The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari (Mulholland, Feb. 25th, 2013)-When The Stolen Ones opens, Jessica Balzano is in law school and eventually plans to leave the force, but she still works in the Special Investigations Unit in homicide. She catches a case that involves a businessman, Robert Freitag, who was found in Priory Park in early 2013 with a railroad spike through the head. His apartment has been sealed until now, and of course Jessica jumps at the chance to gather more evidence. The only problem is, the evidence they do have (which is minimal and at times, nonsensical) was put together by the detective working the case at the time, John Garcia, who suffered from a brain tumor that eventually killed him. She and her partner, Kevin Byrne, first visit the original crime scene, then head to Freitag’s apartment, where they uncover a few things that might have a chance of leading them to his killer. Meanwhile, a man named Luther roams Philadelphia’s underground, and his ties to a killer named Eduard Kross is leading him to his next victims. When more bodies start to appear in Priory Park, the case ramps up very, very fast. If things weren’t already strange enough, a mute little girl is found in the middle of the road with ties to a past case, and a retired detective is pulled back into a nightmare that he never escaped from.
This is my first experience with Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano of the Philadelphia Police Dept., and it certainly won’t be my last. In fact, I plan to catch up the first six as soon as I can! Most of the narrative follows Balzano and Byrne as they pick apart the puzzle that is Luther, but we also get glimpses into Luther’s past at Cold River, where he was born into very tragic circumstances, and of the diabolical dream studies and experiments that were conducted there. The making of a killer is a fascinating thing, and Montanari tackles the subject, and his detectives’ race against the clock to catch him, like the seasoned pro that he is. I like the fact that Balzano is a smart, busy wife and mother who is trying to get her law degree in addition to her day job, and she does it with dedication and humor (and more than a little exhaustion.) Byrne is quiet and methodical and the two form a great partnership, one of absolute trust and loyalty. As a newcomer to the series, I never felt that I was missing anything I needed in order to fully enjoy the story, so it can definitely stand on its own. If you enjoy creepy thrillers that move at a blistering pace and have more than their share of the macabre, THE STOLEN ONES should be on your must read list. Also, the ending gave me chills-can’t wait for the next one!
Looking to completely blow up your TBR? I got you covered. All of these Kindle titles are under $5 (a TON are under $3), and there are a few freebies thrown in there too. Also, the sheer number of Angry Robot titles that are STILL under $5 is staggering. As always, be sure to double check before you hit the Buy button, because you never know how long they’ll last! Also note, these prices are US only.
Claire R. McDougall’s new book, VEIL OF TIME, comes out tomorrow, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book, and more! Please give her a warm welcome!
Congratulations on your new book, VEIL OF TIME! Will you tell us a little more about it and its heroine, Maggie Livingstone?
Thank you for this chance to spread the word about my book!
Veil of Time takes place at a pivotal point in Scottish history when Christianity was starting to make inroads and displace the goddess religion that had been operating for thousands of years before. So my book holds up a mirror in a way to what was lost when the patriarchal religion and that order of things took over. In his book The DaVinci code, Dan Brown points to the loss of the sacred feminine at this time. In my book, the druidess points to the same thing. And then, of course, the book raises the question of time and how we perceive it. I don’t see this book in the tradition of HG Wells and his time machine, but more in line with what the theoretical physicists are saying these days about the nature of time and how we may just be living in the midst of a cosmic hologram.
Maggie Livingstone is actually the name of a childhood friend, who is a vet now, and not really like my heroine. I think when I first started to write the book, I wanted to have a heroine who was unlike me, because it seemed that my books were always in the end just about me and my values. I knew next to nothing about epilepsy, but the research into that proved fascinating. I thought about using epilepsy to get Maggie back to the eighth century, because I had recently read a biography by Karen Armstrong who was a nun with epilepsy in a setting where the malady was severely misunderstood and even punished. So that fit in nicely. I suppose because I find Dunadd such a healing place, it seemed obvious to put a protagonist in that setting who needed to heal. It’s true that in the end, Maggie came out more like me than I had initially intended, but then that is just the artist’s way, I guess.
What made you decide to write a time travel tale? What kind of research did you do for the book?
I didn’t set out to write a time travel book as such. I set out to write a story set at this magical place Dunadd in Argyll Scotland, close to where I grew up. These days, Dunadd is a small hillock littered with ruins and a famous boar carved into the rock. But in its heyday, in the time of the Picts, Dunadd was the centre of the Celtic world and the place where royalty lived. So, I hung about for years trying to figure out how to write about this place. In the meantime I wrote lots of other books set in the same area but in modern times. I really didn’t see myself as a writer of historical fiction, and so I didn’t want to go down that route. It was really when Audrey Niffenegger’s book The Time Traveller’s Wife came out and was read widely by all kinds of readers that I thought maybe time travel might be my vehicle for writing about Dunadd. I took one more trip over there, stood at the top of Dunadd Hill, and then came home and started to write the book.
Not a whole lot is known about the day-to-day living of Scottish people in the eighth century, except what has shown up in archeological digs. When they poked around Dunadd Hill, they found evidence of a forge and artifacts, like finely wrought jewelry and wine glasses, that suggest these people were not exactly cavemen. We do know when things like potatoes made it to Scotland, so mention of certain foods was out. But Scotland is a very old place, much much older than the eighth century. Habits and ways of being have persisted over millennia and are still in place. Women who cook bannocks and scones today are doing what their ancestors were doing over thousands of years. The smoked fish, the haggis, the black pudding, all these foods we eat in Scotland today go way back into the mists of time. As far as religious beliefs go, we know the royal line came down through the mother, and if you look at religions globally, the indigenous ones are pretty much earth-centered, ancestor important, usually goddess and woman-centered. I am making an inference from the witch burnings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the belief that this was the church killing off the remnant of a paganism that rested on the wise women. This explanation is as good as any other that has been offered for a period of insanity in the western world.
Why do you think readers will connect with Maggie?
I imagine that most of my readers will be women, and I think they will connect with a protagonist who in her life has been made to fit various people’s idea of herself , from the nuns at her convent school to her husband, even to the old man who lives not far away in the cottage on the side of Dunadd. I think somewhere in every woman there is an ancient longing towards being free and being herself in her own terms. Real feminine power is strong, but has been suppressed, certainly since Christianity took over. I don’t mean free from child-bearing or child-minding, because part of that power has to do with her ability to generate life and nurture it, but free to find her own way and her own self-expression, really digging deep to find what we are about as woman. Maggie is looking for herself, once all of these impositions have fallen away – her daughter has died, her marriage has fallen apart, and here she is trying to come to grips with what she really wants. This is so basic to the experience of women in our culture, I think it will chime with my women readers. Not that there is nothing for men in the book – men, too, need to take a look at where we have come from, so that together we can see a way forward. I don’t think we can go back to being the way the Picts were before Christianity took over in Scotland or back to any other indigenous culture. But it might be useful to use their perspective to start to carve out something more connected and productive for the future.
You began writing poetry, eventually moving into fiction, and also have a background in journalism, but have you always wanted to be a writer? What was one of the first things you can remember writing?
Well, I kept a diary from quite early on, and I wrote a long short story at about the age of ten. But I think more than the written word, I always had a love of the spoken word. People who knew me as a child say I was always saying quaint things. But I did always have in mind that I would be a writer of some kind or other. While I was an evangelical Christian (my father was a minister!), which was in late childhood and early teens, I thought I would be a writer of Christian books. But from being an older teenager into my early twenties I knew I would write novels. So, why I took an eight-year detour into philosophy is anybody’s guess. At any rate, here I am!
What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write VEIL OF TIME?
I write in the mornings, and find the routine of getting up, making my (very large) cup of tea and going into my office quite essential. I don’t write when I am scattered or distracted – on vacation, for instance, or in an unfamiliar setting. After finishing the tea, I go through a little routine of carrying out mindless tasks, very short, just a way of approaching the creative process sort of sideways and not coming at it head on. Once I start writing, hours can pass before I look up. I don’t write for very long at a time, two or three hours.
Because I am a sort of compulsive writer, I write quickly. I probably had a first draft of Veil of Time within five months. I did a few revisions of it before showing it to my agent, and then eight more go-throughs with him before the publisher bought it. All told, there were probably about fifteen revisions.
What are a few authors that have influenced you, in your work, and in life?
One book that isn’t fiction but which influenced me enormously was a book called “The Continuum Concept,” by Jean Liedloff. She spent years living among stone-age Indians in South America, and the book is her reflection on what we have lost in terms of how to be happy and centered. (This theme keeps coming up in my life!) There were all kinds of books and authors that helped me out of my narrow evangelical beliefs, Friedrich Nietzsche, not least among them. As far as literature goes: Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a fellow Scot who wrote a beautiful book set in Eastern Scotland called “Sunset Song,” DH Lawrence, because of how he picked apart relationships in his writing to see what made them tick; John Steinbeck, just because of the sheer craft in his writing. These are just a few.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Interesting question. I do tend to re-read books – Steinbeck, for one. I have read James Galvin’s book “The Meadow,” several times and know I will read it again, because each time I get something new out of it. I suppose Galvin’s book would be a good candidate, because it was such a revelation and happy surprise the first time. Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” would be another.
What are you currently reading?
Oddly, right now I am not reading any fiction. I am reading Christina Larner’s book: “Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland.” This is a fascinating and erudite look into the Calvinistic climate in which these periods of hysteria sprang up – it really gives you a sense for what is otherwise quite a mystifying period of history, and one which has been dutifully covered up.
I am also reading a collection of Nora Ephron’s writings called “Most of Nora Ephron.” She is such a witty and clever writer. I would emulate her if I could.
VEIL OF TIME takes place in Scotland, and of course, you grew up there. If you were to take a first time visitor there, what would you want to show them? What was one of your favorite parts of growing up there?
I think the best part of growing up rural in any area for a child (especially in the days before social media!) was being out in nature, feeling your place in it and your connection to it. The aspect of Scottish people I like the best is their no-nonsense honesty. They are authentic, and growing up with that, you develop a good kind of inner compass. Living in a place like the Kilmartin Valley (in which Dunadd sits) you can’t help but feel the pulse of all this ancient history through everything. It gives you a sense of context. In fact, the McDougalls held sway in the precise part of Argyll I lived in – the local castle was built in the twelfth century by my ancestors Duncan and Ewan McDougall. If I go back to Scotland today and people know my book is out, they will not be fawning over me, or I suspect they wouldn’t even be that impressed. Living rural among ruins, you see the larger picture. That is actually a very secure thing.
As far as showing someone around Scotland: Edinburgh, the place of my birth, would be on the list of places to visit. Oddly enough, there was a time when Edinburgh, or Dunedin, as it was known then, was less significant than Dunadd. But it is a beautiful city with the gardens and the castle high over everything. I did my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University. But that is probably it for the East coast. My heart definitely lies on the other side of Scotland, which is more mountainous with sea lochs, a bit like Norway with this dynamic interaction between the hills and the sea. The Hebridean Islands lie off the west coast – the most expensive whiskys come from here! Gaelic, the native language of Scotland, is still spoken out in the islands. (By rights, Braveheart should have been in Gaelic, not English!) And then of course, not forgetting the Kilmartin Valley – people come from all over the world to visit the burial mounds and the stone circles. And Dunadd!
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I am a big animal lover and I have three dogs and two cats (not too long ago I had three dogs, four cats and two rabbits!) I am the kind of person who, except for the influence of my long-suffering husband, would accumulate an ever-expanding collection of animals, and then the services would have to come in and start giving them away. Every day I walk with my three dogs and one belonging to a neighbor, so I am out with my pack, and I enjoy that.
Music is my other love. My three children are all musicians in their own way and music is very much in the house. I can’t imagine a life without music.
I am fiercely nationalistic, too, and am doing my bit to promote an independent Scotland.
But if I just want to relax, then my ideal evening is to dine out and see a movie. I love movies almost as much as books, and I don’t care to cook!
What’s next for you?
Next up is a bit in the balance, I suppose, and the current book is the product to be weighed. I have written a sequel called “Druid Hill,” which takes Maggie’s story forward and sideways. I have waited so long to be published, that any off-shoots of the process would suit me just fine. Of course, I would like to see Veil Of Time as a movie. I would like to write a sequel to the sequel at some point. I have a lot of unpublished novels that hopefully will eventually see light of day. On a mundane level, being a Scot raised close to the sea, I have an incessant longing for the ocean, and I am looking forward to the next time I get to be beside it!
Keep up with Claire: Website
About VEIL OF TIME:
A compelling tale of two Scotlands—one modern, one ancient—and the woman who parts the veil between them.
The medication that treats Maggie’s seizures leaves her in a haze, but it can’t dull her grief at losing her daughter to the same condition. With her marriage dissolved and her son away at school, Maggie retreats to a cottage below the ruins of Dunadd, once the royal seat of Scotland. But is it fantasy or reality when she awakens in a bustling village within the massive walls of eighth-century Dunadd? In a time and place so strange yet somehow familiar, Maggie is drawn to the striking, somber Fergus, brother of the king and father of Illa, who bears a keen resemblance to Maggie’s late daughter. With each dreamlike journey to the past, Maggie grows closer to Fergus and embraces the possibility of staying in this Dunadd. But with present-day demands calling her back, can Maggie leave behind the Scottish prince who dubs her mo chridhe, my heart?
Please welcome Wayne Gladstone to the blog! His new book, NOTES FROM THE INTERNET APOCALYPSE, came out last week, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about NOTES FROM THE INTERNET APOCALYPSE and what inspired it?
Thank you. The novel came from a free writing and the first 500 words of the novel are not too different from what I first wrote. Obviously, once I saw that opening, it took time to figure out what story within the framework of lost Internet worked best. Turned out it was a love story. Or at least a sci fi, noir mystery, existential examination, love story. While it would be foolish to read too much of me into the main character (I hope) the inspiration certainly comes for the idea of the difference between your Internet identity and true self.
Why satire? Why do you think it was the most effective way to tell your story?
I don’t know that it’s the most effective. A lot people can’t process satire. At all. It’s like color blindness. But it’s the form that has always resonated with me. It is the place for change. For hard truths. For laughs that catalyze thoughts and actions.
Obviously the book comments on just how dependent we are on the internet and social media, but, drawing on your extensive experience with online media, why do you think it’s so damn addictive?
Because you are all powerful and of no importance. You decide what you like, dislike. You control your entertainment and you opine on it all, but nothing relies on you. It runs without you. You are not needed. It’s all distraction and no pressure. Even the pressure to have a normal phone conversation, is relieved by IMs. You can watch TV at the same time.
On that note, why do you think pre, post, heck, any kind of apocalyptic stories resonate with readers so strongly?
Well any story is better when the stakes are raised, and with an apocalypse, ain’t none higher. I should say, however, that I was pleased by a review for Booklist that recognized my book is a parody of the Apocalypse genre itself. I mean, in my book everything is FINE. All modern conveniences remain. Just no Net. To treat that like an Apocalypse is part of the satire.
Ok, we know you’re a very funny guy, have written for Cracked as well as Comedy Central, and more, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I probably have and I took classes in school but barely pursued it in my 20s. My background? Hmm. Grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. Went to the same High School as Natalie Portman and Judd Apatow. (I’m younger than Judd and older than Natalie.
Most people called me the meat in a sexy Jewish sandwich. No one called me that.) I went to Cornell and had the late great Dan McCall as a creative writing Professor and thesis advisor. I live in New York.
What are a few of your favorite books?
Books, short stories, plays…
The Trial by Kafka, and Metamorphosis, Hunger Artist, and Judgement
Kavalier and Clay by Chabon
The Corrections by Franzen
Notes from Underground by Dostoevksy
Bartleby the Scrivener by Melville
Long Day’s Journey Into Night By O’Neill
Without thinking about it for too long, if someone were to ask you for a book rec, just one, which one would you recommend?
The Corrections because if they hate it, we probably don’t have to be friends.
NOTES has a great cover, and I think it perfectly conveys the meat of the book. Have you ever bought a book just for its cover?
I joked that the jacket was so great, that I HOPE people judge my book just by its cover. But no, I haven’t.
Quick, what’s something that makes you laugh out loud?
Charlie Day’s excitement.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Watching movies, especially with my kids.
What’s next for you?
Books 2 and 3 of the Internet Apocalypse Trilogy! Already sold. I’m 2/5 done with Book 2 right now.
About NOTES FROM THE INTERNET APOCALYPSE:
When the Internet suddenly stops working, society reels from the loss of flowing data and streaming entertainment. Addicts wander the streets talking to themselves in 140 characters or forcing cats to perform tricks for their amusement, while the truly desperate pin their requests for casual encounters on public bulletin boards. The economy tumbles and the government passes the draconian NET Recovery Act.
For Gladstone, the Net’s disappearance comes particularly hard, following the loss of his wife, leaving his flask of Jamesons and grandfather’s fedora as the only comforts in his Brooklyn apartment. But there are rumors that someone in New York is still online. Someone set apart from this new world where Facebook flirters “poke” each other in real life and members of Anonymous trade memes at secret parties. Where a former librarian can sell information as a human search engine and the perverted fulfill their secret fetishes at the blossoming Rule 34 club. With the help of his friends—a blogger and a webcam girl, both now out of work—Gladstone sets off to find the Internet. But is he the right man to save humanity from this Apocalypse?
For those of you wondering if you have WiFi right now, Wayne Gladstone’s Notes from the Internet Apocalypse examines the question “What is life without the Web?”
THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfeld was one of the most lovely, heart-wrenching novels I’ve read in a long time, and I’m honored to have her on the blog to talk about the book, and more. Please give her a warm welcome.
Rene, you’re the author of three non-fiction novels (and more), and your first novel, THE ENCHANTED, just came out! Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
I was raised poor, by a single mom of five kids. My childhood was difficult, and books became my escape. The local library was my sanctuary—I would spend hours there, reading at the long wooden tables while sunlight poured in the windows. Later, in my early twenties, I was fortunate to meet a community of local writers. They encouraged me to put pen to paper. Today, I try to do the same for other aspiring writers. The beauty of writing is anyone can do it.
You are an investigator for death row inmates, and THE ENCHANTED is about an inmate on death row. Did you have to do any additional research for the novel, or did you just draw on your own experiences?
The job of the lady is very much like my job. I find witnesses, locate records—essentially plumb the history of men and women facing execution.
There’s definitely a “message” to be found in THE ENCHANTED, and compassion is a huge theme in the book, but it’s not at all heavy handed, and it’s a topic that needs more attention. How did you manage to convey hope amidst such dark circumstances, and what would you like to see readers to take away from the book?
While the setting is quite grim, I hope readers feel the same about the story that I do—that it is a celebration of the human ability to find hope, joy and beauty even in the most despairing of circumstances.
Aside from her occupation, obviously, how much of “the lady” is like you?
Both the lady and I share hard childhoods. We both grew up in poverty, with mothers who had issues that impaired their ability to parent. Both of us experienced trauma. And both of us use our understandings of the pain people can cause each other in our work. But at the same time, the lady is a much different person than me. She has different desires and opinions—she is not me. I was rooting for her to find love in the book.
What is your writing process like? How long did it take to write THE ENCHANTED?
It was an absolute joy to be immersed in this story. The hours I spent with the narrator felt so magical. At first it was slow going, and then the writing came in a flood. It took a little less than a year to complete.
THE ENCHANTED goes to some very painful, difficult places. Did you have to decompress after writing certain passages?
There were many times I would get out of my chair and leave the room— more than once in tears. I knew what I was writing was true, but some of it was so hard to bear. The sections on the white-haired boy were especially difficult. I have dealt with that issue in my work. It happens. I wanted to show it for how it really is—the terrible truth of it.
THE ENCHANTED, for me, defies genre and is hard to categorize. How would you describe it, genre wise?
To me, the entire concept of a genre is in itself a fiction. A book is a book, a story a story. I fear that trying to write for a genre encourages clichéd writing.
On a bit of a lighter note, can you relate something, in your experience as a death row investigator, that has brought you a bit of hope regarding the future of our prison system?
There are a lot of good people who work in prisons. I’ve met wonderful wardens, officers and counselors. Many are trying to change the system for the better. I enjoyed writing the character of the warden in The Enchanted because he shows there are people of integrity who work in prisons. There are lots of good people, on all sides, working to change our prisons for the better.
What authors, or novels, have influenced you the most, in your writing, and in life?
I am the most voracious of readers. I can —and do—read just about everything. If there isn’t a book handy, the back of the cereal box will do. The novels that have influenced me the most are the ones that capture the wild beauty of life. Some of them are mentioned in The Enchanted. I keep dog-eared copies of favorite books and read them time and again.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
I remember reading Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban when I was about sixteen. It was a revelation. I finished it in one draught. Put it down and then picked it up again. Every time I read that book I would find something new in it.
What are you currently reading, and what books are you looking forward to reading this year?
I recently got lucky and scored an advance copy of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. It’s gorgeous.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I love to spend time with my kids. I also love working out and gardening. I live in beautiful Oregon, and so lots of walking is always in order!
What’s next for you?
I have a few death penalty trials coming up—and more stories inside me waiting to be told. I think it is going to be a busy year!
Thank you for having me on your blog—it’s been a pleasure and an honor.
Keep up with Rene: Website
About THE ENCHANTED:
“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.” The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs with the devastating violence of prison life.
Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honesty and corruption—ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.
Beautiful and transcendent, The Enchanted reminds us of how our humanity connects us all, and how beauty and love exist even amidst the most nightmarish reality.
Please welcome Peter Higgins back to the blog! Enjoy his post, and be sure to keep your eye out for TRUTH AND FEAR, out March 25th!
Books Without Covers: The End Of Chancy, Contextless Reading?
In my Amazon account I have 93 wish lists. 93 lovingly curated hamster nests, each collecting a particular genre, a particular topic, a particular thread of thought. I link them in Evernote to Wikipedia entries and relevant blog posts. It’s a kind of hobby, a satisfaction in its own right.
The internet transformed my reading world. Amazon. Wikipedia. Google. Ebay. Everything was brilliant. It was the end of random browsing in bookshops, picking something from whatever happened to be there. Now I could find exactly the books I wanted, even if I didn’t already know they existed. Almost any book ever published could be got and read. There were genres and histories and traditions I knew nothing of, but now I could learn about them. In this inexhaustible new world all richness was there. Pull on any thread … Buy them. Read them.
Except, increasingly, I don’t actually read them. I list more books than I can buy, and buy more books than I can read. It’s almost as if I don’t need to read them any more, because I know them already. The review, the blog post, the Wikipedia plot summary. Each book comes surrounded by a cloud of pre-digested context and digested opinion. It’s great, but I’m starting to miss the old, random ways of stumbling into a book and staying there.
When I first started to read, I knew almost nothing about the books I chose, except what was on the cover. Books then could be strange, scary, contextless. I was drawn in again and again by the magic of empty names. Algis Budrys. Theodore Sturgeon. Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R Delany. Ursula K Le Guin. J R R Tolkien. Poul Anderson. Joy Chant. Andre Norton. A E van Vogt. For an adolescent growing up among Joneses and Davieses these were alien names, absolutely different from the Agathas and the Jacks and the Hammonds and the Dennises on my parents’ shelves. As alien as the creatures and planetary landscapes in the cover art. That was what drew me in. The names were part of the covers and promised strangeness. Strangeness was all I needed.
I knew nothing about where these strange books came from. No sequence. No context. No genre. I thought Algis Budrys was a woman and Andre Norton was a man. When I started Lord of the Rings I didn’t know what it was. No idea at all. I’d never heard of hobbits before. It was absolutely, wonderfully shocking to find out what that book contained.
I vividly remember the last time I bought books on the basis of their covers alone. It must have been around 2000, when I picked up – in quick succession, on bookstore shelves – Little, Big by John Crowley and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. For some random, unconscious reason these books jumped out at me. It was the covers, I think. The titles. They were contextless, except they were in series labeled Fantasy Masterworks and SF Masterworks. It was those two fabulous books, the huge unexpected strangeness and possibilities in them that I discovered by accident and surprise, which changed me, made me want to write myself.
I love the internet and what it’s done for reading and writing. The opportunities for learning and discovery. The sense of not being alone. The internet has connected me with living genres and communities of readers and writers, and it got me published – I’d never have found the magazines that took my first stories without it. And it’s connected me with my own past. I’ve rebought comic books I lost years ago. I’ve rebought and learned more about all those strange texts and authors I once discovered by chance. Books have a new thing now, which didn’t exist before: the reader’s voice, the feedback loops, the online communities that build and change their own genres.
But increasingly I find myself mourning the loss of scary, alien, authorless and contextless books. Random, serendipitous reading. Going into strange territories. Books where all you knew was the cover. Now it sometimes feels as if books don’t have covers at all.
About Peter Higgins:
Peter Higgins read English at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He was a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and worked in the British Civil Service. His short stories have appeared in Fantasy: Best of the Year 2007, Best New Fantasy 2, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Zahir and Revelation, and in Russian translation in the St Petersburg magazine Esli. He lives with his family in South Wales.
To celebrate the paperback release of WOLFOUND CENTURY by Peter Higgins, I’ve got 5 paperback copies to give away to 5 lucky winners, courtesy of Orbit Books. If you haven’t discovered this wonderful debut, you’re in for a treat, and it was one of my Best Books of 2013!
A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown insurgents with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.
Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.
I am huge fan of John Connolly’s work, and his new SF with Jennifer Ridyard, CONQUEST, is pretty awesome, so I’m thrilled to have them on the blog for a chat about the book, and more! Please give them both a very warm welcome!
I absolutely LOVED Conquest and can’t wait for the next book! What made you decide to collaborate on an SF book?
JOHN: I think we had both always loved sci-fi, but the initial idea was mine. I wanted to write about the first alien female to turn 16 on Earth after an invasion, I suppose because it seemed like alienation squared: the natural difficulties all teenagers face, but compounded by being an absolute outsider among a race that hates her. But, quite frankly, I have no business knowing anything about 16-year-old girls, alien or otherwise, so it seemed a good idea to bring in Jennie, who has been a journalist for two decades and has a book of her own under submission.
I also think that we both wanted to write sci-fi with a very female emphasis. It’s unfortunate, but science fiction still has a whiff of maledom about it, fairly or unfairly. We wanted to address that issue, and rectify the imbalance a little.
JENNIE: Thank you so much! Delighted you loved CONQUEST, and am very pleased to chat.
As for your question, well, quite simply John asked me… He was really worried about asking me too, and got himself in complete knots about doing so. I thought he was going to request something dreadful, possibly requiring dungeons and gadgets, but when he said he’d like my help to write a book about the first alien born on earth following the invasion, I was delighted, and rather honoured too. I don’t know why he thought I’d be cross. I think I’d have collaborated on just about anything because he’s a brilliant, experienced writer (though don’t tell him I said so) but this was a particular pleasure as I was intrigued by the vague shadow of a SF story that he revealed. And yes, it’s such a boy-dominated genre, and females do get squeezed out. Too often, female-centric SF is classified vaguely as fantasy, presumably to move it away from the Lycra, multi-boobed, laser-gun connotations.
I loved how Syl was very conflicted, since as an Illyri, she has loyalty to her kind, but she’s also very much an Earth girl. What do you love most about her, and what was the best part of writing her character?
JOHN: I think it was the fact that she ended up so torn, and understood that she was a child of two worlds. For me there was also an element of an angry, unhappy teenage girl suddenly discovering that she had the ability to lash out at her tormentors. There’s something about the rage of children that I find fascinating.
JENNIE: I like that Syl is angry and flawed. I don’t think she’s always likeable, but I do think her motivations are pretty clear. I particularly love her moral strength and incorruptibility. If she believes something is right she is prepared to fight for it, even when walking away would be much easier. This sense of justice can be one of the most admirable but also frustrating things about teenagers.
What kind of research was done for the novel?
JOHN: My interest in science is already pretty apparent from the Samuel Johnson books, and it extended further with this book. I’m curious about the physics of the future – medicine, weaponry, power, robotics – so I was reading Michio Kaku and Ray Kurzweil, and something of that fed into my parts of the book. Otherwise, a lot of it was just recalling how I felt as a teenager, combined with the realization that I still had a lot of that teenager inside me.
JENNIE: John set me homework: he asked me to watch a 1970s film set in the highlands – The Thirty Nine Steps – so I’d get an idea of the chase. I had to watch it a few times because I kept falling asleep…
I reread my favourite childhood SF classic, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which is also set on earth, albeit in a reimagined dystopian future, and also has strong female characters.
Will you tell us a little more about the writing process for Conquest, how your collaboration worked, and what you think you each brought to the narrative?
JOHN: It was difficult – far more difficult than I thought it would be. We’re both fairly strong-minded, and it really was a labor of love for each of us. I gave Jennie the initial chapters and the outline, then went off to do publicity for the Parker books. In the beginning there was a misunderstanding about the age group that I, in particular, was aiming for, so Jennie maybe wrote a little younger than I did. I then had a go at redressing that, handed it back to her, and she revised it again.
I think she brought a very acute sense of how teenagers think and speak and feel. I brought a little of the darkness to it.
JENNIE: Hah! What happened at the beginning certainly wasn’t great for the old ego. He gave me the first few chapters and a synopsis, I handed him 70 000 words – the first draft – when I’d completed it, and he threw it up in the air and said: “Who are you writing for?”
Then he took it away and reworked it, then gave it back to me for a turn, and slowly we built it up while shaving away (hopefully) the bits that were distinctly him or me, until it was seamless. We never sat down and worked on it together, but instead worked separately, and at different times. When I had it, he didn’t; when he had it, I didn’t.
He brought the science bits, the concept, the outline, the lyricism and much of the darkness. I brought rather a lot of conversation, and (I hope) some humanising touches.
Worldbuilding was a huge part of this novel, for both the Earth under its new rule, and also establishing a rich background for the Illyri. What are a few of your favorite literary “worlds”?
JOHN: I love P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster novels. I don’t think I could like anyone who didn’t. I’m also a fan of Terry Pratchett, who has done something wonderful with Discworld.
JENNIE: My favourite created worlds are probably those of Philip Pullman: the His Dark Materials series is superlative, and exquisitely executed. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
I also loved (as a child) Enid Blyton’s brilliant, raucous Faraway Tree series, with its ever-changing worlds on clouds above the magical tree. I’m also a fan of Narnia, the land behind a wardrobe, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by CS Lewis. The rest of his books flagged a bit, or got bogged down in preachiness, but that one was perfect.
What are a few of your favorite SF titles?
JOHN: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham; The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
JENNIE: John and I bonded over The Chrysalids (one of my favourite childhood books), and I also loved The Day of the Triffids, another classic by John Wyndham.
More recently, I borrowed The Hunger Games from my sons and thought Suzanne Collins had done a remarkable job.
What would you like to see readers take away from Conquest?
JOHN: A sense of the moral complexity of the universe, and the necessity to try and do what is right rather than what is easy.
JENNIE: The thrill of a cracking read, and a head full of wonder and imaginings! And hopefully a lust for reading. Not a lot to ask, right…?
Conquest ended on some shockers, and left a ton of stuff to be explored in the next installment! Will you give us a bit of a teaser for the next book?
JOHN: It’s called EMPIRE. We’re writing it at the moment, but it sees Paul and Syl follow different paths to the same revelation: the nature of the real threat facing both humanity and the Illyri. I haven’t read Jennie’s sections yet, though, and she hasn’t read mine, but we each have an idea of what the other is doing. I think it’ll probably be a pacier book than CONQUEST. A lot of the set-up and backstory was done in that book. Now we’re into the meat of the thing.
JENNIE: Meia is back! Woohoo!
What’s next up for each of you?
JOHN: Well, I have the new Parker book, THE WOLF IN WINTER, out in the UK in April and the US in October, and once I’ve finished work on EMPIRE I’ll return to Parker.
JENNIE: When we’ve both finished our sections of EMPIRE, I’m going to get the first crack at weaving them together, which is daunting but terribly exciting. When EMPIRE is done, I’ll start thinking about the next one in the series, but in the interim it’ll be back to copywriting for me. Hey, it’s not the worst way to pay the bills!
Earth is no longer ours. . . .
It is ruled by the Illyri, a beautiful, civilized, yet ruthless alien species. But humankind has not given up the fight, and Paul Kerr is one of a new generation of young Resistance leaders waging war on the invaders.
Syl Hellais is the first of the Illyri to be born on Earth. Trapped inside the walls of her father’s stronghold, hated by the humans, she longs to escape.
But on her sixteenth birthday, Syl’s life is about to change forever. She will become an outcast, an enemy of her people, for daring to save the life of one human: Paul Kerr. Only together do they have a chance of saving each other, and the planet they both call home.
For there is a greater darkness behind the Illyri conquest of Earth, and the real invasion has not yet even begun. . . .
As you probably know, John Hornor Jacobs is one of my favorite authors, and his new book, The Shibboleth (2nd in a series after The Twelve-Fingered Boy), just came out. John was kind enough to let me catch up with him about the new book, and more!
Ok, it’s been way too long and we’re more than overdue for some catching up! I loved THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY and am very excited for its follow-up, THE SHIBBOLETH. Miriam Webster gives a few definitions of “shibboleth”, one being that it’s used to describe a myth or saying that’s generally regarded to be without real meaning (among a few other meanings.)Why did you choose this rather awesome, and unique, title?
My original title for this novel was Incarcerado, a rather glib phrase that Shreve uses as a refrain in the first novel in the series, The Twelve-Fingered Boy. However, Incarcerado was too similar to Incarceron, another YA novel about a prison planet, so my editor and I had a chat and he suggested The Shibboleth.
As far as the word itself, “shibboleth”, in everyday parlance it is often used to indicate a common phrase. It has Hebrew roots. I think it meant “grain” originally, but after a battle, the ability to pronounce the word correctly was used as a sort of password, a point of authenticity. In my novel, I’ve perverted the meaning even more. It has come to represent the extra-natural ability that Shreve and his nemesis share.
Quincrux, the antagonist of the novel, has placed a memory inside a bull guard at the Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center for Shreve, knowing that Shreve will tinker around in the man’s head and discover it.
“No, I do not even need to be with you to know your answer. There are certain shibboleths to our condition –
I’m shocked, and that’s not easy.
Out. Out of the bull, disembodied, looking down at him, his body now a loose, ungainly collection of bones and muscles. His expression is vacant, abject. Quincrux has infested this man with his memory. The bull—his name is Alex Schneider—is just a letter, a message, a package wrapped in a uniform and addressed to me.
I know what the word means in a raw way, more penetrating than how he just tossed it off. It has such weight in his mind, I can tell by the trill in his voice, how his mouth moves around the sounds, even in the bull’s second-hand memory. It’s what we share, this thing, the shibboleth, between him and me beyond that, between me and the rest of mankind—the common utterance, the universality of mankind’s thoughts.
This ability I have is the shibboleth.”
Something like that.
Anyway, my editor said the novel should be called The Shibboleth. I argued against it. It is a weird word, it’s hard to pronounce, no one knows what it means. It would be death for sales. He said, “And yet, it is the perfect title for the book. That’s undeniable.” So, we went with it. Andrew Karre, my editor on this series, is much more fearless than I am.
My youngest daughter calls it The Shiver Left, knowing how much that bothers me.
At the end of THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY, our heroes, Jack and Shreve, were both, in different ways, very much imprisoned. Without spoilers, of course, what can we expect from the boys this time around, and will you tell us more about the Society of the Extranaturals?
In The Shibboleth, we learn more about Quincrux, his mission and organization and obscure desires. We also learn more about “the incident in Maryland” that left him weakened. We learn about the Riders, the presences behind the eyes of “impenetrables.” We learn some of what the Riders want, and we learn what the presence in Maryland signifies.
And we learn a lot about Shreve and how fucked up the poor kid is.
Both boys discovered they each had some pretty amazing powers in the first book. What made you decide on their prospective abilities? If you could have a “super”, what would it be?
Superpowers are wish fulfillments, essentially. So, if I could choose a superpower, it’s almost tantamount to saying “You have one wish, what do you wish for?” Do I choose something that satisfies me personally or do I choose something that helps mankind? Or, destroys it?
But to take your question seriously, if I could have a superpower, it would be to be to awaken superpowers in other people (a theme I touch on in The Shibboleth). I think I’d try to only grant superpowers to those deserving of it, rather than those solely desirous of it. And consequently do good for the world.
How would you say Shreve and Jack have grown since the first book?
Jack has become an adult, and Shreve has done a lot of bad things and had to grapple with his conscious and a shitload of extra-natural bullshit. Shreve has been broken by circumstance. “The world is a monster,” he says, and it is, especially to him. One of his greatest fears is that he is the monster, that he’s becoming Quincrux.
I really don’t take it easy on the kid.
What have you enjoyed the most about writing for a younger audience? What have you found challenging?
The most rewarding things about writing for adolescents is that I’m still very much aware of the issues I had then, in my teens (not gonna tell you how long ago that was… okay, twist my arm, just a couple of years ago and writing about them has proven a sort of catharsis. It’s also informed the way I look at my daughters, especially the oldest, who is now thirteen and surly.
The most challenging thing about these books are the constant fret and conflict between the physical who we are and the who we are without flesh. There’s a metaphysical dialogue that occurs, in Shreve’s head, constantly. He is a bugfuck, which is to say, he’s a telepath. Not only can he control people, he can enter their minds and experience their history. After a certain point, his ability to discern where his identity ends and others begin has eroded to the point that all his histories, everyone he’s ever touched, crowd his mind.
This development in Shreve mirrors the development of adolescents (and even adults). Who am I? When do I stop being an extension of my parents and be my own person? What are my values? What is my voice and what do I stand for? What makes me different from everyone else? Why should I not be like all those people around me? Why should I not conform?
There’s a reason the last book in the series is called The Conformity.
But Shreve answers these hard questions in his inimitable way. But it is painful, much like adolescence is painful.
And in this way, The Shibboleth isn’t really a gentle, feel-good book. It’s dense, and full of conflicted emotions, and hard lessons.
What would you like to see readers take away from the books?
A burning desire to buy more of my books.
Kidding. (Not really.)
Oh, sure, I’d also like those teens that read it to understand that it’s not easy for anyone, and that everyone makes mistakes. That the weight of your past shouldn’t define you. And that figuring out who you are is something you’ll grapple with all your life, if you have any modicum of self-awareness.
How about you, read any good books or seen any good movies lately? Were there any standout titles for you in 2013?
I hated almost every movie I saw last year, with the exception of a couple. Look, I’m a guy who has written a book about kids with superpowers, I’ve written a book about zombies – so I LIKE speculative elements – but when I walked out of Man of Steel, I really felt like I’d be fine if I never saw a movie with a superhero again. Iron Man 3 was a jumbled mess. I can’t remember what I saw before that. The Hobbit was fucking ridiculous, even for someone who hasn’t read the book but I have many times (first book I ever read, thanks for taking a dump on my 8 year-old self, Peter Jackson, you filthy bastard). Pacific Rim was poor, but had a couple of things going for it, and maybe that’s why everyone got so excited about it – it didn’t totally suck!
The best movie I saw last year was The Way Way Back followed closely by The Kings of Summer. Both coming of age movies.
As far as television goes, I was very surprised at how well Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human turned out.
I didn’t read a lot of novels – and no one wants to hear about non-fiction because it always sounds like the person is trying to prove how smart he or she is – but the standouts were Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, Daniel Polanski’s Low Town, and Myke Cole’s wonderful Control Point. All of these are remixes of what you might think of as traditional fantasy.
With THE SHIBBOLETH, you’ve got four titles under your belt (soon to be five, with THE INCORRUPTIBLES), as well as numerous short stories. Recently, I asked a few debut authors about what things they’ve learned since being published. What are a few things you’ve learned, and what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
A few things I’ve learned. Huh.
You know how when you were a teenager and you’d take the SAT and ACT and they’d always tell you to go with your first choice? I’m learning that my narrative instincts are normally pretty on target and to not overthink things. But I’ve also learned that I can take my time and try to be less terse when it comes to plotting, pacing, and descriptions. I’m trying to write bigger worlds, bigger stories, with more characters and more details, so I need to be able to have a number of styles.
If I was advising an as-yet-unpublished writer, I’d say to write what interests you. The creation of a novel takes a long ass time, months if not years, and if you don’t get excited about the story you’re telling – if it’s not a book you’d like to read – what’s the point?
What’s next for you this year?
The Incorruptibles drops in the UK on August 14th, this summer. Hopefully, we’ll know soon who’ll publish it in the US. I’m wrapping the second novel in The Incorruptibles series very soon and will be laboring to finish the last book in the coming months. In 2015, The Conformity will be published, wrapping up the story of Jack and Shreve.
After that? Who knows what I’ll write. What I do know is that it will be a standalone novel. I’m good on series for the time being.
About THE SHIBBOLETH:
“There are certain shibboleths to our condition.”
At the end of the first book of The Twelve-Fingered Boy Trilogy, Jack and Shreve are incarcerado—physically locked up. Shreve’s back in the custody of the state of Arkansas, and Jack’s somewhere in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux—both problems Shreve aims to rectify.
Cages might hold Shreve’s body, but the power that’s been growing since his encounter with Quincrux has reached a pinnacle. Nothing can prevent his mind from scaling the etheric heights. Freed from his body, Shreve discovers the magnitude of the evil that’s stirring in the east. The wave of insomnia that’s paralyzed the nation is only the beginning.
To save Jack—and maybe all of the humanity he no longer feels part of—Shreve has no choice but to join Quincrux and the Society of Extranaturals.