Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in New York, received her master’s in Library Science from Columbia University, and is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York.

Kuhns's new novel is Death in Salem.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished a mystery titled Run You Down by Julia Dahl. This is the second (after Invisible City) and they are both great. Rebekah is the daughter of an Ultra-Orthodox woman who leaves the Orthodox community but finds she has real difficulty in adjusting to the outside world. One of the lines I most appreciated came from a young Jew who was contemplating leaving but couldn’t figure out, without the severe rules of his culture, how he would know what was right and wrong. Since I live within miles of Kyrias Joel, a Satmar Hasidic community, and have had numerous interactions with members, I find this culture both alien and fascinating. And the quote I just paraphrased resonated with me. For those of us in popular culture, navigating in a world of moral gray is something we’ve grown up within so we are more comfortable, mostly, without absolutes.

This is a culture locked in fear, willing to turn a blind eye to child abuse rather than accuse another member of a crime that might bring shame upon them. In the context of a mystery, it also explores the complexity of leaving this kind of restrictive faith.

Both wonderful books.

Since I usually read a nonfiction book at the same time, I am also reading “The Forgotten Plague” about Tuberculosis. Although written in the 90’s – so I’m sure some of the current information is dated, this a pretty terrifying book. The author says several times that everyone is at risk since everyone breathes. TB is also an opportunistic infection, and has played a large part in HIV deaths.
Visit Eleanor Kuhns's blog and Facebook page.

Coffee with a Canine: Eleanor Kuhns & Shelby.

The Page 69 Test: Death in Salem.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator based in Norfolk, England. An art exhibition based on his best-selling Periodic Tales: The Cultural History of the Chemical Elements opens at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, in October 2015.

Aldersey-Williams's latest book is In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
With a new book coming out, I thought I would prepare for the festival circuit by reading Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author by Paul Ewen. Poised somewhere between fact and fiction, it recounts the author’s attempts to ingratiate himself with a series of prize-winning writers and get them to sign their books for him while trying to hoover up as much free drink as he can – a kind of Fear and Loathing ... on the literary circuit. It’s mad and hilarious.

Also with a pulsing vein of paranoid delusion running through it, I loved Rob Magnuson Smith’s novel Scorper. A scorper is a kind of chisel used in stone carving as well as the name given to the person using it. The book describes an American man’s visit to the deceptively quiet Sussex village of Ditchling on the trail of his artistic hero, the sculptor Eric Gill. He doesn’t get far in his quest. Instead, he is – horrifyingly for him, amusingly for us – waylaid by a series of eccentrics, temptresses and mysterious warnings. We’ve all been to villages like it.

I was moved and impressed by Suzanne O’Sullivan’s series of case studies of psychosomatic illness in It’s All in Your Head. This compassionate book takes the position that many more of our illnesses are psychological rather than caused by an organic disease than we think. The cases she describes are shocking, dramatic and revelatory. The stigma of any mental illness is still very strong, and for many who suffer their priority is to find a link to a physical disease at any cost and against the clinical evidence.

Richard Girling’s The Hunt for the Golden Mole is properly angry about the loss of biodiversity our species is causing. He uses his personal quest for a notionally negligible animal to illustrate the fact that all species matter. Any species loss diminishes me, because I am involved in life on earth, as John Donne nearly said.

I have been writing a popular science book (for lack of a better phrase) about the tide. This has led me to the coasts, both those familiar to me and some further afield. Most of the time, I look out on the cold, brown, shallow North Sea. It can seem an uninspiring body of water at times. But I realized its huge significance to life in northern Europe when I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are. Patrick Barkham’s lively Coastlines filled in my impressions of other parts of the British coast that I was not able to visit.
Visit Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

The Page 99 Test: Anatomies.

The Page 99 Test: In Search of Sir Thomas Browne.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 26, 2015

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski is Professor of French at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. She is the author of several books, including Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism (1378-1417).

Her latest book is The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints.

Recently I asked Blumenfeld-Kosinski about what she was reading. Her reply:
I am a medievalist by training and profession but for the most part I dislike historical novels, except when they deal with scientists and their passions (though I have no particular scientific aptitude). Recently I embarked on a kind of “thematic binge,” bookended by a wonderful non-fiction book, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder and a novel, T. C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done (a book I almost didn’t read because of its awful title). Holmes’ book’s subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.” It focuses on scientists like Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, William Herschel and his sister Caroline, and the explorer Mungo Park. Each chapter captures the excitement of new discoveries, people’s resilience in the face of disappointments, and their persistence in their endeavors.

In the past I had read Andrea Barrett’s short story collections Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, and Archangel (which I loved) but now I was looking for novels that starred a mixture of real and invented characters. Rebecca Stott’s The Coral Thief fit the bill (this is a thriller involving priceless stolen coral specimens and naturalists like Cuvier and Lamarck in 1815 Paris) as did her Ghostwalk, a murder mystery around Isaac Newton that spans the 17th century and the 21st; it deals with issues of literally cut-throat scientific competition and the violent tactics of some animal rights’ activists. Martin Davies’ The Conjurer’s Bird also interweaves two time periods, a technique I like very much especially if, like Ghostwalk, it features modern scholars on the trail of some past mystery.

Davies’ novel stars Joseph Banks in the 18th-century part of the plot and a modern-day naturalist named Fitz who embarks on a frenzied search for a unique bird that long ago was given to Joseph Banks and then disappeared. A love story is invented for Banks who smuggles his beloved on Captain Cook’s ship during expedition to the South Seas. (Banks also appears briefly in Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent novel The Signature of all Things that I devoured last summer.) Another naturalist for whom a love story is invented (an intriguing young female painter married to his friend) is John James Audubon who is at the center of Katherine Govier’s engaging novel Creation. On his 1833 voyage to Labrador he meets captain Bayfield from the Royal Navy and both race to finish important projects, Audubon his immense Birds of America and Bayfield his cartography of the coastlines.

In Creation there is a distinct feeling of time pressure, to capture things in the natural world before they change. Ecological change is inevitable and efforts to stop it are often doomed to failure. This is why I picked up Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done which chronicles the fight between conservationists and animal rights activists in today’s California. The park ranger Alma Boyd Takesue is one of Boyle’s great creations. She truly believes that wild pigs and rats need to be eliminated completely on an island off the California coast so that the indigenous birds can survive. But how far can you dial back natural developments? The epic battle against Dave La Joy who is against any killing of animals escalates in the course of the novel, which also delves back into the past through various characters of an earlier generation. Boyle’s gift for satire and even slap stick is on full display here and he turns an ideological struggle into a full-scale war. In the end I found that I could not decide who was right and who was wrong since each view was represented by a passionate individual willing to take great risks for her or his position.

At the moment I’m reading another novel about a passionate scientist, Amy Brill’s The Movement of the Stars which features Hannah Price (modeled on the astronomer Maria Mitchell) who as a Quaker woman on Nantucket is gazing at the stars in 1845 and dreams of observatories and a scientific career. I don’t know yet how it ends but I can guess. And next I want to read Boyle’s take on Mungo Park in Water Music, probably another wild ride.
Read more about The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lynne Jonell

Lynne Jonell is the author of the novels Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls, and The Secret of Zoom, as well as several critically acclaimed picture books. Her books have been named Junior Library Guild Selections and a Smithsonian Notable Book, among numerous other honors. Born in Little Falls, Minnesota, Jonell grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis. She now teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center and lives with her husband and two sons in Plymouth, Minnesota, in a house on a hill.

Jonell's new book is The Sign of the Cat.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually have a mix of books going at the same time—there’s always got to be one in every bathroom, for example—but there is generally one I’m reading straight through. And I’m a children’s writer, so I am always reading in that field as well.

Children’s books I’ve been reading this week are:

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Mai, the smart, California-hip daughter of immigrants, is guilted into accompanying her grandmother, Ba, back to Viet Nam, on a quest to discover if Ba’s husband really did survive the war. Without ever being cloying or thumping a message into us, Thanhha Lai evokes two worlds colliding in one child, and gives us history on a plate full of emotion.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Somehow or the other, I never got around to reading Terry Pratchett—so this week I rectified that situation. What a whippy, odd, quirky, fun read! I love his wacked out imagination, heavily steeped in Celtic lore, but most of all I love that underneath the weirdness is a true gold vein of heart and soul. I’ll be reading more of his works.

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Oh, how I loved this book. Ada is ten, born clubfooted, and lives in the London slums with an abusive mother who starves her of food, affection, and any sense of the world beyond the narrow view from her window. Yet Ada gets glimpses through her little brother, Jamie, who is allowed out. When German bombs threaten, and children are evacuated to the countryside, Ada manages to get on a train with Jamie and escapes. The children are taken in, unwillingly, by a woman with wounds of her own—and the story takes off. An intensely satisfying read.

The Boy’s King Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory

First published in 1485, the book I have was edited in 1880 by Sidney Lanier. The words are Malory’s but the spelling edited for the modern reader, and occasional words explained in brackets. Even modernized, it is not always easy to follow, but it is a tale told in the grand, high manner, and this week the story of Tristram led me, by varied and branching paths, to the medieval tune “Sumer is icumen in” from the mid-thirteenth century. So I promptly learned it and bored several people by singing it to them. I haven’t yet gotten anyone to sing it with me as a round, but I am nothing if not persistent.

For adult books, I’ve been reading:

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

This is another classic I never got around to, unbelievably, and I have been savoring it slowly. When a character gets up off the page and walks before your eyes, you know that author can really write.

90 Days to Your Novel by Sarah Domet

Every time I start a new book, I end up reading something or the other that promises to make the process less painful. It’s a fool’s dream, I know, but so incredibly seductive! Domet has daily assignments that, she assures me, will lead to a completed draft by the end of the summer. The bad news is, it’s taken me a week to work through her first day’s assignment, and I’m not done yet. The good news? The book gives me a way to begin again when my brain goes frozen.

The Joyful Christian by C. S. Lewis

I love C. S. Lewis—he’s funny, practical, profound, and fully engaged in the battle. This book contains short selections from his theological works, and this week I’ve been pondering his pieces on anxiety and faith. I find it’s easy to plan to live my life in a way I know to be good, and hard to actually do it; books like this help.

And last of all, a picture book:

The Bearskinner by Laura Amy Schlitz

This is a retelling of a Grimm fairy tale, and its beginning is masterful:

“They say that when a man gives up hope,
the devil walks at his side.
So begins this story:
A soldier marched through a dark wood,
and he did not march alone.”
Visit Lynne Jonell's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Sign of the Cat.

The Page 69 Test: The Sign of the Cat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Alexander H. Harcourt

Alexander H. Harcourt is Professor Emeritus in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Davis. He is the coauthor of Gorilla Society and Human Biogeography and co-editor of Coalitions and Alliances in Humans and Other Animals.

His new book is Humankind: How Biology and Geography Shape Human Diversity.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Harcourt's reply:
Bernard Cornwell’s Waterloo.

Waterloo was published in 2014, but I came across it just this last month, May 2015, in the wonderful Daunt Books on Fulham Rd. in London. Let me give an example of the store’s excellence. I had just got back from Sicily. A friend told me about Leonardo Sciascia, a writer from there, dead 15 years ago. In a spirit of extravagant, even ridiculous optimism, I asked the salesperson behind the Daunt counter if by any chance they had any Sciascia. Instead of a puzzled look, he took me straight to the foreign authors bookshelves, and there pointed to five books by Sciascia. I bought the lot.

Back to Waterloo. Much has been written about the battle of Waterloo. But Bernard Cornwell with his skill as a fiction writer, most relevantly of the Richard Sharpe Napoleonic Wars series, energetically and fascinatingly describes that awful day. And the aftermath - the wounded left for days some of them, stripped by looters, even killed if they struggled.

The book reminded me once again of the tactical and strategic brilliance of Wellington (I am not one of Wellington’s several detractors). Taken completely by surprise just three days previously at Napoleon’s sudden appearance with a massive army, Wellington as so often deployed his army along a ridge, so forcing Napoleon to attack uphill. And the rest is history, improved in the retelling.

Cornwell’s book is about only Waterloo. For a general history of Wellington’s soldiering, Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington. The Years of the Sword is outstanding.

Ben Pastor’s Tin Sky.

This is the fourth in Ben Pastor’s Martin von Bora series from the almost always superb Bitter Lemon Press. The Press publishes mostly non-English language crime fiction translated into English. Going for a dozen years now, it has produced the works of around fifty authors from across the world.

Ben Pastor’s detective is Wehrmacht officer Martin von Bora. All the von Bora books take place during WWII. Others in the series are, in order, Lumen, Liar Moon, and A Dark Song of Blood. Of the previous two that I reviewed on Amazon, I wrote:
Fascinating. A combination of whodunit, and psychological exploration of conflict of loyalties - personal, professional, idealogical. P.D. James could not have penned it better.

A flawless interweaving of detective story, conflict of loyalties, and unexpected complexity of character in a time, WWII, when our sympathies should be straightforward, but which Ben Pastor skillfully manipulates down unexpected paths.
Tin Sky is set in the Ukraine during the 1943 German counter-offensive there against the Russians. The book promises to be as excellent a read as the others, judging from praise in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and the Sunday Times, and from the first few pages that I have read, along with page 99 - where if von Bora does not buy the magnificent stallion, its owner will kill it to sell its flesh.
Learn more about Humankind at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Patricia Abbott

Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 125 stories that have appeared online, in print journals and in various anthologies. She is the author of Monkey Justice and Home Invasion and co-editor of Discount Noir. She won a Derringer award for her story "My Hero."

Abbott's new novel is Concrete Angel.

Recently I asked th eauthor about what she was reading. Her reply:
As a writer of short stories, I am always drawn to a collection of stories and Russell Bank's new collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, went right on my kindle. Two of Banks' earlier books, Continental Drift and Affliction, were landmark works for me. In this collection we read about, mostly men, at pivotal moments in their lives. The title story was especially poignant: a divorced father watches his children's visits diminish after the family dog, who lives with him, dies. It was all about the dog is what he must take away.

Bad Feminist (Roxane Gay) is a brilliant series of essays about being a black woman in 21st century America. She writes beautifully, and I was especially taken aback by her experiences teaching at a university in northern Michigan. Every person she met assumed that because she was black she was from Detroit. Although Gay discusses big ideas in Bad Feminist, she presents them in a down to earth way making them very accessible. And her references to pop culture icons and events makes it a treat to read. She can't help but charm you.

Hush Hush (Laura Lippman) Lippman returns to her Tess Monaghan series with an especially strong entry. Her subject is motherhood and she manages to make us see the difficulties, perplexities, and joys of the condition in equal measure. When a mother, who killed her infant daughter in a post-partum depressive state, is released from the hospital, trouble ensues. A highly thought-provoking book.

The Slaves of Solitude was written by Patrick Hamilton in 1947. It's an unusual book where very little happens and yet you cannot put it down. A woman must leave her job and home when the Blitz endangers her. She finds a home in a fairly horrible boarding house where a fellow boarder takes it on himself to bully her. How she finally rids herself of him keeps the paging turning. The subject and writing is mesmerizing.

The Boys in the Boat was a selection of my book club and I was not enthusiastic about reading a book about rowing. Yet I found myself turning page after page in a frenzy. Daniel Jackson Brown pulls in all sorts of events of the time to enrich the story. We learn about rowing, the lives of the boys, Seattle in the thirties, the boat-maker and boat-making, the coach, the Depression, the dust bowl, various illnesses and their treatment in the times, Nazi German, Olympic politics, Leni Riefenstahl. Just an amazing book.

And finally, right now I am reading Hold Still (Sally Mann). Especially amazing is how thorough she is in keeping artifacts from her life to highlight the book. Again, lovely writing. I have only gotten as far as the murder/suicide of her in-laws, which kept me up too late.
Visit Patricia Abbott's website.

The Page 69 Test: Concrete Angel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 22, 2015

Jessica Alcott

Jessica Alcott lives with her husband and their two cats. She graduated from Bennington College and has worked at a children’s publisher in the UK. Even When You Lie to Me is her first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The last book I read that made a huge impression on me was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It's won tons of prizes and it's a bestseller to boot, so most readers will probably be familiar with the plot, but just in case: it's an elliptical narrative about the end of the world we know and the beginning of a new one for the survivors of a deadly plague. That makes it sound much more dystopian than it is; what it's really about is loss and sadness and the meaning and importance of art, how there must be more to existence than survival. Of course that kind of theme is going to be catnip to a writer's ego, but it's such a lovely, quiet, ruminative, melancholy (and throw in any other positive adjectives you can think of) book that it's stayed with me for months.

On the YA side of things, I recently reread Judy Blundell's stunning What I Saw and How I Lied, which won the National Book Award. This book does not get nearly the amount of attention it deserves; it's a coming of age with noir elements, set in 1947 in Florida, and the heat of it makes you stick to your seat. It's gorgeously written and tightly plotted, and the last few lines are some of my favorite ever.

Finally, I just started William Fiennes' The Snow Geese, which is a beautifully written non-fiction account of migration, of both birds and people. It's warm and empathetic and observant of the kind of details that most people miss. Unfortunately it's out of print in the US, but it is well, well worth seeking out.
Visit Jessica Alcott's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Brandon R. Brown

Brandon R. Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His writing for general audiences has appeared in New Scientist, SEED, the Huffington Post, and other outlets. His biophysics work on the electric sense of sharks, as covered by NPR and the BBC, has appeared in Nature, The Physical Review, and other research journals.

Brown's new book is Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Brown's reply:
I’m reading two books, one quickly and one very slowly. The faster book is The Voice of Dolphins and Other Stories, a mostly forgotten collection by the late physicist Leó Szilárd. A friend loaned this book to me after seeing my biography of Max Planck. Szilárd was one of the physicists who set up the first nuclear reactor and, fleeing Nazi Germany, contributed to America’s Manhattan Project during WWII. He advocated using the bomb in demonstration only and was horrified to see it dropped on cities. He wrote the Dolphins pieces of fiction circa 1960, and the main story casts a forward-looking history to 1985. He accurately foresees the cold war, many specific issues in the Middle East, and the formation of the EU. The title relates to the fact that we’ve figured out that dolphins are more intelligent than humans and we start turning to them for advice. Even this bit of fantasy is handled seriously, right along with the speculative narrative of geopolitics, and the tone of dry history works perfectly. The book is simultaneously provocative and giggle inducing.

The slower book is an academic collection, Subjective Time: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality. I am becoming increasingly obsessed by the biology of time, and this book covers the technical ABC’s of how we think about time and what we observe of the brain as it processes time. Every page warrants rereading, chewing, and contemplating, so I’m taking it slowly, with lots of note taking along the way. As with other topics related to consciousness, it can be alternately disturbing and exhilarating to realize how much of our standard daily reality is a functional, comforting illusion. The perception of time is no different, but time is so fundamental to existence and thinking itself that it offers extra pretzel twists for the reading brain.
Visit Brandon Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: Planck.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jax Miller

Jax Miller was born and raised in New York but currently lives in the Irish countryside. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger award for her first (unpublished) novel titled The Assassin’s Keeper under the pseudonym Aine O Domhnaill.

Her new novel is Freedom's Child.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Miller's reply:
I’ve just started The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. I was first attracted to its fabulous cover before reading the back. It’s a fiction that surrounds the real life crimes of the New Orleans serial killer, The Axeman, who butchered 6 people in 1919. From the get-go, the characters are written so incredibly well that you can feel them breathing next to you, not to mention the colorful setting that’s worded so incredibly that you can taste the Cajun spice on your tongue. While I’m a person who really tries not to read while writing (lest that author’s voice bleeds into my own), I can’t seem to put this one away. I’m still early on, and a dreadfully slow reader, so I can’t wait to see how this turns out.
Visit Jax Miller's website.

My Book, The Movie: Freedom's Child.

The Page 69 Test: Freedom's Child.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 19, 2015

Laura Dave

Laura Dave is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The First Husband, The Divorce Party, London Is The Best City In America, and the newly released Eight Hundred Grapes.

Three of her novels have been optioned for the big screen with Dave adapting Eight Hundred Grapes for Fox2000.

Not so long ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Dave's reply:
The Rocks, by Peter Nichols

Romantic, heartbreaking and generously told, Peter Nichols The Rocks is a love story that spans six decades, affecting not just the torn-apart lovers, but also their families and those they care about. And if the drama isn’t enough to get you digging in, the novel is set against the backdrop of a seaside community. I keep stealing time to read this novel, which reminds me of another of my favorite love stories: The Lost Legends of New Jersey by Frederick Reiken. In rewarding ways, each novel looks at love and forgiveness, and the myriad of ways love stands (and fails) the test of time.
Visit Laura Dave's website.

--Marshal Zeringue