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May 2011

SF/Fantasy for the Summer


Do you like science fiction? What about fantasy? Novels or stories? No matter what your answer, you should find something to enjoy in at least one of these three releases.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corley

Frantic for a space opera fix? This exciting novel written under a pen name by fantasy author Daniel Abraham and first-time novelist Ty Franck delivers what you need, and more. As George R.R. Martin writes, “It’s been too long since we’ve had a really kick-ass space opera. Leviathan Wakes is the kind of SF that made me fall in love with the genre.” In the novel, scheduled for release by June 5, humans have colonized the solar system but not the stars, and the fight for control of this finite planetary kingdom is heating up. The discovery of a derelict ship sparks the widening of conflict and dissent, threatening the survival of all humankind. Throw in a detective looking for a missing girl, rebels, and secretive governments and you’ve got the makings of a riveting space opera thriller.

The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The latest in the author’s “Shadows of the Apt” series is as good a place as any to dive into this unique fantasy. The war with the Wasp Empire has ended in a bitter stalemate. Wait, what, you might ask? Wasp Empire. Yes, you heard that right. Tchaikovsky has melded heroic fantasy, giant insects, compelling characters, elements of Steampunk, and unique settings to deliver an epic reading experience. Reviewers are falling over backwards in praise of these novels, with Fantasy Book Critic writing of the latest installment that “all of the elements that made [the others] so good are still here—inventiveness, action, great world building.”

The Inheritance & Other Stories by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

The bestselling Hobb teams up with her alter-ego Lindholm to bring you ten fascinating tales. Lindholm is the name Hobb originally published under. (Hobb now tends to hog the word-processor according to the clever press release.) The contributions from Lindholm include Nebula Award and Hugo Award finalists. A new story, “Cat’s Meat,” has also been included in the collection. Booklist gave the collection a starred review and Kirkus wrote “All [of the stories] are beautifully written parables, expressing a clear message but managing not to be too offensively preachy about it…You don’t have to be a fan of either of the author’s identities to enjoy this collection—but you may become one.” Don’t miss the title story, “A Touch of Lavender,” or “Homecoming,” in particular. Hobb-Lindholm has major writing chops, and The Inheritance is a nice showcase rather than an afterthought.

We’ll have more summer reading suggestions for SF/Fantasy fans in the coming weeks, but if you want to start your vacation early, all three of these books provide a good reason to escape…

"The Dark City": A Treacherous Quest


I tend to be something of an impulse reader: if I’m bored and I see anything with words on it, even if it’s just a cereal box, I’ll read it. That’s how I first discovered Catherine Fisher’s novel Incarceron. I was bored, the book was sitting in my house, so I sat down and read it all. In four hours.

Naturally, when I heard about The Dark City, the first book in Fisher’s new series, Relic Master, I snapped it up immediately. Set in the world of Anara, the story centers around a Relic Master and his apprentice, Raffi. Relic Masters use their magic to find ancient technological relics (such as telescopes and laser guns) that tie in neatly with Anara’s creation myths, which the reader will recognize as a history of spacemen who colonized the planet and then left with promises to return. Relic Masters are persecuted by the Watch for believing these myths and possessing the relics. The only safe place for Relic Masters is in hiding. But when Raffi’s master Galen loses his powers in an explosion, desperation to recover them drives him from their hiding place and sets them on a quest to the Wounded City, Tasceron, former capital and murder site of the emperor. Magic has blanketed the entire city in a black fog, and the Watch guard the entrance; it’s impossible for Galen and Raffi to get inside without being caught. But they have little choice.

The point of view alternates between Raffi and Carys, a member of the Watch. Between the chapters are verses of Anaran mythology that embellish the world and pull readers deeper into the plot. There’s never a dull moment in this book; the characters are well-drawn and each carry their own secrets, doubts, and shifting allegiances. The atmosphere is dark and treacherous, like the Wounded City itself, at the same time offering glimmers of hope and the familiarity of the relics for readers to grab onto. The ending is satisfying even as it launches Galen and Raffi into another quest.

Luckily, middle-grade readers don’t have to wait long until the quest continues. Dial is publishing each book in the quartet this summer, one a month. The second book, The Lost Heiress will be released on June 14; The Hidden Coronet on July 12; and the final volume, The Margrave, on August 9. Entering this immersive, fascinating world is the perfect way to while away the summer days.

Author Jesse Bullington on His "Enterprise of Death"


Jesse Bullington leapt onto the scene with his first novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, published by Orbit. A scandalous romp through Medieval Europe with a couple of murderous brothers, the novel managed to meld dark humor and horror, while also injecting the supernatural. The novel divided reviewers but received its fair share of praise.

Now Bullington’s back with a second novel that’s no less ambitious. Set during the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, Enterprise of Death features a young African slave named Awa unwillingly apprenticed to a necromancer. Although she manages to extricate herself from the arrangement, Awa finds herself under the power of a curse. Only a mysterious book may help release her—but first she must find it. Along the way, she’ll meet up with the artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, the alchemist Dr. Paracelsus, and a Dutch mercenary. Vampires and zombies also put in an appearance.

Sound like your standard fantasy novel plot? Not at all, and as the Wall Street Journal noted in its review, you have to admire the results: “It's macabre, gruesome, foul-mouthed and much more complex than the usual vampire-and-zombie routine. The book is also a great counter to any notion that it's easy to tell the difference between scientific fact and occult fantasy.” I interviewed Jesse Bullington recently about the novel and his relationship with weird fiction, continuing the theme from Tuesday’s feature on Michael Cisco and Brendan Connell. What does the term “The Weird” mean to you, and how would define your own work in relation to the Weird?

Jesse Bullington: It’s a bit of a cheat, but for me “The Weird” is best defined by what it isn’t—ordinary, mundane, predictable, the not-weird. What exactly that is varies wildly from era to era, movement to movement, medium to medium, and artist to artist, but I think the core of “The Weird” is an effort to create something fantastic and often fantastical, to turn up something new and unexpected even in seemingly overworked fields. As such, it’s pretty much a catchall for the sorts of art that I’m most interested in experiencing, consuming, producing, and participating in.

Continue reading "Author Jesse Bullington on His "Enterprise of Death"" »

What are the Most Well-Read Cities in the US?


Just in time for the summer reading season, announced its list of the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America. After compiling sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents, the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities are:

  1. Cambridge, Mass.
  2. Alexandria, Va.
  3. Berkeley, Calif.
  4. Ann Arbor, Mich.
  5. Boulder, Colo.
  6. Miami
  7. Salt Lake City
  8. Gainesville, Fla.
  9. Seattle
  10. Arlington, Va.
  11. Knoxville, Tenn.
  12. Orlando, Fla.
  13. Pittsburgh
  14. Washington, D.C.
  15. Bellevue, Wash.
  16. Columbia, S.C.
  17. St. Louis, Mo.
  18. Cincinnati
  19. Portland, Ore.
  20. Atlanta

Here's the full press release.

Photo of Cambridge, MA courtesy of Josh Michtom

YA Wednesday Bonus Post: Cassandra Clare Cover Reveal


Today at Book Expo America, the book industry’s biggest conference, Simon & Schuster revealed the cover of Cassandra Clare’s newest book in the Infernal Devices series, Clockwork Prince (December 6)… And here it is!

Both Cassie and her publisher are staying mum on what exactly will happen in the book, so you tell us: what are you hoping for?

And in the meantime, check out our Author Interviews@Amazon video with Cassie about City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in her Mortal Instruments series.

YA Wednesday: An Author One-on-One with Maggie Stiefvater and Tessa Gratton


Today, Maggie Stiefvater, author of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series and the upcoming The Scorpio Races (out October 2011), talks to Tessa Gratton, author of Blood Magic.

Maggie Stiefvater: So, Tessa. Your nickname in our writing group is “Blood Bunny.” I cannot remember whether this delightful moniker pre-dates Blood Magic, but it’s irrelevant; it’s apt regardless. There is much blood in your debut. If I recall correctly, we begin with a double murder, proceed to a blood-stained journal, observe as our narrator spills blood in a cemetery, and go from there. The question that this begs is: Are you a fan of bloody novels? And is Band-Aid your sponsor?

Tessa Gratton: Considering The Scorpio Races is my favorite of all your books, and it’s also your most bloody by far, I’m going to have to plead guilty here. I’m a huge fan of fictional violence, especially the medieval kind. Though in my defense, my Band-Aids are all Hello Kitty– decorated. Speaking of cute things gone bloody, how long have you been wanting to write a novel about flesh-eating horses? Is this some kind of childhood trauma thing? Because all the horses I want to write about are shiny and magical and take me—I mean my characters—to castles in the sky.

Stiefvater: I grew out of my My Little Pony stage (and yes, I had one) very young. I never grew out of horses, though, and I actually attempted to write several novels about water horses before I landed on The Scorpio Races. The thing is, telling a pleasant story about horses that live under the ocean for part of the year and want to eat you for the rest of it is a sort of difficult task, and it took me quite a few years to figure out how to manage it. Somewhere along the way, I realized their fearsome nature would be more tolerated in a society that kind of needed them, too. Which is how I ended up with the vaguely historical Thisby, a tiny island that relies on the water horses for much of their income.

While we’re on the topic of historical stuff, I should talk about Josephine, one of your characters from Blood Magic. Some of my favorite chapters in Blood Magic are the ones from her point of view. They’re historical, vain, and certain of immortality. So, in other words, eerily similar to my college experience. Where did Josephine come from? Are you Josephine?

Continue reading "YA Wednesday: An Author One-on-One with Maggie Stiefvater and Tessa Gratton" »

Writing on the Edge: Authors Michael Cisco and Brendan Connell on Weird Fiction


Many of the more interesting twenty-first century permutations of “The Weird” in literature have come from authors Michael Cisco and Brendan Connell. For Cisco, it’s primarily been through novels like his latest, The Great Lover, and Brendan Connell through collections like the just-released The Life of Polycrates & Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Connell’s fiction has appeared in such respected publications as McSweeney’s, Adbusters, and Harpur’s Palate, while Cisco has been highly praised for previous novels by the likes of China Mieville, perhaps the most popular mainstream writer associated with The Weird.

But what is “The Weird” exactly? Weird fiction, in the classic sense, tends to mean the kind of supernatural stories that don’t fit into easy classifications, and which may produce more of a sense of unease than of outright horror. As H.P. Lovecraft wrote in his classic definition:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

In its more contemporary permutations, “The Weird” has been infiltrated by the experimental literary speculative fiction of the British New Wave, the transgressive body horror of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, and various mainstream influences. The result is sometimes called “The New Weird,” and even Mieville’s latest, Embassytown, ostensibly a science fiction novel, is an example of it. Modern Weird also can contain elements associated with experimental fiction, in addition to references to the Decadent writers of the late 1800s. K.J. Bishop, Steph Swainston, Jeffrey Thomas, and others are all creating weird texts in a modern context.

Continue reading "Writing on the Edge: Authors Michael Cisco and Brendan Connell on Weird Fiction" »

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest: Announcing the Finalists

Earlier this morning, we announced the six finalists vying for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Editors at Penguin have selected the six finalists--three in General Fiction, three in Young Adult Fiction--and now the fun part starts. We need your help deciding which entries should win.

Visit the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest page to read excerpts from the finalists, check out reviews from our expert panelists (including outstanding feedback from bestselling authors Lev Grossman and Gayle Forman), then vote for your favorite in General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction. Voting ends June 1.

The General Fiction finalists are:

And the Young Adult Fiction finalists are:

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest winners will each receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance. We'll be announcing the winners on June 13, so check back to see if your favorite finalists made the cut!

Some Affection for Short Story Collections


Did you know May is National Short Story Month? I didn't either, which is why I'm blogging about it with just a week left in the month. But I stock up on short story collections at this time of year because I think they're a great way to get ready for the warm-weather. Short stories are bite-sized and non-committal--the perfect compliment to a summer that's strange, surprising, and spontaneous. (I also like owning short story collections more than I do novels, since I'm more likely to revisit them.) So I've listed a few new collections (some of which I'm looking forward to), a handful of tried-and-true classics, and a few from the past ten years that I believe are new classics.

If you have more short story recommendations, let us know in the comments!

New and Upcoming

Continue reading "Some Affection for Short Story Collections" »

Graphic Novel Friday: Pascal Girard's "Reunion"


Drawn & Quarterly has done some big, bold, colorful books over the past few years, and they’ve also published books like Pascal Girard’s latest, Reunion: a quietly sly and funny graphic novel that captures the intricacies of smaller but equally important moments…like ten-year high-school reunions.

Inspired by his own experience with reunions in 2009, Girard has managed to capture in almost pitch-perfect detail the angst and the sheer miserable qualities of attending such function. In his case, the decision to attend comes only after a crush he had in high school asks him to escort her to the reunion. The only problem is, Girard feels he must lose fifty pounds before the reunion or he just won’t be presentable to his former crush—this despite the fact his crush has pointedly said her boyfriend doesn’t want to attend with her and the not-so-small detail of having a girl friend who might not be understanding of the reason he wants to lose weight.

Indeed part of the appeal of Reunion is that in this semi-autobiographical context, Writer Girard is unafraid of making Fictional Girard look like a bit of a jerk. The foolishness of trying to recapture the past and the foolishness of wanting to make changes to, in essence, effect the past rather than for the present and future are well-documented here. The perils and pitfalls of jogging receive ample exploration, and constitute mini adventures in and of themselves. The vivid world of daydream also comes alive as Girard fantasizes about the reunion, making it impossible anything about the real-life event to live up to expectations.

What actually happens at Girard’s reunion is worthy of a Judd Apatow comedy or anything as embarrassingly grit-teeth funny found in the comedy of Ricky Gervais. Bound by his expectations, Girard goes from awkward encounter to awkward encounter, never living in the moment but instead always looking for something better.

Girard-the-creator’s drawing style is simple but effective, with interesting background details. Fictional Girard’s cats, for example, are a nice touch—never just part of the landscape but seeming to observe the early stages of their owner’s obsession with a keen curiosity and amusement. The secondary characters at the reunion also seem nicely rendered, with personalities and lives that extend well beyond the boundaries of each panel.

It’s also worth noting that Reunion is a translation from the French by Helge Dascher, and that Drawn & Quarterly has shown a commitment in recent years to bringing translated comics to an English-reading audience. They’ve also done a nice job of mixing it up, by publishing books in both a surreal and a realistic vein. If you’re into wince-inducing comedy of embarrassment, Reunion’s a class act, and if you’re looking for something else, check out the rest of D&Q’s extensive catalogue.