Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mary Miley

Mary Miley is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition. She grew up in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and France, and worked her way through the College of William and Mary in Virginia as a costumed tour guide at Colonial Williamsburg. After completing her masters in history, she worked at the museum and taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University. As Mary Miley Theobald, she has published numerous nonfiction books and articles on history, travel, and business topics.

In 2013 Miley introduced her Roaring Twenties series with The Impersonator. Her latest novel, Silent Murders, is the second book in the series.

Not so long ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Miley's reply:
The books I read for fun are quite different from the ones I read for work-related research. During the day, I’m generally reading for work—not that that’s torture, mind you; I usually enjoy those books very much. But I’m also usually taking notes, so it feels like homework. After dinner, I like to go early to bed and read for pleasure, mostly historical novels. I probably average two books a week.

So, in the past month, my bedtime reading has included Endless Night, a book that a friend told me was her favorite Agatha Christie. I enjoy Christie’s books and found this one quite different from her usual Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot fare. Any comment I make will spoil the ending, so I won’t. After that, I read The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, a gripping historical mystery set at the military academy at West Point, where I was born—although it was set in 1830, a few years before I made my appearance. Coincidentally, that had a shocker of an ending not unlike the Christie book I’d just finished. I belong to two book clubs, largely to push myself to read outside my preferred parameters. I’ve just finished Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for one of those clubs and found it more compelling than I expected ... as usual!

For work, I often read biographies of people who lived in the 1920s. I’ve just finished The Astaires by Kathleen Riley, a new book about Fred and Adele, the toast of Broadway and London in the 1920s. Adele plays a cameo role as one of Jessie’s friends from vaudeville days in an upcoming Roaring Twenties mystery, so I need to bone up as much as possible on this lesser-known Astaire. I particularly enjoyed the photos of young Freddie and his big sister Adele. Probably the most helpful book I’ve read this month—this year, for that matter—is Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, which tells about murder and the birth of forensic medicine in 1920s New York. I soaked up gallons of information about poisons and how they were (or weren’t) detected in those years. Readers can expect to read more along those lines in my upcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries!
Visit Mary Miley's website, blog, and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Mary Miley (September 2013).

The Page 69 Test: The Impersonator.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayne Harrison

Before working as a corrections officer in Rutland, Vermont, Wayne Harrison was an auto mechanic for six years in Waterbury, Connecticut. A first-generation college student, he began in his mid twenties as a criminal justice major before getting turned on to creative writing by mentor and friend Jeffrey Greene. He later received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Harrison's fiction has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. His short stories appear in Best American Short Stories 2010, The Atlantic, Narrative Magazine, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, The Sun, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, FiveChapters, New Letters and other magazines. His fiction has earned a Maytag fellowship, an Oregon Literary fellowship and a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship. He teaches writing at Oregon State University.

Harrison's debut novel is The Spark and the Drive.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Harrison's reply:
Like many authors, or at least authors I know, I'm reading a couple of books at once. I like to juxtapose first person and third person point of views, as voice is what I pay most attention to in my own writing. I'm currently reading my friend and former fiction teacher Tim Parrish's evocative memoir Fear and What Follows, which describes his hardscrabble upbringing in working class Louisiana in the 1970s. It's a powerful and fascinating book that intelligently captures the persisting violence and racism of the south at that time. I love memoirs that, like Wolff's masterpiece This Boy's Life, make me feel astounded that the writer ever escaped his own childhood, and this is certainly one of those.

I'm also reading Téa Obreht's brilliant debut novel The Tiger's Wife, about life and death in the Balkans after years of war. A young doctor is trying to puzzle out the mysterious circumstances of her grandfather's death and embarks upon an astonishing journey. The people and circumstances are extraordinary, but perhaps most remarkable is that so much heartfelt wisdom was penned by someone in her twenties. I know it's received widespread praise, but I'll add my own two cents: It's really an exquisite book.

I've also just finished Denis Johnson's gorgeous novella Train Dreams. I've been a fan of Johnson's visionary prose since grad school, when I used to carry Jesus' Son around like a bible in my pocket. I would have been very happy to see this book take the Pulitzer the year it was a finalist, when they didn't give the award in fiction. I'm astounded, as always, by Johnson's tight, perilous sentences that reveal the poet he started off as, before turning to fiction. It's a story of a long, difficult and very modest life riddled with sadness and brief rapture. But the language and perspective are stunning, as is the compassion they evoke from the reader. The dialogue alone is exact and convincing enough to keep you constantly wondering how it could be that Johnson didn't actually live in this time period. It's a book I'll certainly read again and again.
Visit Wayne Harrison's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Spark and the Drive.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Julia Keller

Julia Keller was born and raised in West Virginia, and now lives in Chicago and Ohio. In her career as a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series she wrote for the Chicago Tribune about a small town in Illinois rocked by a deadly tornado.

Her new novel, Summer of the Dead, is the third book in the Bell Elkins Series; it follows A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Keller's reply:
It’s a sickness. Really, it is. I can’t seem to read only one book at a time. I well know how philandering spouses feel: What’s right in front of me just can’t measure up to what’s across the room, batting its eyelashes and giving me a lascivious, come-hither glance. I’ve tried, but I simply can’t be a one-book woman.

Spying the motley stack of reading matter that follows me from room to room—almost of its own volition, I swear—friends often ask, “How do you decide which book to read at which time?” I have no rational answer. I am guided by some mysterious, ineffable force that wills the hand toward one book and not another, and later, toward yet another. My religious-minded friends often attest to hearing a “still, small voice within” that directs their moral choices; I hear it, too, only the voice says, “No, you chucklehead! Not the mystery right now—the Tennyson biography!”

And speaking of Tennyson biographies, I’m reading a dandy: Tennyson (1993) by Peter Levi. It’s not new, but I so love the late Levi’s voice as he undertakes the daunting task of writing about an oft-written-about writer: “I think having written this book that I do now understand this great poet,” he says in the introduction. “The long series of problems solved has left him much clearer, and yet because of his genuine greatness just as mysterious as before.”

I’m also reading another book with some high numbers on the odometer: Julian (1965) by Gore Vidal. No one does historical fiction the way Vidal did; I’d argue that any American history course worth its tricorn hat ought to have Burr, Lincoln and Empire on the syllabus, just for starters, if only to provide a counterpoint to the narratives that make the outcomes of history seem inevitable. History, as Vidal tells it, is a combination of selfishness and coincidence, with a finishing sauce of hypocrisy and self-delusion. And yet cynicism is too cheap and easy a tone, hence Vidal mostly avoids it. For some reason I’d missed Julian, a faux-memoir of the deeply learned Roman emperor who resisted the surge of Christianity, and now am relishing it. Among the gems: “Never offend an enemy in a small way”; “In a good cause hypocrisy becomes virtue”; “The folly of the clever is always greater than that of the dull.” And this: “History is idle gossip about a happening whose truth is lost the instant it has taken place.”

I’m also reading The Buffalo Creek Disaster (1976) by Gerald M. Stern, a non-fiction account of the aftermath of the terrible 1972 flood that decimated a small West Virginia mining community. It’s an essential part of my research for my next novel.

Among the more recently published books on my dance card are Big Brother (2013) by the clever, inimitable Lionel Shriver and Poppet (2013) by Mo Hayder. Hayder is my guilty pleasure. Her mystery novels are extremely creepy, and there are times when you want nothing more than to have the bejesus scared out of you. (Opening the gas bill can accomplish the same thing, of course, but without the captivating characters.)

Also here at my elbow is the 1984 Penguin Classics edition of A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, respectively—with an introduction by our old friend Peter Levi of Tennyson fame. These travel chronicles may have been written and published in the eighteenth century, but they have a droll freshness to them that somehow dissolves the intervening centuries. “That which is strange is delightful,” Johnson writes, and who can argue?
Learn more about the book and author at Julia Keller's website.

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2012).

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2013).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

David Barnett

David Barnett is an award-winning journalist, currently multimedia content manager of the Telegraph & Argus, cultural reviewer for The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and he has done features for The Independent and Wired. He is the author of Angelglass (described by The Guardian as “stunning”), Hinterland, and popCULT!

Barnett's new book is Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, the second Gideon Smith novel.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Barnett's reply:
Because I do some reviewing for newspapers in the UK, I’m lucky enough to get quite a few books sent to me, and while some of the writers I’m familiar with, others I haven’t come across before, or are making their debuts.

One of my favourite writers currently is Nick Harkaway, and his latest novel Tigerman is an absolute joy. It’s about a British soldier nearing the end of his working life who is given a retirement slot on a distant island. He strikes up a friendship with a young boy who is obsessed with popular culture, particularly comic books. Harkaway is the author of two previous novels, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, both of which have at their heart apocalyptic motifs. The Gone-Away World is pure post-apocalypse, where humanity lives in a thin belt girdling the earth, the rest of the planet uninhabitable thanks to a series of man-made ecological disasters. Angelmaker is about the threat of apocalypse and the unwitting setting-in-motion of a doomsday device.

Harkaway continues the theme in Tigerman, but the apocalypse is more localised – the island is to be destroyed by the international community because a series of experiments there have created a bio-hazard threat that could jeopardise the rest of the world if left unchecked. It’s a very subtle apocalypse, and the inhabitants of the island are waiting patiently for the end, just as the washed-up soldier, Lester Ferris, is marking time to his own retirement.

Tigerman is quirky – this is a Nick Harkaway novel, after all – but it’s warm and tender and gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling about humanity, even as you despair at what we’re capable of.

Other than that, I’ve been re-reading a lot of RA Lafferty for a feature I’ve been writing. Lafferty is criminally under-appreciated and his novel Fourth Mansions – nominally about rival conspiracies vying to control humanity, but so much more than that – is an absolute classic that everyone should read. He’s funny and scary and thought-provoking all at once.
Visit David Barnett's website.

The Page 69 Test: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elisabeth Wolf

Elisabeth Wolf lives in Los Angeles where she grows fruits, vegetables, and native flowers. Her first two books are Lulu in La La Land and Lulu in Honolulu.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Wolf's reply:
My current reading is inspired by islands. Writing my middle reader fiction book, Lulu in Honolulu, I became fascinated by what it really means to live surrounded by water. For months, I have been reading Hawaii by James Michener. Having about one hundred pages left, however, has made me slow down and savor each paragraph of this massive book. Michener writes like my friend, Seana, needlepoints. He colors and weaves a complex picture but never drops a stitch. I wanted to write a story about a girl spending summer in Honolulu and, at the same time, I wanted the richness and depth of Hawaii and Hawaiian culture to seep into the book. I didn’t want the book to feel like a two-dimensional travel poster. Michener’s Hawaii sets the standard for blending detail (everything from food to history) into stories in which my heart throbs and sinks for the characters. Reading Hawaii, I have traveled to Bora Bora, China, and Japan and spent time with 19th Century American Missionaries.

The other two books I am reading (and re-reading) are Recipes From A Very Small Island by Linda and Martha Greenlaw, a cookbook about family, friendships, nature, seasons, and the rhythms of life, and The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown, a picture book about nature, seasons, relationships and the rhythms of life. Both books are feasts for the eyes and imagination. The cookbook brims with photographs of Ise au Haut just off the rocky Maine coast. My favorite part of the Foggy Morning Blueberry Muffin recipe is staring at the picture on the next page: a huge golden autumnal field ending at a strip of gray blue water. The Little Island, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, dazzles with pictures that are simple and complex at the same time. My favorite is sailboats sailing away from the island under a half shrouded moon. Anchored in my mind, both books ground me to my values … unencumbered recognition and admiration for the power, beauty and constant of nature and the diversity and depth of relationships.
Visit Elisabeth Wolf's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 12, 2014

Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt is the award-winning author of a book of short stories, mock parables and histories, The Paris Stories (2000), and five novels from Coffee House Press: The Impossibly (2001), Indiana, Indiana (2003), The Exquisite (2006) Ray of the Star (2009) and Kind One (2012), which was a finalist for both the 2013 Pen/Faulkner award and the 2013 Pen USA Literary Award in Fiction and the winner of a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.

Hunt's new novel is Neverhome.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Hunt's reply:
On a family trip with my sister to the Baltimore area my sister and I slipped off to the marvelous indie store Atomic Books where I bought an album of Hot Stuff comics for my daughter and a copy of In the Woods by Tana French for me. French’s name has come up a number of times in recent months and I can see why. The novel is wise, gripping, dark, full of good (rather than drearily expedient) sentences and is just generally very difficult to put down. Exactly the right book for the imaginary free time I have at end of summer. I travelled too with David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks, which is excellent, and quite intricate, and suitably long, as one might expect, though it remains to be seen if it wins me over as emphatically as Cloud Atlas: jury is still out. Last though not least is All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which is haunting and pleasingly unpredictable. It is by turns strangely soothing and at others like a punch in the eye: my kind of book!
Visit Laird Hunt's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Neverhome.

My Book, The Movie: Neverhome.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kathryn Erskine

Kathryn Erskine is the acclaimed author of many distinguished novels for young readers, including Mockingbird, winner of the National Book Award; The Absolute Value of Mike, an Amazon Best Book and ALA Notable Book; and Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.

Erskine's new novel is The Badger Knight.

Last month I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I was a kid I've read multiple books at a time. Here's what's on my bedside table or by my reading chair:

New News Out of Africa, Charlayne Hunter-Gault

I love this author and respect her successful career as a journalist. Since she has actually lived in Africa for almost 20 years, she's able to relate the changes there from the inside out. Being American, she can put it in terms that we can understand. Having lived in South Africa as a kid, I'm always curious about the social changes there, and a large part of the book focuses on South Africa. The book is, admittedly, several years old, and I'd love to see an updated version.

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, Don Richard Riso

It's always fun to pull out this book and see how much (or little) I've really changed. It's also great for a writer to get ideas or better understand our characters. It's fascinating to see the characters on your page, or in your life, so well described.

Connecting with the Cosmos, Donald Goldsmith

For stargazers. Did you know you could tell time, not just direction, from the Big Dipper? This book is part research but as I'm still exploring this project I can't really give any more information.

The Martian, Andy Weir

My husband doesn't usually read fiction (except mine!) so when he recommended this, I knew I had to read it. I've just started but I'm enjoying the engaging voice and fascinating subject matter.

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

This is one of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries and I'm loving them because they're period (1930's) British mysteries with a strong female investigator protagonist. They're well researched and fun to read. And it doesn't hurt that my maiden name was Dobbs.

The Lightning Dreamer, Margarita Engle

To be honest, I've read this many times. I'm soaking in the style of this and other novels in verse in an effort to write my own. All of Margarita Engle's books are fabulous -- beautiful, spare, poignant, clear, strong... well, you just have to read one to see what I mean!
Visit Kathryn Erskine's website.

Check out Erskine's top 10 first person narratives.

Coffee with a Canine: Kathryn Erskine & Fletcher.

The Page 69 Test: The Badger Knight.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Madeleine Kuderick

Madeleine Kuderick writes for anthologies and magazines and has spoken at conferences including the International Reading Association, where she's an advocate for reluctant readers and the teachers who touch their lives. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida and an MBA from Saint Leo University.

Madeleine grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a community with a rich literary tradition, where she was editor in chief of the same high school newspaper that Ernest Hemingway wrote for as a teen. She now lives on Florida's Gulf Coast with her husband and two children.

Her new novel is Kiss of Broken Glass.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Kuderick's reply:
I’ve recently read three books that all deal with tough issues and would make great discussion starters in the classroom.

Knockout Games, by award winning author G. Neri, presents an unflinching inside look at the random acts of violence that have surfaced in St. Louis and other cities. In the book, as in real life, teens attempt to knock out strangers with a single punch. The characters have no real motivation to play One Hit or Quit, other than to escape their boring lives and prove their manhood. They think it’s funny and don’t expect anything serious to come of it, until one of their games goes too far. This is a relentless and riveting read that exposes the risk of following the crowd instead of your conscience.

These Gentle Wounds is a beautiful debut by Helene Dunbar that follows Gordie Allen, a fifteen year old boy suffering from PTSD after surviving an unspeakable tragedy and facing continued abuse at the hands of his father. Gordie’s path to healing is realistically faltering and subtle. But his strong connection to his brother and one influential teacher illustrate the importance of having someone to talk to as a step in recovery. This is a powerful story told with sensitivity and heart.

Linda Vigen Phillips debuts with Crazy, her compelling novel in verse that paints a portrait of growing up with a family secret in a time when conditions like bipolar disorder were not well understood. Set in the 1960’s, no one in Laura’s family will talk about her mother’s hospitalizations and Laura is left to navigate her increasingly erratic world alone. Still very relevant today, this is a beautifully written, intimate story that would foster classroom discussions about the hushed subject of mental illness.
Visit Madeleine Kuderick's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Emmi Itäranta

Emmi Itäranta (b. 1976) was born in Tampere, Finland, where she also grew up. She holds an MA in Drama from the University of Tampere and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent, UK, where she began writing her debut novel, Memory of Water. She later completed the full manuscript in Finnish and English. In 2011, the novel won the Fantasy and Sci-fi Literary Contest organised by the Finnish publishing house Teos. It was published to enthusiastic reviews in Finland in 2012 under the title Teemestarin kirja. Translation rights to the award-winning novel have been sold in 14 territories to date. Itäranta’s professional background is an eclectic blend of writing-related activities, including stints as a columnist, theatre critic, dramaturge, scriptwriter and press officer. She lives in Canterbury, UK, and is currently writing her second novel.

Recently I asked Itäranta about what she was reading. Her reply:
There are few authors whose work makes me look at my diary and pencil in a two-day slot for reading when they have a new book coming out. David Mitchell is one of them. While waiting for Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks, due out in September, I picked up his debut Ghostwritten.

Ghostwritten is a novel with a multitude of voices and characters, each equally compelling. Their interwoven lives and the way the book spans geography and time feel at times like blueprints for Mitchell's later grand opus, Cloud Atlas. But this familiarity works for rather than against the book. One of the reasons why I enjoy Mitchell's work so much is that all of his novels seem to take place in the same fictional universe (or possibly multiple, overlapping fictional universes). Characters from one book make unexpected cameo appearances in another; time and space seem governed by strange laws of interconnectedness. Due to its cluster-of-voices-and-styles nature Ghostwritten inevitably rejects any attempts to describe it through genre labels, so suffice it to say it is a highly accomplished, literary yet readable novel with an end twist that genuinely took me by surprise. And that does not happen very often.

I read Ghostwritten mostly on planes during a very busy period, and afterwards I visited my native Finland for several weeks. Amidst the Nordic summer nothing seemed a more appropriate read than Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. It portrays the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother during a summer in the Finnish archipelago. Each of the short episodes focusing on their interaction is a small, perfectly polished gem, glowing with the light of white nights. I can't think of any other writer in whose work the Nordic seasons are present so powerfully and tangibly: the waxing and waning of light and dark, the sun-burnished summers against the backdrop of long winters enveloped in ice. The Summer Book is, in my opinion, a near-perfect book: simple and sparse, funny in unexpected ways, profound and wise. Like so many others, I grew up with Jansson's Moomin books. Even now, going back to her work always feels like coming home.
Visit Emmi Itäranta's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 5, 2014

J. M. Hayes

J. M. “Mike” Hayes was born and raised on the flat earth of Central Kansas. He studied anthropology at Wichita State University and the University of Arizona and lives in Tucson with his wife and a small herd of German Shepherds.

His new novel is The Spirit and the Skull.

Last month I asked Hayes about what he was reading. His reply:
As I answer this, it's August 2014. So it seemed appropriate to reread Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and remind myself of how humans can turn tiny blunders and misunderstandings into colossal catastrophes. I'm also in the middle of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's nice to see that Robinson predicts the Human Race will survive another couple of centuries, though he seems to expect more molehill into mountain catastrophes.

I usually limit myself to two books at a time, one fiction and one non-fiction. Somehow, this month, I managed to add one more of each. I just finished J. Carson Black's new thriller, Hard Return. Black is a former critique group member who asked for an early read. She brings back Cyril Landry, a mercenary who dropped off the grid after the action in The Shop (2012). Black's spare writing and Landry's commitment to the few people he loves and trusts makes for a fine thriller.

I was a bit bored with Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher to begin with. That's probably part of the reason I ended up reading four books at once—the first time other than for school I can remember doing so. But by the end Egan had me captivated by Edward Curtis' magnificent obsession with preserving what he could of the culture of disappearing American Indians. Curtis rightly named himself—The Man Who Never Played—and died destitute in spite of working for J.P. Morgan and family. Fascinating story!
Visit The Words & Worlds of J.M. Hayes website.

The Page 69 Test: The Spirit and the Skull.

--Marshal Zeringue