Upcoming: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Picador/riverrun)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUSI’ve only recently started to read Paul French‘s books. I’ve been aware of his stuff for a long while, but this past Christmas I went on a Penguin China Special reading-binge, which meant I finally read two of French’s titles: Betrayal in ParisThe Badlands and Bloody Saturday — all three of which were excellent.* I promptly bought Midnight in Peking (for myself and family members), and will read it very soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d some information about his next non-fiction book, City of Devils. here’s the synopsis:

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made — and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

City of Devils is due to be published in July by Picador in North America (Raincoast in Canada), and in June by riverrun in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter


* The Penguin Specials series is fantastic in general: around 100 pages or so, compact and focused non-fiction narratives. I’d highly recommend them. They appear to be focusing on a different theme every year (or so). Last year, for example, they released a handful of Hong Kong Specials, which I’ll be buying and reading very soon.


Upcoming: THE MIDNIGHT FRONT by David Mack (Tor)

MackD-DA1-MidnightFrontUSThis is the first novel in David Mack’s Dark Arts series, and I’m really looking forward to giving it a try. I think I’ve only read one other (urban) fantasy set during one of the World Wars — Andy Remic’s very good A Song For No Man’s Land — and I’m certainly interested in trying more. (Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments.) Here’s the synopsis for The Midnight Front:

On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front — the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program — and become a sorcerer himself.

Unsure who will kill him first — his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick — Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul — and there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.

The Midnight Front will be published by Tor Books in January 2018, and will be available in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Guest Post: “A Few Words on Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger” by Oliver Langmead

twainm-mysteriousstrangermanuscriptsIn an 1895 notebook, Samuel Clemens (who you might better know by his pen name: Mark Twain) wrote,

“It is the strangest thing, that the world is not full of books that scoff at the pitiful world, and the useless universe and the vile and contemptible human race – books that laugh at the whole paltry scheme and deride it…. Why don’t I write such a book?”

During the last years of his life, Twain tried to write that book. He never finished it. Instead, he left us with three quite different incomplete attempted manuscripts, now carefully put together in one volume by the University of California Press as part of their Mark Twain series. Continue reading


Two great guides for history and fantasy fans (and writers)

mythiccreaturesMYTHIC CREATURES: AND THE IMPOSSIBLY REAL ANIMALS WHO INSPIRED THEM by Laurel Kendall & Mark A. Norell, w. Richard Ellis

Adapted from the American Museum of Natural History exhibition Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, this book explores an array of mythological creatures—and the real animals that inspired them. Lush photos showcase rare objects from around the world as well as models of mythical beasts like krakens and Rocs, along with fossils of actual extinct animals such as the six-foot-tall primate called Gigantopithecus and dinosaurs such as Protoceratops, which may have inspired the griffin. Also included are engravings, paintings, maps, and ephemera from the Middle Ages to modern times, all capturing the origins of legendary animals that continue to thrill, terrify, and enchant us.

salaperaineno-fieldguidetofantasticalbeastsA FIELD GUIDE TO FANTASTICAL BEASTS by Olento Salaperäinen

A beautiful, illustrated guide to the most magical creatures of legend and myth.

Fairies, demons, four-legged fiends, and, of course, zombies: the world is filled with fantastical beings, beautiful and scary. Come meet them in this magnificently illustrated menagerie, which includes many creatures made famous by popular fantasy and sci-fi film franchises. Take a detailed look at everything from goblins, pixies, and gnomes to vampires and dragons, and discover their origins in literature, folklore, and ancient history.

Both of these books are pretty great. Fascinating looks at the fantastical and mythical creatures that have come to populate so much of our fiction, many of which have remained unchanged (or only slightly altered) for hundreds or thousands of years. Continue reading


BaileyCatherine-AuthorPicCatherine Bailey is the author of The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds — both histories of the British aristocracy. She read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. Bailey’s US publisher, Penguin, organised this Q&A…

In THE SECRET ROOMS, you explain what drew you to the story of the Rutland family, that you were researching a book on World War I and asked to see the Rutland archives and when there were obvious gaps in the records you decided to devote your attention on uncovering what the family was trying to hide. What brought you to write about Wentworth House and the Fitzwilliam family, and how did you discover that they also had secrets they were trying to keep buried?

I first saw Wentworth House in the late 1990s when I was researching a documentary film in Yorkshire. The size of the house – the largest in Europe – was breathtaking. Here, it seemed, was England’s forgotten palace. Unlike comparable houses, such as Chatsworth or Blenheim, it was closed to the public. Outside its locality, few knew of its existence. Seeing it for the first time, it looked empty and abandoned. The shutters were drawn; its 18th century façade was black with grime and in a poor state of repair. The image was haunting: I wanted to know what had happened there over the centuries, and what had led to its abandonment.

Over the next few years, whenever I could find the time from my work as a television producer, I researched the twentieth century story of Wentworth House. From architectural journals and newspaper articles, I was able to piece together a narrative. In 1900, the house had belonged to William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, the richest man in Britain. His fortune came from coal. Within a 30-mile radius of Wentworth, tens of thousands of men worked in mines in which he had an interest. The Fitzwilliams had powerful connections; in the first decades of the 20th century, the newspapers listed the names of guests at their lavish house parties. They included Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and politicians, famous musicians, writers and artists. Later, there was a connection to the American Kennedy family. In 1948, Peter, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, had been killed in a plane crash with Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of the President. But the details were tantalizingly sketchy; very little appeared to have been written about Wentworth or the Fitzwilliam family. Particularly intriguing, was a photograph, taken in the 1940s, which showed the landscape around the house blighted by open cast mining. Soon after, the Fitzwilliams had moved out. Continue reading

Upcoming: “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore (Knopf)

LeporeJ-SecretHistoryOfWonderWomanI am a huge fan of Jill Lepore’s writing – both long-form and also her journalism and shorter pieces. A professor of American History at Harvard University (and a staff writer at The New Yorker), Lepore has written extensively about history and how we interpret, teach, and read the history of the United States. Last year, I read the paperback edition of The Story of America, which was easily one of the best books I read in 2013. Perhaps of more interest to the readers of Civilian Reader, though, her upcoming work is about the fan-favourite Amazon warrior from the Justice League: Wonder Woman. Due to be published on October 28th, 2014 by Knopf. Here’s the rather long synopsis:

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. In the more than seven decades since she first appeared, her comic books have never been out of print. In years of interviews and archival research, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Lepore has discovered that, from Marston’s days as a Harvard undergraduate, he was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife brought into their home, as Marston’s mistress, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. The Marston family story – a house of one man, three women, and four children-is a story of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Sanger’s niece together wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they pursued a life of extraordinary nonconformity. No less fascinating is Marston’s role as the inventor of the lie detector. Internationally known as an expert on truth, he lived a life of secrets-only to spill them on the pages of the Wonder Woman comics he began writing in 1941.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour-de-force of intellectual and cultural history, explaining not only the mysterious origins of the world’s most famous female superhero, but solving some of the most vexing puzzles in the American past. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights – a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

Given how prominent the character has been in not only the comics and SFF communities (specifically the absence of plans for a Wonder Woman big-budget movie), but in pop-culture and gender studies communities, this is a very timely book. I’m really looking forward to this.