Thursday, March 30, 2017

Johnny Shaw

Johnny Shaw was born and raised on the Calexico/Mexicali border, the setting for his award-winning Jimmy Veeder Fiasco series, which includes the novels Dove Season and Plaster City. He is also the author of the Anthony Award–winning adventure novel Big Maria and the urban-crime novel Floodgate.

Shaw's latest Jimmy Veeder Fiasco is Imperial Valley.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Shaw's reply:
One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night by Christopher Brookmyre

Comedic density. It’s an important idea to me and my work. If I’m going to be funny, I’m not going to skimp on the laughs. One gag per page is weak. I’m going to try to get in as many as I can while retaining character development and story progression. The Marx Brothers or Zucker/Abrams approach. Quantity and quality.

As hard as I try, I don’t come close to Christopher Brookmyre when he’s trying to be funny. The density of the humor in his early books forces me to set the book down every minute or so. And it’s not one shtick. It’s a wide range of approaches: situational, character stuff, absurdity, over-the-top violence. Brookmyre has a full comedy quiver. Whatever the comedy equivalent of Green Arrow’s boxing glove arrow is, Brookmyre’s got that and more.

His current work appears to be more serious crime fiction (I have no doubt that it’s good, I just haven’t read it yet), but the early stuff, it’s magic. Young and bananas, rough around the edges and ready to throw everything at the story. It’s about the fun and the absurdity, a Scottish punk song with the distortion turned all the way up.

The story? It’s essentially Die Hard at a 15-year high school reunion on a floating resort. A perfect arena for both satire and madness. But it’s the sentence-level mastery that I’m amazed by. One of the most comically dense books I’ve ever read. Making a book read effortlessly takes a lot of effort. I couldn’t recommend this book more.

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

When I wrote my first novel six years ago, for the whole year and change it took to write, I only read authors’ first published novels. I was writing my first book, so it made sense to immerse myself in books that fit the same category. It allowed me to read widely: varied genres, books in translation, contemporary, and classic books. It was a way to create a sense of community. I was with everyone else who sat down at wrote that first page of that first book.

There was no discernible pattern or revelation. Some were just not good. Many of the books were good, but flawed. Either too ambitious, but lacking experience enough to completely pull it off. Or not ambitious enough, falling into familiar territory and not standing out. I could often see the talent that would emerge, scenes and characters and moments that gave a look into the future books of the authors. On the very rare occasion, the ambition and execution came together, and the author nailed it straight out of the gate.

That’s the experience I had recently reading She Rides Shotgun. It doesn’t come out until the summer, but I was lucky enough to be on the Advanced Reader Copy list. It is easily one of the most confident debut novels I’ve read in recent years. If you’ve read Harper’s short story collection, Love and Other Wounds, it’s not going to come as a surprise. Ambitious and well-crafted, Harper uses a simple story to delve into the complexity of one of the most unique father/daughter relationship that you’ll ever read. Beautifully written and very human.

Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

I’ve been quoted as saying that you shouldn’t trust a writer that doesn’t know how to cook. I’ll stand by that. I find the art of cooking closer to writing than any other artform. The development of flavor, the balance between tradition and innovation, the patience of creation, all mirrored in writing.

As well as cooking, I read about food. Nothing better than some A.J. Liebling or Jim Harrison. I also watch cooking shows. They relax me. When I fly, I watch episodes of Chopped back-to-back-to-back. I like watching people solve problems, try new things, and use craft to create art. I also like food. But it’s more recent shows like Chef's Table and the Mind of the Chef that make me really think about the craft and art of a thing, ideas that apply just as much to writing as cooking. Big ideas hidden in a demonstration of making a decorative rose from butter. That’s where I discovered Gabrielle Hamilton.

I’m only about 50 pages into this book, but in those pages she’s been essentially abandoned as a child, moved to New York at 16, and been busted for grand larceny. As far as I can tell, Gabrielle Hamilton would fit in perfectly with most of the crime writers I know. Eventually, the book is probably going to be about food and cooking, but it looks to be a fun path getting there.
Visit Johnny Shaw's website.

The Page 69 Test: Plaster City.

The Page 69 Test: Imperial Valley.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include A Bridge Across the Ocean and Secrets of a Charmed Life, a Goodreads Best Historical Fiction finalist for 2015. She is also RITA finalist and Christy Award winner. Meissner is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Recently I asked Meissner about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m a big fan of historical fiction so most of the books on my bedside table of late have been insightful, impacting, and sometimes heart-tugging excursions to the past, including the one I’m reading right now, which is Affiity Konar’s Mischling. It’s a story of Polish twins taken from their mother during Hitler’s regime along with dozens upon dozens other sets of twins and triplets to be experimented upon by Dr. Josef Mengele. That description alone is enough to let you know this is no beach read. The subject matter is wrenching, and yet in Ms. Konar’s expert care, the reader is not left undone. She is a remarkable wordsmith. I’m at the halfway point and am certain this will be a book that will stay with me.

Just prior to this, I read an early review copy of Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, another book about innocent children maltreated by the adults who are supposed to be their caregivers. Based on true events related to a corrupt Tennessee children’s home in the 1930’s, this book is about young siblings taken from their parents and struggling to stay together against terrible odds. It’s another keep-the-Kleenex-handy book, expertly told. It hits bookstore shelves in June.

Since we’re on the topic of war, the 1930s and children who deserve better than the world the adults around them have created for them, I highly recommend My Last Lament by James William Brown, and which releases by Berkley the first week of April. I read an early copy of this one, too, not long ago. Here’s what I said in my endorsement. “James William Brown’s brilliance and artistry as a storyteller woos, fascinates and utterly devastates in My Last Lament. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you will devour this novel; a heart-rending World War II story you’ve never heard and won’t soon forget.” Did you know there were Nazi forces in Athens during WW2? I didn’t either. I was captivated by this book.
Visit Susan Meissner's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Susan Meissner & Bella.

My Book, The Movie: Stars Over Sunset Boulevard.

My Book, The Movie: A Bridge Across the Ocean.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sara Lövestam

Sara Lövestam, a writer as well as a huge jazz music fan, lives in Sweden.

Her novel Wonderful Feels Like This is now available in English.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Lövestam's reply:
I'm currently reading a fascinating book about life in the North of Sweden during the 1800s. The author, Lilian Ryd, interviewed old people from Lapland and saved their unique knowledge about "the old ways". There's everything from how to handle hundreds of reindeer with just a lasso and a dog, to the ways of finding, producing and preserving different kinds of food in the coldest and darkest of Sweden's landscapes. I'm reading it as research for a book I'm about to start writing. The title is Urfödan, which would roughly be translated as "primeval foods", and I wish I could tell you it's been translated to English. It probably hasn't.
Visit Sara Lövestam's website.

My Book, The Movie: Wonderful Feels Like This.

The Page 69 Test: Wonderful Feels Like This.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 27, 2017

Anne D. LeClaire

Anne LeClaire's novels include Entering Normal, The Lavender Hour, and Leaving Eden, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir, Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence.

Her new novel is The Halo Effect.

Recently I asked LeClaire about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I am a huge fan of Saunders’ short stories. His wit, his keen intelligence, his gift for language and story just shine. So when I read he has published a novel, it moved to the top of my must-read list. Set in a graveyard in the span of one day – the day of Willie Lincoln’s burial – and peopled by those buried there, it is a tour de force. And, for me, unexpectedly moving. As in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the dead reveal not only their lives but the yearnings and fears and contradictions of the heart. I found myself caring deeply about what happened to Willie after his death. Daring in every way a book can be, Saunders performs a high-wire act without a net in this one.

The Inheritance by Charles Finch. I grew up reading the British murder mysteries my mother withdrew from our town library and I’ve never stopped loving them. So I was thrilled to discover the works of Charles Finch and his Charles Lenox mystery series. And joy, of joys, he has written nine of them. Set in London in the late 1800s, it is so spot on in atmosphere and detail that I am always a bit shocked to find myself in the 21st Century when I finally look up from a page. Finch is an elegant writer and master craftsman.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. “Dedicated to the departed. And to those who go on loving them.” Before I’d read the first sentence of Chapter One, the book’s dedication grabbed me with the promise of what was to come and nothing that followed disappointed. In this charming novel, George takes the reader on a trip down the Seine on a barge converted into a bookstore and its owner, a character who describes himself as a literary pharmacist and who prescribes books to cure his customers’ conditions as he struggles with his own withdrawal from life. It is a celebration of the senses and all that makes life worth celebrating, Here’s another take-away though Perdu, the bookseller, poses. “Imagine if you had to buy beautiful words to use them.” I loved every page.

The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. This book pierced my heart. You know that question they pose in author’s Q&As? If you were giving a dinner party and could invite three authors, who would you invite? Charles Baxter has a place at the head of my table.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. The book was handed to me by a bookseller with a high recommendation. And I’ve learned to pay attention to the books that the staff so passionately recommends that you have the feeling they would give it to you at no cost if you would just take it and go directly home and start reading. Now I feel like that bookseller. It is irresistible with its weaving of politics, passion, betrayals, violence, wars and one woman’s indomitable determination to better the lives of her people.
Visit Anne D. LeClaire's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Christina Kovac

Prior to writing fiction, Christina Kovac worked in television news. Her career began with a college internship at Fox 5’s Ten O’Clock News in Washington, DC that turned into a field-producing job—making minimum wage while chasing news stories, gossiping with press officers, and cultivating sources—while somehow making rent on a closet-sized apartment on Capitol Hill. After a stint as weekend editor at WRC TV and senior editor at the ABC affiliate, she went on to work at the Washington Bureau of NBC Network News, as a desk editor and news producer in such stories as that of missing DC intern, Chandra Levy.

After being late to pick up her kids at daycare one too many times, Kovac left television to start a writing career. Now she writes psychological thrillers set in Washington, DC.

Kovac's debut novel is The Cutaway.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
As of this writing, which is less than one week from the pub date of my debut novel, I’m a hot mess. My brain is pinging all over the place. Last minute tasks. All the time worries, including: will there be enough wine and beer at the launch? If not, will anyone show up? Reading is what calms me, yet it’s unfair to try any new authors, because I’m not in the right frame of mind. It’s not fair to the writer. What I need is a Joe Finder book. His writing is like a high-performance luxury car: it moves fast and carries you away before you know it, and it’s smooth, you feel none of the bumps. Joe Finder never lets me down. The book on my bedside table is Guilty Minds, which is more of a guilty pleasure, because it takes place in Washington DC, and I’m a DC-girl, and it’s fun to watch how the big guys write the District.
Visit Christina Kovac's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Cutaway.

The Page 69 Test: The Cutaway.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bren McClain

Bren McClain was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, on a beef cattle and grain farm. She has a degree in English from Furman University; is an experienced media relations, radio, and television news professional; and currently works as a communications confidence coach. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. McClain won the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress for “Took” and was a finalist in the 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novel-in-Progress for One Good Mama Bone, her first novel.

Recently I asked McClain about what she was reading. Her reply:
Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang. I had heard a lot of wonderful things about this book, chief of which was the hugely dysfunctional family at its center. Boy, howdy does it, but this book takes dysfunction to a whole new level. I love this book, and I’ll tell you why – I was going along laughing, laughing, laughing – at times uncontrollably -- at the outrageousness of this family’s antics. And then – wham! – I began crying just as uncontrollably, when I realized the pain that was beneath all of the absurd. I heard writer Dorothy Allison say one time that, if you want to break your reader’s heart, make them laugh first. I’ve never had that experience in a book before this one, and I am still reveling at the power of that experience.
Visit Bren McClain's website.

My Book, The Movie: One Good Mama Bone.

The Page 69 Test: One Good Mama Bone.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 24, 2017

Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He has been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls.

Bledsoe's new novel, the fifth book in his Tufa series, is Gather Her Round.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Like most (all?) writers, I have a couple of things going simultaneously. One is, What It Used to be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver, by Maryann Burk Carver. Raymond Carver had a life very similar to mine, and his determination to continue writing despite near-Wagnerian setbacks (poverty, alcoholism, having two children by the time he was twenty) is something with which I strongly identify. I’ve read scholarly biographies and reminiscences by other writers, but this is the closest to an autobiography as we’re likely to get (except, of course, for his short stories).

In fiction, I just started Powers of Darkness, a strange alternate version of Stoker’s Dracula. It began as an Icelandic translation authorized by Bram Stoker himself back in 1901; then, over a century later, someone finally noticed that it was considerably different from the Dracula we all know: faster-paced, with extra characters and a vastly different second act.

I’m also almost done with Lara Elena Donnelly’s novel Amberlough, a riff on Cabaret set in a magic-free fantasy world. She creates atmosphere like nobody’s business, and once you orient yourself to it, the politics and sexual mores make perfect sense (and echo in our current world).
Visit Alex Bledsoe's website.

The Page 69 Test: Wisp of a Thing (Tufa #2).

The Page 69 Test: Long Black Curl (Tufa #3).

My Book, The Movie: Gather Her Round (Tufa #5).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Tessa Arlen

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Arlen's new novel is A Death by Any Other Name, the third book in her Lady Montfort mystery series.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I have recently finished writing a historical fiction of Diana Manners early life during the First World War where every single one of her group of male friends was killed. How on earth would one manage to come through that sort of experience in one early twenties? Was the question I asked myself over and over as I researched and wrote this novel. Among the many great books I read about this time, re-reading Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye To All That was pure joy if the word joy should be used in connection to the catastrophe of the Great War.

I first read Graves’ memoir of the war many years ago at school and detested it! My only regret this time around was that it is impossible to find a copy of the original book that Graves wrote in 1929 –when he managed to alienate many friends and upset most of England by his candid and unsentimental account of his war. I had to make do with the 1957 edition when Graves returned to the original and re-wrote much of it with what he called the clear-sightedness of hindsight. Graves admitted that it took him ten years to fully recover both mentally and physically from the war and his re-write, like my re-read was tempered by the benefit of more mature years!

Good-Bye to All That is Graves’ farewell not only to England and his English family and friends, but also to a way of life. Tracing his upbringing from his solidly middle-class Victorian childhood through his entry into the war at age twenty-one as a patriotic captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was a fascinating, poignant, often wry autobiography depicting the horrors and disillusionment of the Great War, from life in the trenches and the loss of dear friends, to the stupidity of government bureaucracy and the absurdity of English class stratification.

I have always been a huge Graves fan – I Claudius and Claudius the God are two of my most loved accounts of Roman history as is Graves’s translation of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. Graves’ ability to portray the endearingly human is often laughably honest and all the vanity, excesses, jealousies and self-disillusionment of our mortal frailties is apparent in his memoir of the war.

He was particularly concerned with what he considered to be the problem with truthfulness. In the introduction to the 1957 edition he concluded:
The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench-warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all overestimation of casualties, “unnecessary” dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumors and scene actually witnessed.
As a fiction writer I am particularly grateful for Graves’s falsities they only serve to give us a greater human perspective as he peels away literary poesy and gets down to what it’s really all about in his clear, conversational voice and his rather confrontational style.
Visit Tessa Arlen's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Tessa Arlen & Daphne.

The Page 69 Test: A Death by Any Other Name.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is the acclaimed author of Midnight, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013, as well as numerous other novels and short stories. He has spent his entire legal career working in the New York State court system, including lengthy stints as law clerk to two state Supreme Court justices. He graduated with a BA in English from Cornell University and teaches legal writing at Berkeley College in Manhattan.

Egan's latest novel is A Shattered Circle.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I recently re-read This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I first read the book in college, where a standard litmus test among English majors was whether you preferred Fitzgerald to Hemingway or vice-versa. (I was firmly in the Fitzgerald camp.) Though I read The Great Gatsby in three college English courses and re-read it several more times over the years, I never returned to any of Fitzgerald’s other novels. In fact, as time removed me from my undergraduate youthfulness, I actually switched to the Hemingway camp. (A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises aged well with me.)

In January, I binge-watched the first season of Z, which is the story of the Fitzgerald marriage told from Zelda’s point of view. The episodes encompassed the publication of This Side of Paradise and the notoriety it brought to Scott. And so, the next day, I downloaded the book and started to read. I was impressed. Not only was the book far better than I recalled, it also displayed intimations of what would become the elements of Fitzgerald’s signature style.

On Amory’s first night at Princeton, he wrote:
The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the edge of twilight. The early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue, and, weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.
Could Gatsby be very far behind?
Visit Kevin Egan's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Shattered Circle.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Jacob Stone

Jacob Stone is the byline chosen by award-winning author Dave Zeltserman for his new Morris Brick series of serial-killer thrillers. His crime, mystery and horror fiction has won top praise and has been translated into six languages. His novels Small Crimes and Pariah were both named by the Washington Post as best books of the year. Small Crimes topped National Public Radio's list of best crime and mystery novels of 2008 and is being made into a feature film.

Stone/Zeltserman's latest novel is Deranged, the first Morris Black thriller.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Zeltserman's reply:
I’ve been reading John Lutz’s Frank Quinn crime thriller series, but I’ve been doing so out of order, and the last book I read (finishing it last week) was the first in the series, Darker Than Night. I really love this series, and the quickness, wit, and humor in Lutz’s writing. When reading Lutz you’re reading a true master in the genre. BTW: I felt this way before Mr. Lutz so generously provided a blurb for Deranged.

Since finishing Darker Than Night, I’ve been reading somewhat simultaneously my author’s copy of the March/April issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (which has my latest Julius Katz story) and Loren Estleman’s Burning Midnight. Like John Lutz, Estleman is a terrific crime writer, both his Amos Walker stories and novels, and his Nero Wolfe pastiche stories featuring Claudius Lyon and Arnie Woodbine. The last story I read in the Ellery Queen issue was Tim L. Williams’ noirish "Renters." I always look for Tim’s stories in Ellery Queen, and he never disappoints. Next up after these will be Jim Shepard's latest short story collection, The World to Come.
Visit Dave Zeltserman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Deranged.

The Page 69 Test: Deranged.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Elana K. Arnold

Elana K. Arnold writes books for and about children and teens. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing/Fiction from the University of California, Davis where she has taught Creative Writing and Adolescent Literature.

Arnold's new book is A Boy Called Bat.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Today, I just handed in copy edits for Bat 2, Bat and the Waiting Game. So, I have been reading and rereading those pages for the last couple of weeks, which has been really thrilling. I love seeing a manuscript at this stage: so close you can taste it, but still a secret between a small circle of people.

I just finished reading Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero and the forthcoming Pointe, Claw by Amber Keyser, both of which struck me as timely and important.

Additionally, I have been revisiting Agatha Christie. My wonderful Nana died recently, and she and I shared a love for Christie’s books (except for the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries… neither of us liked those).

Books I am excited to read but haven’t yet dived into include Laurel Snyder’s forthcoming Orphan Island and the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet. I adored the first two.
Learn more about the book and author at Elana K. Arnold's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Boy Called Bat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is an Atlanta-based writer and author of the novel Before I Go. Her articles, essays, and interviews have been featured in The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Redbook, Parade, and Martha Stewart Weddings. Before she was a freelance writer, Oakley was editor in chief of Women’s Health & Fitness and senior editor at Marie Claire. Close Enough to Touch is her second novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Oakley's reply:
Forever is the Worst Long Time, by Camille Noe Pagán. I love a good love triangle, and this one starts out with that basic premise and then spans the next 20 years of the protagonist’s life, taking you in such an unexpected— and poignant— direction. It’s a nook that grabbed me by surprise and then had me sobbing into the pillow at 3 in the morning. This was one of those books.

The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle. This was another all-nighter for me. A perfectly paced and taut suspense/thriller, I just had to know who-done-it.

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Because my history education (and I think most Americans’ history education) was woefully inadequate, I enjoy books that fill in the gaps as well as turn what I think I know on its head. King gives true accounts of Native North Americans and the atrocities committed against them— and somehow does it with a humorous touch.

The Mind at Night by Andrea Rock. A non-fiction treatise on the science of dreams— research for my next novel.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. One of my favorites, I’m currently reading it for the third time. I still roll my eyes and simultaneously read in awe the unnecessarily lengthy passages on every other page, and laugh out loud at the caricatures of the Atlanta monied. It’s classic.
Visit Colleen Oakley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 17, 2017

Chevy Stevens

Chevy Stevens's novels include Still Missing, Never Knowing, and That Night.

Her new novel is Never Let You Go.

Recently I asked Stevens about what she was reading. Her reply:
I always have a few books on the go and I switch back and forth, depending on my mood at the end of the night. This week I am reading Owen Laukkanen’s The Forgotten Girls and David Joy’s The Weight Of This World. I am doing an event with them soon in Texas and they are excellent writers, gritty, raw, with riveting characters. They are great guys, so it should be a lot of fun.

I’m also reading a couple of memoirs—two things I adore, traveling and memoirs. First up, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller. I love an exotic location, and Africa is certainly that. The author doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing her family, but somehow you love them the same ways she does, even if they are dysfunctional. Next up is Bill Bryson, who wrote A Walk in the Woods. I have a few samples of his books and as soon as I’m caught up on my other reading, I’m digging in. I immediately enjoyed his voice and humorous style.

Speaking of humor, I have been reading chapters of The Unmumsy Mum Diary, by Sarah Turner when I need something to pick me up and give me a good laugh. I loved her first book The Unmumsy Mum, for it’s British humor and completely hysterical stories of what it’s really like to be a mother. It was a breath of fresh air to read someone who seemed to be feeling all the same things as me, while I was trying to balance writing with motherhood, and not losing myself in the meantime.
Visit the official Chevy Stevens website.

The Page 69 Test: Never Let You Go.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and son.

Wuertz's debut novel is Everything Belongs to Us.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke that Changed My Life by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

This was a surprising read for me because it was so much more than I expected. This is a memoir about what happened to a woman when she had a stroke at the age of 33. Her short-term memory was so debilitated that she could only hold fifteen minutes in her mind at a time. Minor details like what she ate and when she took medication had to be recorded into her journals, to give her a sense of her own daily narrative. She had been an extrovert, but in her recovery she no longer had the mental stamina required to hold extended conversations or participate in noisy restaurants, which were too stimulating and exhausted her limited reserves. She became, as she says, like a toddler—full of uncontrollable feelings that she, and others, found unreasonable and demanding. All of this is described in precise, coherent and beautifully rendered detail.

But the part that ended up being a revelation was how Lee braided in aspects of her identity as a Korean-American raised by survivors of the Korean War. Her upbringing was both the underlying emotional trauma preceding her stroke and the lifeline that pulled her out. What Lee articulates so clearly and importantly is that even catastrophes that seem purely clinical in nature actually occur in the context of one’s specific emotional and cultural history. Engaging with that context is critical to understanding this story, which is equally about identity as it is about stroke recovery.
Visit Yoojin Grace Wuertz's website.

My Book, The Movie: Everything Belongs to Us.

The Page 69 Test: Everything Belongs to Us.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Michiel Heyns

Michiel Heyns is Professor Emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Author of numerous academic works and radio adaptations of Henry James's and Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, Heyns wrote the chapter on Henry James for the Cambridge Companion to English Novelists. He is winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for journalism 2007, and the Sol Plaatje Award for translation, 2008 and was winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award 2012 for Lost Ground. The French translation of his novel The Typewriter's Tale was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, and won the Prix de l'Union Interalliee.

Recently I asked Heyns about what he was reading. His reply:
My two most recent reads:

All that Man Is by David Szalay

All that Man Is is a somewhat bilious collection of nine interrelated stories, made bearable by the sheer brilliance of the writing. The title ambiguously hints at both the potential and the limitations of man, both 'the abundance that man is capable of' and 'the puny limit of human potential'. It's very much the latter sense that applies here. And ‘man’ here is definitely the human male rather than the human animal, with women figuring mainly as conveniences, distractions and sex objects.

The nine stories that make up this 'novel' are thematically linked in their pitiless portrayal of lives that have no meaning, of characters that are left wondering 'Is this all there is to life?' The men at the centre of these stories range in age from seventeen to seventy-three, and in temperament from coldly selfish to existentially terrified. All the characters travel, and the keynote here is struck by the young man in the first story who exasperates his travelling companion by constantly wondering aloud why one would want to travel. Certainly nothing in the remaining eight stories provides an answer to that one, unless the answer is that these people travel because they can’t bear being in one place with themselves for very long.

Although the characters themselves lack humour (most of them don’t have the necessary distance on themselves to adopt a humorous perspective), there is a kind of appalling comic vigour in the sheer awfulness of the situations described – notably in the case of a randy young Frenchman who, after one frustratingly unfulfilled night (“He tries a wank, but he is too drunk” is one representative chapter-ending) has tantric sex in turn with a monumentally obese English girl and her equally elephantine mother. (Here is the daughter: “Her legs do not quite have the overwhelmingly vertical quality of a normal leg – they have a definite and assertive horizontal dimension too. And not much in the way of knees. When she drags down her lace-edged pants, he sees, for a moment, somewhere among all the whitish flesh, a soft tuft of hair the colour of peanut butter.”) All of this is in the seediest hotel on the island of Cyprus, and possibly in all of the Mediterranean. The only more off-putting description of sex I can think of is the disastrous ejaculatio praecox in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach – not that there is anything praecox about the young Frenchman’s insatiable satyriasis.

There is something perversely courageous (or courageously perverse) about the nullity of Szalay’s characters. They have almost no human warmth (the only exception I can think of is in the last story, in the affection of an elderly repressed homosexual, evidently the grandfather of the disgruntled young man in the first story, for his daughter), no love (again with that one exception), no friendship, with people spending time with each other only because being on their own would be worse. (Simon, one of the two young men of the opening story, is representative also in this respect: “The feeling of loneliness is immense as a storm front. His friend, after ten days of travel, he finds irritating most of the time.”).

The author has an impressive command of places in Europe one would not necessarily want to visit, and he does not spare us the details, almost without exception bleak. Cyprus in particular would seem to be best avoided as a holiday destination, with Croatia a close second. And don't go skiing in France.

So why, given this extremely reductive rendering of human possibilities, did I not stop reading after the first story? Well, a bit like Houellebecq, the sheer dreadfulness exerts a kind of fascination: can things really be this awful? And can it get any worse? (It does: there is a scene in a Chinese restaurant in Croatia that still makes me feel ill.) And then, yes, the writing is truly brilliant. Only a consummate writer could come up with such an infinite variety of morbid states of mind. There is even something exhilarating about it. In fact, writing about it here has made me want to reread it.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday is a return to form for Graham Swift, after a couple of novels that didn’t quite match up to his masterpieces, Waterland and Last Orders. This one, like most of his work, is intensely English, here specifically revelling in the English countryside in early spring – but given a dark tinge by the fact that this takes place in the aftermath of the First World War, that is, in a country brutally deprived of the flower of its young manhood. But the survivors, as survivors will, love all the more vividly for having survived.

As before, the novel is imbued with Swift’s fondness for the English countryside and certain aspects of English life -- in this instance the obsolete (?) tradition of Mothering Sunday -- which, the novel makes clear, had little in common with its modern commercialisation as Mother's Day. Here, in the aftermath of the First World War (the novel takes place in the early 1920's, though its extremely long-lived central character survives almost into the new century), the day is intended to allow the (ever-diminishing number of) servants a day off to go to see their mothers. What Swift homes in on is that this leaves the servanted class to fend for themselves as far as meals are concerned.

This unusual obligation gives two neighbouring families an excuse for a lunch outing to a nearby hotel -- and the scion of one of the families an excuse to arrange a tryst with one of the maids of the neighbouring family, with whom he has been having an affair for some seven years -- now, presumably, to be terminated by his impending marriage. The novel is a leisurely and very sensuous exploration of the ensuing tryst, for once in the actual home of the young man. (The Modigliani nude on the cover, at first blush surprising on a Graham Swift cover, is in fact very appropriate to the frank sexuality of the encounter.)

And that is about it, with flashes forward to the somewhat surprising later career of the young woman, with one plot development that I won't divulge. It has about it the warm languor of a beautiful day in early spring, the charm of the English countryside, the quaintness of a vanished style of life, the melancholy of a sadly diminished generation, the beautiful entitlement of two young people in love enjoying each other without constraint. Tender, sensuous and yet tough-minded, Mothering Sunday evokes nostalgia without drooping into sentimentality.
Visit Michiel Heyns' website.

The Page 69 Test: The Children’s Day.

My Book, The Movie: The Typewriter's Tale.

The Page 69 Test: The Typewriter's Tale.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty studied History at Liverpool and Oxford Universities, and is now headmaster of a school in Essex. He is the author of more than eighty historical mysteries including the Hugh Corbett, Mathilde of Westminster and Canterbury Tales medieval mystery series.

A Pilgrimage of Murder is the 17th book of the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan.

Recently I asked Doherty about what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading: George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. This is set on the night of 22nd February 1862 in a Georgetown cemetery on the outskirts of Washington. Lincoln goes down there to mourn over his young son who has died of fever. Of course Lincoln is at an all-time low, grieving over his dead son whilst the civil war rages through the country he leads. This is a novel about the supernatural with other rich themes entwined. I find it absolutely marvelous.
Visit Paul Doherty's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Pilgrimage of Murder.

The Page 69 Test: A Pilgrimage of Murder.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 13, 2017

Marsha Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the acclaimed author of over sixteen picture books and novels. Her earlier picture books include Enough, Silver Threads, Daughter of War, Aram's Choice and The Best Gifts. She won the Silver Birch Fiction Award for Making Bombs for Hitler and the Red Cedar Award for Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War.

Recently I asked Skrypuch about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m actively writing a novel at the moment and when I do that, I tend not to read much fiction because my mind wanders back to my own story-in-progress. But I’ve just come off a six month reading binge and during that time I read some awesome novels.

I love reading unpredictable psychological thrillers. Readers have told me that Making Bombs for Hitler has a thriller feel to it, so maybe that's why I enjoy them so much.

Herman Koch has a gift for creating seemingly mundane yet deliciously unlikeable characters and original story lines. I inhaled his most recent, Dear Mr. M, about a voyeur neighbor who spies on a once-great author. The voice alternates between the voyeur and the fading author, and neither is a reliable narrator. Brilliant and addictive. His best novel yet.

An Honest Deceit is a literary thriller by Guy Mankowski, about a bereaved father who delves into the mysterious circumstances of his young daughter’s death as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy. Nothing about this book is formulaic. I'd read another Mankowski in a flash, just because I like his writing so much.

Chevy Stevens’ newest thriller, Never Let You Go, comes out in mid-March, but I had the opportunity to read an advance copy. I loved this book. Stevens’ bad guys aren't cardboard and her good guys aren't sweet. Everyone has a well-developed backstory. When the terror happens, it's so darned real.
Visit Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's website.

My Book, The Movie: Making Bombs for Hitler.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 11, 2017

David Joy

David Joy is the author of the Edgar nominated novel Where All Light Tends To Go (Putnam, 2015), as well as the novels The Weight Of This World (Putnam, 2017) and The Line That Held Us (Putnam, TBD). He is also the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey (Bright Mountain Books, 2011), which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award.

Recently I asked Joy about what he was reading. His reply:
Last time we did this, I gave you a novel, a collection of essays, and a book of poetry, and that’s a tradition I’d like to continue this go ’round, because I think far too often all we hear about are novels. I’m going to trade out a collection of essays for a collection of short stories, but the idea’s the same.

We’ll start with a novel and I’m going with Steph Post’s Lightwood. If you’re just hearing Steph’s name, you’re late to the party. Her debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, was absolutely wonderful, and this sophomore effort sets her firmly amongst the list of the best Southern crime writers working today. This is the story of Judah Cannon, a reformed convict just out of prison trying to make a go at the good life with his childhood friend and newly discovered love, but who soon finds himself swirling in a downward spiral of drugs, money, and revenge. Post’s writing shines with breakneck pacing and characters fully fleshed and scarred. She reminds me of a cross between Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott, all that to say: read this novel, read the one that came before, and keep your eyes peeled for what’s coming next.

I recently finished a really great debut collection of stories from a South Carolina writer named Scott Gould. The book doesn’t come out until early June, but it’s called, Strangers to Temptation. This is a series of linked stories narrated by a baseball playing, double dog daring kid doing everything he can to survive adolescence with a mom who probably drinks a little too much Smirnoff and Tang and a quirky father who’s coming to terms with his time in Vietnam. Set in the early 70s in the lowcountry of South Carolina, these stories reminded me of some blend between one of the South’s best storywriters, George Singleton, and that old television show The Wonder Years. This collection is firmly grounded in that long held truth that comedy equals tragedy plus time, these stories will make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, and best of all they’ll make you remember. Definitely worth picking up.

Lastly, one of my favorite poets, a Kentucky writer named Rebecca Gayle Howell, has a new collection that just came out called, American Purgatory. Her last, Render: An Apocalypse, is one of my favorite collections of poetry I’ve ever read so I’m really looking forward to this new one. It won the Sexton Prize for poetry and from the description it’s going to be right up my alley: “[A] dystopia set in a near-future United States marked by severe drought, herbicidal warfare, and a totalitarian climate of poverty…Against this backdrop, three unlikely characters begin a journey that will take them away from work, belief, and even each other…Equal parts Dante and Cormac McCarthy, American Purgatory is a coming-of-age for capitalism written in the decade of tea-party terror.” Now if the mailman would just hurry the hell up and get to my side of the mountain, that’s the book I’ll be reading!
Visit David Joy's website.

The Page 69 Test: Where All Light Tends to Go.

My Book, The Movie: Where All Light Tends to Go.

The Page 69 Test: The Weight of This World.

--Marshal Zeringue