Friday, March 30, 2012

Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens is the author of The O'Briens and The Law of Dreams (which received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and was published around the world to wide acclaim) and Night Driving, a collection of short stories. His stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic and Tin House. Honors he has received include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
I spend winters in Marfa, Texas and while here have been digging into the history of the West. I'm reading a series of books about Western characters so draped in mythology that the real, historical people have almost disappeared. To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner is "the untold story" of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. It's a good book because Gardner has done his research, knows the West, and places Billy in the context of his geography and his times. Billy is one of those figures who tremble on the cusp of our era: though he possesses undoubted talents (shooting, riding) he's very much a mass-media creation--the New York dailies loved him. He's kind of the Lady Gaga of his day. "Is there a there, there?" to Billy? Born in NYC he grew up in a series of raw one-horse mining and ranching towns in the West. He's illiterate, charming, buck-toothed, and mostly unknown. In his teenage years he's involved in gangstah-style activity in eastern New Mexico---The Lincoln County War---which is all about power, local politics, machismo, and (cattle) business. Billy is basically a gun for hire, a gangstah homeboy living on the edge between Victorian machine-age America and a much more ancient Old New Mexico; he shoots, he sings, he dies at twenty-one, and the señoritas love him. And this was the 1880s---not that long ago, only a few generations back, when the Territories of the American West much resembled, in their lawlessness, the "failed states" of northern Mexico today.

Jeff Guinn's book about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Go Down Together, is a superb reconstruction of the lives and deaths of the two tiny Texas outlaws of the 1930s. As with Billy the Kid, media played a huge role in their careers, and that is why eighty years later we still remember them. Because Clyde never robbed anything much bigger than a gas station, and Bonnie probably never held a gun unless posing for a photograph. They both grew up in the hardest of times in the toughest of neighborhoods--Cement City, part of West Dallas. Guinn is superb at getting behind the myth and delivering a vivid picture of their (tough) lives and (hard) times. Except in Dallas, where the pair were folk heroes, or maybe urban legends, Bonnie & Clyde were mostly forgotten until Warren Beatty's 1967 movie. Guinn's book delivers a rich thick slice of American history at the dusty-street and dirt-road level.

Hampton Sides' book about the scout, trapper, Indian fighter, and soldier, Kit Carson, is called Blood and Thunder. It's a vivid portrait of another border man operating on the narrow line between ancient and modern worlds; the West in the mid-nineteenth century is dashing toward the modern age but still dangling roots that had been sunk deep into much older ways of being. Sides' Kit Carson is a complex, mostly silent man: bold and brave, but one of history's followers, not leaders. But the history he walks & rides through is fearful, brilliant, and, once again, so near. Did all this really happen barely a century-and-a-half ago? How did we get from Kit Carson's New Mexico to strip malls in just two lifetimes?
Visit Peter Behrens's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Law of Dreams.

My Book, The Movie: The Law of Dreams.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka was born and raised in northwest Indiana and spent more than a decade working in various laboratories there before moving to the Pacific Northwest. His short fiction has been nominated for both the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. He now works in the videogame industry where he’s a full-time writer at Valve, home of Half-Life, Portal and Dota 2.

His new novel is The Games.

Recently I asked Kosmatka what he was reading. His reply:
I recently spent time up at the Rainforest Writer's Retreat where I was lucky enough to snag a signed copy of Jay Lake's Mainspring, so that's the book I've been reading lately. I was familiar with the premise of the book, and I'd been meaning to read it forever because it sounded so interesting. Basically, it's steampunk to the nth power. The world circles the sun on a brass track, like a kind of celestial clockwork, but the big problem is that the world is slowly winding down. The only thing that can stop it is the key perilous, which must be found and used to rewind the world. I'm about halfway through the book now, and it's a fun, fast-paced read. I feel like it puts an exclamation point on the whole steampunk genre. Another book that I picked up at Rainforest that I'm really looking forward to reading is Brenda Cooper's The Silver Ship and the Sea. That's next on my reading list.
Visit Ted Kosmatka's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cara Black

Cara Black is the author of the best-selling Aimée Leduc series. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son and visits Paris frequently.

Her new novel, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, is the 12th book in the Aimee Leduc Series.

Not so long ago I asked Black what she was reading. Her reply:
The Patagonian Hare, a memoir by Claude Lanzmann. Claude, in his 80's, is still the editor of the magazine Sartre founded and made the epic documentary the Shoah. I heard him speak the other night at the JCC - feisty, brilliant and such a character. I bought his memoir and he autographed it. Well, it's kind of a memoir, a bit rambling, yet incisive and he captures for the reader what it was like growing up in France between the wars, his crazy intellectual mother who abandoned her children for her lover, his entry into the Resistance when he was fifteen, fighting the Germans guerilla style and now I'm reading the sections on his affair with Simone de Beauvoir. Fascinating.
Visit Cara Black's website.

The Page 69 Test: Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.

My Book, the Movie: Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Monsters of Templeton and the critically acclaimed short story collection Delicate Edible Birds. She has won Pushcart and PEN/O. Henry prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her stories have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, One Story, and Ploughshares, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2007 and 2010, and Best New American Voices 2008.

Groff's new novel is Arcadia.

Recently I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I'm doing research for my next project, whatever it will end up being, and I am halfway through Bouvard et Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert. Research, for me, involves a lot of reading indirectly around the subject I'm interested in, to try to find a unique way into it, which seems sometimes approximately as useful as staring at the night sky to study the sun. I can't tell you my actual subject--talking too soon about a book is the surest way to kill it--but I can tell you that Bouvard et Pécuchet is not one of Flaubert's best novels. The book is a satirical picaresque, incomplete when it was posthumously published, and it is about a pair of blundering friends who come into some money and do absolutely nothing right with it. If the novel were shorter and tighter, it could have been wonderful. As is, Flaubert sounds the same note in every set piece in the book, which does get tiresome over the course of 347 pages. That said, it's Flaubert. The writing is impeccable.

I love reading poetry before bed for a variety of reasons: poems are mostly short and I have two wee boys and am exhausted by the end of the day; I like to imagine that the poets' brilliant, taut words are burrowing into my brain in my sleep; and, man, do some poems give you Technicolor dreams. I've been sleepily digesting The Complete Poems of Hart Crane for an embarrassingly long time, now.

I'm also just starting to read the ARC of a new graphic novel called Unterzakhn by Leela Corman, which will be out on April 3rd this year. It is the story of twin sisters in the Lower East Side in New York during the early 20th century, and, oh my gosh, I'm exactly three pages in and already the book is blowing me away. Leela is crazily talented, and I just discovered that she was a neighbor of mine, and now I'm mooning around here a bit starstruck, hoping to glimpse her in the neighborhood.
Visit Lauren Groff's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: The Monsters of Templeton.

The Page 69 Test: Arcadia.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Julie Berebitsky

Julie Berebitsky is professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood.

Her new book is Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire.

Last week I asked Berebitsky what she was reading.  Her reply:
My scholarly research interests have always centered on the question of how changing cultural understandings of gender affect everyday life, so I spend a lot of time reading about gender! I mostly focus on historical accounts, but I’ve really enjoyed two recent books that speak to our moment in time.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, left my head spinning—and not just because of the wonderfully mix of poetry, comic strips, and even a recipe that keeps company with more traditional essays. My head was turning round and round by the sheer variety of gender identities the authors described. The internet has opened up a space for creating communities that would have been impossible even a decade or so ago which has been wonderfully freeing for countless individuals. I was especially moved by Julia Serano’s “Performance Piece,” which takes on gender scholars like me who embrace Judith Butler’s notion that “gender is a performance.” I’m still not convinced that it isn’t, but Serano offers an eloquent critique and reminds us that the punishments for transgressing gender norms are not mere theater.

In Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine offers a warning about the studies that make their way into popular media. All the talk about “biologically different brains,” Fine suggests, provide justification for different—and unequal—social roles even though much neuroscience research is deeply flawed. My favorite part of the book is when Fine looks at parents who say they engage in “gender neutral parenting.” Fine makes it pretty clear that even the best-intentioned parent can’t escape the influence of a pink and blue world. Ultrasound technology has even made it possible to engage in in-utero gender conditioning: parents who have learned the sex of their child subsequently use terms like “not terribly active” to describe yet to be born daughters! I never thought I would like a book about neuroscience, but there is plenty of humor and anecdote to make this a pleasurable read.

For this winter’s pleasure reading, I devoured Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), a novel in short story form. Olive, a middle-aged math teacher who is generally short on sympathy and long on criticism, is both extraordinarily clear-sighted and completely blind. And, though none of the stories are what you could exactly call happy, they did make me pause to reflect on moments in my life or in the lives of my friends—those moments that make a person feel both melancholy and deeply connected to the human race. Olive’s golden-age relationship with a widower was a bittersweet yet joyous confirmation of the need for and possibility of growth and compromise as each year passes.
Learn more about Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Michael Northrop

Michael Northrop is the author of two YA novels: Gentlemen (2009), one of the American Library Association/YALSA’s “Best Books for Young Adults,” and Trapped (2011), an ALA/YALSA Readers’ Choice List selection, an Indie Next List pick, and a Barnes & Noble “Must-Read for Teens.” His first middle grade novel, Plunked, is new in bookstores and libraries this month.

Recently I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
I just finished up a red-hot, 10-book roll. I'm a slow reader, so it was a slow roll, but still: I read ten books in a row that were all at least excellent. A few were downright amazing, and at least one was nearly perfect. Here's a quick look at each:

We the Animals by Justin Torres: I read this for book club and was blown away. It’s a fierce, poetic debut that punches way above its 125-page weight class.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: Speaking of punching, there’s quite a bit of it in this one. Fighting, writing, family, and place are all major subjects, and they add up to one of the best memoirs I've ever read.

Oogy by Larry Levin: This is earnest, unusually guileless nonfiction about an adorably ugly rescue dog, which is to say, emotional crack.

The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein: Is this one sad and funny or funny and sad? You decide! In either case, it’s pandastic (that should be read to rhyme with fantastic but with the understanding that panda is the root word) and hits the college-grad-moves-back-home-and-eats-cereal trend on the head like literary Whack-a-Mole.

Lucking Out by James Wolcott: I’m fascinated by NYC in the 1970s—the legendary energy and edge and the big movements just getting started—and Wolcott was here for it all, and paying attention (and sober).

Stoner by John Williams: Another absolute gem from NYRB Classics (see also The Dud Avocado, et al). This somber, rock solid, utterly gripping account of a stoic college professor is as close to a perfect novel as I've read in a very long time.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: How much more classic could this book be? None, none more classic.

Jaws by Peter Benchley: You have to love a book where “fin” comes at the beginning, and this one differs from the film in surprising ways.

The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice: You probably think the title is a metaphor and the book is actually about suburban ennui or something, but no, it’s a wonderfully written guide to deadly animals.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Book club again. This darn book: I knew what it was trying to do—and being by John Green, how it was trying to do it—and it still got me. It’s about “cancer kids,” so more emotional crack, basically. (That’s the second one on this list—do I have a problem?)

And then ... a bad book happened. I won’t mention the book that broke the streak, though I will silently curse its name.
Visit Michael Northrop's website.

Writers Read: Michael Northrop (March 2011).

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 19, 2012

Larry Sweazy

Larry D. Sweazy's first western, The Rattlesnake Season, a Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger novel, was released in 2009. Book #2 in the Josiah Wolfe series, The Scorpion Trail, followed in 2010. Book #3, The Badger's Revenge, was released on April, 2011, and Book #4, The Cougar's Prey, followed in October, 2011.

Sweazy's first mystery novel, The Devil's Bones, is now out from Five Star.

Recently I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
I just finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. I have just recently finished judging a literary awards competition where I had to read a lot of books in the same genre in a short amount of time, so this book was a huge departure from my normal realm of reading, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose it. I typically don’t read YA books, but something about this one jumped out at me. Maybe it was the cover, or I saw a review somewhere, I can’t really remember. It just jumped out, and one day it showed up in my hands, and took me on a marvelous, much-needed, magical journey. This book is an adventure, a love story, a tragedy in three acts, and it bubbles over with imagination. A big, mega-huge imagination.

As a writer, one sometimes loses the ability to enjoy reading without trying to figure all of the hows, whats, and wheres. But this book did it for me. I surrendered to the narrative, to Karou and her sadness, her seeking, her curiosity, and her courage. I won’t give you a book report, recounting the plot point for point, but there’s magic, darkness, mystery, and writing that is poetic and beautiful. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was the tonic I needed to fall in love all over again with great imaginative fiction.
Visit Larry D. Sweazy's website and blog.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Larry D. Sweazy and Brodi and Sunny.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton is professional librarian and a garden columnist for the Sunday magazine of the Seattle Times. She writes about gardens and the people who make them for numerous publications, including Garden Design and Organic Gardening magazines.

Easton is the author of five gardening books; the latest is Petal & Twig, a personal approach to making bouquets from the garden. Other recent books are The New Low Maintenance Garden which was chosen by Amazon as one of the Ten Best Home and Garden Books for 2009, and A Pattern Garden.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I always have a stack of books going at once, no doubt a hangover from working in public libraries. Right now I’m re-reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and enjoying it thoroughly. When I read it twenty years ago, Gertrude Stein’s language annoyed me, but now I’m more patient with her word play.

I just finished Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, which I read because my son recommended it, and he’s the best-read person I know. And I found that a play I’d just seen called Gertrude Stein and a Companion was largely taken from Malcolm’s book, as so much of the material was the same, down to the very words. I love the synchronicity of one art form leading to another, one good book to the next…

I love Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder – I think it’s the best novel I’ve read in ages. Patchett leads you deeper and deeper into the exotic world of the Amazon and an incredulous research project going on there to develop a new drug that...well, there’s the story. The project is led by a tough female researcher who is one of my favorite characters ever…the minute she says a word you know just who is talking, and everyone, believe me everyone, listens. The story gets stranger and stranger, yet you believe every word because the main character is a down-to-earth scientist from Minnesota – you totally believe in her as you are led ever more deeply into the Amazonian forest and this atmospheric tale.

A page at a time, early every morning, I’m reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh…. I’m probably on my third reading, and every time I understand more...Hanh makes Buddhism comprehensible to the Western mind, especially in his most beautiful chapter “Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing” – the title itself is a mantra.

For inspiration and pure pleasure, the latest issue of the British Gardens Illustrated is always on my coffee table so I can dip into this most gorgeous of gardening mags whenever I have a few moments. And I’m paging through and admiring, if not reading every word, of an unusual new design book called Nomad: A Global Approach to Interior Style by Sibella Court and Chris Court. If you like the eclectic décor at Anthropologie stores, you’ll love this book; Sibella Court travels the world for the popular chain looking for cool stuff, often recycled and repurposed, then pulls it together in her own unique, lo-fi style.
Visit Valerie Easton's "Plant Talk" blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cristina Alger

Cristina Alger graduated from Harvard College in 2002 and from New York University School of Law in 2007. She has worked as an analyst at Goldman, Sachs, & Co. and as an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr. She lives in New York City, where she was born and raised. The Darlings is her first novel.

Not so long ago I asked her about what she was reading. Her reply:
I picked up Alex George’s A Good American for all the wrong reasons. For one, he’s handsome. I have no idea why this would drive me to pick up his book, but in the spirit of honesty, there it is. Second, he reminds me of me. He’s a lawyer by training and a debut novelist. Sure, he’s also an Englishman living in Missouri, but still, I felt a certain kinship with Alex George. I would be remiss in not supporting him.

This dubious rationale for purchasing A Good American notwithstanding, I absolutely loved his book. It is as once funny and sad, brave and tender. The protagonists, Frederick and Jette, are beautifully drawn. And their story is universal: they are outsiders in a new country, seeking to carve out a new definition of home.

Frederick and Jette’s story is narrated by their grandson, James. In telling their story, James learns more about his own. As the child of an immigrant (my mother emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1959), this element of the plot really resonated with me. I came away from the book wanting to learn more about my mother’s story, and in so doing, my own.

I’m now midway through Drifting House by Krys Lee, another recent fiction debut. Curiously, Drifting House also turns around the immigrant experience, this time in a series of short stories that explore Korean cultural identity. I saw Krys Lee read at the Center for Fiction a few weeks ago, and I was stunned by her talent. Her writing is breathtaking. Much like Alex George, I can’t wait to see what comes next from this gifted debut writer.
Visit Cristina Alger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Christopher Hebert

Christopher Hebert graduated from Antioch College, where he also worked at the Antioch Review. He has spent time in Guatemala, taught in Mexico, and worked as a research assistant to the author Susan Cheever. He earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and was awarded its prestigious Hopwood Award for Fiction. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his son and wife, the novelist Margaret Lazarus Dean.

Hebert's new novel is The Boiling Season.

Recently I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
Over the last year I did a ton of reading for research and for various nonfiction projects I’ve been working on. All of it worthwhile, but that kind of reading doesn’t always make for unmitigated enjoyment. I decided to make 2012 the year of reading pleasurably, and so far so good.

I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I’d pushed aside for forever. It’s a brilliantly fun book, which is all the more impressive considering how subtle it moves and develops. It’s the first time I’ve read Egan, and I was amazed by her deftness, the startling economy of what she can accomplish in prose. And the restraint she shows in putting together these fragmented pieces in a way that somehow doesn’t feel fragmented at all. Though the book ranges all over in time and space and with a vast cast of characters, I put it down feeling as though I’d had an intensely intimate experience.

The book I just picked up is Sabina Murray’s story collection Tales of the New World. I met her recently at a reading and heard her read from it, and then I immediately raced to the front of the line to buy a copy.

I’ve made it only as far as the opening novella, “Fish,” which is the most—and I assure you this is a word I save for only very special occasions—enchanting thing I’ve read in a long, long time. And not just because it has fairies in it.

The protagonist of “Fish,” Mary Kingsley, born in 1862, is an English spinster who escapes her suffocating family and society by becoming a trader, explorer, and amateur ichthyologist in the deepest unexplored reaches of Africa. Mary is one of the most charmingly defiant characters I’ve ever read. The fact that she’s an actual historical figure is impressive, but the real magic is the effortless irreverence with which Murray imbues her.

I’m a little reluctant to start the next story; I’m not quite ready to leave Mary Kingsley behind.
Learn more about the book and author at Christopher Hebert's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Boiling Season.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jim DeFelice

Jim DeFelice’s new book, The Helios Conspiracy (Tor/Forge), received a starred review from Kirkus, who called it “complete success with its appealing investigator, rapid-fire dialogue and convincing storytelling.”

He is the co-author of American Sniper, the New York Times number one best-seller.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
One of the things I like most about traveling is that it gives me a chance to read. Generally, I leave the e-reader home – I like to pick up things at the airport or train station book store that are a little unusual, for me, at least.

On a recent trip from New York to Washington, I grabbed a copy of Mafiaboy, the first-person account by Michael Calce with Craig Silverman of a hacker’s crimes and misdemeanors during the early days of on-line computing and the internet. It’s a fascinating book, and kept me good company both down and back. The portrait of a teenage hacker is at once charming and extremely alarming. Silverman did an excellent job shaping the work and letting Calce tell the story in his own words – not an easy task.

A few days later, on a trip to Texas, I picked up Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists on the way to the airport. This is a novel organized around a series of short stories and character sketches that taken together form almost a love story for newspapers. The book tells the story of a paper very much like the International Herald Tribune, but it’s really a lot more than that. I swear I’ve met at least half the journalists in the book.

I’m not sure I could come up with two more different books. But that’s part of the fun of traveling – you never know what new experience the road will bring.
Visit Jim DeFelice's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tobias Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell is the author of Halo: The Cole Protocol, Sly Mongoose, Ragamuffin, Crystal Rain, and the newly released Arctic Rising. His books have been finalists for the Nebula Award, the Prometheus Award, and the Romantic Times Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. He hails from the Caribbean, where as a child he lived on boats in Grenada and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Ohio after a series of hurricanes destroyed the boat they were living on, and he attended Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio, where he still lives today. Buckell fell in love with science fiction at a young age, reading Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov novels when he was seven years old.

Recently I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
I'm reading Saladin Ahmed's Throne of The Crescent Moon. It's like 1001 Arabian Nights meets high fantasy, and so far it's pretty awesome. Saladin has written a number of cool short stories, and this is his first book. And it's a heck of a splash in the genre. It's nice not getting the same old orcs/elves/rangers routine, but something different. Goes a long way with me. And it's not just that it's something different, Saladin can spin a good yarn, so it's been a lot of fun so far.
Visit Tobias S. Buckell's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Ragamuffin.

The Page 99 Test: Sly Mongoose.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ali Brandon

Ali Brandon is the national bestselling author of Double Booked for Death, the first in the new Black Cat Bookshop mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. Writing as Diane A.S. Stuckart, she is the critically acclaimed author of historical romance and short fiction, as well as the award-winning Leonardo da Vinci mystery series, also from Berkley.

A few weeks ago I asked her about what she was reading.  Her reply:
One of the best things about finishing a manuscript is that it frees you to indulge in the recreational reading that you denied yourself while under deadline. That means I’ve finally been able to sit down with a few books that have been lingering in my TBR pile. Since I’m an eclectic reader, the titles I’ve pulled out for mention come from all parts of the literary spectrum.

First up is The Adventures of Bindi Girl by Erin Reese. Subtitled, Diving Deep Into the Heart of India, it’s the travel memoirs of a thirty-something former executive who decides to ditch it all to backpack through India. She lives with the locals and in various backpacker “camps,” striking up friendships with fellow free spirits along the way. As a former yoga instructor, I have long had an affinity for India and her culture; thus, I leaped eagerly into this book. In the end, however, I wandered out again feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

While Reese is a talented and engaging author, I wanted to like her account much more than I actually did. Bindi is a fast read with short chapters reminiscent of blog posts—not surprisingly, since Reese is a former popular travel blogger—but it swiftly took on the tone of a wanna-be version of the staggeringly successful Eat, Pray, Love. The continual “see how well I blend in with the culture and how much the Indian people love me” references seemed more an exercise in self-indulgence than a thoughtful look at this fascinating country. I would recommend instead the 2004 memoir Holy Cow: an Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald, with its greater honesty and more in-depth observations.

Moving off in a totally different direction, I recently picked up a copy of South Beach Cinderella by Sharon Potts. Disclaimer: Sharon is a fellow member of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. But up until that point—bad me—I’d never gotten around to reading any of her novels. And so I figured it was time to rectify that error.

If you’ve read her previous work, you know Potts as an up-and-coming suspense author. But, like many writers, she had the urge to try something a little different…in this case, way different. South Beach Cinderella is a delightful hybrid of edgy chick lit/misty-eyed romance that has genuine LOL moments. Successful (and slightly OCD) career woman Frankie Wunder is ready to make a move to the mommy track. Unfortunately, she discovers that her charming dentist husband has been checking out more than teeth on the billboard models who advertise his thriving practice. Frankie promptly dumps him and goes on a quest to find a replacement husband who is ready to jump into daddy mode. In keeping with her compulsive tendencies, she puts together a list of potential candidates who meet her strict guidelines for the hubby/dad-to-be and begins the vetting process. But you know what they say about the best laid plans.

Potts’ Frankie is, by turns, a snarky and poignant figure, while her secondary characters serve as well-drawn foils in this “girl-grows-into-woman” romantic comedy. I’ve since read one of Potts’ suspense novels, Someone’s Watching. While it was competently written and carefully plotted, the novel had a far more workman-like feel to it…I could readily spy the by-the-numbers underpinnings. I have to say that I much prefer the humorous contemporary voice of Cinderella.

Finally, I read a wonderful unpublished novel entitled Mandragora. A novelization of Niccolo Machiavelli's play The Mandrake, this manuscript came to my attention by way of an email from Port of Spain, Trinidad. The as-yet unpublished author is a charming older gentleman named H.D. Greaves. He was familiar with my Leonardo da Vinci mystery series written as Diane A. S. Stuckart and, given the similar time periods of our writings, asked me if I would blurb his book. I have to admit I was a bit reluctant at first—most professional writers agree that reading an unpublished author’s manuscript is fraught with peril—but the tone of his request won me over.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found once I finally dove into his book. As I told Harold, it’s not an easy read, in that you have to take it slowly to catch all the nuances, but I see this being a book that becomes popular via word of mouth. And so, the quote I gave him is as follows: With a dramatic style that is, by turns, suspenseful and laugh out loud funny, Greaves brings the classic work to life for modern readers without sacrificing its Renaissance soul. I hope that one day soon I’ll be seeing my new friend Harold’s book on the shelves.
Visit the official Ali Brandon--AKA Diane A.S. Stuckart--website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Diane Stuckart & Ranger, Delta, Oliver and Paprika.

My Book, The Movie: Double Booked for Death.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn is the author of the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series, set in England in the 1920s, most recently Gone West; and the Cornish mystery series, comprising so far Manna from Hades and A Colourful Death, with more to come. In fact, she has just finished writing the third, Valley of the Shadow.

Last month I asked Dunn what she was reading.  Her reply:
Who knew Sir Isaac Newton spent his later years working for the Royal Mint? History, mystery, biography, science, would-be magic, they all come into this fascinating book: Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson. Newton used his logical skills to catch a man who'd been ripping off the national monetary system for years. An interesting sidelight is Newton's belief in the Philosopher's Stone, that turns dross to gold, and his search to discover/create it.

In the realm of science, I read The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. I didn't understand a lot of it, but the concepts—branes, bubble universes etc.--were fascinating.

The Wolf in the Parlor: How the Dog Came to Share Your Brain, by Jon Franklin, was what you might call speculative science. Franklin postulates that dogs and humans co-evolved, that without dogs we would not have become what we are—and vice versa. Being a dog-lover, I go for this theory whole-heartedly.

Another interesting book I read recently was fiction—you could call it fantasy. The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta, is about a small group of people coming to terms with being among those left behind after the so-called Rapture—which doesn't seem to be anything like what Rapture-believers expect. The people who suddenly vanish aren't necessarily good, nor are they Christians. They're of all beliefs and none. The discombobulating effects on society and on individuals are well-imagined and the main characters are sympathetic, though I have to say I would have liked some sort of explanation of what happened.

I enjoy reading mysteries as well as writing them. One of my favourites is Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series. Bernie is a private eye in LA, and Chet is his dog. The books are written from Chet's point of view, normally something I avoid like the plague. But Quinn does the dog's voice so beautifully, it really feels like a dog's thinking. He gets distracted by passing smells, doesn't understand a good deal of what Bernie says to him, and can't imagine anything wrong with the world as long as his person is with him. As I mentioned, I'm a dog person! I caught up with the series with The Dog Who Knew Too Much.

Another series I like is Roderic Jeffries Majorcan mysteries. Murder Majorcan Style is the latest in Inspector Alvarez's questionable triumphs—he usually works out whodunnit, but his superior chief never gives him credit. Alvarez loves brandy, good food, Mallorca, naps, and women, not necessarily in that order. He's in no hurry, but he gets there in the end. The setting is wonderfully portrayed, with the conflict between the natives and the invading hordes of Northern Europeans.
Visit Carola Dunn's website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Carola Dunn & Trillian.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Catherine McKenzie

Catherine McKenzie was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. A graduate of McGill University and McGill Law School, McKenzie practices law in Montreal. Her novels Spin and Arranged are International Bestsellers. They, along with her third novel, Forgotten, will all be published in the US by William Morrow in 2012.

Recently I asked McKenzie what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’ve just finished reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m currently reading the Steve Jobs biography. Both of these novels are extremely well written. What struck me in The Marriage Plot was how Eugenides seems to be both poking fun at the traditional narrative in what is generally called “women’s fiction” while essentially following that very narrative. I also couldn’t help wondering, given all the recent debate on the issue, whether the book would have received the same amount of attention that is has – deservedly – received if it was written by a woman. I thought Perrotta explored a very interesting premise in The Leftovers – what would life be like for the survivors after a catastrophic worldwide event & brought a neat twist to it by taking this type of premise out of its usual sci-fi genre into general fiction. I’m also enjoying the Steve Jobs biography though I’m already convinced that though I love his products, the man himself would have driven me nuts.
Visit Catherine McKenzie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Spin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jacqueline E. Luckett

Jacqueline E. Luckett worked in sales for Xerox for twenty years. During that time she married, raised a family, and took creative writing classes where she reignited her love of writing.

In 2004, she formed the Finish Party (featured in O Magazine, October 2007) along with seven other women writers-of-color. She calls these outstanding women her mentors and advisors, her friends and the toughest (and most loving) readers around.

Her new novel is Passing Love.

A few weeks ago I asked Luckett what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’m not really one for reading non-fiction, but lately a few titles have caught my attention. I’m nearly two-thirds through this one: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Though I’d bought the book when it was first released, I shied away from it because I expected a dry compilation of facts and statistics. I bought the book because I felt it was a necessary addition to my library. Recently, after a friend read Wilkerson’s book and raved about it so much, I immediately took it off my shelf and began to read.

My parents came to California from Mississippi. My mother arrived, along with her three sisters, during World War II. My father came after serving in the Army. My parents had been sweethearts in Mississippi. Though he always said he intended to move to Seattle, I know my father came to California for my mother. They were married shortly after his arrival.

Little did I know that my parents were a part of the Great Migration that Wilkerson describes. The book reads like a great novel with beautiful language, interesting characters, and compelling stories. Wilkerson follows three Black Americans who left the South in the 30s,40s and 50s for what they believed would be better lives in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Though the stories are personal, they represent millions.

The narrative weaves smoothly between the three migrants—Robert, a doctor, George, an orange picker/activist, and Ida Mae, a sharecropper’s wife—in such a way that I feel their fear, the tension of their decisions to leave, the difficulty of finding jobs, traveling on the road, and the sad realization that, though more subtle (and often not), Jim Crow existed in nearly as large a scale in the North and the West as it did in the states they were fleeing.

Yet, the history is there: the treatment of sharecroppers, the clash between the haves and the have-nots, the reluctance to leave the only home some had ever known. Wilkerson tells all in anecdotes drawing from newspapers, history books, and the hundreds of interviews she conducted. There’s an intimacy to the book that makes me want to keep reading to find out what happens to each of the characters. When Robert Pershing drives through Arizona and is refused a motel room and forced to drive three-hundred miles without stopping, I’m with him. When Ida Mae fears that the sharecropper will keep her family from leaving his farm, I’m with her. When George runs for the next bus out of town because the orchard owners consider him a rabble-rouser, I’m with him. This involvement is exactly what I want from a good read.

The stories are the same ones all my relatives and parents experienced and lived. But that’s not what makes me enjoy this book. It’s well written, exciting, sad, and informative. It makes me think and to cherish, all the more, the sacrifices my parents made for my sister and me, so that we could have a prejudice-free, different, and better life. Their vision was exactly the same as all of those millions of black southerners who packed up all they had to live their dreams.

This book makes me proud, and though I’m fairly certain how the stories will end, as I move toward the last pages, I’m as excited to read as I am when I find a good novel. I want to know what happened to the characters and what events bring them to the end of their journeys—and, that’s what I want from any good book.

Wilkerson leaves her reader with much to think and talk about. The book inspires us all to speak to our elders and to learn their stories.
Visit Jacqueline E. Luckett's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Passing Love.

My Book, The Movie: Passing Love.

--Marshal Zeringue