Willie Stark: “Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five foot eleven inches tall and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing, and a stiff high collar like a Sunday school superintendent and a blue-striped tie which you know his wife gave him last Christmas…and a gray felt hat with the sweat stains showing through the band. It comes in just like that, and how are you to know?”

Willie Stark, treasurer of rural Mason County, objected when the contract for the construction of a new schoolhouse was given to a contractor who gave kickbacks to politicians and used substandard materials to save himself money. Stark’s warning lost him the support of those same politicians and cost him the next election. Three years later, the fire escape collapsed during a fire drill at the school, three children were killed, a dozen others seriously crippled, and Willie Stark “had Mason County in the palm of his hand.” A hero, the man who had tried to stop the political corruption that had led to the schoolhouse tragedy, he campaigned for the candidate running against the candidate of the machine.

Willie Stark’s speeches weren’t any good, but that did not matter. People came out to see the man who had tried to fight against the corruption that seemed to be everywhere. Then, in the next election, the state’s power brokers “persuaded Willie that he was the savior of the state.” A lot of people thought Willie had a special relationship with God from what had happened with the schoolhouse, and Willie himself believed he “had been summoned.” This, as Burden explains with rare insight into the character of ambitious politicians, was “nothing but the echo of a certainty and a blind compulsion within him.” Certain that he is destined to save the state from political corruption, Willie Stark tells everyone he can get to listen exactly what needs to be done, all the facts and figures about the “ratio between income tax and total income for the state,” all the arcane reasoning that supports a more “balanced tax program.” He tells them, in other words, what no one understands and what no one wants to hear about.

Jack Burden, who starts out covering his campaign as a reporter but becomes Stark’s most trusted advisor, insists that he has to get people excited, make them feel alive again. “That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything, but for Sacred Jesus’s sake, don’t try to improve their minds.” But Willie Stark believes that, if people will only listen, they will understand what he is trying to do. He believes it, until he finds out
from his campaign manager, a woman who has been hired by the very people Stark thinks he is fighting, that he has been had, that he is being used to split the vote of one candidate to elect the other.

“They’d have paid you to take the rap,” she tells him with scorn, “but they didn’t have to pay a sap like you. Oh, no, you were so full of yourself and hot air and how you are Jesus Christ, that all you wanted was a chance to stand on your hind legs and make a speech.”

Willie Stark, who had seldom taken a drink in his life, gets blind drunk. The next day, at the fairgrounds, where he is scheduled to give a speech, he tells the crowd a story, the story of a “hick,” the story of how some fine upstanding important men came in “a big fine car and say how they wanted him to run for Governor.” He was a hick, but, he tells the crowd, they are “hicks, too, and the’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m getting out of the race.” But instead of going quietly into the night, he is going to run for Governor again, and when he does, “I’m coming on my own and I’m coming for blood.” He keeps his word. He runs in the next election and becomes Governor.

The story of Willie Stark is the classic story of innocence lost, a story of how the fight against corruption brings with it a corruption of its own. The end, being admirable, makes the means, however evil, seem necessary. Willie Stark, determined to do good, cannot do it unless he is prepared to fight, and fighting, when you are in danger of losing, makes winning seem suddenly the only rule. It is not just Willie Stark; the same thing happens to everyone who goes with him, all the king’s men, whose lives and careers are tied up with his. Willie Stark wanted to do good, and he did. He gave the people what they wanted, and what they needed: free education, modern highways, a tax system in which the rich, finally, paid their fair share, and one more thing: a hospital, the best in the country, maybe the best in the world, bigger, finer than anything ever built; a hospital where, in Stark’s own words, “any bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime.”

The hospital is an obsession. Stark plans to name it after himself, tangible proof that he had done something important, something of value. But it is not enough to build it; he has to get someone to run it, and the best person to do it is Dr. Adam Stanton, Jack Burden’s boyhood friend. But Adam Stanton, whose father had been governor, and whose sister had once been engaged to Jack Burden, despised Willie Stark and all he stood for. Burden tells Stark that Stanton hates him, but Stark does not care. “I’m not asking him to love me. I’m asking him to run my hospital.” He tells Burden to change Stanton’s mind.

When they were young, Burden and Adam’s sister, Anne, would go for long walks together while Adam “spent his time reading Gibbon or Tacitus, for he was great on Rome back then.” This allusion to a young man’s appreciation of ancient, public, virtue establishes the difference, the radical difference, in the way Adam Stanton sees things. When Burden tells him that Willie Stark knows his weakness - “You want to do good, and he is going to let you do good in wholesale lots.” - Adam shakes his head and smiles, a “smile which did not forgive me but humbly asked me to forgive him for not being like me, for not being like everybody else, for not being like the world.” It is only when his sister, Anne, reminds him that he is a doctor, and that he should not put his pride before his duty, that he agrees to meet with Stark.

Later, standing with his sister and Jack Burden, listening to Willie Stark speak to a crowd in front of the Capitol, he remarks that Stark’s promises about what he is going to do are a bribe, a way to win popular approval, and power for himself. Stark will do anything to get what he wants, what they all want. Stark brags about it: “And if any man tries to stop me…I’ll break him. I’ll break him like that!” he cried, crashing his right fist into the left palm. “And I don’t care what I hit him with. Or how!” The crowd roared, and Burden yells into Anne’s ear: “He damned well means that.”

There is corruption everywhere, and Willie Stark knows it. He has Burden investigate a retired judge, a man Burden has always looked up to and believes incorruptible. Stark isn’t asking him to make something up. It is not necessary to frame anybody, “because the truth is always sufficient.” He was right. Judge Irwin had once, years earlier, taken a bribe, the only way he had to avoid foreclosure on his home. When this comes out, Irwin kills himself, and Burden’s mother tells her son that the judge he had revered, the judge he had now, to all intents and purposes, killed, was his father. The tragedy, the tale of corruption, does not end there. Governor Stanton had known what Judge Irwin had done, and had helped cover it up.

Burden’s father, Anne and Adam Stanton’s father, two of the most respected men in the state, men who had, both of them, done a great deal of good, had also done something bad; but so, also, had their children. Jack Burden had gone along with whatever Willie Stark had decided to do, even investigating people, like Judge Irwin, with whom he had been close. Anne Stanton, the woman Jack Burden had loved, and deep down, still did, had done something worse. She had become the mistress of Willie Stark. Burden’s reaction, when he finds this out, is described in a way no commonplace writer could have done. Robert Penn Warren does not describe the emotions - the hurt, the anger, the rage - Burden must have felt; he describes what Burden notices as he rushes out of the Capitol:

“It seemed forever down the length of white sun-glittering concrete which curled and swooped among the bronze statues and brilliant flower beds shaped like stars and crescents, and forever across the green lawn to the great swollen bulbs which were the trees, and forever up into the sky, where the sun poured down billows and surges of heat like crystalline lava to engulf you, for the last breath of spring was gone now and gone for good….”

Anne Stanton had become the mistress of Willie Stark. “That fact was too horrible to face, for it robbed me of something out of the past by which, unwittingly until that moment, I had been living.” Anne was not sorry for what she had done. Willie Stark wasn’t like “anybody else I had ever known.” She wasn’t sorry, “not for anything that’s happened.” Her brother, Adam, was sorry, sorry he had let himself be used, sorry he had listened to his sister and to Jack Burden when they told him he had a duty, if he wanted to do good, to take Willie Stark’s offer and become director of the new hospital. Adam Stanton was not like other people; he was not going to be the “paid pimp to his sister’s whore.” Taking his revenge, he shoots Willie Stark on the steps of the Capitol, and is then killed himself.

It was the same way Huey Long had been killed, killed by a doctor whose father was a judge. As he lay dying, Huey Long asked why he had been shot. Showing a deeper grasp of the relation of good and evil, Willie Stark tells Jack Burden, “If it hadn’t happened, it might - have been different - even yet.”

Jack Burden marries Anne Stanton and they move away; out, we are told in the novel’s final sentence, “into the convulsions of the world, out of history and into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” Which means, if it means anything, that they are going to live their own, private, lives, and only think of the good they can do each other, the kind of good that does not have evil as its price.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Allison Epstein

Allison Epstein earned her MFA in fiction from Northwestern University and a BA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. A Michigan native, she now lives in Chicago, where she works as an editor. When not writing, she enjoys good theater, bad puns, and fancy jackets.

She is the author of historical novels including A Tip for the Hangman, the newly released Let the Dead Bury the Dead, and the forthcoming Our Rotten Hearts.

Recently I asked Epstein about what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm currently about halfway through In Memoriam by Alice Winn, a queer love story set at the front during World War I. Books about 20th century wars are generally not what I go for, but I was persuaded to pick this one up, and I'm glad I did. The two main characters are only eighteen years old, and it really captures the feeling of being that age, when everything is desperately important and embarrassment could kill you. It's wonderful and heartbreaking and I'll need something very lighthearted to follow.

Before that, I recently enjoyed R.F. Kuang's Yellowface, a thriller slash publishing industry send-up about a white woman who steals an unpublished manuscript from her deceased Asian friend. I keep seeing this one described as "compulsively readable," and that's accurate! I kept reading one more chapter... and then just one more chapter... As someone currently navigating the publishing industry, this book also sent my blood pressure skyrocketing. Sorry to my doctor.

I'd also like to shout out A Sweet Sting of Salt, a debut novel by Rose Sutherland that's coming next April. It's a queer retelling of the fairy tale "The Selkie Wife," about a 19th-century Canadian midwife and the mysterious, beautiful young woman who turns up pregnant at her door during a storm. I was lucky to get an advance copy of this book, which is gorgeous and atmospheric and wonderful. I mean, sapphic yearning by the sea is one of my favorite subgenres.

Finally, I'm working on writing a Dickens retelling right now, so a few weeks ago I decided this was the time to finally read Bleak House. It's so much weirder than I expected! It's a legal drama blended together with a Victorian drama of manners, a Gothic romance, a detective thriller, and Lord knows what all else. I'd like to read it again and pay more attention to how it all hangs together, but I need a break before I pick that 900-page brick back up. (Also, Inspector Bucket should get his own movie franchise, Knives Out style. Who do I need to contact.)
Visit Allison Epstein's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Tip for the Hangman.

The Page 69 Test: A Tip for the Hangman.

Q&A with Allison Epstein.

My Book, The Movie: Let the Dead Bury the Dead.

The Page 69 Test: Let the Dead Bury the Dead.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 13, 2023

Paula Munier

Paula Munier is a literary agent and the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Mercy Carr mysteries. A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the series, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and named the Dogwise Book of the Year. The sequel Blind Search, inspired by the real-life rescue of a little boy with autism who got lost in the woods, was followed by The Hiding Place in 2021 and The Wedding Plot in 2022.

Munier's new Mercy Carr mystery is Home at Night.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m always reading several books at a time, all in different formats: There are the hardcovers on my coffee table that I read whenever I take a break from work. There are the audiobooks I listen to as I’m cooking dinner every night. And there are the e-books I read on my iPhone in the dark at night in bed before I fall asleep. Some of the books are research and some are just for fun. And some are big break-out novels that I read to see what the fuss is all about.

I've been rereading Ulysses by James Joyce, and it's way more compelling this time around, much more so than it was when I was a young woman reading it. It’s taking a long time because I have to look up a lot of the Latin as my Catholic-school Latin is a little rusty these days. Along the same literary lines, I'm also reading the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the classic into English. I listened to it on audiobook first, and now I'm reading the print version. It’s really quite good. Wilson’s translation of The Iliad just came out, and I’ll have to read that next.

I also read a lot of nonfiction, especially related to science and nature and, well, death. I’m loving All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes, by Sue Black. It’s a fascinating study of all the aspects of death—physical, emotional, cultural, and more. All fuel for the fire of a mystery writer’s imagination.

For fun I’m reading The Raging Storm by Ann Cleeves; I’ll read anything she writes. I’m filing Edwin Hill’s fab thriller Who to Believe under the just-for-fun category, too, even though I have to read it with the lights on. It’s the same for The Sandbox by Andrews & Wilson, which is a wicked scary AI story. Finally, there’s Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, a warm and wise novel about one matriarch’s mission to correct the mistakes she’s made with her family, like it or not.

On my TBR list for the snowy days of winter ahead: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, and What an Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman.
Visit Paula Munier's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Paula Munier & Bear.

My Book, The Movie: A Borrowing of Bones.

The Page 69 Test: A Borrowing of Bones.

My Book, The Movie: Blind Search.

The Page 69 Test: Blind Search.

My Book, The Movie: The Hiding Place.

The Page 69 Test: The Hiding Place.

Q&A with Paula Munier.

My Book, The Movie: The Wedding Plot.

The Page 69 Test: The Wedding Plot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 6, 2023

Paul Vidich

Paul Vidich's new novel is Beirut Station: Two Lives of a Spy. His previous novel, The Mercenary, was selected by CrimeReads as one of the top 10 espionage novels of 2021. His debut novel, An Honorable Man, was selected by Publishers Weekly as a Top 10 Mystery and Thriller in 2016. It was followed by The Good Assassin. His third novel, The Coldest Warrior, was widely praised in England and America, earning strong reviews from The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. It was shortlisted for the UK’s Staunch Prize and chosen as a Notable Selection of 2020 by CrimeReads.

Recently I asked Vidich about what he was reading. His reply:
I read a lot of spy fiction, but I alternate novels with non-fiction written by men and women who worked in the CIA and who provide an insider’s view of that world. All the books go through a CIA vetting process to be certain that potentially compromising information does fall into the hands of the opposition, which makes it difficult sometimes for these authors to provide a credible account of their years in spy work.

I just picked up The Recruiter by Douglas London, a fascinating insider’s look at his life as a senior intelligence officer who recruited foreign assets for the CIA for over 25 years. The narrative spent four months being reviewed by agency censors, which London describes in his forward, but the redacted portions don’t detract from his fascinating account. And, as he is quick to point out, many of the redactions have nothing to do with hiding secrets, and a lot to do with the agency removing material that would cast the agency in an embarrassing light. His book came out when Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel were Directors of Central Intelligence, and they were super conscious not to offend the Trump White House. This book is for anyone interested the what a covert operations officer stationed overseas does for a living – fascinating, enlightening, and very well written.
Visit Paul Vidich's website.

Q&A with Paul Vidich.

My Book, The Movie: The Mercenary.

The Page 69 Test: The Mercenary.

The Page 69 Test: The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin.

--Marshal Zeringue