Thursday, December 29, 2022

Peter Blauner

Peter Blauner is an Edgar-winning, New York Times bestselling author of several other novels, including Slow Motion Riot, The Intruder, and Sunrise Highway. His books have been translated into twenty languages.

Blauner's new novel, Picture in the Sand, is the culmination of two decades of writing and research that took him from Brooklyn to Cairo a half-dozen times.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Blauner's reply:
The book that's made the strongest impression on me in the last year is Bambi. Yeah, that's right, I said Bambi. You got a problem with that?

Well, let me tell you, Bambi wasn't always a Walt Disney cartoon. It started life as a novel published in 1923 by Austro-Hungarian author, literary critic and man-about-town Felix Salten. He was part of a circle that included sophisticates like Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. Salten's novel has something of his compatriots' dreamy sensuality, which will come as a surprise to those who only know the Disney version. The Nazis also perceived a threatening cultural/political subtext. They believed that Salten, an outspoken Jewish nationalist, meant his story to be an allegory about anti-Semitism and banned it. Salten fled to Switzerland where he saw the Disney version before he died, and lamented having sold the film rights years before for a thousand dollars.

What struck me moost about Bambi is the beauty and brutality of the world Salten creates. He gives his animals human voices without sentimentalizing them. When violence occurs, he's calm and matter of fact about it, almost like a war correspondent. Salten himself was a hunter, so he's very sharp and observant when describing the stillness of the woods. In fact, when I was reading his book, the walls and ceiling of the room I was in seemed to melt away, so all I could hear was the wind in the trees.

I've read a lot of crime fiction, and I've written some in my time as well. And Salten is as tough-minded as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I'd recommend this book to anyone, except perhaps very young children. I've heard many people say they were deeply upset by the death of Bambi's mother in the cartoon. That particular episode is handled deftly and discreetly in Salten's book. But the rest of the story would be overpowering and frightening to a defenseless young person in a completely different way.
Visit Peter Blauner's website.

The Page 69 Test: Sunrise Highway.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 19, 2022

Christiane M. Andrews

Christiane M. Andrews grew up in rural New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine and still calls northern New England home. Her debut novel, Spindlefish and Stars, received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and Booklist, and was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2020 and a Booklist Editors’ Choice for 2020. A longtime writing and literature instructor, Andrews lives with her husband and son and a small clutch of animals on an old New Hampshire hilltop farm.

Her new novel is Wolfish.

I recently asked Andrews about what she was reading. Her reply:
This question finds me just finishing several wildly different works (which I suppose is fairly typical for me):

I most recently read Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov (translated by Boris Dralyuk), which offers a stunning portrait of the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine and the burden of violence its people have had to endure. Written before the 2022 invasion, Grey Bees mourns what was then already lost in Donbas—homes, land, security, everyday simple pleasures—and examines how even fear may turn to apathy in the habitualization of war. Kurkov’s main character, pensioner beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich, struggles to keep his hives safe; what normalcy—including simple human decency—he and others manage to preserve comes to seem heroic. The prose is admirably direct, unflinching and beautiful.

Another I’ve just devoured is Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker—a little marvel of a book and a masterclass in spare, startling prose. “Let words be nice,” says Treacle Walker early in the tale, which Garner, working in the language of myth and legend and folklore and comics and slang, certainly does. The story begins with the young boy Joe trading old pajamas and lamb bone for Treacle Walker’s chipped jar and donkey stone; it develops around the friendship the two form, and around the friendship that comes from a man Joe discovers in the bog, Thin Amren. A strange and wondrous tale.

I’m currently in the midst of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, a book I’m reading partly for research for an ongoing project, but mostly for pleasure. Sheldrake offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of fungi, but additionally explores the interconnectedness of the entire living world and questions where “self” truly begins and ends. Relatedly, I’m also re-reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization—an extraordinary work that examines mankind’s complicated relationship with woodlands throughout history and in our cultural imagination. Though Harrison, like Sheldrake, sees humanity as “a species caught in the delicate and diverse web of a forestlike planetary environment,” he also describes the forest as “the correlate of the poet’s memory” and worries that as its ancient remnants disappear, the poet, too, will “fall into oblivion.”

Waiting next for me on my nightstand I have Arnée Flores new middle-grade novel The Spirit Queen, Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. I know Solnit’s and Flores’s writing well (and can enthusiastically recommend Flores’s work to parents and teachers seeking well-crafted fantasies for young readers). Of Okri’s novels, I’ve only read The Freedom Artist, so I’m excited to dive into this earlier text.
Visit Christiane M. Andrews's website.

Q&A with Christiane M. Andrews.

The Page 69 Test: Wolfish.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 18, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton:
If you had, like a medieval scholar, spent years in the intensive study of the works of Aristotle, you would remember, if you remembered nothing else, the line with which the great philosopher opened so many of the tightly-reasoned things he wrote: “The beginning is more than half.” If you had not studied Aristotle you might still have a sense of how important, how essential, the beginning is if you had read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Published in 1905, it was her ninth novel and the first to become a great popular success, with 140,000 copies in print within the three first months it became available. The first paragraph reads:

“Seldon paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.” Then, a few lines later: “There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.”

Toward the end of the page, the first page of the novel, Edith Wharton adds that Seldon had rarely seen Miss Bart more “radiant,” that she had, “against the dull tints of the crowd…regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Seldon found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?”

When Edith Wharton was a very young child, a child who had not yet learned how to read but was, as children were in the middle of the 19th century, surrounded by books, she would hold a book in her hand and tell a story of her own invention as if she were reading it from the printed pages of the book she was often holding upside down. After she learned to read, she learned to write, and, born with a story-teller’s genius, she thought about how a novel should be written, a study continued through most of her long, and eventful, life; a study by which she became, along with her friend, Henry James, one of the very few serious novelists to write something worth reading about writing. In the middle of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in a chapter entitled, “A Secret Garden,” she explains why she wrote The House of Mirth, and why what is written on the first page is more than half the story.

There are two rules which a novelist must alway follow. The first is that he “should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively.” The second is that “the value of a subject depends wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it.” Edith Wharton thought it her misfortune that the only subject she knew well was New York, fashionable New York, “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers,” a subject “too shallow to yield anything to the most searching gaze.” Then, suddenly, as it were, she saw something she had not seen before, that “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” The answer to the question what could be made of New York and all its “flatness and futility” was “my heroine, Lily Bart."

This seems to suggest that Edith Wharton was interested in a situation: the way in which the fashionable New York of the late nineteenth century corrupted people and their ideals, but it was not that at all. Lily Bart was the source of the story. Literally. Edith Wharton’s own created character told her the story she, Edith Wharton, had to tell. This happened all the time. Suddenly, “a character will stand up, coming seemingly from nowhere. Again, but more breathlessly, I watch; and presently a character draws nearer, and seems to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to unfold his or her tale.”

Lily Bart not only told her the story she should write, but speaks out loud the story, her part of the story, while Edith Wharton, listening, does nothing but write it all down. The “elusive moment when these people who haunt my brain actually begin to speak within me with their own voices…I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own.”

Every writer, every serious writer, every writer who writes every day for hours and thinks scarcely any time at all has passed, will know exactly what Edith Wharton means. There are things that, when you read them, seem to have been written especially, or even only, for you; at least one author who, reading Edith Wharton’s description of simply recording what her characters are saying to one another, thought he was reading something he had written himself.

Lily Bart suddenly appears and makes herself known; but only, it must be said, after Edith Wharton had spent a great deal of time observing the world around her, the fashionable New York world, bright, charming, and hollow at the core. Then, once it happened, once she knew the story she had to tell, she had to decide how to do it. The first question, which seems so obvious as to be all but irrelevant, is who is going to tell it. “Who saw this thing I am going to tell about? By whom do I mean it shall be reported?”

There are several different ways to do this. Joseph Conrad, as she acknowledges, often had one of the novel’s characters tell the story. Anyone who has read Conrad will immediately think of Marlowe, the veteran sea captain asked by others to tell what he knows about some rumor of a vaguely remembered tragedy in some far away exotic place. When the one who tells the story is part of the story, when, for example, the narrator tells what he or she has gone through, what has happened to them, the reader is drawn closer and the story becomes more a confession, something shared, not with any of the other characters, but with the one person who has agreed to turn the pages and follow the author’s account. Edith Wharton did not do this; she chose instead the anonymous, omniscient narrator, who knows everything and tells everything: what her characters say, what they think, and what they do. Her friend, Henry James, did this as well, but did it in a way that is far more intimate. In his great novel, Portrait of a Lady, the narrator is always ‘I,’ as in “I am far from wishing to say.” But instead of telling the story to a vast, anonymous audience of unknown readers, he tells it to you and you alone. When he writes, “we have already perceived that she had desires which had never been satisfied,” the reader is almost tempted to look at James and nod his agreement. James and his reader, his confidant, listen together to what the characters not only say, but think, and, together, explore the antecedents, the histories, of the people whose lives they are following and beginning to understand. This is how, when it is done well, fiction, far more than non-fiction, can get at the truth of things.

Edith Wharton made her choice; we know who is going to tell the story. But how should the story be told if it is to hold the reader’s interest through three or four or five hundred pages? The start, for Edith Wharton, is to make the story, the whole story, implicit on the very first page. This can be done only if, before the first page is written, the last page is known, and, more than that, deeply considered.

“Nietzsche said it took genius to ‘make an end,’ - that is, to give the touch of inevitableness to the conclusion of any work of art.” This is particularly true of the novel. The “failure to end a tale in accordance with its own deepest sense must deprive it of meaning.”

The end of the story, in other words, has to be known before the beginning of it can be written. A “note of inevitability should be sounded at the very opening of the tale, and…my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom….” The mystery is what happens in between, how what in retrospect will appear to have been inevitable is constructed. Though she knows from the beginning what is going to happen to each of her characters, knows that “their fate is settled beyond rescue,” they somehow “walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand.” Their speech, their action, “seems to be their very own,” so much so that she is “sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract ‘situation,’ as yet uninhabited by its ‘characters.’”

The characters, those entirely fictional inventions of Edith Wharton’s extraordinary mind were, for her, “as real and as tangible as my encounters with my friends and neighbors, often more so, though on an entirely different plane.” Which is the reason why Lily Bart, the central character of The House of Mirth becomes, in the reading, as real, and as tangible, as anyone we have actually known. And we know her on the very first page, when we see her, as her sympathetic friend Seldon does, the girlish smoothness still there after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing; eleven years the best looking young woman in New York society, a young woman, by her own description, “horribly poor - and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.”

Marriage is the only way Lily Bart can have what she thinks she needs, but the wealthy men - and there are quite a lot of them - are as dull and superficial, as bound to the narrow prejudices of their class as they are rich beyond all imagining. She would have married Seldon, if Seldon had had money; and Seldon would have married her, if money had not made her ignore the damage she was doing to her reputation by her apparent indifference to a hypocritical morality by which the wealthy covered their own moral failings. Eleven years, and instead of a woman every rich man wants to marry, Lily Bart has become the woman every married woman thinks is the paid for mistress of her husband. She is not what they think. She has a greater sense of honor than any of them, which no one - no one except Seldon - recognizes, and which only helps make her so poor that she is reduced to working, or trying to work, for wages. She no longer stands out “against the dull tints of the crowd;’ she has become part of it. Seldon, who discovers too late how honorably she has behaved, brings the story to its inevitable conclusion. Lily Bart has gone to her “ineluctable doom.” She has killed herself, something that, we now understand, was implicit on the very first page of Edith Wharton’s unforgettable novel. And we understand that because Edith Wharton was willing to pass on to other serious writers the secrets she had learned.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third Reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third reading: The Europeans.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Kitty Zeldis

Kitty Zeldis is the pseudonym for a novelist and non-fiction writer of books for adults and children. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.

Her new novel is The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Zeldis's reply:
Since I have been writing historical fiction, I’ve found myself drawn to other such novels to provide both inspiration and guidance. Two that I’ve read—and liked—recently are Atomic Love by Jennie Fields and Cradles of the Reich by Jennifer Coburn. Atomic Love is set in the 1950’s and its protagonist is a woman who worked on developing the atomic bomb—not a subject you encounter very often! The novel is richly atmospheric, and contains both a tender love story as well as elements of suspense—spies, the FBI etc. Fields is a graceful, assured writer who brings her characters fully and exquisitely to life; I learned so much from her. The Coburn novel touches on the Holocaust but from an unexpected angle—the lebensborn program, which Nazi authorities created to increase Germany’s population. Pregnant German women deemed “racially valuable” were encouraged to give birth to their children at Lebensborn homes. During World War II, the program became complicit in the kidnapping of foreign children with physical features considered “Aryan” by the Nazis. It’s a chilling if not horrifying story, and I knew nothing about it until I read this book. Coburn did an enormous amount of research and has skillfully woven it into the fabric of the novel, which is no easy feat. And one of her character is a young woman who completely supports the Nazi regime and wants nothing more than to produce a healthy infant for the Reich. It is to Coburn’s great credit that we come to understand her even though she repels us.
Visit Kitty Zeldis's website.

My Book, The Movie: Not Our Kind.

Coffee with a Canine: Kitty Zeldis & Dottie.

The Page 69 Test: Not Our Kind.

My Book, The Movie: The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Lorna Landvik

Lorna Landvik's novels include the bestselling Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, and Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

Also an actor and playwright, Landvik has performed on numerous stages. A recent DNA test determined she’s 95 percent Norwegian and 5 percent wild.

Her new novel is Last Circle of Love.

Recently I asked Landvik about what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been having a gay old time reading Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green.

In this witty (so witty), illuminating memoir, the daughter of legendary musical theater composer Richard Rodgers regales us with tales of her privileged (but angst-filled) childhood when her father worked with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein; her years as a young mother (three kids before the age of 26) scrambling to get work as a composer and writer herself, and her various careers as a renowned children's book (Freaky Friday) author, philanthropist and chairman of the Juilliard school.

Ms. Rodgers circle is a wide one and she doesn't just drop names -- she offers rich and vivid stories about Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince, etc. (And the etc. is a long list!).

Reading this book is like nursing a Cosmopolitan at Sardi's, shoulder-to-shoulder with Broadway luminaries and listening to a wildly entertaining raconteur.
Visit Lorna Landvik's website.

My Book, The Movie: Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

The Page 69 Test: Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

The Page 69 Test: Last Circle of Love.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton's first novel Good Morning, Midnight has been translated into seventeen languages and was the inspiration for the film adaptation The Midnight Sky. She is also the author of a memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. The Light Pirate, her second novel and third book, is now available. A former writer-in-residence at The Kerouac House and The Studios of Key West, she currently lives in Los Angeles.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Brooks-Dalton's reply:
I recently finished Dinosaurs, by Lydia Millet. I listened to it, actually, and although I do find that I miss certain elements of a terrific book like this one when I’m listening as opposed to reading, I also got to take long walks with it, which felt like a pairing the book itself would appreciate. I usually have an audio book and a physical book going at the same time. That said, I think I’ll need to buy a copy of Dinosaurs at some point, just to go back and admire some of the nuance that I’m sure I missed. The story is wonderfully engaging without being particularly interested in plot or conflict, and to me that is a wildly difficult trick for a writer to pull off… the literary equivalent of watching someone walk a tightrope between two skyscrapers. Another reason I loved it is that I’m particularly drawn to books that deal in the anxiety of being alive right now without succumbing to sanctimony or pat answers or gloom (another high wire trick between… three skyscrapers?). It’s my first Millet novel, but now I will certainly seek out the others.

I’m almost done with There, There by Tommy Orange—hard copy—and I feel late to the party on this one as I’ve been hearing people rave about it for a while. It’s kaleidoscopic in all the characters and points of view it is juggling, and the way they align and layer is of course gorgeous. I know a friend of mine started teaching this book to his high school English students and I love that. This book belongs to a newer, better canon. What an achievement.

And then I’m eager to begin Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Change by Mario Alejandro Ariza, who I’m excited to be in conversation with at an upcoming book event. I couldn’t be more fascinated by the topic and I wish it had come out sooner so I could’ve used it for research while I was writing The Light Pirate. I’m saving it for my flight to Miami next week. Will I cry at 36,000 feet while reading it? Almost certainly.
Visit Lily Brooks-Dalton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 5, 2022

Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is the author of the Shana Merchant novels, which include Death in the Family, The Dead Season, Dead Wind, and The Kind to Kill. A former freelance journalist and digital media strategist, Wegert’s work has appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist. She grew up in Quebec and now lives with her husband and children in Connecticut.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Wegert's reply:
A few years ago, in an effort to fit more books into my life, I started reading multiple titles at once. I now have three going at any given time and keep them scattered around the house so there’s always a book within reach. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

I’ve always been fascinated by books about identical twins, maybe because I never had a sister (not to knock my wonderful brother). In Mirrorland, LA writer Catriona returns to her childhood home in Scotland to search for her estranged twin Ellice, who disappeared while sailing but, according to Cat, may be alive and playing an elaborate cat-and-mouse game. Johnstone’s prose is just gorgeous, and her descriptions of the dark imaginary world the sisters frequented as children gives me chills.

Kismet by Amina Akhtar

Set in Sedona, Arizona, Kismet features Ronnie, a young Pakistani woman who craves freedom from her domineering aunt only to find herself embroiled in a murder investigation. This book gets over-the-top wellness culture just right, living in that sweet spot between gripping thriller and laugh-out-loud black comedy. Kismet entertains with every page.

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

What writer wouldn’t want to read a book about a writing retreat? In Julia Bartz’s excellent debut, aspiring novelist Alex is invited to attend a retreat with a notorious author, but soon learns the event is a cut-throat competition. This is a claustrophobic thriller in the vein of The Plot, and I’m loving it.
Visit Tessa Wegert's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Dead Season.

The Page 69 Test: The Dead Season.

Q&A with Tessa Wegert.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Wind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 2, 2022

Amanda Sellet

Amanda Sellet (pronounced Sell-ay) is a former journalist who has written book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU. After a mostly coastal childhood, she now lives in Kansas with her husband, daughter, and cats.

Sellet's new novel is Belittled Women.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I am never not reading, at least for a few minutes at the end of the day, but the choice of material is driven by two things: mood and due dates. My library hold list is one of the main ways I keep track of upcoming releases, right up there with the random scraps of paper littering my desk.

For most of the fall I was on a tight deadline, so my taste in leisure reading ran to lighter fare, with a spate of catching up on the physical TBR once I finished drafting. Looking back, I can see that I read mostly in genres and categories I have written, am writing next, or hope to write in the future.

Ruby Fever by Ilona Andrews

I finished writing a new book on a Friday afternoon, ordered pizza, and immediately opened the latest installment in the Hidden Legacy series. For pure escapism, there are few things I find more entertaining than urban fantasy/paranormal romance. The snark, the action, the magic, the tension – it’s all there. The first three books set in this world are among my most re-read ever, so this is where I turn for pure relaxation and fun.

The Name She Gave Me by Betty Culley

I haven’t read many novels in verse, so I was unprepared for the beauty and emotional intensity of Culley’s first book, Three Things I Know Are True. That was one of my favorite reads of 2020, so I ordered her new YA novel in verse as soon as it was announced. This was another stunner, and a master class in characterization and storytelling with the economy of detail required by the form. I can always tell when a book gets its hooks into me, because I feel compelled to recap the plot for my mother in our weekly phone call. I’m not someone who typically seeks out crying books, but when the emotion is honest and real, the way Culley writes it, I deeply appreciate the catharsis.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

This has been on a lot of year-end best lists. Since many people are probably familiar with it, I will only add that in addition to the bold stylistic choices – including a section that happens inside a video game – I admire the trajectory of Zevin’s career. Not only in the sense of commercial success (though huzzah for that!), but because she has pushed the envelope artistically and continued to experiment with new things, instead of getting stuck in a narrow niche.

As someone who hopes to try her hand at many types of books, that’s inspiring to see.

The Layover by Lacie Waldon

There are so many flavors of reading experience under the greater “romance” umbrella that part of the trick is finding your favorites. Waldon’s second book was a standout for me in the crowded romcom field, so I made a point of seeking out her debut. Happily, I loved that one too: the chemistry crackled, the characters had believable inner lives, and the banter was genuinely funny.

Other people have their own romance preferences – more angst, higher heat, specific tropes they love/hate. For me, Waldon’s writing hits the sweet spot: smart, romantic, well-crafted, and just thoughtful enough to give the fluff some ballast.

Pest by Elizabeth Foscue

There was a conversation going around a few years ago about whether real teens drink as much caffeine as their fictional counterparts, thanks to the ubiquity of coffee shop hangouts in YA novels. It wasn’t the lattes that strained credulity for me so much as the disposable income – and copious amounts of free time.

In Pest, I discovered a much closer analogue to my own high school experience, which was all about work, academic and after-school. On top of empathizing with the stressed main character, I found this to be a witty, richly textured contemporary with a killer sense of place. I’m excited to see what Foscue writes next.

Lia and Beckett's Abracadabra by Amy Noelle Parks

Parks’ second YA novel has all the trappings of a fluffy summer read: a quirky lakeside setting; eccentric relatives; flirting with cute boys; a mystery that is also a glamorous competition for young magicians. But instead of razzle-dazzling with the tourist-friendly lights and sleight-of-hand, we see behind the curtain to the darker side of stage magic – especially for women.

One of my favorite things about reading (and writing) YA is that you can use the vehicle of an entertaining story to tease out truths about the world that young readers are only beginning to perceive. Pointing out the misogyny inherent in relegating even the most talented female magicians to the role of a “lovely assistant” – because no one wants to see a man get sawed in half – is a clever entry point for teens discovering an adult world still riddled with sexism (among other -isms).

Welcome to Temptation by Jenny Crusie

Like many readers and writers of romantic fiction, I often find myself hungry for a Jenny Crusie type of book. Since I have yet to find a reliable read-alike, over a recent holiday I treated myself to a re-read of one of the best books from her backlist. Crusie books have much of the same appeal as Hollywood movies from the 1930s and ’40s, with the snappy one-liners, screwball situations, and absurd supporting characters. For anyone else who adores that style of romantic comedy, stay tuned. I may have a line on a book that will interest you, coming in 2024.
Visit Amanda Sellet's website.

Q&A with Amanda Sellet.

The Page 69 Test: By the Book.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Soraya M. Lane

As a child, Soraya M. Lane dreamed of becoming an author, recreating the types of stories she devoured day and night. Fast forward more than a few years, and Lane is now living her dream. Working as a full-time author, she writes every day around her other job of being a mom to two little boys. She describes being an author as “the best career in the world,” and she hopes to be writing for many years to come.

Lane loves spending her days thinking up characters for her novels, and her home is a constant source of inspiration. She lives with her husband and two sons on a small farm in New Zealand, surrounded by animals and with an office overlooking a field where their horses graze.

Lane's new novel is The London Girls.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Or more accurately, I’ve just finished reading it!

I honestly don’t know where to start with this book. It’s so uniquely different to anything I’ve ever read before, and I was about 10 pages in when I realised that it was going to be a very special read. I loved the way the story unfolded and how cleverly it was told, weaving the past with the present, and Evelyn was such an incredible, bold and different character. The old Hollywood glamor really appealed to me, as did the glimpse into a world I knew nothing about. Absolutely the best book I’ve read this year, and although I never usually re-read books, I could definitely re-read this one, it was so good.
Visit Soraya Lane's website.

Q&A with Soraya M. Lane.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on The Europeans by Henry James:
No one remembers John Jay Chapman; scarcely anyone still remembered him in 1938 when Edmund Wilson, the twentieth century’s most important literary critic, reviewed a volume of Chapman’s letters published in 1907. Only Henry James, according to Wilson, “had anything like the same sureness of judgment, the same freedom from current prejudices and sentimentalities” as Chapman, who wrote of the “debasement of our politics and government by unscrupulous business interests,” which is “the whole history of America since the Civil War.”

Everything had changed, and nowhere with more tragic results than among those who were educated in the American university.

“In the seventies, the universities were still turning out admirable professional men, who had had the old classical education, a culture much wider than their professions, and the tradition of political idealism and public conscience which had presided at the founding of the Republic.” Ten years later, “the industrial and commercial development which followed the Civil War had reached a point where the old education was no longer an equipment for life.” Those who “had taken it seriously, were launched on careers of tragic misunderstanding. The rate of failure and insanity and suicide in some of the college ‘classes’ of the eighties shows an appalling demoralization.”

It was the world of business, Big Business, a world in which “seriousness about man and his problems was abrogated by Business entirely in favor of the seriousness of Business about things that were not serious.” A man who had been educated for the old America could either “become the slave of Business at one extreme or drink himself to death at the other, but in any case absorb, perhaps unconsciously, enough of the commercial ideal to neutralize any other with which he might have started out. For one of the most depressing features of the American world of this period was that it hardly knew what was the matter with it.”

Something fundamental had changed. Henry Adams, the great-grandson of one president and the grandson of another, thought to find the cause.

“The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” he wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard known to science - by horse-power, calories, volts mass in any shape - the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were full a thousand times greater in 1900 than 1800; - the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time.”

None of this could have happened, this astonishing acceleration in the rate of movement, had there not been an acceptance, a belief, that wealth and its pursuit were more important than anything else. The predatory values of business could become the motive power, the driving force, in the new American Empire only if materialism was no longer thought a sin. That meant, if the question were seriously pursued, that what had happened to America, what had become by the end of the nineteenth century clear evidence of a world unhinged, had been there from the beginning, that America had been unbalanced from the start.

Henry James wrote about the tension between the idealism and the greed of Americans when it first appeared, when the speed of things first began to change the standards and the conditions of American life. The Europeans, published in l878 when James was thirty-five, is set thirty years earlier, in 1848, a dozen years before the Civil War, more than a generation before industrialization had changed America out of all recognition. The Europeans are a sister and a brother, Baroness Munster - Eugenia - who is in her thirties and Felix, in his late twenties. Their parents were, directly or indirectly, American, but they have never been to America, and have come now for only one reason: to marry money. Eugenia - the Baroness - is already married to a member of a European royal family, but her husband, perhaps for reasons of state, is divorcing her. They have come to meet their uncle and their cousins who live in “an ancient house - ancient in the sense of being eighty years old.” George Washington had once spent a week there, and everyone, every American that is, thinks the house a “venerable mansion.” Felix, who has lived in every ancient city of Europe, tells his sister that “it looks as if it had been built last night.”

There is, from the beginning as it were, a difference between the way Felix and Eugenia see things. With the vague ambiguity that allows Henry James to search for a deeper understanding of things, he describes Felix as “not at all a serious young man but there was somehow more of him - he had more weight and volume and resonance - than a number of young men who were distinctly serious.” His nature “was not a restless, ambitious spirit, running a race with fate, but a temper so unsuspicious as to put Adversity off her guard, dodging and evading her with the easy, natural motion of a wind-shifted flower. Felix extracted entertainment from all things….”

Henry James mastered the language with the same skill, and with a similar effect, as a French Impressionist, working in the same period of time, applied his brush strokes to a canvas. That Felix makes his living painting portraits makes us wonder how far James himself might have drawn the parallel. The method, and the result, is the same when he paints the picture of Felix’s older sister, Eugenia, “who, when she desired to please,” was “the most charming woman in the world.” Nothing “that the Baroness said was wholly untrue. It is but fair to add, perhaps, that nothing she said was wholly true.” Unlike her brother, “she was a restless soul…”

Another author might have stopped here, but James adds: “She was always expecting something to happen, and, until it was disappointed, expectancy itself was a delicate pleasure.” Instead of a woman distracted and ridden with anxiety, always wishing she were somewhere else doing something else, Eugenia is as much, or perhaps even more, interested in the thought, the dream, of what might actually result. Whatever else Eugenia may be, she is not superficial.

Felix describes his American cousins with an insight James has led us to expect. “They are sober; they are even severe. They are of a pensive cast; they take things hard. I think there is something the matter with them; they have some melancholy memory or some depressing expectation.” His uncle, “Mr. Wentworth, is a tremendously high-toned fellow; he looks as if he were undergoing martyrdom, not by fire, but by freezing.” Despite all this, his uncle and his cousins “are wonderfully kind and gentle.”

Eugenia is not nearly so generous. She thinks America a “dreadful” place and tells one of her distant American relations, “You Americans have such odd ways! You never ask anything outright; there seems to be so many things you can’t talk about.” When Robert Acton, who has taken a particular interest in her, an interest she does nothing to discourage, introduces her to his mother, she tells her that her son often talks of her, “as such a son must talk of such a mother.” Robert Acton had barely mentioned his mother, and Eugenia understands that she has been “observed to be fibbing. She had struck a false note. But who were these people to whom such fibbing was not pleasing?”

Eugenia is interested in Robert Acton because he is rich. Felix is drawn to Gertrude because she is the youngest, prettiest, and most outspoken of Mr. Wentworth’s two daughters. Every novel, every novel worth reading, is driven by some action. The highest, and best, action is conversation. The conversations between Felix and Gertrude explore the tension between how Americans in the latter part of the first half of the nineteenth century thought they should live, and what, some of them at least, really wanted.

While Felix is painting Gertrude’s portrait, she remarks about her family, “There must be a thousand different ways of being dreary, and sometimes I think we make use of them all.” Felix is sure that no one in her family “has anything to repent of.” She replies, “And yet we are always repenting. That is what I meant by our being dreary.” Felix tells her that “the tendency - among you generally - is to be made unhappy too easily.” And then adds that it “is not what one does or doesn’t do,” it is instead “the general way of looking at life.” Gertrude does not disagree. “No one is happy here.”

The proof of American unhappiness - an unhappiness, as Felix observed, that has nothing to do with what anyone does or does not do - is embodied in a young clergyman, Mr. Brand, who wants Gertrude to marry him and fully expects that, being the virtuous young woman he knows her to be, she must want to marry him.
“I care for the things you care for,” he explains, as if there could not be any doubt about it. “ - the great questions of life.”

“I don’t care for the things you care for. They are much beyond me.”

“There was a time you didn’t say that.”

“I think you made me talk a great deal of nonsense,” she tells him, and then adds, with an intelligence that he is not capable of understanding, “And it depends upon what you call the great questions of life. There are some things I care for.”
Before Mr. Brand can even begin to wonder what that might mean, she makes a confession that goes to the heart of the dilemma faced by men and women taught that passion meant sin and sin meant perdition.
“I have been pretending all my life.” As for the great questions of life, she simply does not care. “I care for pleasure - for amusement. Perhaps I am fond of wicked things; it is possible.”

Mr. Brand is stunned. He “remained staring; he was even a little pale, as if he had been frightened.”

“I don’t think you know what you are saying!”
Everyone in Gertrude’s family, especially her older sister, Charlotte, are constantly reminding her how much she owes Mr. Brand. If Charlotte is always taking his side, it is because she is, herself, in love with him; a feeling she has, of course, never revealed to anyone, and no one has ever suspected. With the instincts of a European, Felix immediately penetrates her secret and with masterful misdirection uses it to rid himself, not so much of a rival, as an obstacle. He tells Brand that Charlotte is in love with him. The ardent clergyman, certain of his rectitude, and that others must love him because of it, has been completely oblivious of “poor Charlotte’s hidden flame.” He is “offended, excited, bewildered, perplexed - and enchanted.” He forgets Gertrude and thinks only of Charlotte. Gertrude is relieved; Charlotte is ecstatic.

Everything is settled. Felix tells his sister that he has “secured Gertrude’s affections, but I am by no means sure I have secured her fortune. That may come - or it may not.”

The really wonderful thing about Felix and Gertrude is that neither of them really care. They are in love. “I will go away,” she tells him. “I will do anything you please.” What they are pleased to do, is to leave America and go to Europe, and live wherever, and however, they may from time to time decide. The money means nothing; Felix can always paint.

Eugenia has also secured someone’s affections, the very wealthy Robert Acton. She tells her brother that “Robert Acton wants to marry me,” and that he “is immensely in love with me.” Felix, who knows his sister, cannot resist: “And he has a large fortune.” Confessing that she is “terribly candid,” Eugenia acknowledges that “his fortune is a great item in his favor.” Felix senses there is still a problem. “Well,” she admits, “I don’t particularly like him.” That, by itself, is not an insurmountable difficulty. She could like him better if they lived somewhere else. “I could never live here.”

Like her brother, Eugenia goes back to Europe; unlike her brother, she goes alone. She had decided, Henry James tells us, “ that the conditions of action on this provincial continent were not favorable to really superior women.” In her own words, words Henry James imagined she would say, “Europe seems to me much larger than America.”

The Europeans, Felix and Eugenia came to America because America held the promise of great wealth and the wealthy indolence they wanted to enjoy. The Americans were wealthy, but did not think it quite right to enjoy it. Robert Acton was fascinated by Eugenia, though he knew she was not honest, and that her main, and perhaps, only interest was his money. The sanctimonious clergyman, Mr. Brand, believes himself entitled to more than the respect, the adoration, of first one daughter, then the other, of a family whose wealth makes marriage more than ever attractive. The scent of money is everywhere, a massive, but still unspoken, fact. The movement that will bring it all to the surface has only just begun; the movement that, years later, will have Henry James write novels about America, not at the end of the first, but the end of the second half of the nineteenth century, novels in which, Edmund Wilson tells us, “there starts into color and relief the America of the millionaires, at its crudest, corruptest and phoniest: the immense amorphous mansions, … the old men of the Rockefeller-Frick generation, landed, with no tastes and no interests, amidst a limitless magnificence which dwarfs them; the silly or clumsy young people of the second generation with their dubious relationships, their enormous and meaningless parties, their touching longings and resolute strivings for an elegance and cultivation which they have no one to guide the in acquiring.”

Leave out the longing for elegance and cultivation and we have as good a description of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century as we are likely to get.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 7, 2022

Debra Bokur

Debra Bokur is the author of The Dark Paradise Mysteries series from Kensington. She’s traveled the world as a writer, journalist and staff editor for various national media outlets, with more than 2,000 print pieces carrying her byline to date. Her work has garnered multiple awards, including a 2015 Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism. For more than a decade, she served as the poetry editor at a national literary journal, and her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. Among her favorite writing credits are a series of original literary essays commissioned by the Celestial Seasonings tea company that appeared on the artfully illustrated boxes of ten separate tea flavors. She continues to travel in her capacity as the Global Researcher and Writer for the Association for Safe International Road Travel, and as a monthly columnist for Global Traveler magazine.

Bokur latest novel is The Lava Witch, the third Dark Paradise mystery.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

This slender volume of wisdom on writing and creative pursuits by author Steven Pressfield is never far out of reach on the desk in my writing room. Before embarking on any major writing project, I prepare by giving The War of Art a fresh read. In a series of short chapters — many no more than a paragraph long — Pressfield confronts the topic of creative block/procrastination as a malevolent force he names “Resistance.” Depending upon your own mental fortitude when faced by a blank piece of paper, flickering computer screen, or any project, it’s an unapologetic kick in the backside combined with hardcore practical advice and a lovely dose of inspiring observations that Yoda would likely approve of.

Tales from the Perilous Realm by J. R. R. Tolkien

Whenever I feel sad, unwell, exhausted, or lonely, a plunge into the work of J. R. R. Tolkien is my remedy of choice. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve set out on the journeys contained within the pages of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or have deliberately become entangled and lost within the literary labyrinths of Children of Huron and The Silmarillion.

A few years ago, I made my way through the crowded exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City to view the collection of original Hobbit-related works on display, which featured many of Tolkien’s own sketches and drawings. I followed up this visit with a fresh read of the works, and found the journey more enriching for the experience.

I’d also been looking forward to re-entering the author’s assorted worlds via Tales from the Perilous Realm, a new compilation of short stories and poetry, but had been waiting for the right time. The moment arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m currently deep into my voyage. The collection, which includes an insightful Forward by scholar Tom Shippey, launches with this quote from Tolkien: “Faerie is a perilous land…” For lovers of Tolkien’s dense and complicated worlds, that’s an invitation that can’t easily be ignored. While I already have several of the included stories in separate volumes (including Farmer Giles of Ham), I love the idea of them being gathered under one roof. And the roof is gorgeous, with a jacket and story illustrations featuring the fantasy drawings of celebrated artist Alan Lee. For the full experience, be sure to read Lee’s Afterward, and the transcript of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” in the Appendix.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Recently, I went on a Nordic noir binge that included Icelandic novelist Ragnar Jónasson’s thriller series featuring Detective Ari Thor, followed by the nail-biting Prime streaming series Trapped (also set in Iceland), and both seasons of the Swedish television series The Truth Will Out, which I could only watch with the lights on. After all of this, including the final episode of brilliant writing and spellbinding performances showcased in The Truth Will Out, I needed a serious mood shift and mental reset. According to local sources (or as they like to be called, my family and friends), I was wearing too much black, muttering to myself while making tea, and had limited my shopping to smoked salmon and cucumbers.

I was forced to admit these observations were spot-on, and immediately turned to my extensive P. G. Wodehouse library. I reached for The Code of the Woosters knowing it would immerse me in witty language, birdsong, and the predictably outrageous antics of one of modern literature’s best comic duos—Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. At the center of The Code of the Woosters is a plot to acquire an antique cow creamer that’s overly complicated by demanding aunts, newt-obsessed friends, an egocentric chef, and the strident leader of a British organization that harbors some disturbing political goals.

My goal was to laugh away all images of fictional horrors taking place at Nordic latitudes and longitudes, and I’m pleased to report complete success. My Wodehouse obsession, incidentally, has paid off: Years ago, I was gifted with a Staffordshire cow creamer of my own, in commemoration of what someone very dear to me accurately termed a “frightening fixation on British literature.” It’s possible, I suppose, that I need to become less consumed by my reading choices.
Visit Debra Bokur's website.

Q&A with Debra Bokur.

My Book, The Movie: The Lava Witch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 4, 2022

Lev AC Rosen

Lev Rosen writes books for people of all ages, most recently Lavender House, which the New York Times says “movingly explores the strain of trying to pass as straight at a time when living an authentic life could be deadly.” His prior novel, Camp, was a best book of the year from Forbes, Elle, and The Today Show, amongst others. He lives in NYC with his husband and a very small cat.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Rosen's reply:

I've been reading Joseph Hansen's David Brandstetter series, which was just re-issued. They begin with Fadeout, and follow an insurance investigator in California in the 70s (technically I think the first one was published in 69?). The series lasted a while, but is generally forgotten, possibly because Brandstetter, the detective character, is gay. Not much is made of it, though obviously the homophobia of the time is sometimes part of the story. He often encounters other queer folks on his cases, too. But the excitement of reading a queer mystery written over fifty years ago aside, the books are also just gorgeous. Beautifully written. There's still one sentence from I think the second book in the series, which I finished months ago, that I still remember, if not perfectly. Something like "Silence filled the room, but a typewriter was snipping holes in it." Just stunning stuff like that. And on top of that really well crafted mysteries, noir, but not the bloody, beat-em-up noir that you think of from that time - more like earlier noir: Chandler, Hammett. Brandstetter is smart and nosy and incredibly honest, just not always with himself. At the opening of the first book, his longtime boyfriend has just died, so watching him sort of unfold from that alongside his cases is just a beautiful character study in finding joy amid darkness. Really just stunning books, can't recommend them enough.
Visit Lev AC Rosen's website.

The Page 69 Test: Camp.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 31, 2022

Nev March

Nev March is the first Indian-born writer to win Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America's Award for Best First Crime Fiction.

After a long career in business analysis, in 2015 March returned to her passion, writing fiction and now teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, Osher Institute. A Parsee Zoroastrian herself, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons.

March's books deal with issues of identity, race and moral boundaries. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel. The sequel, Peril at the Exposition, was released in July. Captain Jim and Lady Diana's third adventure will be published Fall 2023.

Recently I asked March about what she was reading. Her reply:
While taking a break from revising book 3 of my Captain Jim and Lady Diana series, I had an epiphany: These days, a female protagonist who's independent and also committed to a relationship might be a rarity in the crime genre. I've loved many books with dynamic female characters (for example, Sujata Massey's Pervin Mistry series, Victoria Thompson's Gaslight mysteries,) but frequently they were 'single' to allow for potential relationships with folks they encountered in their adventures. This gave the impression that being married was somehow 'boring'!!! Romance novels usually end with couples getting together. For me, that is the start of the story! What a lot of change and conflict one must navigate in a relationship! So in my series, Diana and Captain Jim will likely investigate more mysteries in the 1890s, but may also discover the many challenges and surprises of couple-hood.

I've just finished reading a political thriller, Phoenix in the Middle of the Road by JR Bale, which kept me glued to the pages. This insider view of politics is both realistic and riveting, echoing the feel of hit TV series like West Wing and Designated Survivor. While there were a lot of characters to keep track of, the story evolved in gripping short scenes, brilliantly etched and with hard hitting dialog. I'll certainly read more by this self published author, who also writes sci-fi!

The last book I read (and can't forget!) was Isabella Maldonado's The Cipher. It kept me up, reading until 2 am. While serial killer tales are not my usual fare, (too violent!) this one had me hooked from the first page. "FBI Special Agent Nina Guerrera escaped a serial killer’s trap at sixteen." A heart rending backstory gives the protagonist depth and complexity, and believable flaws that still have you rooting for her. This thriller was terrifying and incredibly satisfying with twists that came out of nowhere. Not for the faint of heart but so well worth it. Left me feeling profound and empowered!

At present I'm reading The Lost Man of Bombay by Vaseem Khan. One does not expect a historical mystery to be so much fun! Khan's white hot wit singes! When a white man is found frozen to death in the Himalayan mountains, a group of misfit detectives is tasked to find the culprit before the political mess blows up in their faces. I was charmed to find that Khan's protagonist is Persis Wadia, a Parsi woman inspector! As a Parsi woman myself, this delighted me, and made me eager to know how she will fare in the misogynistic world of Bombay police in the 1950s. (By the way, when I was in Mumbai last month I saw four policewomen! Four. How wonderful!) I simply can't wait to see how Khan's book turns out. Strongly recommend ... and I haven't finished yet!
Visit Nev March's website.

Q&A with Nev March.

The Page 69 Test: Murder in Old Bombay.

My Book, The Movie: Murder in Old Bombay.

--Marshal Zeringue