Friday, July 22, 2016

Shawna Yang Ryan

Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts and Green Island. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, Kartika Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She is the 2015 recipient of the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer award.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Ryan's reply:
I just finished Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, an Indonesian novel beautifully translated by Annie Tucker.

The prostitute Dewi Ayu, who has been dead for twenty-one years, rises from her grave and discovers that her horrifically ugly youngest daughter, Beauty, is pregnant by what appears to be a ghost. From there, the reader is pulled along on an adventure that stretches back to Dutch colonialism, through the experience of forced sex workers during World War II, to independence and coups and massacres. Akin to One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book introduces a huge cast of characters and becomes a history of all their lives and of their town, Halimunda. Four hundred and sixty pages later, Kurniawan has finally given us enough context to understand who impregnated Beauty. In the meantime, the story moves back and forth and sideways in time in a way I rarely see in contemporary novels.

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones at the same time. I began with the very first episode and have (confession!) covered nearly the entire series in the last three weeks. I’ve been struck by the violence in both this book and that show. Both are somewhat blithe about all manner of depravity, so I’ve been considering that age-old debate about whether there is a gender difference in writing. I don’t mean some inherent biological difference, but a socially created one. Would a woman so casually have her female characters raped, with little to no consequences for the men? In both, some of the women come to love their rapists and it’s seen as a beautiful thing, as a kind of taming of the woman. Could only a male write that kind of story? Encountering these two works at the same time has been thought-provoking for me. I have many questions, but no answers yet.
Visitt Shawna Yang Ryan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Water Ghosts.

The Page 69 Test: Green Island.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger writes steampunk comedies of manners mixed with urban fantasy. Her books include the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. She is published in 18 different languages and has 13 New York Times bestsellers via 7 different lists (including #1 in Manga). She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea. The new novel in the Custard Protocol series is Imprudence.

Recently I asked Carriger about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lately I've been rereading some of my favorite Space Opera. I go through phases sometimes where I just want to escape anything to do with what I write (steampunk, comedy of manners, historical). I yearn to read something completely different and space opera always seems to satisfy.

I just completed my third go round of The Paradox Series by Rachel Bach. Devi is a badass mercenary with a core set of moral values who generally bumbles along killing things until she kind-of accidentally-on-purpose saves everyone. Why I love it? I get to watch this amazing author build a universe destroying problem in which everyone is trying to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and every bad guy may actually be a good guy in the end. Bach is the story-crafting mistress of us all!

Then I reread Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (for the millionth time). This is a deeply romantic, fraught tale of a galactic trader bound by duty and the academic who loves him yet understands him all too well. Epic culture clashing, soul bonding, and a matriarch who would keep them apart. Spine tingling stuff. This book just always makes me happy.
Visit Gail Carriger's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

John Gregory Brown

Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery; The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; and Audubon’s Watch. His new novel is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Brown's reply:
I spent the last nine months teaching at the prep school Deerfield Academy, most famous in literary circles for distinguished alumnus John McPhee’s The Headmaster, a wonderful biography of Frank L. Boyden, the tiny man and towering presence who helmed the school from 1902 to 1968. Although I’d spent more than two decades in academia at the college level, this was my first experience as a high school teacher, a responsibility that seemed weighty indeed: What works would I choose for my juniors in their one year of American Lit? I was tormented by having to leave so many great authors off the syllabus, by all the great works these young men and women might never encounter on their own. We dipped into Whitman and Dickinson, of course; we compared August Wilson’s Fences to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman; we gave Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby its full due. We tackled stories by Alice Munro and Amy Hempel, by Raymond Carver and Ron Rash. But the five works I truly loved teaching – and that the students thus loved back – were these:

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

For better or worse, young people these days know their way around despair. They know well how it crouches in the shadows of lives that appear to be fulfilling. And they’ve got a clear notion of what it might mean to find oneself constrained by circumstances one apparently chose of one’s own volition. Thus they see Edna Pontellier’s crisis as a familiar one, arising not just out of a society that narrowly defines who women should be but also out of a psyche that finds peace and quiet elusive, always just out of reach.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Reading The Moviegoer right after The Awakening tips you off that you shouldn’t fall for that friendly, conspiratorial wise-ass voice Binx Bolling adopts in his narration. He’s just as lost as Edna, just as beset by malaise and desire and a sickness in the soul, and my students scrambled for revelation in the novel’s denouement, when Binx announces that his search is done – or perhaps isn’t – and he sets his life on a different course.

Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City

I remain astonished by this debut collection of stories, published more than twenty years ago but so very poignant and compelling, offering a window into ordinary (and extraordinary) African American lives in Washington, D.C., a book that delivers what all great literature delivers – an unswerving path toward empathy no matter how unlike one’s own life might be from those recounted on the page.

Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter

Although the Harry Potter generation has encountered myriad forms of magic, a literary fabulist like Millhauser is still a revelation to them. In story after story he makes the world stranger and stranger and stranger until, well, it all becomes so very familiar and heartbreaking and real, a magic trick whose mechanical workings my students and I had a wonderful time trying to decipher.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Graphic novels and memoirs usually make me feel like an old man, as if the world of literature has headed off to explore regions I never knew even existed on the map, but Bechdel’s work is just so very smart and compelling, filled with delightful literary allusions and subtle narrative tricks and a heart so very large that it made my students and I absolutely giddy. They were not so giddy when I insisted that they look up every one of the memoir’s literary illusions – from Daedalus and Icarus to Proust and Camus – but they wound up persuaded that doing so did indeed enrich their understanding, a song made more beautiful by other voices singing in harmony.
Visit John Gregory Brown's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, and the newly released Vita Brevis.

Recently I asked Downie about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District – James Rebanks

This is a fabulous book on so many levels: a family history, a fascinating chronicle of a way of life that’s barely changed for centuries, and a howl of frustration at the lack of understanding between the education system and its rural consumers. It’s also a demonstration of the value of books. “We needed books by us and about us,” says Rebanks, and in writing this one he’s ensured that the ‘invisible’ shapers of England’s beautiful Lake District are invisible no longer.

Murder in Absentia – Assaph Mehr

Mehr’s imagined world based on ancient Rome feels at once familiar and dreamlike. In Egretia, magic is real and potentially deadly. While rival incantatores have been banned from calling up competing winds to speed ferries across the bay – they’ve drowned too many innocent sailors – the powers of magic appear to have fallen into malevolent hands. Failed incantator Felix the Fox is investigating a mysterious death in a growing atmosphere of menace. I can’t help thinking the idea of Death by Magic might be closer to the mindset of some of the ancient world than our modern rationality. And speaking of magic…

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m writing this in the week before Vita Brevis is published, and it’s good to calm the rising nerves with a cool dose of reality. “In conclusion,” Gilbert says, speaking of her book The Signature of All Things, “a whole bunch of people had some opinions about my novel for a short while, and then everyone moved on, because people are busy and they have their own lives to think about.”
Visit Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Caveat Emptor.

The Page 69 Test: Tabula Rasa.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Catherine Egan

Catherine Egan grew up in Vancouver, Canada – a beautiful city nobody in her right mind would ever leave, but leave she did, and you may draw the obvious conclusions about her mind. Since then, she has lived on a wee volcanic island in Japan (which erupted during her time there and sent her hurtling straight into the arms of her now-husband), Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, an oil rig in the middle of China’s Bohai Bay, New Jersey, and now Connecticut, where she writes books and defends the Eastern seaboard from invading dragon hordes alongside her intrepid warrior-children.

Egan's new novel is Julia Vanishes.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I bought Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I loved her novel Boy, Snow, Bird. Sometimes short story writers stumble writing novels, and not all novelists can write short stories, but Helen Oyeyemi can do both. I think she can probably do everything. There is no weak link in this collection, which makes equally deft use of odd fairytale settings, modern England, elements of sci fi, magic realism and straight up contemporary realism. Each story left me unsatisfied, but in a stunned and wide awake kind of way. She is the sort of writer that shakes you up and makes everything look different for a long time after you’ve finished the book. The book feels like a puzzle: characters recur from one story to another and the stories all feature locks and keys in one way or another. As soon as I finished, I wanted to reread it, feeling sure that one story contained the key to unlocking another. The standout story was about a group of young puppeteers and their puppets, called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" To me, at least, it seemed to be saying something very profound about the creative life, but none of these stories really lets you put your finger on their deepest undercurrents. The sense of disequilibrium her work gives me, though, doesn’t mean that her writing is “difficult.” The book is a page-turner, her characters are vividly alive and she is funny, too. I read about half the book sprawled on the sofa late at night, forgetting my drink until all the ice had melted, and the other half at the frog pond, while my children got themselves thoroughly wet and muddy and failed to catch a frog.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was a hard book to follow, but I went with Fran Wilde’s Updraft. I wanted to read it because I loved so many of the YA nebula nominees this year and was of course curious about the book that had beaten out some of my own favorites. Updraft features one of the most inventive fantasy worlds I’ve ever read, about a civilization of people that fly on artfully constructed wings, living in ever-growing bone towers that have grown far above the clouds, all of it controlled by the Spire and the Singers who make the laws and traditions but have terrible secrets of their own. It’s a gripping adventure story and I loved the main character, her ambition, her adaptability, and her loyalty, but it is really the incredibly ambitious, flawless world-building that makes this book stand out above other SFF novels. I am also a big fan of monsters, and the skymouths in this book are my favorite new fictional monsters. I read much of the book poolside, ignoring friends who came to chat (thanks for understanding, friends) and finished it on a very windy day at the beach.
Visit Catherine Egan's website.

The Page 69 Test: Julia Vanishes.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 15, 2016

Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan is the author of the Raven’s Shadow novels, including Blood Song, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire.

His new book is The Waking Fire, the first novel in the Draconis Memoria series.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I usually alternate between fiction and non-fiction, mostly history, but I’ve been on a bit of fiction kick recently. I just finished Blackdog by K.V. Johansen, the first in her Marakand Road series, which I found to be an excellent mix of lyrical prose, high fantasy and occasionally brutal action.

Yesterday I started reading an advance review copy of Infernal by a new author Mark De Jager, which is shaping up very well. It blends fantasy tropes with the structure of a modern thriller novel to good effect, think Lee Child meets David Gemmell.

I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and recently started on End of Watch by Stephen King, the last in his Bill Hodges crime trilogy. I’ve always been a big Stephen King fan and a lover of crime fiction so it’s kind’ve the perfect book for me, and Will Patton does an excellent job with the narration.

Next up will be City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin and Freedom of the Mask by Robert R. McCammon, after which I really need to get back to reading some history.
Visit Anthony Ryan's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Waking Fire.

My Book, the Movie: The Waking Fire.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Caroline Angell

Caroline Angell grew up in Endwell, N.Y., the daughter of an electrical engineer and a public school music teacher. She has a B. A. in musical theater from American University and currently lives and works in Manhattan. As a playwright and director, she has had her work performed at regional theaters in New York City and in the Washington, D.C., area.

Angell's first novel is All the Time in the World.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and it moved me more than any book in recent memory. This novel tells the story, from multiple perspectives, of a group of people with marginally intersecting lives as they encounter the collapse of modern civilization. Spectacularly beautiful writing aside, I was impressed with the way the author constructed an inciting incident that moved the plot both backward and forward in time. There was no character or event in this book that wasn’t compelling and it was a particular pleasure to read a novel that imagined life beyond mere survival in a postapocalyptic world.

I’m about two hundred pages into Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, and I’m not moving so quickly through this one. This novel chronicles a fourteen-year-old girl’s encounter with a Manson-like cult, and the author has captured an acute narrative voice for a story about the struggle for agency over one’s own existence; wanting to declare independence from your upbringing, and at the same time wanting to belong. She writes bluntly and presently, like a teenager with an incredible vocabulary. I find myself putting the book down every few chapters because I need a breather. I want to know what happens. But I also don’t want to know what happens.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been reading Amy Cuddy’s Presence. This author’s TED Talk is one of the most watched of all time. Her research focuses on learning how to tap into your own presence; to override your brain’s anxiety reactions, using your body, in order to call forth your authentic values, thoughts, and feelings, especially in stressful situations. I got interested in the subject matter because so many people seem to identify with the concept of “Imposter Syndrome,” as the author calls it, and to take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in that experience. Cuddy was inspired to research and write this book based on her own battle with feeling like an imposter, and her empathy for others with similar feelings comes through on every page.
Visit Caroline Angell's website and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: All the Time in the World.

The Page 69 Test: All the Time in the World.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Simone Zelitch

Simone Zelitch's novels include Louisa, which won the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has been featured on NPR and recent honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Zelitch's new novel is Judenstaat.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
A few weeks ago, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for a while, Rasheeda Phillips’s Recurrence Plot and Other Time Travel Tales. Rasheeda took a fiction class with me years ago, and she’s a housing attorney with with Community Legal Services, as well as the creator of The Afrofuturist Affair. When is the last time a book gave me actual nightmares? This one did.

Recurrence Plot begins the day a woman turns twenty-one. She gave birth at the age of fourteen—like her mother before her—a path that feels inevitable; she takes her own life on her twenty-first birthday—like her mother before her. Her daughter grows up remembering the future, and the power tamped down by medication. A home-made time-machine creates connections between her past and future selves, with ambiguous consequences. She investigates a research institute at the fictional, sinister Parallel University which experiments on young black teens who are “at risk” for criminal behavior, assuming that their lives lead in one direction: they emerge hardened and changed.

The book interpolates expository passages about how the brain and body process time, as well as allusions to quantum physics, and segments that feel like a “choose your own adventure story” or are intended to be read backwards. Does time only flow forward? Is its direction inevitable? These questions are played out in poor African-American communities in my hometown of Philadelphia. Recurrence Plot is a challenging, weird, and wild read. As a teacher at Community College of Philadelphia, I found myself considering the lives of my my primarily African-American students; almost all of them are trying to spring a trap. That’s why they’re in my classroom.

In fact, Rasheeda Phillips responds to issues of violence and displacement as an Afro-futurist, a movement exemplified by artists such as the author Octavia Butler and the musician Sun Ra. She believes in the power of individual consciousness, rooted in tradition and community. Most recently, “redevelopment” of her Sharwood neighborhood led her to create a Community Futures Lab, including a “quantum time capsule, exploring oral histories/futures, preservation, displacement, and alternative temporalities within the North Philadelphia community known as Sharwood/Blumberg.” Alternative temporalities? Why not? As Phillips makes clear, time is a complicated business.

Then, yesterday, I finished another book about traps, and how to spring them, nonfiction by Jerome Gold: In the Spider’s Web. Gold spent fifteen years as a case-worker at a juvenile prison, and with extraordinary honesty, he considers his complex and contradictory role: a counselor and confidant, a guard who wrestles teenagers to the ground, a quasi-parent enforcing rules that are both essential to the teenagers’ well-being, and the very definition of imprisonment. When Jerry locks a kid into her room, it’s not punitive. It’s protective. It’s about giving her a chance to punch the door—just once—to cry without shame, not to have anything to prove. But that door still has a lock.

Gold was with the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam. He is particularly good with “gang-kids” because he understands violence—feels it in his body as he puts it, “the taste of it in my mouth, its rippling on the skin of my arms, the lightness of it in my hands.” He knows all this. His body—in itself—is a kind of time machine, ranging between his past, present and future. His awareness gives him the power to guide the kids in an alternative direction. The process is messy, particularly because Gold can only do his job effectively if he is really attached to the kids on his caseload. He believes in making promises and keeping them. Of course, that’s at cross-purposes with the arbitrary nature of prison life.

Although Gold’s book is set in Washington State, it’s easy enough to consider the way the young people in Gold’s caseload are like Rasheeda Phillips’s characters, in a narrow world and on a narrow path. Is the best response re-wiring them with methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT? Jerome Gold hates that stuff— at one point a kid’s parent calls it “DDT”. He has no tolerance for jargon or slogans. He would say that they crowd out real connections, and they crowd out love.

Both books raise these questions: Can awareness of the past, and open speculation about where the past can take you, lead to alternative temporalities? Can our actual bodies be time machines, integrating our individual and collective memories into a complicated present, and a rich, real future? The books could hardly be considered hopeful, yet they gave me hope. Our consciousness is more than a series of wires and circuits that someone else controls. If we fight against everything that pulls us in that direction, if we spring the trap, our paths are neither narrow nor inevitable.
Visit Simone Zelitch's website.

The Page 69 Test: Judenstaat.

My Book, The Movie: Judenstaat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 11, 2016

Tiffany Reisz

Tiffany Reisz is the author of the internationally bestselling and award-winning Original Sinners series for Mira Books (Harlequin/Mills & Boon).

Her new novel is The Bourbon Thief.

Recently I asked Reisz about what she was reading. Her reply:
When I’m not writing books, I’m reading books. Here are a few of the fabulous books I’ve read so far this year.

While looking for a good Gothic romance, I stumbled across a review that recommended Dark Dance by Tanith Lee. It’s the first book in her Blood Opera series that features vampire-ish semi-immortal creatures and their bizarre subculture. In Dark Dance we not only get father-daughter incest but a demon baby to boot! I’m currently reading Darkness, I, the third in the series and it’s also delightfully bizarre.

I read two books in a row—Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum—that left me thinking deeply about how women who buck society’s gender expectations are portrayed in fiction. Although both authors are women, they are very hard on their heroines. One succumbs to madness while trying to escape the pressures of marriage and relationship. The other succumbs to a fate even worse. Surely there’s room in this world for a woman to find a positive, healthy way to break away from society’s unreasonable expectations. I’ll keep reading until I find that book.

I adored LaRose by Louise Erdrich, a literary fiction author who writes about the Ojibwa people in the Dakotas. The book is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. While hunting a man named Landreaux accidentally shoots and kills the small son of one of his best friends. After much praying, soul-searching, and singing to their ancestors, Landreaux and his wife offer their own son to the grieving parents as an act of reconciliation and restitution. The two families blend together in their heartache and their healing. It’s a glorious novel.

The most fun I’ve read so far this year has to be How to Capture an Invisible Cat, a middle-grade novel by my friend Paul Tobin. It was laugh out loud funny and a wonderful antidote to all the dark and creepy books I read. I can’t recommend it enough.

And now…back to the books!
Visit Tiffany Reisz's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Bourbon Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers has published eight novels, written original television and radio drama, and adapted work for radio and TV. Her last book, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, was the 2012 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction; it was also longlisted for the Booker Prize. She has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book, has been a finalist for the Guardian Fiction Prize, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is Professor of Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, and she lives in Banbury, England.

Rogers's new novel is Conrad & Eleanor.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m usually reading several books at the same time, for various reasons; often my reading has to do with other writers I am meeting, or with research. The research might be towards a novel, though at the moment two of the books I’m reading are for research towards a radio drama and a piece of online journalism. Then there are the books I read because they’re recommended by people I trust, or because of brilliant reviews, or simply because I want to. Finally, I seem to spend a lot of my life on trains, and size is a factor in the book I chose to take with me. I hate the fashion for huge books that don’t fit easily in my backpack or handbag. So, here are four that I have on the go at the moment:

Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas (research), which contains his letters and essays about his travels in the South Seas in the last years of his life. Stevenson is one of the best writers ever, it amazes me that he is not more highly regarded by English-speaking readers. The French revere him! I’m working on radio adaptations of two of his South Sea novellas, so it is interesting to read his factual accounts of his travels and to learn how much of what really happened he put into the novellas.

Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread (research). I’m writing a piece for the Guardian Online about the top 10 books on the subject of ‘Long Marriages’, so I am rereading a couple to check how good they are. Tyler often writes about marriage, and always writes true. The opening ten pages of this novel (almost entirely dialogue) reveal Abby and Red Whitshank brilliantly. They are arguing helplessly over how to handle a phone call from their son Denny announcing he is gay. Abby theorizes that his getting a girl into trouble while he was still at school might have been a symptom of homosexuality. Red asks, “Come again?” “We can never know with absolute certainty what another person’s sex life is like.” “No, thank God,” Red said. Their love for one another is as comfortable and worn as the old slippers and colourless dressing gown each wears.

Paul M.M. Cooper, River of Ink (meeting the writer). I’ll be sharing a talk on writing historical novels with Paul, next week. His novel is set in thirteenth century Sri Lanka, about which I know nothing, and it is vividly written.

Conor O’Callgahan, Nothing on Earth (for pleasure, by a friend, and small enough to go in a handbag!). Begins with real mystery and is written in precise yet poetic language. Hard to put down.
Visit Jane Rogers's website.

The Page 69 Test: Conrad & Eleanor.

--Marshal Zeringue