Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Ellen O’Clover

Ellen O’Clover writes stories about finding your people, falling in love, and figuring it all out (or trying to, anyway). Her debut novel, Seven Percent of Ro Devereux, came out in 2023 with HarperCollins/HarperTeen, and her second book, The Someday Daughter, is just out in bookstores.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. O’Clover's reply:
The last book I read and can’t stop thinking about is Samantha Markum’s Love, Off the Record. I love Markum’s voice: her YA romances are swoony and sincere, with complex characters who feel big, love hard, and navigate coming of age with all the messiness of the genuine human experience. Love, Off the Record follows college freshman newspaper staffers Wyn and Three as they compete for a coveted reporter spot. It’s everything I love in a rivals-to-lovers romance, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I also just finished Krystal Marquis’s The Davenports, a Bridgerton-esque historical romance that follows four young women navigating life and love in 1910 Chicago. This book is an irresistible escape into the lush world of servants, lavish parties, and carriage rides—but also illuminates a period of African American history that’s often overlooked: in the early 1900s, the Davenports are one of the few Black families of wealth and status in the US. This one’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction!
Visit Ellen O'Clover's website.

Q&A with Ellen O'Clover.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Suzanne Redfearn

Suzanne Redfearn is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of six novels: Where Butterflies Wander, Moment In Time, Hadley & Grace, In an Instant, No Ordinary Life, and Hush Little Baby.

Her books have been translated into twenty-four languages and have been recognized by RT Reviews, Target Recommends, Goodreads, Publisher’s Marketplace, and Kirkus Reviews.

Redfearn has been awarded Best New Fiction from Best Book Awards and has been a Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Redfearn's reply:
This prompt caught me at a moment when I have four books going at once, which is not entirely unusual.

On Audible, I am listening to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This book has been huge for a while, but I mistakenly believed it wasn’t my cup of tea. Based on the cover and title, I thought it was going to be all fluff and romance. One of my book clubs chose it, which is the reason I picked it up, and I’m very glad I did. It has surprising depth and underlying meaning. Reid is an outstanding storyteller, and I am completely caught up in the tale.

On my Kindle, I am reading The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon (author of Code Name Helene). She is a fantastic writer and a master at writing about the past with such detail that I am completely immersed, and I feel like I’m in Maine in 1789 as I’m reading it. There’s also a surprising dash of mysticism, which I enjoy, and the protagonist is wonderful, a strong woman kicking but at a time when women in America were mostly relegated to the sidelines.

On my phone is Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord. This book’s been out for a while, and I’m not sure how I stumbled upon it, but it’s a hoot and the perfect book for reading when I’m standing in line or sitting at the car wash. Kooky and heartwarming, I’m in love with Hector and look forward to the next time I get to join him on his quest.

On my bedside table is Jill Hannah Anderson’s latest, Closer to Home. I’ve just started this. It doesn’t release until March, so I am reading an advanced copy. So far it’s fast-paced and suspenseful. The synopsis makes me think it’s going to be a little like Safe Haven by Nicolas Sparks, suspense meets romance.
Visit Suzanne Redfearn's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

Coffee with a Canine: Suzanne Redfearn and Cooper.

My Book, The Movie: Hush Little Baby.

The Page 69 Test: Hush Little Baby.

The Page 69 Test: No Ordinary Life.

My Book, The Movie: No Ordinary Life.

My Book, The Movie: In an Instant.

The Page 69 Test: In an Instant.

Q&A with Suzanne Redfearn.

My Book, The Movie: Hadley and Grace.

The Page 69 Test: Hadley & Grace.

The Page 69 Test: Moment in Time.

My Book, The Movie: Moment in Time.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 22, 2024

David Menconi

David Menconi is an author, critic and journalist in Raleigh, North Carolina. A longtime newspaper writer, he has also written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and Spin. His fifth and newest book is Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, a history of the venerable folk/bluegrass label that has been home to everyone from Alison Krauss to Buckwheat Zydeco.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

In many ways, Yellowface is a crime novel – and the crime in question is perfect, at least at first. But this story of stolen literary glory eventually mutates into a fascinatingly twisted portrait of a mind unraveling. It stars a first-person anti-hero whose justifications, rationalizations and outright fabrications bring on madness even as she tops the best-seller lists. After she is inevitably found out, she spirals further downward, her grasp of reality broken. But by the end, she’s still plotting one last comeback. Throw in some darkly funny dish about the publishing industry’s uneasy relationship with racism, and it’s a great yarn that manages to cover most of the seven deadly sins.
Visit the David Menconi’s blog.

The Page 99 Test: Ryan Adams: Losering.

My Book, The Movie: Ryan Adams: Losering.

The Page 99 Test: Step It Up and Go.

The Page 99 Test: Oh, Didn't They Ramble.

My Book, The Movie: Oh, Didn't They Ramble.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. 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 Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series:
Graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, Theodore H. White received a fellowship which allowed him to travel to China, where he became correspondent for Time Magazine and then, a few years later, chief of Time’s China bureau. Toward the end of the war, he attended a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party where, in an “unheated, draft-leaking, mud-chinked assembly hall,” he met Mao Tse-tung and knew immediately “who was master, always had been master, always would be master.” Mao had not been elected by the Communist Party; he had chosen himself, but there “was no doubt in l944…that authority was his alone” and “that succession of leadership would pass at his will to whomever he chose.”

Years later, in The Making of the President 1960, White showed how different things were here. Power was not held by one man or one party; power was transferred by frequent and regular elections, and “no people has succeeded at it better, or over a longer period of time, than the Americans.” John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by a mere 112,000 votes out of nearly 69 million votes cast, but even before the vote had been counted, White knew with complete certainty that, “Good or bad, whatever the decision, America will accept the decision - and cut down any man who goes against it, even though for millions the decision runs contrary to their own votes. The general vote is an expression of national will, the only substitute for violence and blood. Its verdict is to be defended as one defends civilization itself.”

Beginning with the election of 1960, in which he reports how John F. Kennedy was elected, to the election of l980, in which he reports how Jimmy Carter was defeated, Theodore White wrote about every Presidential campaign. No one, before or since, has written about American politics with as much breadth of coverage or depth of understanding. For White, the question was more than the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates; it was the changes that were taking place in the country. He did not just write about the Black vote for Kennedy, or the White vote for Nixon; he wrote about the movement of the Black population from the South to the North, and what that meant for the two races in the nation’s major cities. He had an eye for the small detail that is too often overlooked, and the intellectual honesty to write about what he saw. Watching a crowd of working class voters who had come out for George Wallace in the campaign of l968, he was reminded of the soldiers he had seen in the Second World War, not the soldiers who believed in what they were doing, but the soldiers who had hated their generals and were, more than willing, eager, to kill.

The Making of the President 1960 had an effect on everyone who read it, and gave at least one person the idea that he might one day run for President himself. In the hospital recovering from hepatitis in the fall of 1962, George McGovern read it and thought that “the book, written in a romantic style, made a more serious impression than the later books written by the same author, which McGovern felt ‘missed the story.’ Yet the first story of how a Presidency was won seemed reasonable and simple.” McGovern was on to something. The Making of the President 1960 does read like a romance; mainly, perhaps, because it is written about John F. Kennedy, but also because of how well it is written. Not many writers could describe, the way Theodore White does, what it was like in Hyannisport the day John F. Kennedy waited for the election returns:
Now in November, the New England hardwoods - oak, elm and maple - had given up their color with their leaves, and the scrub pines of the Cape were beginning to show branch tips wind-bored and hurricane-scorched to a rust brown. A slight offshore breeze blew off the surf less waters; the dune grass and the feather-gray tufts of beach rushes bent gently to the breeze. A single gull wheeled over the house and the beach most of the morning, dipping toward the water when a glint suggested food. The sky was pure, the weather still a comfortable few degrees above freezing; the scudding white clouds were to break up by evening as the breeze freshened.
The first chapter of The Making of the President is about what happened on election day. White then goes back to the beginning, to show how it all came about, how much depended on planning and calculation, and how much on things no one could have anticipated, on chance. Kennedy was forty-three years old. No one that young had ever been elected President. And he was Catholic He was, in the judgement of the power brokers of the Democratic Party, unelectable. He had to prove them wrong, and the only way to do that was to win in the primaries. The first was Wisconsin, where he would have to go up against Hubert Humphrey, a liberal’s liberal, from neighboring Minnesota.

A comparison White draws between Humphrey and Kennedy tells much of the story. When Humphrey finished talking, “there were no mysteries left; nor was he a mystery either. He was just like his listeners. There was no distance, no separation of intrigue, none of the majesty that must surround a king.” He was “just like everyone else.” Kennedy, on the other hand, presented himself, “as a young Lochinvar running against the big bosses…as a man summoning all of his listeners to consider the nature of the Presidency: that the Presidency is the key office in American life…and that therefore they, who in Wisconsin were privileged to have first voice in this selection, should take it as seriously as did he.”

Kennedy won in Wisconsin, but it was close, which meant that he would have to go through all of the remaining primaries - West Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, and Oregon - and win them all. This, as it turned out, was the best thing that could have happened. Had the result in Wisconsin not been as close as it had, Humphrey would probably not have run in West Virginia, and Kennedy, unopposed in a state 95% Protestant, would have not been able to demonstrate his ability to win Protestant votes. But Humphrey ran, and Kennedy was able to deal with the religious question in what White thought the “finest TV broadcast I have ever heard any political candidate make.”

Kennedy explained that “when any man stands on the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office of the President, he is swearing to support the separation of Church and State; he puts one hand on the Bible and raises the other hand to God as he takes the oath. And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him - and should impeach him - but he is committing a sin against God.”

Kennedy won the West Virginia primary, and, with that eye for the small detail that tells the larger story, White reports that the morning after the primary, Humphrey woke up to find that his campaign bus had been ticketed for illegal parking.

White learned early that Kennedy not only “saw politics differently from other men,” but that it was “the range, the extent, the depth and detail, of information and observation that dazzled, then overwhelmed, the listener.” Sitting with Kennedy on his plane, someone mentioned that a bookstore in a town they had just visited had sold out all their copies of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Kennedy began to talk about books. He corrected a quotation about something Lincoln had said, then “quoted with amusement” a passage from Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, “In his youth he prized money more than passion, in his age money more than fame.” He asked the others if they had read what he had just finished, Theodore Roosevelt’s report on the funeral of Edward VII. “From Marlborough and the writing of history to the personality of Adlai Stevenson and the quality of American intellectuals. Then to a long, tender and perceptive disquisition on the Irish and the Jews in American life. From that to the American Negro and what their problems were - and their search for leadership.”

The Democratic Convention was held in Los Angeles. White notes that four years earlier, in l956, the flight from New York had taken between nine and eleven hours, but now, in l960, only five. “The continent had been cut in half.” The size of the audience for Kennedy’s acceptance speech had also changed. A hundred million Americans watched it on television. What they heard was the announcement of something new in American politics, a New Frontier, “not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up, not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook - it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security….” Among those watching on television was Richard Nixon, who “thought it a poor performance, way over people’s head, too fast. He could take this man on TV - so he felt.”

Of all the changes that had taken place in America, television may have been the most important. In l950, only 11% of American homes had a television set; now, in l960, 88% had one. When Nixon and Kennedy agreed to a series of four televised debates, American politics was changed forever. The most famous debates in American political history, before the age of television, were the Lincoln-Douglas debates in l858. Each debate lasted three hours. The first speaker spoke for one hour, the second speaker an hour and a half, and then the first speaker had half hour to reply. When Kennedy and Nixon debated, each had eight minutes for an opening statement and two and a half minutes to reply to the questions they were asked. That candidates today are given only two minutes for an opening statement and only one minute to respond to questions tells something about what has happened to our ability to concentrate in this new, electronic, age in which we now live.

Between 115 and 120 million Americans watched one or all of the the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, this at a time when the population of the country was a little more than half of what it is now. Those who heard it on radio thought the candidates about even; those who watched it on television thought Nixon did poorly. Part of this was because television distorted Nixon’s look. In person, he was “a handsome young American, attractively slim, and as lithe as Kennedy.” On television, his face “glowered on the screen darkly.” For Kennedy, on the other hand, the televised coverage of the first debate gave him the “‘star quality’ reserved for television and movie idols.” The crowds that ‘erupted for Kennedy in the…last few weeks of the campaign were, and remain, unbelievable.” In New York, 1,250,000 people turned out to see him when he rode in a motorcade in Manhattan. Television decided the election. Fifty-seven percent of those who watched, said the debates influenced their decision; six percent, or over four million voters, said their vote was based entirely on what they saw, and of these, seventy-two percent, or almost three million, voted for Kennedy.

The election of John F. Kennedy made Theodore White wonder whether it was the beginning, or the end, of an era. The nation “sensed crisis - but crisis locked in the womb of time…crisis whose countenance was still unclear.” The famous phrase from Kennedy’s inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was an uncertain call, a challenge to sacrifice for something that was not yet defined, and when he was assassinated three years later, television, which had made him President, made him a legend, and legends have no answers of their own. The assassination only intensified the feeling of unease, the belief that the country had lost any real sense of direction. Everything seemed to be falling apart. It was a problem both candidates for the presidency in l964 tried to address.

Accepting the Republican nomination for President, Barry Goldwater insisted that, “Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elderly, and there’s a virtual despair among the many who look beyond material successes toward the inner meaning of their lives….” Lyndon Johnson, seeking to replace Kennedy’s New Frontier with something of his own, insisted that a Great Society would meet “the challenge of the next half century…whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich our national life - and to advance the quality of American civilization…. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products our labor….” Where would the wisdom necessary to meet the challenge of the next half century be found? “We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings…. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.”

This was like a ship sailing for a destination the captain had never heard of, but hoped some of the passengers might help him find. John F. Kennedy had spoken of the pursuit of human excellence; Lyndon Johnson spoke of using the bureaucracy to develop a policy about what it meant to be a human being. Whatever his failings, Kennedy had understood that a country, a people, was what it looked up to; Johnson, and most of those who succeeded him in the office, saw, or thought they saw, only what was right in front of them. And then came the Vietnam War, which ended the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and began the Presidency of Richard Nixon, as Theodore H. White chronicles in The Making of the President l968, the third volume of his remarkable series on the Presidents we, in our wisdom or ignorance, have chosen to elect.
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.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Third Reading: Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt.


Third Reading: Main Street.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 16, 2024

Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey was born and grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She is the author of a collection of stories and nine other novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and The Boy in the Field. She has received awards from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Livesey's new book is The Road from Belhaven, her tenth novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I am reading The Blue Window by Suzanne Berne. The novel takes place over a few days when Lorna, a therapist, drives to Vermont with her son Adam to visit her taciturn mother, Marika. All her adult life Lorna has grappled with the inexplicable fact that her mother left the family and completely ignored her children for many years. Now Adam has come home from university barely speaking because of some trauma he won’t reveal. As for Marika, in her eighties she now needs help but refuses to admit it. The chapters revolve between the three main characters to splendid effect. Adam’s gloom and doom - he refers to himself as A - makes him surprisingly sympathetic with his grandmother. Part of the skill of this wonderfully intelligent novel is that it knows which secrets to keep and which to reveal. And did I say that it’s wonderfully funny?
Visit Margot Livesey's website and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

The Page 69 Test: Mercury.

Q&A with Margot Livesey.

The Page 69 Test: The Boy in the Field.

The Page 69 Test: The Road from Belhaven.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

David Handler

David Handler is the Edgar Award-winning, critically acclaimed author of several bestselling mystery series.

In 1988 he published The Man Who Died Laughing, the first of his long-running series of mysteries starring ghostwriter Stuart Hoag and his faithful basset hound Lulu. The newest entry in the series is The Woman Who Lowered the Boom.

Recently I asked Handler about what he was reading. The author's reply:
Whenever I’m working on a new novel, which I happen to be doing right now, I rarely read novels by anyone else. It isn’t fair to the author, because my reading window is limited to the thirty minutes that I read in bed at night before I fall asleep. That’s no way to read a novel.

So, quite a few years back, I turned my attention to short stories. My favorite short story writer is John O’Hara, whom I consider America’s master chronicler of the first half of the last century. O’Hara was a very successful novelist who wrote such bestsellers as Butterfield Eight and From the Terrace, but his greatest gift was short fiction. He was incredibly prolific. Wrote hundreds of them – many, but by no means all, for The New Yorker. And he cut a wide swath from Gibbsville, the fictionalized Pennsylvania coal town where he grew up, to New York to Hollywood. He was not considered a crime writer, although there is quite a bit of crime in his short stories. He was simply an ex-reporter who had no illusions about people. He wrote about bad behavior, and its consequences.

His Hollywood stories are my favorites, partly because I grew up there and partly because I spent twenty years in the movie business before I decided to devote myself to books full time. Right now I’m reading “Natica Jackson,” which can be found in a collection called Waiting for Winter. It’s a long short story, practically a novella, that I return to again and again. I can’t get enough of it.

Natica is a young actress whose career is really taking off – stardom beckons -- but she’s lonely, bored and restless. One evening she breaks her standard route home from the studio, takes a street she’s never taken before and happens to get into a fender bender with a middle-aged married man. After they get done being huffy at each other she realizes she’s a bit shaken and asks him if he’d mind driving her home. A quick fling ensues, and that’s that. Except it isn’t. They end up having a serious affair and his wife, who is pregnant with their third child, begins to sense that something is up.

What happens after that never fails to take my breath away. “Natica Jackson” is a truly haunting story. I’m getting goose bumps just telling you about it. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. I guarantee you it will knock you flat.
Visit David Handler's website.

Writers Read: David Handler (October 2011).

Writers Read: David Handler (October 2012).

Writers Read: David Handler (August 2013).

Writers Read: David Handler (March 2014).

Writers Read: David Handler (February 2015).

Writers Read: David Handler (March 2016).

Writers Read: David Handler (September 2017).

Writers Read: David Handler (March 2023).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson is the author of eleven books—seven novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.

Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, The Southampton Review, Ep!phany and elsewhere. Her work has been widely anthologized and broadcast on NPR. Her books have been published in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain.

Robinson has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacDowell Colony, and she was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. She has served on the Boards of PEN and the Authors Guild, and was the president of the Authors Guild. Robinson has received the Barnes and Noble “Writers for Writers Award,” given by Poets and Writers, and the Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community from the Authors Guild. She teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.

Robinson's new novel is Leaving.

Recently I asked the author about what she reading. Her reply:
I’ve just finished reading Trespasses, a debut novel by Louise Kennedy. Let me divide my comments in two, addressing first plot and then language. The story is set in Belfast during the 1970s, a time of bitter division between Protestants and Catholics, when violence of all sorts was the rule.

Cushla, the protagonist, is a teacher in her 20s, her family riven by the death of her father, the alcoholism of her mother, the knife-edge of politics that imperil her brother’s bar. She meets a lawyer twice her age, married, idealistic, and deeply embroiled in the Troubles. Cushla tries to care for her doomed mother, her desperate brother, her small students, while she becomes more and more engaged by her love affair with the lawyer. Irish stories are not often light-hearted, the endings are often dark, and so it is with this one.

But you should read it. Kennedy’s sentences are so beautiful, so deft and smooth and smart, sometimes so funny, they slice so easily into the thick rind of life, carving out just the tranches that we need for this or that. She sees so deeply into the heart of things – the way we can despair of someone and still love them, the way people are defined by their politics or status, but only partly, the way love enters into you and takes you whole.

The Irish are famous for the beauty of their language. I don’t mean to generalize, but they are so, and Kennedy is part of this sweeping statement. Her language is beautiful and wrenching, her way of looking at the world is deep and unflinching, and her heart is great. Reading the sentences alone would be pleasure enough, but Kennedy adds to this beauty the depth of her own soul.
Visit Roxana Robinson’s website.

The Page 69 Test: Cost.

My Book, The Movie: Cost.

The Page 69 Test: Sparta.

My Book, The Movie: Dawson's Fall.

The Page 69 Test: Dawson's Fall.

Q&A with Roxana Robinson.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Amina Akhtar

Amina Akhtar is a novelist and former fashion editor. Her satirical first novel, #FashionVictim, drew critical acclaim. Kismet, her second book, was set in the stunning and creepy world of wellness.

Akhtar has worked at Vogue, Elle, the New York Times, and New York Magazine, where she was the founding editor of the women’s blog The Cut. She currently lives not too far from the Sedona vortices.

Almost Surely Dead is Akhtar’s third novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Missing White Woman by Kellye Garrett (out April 30, 2024)

If you’ve read any of Kellye’s books you know she’s so funny and clever while also tackling issues, which is a hard balance but she does it. Missing White Woman is her best book yet. It takes on the idea of crime and voyeurs and asks who gets to be the victim here? The twists and turns had me shocked—I didn’t expect the ending at all. It’s brilliant, preorder it now!

Youthjuice by E.K. Sathue

This book was written for me. That’s what I felt while reading it. Beauty and murder? Hello! Loved it. But more than the concept I fell in love with Sathue’s prose. She’s such a fantastic writer and her turns of phrase made me fall in love.
Visit Amina Akhtar's website.

Q&A with Amina Akhtar.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

M. A. McLaughlin

M.A. McLaughlin is the award-winning author of a historical mystery trilogy: Claire's Last Secret, A Shadowed Fate, and Forever Past, all set around the Byron/Shelley circle in nineteenth-century Italy. Her novels have been published by Severn House (U.K. and U.S.) and Thomas Schluck (Germany), earning starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, as well as a gold medal for historical fiction in the Florida Writers Association's Literary Palm Award. Her work has been featured internationally in blogs, journals, and websites. Her new novel, The Lost Dresses of Italy, will be published by Alcove Press in February, 2024.

Recently I asked McLaughlin about what she was reading. The author's reply:
Smile Please, by Jean Rhys

I have been drawn to Rhys’ work for years, from her early novels in the 1920s to her last, brilliant novella, Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966. She is a writer’s writer. In every novel, she achieves the perfect balance of lush descriptive imagery with sharp, precise prose—a very difficult thing to achieve. Of all the novelists who have influenced my writing, none have been as significant as Rhys, and I go back to her work time and time again for inspiration. Right now, I’m re-reading her autobiography, Smile Please, begun when she was eighty-five and left unfinished at her death three years later. I always pick it up in January when I’m looking back at the previous year and anticipating what is to come. Similarly, Rhys’ self-revealing narrative is told from the perspective of an older woman reflecting back in a series of vignettes on her childhood in Dominica and her later years in Paris and London—but always through the magic lens of her imagination. Phrases and images seem to float through the personal recollections with her typical delicate touch. One of my favorite passages is when she describes her home as a teenager in Roseau, Switzerland: “The steps down to the lawn. The iron railings covered with jasmine and stephanotis. In the sunniest part of the garden grew the roses ... But in the shadow the Sensitive Plant which shut its leaves and pretended to die when you touched it, only opening again when you were well away.” In this short metaphorical excerpt, Rhys says more than a dozen pages of biographical facts ever could: she loves beauty, she is tentative around other people, and she accepts the ebb and flow of life. Her autobiography is just a gem of a work, worthy of many, many readings.
Visit M. A. McLaughlin / Marty Ambrose's website.

My Book, The Movie: Forever Past.

The Page 69 Test: Forever Past.

Q&A with Marty Ambrose.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Adam Simcox

Adam Simcox is a London-based filmmaker who's shot commercials for brands such as McLaren, Primark and Vice, and music videos for Britpop veterans as well as fresh on the scene alt-country stars. He began his film career by writing and directing three features: the first sold to Netflix; the second and third won awards and critical acclaim at festivals worldwide. He is a graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course.

Simcox's newest novel is The Ungrateful Dead, the third title in The Dying Squad series.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Simcox's reply:
I’m fortunate to get advance copies of novels, and I’ve read some truly special ones recently. The first is a debut, The Book of Doors, by Gareth Brown. It’s a fiendishly clever display of powerhouse storytelling where there’s always something at stake, and none of the characters are safe. It also features one of the best baddies of recent years. Can you use the term baddie if you’re over the age of eight? Apparently so. Out in February in the UK and the US, I’ve got no doubt this tale of magical books – and those that are prepared to kill for them – them will be absolutely massive.

The Daytripper by James Goodhand is a time-jumping gift of a novel. The 90’s are a rich mine, story-wise – think Britpop, Labour coming to power, and Diana’s death – and Goodhand uses the conceit brilliantly. Alex has the world at his feet: a place at Cambridge University, the love of the beautiful Holly, and time stretching deliciously in front of him. Then, a run-in with a childhood bully leaves him battered, bruised, and falling through time: when he regains consciousness, he finds himself in 2010, ravaged by hard times. Part love story, part what-happened thriller, it’s a truly special book. Out in March.

All the Colours of the Dark by Chris Whitaker is a generation-spanning crime tale that shook me with its brilliance. Whitaker wrote We Begin at the End, an acclaimed, awards-hungry epic that many, including myself, didn’t think could be bettered. He surpasses it with All the Colours of the Dark. It’s a true modern classic that deserves to be spoken about in the same terms as The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather. I can’t remember reading a book so quickly. I can’t remember reading a book this good. Out this summer, it will change your life.
Follow Adam Simcox on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads.

My Book, The Movie: The Dying Squad.

Q&A with Adam Simcox.

The Page 69 Test: The Ungrateful Dead.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 13, 2024

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. 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 Sinclair Lewis's Main Street:
At the beginning of his novel, Main Street, Sinclair Lewis insists that Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the town he writes about, is like every other small town in America, its Main Street “the continuation of Main Streets everywhere.” Halfway through the novel, he tells us that Main Street is what, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, American civilization has become, everything standardized, speech and manners sluggish, the desire to appear respectable the only desire publicly allowed, and the satisfaction anyone feels the contentment of “the quiet dead.” Lewis goes even further in his condemnation of the commercial society brought into being by the forces of industrialization:

“It is the prohibition of all happiness. It is slavery self-taught and self-defended. It is dullness made God.” The United States has taken as its principle mission to succeed Victorian England as the “chief mediocrity in the world.” It has done this extremely well; it “functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors.” But it wants more than this; it wants the whole world to agree that the purpose of human existence, the highest achievement of man, is to ride in cars and make advertising pictures of dollar watches, and “in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage, but of the convenience of safety razors.” What the country has come to prize, to consider of preeminent importance, “is not the grand manner, the noble aspiration, the fine aristocratic pride, but cheap labor for the kitchen and rapid increase in the price of land.” Life has become prosaic; the poetry of life has disappeared.

Gopher Prairie, like all the other Midwestern small towns, is itself the creation of this new large scale production, “staked out on barren prairies as convenient points for future train halts….” These small towns are all the same, so much alike “it is a complete boredom to wander from one to another.” And yet that is what a fair number of those who live in these places do, exchange one same looking town for another, moving always in the same direction. “The citizens of the prairie drift always westward.” The jeweler in Gopher Prairie “sells out, for no discernible reason, and moves on to Alberta or the state of Washington, to open a shop precisely like his former one, in a town precisely like the one he has left. There is, except among professional men and the wealthy, small permanence either of residence or occupation.”

One of the professional men who will never leave Gopher Prairie is the phyisician, Will Kennicott, who brings his young new wife, Carol, to live there. She hates Gopher Prairie the moment she sees it. The town was ugly, and the people who lived in it were “as drab as their houses, as flat as their fields.” There is no conversation. People, when they talk at all, talk in hackneyed phrases and inarticulate half sentences. There is a public library, but the town librarian thinks her job is to make sure no one damages the books, not that anyone should read them. The common response to any suggestion that something might be worth reading is, as one of the more important local officials put it, “I’m so damn busy I don’t have much time to read.” In fairness, his response did not suggest there was actually anything wrong with reading, and he did not complain, as did one of his neighbors, that a novel by Balzac should be removed from the shelves because the story was about a woman who did not live with her husband, and because “the English was real poor.”

Everyone, or almost everyone, in Gopher Prairie, thinks alike. The town leaders, who repeat and help enforce the town’s shared beliefs are unashamedly conservative, which meant, at the beginning of the 20th century, against everything government might think to do. Welfare of any kind, old age pensions, profit sharing, trade unions, anything that would limit the freedom of an employer to deal with his employees as he saw fit, were not only wrong, but an attack on the bedrock principles of American life, and anyone, any agitator, who tried to convince people otherwise should be hanged. As one of the few people who seemed to have a mind of his own, a Scandinavian immigrant, explained to Carol: “Everybody who doesn’t love the bankers and the Grand Old Republican Party is an anarchist.” The only thing anyone really cares about is money. “The dollar sign has chased the crucifix clean off the map.”

This marks an essential difference between the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis and the New England settlement of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester Pyrnne was persecuted, forced to wear the scarlet letter for adultery, her sin against God. Carol Kennicott, the doctor’s wife, is not persecuted, but is considered different, unreliable, because she does not believe that money is the only real measure of achievement. Hawthorne’s New England thought life should be judged, had to be judged, by what heaven required; the citizens of Gopher Prairie thought that heaven could be made here on earth, and that, with all the progress being made through science and technology, it was already almost close enough to touch. If everyone still went to church on Sundays, their real religion, because it represented what human beings could do, what they could build for themselves, was the automobile. For Will Kennicott, “motoring was a faith not to be questioned, a high-church cult, with electric sparks for candles and piston- rings possessing the sanctity of altar-vessels.”

It is now, more than a century later, difficult to appreciate how dramatic, how revolutionary, were the changes that had taken place. The automobile meant you could now go wherever you wanted to go, whenever you wanted to go, wherever there was a road to take you. Everything drew closer together. Distance was measured by time. And what you did not have time to see for yourself, you could now see through the lens of a motion picture camera. “The movies were almost as vital to Kennicott and the other solid citizens of Gopher Prairie as land- speculation and guns and automobiles.” Everyone went to the movies; some went almost every night. Carol often went with her husband. Once, watching a scene in which someone dumped spaghetti down the front of a woman’s dress, she laughed along with the rest of the audience, and for “a second loathed her laughter.”

She loathed her laughter because she wanted something better, finer, in her life. She joins a theatrical group, and after a performance hears the local banker remark, “What I like is a good movie, with auto accidents and hold-ups, and some git to it, and not'this talky-talk.” She starts reading Sherwood Anderson, Anatole France, Shaw and Wells, “and all the other subversive philosophers and artists whom women were consulting everywhere.” She becomes a member of a women’s study group where, she is told, “We’re learning all of European literature.” It won’t not take long. One member will lecture on “Shakespeare and Milton,” and, the week after that, someone else will talk about “English Fiction and Essays.” A paper on Tolstoy concentrated on how all his “silly socialistic ideas failed.” Chautaugua promised culture outside the limitations of the town’s own residents, but, as Carol discovers when it comes to Gopher Prairie, it is really not much more than a week-long carnival, “a combination of vaudeville performances, Y.M.C.A. lectures, and the graduation exercises of an elocution class.”

The question Carol is always asking, the reason for her discontent, is what does she really want? It is the question, it seems to her, that every woman in America is asking herself. Her answer, as she understands, is no answer at all: “I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudgery and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation….We want our Utopia now and we’re going to try our hands at it….We want everything.” She wants everything, but she is not sure which things she wants more than others. “I want nobility and adventure, but perhaps I want still more to curl up on the hearth with someone I love.”

She does not love her husband. She hates him, and thinks she must have been insane to marry him. But then, a little while later, she goes with him through a blinding snow storm to save a dying patient, and he becomes a hero in her eyes. She convinces herself that she is “gloriously content in her career as a doctor’s wife,” and when she gets pregnant in the summer of 1914, the summer the Great War begins in Europe, she knows nothing more of discontent. She loves her newborn son “with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Her thoughts, however, do not remain for very long solely on her child. While she is bathing him, she begins to picture herself living with a young artist, building a house in Virginia or the Berkshires, “reading poetry together, and frequently being earnest over valuable statistics about labor.”

The old urge comes back, the need to escape, to find something better than this place that knows, “Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace curtains - on Main Street!” She tells her husband that she is leaving, but Will Kennicott does not want to lose her. With feelings perhaps deeper than her own, he tells her that she is still his soul, that she is all the things he sees in the sunset when he is driving home from the country, “the things that I like but can’t make poetry of.” Then he tells her what it is like to be him. “Do you realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor.” He can do this, he tells her, only because he knows she is there, waiting for him when he comes home.

They try for a second start. They go away together for three and a half months, traveling west to California. Once, walking alone on a beach, Carol found an artist who looked up to her and said, “Too damned wet to paint; sit down and talk.” And so, “for ten minutes she lived in a romantic novel.” When they finally go home, they arrive in the middle of a sleet storm. The trip has done nothing to change Carol’s habitual discontent. Finally, she leaves, and with her small child goes to Washington D.C. where, with the war still on, she finds work in a government bureau. “She had her freedom, and it was empty.” But things get better, and she begins to feel that instead of “one-half of a marriage” she is “the whole of a human being.”

Will writes to her and tells her how welcome she would be if she were to come back, but that he is not asking her to do so. After she has been gone a year, he goes to Washington to see her and his son. They have been living separate and apart long enough that she now sees in both their lives what she had not seen before. “She had fancied that her life might make a story,” but it “had not occurred to her there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.”

Her hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. But what was it that made her hate it as much as she had? What was it that made her so discontent, so eager to make things different than they were? Before she left, Will had told her what he thought was wrong, not with Gopher Prairie, but with her. He had thought that after she became acquainted with “a lot of good decent farmers,” she would “get over this high-art stuff, but you hang right on.” There was, he informed her, “just three classes of people: folks that haven’t got any ideas at all; and cranks that kick about everything; and Regular Guys, the fellows with sticktoitiveness that…gets the world’s work done.”

That was the solid, stubborn fact that, ultimately, Carol could not resist. Will Kennicott was someone who did the work, someone who, while others complained, took care of things. He was the one, she would remember, who, driving through a snow storm to help a patient, she never doubted would get to where he had to go. “He always got through things.” He was, in that sense, the quintessential American, the American we once looked up to, the one you knew you could always trust, the one who might never be able to tell you anything you did not know, but somehow knew things you could only hope you would one day learn yourself.
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.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Third Reading: Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Vicki Delany

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books, the Catskill Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Delany is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. She is the recipient of the 2019 Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. Delany lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Her newest novel in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series is The Sign of Four Spirits.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Delany's reply:
I don’t often read historical novels, but in preparing this list I realized that all three of the books I’ve recently read are historical. You can take from that whatever you like.

I loved The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng so much, I went to Malaysia. That was his second book and his third came out recently. The House of Doors didn’t have the emotional impact on me that the earlier book did, but I enjoyed it very much. It’s set in Penang, in Malaysia, in 1910 and in 1921. An upper-class Englishwoman (so called in those colonial times even though she’d never even been to England) encounters Sun Yat Sen in 1910 and tells the story to W. Somerset Maugham in 1921. Perhaps what I like most about the author’s writing is his incomparable sense of time and place. Everywhere I went on that trip to Malaysia I was reminded of his books.

The Four Dead Wives of Captain John Clapp by Janet Kellough, a historian and good writer friend of mine. The John Clapp of the title is a real historical figure and an ancestor of Janet, living in England, and then in Carolina and New York in the 17th century. History briefly mentions that Captain Clapp had four wives who pre-deceased him. As is usual, little is said about the four wives, and Janet set out to discover what she could about them. This book is a mix of facts she learned and what she considered possible. Meaning it is fiction, but as historically accurate as it can be. There isn’t much of a plot, but the glimpse into the lives of ordinary middle-class women of the times is fascinating.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. I was invited to be on Kristopher Zgorski podcast, “We Are What We Read” to discuss a book I would recommend. I chose one of my absolute favourites, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Kris mentioned that The Quincunx is often compared to An Instance so I immediately bought it. I was severely disappointed. The book is well written, no doubt about that, and the plot interesting but my goodness it’s long. Far, far, far too long at maybe (at a guess) 250,000 words. And massively overcomplicated. But ultimately, it didn’t have the great mystery at the heart of it as An Instance of the Fingerpost did, nor the different perspectives on a set of events which is what captivated me about Iain Pears book. After slogging through all that, the ending kinda… dropped away. Read An Instance of the Fingerpost instead.
Visit Vicki Delany's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen.

The Page 69 Test: A Scandal in Scarlet.

The Page 69 Test: Murder in a Teacup.

Writers Read: Vicki Delany (September 2021).

The Page 69 Test: Deadly Summer Nights.

The Page 69 Test: The Game is a Footnote.

Writers Read: Vicki Delany (January 2023).

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 5, 2024

Grant Ennis

Grant Ennis is the author of Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Undermines Our Health and the Environment. He has more than 20 years’ experience in international humanitarian affairs, environmental policy, and public health.

Ennis is a distinguished alumnus of both the University of the Pacific and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

His new book is Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Harms Our Health and the Environment.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Ennis's reply:
I’m reading the pre-release English translation of Dr Mélissa Mialon’s Big Food & Co: How the Pursuit of Profit At-All-Costs Harms Our Health. It’s excellent. Dr. Mialon names names and “brings receipts” in exposing the corruption of the global food environment. She pulls no punches in showing that the charities that we expect to be on the side of public health are captured by industries that harm us all, and through her unflinching critique provides hope for a better world.

I recently finished two other incredible books.

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, by Vincent Bevins, exposes how the last decade of protest movements following a horizontalist, anti-politics, anarcho-libertarian ideology has failed us all. He makes abundantly clear through extensive interviews with organizers around the world that a future of movements achieving real results will be one with structured and hierarchical organizations aimed at political change.

I also really enjoyed No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, by Dr. Jane McAlevey. McAlevey, more than anyone else in recent memory, shows the promises and pitfalls of different forms of organizing, and that there truly are no shortcuts. We need to be well-organized if we want a better world.
Learn more about Dark PR at the publisher's website, and connect with Grant Ennis on LinkedIn.

The Page 99 Test: Dark PR.

--Marshal Zeringue