Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Matt Hilton

Matt Hilton is the Cumbrian author of the Joe Hunter thriller series, including Dead Men’s Dust, Judgement and Wrath, Slash and Burn, and Cut and Run, with further books in the series coming soon. He is a high ranking martial artist and has been a police officer and private security specialist, all of which lend an authenticity to the action scenes in his books.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I enjoy books where events in the past come back to haunt the protagonist, so when I picked up Stuart Neville’s The Twelve – published in the USA as Ghosts of Belfast – I was in my own little corner of heaven. Not only do we have a torn, bruised figure trying to come to terms with his violent past, but in ex IRA hitman Jerry Fegan we also have a protagonist ‘literally’ haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Neville handles a very delicate political subject, giving us an antihero in the form of Fegan. To say that in life Fegan would be an enemy of mine is an understatement, but the manner in which Neville delivers the story, I sympathised with Fegan and rooted for him as he goes up against the puppet masters that pulled his strings and made him the monster he became. The Twelve is a brutal story at heart, a thrilling action adventure, but conversely it is also a heart warming tale, one of redemption and love and it left me afterwards with a quiet sense of calm and a whimsical smile on my face. Some crime readers decry mixing genres, and perhaps some would see this as being a supernatural story, but don’t be put off. Neville handles the subject of the twelve followers – the wraiths of Fegan’s victims – and we are never sure if they are simply figments of the hit man’s imagination or not, right up until the eleventh hour where Neville ‘hints’ at the truth. I won’t put a spoiler in here, don’t worry: go read the book and make up your own mind.
Visit Matt Hilton's website and blog, and learn more about his latest novel released in the US, Judgment and Wrath.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Men's Dust.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katie Hickman

Katie Hickman is the author of two best-selling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia, and two travel books, Travels with a Circus, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon.

Her novels include The Quetzal Summer, for which she was listed for the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year award, The Aviary Gate, and The Pindar Diamond.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've just come back from our family holiday in France - so I've done a fair amount of novel reading recently, more so than I usually do when I'm at home working.

When I'm writing fiction I find it incredibly hard to read other people's novels. Somehow the voices of all those other characters get inside my head and distract me from hearing my own fictional voices - those elusive siren songs - and so during a writing period I tend to concentrate on non-fiction, mostly research-related. I'm a real magpie - anything from clothes, furniture and food, to politics and merchant trading-rights . It's what I call the 'what they eat for breakfast' factor. The greater the detail the better. With The Aviary Gate and The Pindar Diamond this has been the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, in England, Turkey and Venice. I really love the research I do for my novels, and it's probably the reason I write historical fiction. Any excuse to get into that library.

But on holiday - what a feast! I had almost forgotten the exquisite pleasure of sinking down into someone else's fictional world. An English novelist friend, Howard Jacobsen, has just published a new book, The Finkler Question, but since it's only out in hardback, I took with me his first novel instead, Coming From Behind, which I have never read. It describes the life and various disappointments (sexual, professional, and otherwise) of an academic working in a small town polytechnic in the north of England. In the hands of almost anyone else this would be a totally dismal subject, but Howard is one of those rare writers who can actually make me laugh out loud, but then also groan with a sort of fascinated horror at the situations he describes. My husband does quite a good impression of the sound effects of me reading one of Howard's books.

I also re-read The Great Gatsby (my son is doing it for his GCSE exams next summer), and was struck all over again by what an extraordinary writer Fitzgerald is. There are times when the beauty of his prose made me think I was reading poetry.

Now that I'm back in England (but not quite back at my desk yet), I'm looking forward to reading a novel by another friend, Karen Essex. Dracula in Love is her imaginative take on the Bram Stoker novel, told as if from the point of view of Stoker's principal female character, Mina Harker.

But perhaps inspired by Fitzgerald, I've also made a resolution to read a lot more poetry this autumn. In my handbag I'm carrying round two very slim volumes: a new selection of Ted Hughes, specially chosen to commemorate the eightieth birthday of his English publishers, Faber and Faber, and also a delightful collection of traditional Chinese poems, Poetry from the Land of Silk.
Learn more about the author and her work at Katie Hickman's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bill Crider

Bill Crider is the author of more than fifty novels, including the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series. He is the winner of the Anthony Award and has been nominated for both the Shamus and Edgar Awards.

The new Dan Rhodes novel is Murder in the Air.

Recently I asked Crider what he was reading. His reply:
Every time I’m asked to write about what I’m reading, I’m tempted to begin by saying something like, “I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare’s comedies, as I do every third year. Ask me next year, and I’ll be reading the histories. And the tragedies the year after that.”

But that would be wrong. That would be A Lie. So I might as well admit that what I’ve been reading lately is Go, Mutants by Larry Doyle. It’s a tender coming-of-age story about a mutant teenager living on an alternate Earth where the ‘50s monster movies from our world are documentaries, not fiction. There’s a tip of the hat to just about every monster that ever stalked across the screen, with so many in-jokes that I’m sure I missed half of them. But the ones I got were very funny.

I also recently finished The Life and Times of Little Richard, the Quasar of Rock by Charles White. It’s an odd kind of biography, since the biographer lets Little Richard and his friends tell most of it. White contributes some transitional material and ties some of the comments together, but mostly he stays out of the way. After reading this book, all I can say is that the rock ‘n’ roll life is even wilder than I ever dreamed. I can’t believe the things that Little Richard admits he’s done. If I’d done them, I think I’d keep my mouth shout. The final section of the book is a long “sermon” complied from a lot of different sermons Little Richard has preached. When it comes to sinnin’, Richard sure knows what he’s talking about!

Last night I read a couple of short stories in The Big Brand, a collection of Elmer Kelton’s work, mostly (but not all) from Ranch Romances in the 1950s. Kelton is one of my favorite western writers, and he was an all-around nice guy. I particularly enjoyed the story “Coward” because it was set in Brownwood, Texas, where I lived for a number of years. The story was about the fence-cutting wars, which I heard a good bit about when I lived there.

So that’s it for my current reading. Tomorrow I’ll be starting those Shakespearean comedies.
Read the Page 69 Test entries for Crider's A Mammoth Murder, Murder Among the OWLS, Of All Sad Words, and Murder in Four Parts, as well as an excellent write-up about Dan Rhodes on the big screen at "My Book, The Movie."

Also see Steve Hockensmith's Q & A with Bill Crider.

Visit Bill Crider's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kristina Riggle

Kristina Riggle is the author of the novels Real Life & Liars (2009) and The Life You've Imagined, released this month from Avon/HarperCollins.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This is going to sound strange perhaps from an author of commercial fiction, but I just read two financial non-fiction books in a row, starting with Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, a novelistic and gripping recount of the recent financial crisis followed by The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, about the Enron debacle. My husband expressed shock that I was interested in this kind of wonky financial stuff. But I believed based on radio interviews with the authors -- and the reading bore this out -- that both these crises came down at least partly to emotion, psychology and basic human frailty. I found the psychological implications riveting (and not a little frightening that our livelihoods depend in no small part on the emotional stability of those in power!)

In the fiction world, I recently finished National Book Award nominated American Salvage by fellow Michigander Bonnie Jo Campbell. Those stories are both devastating and graceful, and I'm honored to be sharing a panel at the upcoming Kerrytown Book Fest with her in Ann Arbor (September 12, also with Michael Zadoorian and Wendy K. Webb). I'm also reading and enjoying The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch about how we can be "stuck" in ruts and what it might take to jar us out (even if we don't think we're stuck) and I can't wait to start The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle. When I heard her read from the first chapter at my local store I became convinced I'm going to love that book.
Visit Kristina Riggle's website.

The Page 69 Test: Real Life & Liars.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Kristina Riggle & Lucky.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn's books include the New York Times bestselling urban fantasy series featuring werewolf talk radio host, Kitty Norville.

Her new novel (which is not in the Kitty series) is Discord's Apple, a novel about family, treasure, the Trojan War, and the end of the world.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

I've been happily diving into Steven Erikson's epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is actually kind of surprising, because I'm not a huge reader of epic fantasy. Sure, I've read The Lord of the Rings, as all fantasy fans ought at least once. But my usual pattern is to read the first book in a long series (such as Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, the first book in the monster-huge The Wheel of Time Series), agree that it's a lot of fun, and feel absolutely no need to go on to the next book. Usually, I get enough of a sense of the style and tone of the writing, and where the story is going, that I get quite enough of that world, thank you very much. I'm a slow reader. I don't want to take the time to read seven eight-hundred-page books about the same thing.

What makes Erikson different? Well, everything. The trappings are all there -- warriors, vast armies battling for the fate of the world, magic, wizards, thieves, dark prophecies, deposed kings, long journeys, and so on. But they're all tilted. Skewed. Erikson has a built a history that covers hundreds of thousands of years, in which immortal beings actually remember those hundreds of thousands of years. They've watched thousands of vast armies battle for thousands of worlds in that time. The scale is truly epic. The story jumps around in time and place. In one book, we'll follow one group of characters. In the next, a completely different group of characters on a different continent. Another book begins with a certain group of characters -- two books later, we get the back story of those characters and how they ended up at that moment that started so much earlier. Their future, our past. The ground is always moving.

I can't actually describe the story to you in any coherent fashion. I also think that's not really the point. I follow my favorite characters -- hard-bitten sergeant Fiddler, weird mage Quick Ben, noble and clever Ganoes Paran, and his sister, the capable and increasingly tragic Tavore. I follow for the writing, vivid images and fully-immersive worlds. Erikson does a great job with the magic, better than anyone I've read. He doesn't describe the magic, per se, mostly the results. Which makes perfect sense -- in a world where all the characters have lived with magic every day, they wouldn't comment on it any more than we would describe the electric signal traveling from the switch to the light bulb when we turn on the light.

Also, some of the characters commit random acts of kindness. Some of them travel together for the simple reason that they're friends. In so much epic fantasy the goal seems to be finding out how horrible people can be to each other. Don't get me wrong, some truly horrible things happen in The Malazan Book of the Fallen. In some ways, it's even more horrifying because it's balanced by moments of true mercy and compassion. It's all so riveting.

Earlier this year I read Dust of Dreams, the ninth of the projected ten volumes of the series, and it definitely has the weight of all that has come before barreling toward a universe-shattering climax. And after I've read the tenth, I think I may go back and read them all over again.
Visit Carrie Vaughn's website, blog, MySpace page, and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Discord's Apple.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lynn Kilpatrick

Lynn Kilpatrick’s first collection of short stories, In The House, was published by FC2 in March. Her fiction has recently appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Hotel Amerika. Her essays have been published in Ninth Letter, Creative Nonfiction, and Brevity. She earned her PhD in Fiction from the University of Utah and an MA in Poetry from Western Washington University. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College and lives in Salt Lake with her husband, son and German Shorthair Pointer.

Earlier this summer I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

So many people recommended this book I had to pick it up. Many of the conversations I had about this book began with someone saying to me, “I liked it, but…” and having finished it, I’d have to say that I agree. The book felt extremely French to me, or maybe more like a French film, with a lot of talking and not a lot of action. I love books that include meditations on ideas or philosophical investigations, and this book was full of those. Overall, I loved the book, though I found the ending disappointing. But the writing is lovely.

This Noisy Egg by Nicole Walker

Every year I vow to read more poetry, and this year I did a pretty good job, including this debut collection by Nicole Walker. I enjoy the ferocity of her language, seeming simplicity wrapped in complex structures. The mark of great poetry, for me, is a book that makes me want to fling it down and start writing. Walker’s poetry inspires me in this way.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

My book club, made up of poets, fiction writers, book sellers and scientists, chose this for our first summer selection. It’s a chilling book, full of travel and malice. I loved being in the mind of Ripley and mistrusting him, while he slowly won me over. This novel made me want to read all of the Ripley novels. Deliciously creepy.
Visit Lynn Kilpatrick's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mark Cotton

Mark Cotton is the author of Two Bits Four Bits, a mystery set in a small town in west Texas in present day. Buddy Griffin returns to his hometown of Elmore, Texas after retiring as a homicide detective with the Austin Texas Police Department. During a high school reunion weekend Buddy's high school sweetheart's banker husband is shot dead in the couple's swimming pool. Buddy becomes involved in the investigation and uncovers a missing bank teller, a safe deposit box full of dirty money and an extortion plot gone wrong.

Earlier this month I asked Cotton what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished reading Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. It’s the story of sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, who lives in the Ozark Mountains where her family has lived for generations in a closed and isolated group existing outside the fringes of the law.

Ree Dolly’s father is due to appear at a court hearing on charges of operating a crystal meth lab but he seems to have disappeared completely. Ree is the nearest thing to a responsible adult in the household and knows that if her father can’t be located in time the family will lose their home, which has been taken as collateral by a bail bondsman. The book documents her search for her father and the resistance she faces from secretive and violent family members who don’t want her to learn the truth about what happened to him. Along the way, we watch as Ree and her best friend, who is also a teenaged girl, struggle to find a way to keep the children they’re responsible for from becoming part of the meth-producing machinery that consumes the young men of the area.

Woodrell does a good job of capturing the microcosm of today’s underground methamphetamine-driven economy that grew out of yesterday’s moonshine-driven one. He also shows us the devastating effect that growing up in such an environment can have on the children exposed to it.

This book was my introduction to Daniel Woodrell and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. I’m also anxious to see the movie adaptation, which recently won the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize.
Visit Mark Cotton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Keir Graff

Keir Graff is the author of the novels Cold Lessons (under the pseudonym Michael McCulloch), My Fellow Americans, One Nation, Under God, and The Price of Liberty.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm reading One for Hell, by Jada M. Davis, and loving it. Originally published as a Gold Medal paperback, and soon to be reprinted by the wonderful Stark House Press, it's a dark, bare-knuckled brawler set in a West Texas oil boomtown. There's a good ensemble of characters, but the story is mostly told by Willa Ree, a tough ex-con who drops off a freight train and decides the town of Breton is ripe for the plucking. By breakfast he's hired on to the local police force by a corrupt city councilman, and before long he's chief of police -- none of which stops him from a carrying out a campaign of burglaries. But Ree may be too smart for his own good. Or maybe he's not as smart as he thinks.

One for Hell is terse, atmospheric, dark, violent -- and deliciously good. It reads like Sinclair Lewis by way of Jim Thompson. A lot of pulp novels were imitative and unoriginal but, sometimes true originals emerged, voices that hadn't been heard before or since and were incapable of being copied. Davis was one of those, although, sadly, he only published one other novel. A former soldier and newspaperman who knew the turf he novelized, he ended his career as a PR executive for the telephone company. He rose from extreme poverty to extreme comfort, and I can only wonder whether a little more poverty would have given us a few more novels like these. If you'd rather read about devils than angels, this is the book for you.
Visit Keir Graff's website.

The Page 69 Test: One Nation, Under God.

The Page 69 Test: The Price of Liberty.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 16, 2010

Matthew Dicks

Matthew Dicks is the author of the novels Something Missing and Unexpectedly, Milo. An elementary school teacher, he was named West Hartford’s Teacher of the Year in 2005 and was a finalist for Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The combination of my English major background and a childhood spent playing video games necessitates the reading of several books at one time. As an English major, it was a requirement to walk around with a stack of books, and as a video game player, I fear that my attention span is somewhat lacking. As a result, I enjoy flipping between as many as half a dozen books at a time.

At the moment, I am reading the following books:

Super Sad True Love Story, by Shteyngart, which was just chosen as our next book club novel. The book club member who was responsible for the choosing this month knows nothing about the book, so we are all diving in blind. I’m about ten pages in, and thus far I have been pleased.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, by Allison Hoover Bartlett, which is a book that I am listening to after my mother-in-law recommended it more than once (as she is wont to do). I tend to read a lot of non-fiction while I am working on a manuscript, in fear that an author’s may influence my own voice. I just started work on my fourth novel and was therefore looking for non-fiction when she recommended this book again. Sensing the time was right, I complied with her wishes, as every son-in-law must do from time to time. I have not been disappointed.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely, which is a book that my wife and I are listening to together in the car on long drives. I read Ariely’s first book and enjoyed it very much. This book is written in a similar vein but also provides insight on Ariely’s remarkable life. It’s a bit tedious at times, and the narrator is a little too proper for our taste, but overall we are enjoying it a lot.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, who was kind enough to write a review of Something Missing for the Amazon page. His book has been on my shelf for quite a while, and I finally managed to pluck it off and begin reading. I knew nothing about the book before cracking it open and was fooled by the title. I did not expect it to be the clever mystery that it is shaping up to be.

I’m also reading The Complete Golf Manual by Steve Newell in order to improve my game. While I’m finally breaking 100 on an occasional basis, I play with guys who are capable of shooting par on a good day, so I am consistently the worst player amongst my group of friends. I’ve only been playing for three years and need as much help as I can get. This book has been excellent so far and has offered me tips that I am using during every round that I play.

I also continue to read Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, but I have been reading this book for more than ten years. When Vonnegut announced his retirement in 1997, I realized that Timequake was the only Vonnegut novel that I had yet to read, and therefore it would also be the last new Vonnegut that I would ever read and as such. Kurt Vonnegut is far and away my favorite author, and the thought that I would never encounter another one of his stories for the first time saddened me tremendously, so I vowed to extend Timequake, which I had already started reading, for as long as possible, by reading only a page or two a week but rereading as much as I wanted. It’s been more than ten years since this vow and I am now closing in on the end of the book. Since the announcement of his retirement, Vonnegut went on to publish several books of essays and short stories, including two posthumously, but Timequake remains his final novel, and one that I will continue to stretch out as long as possible.
Visit Matthew Dicks' website and Facebook page.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Matthew Dicks & Kaleigh.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Simon Lelic

Simon Lelic has worked as a journalist in the UK and currently runs his own business in Brighton, England, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

His debut novel is A Thousand Cuts [Rupture, in the UK].

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Currently, most of my reading is research for my next novel. I am reluctant to reveal any specific titles, because they would immediately give away the topic and I have yet to discuss this even with my publisher. Also, I am learning I am superstitious about talking about a book before it is complete. In my mind it is too fragile - too liable to fall apart - to risk passing yet to someone else for inspection.

I am also learning, however, that despite the pressures of time I cannot not have a novel on my bedside table. At the moment, it is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I picked it up because I love the premise and I was intrigued by the structure. I will concede, however, that I am disappointed. Like so many novels I read these days, it seems flabby. It seems, too, gratuitous. I am no prude (my current novel, A Thousand Cuts, or, when it is published next year, The Facility, will both attest to that) but I do tend to switch off to swearing and sex when I encounter them every other paragraph. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration (though not much of one) but as a writer is still strikes me as lazy. As, in fact, does the way the author seems to drop in 'issues' whenever two characters decide to have a conversation.

Wow. I am discovering, as I write this, that I really dislike The Slap. I am sure Mr Tsiolkas will not lose too much sleep, however. The consensus seems firmly against me: he has, after all, just been long-listed for the Booker Prize. Also, the book if nothing else has provoked a reaction in me. I will certainly remember it. There are plenty of books I have enjoyed more that have long ago slipped from my mind.

To end, a more positive recommendation from my current reading list: The Paris Review Interviews. If you are a visitor to this site you are probably already familiar with them, but the four volumes that comprise the set will delight anyone who cares about writing. I was particularly struck by the following, from Peter Carey in 2006: 'Even the novel I am writing now - and I am well into it - I still can't be sure it's going to work, and I certainly don't know how it's all going to come together and I don't even know quite yet what it means, and that makes it dangerous to plow ahead every day.' Which, in a sentence, is how it tends to feel for me.
Read an excerpt from A Thousand Cuts, and learn more about the book and author at Simon Lelic's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Thousand Cuts.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan has written ten published novels, all thrillers. A series of six mysteries he wrote in the 1990s featuring erudite Los Angeles private eye Simeon Grist is a cult favorite and is now becoming available in e-book form. Since 1981, Hallinan has divided his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, the setting for his Poke Rafferty novels: A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, and the upcoming The Queen of Patpong. As of mid-July, The Queen of Patpong had already received “starred” reviews in two of the four major publication trades.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls is the best nonfiction book I've read all year, and hands down the best in a long chain of books about modern China. Chang was the Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal when she started the book by the simple act of befriending a few of the young women (some still in their teens) who make up the vast majority of China's 130 million-person industrial migration – the largest in human history. These amazingly resilient young women and girls leave behind the villages of their childhood and the shelter of their families and journey to the boom towns of the south, where they're paid tiny wages for boring, repetitive, often dangerous work. They set goals; they change jobs; they send money home. They rise in the world. Chang tells their stories with enormous art and admirable clarity, and this book caught at my heart over and over again. As it happened, I'd just finished writing The Queen of Patpong, the center section of which is the story – 45,000 words' worth – of how a teenage girl, discovering that she's to be sold into prostitution, runs to Bangkok to the relatively more benign prostitution of the bars, which are as much a women's world as the factories of southern China. Both environments are rich in heartbreak, friendship, and betrayal, and in both worlds young women become people they hardly would have recognized when they were back in the village. A great, great book.
Visit Timothy Hallinan's website and blog, and read about The Queen of Patpong.

Read: Brett Battles interviews Timothy Hallinan.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jennifer Mascia

Jennifer Mascia graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2007 and has spent the last three and a half years on the Metropolitan News desk of the New York Times.

Her memoir is Never Tell Our Business to Strangers (Villard 2010).

Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I'm in the news business, my reading selections are usually limited to newspapers and magazines. But I am halfway through Eat Pray Love, a choice I resisted for a while because of its runaway popularity. But Elizabeth Gilbert drew me in immediately with her authoritative and detailed explanations of the history behind her travelogue, like the origin of the Italian language -- who knew it was based on the poetry of Dante? -- and the purpose behind yoga (if you're going to sit for hours and meditate, you need to stretch a little first). Gilbert's secluded childhood on a Christmas tree farm left little available entertainment but books, and it shows -- her literary knowledge is considerable, pulling her away from the memoir pack.

Before that I read Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen, a Canadian journalist who makes like a "Six Feet Under" character and learns the curious tradition of preserving the dead. I love non-fiction, and so little in pop culture confronts death head-on, so reading this was like peeking back behind a -- well, a curtain. As it goes along, the book makes sure to pay homage to the 1963 tome that illuminated -- and some say trivialized -- the entire industry, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. It's creepy to think where our bodies eventually end up and how they get there, and this morbid curiosity kept me turning the pages.

I keep putting it off because I know it will consume me, but next on my reading list is the Steig Larsson trilogy. Wish me luck!
Read an excerpt from Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, and learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Mascia's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tom Hinshelwood

Tom Hinshelwood is a freelance video editor and scriptwriter. He was born in Staffordshire, England and now lives in London. The Killer, released by Thomas Dunne Books in April 2010, is his first novel.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just finished reading 61 Hours by the indomitable Lee Child, the latest in his hugely popular Jack Reacher series. I became a Reacher convert quite late in the day I’m embarrassed to admit. I’m not quite sure why, but there was just always something on my to-read list preventing me from making that first step. But since reading One Shot a few of years ago I’ve summarily devoured the rest of the Reacher back catalogue and eagerly await each new outing. Which is unusual as I’m not always the biggest fan of long book series. It can be hard to get into one partway through when I know there’s a pile of novels worth of back story I won’t have read, and if say I read book ten first I’m bound to find out some of the twists from previous novels before actually getting to read them firsthand. Similarly, starting from book one of an established series can be daunting when there are all those books to read next before I can catch up to the latest. But what Lee has done, and what I endeavour to do, is create a series of novels that all stand purely on their own, so that you can jump in at any point and it won’t ruin any previous twists, and you aren’t missing out on important back story, relationship history and so on.

I’m a huge fan of Lee’s books, not only because they’re truly great stories that epitomize the cliché that you can’t put them down, but also because as a writer I really appreciate his skill with words. He’s a true master who makes crafting a compelling story seem so effortless when it’s anything but. Just reading his books has taught me an unquantifiable amount about the art of novel writing.

61 Hours is an archetypal Reacher tale with the iconic modern day cowboy/knight errant on a quest for truth and justice. Child’s novels are often labelled as action thrillers, but I consider them more classic mysteries. Reacher is mostly certainly a man of action, but he’s more so a man of logic and deduction. There’s always a bad guy to beat but to get to him or her Reacher uses his keen intellect first and his supermarket-chicken-sized fists second. In 61 Hours Reacher ends up stranded in a South Dakotan town in the middle of a blizzard. The cold alone would be bad enough, but there are bigger problems like a meth-producing biker gang, a Mexican drug kingpin pulling puppet strings, and an impending court case and its star witness in mortal danger. There’s bags of tension, great characters, snappy dialogue, and a beautifully restrained romantic subplot that’s restricted purely to over-the-phone flirting. Only Lee Child could successfully pull that off. It’s a great book, and one of the best of a terrific series.
Learn more about The Killer and its author at Tom Hinshelwood's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cynthia Wachtell

Cynthia Wachtell is the author of the new book War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and an assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University in New York City.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I know a fair bit about American war writing of the past. In my book, War No More, I reveal how Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and other writers of the Civil War era boldly challenged conventional ways of writing about war, and I trace the remarkable rise of antiwar writing from the late nineteenth century to the eve of World War I.

I do not know nearly as much about American war writing of the present. This summer I set out to address that. I assigned myself the task of selecting three books in three different genres about three countries caught up either directly or indirectly in the current conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Also, I wanted to read what other Americans are reading, so I tried to find books that have proven popular. I chose Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (fiction); Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea (non-fiction); and Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (poetry).

First I read The Kite Runner. The novel is a little too contrived for my taste, which is not to say that I found it easy to put down once I started reading it. The plot traces the fate and fortunes of Amir, who grows up a motherless but privileged boy in pre-war Kabul. Amir’s personal story of sin and redemption is inextricable from the recent history of Afghanistan: Little Amir flies kites, eats pomegranates, and seeks his father’s love. (There is a bloodless coup and the king’s forty-year reign ends.) Amir betrays his best friend. (The Soviets arrive with bombs and occupy Kabul.) Eighteen year old Amir and his father escape into Pakistan and then move to America. (The Russians fall to the Taliban.) Amir enrolls in junior college and sets out to become a novelist. (The Taliban terrorize Kabul.) Adult Amir must return to Pakistan and then Afghanistan for some unfinished business. I liked it, but I felt manipulated.

The next book I read was Three Cups of Tea, which tells a rather amazing and inspiring tale, even if the writing itself is often weak. Greg Mortenson set out in 1993 to summit K2 in Northern Pakistan. He failed to reach that mountaintop but over the following decade succeeded in building a bridge to a remote village and fifty-five schools for poor children, especially girls, in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Describing the landscape, people, faiths, and customs of Pakistan – and to a lesser extent of Afghanistan – the book fosters cross-cultural understanding. And by tracing the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan and the start of the war in Afghanistan, the book offers an on-the-ground look at the devastating impact of extreme fundamentalism and war. It also offers a plan for peace – a version of peace founded on education. The New York Times reported that the book was recommended to General Petraeus by his wife, and not without good reason. Three Cups of Tea models the kind of good works that are supposed to win Americans the hearts and minds of our enemies.

Here, Bullet, the final work on my list, I read in a single afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed. That is, I enjoyed it as much as one can enjoy a collection of poems about road side bombs, dismembered corpses, and suicide. Brian Turner’s book has been hailed as one of the early works of “great” antiwar writing about Iraq. Given my focus in War No More, I was particularly eager to read it. How, I wondered, would the antiwar impulse that I knew so well from the age of Mark Twain and Stephen Crane be translated in the age of Bin Laden and Bush? Turner who served as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq, beginning in November 2003, captures the small details of war, the haunting details. His poem “Body Bags” begins, “A murder of crows looks on in silence / from the eucalyptus trees above / as we stand over the bodies.”

I recommend my summer reading list. Not each of the works is a masterpiece but each is relevant to our current conflicts. Jointly the authors took me on a tour of the war region, a tour that began with the opening words of The Kite Runner – “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” – and ended on the closing page of Here, Bullet with the lines: “To sand / each head of cabbage unravels its leaves / the way dreams burn in the oilfires of the night.”
Visit the War No More website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Indiana University--Bloomington. His first book, the short story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) was the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award as well as a pick for the 2001 Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Program.

Upadhyay's novel The Guru of Love (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003, a San Franciso Chronicle Best Book of 2003, and a BookSense 76 collection. The novel was also a finalist for the 2004 Kiriyama Prize.

Upadyhyay's story collection, The Royal Ghosts (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), won the 2007 Asian American Literary Award, the Society of Midland Authors Book Award, and was declared a Best of Fiction in 2006 by the Washington Post. The book was also a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Int’l Short Story Award from Ireland and for the Ohioana Book Award.

His new novel, Buddha's Orphans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published last month.

I recently asked Upadhyay what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. I had read the novel when it first came out a few years ago, but I was drawn to it again recently after I found my graduate student Lana Spendl reading it on the trip to Nepal that I had organized. I snatched the book from her during a bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu. But reading Trevor in Nepal was hard not only because the bus rattled on the bad road but also because the congestion and the traffic noise around me made it difficult to focus on Trevor’s nuanced prose, which, to be understood and savored, requires a kind of tiger-like attention. So, I picked up the novel again when I returned to the States and have been reading it in my quiet town of Bloomington, Indiana.

Trevor is a master of the English prose, one of our finest storytellers. I’ve read almost all of his books. His short stories are to be admired and emulated. He is slightly less powerful as a novelist, but still better than many of his contemporaries. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly he establishes character and mood and emotional power within the first few pages of a novel. In The Story of Lucy Gault, by page five I felt I was in the thick of a story about a family in Ireland that’s torn apart due to circumstances that are both political and personal. And of course, Trevor’s prose has always made me want to weep with joy. Where else do you get to read a sentence like this: “Failing to rouse her from her sleep, her father’s single shot became, in a dream, the crack of a branch giving way to the wind.”

I am also reading Happiness by the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. He has chapters with titles such as “Does Being Kind Make Us Happy?’ and “Happiness in the Presence of Death.” Good stuff.
Read an excerpt from Buddha's Orphans, and learn more about the book at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 2, 2010

Alden Bell

Alden Bell is a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, whose first novel, Hummingbirds, was released in Fall 2009. He teaches at a New York City prep school and is an adjunct professor at The New School.

He lives in New York City with his wife, the Edgar Award-winning mystery writer, Megan Abbott.

Bell's new novel is The Reapers Are the Angels.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell.

This is the book I’m reading right now. I’m about half way through it, and I’m loving every page. Between starving depression-era farmers, women preachers with pig noses, hare-lip girls in heat, and a curious fixation on turnips, this book has it all. There is something about literature in the Southern tradition that loves to indulge in freakishness—as if to imply that failing crops and hard times lead one inevitably to a perversely fractured outlook on the world. Whatever’s behind it, I always find myself moved by the South’s grotesque human landscapes. Contemporary literature spends too much time, I think, trying to put an accurate mirror up to life. Isn’t the distortion of a funhouse mirror much more worthwhile to gaze upon?

Bodyworld by Dash Shaw.

I’m a sucker for graphic novels, and I recently picked up this one purely based upon the flashy cover and the vertical binding. It’s a (barely) futuristic noir tale that reads like an extended LSD trip. I found myself engrossed—constantly surprised and eager to unpuzzle the intricately interwoven visuals that compose the story. It’s also one of those books that includes a map of the town where the story takes place. I’ve always been a fan of that—eager to take the constant effort to refer back and forth to the map so that I can fix the action in a visually concrete location. In fact, I would rather locate a character on a map than visualize what that character looks like. I wonder what that says about me.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

I finally filled in a life-long gap in by reading this book—and I was wowed. How is it that this book isn’t taught in every classroom in America? It should at least be required reading for anyone who would like to be a writer. To be honest, I didn’t expect much from a book called Winesburg, Ohio—it’s not exactly the kind of title that would thrill a marketer. I definitely wasn’t expecting the narrative powerhouse that I got. There is a grace in every sentence, a subtle poetry in every scene. And I particularly like the fact that Anderson makes so much out of so little action. The book offers less of a plot and more of an accumulation of moments that somehow, magically, shape themselves into pure, visceral beauty.

The Black Brook by Tom Drury.

I can’t think of any other writer who writes quite like Tom Drury. Hunts in Dreams, when I first read it, was a kind of revelation to me. And since then, I’ve been making my way through all his books. There is a dreamy, reverie-like quality that pervades his writing—and it resists some of your most fundamental urges toward the traditions of plot and narrative. He slows the story down at points where you expect it to speed up, he lingers over scenes that have only peripheral connection to the plot, he refuses to put up signposts that make you, the reader, feel safe that you are on a well-lighted road with a fixed destination. No, if you climb into the car with Tom Drury, you’re going where he wants you to go, whether you like it or not. And I do like it—I do so much like it.

Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim.

Yes, I read it before I saw it. I know, I know—the theater purists will say that I have done myself a disservice. But it was my first exposure to Sondheim (I’m coming at it late!), and I wanted to make sure I caught everything. Live theater has the advantage of spontaneous beauty, but also the disadvantage of not being able to stop and go back if you missed something. I found myself quite moved by Sondheim’s portrayal of the alienated artist—the figure so dedicated to his connection to his art (and his connection to his audience) that he loses touch entirely with his connection to the people around him.
Learn more about Alden Bell's work Joshua Gaylord's website.

The Page 69 Test: Hummingbirds.

--Marshal Zeringue