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 ArnĂ©e 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