Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Steven Parlato

Steven Parlato is an award-winning author and poet. Upon the release of his YA debut, The Namesake, Publishers Weekly called him “a name to watch.” A college English professor (with a giraffe-filled office), illustrator, and actor, Parlato has played roles including the Scarecrow, Macbeth, and the Munchie Mania Guy in a Friendly’s training film. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, two teens, and a Binks-like cockapoo.

Parlato's new novel is The Precious Dreadful.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
As a college English professor, much of my reading focuses on student work in my four classes each semester. Thousands of pages range from, well, awful, to sometimes remarkable in form and content. Reading in support of students becoming deeper thinkers and polished communicators is both exhausting and inspirational.

During the academic year, much of my reading is also rooted in the classroom, from essays by the likes of Nicholas Kristof to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. That play’s a particular favorite; I've played both the fickle lover, Demetrius, and that famous ass, Nick Bottom. I love introducing it to students, winning them over to Shakespeare.

A new addition to my 200-level lit class, Studies in Young Adult Fiction, was Angie Thomas's excellent The Hate U Give. Its focus on the murder of Blacks by police was handled with an unflinching truth and sense of fairness that impressed. Thomas spotlighted our national shame, avoiding heavy-handedness, while leaving me with a very heavy heart. We have much work to do.

Also in that class, we read three of my faves: Chinese Handcuff, by Chris Crutcher; Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; and Stephanie Kuehn's Charm & Strange. Each reminds me that by being bold, authentic, and unafraid to tackle dark topics--abuse, mental illness, racism--tempered with humor, we provide a space for readers to meet individuals who share their struggles, and to develop empathy for others' unique burdens.

Two other recent favorites are Emma Donoghue's brutal Room, and Nutshell, by Ian McEwan. Donoghue's writing mined beauty and power from a situation that could have remained merely horrific. McEwan's book, with its Hamlet allusion and pre-natal narrator, reminded me anything is possible in crafting written worlds.

As a poet, I treasure poetry collections for their lessons on image and economy of words. Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Claude McKay are particular heroes. My fiction benefits from the distillation of language I've learned reading and writing poems. I'm currently loving a limited edition chapbook, Dinner Parites, by my dear friend and mentor, Edwina Trentham. Her collection, Stumbling Into the Light, from Antrim House, never ceases to move me, inspiring my own writing.

I'm a believer in the importance of every word, whether I'm writing a sestina or a novel. The works and writers I've mentioned are ones I return to often in search of that vein-deep connection we only find through words in white space. They never disappoint.
Visit Steven Parlato's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Precious Dreadful.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 19, 2018

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is the author of the young adult novels Shade Me, Bitter End, Perfect Escape, Thousand Words, and Torn Away. Her debut young adult novel, Hate List, was chosen as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a VOYA Perfect Ten, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She lives in the Kansas City, Missouri, area with her husband and children.

Brown's latest novel is Break Us.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Brown's reply:
Right now I am reading a crazy amount of YA and middle grade books, and they have all been really great. But there is one that stands out as the book that had me completely engrossed and will stay with me forever: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson.

Nine-year old Mary allegedly killed an infant while babysitting with her mother and was sent to “baby jail.” Now, six years later, she is living in a group home, trying to put together the pieces of her life, when she discovers that she herself is pregnant.

Mary has been tight-lipped about what happened the night of the baby’s death, but the court has decided that they will be taking her baby after he is born, and now she is more motivated than ever to set the record straight so she can keep her baby and make a life with his father, Ted. This means she must not only go up against the court of public opinion and the reluctant and sometimes biased justice system itself—but more frighteningly—the powerful force that is her very religious mother.

The voices in this book are so astonishingly real, I felt at times as if I was standing right there in the group home with these girls. Jackson pulls no punches, never shying away from the truth, and giving each character their own very individual, brutally honest voice. It reminded me of Orange is the New Black, only with higher stakes and more empathy.

I love gritty stories that make me think, and I gravitate toward books that have me questioning my own insulated suburban paradigms. This book makes bold statements about our justice system—particularly our juvenile justice system—and about how our global connectivity as a society can be brutal, even when the “offender” is a nine year old child. Decisions, truth and lies, race, compassion…goodness, this book has it all! And don’t even get me started about how it all comes together at the end!

Incidentally, I listened to the audio version of this book, and Bahni Turpin did an amazing job bringing just the right voice to these characters. If you have the inclination to listen, you should totally do so.

This is Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut novel, and I believe a hugely honest and important voice has just burst onto the YA scene. I am definitely an insta-fan, and can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Visit Jennifer Brown's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Jennifer Brown & Ursula and Aragorn.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Joanne Serling

Joanne Serling’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in New Ohio Review and North American Review. She is a graduate of Cornell University and studied and taught fiction at The Writers Studio in New York City. She lives outside of New York with her husband and children.

Serling’s new novel, her debut, is Good Neighbors.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
For most of my life, I’ve been a dedicated fiction reader, devouring novels at the rate of one per week with the occasional New Yorker story thrown in. But for the last six months, I’ve been on a nonfiction jag. It started with Boys of my Youth by Jo Ann Beard, a series of interconnected essays that read like short stories. Each one blew me away with their emotional depth and beauty. (And they were funny!) I then dipped into Love and Trouble: a Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer, which really got me thinking about how closely our sexual selves are tied to our identity. Dederer is a courageous, honest and also, a very funny writer. In between, I did sneak in one terrific novel: Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian, an insightful and moving debut about motherhood and pregnancy that stayed with me long after I’d finished it.
Visit Joanne Serling's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Tom Sweterlitsch

Tom Sweterlitsch was born in Iowa and grew up in Ohio. His first novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow was published in 2014. He has co-written several short films with Director Neill Blomkamp for Oats Studios including Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote. Before becoming a writer, he worked for the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for twelve years. Sweterlitsch's new novel is The Gone World. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Sweterlitsch's reply:
I’m reading two books right now, kind of going back and forth between them: Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, and Three by Flannery O’Connor, by…Flannery O’Connor.

Three by Flannery O’Connor is an older “Signet Classic” paperback that collects Flannery O’Connor’s three novels: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. I’ve long been a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s writing, both her brilliant short stories and these challenging novels. Wise Blood is a novel of deep religious searching, with charlatan preachers and false idols and prophets for the “Church Without Christ.”

Return to the Dark Valley is the third novel I’ve read by the Colombian author Santiago Gamboa, all three in translation and published by Europa Editions. I found his first novel in translation, Necropolis, only because the cover art/jacket design caught my attention—I can’t even remember where I bought it. At any rate, I bought this book because of the mysterious cover image of a luminous hotel hallway, but it turned out to be one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read, about a writer invited to an academic conference on “biography,” held in a luxury hotel in Jerusalem. There is a central mystery but also stories-within-stories as the various conference attendees give their presentations. Return to the Dark Valley is also a mystery, and also about stories and literature—it’s a companion book to his novel Night Prayers. Gamboa’s written several books but I think only these three have been translated into English so far. I highly recommend reading his books.
Visit Tom Sweterlitsch's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 16, 2018

Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include A Bridge Across the Ocean; Secrets of Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University. Meissner is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults.

Her latest novel is As Bright as Heaven.

Recently I asked Meissner about what she was reading. Her reply:
One of the delights of having fellow authors for friends is getting to read their newest books early. I just finished I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon and my first response when I read the last page was, “Wow!” Most of us have probably heard what happened to the royal Romanov family during the Russian revolution, and perhaps even the mystery surrounding one of the daughters, Anastasia, when a woman named Anna Anderson claimed to be her. Anderson spent her lifetime claiming she had survived the brutal execution of the rest of her family. Lawhon has constructed a cleverly engaging look at both Anastasia Romanov of history and the woman who claimed until her dying day to be the sole surviving daughter of the last tsar of Russia. It is a non-linear tale, in that part of the story moves forward and part moves backward, but I loved how the story played out that way. It was a very unique architecture that was probably not easy to pull off, but Lawhon is a master storyteller and she totally made it work.

I am nearly finished with Chanel Cleeton’s brand new novel, Next Year in Havana. It is a dual time periods tale about a contemporary American woman of Cuban descent who travels to Havana to fulfill the wish of a beloved grandmother who asked that her ashes be taken back home to Cuba. Cleeton draws on her own Cuban background to tell the story, and her flair for detail will have you feeling like you’re right there in Havana for both storylines. And the cover is absolutely beautiful.

I recently become mad about Louise Penny’s inspector Gamache series. I’ve been reading them out of order, which is surprising, because ordinarily I would never do that. But Penny is such a great writer and the stories can and do standalone. Still, if you haven’t started this series yet I do suggest you start at the beginning. I like listening to Penny’s books in my car because her narrator is such a delight to listen to and the stories are so full of evocative and delicious detail. My most recent read was The Long Way Home, which is number ten. I am now listening to number two, A Fatal Grace. The cast of recurring characters in these Inspector Gamache books feel like family to me now and the setting, a fictional town called Three Pines in the rural environs of Montreal, Quebec, is a place I wish so very much I could visit. Like all murder mysteries there is always a dead body or two, and the whodunit is a key element of all of them, but along with those genre-specific staples there is always enjoyable, engaging, and insightful storytelling.
Visit Susan Meissner's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Susan Meissner & Bella.

The Page 69 Test: As Bright as Heaven.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 15, 2018

R. E. Stearns

R. E. Stearns wrote her first story on an Apple IIe computer and still kind of misses green text on a black screen. She went on to annoy all of her teachers by reading books while they lectured. Eventually she read and wrote enough to earn a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida. She is hoping for an honorary doctorate. When not writing or working, R. E. Stearns reads, plays PC games, and references internet memes in meatspace. She recently moved to Denver, CO with her husband/computer engineer and a cat.

Stearns' debut novel is Barbary Station.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently read Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, and I adore it! Its original appeal was "Lovecraftian story written by a queer woman," which I always hope will result in a story that gets away from Lovecraft's well-known sexism and racism. Winter Tide plainly addresses those issues, and more. It doesn't shy away from a single difficult topic, including how racial minorities and gay folks were treated in the U.S. during the late '40s. Did I mention it's a period piece? It's a period piece.

Winter Tide is wonderfully quotable. I have been reading lines aloud to my friends and relations. For example:

"Even the most ill-formed words, set to paper, are a great blessing."

And

"They are not evil, but nor are they good to be around unless one has a truly important reason."

And also

"When she doesn't care about something, she's like a personification of the whole universe not caring."

Lines like that are scattered throughout Winter Tide, and one never knows what one will find on the next page. Some of the text is especially Lovecraftian, but most of the time Winter Tide reads better and has more depth of feeling than anything he ever wrote (and I would know, because I've read everything he wrote).

So, yes, this is a delightful novel. I recommend it to anybody who likes weird fiction, and to all Lovecraft fans, and to people who wish that the America of the Cold War Era had been more magical.
Visit R. E. Stearns's website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lisa Black

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into six languages, one reached the New York Times bestsellers list and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

Black's new novel is Perish.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I read Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—And Themselves, by Andrew Ross Sorkin. That I read it at all is something of a bizzarity because business has never interested me. Numbers make my eyes cross. Too many times to count, my husband has asked me what my cousin or nephew or sister-in-law does for a living any my answer was: ‘Something to do with business.’ I read out the entire true crime section at the Cleveland Public Library except for the books dealing with organized crime because gangsters tend to function like a business…booooooring.

But quite some time back I listened to critics who said Barbarians at the Gate was a fascinating tale, tried it, liked it and discovered that non-fiction can be interesting, even when no one gets murdered. And thus I read Too Big To Fail. It explains, step by step, the 2008 financial meltdown and most of the characters swept up in it, whether they deserved to be or not. The book has been criticized for having too much detail about the bankers’ histories, their hobbies and who drives them to work every day, but I didn’t find it boring at all.

Two things stuck with me after I finished reading. These swashbuckling Wall Street types of outsize egos and outsize drive are mostly white men—not too surprisingly—but once in the door they are surprisingly egalitarian. They honestly don’t care if your father was a felon or president of Yale—if you can make money, and keep making money (which is the really hard part), that is all that matters.

And, as one of them explains, what distinguishes success from failure is not just the ability to win but the ability to lose. Everyone is going to make bad calls during their career and lose a great deal of money for one of their clients. You have to be able to withstand being called every name in the book by that client, listen to them tell you that they never want to speak to you again, and yet call them up again the next week a pitch a great tip or product or investment. If you can’t do that, then this is not the job for you.

All in all I found it a fascinating tale of a world I do not know, as well as a cautionary tale of just how fragile the world can become when no one pays sufficient attention.
Learn more about the book and author at Lisa Black's website.

My Book, The Movie: Perish.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Laura Madeleine

After a childhood spent acting professionally and training at a theatre school, Laura Madeleine changed her mind and went to study English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge. The author of The Confectioner's Tale, she now writes fiction, as well as recipes, and was formerly the resident cake baker for Domestic Sluttery. She lives in Bristol, but can often be found visiting her family in Devon, eating cheese, and getting up to mischief with her sister, fantasy author Lucy Hounsom.

Madeleine's latest book to reach the US is Where the Wild Cherries Grow: A Novel of the South of France.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m in full research mode for my next novel right now, so all of my reading is on a theme. I’ve just finished two books by Mohamed Choukri, a Moroccan writer who taught himself how to read and write in his twenties after a childhood of poverty, abuse and crime. His For Bread Alone was a startlingly honest and fascinating account of growing up on-and-off the streets in Tangier and Tetouan. His In Tangier – a series of diary-like entries written during the late sixties – provides a few wonderful vignettes of his meetings with fellow writers like Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams. I’ve now moved on the Josh Shoemake’s Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers, which is proving an entertaining read. (Can you guess where my next book is set, yet?) Other than that, I’m queuing up Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca after watching the brilliant Hitchcock film version and realising – to my shame – that I’ve never actually read it.
Visit Laura Madeleine's website.

The Page 69 Test: Where the Wild Cherries Grow.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cheryl Reid

Cheryl Reid grew up in Decatur, Alabama. She studied art and writing at Agnes Scott College and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. She lives with her husband, three children, and a rescue dog called Django in Decatur, Georgia.

Reid's new book, her first novel, is As Good as True,.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I love books that employ imagery in specific and meaningful ways to deepen the narrative. So when I finished The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, I was in awe. Throughout the novel, I felt as if I were in the room or on the street or on the train with the characters. The real treasure of the book is the weaving of narrative between and among characters. McDermott takes us close-up, offering internal glimpses into each character, their vulnerabilities and hopes, but also pulls out, so that each character can be seen through the others’ points of view. The novel has a cinematic feel, exploring each person’s desires and conflicts, and though a reader might not expect to find such deep longing, hope, bitterness and jealousy in a cast of nuns, a young widow and her daughter, McDermott paints a surprising and abundant landscape of their complicated lives. Her ability to delve intimately into her characters remind me of reading Chekhov’s stories.

I recently read Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris. The book felt like a “how to” for writers, and I enjoy books about the artistic process like Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, King’s On Writing, or Baxter’s Burning Down the House. I love learning how different writers approach their work. In Sedaris’s diaries, you read about his day-to-day life and observations, but you also see how his artistic life unfolds. Some good lessons can be gleaned about the craft—write something every day (or almost every day), look at the world with a poet’s eye, and let nothing be lost. A fun assignment for a writing workshop would be to have the participants read Theft by Finding early on with the goal of keeping a diary like Sedaris for the duration.

Last fall, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and I so admire his complete originality. The stories within the novel are human and graceful, funny and heartbreaking. At once a play, a fictional narrative, and a historical collage of primary accounts, the story revolves around the death of Lincoln’s son Willie, and how each character experiences love and loss. The themes of human connection and love’s limits ground this transcendent story. The voices, worldly and other-worldly, are fine-tuned inside and out, creating an operatic experience that dares us to imagine what is possible in fiction.

I mostly read fiction because I’m greedy to study craft. But I do love a good journalistic non-fiction book, especially books that feel like novels. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is one such book: a heart-wrenching, dire, yet hopeful story that is at both outrageously beautiful and devastating. Right now I’m in the middle of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI and what makes it so stunning are the beautifully selected and executed details that bolster the narrative.
Learn more about As Good as True by Cheryl Reid.

Coffee with a Canine: Cheryl Reid & Django.

The Page 69 Test: As Good as True.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 9, 2018

Elizabeth LaBan

Elizabeth LaBan lives in Philadelphia with her restaurant critic husband and two children. She is the author of The Restaurant Critic’s Wife, the young adult novel The Tragedy Paper, which has been translated into eleven foreign languages, and The Grandparents Handbook, which has been translated into seven foreign languages, and Pretty Little World, which she co-authored with Melissa DePino.

LaBan's new novel is Not Perfect.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
As an author, I am sometimes asked to read a book early – either to offer a blurb or to offer feedback. I was lucky enough to be asked to read This Bright Beauty by Emily Cavanagh, with the hope that I would like it enough to offer a blurb – and I did. I loved it. This is her second novel published by Lake Union Publishing, and I now plan to order her first. This one will be available on March 1. It is the story of twin sisters whose relationship shifts and changes over the course of their lives, but always remains one of the most important connections to both of them. Ultimately, it is about the importance of family and family history, and how the secrets people keep from each other can hold them together and ruin everything at the same time.

I often think there are two types of books – at least to me as a reader. There are those books that I am eager to get through to just see what happened. Sometimes with those I end up skimming. Then there are the books I don’t want to end, that I don’t want to miss a single word of. With those books, I want to be in the world of the characters for as long as I can. That is how I felt about This Bright Beauty. When I teach writing, I talk about this, and that the real goal of a writer is to achieve the latter, to draw people into the world you create and write a story good enough to make them want to be there.

Just before this book I read The Futures by Anna Pitoniak. I felt the same way about her book, that I didn’t want to miss a word, that I wanted to be in the world with the characters for as long as I could be, and that I was sorry when I turned that last page. I loved that book, too, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good, absorbing read.

Now I am reading a friend’s draft of a novel she wrote that is also so good, but at the beginning stages. Maybe if I’m lucky enough to be asked this question by you again down the road that book will be out in the world, and I’ll be able to talk more about it. After that I plan to read Class Mom by Laurie Gelman and Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris.
Visit Elizabeth LaBan's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Restaurant Critic's Wife.

The Page 69 Test: Not Perfect.

--Marshal Zeringue