Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jodi Compton

Jodi Compton is the author of the acclaimed novels Hailey’s War, The 37th Hour, and Sympathy Between Humans.

Her new novel is Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer has seen me on a science-and-mathematics tangent, which is unusual, because I’m usually all about fiction. However, I was intrigued by the listings in the Scientific American Book Club catalog and gave a chance to several of their offerings. Most recently, this was Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife.

More of the book was about politics, polls and elections than I’d expected -- I thought it would have more to do with advertising, propaganda, and the misuse of results of scientific and medical studies. So I admit I didn’t read it cover to cover. But Seife is a light, funny writer, which helps a great deal with potentially dense material. Meanwhile, the pictures of mis-marked ballots in the Norm Coleman - Al Franken race for Senate are, alone, worth the price of admission. (One ballot, in which the voter filled in the “o” in “Norm” rather than the bubble, made me laugh until my eyes watered).

Here’s an example of the kind of “proofiness” Seife calls out. Say there’s a syndrome called “head-exploding disease” or HES (this hypothetical situation is Seife’s own creation, not mine). There’s a test for it with a 999,999-in-a-million accuracy rate. So how could it not be horrifying news if you take the test and it comes up positive? Well, Seife says, put your test result in this context: HES only has a one-in-a-billion frequency in the population. Once you’ve taken that into account, you realize that by comparing one-in-a-billion to one-in-a-million, it’s a thousand times more likely that you got a false positive on the test than that you actually have HES.

The example clunks a little -- if only 7 people worldwide are going to get HES, there’d never be a blood test for it in the first place; it wouldn’t be financially viable. But the actual rhetorical technique Seife describes is called “prosecutor’s fallacy”, meaning using a statistic without providing other stats that give the first one its proper context. Seife also takes the media to task by repeating, unquestioned, numbers provided to them by “experts” of all stripes. For example, “Natural Blondes to Die Out by 2023”. Or the howler that more than half of all physical exercise in America is performed on television (how would that even be provable?)

In short, a very valuable book in a sadly math-phobic society.
Visit Jodi Compton's website.

The Page 69 Test: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

My Book, The Movie: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Not so long ago I asked Napolitano what she was reading. Her reply:
I was a reader - a voracious one - before I was ever a writer. I simply love books. When I was a child and teenager, I read every genre. I was blissfully unaware of what was considered a "good" book; I thought a good book was simply one you couldn't put down. I loved the Louis L'Amour westerns, Sherlock Holmes, The Flowers in the Attic, everything Madeleine L'Engle wrote, Anne of Green Gables, The Lord of the Rings, the Betsy-Tacy series, Trixie Belden... I could go on and on (very happily). The three books, however, that had the biggest impact on me as a young writer, I read in my late teens and early twenties. Those were The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Cathedral and Other Stories by Raymond Carver and The Ambassadors by Henry James. The Golden Notebook and the short story "Cathedral" blew the roof off what I thought was possible in fiction. Those books grabbed me by the ankles and hung me upside down. They made me want not just to write, but to write really, really well. The Ambassadors worked on me at a deeper level (such is the quiet power of Mr. James) and the novel also introduced me to a theme that would dominate my own work (and specifically A Good Hard Look): the risk of missing your own life.
Visit Ann Napolitano's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner was born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Stanford University and Stanford law school. She practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Gardiner now lives with her family near London.

China Lake, one of her Evan Delaney novels, won the 2009 Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Paperback Original.

The Dirty Secrets Club, featuring Jo Beckett, won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Procedural Novel of 2008.

Gardiner's latest novel, The Nightmare Thief, is now available.

Her reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
At the moment I'm reading two vastly different books about music. The big, bad, serious nonfiction book is The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross's majestic and incisive history of music in the Twentieth Century. How Ross manages to bring music to life through words amazes me. His research is both encyclopedic and fascinating. Colorful stories -- of affairs, riots, suicides, passion, supermarket rage -- add richness to the narrative. I come from a family of musicians (classical and rock 'n' roll). They've all either read and loved this book, or are lurking, waiting to grab it from my hands.

I'm also reading Carl Hiaasen's Star Island. It's about a pop starlet whose antics put Britney and Lindsay in the shade. Music -- actual music -- is of course almost immaterial to the pop tart's success. The novel's about the excesses of celebrity culture, and nobody satirizes American excess like Hiaasen. Last week I was reading this book on a flight, and laughed so hard that I thought the flight attendant was going to taser me.
Visit Meg Gardiner's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Nightmare Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 26, 2011

Elana Johnson

Elana Johnson's debut novel, Possession, is now available from Simon & Schuster.

She wishes she could experience her first kiss again, tell the mean girl where to shove it, and have cool superpowers like reading minds and controlling fire. To fulfill her desires, she writes young adult science fiction and fantasy.

Johnson is the author of From the Query to the Call, an ebook for writers to read before they query.

She also runs a personal blog on publishing and is a founding author of the QueryTracker blog. She blogs regularly at The League of Extraordinary Writers, co-organizes WriteOnCon, and is a member of SCBWI.

I recently asked Johnson what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now, I have an advanced reader’s copy of Lola and the Boy Next Door. I’m a huge sucker for romance, and based on Stephanie Perkins’s first book (Anna and the French Kiss), I know I’m going to get my kissing fix.

Besides romance, I love books that move quickly, with characters that I can really feel something for. One of my recent faves is Chime by Franny Billingsley. An intriguing character with big problems and a handsome boy. What could be better?
Visit Elana Johnson's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mary Daheim

Mary Daheim's new novel, All the Pretty Hearses, is the 26th book in her Bed-and-Breakfast Series.

A few weeks ago I asked Daheim what she was reading. Her reply:
Readers who know my books probably realize that I base many of my characters on family members, especially in the B&B series. In the Emma Lord mysteries, the setting is the once-real town of Alpine where my ancestors lived almost a hundred years ago. Thus, I’ve shamelessly mined the characteristics and quirks of my nearest and dearest for over twenty years. Luckily, a sense of humor is a family trait.

I once used a relative much earlier in my publishing career. I cast Thomas Cromwell, Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, as my heroine’s uncle in one of my historical novels, Destiny’s Pawn. To my pleasure and enlightenment, Hilary Mantel has written a novel about Cromwell titled Wolf Hall. A splendid novel, in fact, that won the Man Book Prize in 2009. Her research is thorough and, I trust, accurate.

Cromwell—according to family records going back to the Domesday Book in 1067—was a great-great etc.-grandfather of mine on my maternal side. He’s often portrayed in literature and film as a villain, but I never saw him in quite such a dark light. Like most people, he was complicated. I thought—don’t know why, maybe it was the Holbein portrait—that he had a sense of humor. Yes, he was ambitious, ruthless, smart—and a student of human nature. He has often been called The First Bureaucrat. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, but it fits. Oh, he possessed some disturbing qualities, but he lived in perilous times. And under that tightly-controlled exterior, he was very human.

Not only is Mantel’s novel a great read, but it answered a question I’ve had for years: Why did my mother—who died at 86—have only a trace of gray in her thick brown hair? And why did I inherit the same trait? All four of my grandparents turned gray, as did my father. I discovered it’s the Cromwell genes. Not that Thomas would ever know if he was so lucky, having been executed before he had a chance to find out.

The other good news about Wolf Hall is that Mantel is writing a sequel. Maybe that one will explain why my mother’s sister (known to B&B readers as Gertrude) and her daughter, Coz Judy (aka Judith McMonigle Flynn), both started to turn gray in their teens. You can check out that contemporary part of the family in All the Pretty Hearses, released earlier this month. And yes, I’m Renie—a family nickname.
Visit Mary Daheim's website.

The Page 69 Test: Vi Agra Falls.

The Page 99 Test: The Alpine Uproar.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

David Levien

David Levien, author of Where the Dead Lay and City of the Sun, has been nominated for the Edgar, Hammett, and Shamus awards, and is also a screenwriter and director (including co-director of Solitary Man (2009) starring Michael Douglas). He lives in Connecticut.

13 Million Dollar Pop, his third Frank Behr novel, is now out from Doubleday.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden

This book is a definitive telling of Colombian law enforcement, along with U.S. Delta Force, going after the richest, most powerful and notorious drug cartel boss in history. Pablo Escobar was a billionaire and in many ways more powerful than even the President of his country. Finally, his brazen criminality and outrageous violence compelled the governments to overcome corruption and act. Entire countries, with military resources, have an incredibly difficult time bringing down this criminal overlord. Ultimately, it is the families of Escobar’s victims (innocents and criminals alike) who come forth to help the soldiers in his being taken out. Not quite as riveting as Bowden’s brilliant Black Hawk Down, but a fascinating true crime read.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block

Both Block and his legendary detective Matt Scudder are back in top form in this novel. It’s been a few years since I’ve read one of Block’s books, although I grew up reading the Scudder series and the comic Evan Michael Tanner series. (I advise readers to check out the Evan Michael Tanner, Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep series—witty political commentary and exciting spy action.) A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a flashback book, during the time when Scudder has just quit drinking, and is within his first year of sobriety, when he looks into the death of an acquaintance who was also in AA. The idea of taking a drink is never far from Scudder’s mind, which adds to the tension. Reading this is a great reminder that Block, as a writer, is the ultimate craftsman.

Men, Women & Children, by Chad Kultgen

This one is a story of sex and sexual politics in everyday America. In some ways an extension of his debut, The Average American Male, Kultgen paints a bleak, hilarious, disturbing picture of what’s going on inside the minds of people in this country. Kultgen’s prose is unadorned and his outlook unsentimental. This may not be for everyone--at times the going is extremely painful as the lonely, disenfranchised characters desperately seek though rarely, if ever, find connection through physical satisfaction--but Kultgen is up to something important as he chronicles the isolation and existential malaise of modern American life.
Visit David Levien's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Anna Sheehan

Anna Sheehan is the author of A Long, Long Sleep, released August 9th.

Her reply to my recent query about what she has been reading:
When I was asked this question, I realized I do an awful lot of rereading. My favorite stories are comfortable as old shoes, for one. For another, as I read and reread I learn different aspects of storytelling, focusing on different tricks of the trade. I just finished Diana Wynne Jones’ The Lives of Christopher Chant for the umpteenth time. Is there any superhero more cool or more exciting than the nine-lived enchanter, Chrestomanci? (Except maybe Doctor Who.)

In keeping abreast with my own genre, I’m currently reading Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Queen. I’m about a third of the way through it, which surprises me, as I usually read much faster than this. I often love stories from Tamora Pierce – her execution has always been brilliant – but sometimes I find myself discouraged by the topic she has chosen to explore. I loved the Song of the Lioness Quartet, enjoyed The Immortals and was fond of The Protector of the Small. I actively hated The Circle of Magic sequence, which seemed to me to be another in the Harry Potter style – disobey everyone who tries to keep you safe, put yourself in dangerous situations, and the adults will all realize how clever you are and reward you accordingly. As a mother I hate that concept. When I was a young, I was offended by it. It seemed to say that if you listened to your parents or your teachers that you weren’t living up to your potential, when the opposite is usually the case. I was on the whole a good girl, and I would see all my friends disobeying their elders and getting into all kinds of trouble – like drugs and pregnancies. In the case of Trickster’s Queen I’m having a hard time keeping track of the characters, and the political intrigue seems interminable. Not to mention the sheer number of tricks the protagonist has up her sleeve – magic and darkings and gods on her side. The protagonist’s win seems inevitable, and I have no fear that she might not succeed. That’s probably why I’m only dipping into it now and again, swallowing only a few pages at a time. Shame really, because Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet was one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place, more than a decade ago.

In my bathroom, consistently looked at again and again, is The Great Wave: Price Fluxuations and the Rhythm of History. I recommend this book to everybody. It seems thick and unwieldy, but more than half the book is appendixes and proofs. This details the rise and fall of economies for nearly a thousand years, and shows that our current financial meltdown is nothing new. I find myself desperately scanning this book to remind myself of where we and our economy is. This has happened before, it will happen again, and when we get through it, we can expect a golden age of stability. Let's just hope we manage without a resurgence of the Black Plague this time.

My daughter has just turned seven, and in our nightly readings I am exposing her to a classic from my own childhood – Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll. I loved the Moomintroll books myself as a child, and it has resonated through my adult life. I believe my affection for my battered leather Aussie hat to stem from wild and untamable Snufkin’s beloved old green hat, which he would never part with. My daughter has already become enamored with the indomitable Moomintroll and the dainty young Snork Maiden, sniveling little Sniff and the unflappable Moominmama, and the gloomy, discontented Hemulen. Like A.A. Milne, the Moomintroll books are filled with iconic small beasts. But as they were translated from the Finnish, there’s a certain exotic flavor to the stories that other children’s books lack. Many of the Moomintroll stories are not even really children’s stories. The tale of The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, for example, is most assuredly not a story either for or about children, though they may well enjoy it. For adults, however, the irrational fear of an uncontrollable event, finally culminating in acceptance and even giddy delight as the weight of years is melted away, is a tale that offers many levels of personal enlightenment. I’ve been waiting for my daughter to be old enough to follow these stories, and I’m delighted now that she is. I’ve been looking forward to reading them again!

The thing I am reading – or at least listening to – most at the moment is Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. To my joy and amazement I was granted the role of Puck at my local community theater. We’re using puppets for the faeries, and the whole thing is a madcap romp. Shakespeare of course holds the seeds of everything, and so even though I’ve read the play a dozen times before, and by now have almost the whole thing memorized, I still find myself laughing every evening. I cannot understand the people who say, "I don’t understand Shakespeare." The only reason I can think of for this is that we are no longer used to understanding the structure of poetry. Shakespeare does not use overly difficult words, and his plays are high-concept – something made famous by the high mucky-mucks of that elite and intellectually exclusive company "Disney". The concept of each and every Shakespeare play is easy to absorb. There are things that the uneducated might not catch – the difference in social-tenses or the different meter of the different characters – but on the whole, Shakespeare is easy. It was written for the masses, after all. So why find it hard to understand? I think people just assume it to be boring and inaccessible, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just know that a few concepts will be described backwards, and on the whole, the Bard is pretty easy to swallow.
Visit Anna Sheehan's website and Amazon and Facebook pages.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gerry Bartlett

Gerry Bartlett is a former teacher and now writes full time. She also owns an antique business on the historic strand in Galveston, Texas.

The latest installment in her Glory St. Clair Real Vampires series, Real Vampires Don't Wear Size Six, is out now from Berkley.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently had the pleasure of taking a trip to England and Scotland. I used it to research a castle for my next vampire novel and to shop for my antiques business in Galveston. What fun! But as the long flight across the Atlantic loomed, I realized my Kindle couldn’t be switched on until we were in the air. Losing myself in a good story helps me forget that the airplane is actually taking off. I’m not a fearless flyer. So I like to have a book handy. You know those nice paper varieties? I’m still addicted to them and my bulging bookshelves are the proof of that. I have to admit, though, an e-reader is ideal for a vacation and I enjoyed it for the two weeks I was on the road.

But back to my story. I was in what the Brits call a “Charity Shop”. I love to hunt in them for treasures and there on the bookshelves was a find. It was a slim book called The Last Vampire by Christopher Pike. I checked the date and was surprised to discover it had come out in 1994. Okay, a very early vamp book and the cover sported a cobra. Interesting. I liked the blurb and paid 49 pence. A bargain. Now as an author you’d think I’d hate used books. Not so. I have no problem with readers finding me in a Half Price Books or Paperback Trader. Because usually I’ll hear from them later that it got them started on my series and they now buy me new. Pike got me hooked with my 49p purchase. I loved the book. Couldn’t put it down. Not even when it was okay to turn on that Kindle after we reached cruising altitude.

The first person narrator is the world’s last vampire and she’s over 5000 years old. I loved her attitude, her history and the emotion in the story. I found myself taking mental notes of ideas I wanted to steal from Pike for my own stories. The first three in this series have been reissued as Thirst 1. Yes, I bought the book. In paper. Because it’s not available for Kindle. Too bad. But Pike is worth adding to my clutter. I found the book in the young adult section but the books don’t read as obviously for teens. I was happy to see a good selection of his books at my local B&N and well placed. Obviously Pike has found his audience. The Thirst series isn’t his only paranormal series.

What I love most about Pike? I never for a moment felt that the book was dated. I didn’t miss a cell phone, didn’t catch an anachronism. Yes, this was the original mid-nineties edition. Good job, Pike. I’d love to think my books could stand the test of time as well.
Visit Gerry Bartlet's website and blog.

See--Coffee with a Canine: Gerry Bartlett & Jet.

The Page 69 Test: Real Vampires Have More to Love.

Writers Read: Gerry Bartlett (December 2010).

My Book, The Movie: Real Vampires Have More to Love.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Peter Spiegelman

Peter Spiegelman is the Shamus Award-winning author of four novels, including Thick As Thieves, and three books—Black Maps, Death’s Little Helpers, and Red Cat—that feature private investigator and Wall Street refugee John March.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m reading Crime, a collection of stories by Ferdinand von Schirach (translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway), which I find quite compelling—scary and disorienting and, above all, deeply moving.

Von Schirach is one of Germany’s leading criminal lawyers, a participant in many high-profile cases, and in his excellent preface (titled “Guilt”) he describes his subject as: “human beings—their failings, their guilt, and their capacity to behave magnificently.” More specifically, he is concerned with the reign of randomness in human lives, how tenuous our hold is on security, sanity, and civilized behavior, how little we know of those closest to us, how fragile our happiness is. As he puts it: “All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me.”

Me too. Von Schirach tells his stories simply, with an eye for the revelatory detail, but without embellishments. His voice (as rendered into English by the talented Ms. Janeway) is restrained and matter-of-fact, but always compassionate—never clinical or distant. And he achieves in his stories something of the quality of fairy tales (I’m talking the dark, Germanic variety here—the Brothers Grimm, not Disney). Events unfold—incredible, horrific, yet somehow inevitable (and all the more terrifying for it). Love sours, honor suffocates, devotion becomes murder. Things go wrong so simply. There are no reassuring morals here, no certain lessons at all, except that people demand our sympathy. There but for the grace of God… Through it all, von Schirach, though touched by these tragedies, remains a calm and reassuring presence—the ideal attorney. It’s a challenging collection, and probably not best for bedtime, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
Visit Peter Spiegelman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Red Cat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 19, 2011

Linda Urbach

Linda Urbach Howard is a published author and screenwriter. Her third novel, Madame Bovary’s Daughter, was published by Random House last month under the name of Linda Urbach.

She is currently working on a new novel, Sarah’s Hair, the story of Sarah Bernhardt’s hairdresser.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I like reading anything tragic or dark. You would think that this would make me a reader of non-fiction and current events. But, no, I prefer fiction. I like reading about dysfunctional families, relationships that don’t work, diseases that can’t be cured, murderers that almost get away with it. I find that these kind of subjects cheer me up enormously.

That being said, I loved Freedom. Jonthan Franzen is the dean of dysfunction. Not only is he a brilliant wordsmith but he is clearly a man with a mission. It took him 10 years to write this book. In an interview with Charlie Rose he had this to say about his novel writing:

"I'm about a year of frustration and confusion into it... Y'know, I'm kind of down at the bottom of the submerged ice berg peering up for the surface of the water... I don't have doubt about my ability to write a good book, but I have lots of doubt about what it's going to look like."

That not knowing to me is a real act of courage. It’s one that anyone undertaking the writing of a novel has to possess. And when I look at the length (not to mention) depth of Franzen’s work, the amount of time it took him to write it, the intricacies of the relationships that he has to develop, I am really amazed. Just living with his characters had require great acceptance and compassion. You have to love your characters, warts and all.
Visit Linda Urbach's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Brandi Lynn Ryder

Brandi Lynn Ryder lives in the heart of Napa Valley.

In Malice, Quite Close, her first novel, is now out from Viking.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Growing up, I devoured books like candy, emerging from the library obscured behind a precarious tower of them and returning a week later for more. I still haunt bookstores like an intractable ghost, but have had to cut back on my habit (unless you count all the hours I spend reading my own work!) Still, one can always find a few books lying around the house in various stages of consumption. Oddly enough, my reading seems to follow the wedding adage of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…”

Currently, the “old” is a volume of erotica by Anäis Nin, called Delta of Venus, which I happened upon while searching through a closet for something mundane (candles or light bulbs, potpourri or an old CD). I can’t recall now, because I opened the book and fell immediately under the spell of Nin’s voice again. It is her voice that stands out most in these stories for me— lyrical, sensuous, quintessentially feminine. Along with other great writers of the time, such as Henry Miller, Anäis was commissioned to do these stories for the private consumption of a client known simply as “Collector.” I was fascinated by this literary prostitution from my first reading and the idea is the kernel of one of my many novels in progress. The stories themselves deal with taboo subjects in original and sometimes exhaustive, even unappealing, ways— but the most interesting story lies between the lines. Anäis worked for the Collector in order to support her more personal, serious work and one can find her voice most clearly in the coy, ironic wraith that seems to play with her subject matter—and the appetites of her “client”—like a cat toying with a mouse.

The “new” is a book I purchased just a week ago: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. While I’m struggling a bit with the passivity of the novel’s narrator, Toru Okada, Murakami is a master of dreamlike imagery and pacing, drawing me into a kind of trance with his abstract—and as yet, inexplicable—linked vignettes that possess both a floating timelessness and sharp emotional poignancy. I am struck most by his characters’ calm acceptance of their personal horrors, and will keep reading to see how they intersect, and with the hope that they may ultimately redeem and/or heal one another.

The third book is “borrowed,” or perhaps I should say shared. It is the unpublished, (not for long, I suspect!) newly-completed work of a dear friend and former professor, Rob Swigart. Called Sweet Water, it is a novel set in ancient Mesopotamia, which follows the life of a young woman at a time when women’s sexuality was celebrated. The plot mirrors the myth of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war. It ends with Noah’s Flood, an event recorded in many cultures, except that this time the Ark is piloted by a woman! As a visiting scholar at the Stanford Archaeology Center, Rob has forgotten more about the ancient world than most of us will ever know. He uses this knowledge to render a lost culture and dead language into vivid reality with very topical themes.

And finally, the “blue.” All good novels leave me little blue… to have reached the end. Luckily, it takes only the turn of a page— and a little precious time— to enter their world again.
Visit Brandi Lynn Ryder's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kathleen George

Kathleen George, author of police thrillers, was an Edgar finalist for best novel for The Odds. A trade edition of The Odds was released last month.

Her new novel is Hideout, the sequel to The Odds.

Earlier this summer I asked George what she was reading. Her reply:
Something about summer beach vacations (I had a sort of extended double vacation this year)—I craved family dramas. I chose The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson, a writer I had been hearing a lot about over the years, and Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan, which I ‘read’ as an audiobook. The only problem was me. Both novels deal with large families, elder daughters in troubled marriages, young men who drift, serious problems with drugs and alcohol, decades either passing or remembered, auto accidents. Both have the gift of universality: not my family but somehow my family. Mothers are disappointed in their daughters. The generations can’t see eye to eye. Wars mark the lives of the men and damage spreads all around. Parents die. Women become widowed. Grandchildren have mixed feelings about grandparents.

I listened and read during the same period, alternating. So sometimes I mixed up a character or an event.

But what stands out? Maggie in Maine, too smart to be thirty-two and pregnant, but self-destructive enough to get herself into that scrape. A writer. Alice in Maine, the beautiful matriarch, as mean as Olive Kittredge and as potent a force. Ryan in The Year We Left Home—so lost, so unable to form a good relationship with a woman, never mind his charm and good looks. Chip, Ryan’s war damaged cousin, also hopeless at relationships, but cheerful enough to keep trying, dopey enough to keep doping. Family in both—the unsung who get old and die and are mourned incompletely by the young people they served and loved.

Both novels are told in rotating points of view, close, attached. When someone seems like a monster to one character, we readers get to see them up close and personal a chapter later and we find ourselves shifting, sympathetic.

Then, what? Not enough family for me? I picked up Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone. This book in its way is a family drama too. But we learn about the disappointing daughter and the drifting young man (grandson) from the single attached point of view of Emily.

She’s old, afraid to drive, but she drives. She’s reluctant to visit the cemetery but she gets there. And plants. And feels the downward tug of mortality.

She may be a Republican, a lover of classical music, a dog owner, but she is Everywoman. And it’s because of O’Nan’s extraordinary detail. She fetches a tissue from a box, but since it’s the last one, the box lifts. After she separates box and tissue, she (good quartermaster even for herself, alone), goes to her supply of new boxes. She pulls off the plastic wrapping. She works the opening to pull out a new tissue and then proceeds to rearrange the boxes in the house to put the fuller boxes in the more trafficked areas.

I do that. I am not Emily. My family is not hers. I am Emily.

Literary novels are being shoved off the shelves. Agents say they can’t give them away. But some people are still writing them. The word patience comes to mind. And thoughtfulness. I am glad these writers exist. I feel like I’m talking about quiet good cousins in the family of writers.
Visit Kathleen George's website and Facebook page.

The Page 99 Test: The Odds.

The Page 69 Test: Hideout.

My Book, The Movie: Hideout.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Colin Cotterill

Born in London, Colin Cotterill has worked as teacher in Israel, Australia, the U.S. and Japan before he started training teachers in Thailand. Cotterill and his wife live in a small fishing village on the Gulf of Siam in Southern Thailand. He’s won the Dilys and a CWA Dagger, and has been a finalist for several other awards.

One of his series features elderly male coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun, and is set in Laos. His new novel, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, introduces Jimm Juree, a feisty young female reporter, and is located in Thailand.

A few weeks ago I asked Cotterill what he was reading. His reply:
I was one of those kids who believed there were much more interesting things to do in his school years than study. Subsequently, 1963 to 1970 was an intellectual void in my life. When I should have been amassing that information so valuable for crossword puzzles and Trivial Pursuit, I was chasing balls and girls and reading comics. When I reached forty, I felt the urge to apologize to my brain by making up for lost opportunity. So began a program of self-ed, going over all those things I should have been reading at school. I still don’t read enough but when I do have time it’s non-fiction. I’m currently through The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred W McCoy. This is background for number nine in the Dr. Siri series.

But I’m on the road right now in the north of Laos and McCoy was far too heavy to lug around. So I picked up Robert B Parker’s Small Vices and I confess I initially chose it for its weight - barely eight ounces. But fiction travels well and I can leave it for the next traveler when I’m done. But of course there’s another motive. I’m finally prepared to admit I might just be a sort of crime writer and, as such, it serves me well to read better-established and better crime writers. It helps to remind me why I’ll never make a hard-boiled crime novelist. I don’t have the grit. Parker does. He has the tough take-me-on-at-your-peril P.I., Shelly and his black thug sidekick, Hawk. These are protagonists you can climb inside and have beat up the bullies on your behalf. Wry, smart-ass dialogue of the ‘I wish I could come up with something so witty whilst staring down the barrel of a gun’ variety. Sex. Violence. Da werks. In fact, everything a wimpy gardener from Wimbledon needs to be a vicarious tough guy.
Visit Colin Cotterill's website.

The Page 69 Test: Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

My Book, The Movie: Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 15, 2011

Carson Morton

Carson Morton was born in London, England and moved with his family to the United States when he was eleven. He worked as a professional musician for many years, making an album for United Artists Records with his group Razmataz, and playing with the likes of John Sebastian, Billy Preston, and many others. He is a screenwriter and published playwright, and has worked in television as a consultant and composer.

His recently released first novel is Stealing Mona Lisa.

Recently I asked Morton what he was reading. His reply:
Lately, it’s been non-fiction, perhaps in an effort to find ideas for future books. Just finished Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff. This one was purely for fun and adventure. During the Second World War II, two American servicemen and a beautiful WAC get shipwrecked (actually planewrecked) in a hidden valley in New Guinea amidst lost-in-time headhunters. What a hook! Still reading David McCullough’s wonderful The Greater Journey about Americans in Paris in the Nineteenth Century. Having just spent a week in that wonderful city, to read how it became a Mecca to Americans who wished to study art, or medicine, or wanted to write in such a nurturing atmosphere, is an inspiration. Finally, I wandered into a used book store on a steamy hot day in Nashville while I waited for my glasses to be repaired. Its cool air and reassuring walls of books were a welcome relief to the inferno outside. I was determined to find a book and finally, voila! John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. And at the right price to boot! Keegan is a brilliant writer (perhaps at times, a little too brilliant?), but he makes the personal experience of the participants of these historic battles come alive like no other writer has (okay, maybe Stephen E. Ambrose). The take away? You didn’t want to get wounded in battle in those days, trust me.

Wow, heavy stuff. Time for a nice enjoyable beach read. Too bad I’ve already read Stealing Mona Lisa
Learn more about Stealing Mona Lisa at Carson Morton's website.

The Page 69 Test: Stealing Mona Lisa.

My Book, The Movie: Stealing Mona Lisa.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beverly Swerling

Beverly Swerling is a writer, consultant, and amateur historian.

Her latest book is City of Promise: A Novel of New York's Gilded Age.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Reading fills my life.

In terms of feeding my incessant hunger for stories, I’ve recently finished three books I hated to see end: There was the literally incomparable Room by Emma Donoghue, a book entirely dependent on characterization that nonetheless achieves breathtaking suspense. And Sixkill by Robert B. Parker, a bittersweet pleasure because while it displays the mastery of the ensemble cast that was to my mind RBP’s particular genius, it left me feeling it was perhaps the book he’d been working on when he died; maybe not quite finished. I sensed a presence not entirely him. The grim reaper hovering over his shoulder, or other hands on the keyboard trying to be him and not quite managing? I don’t know. But something. Also, not long ago I finished the rollicking thriller, The Power Behind the Throne by Sally Nicoll. Perfect if you’re having London withdrawal symptoms now that “the wedding” is over. Or if you’re fed up with the whole thing and want to speculate on what those sorts of people get up to when their backs are to the wall…

As a consultant/mentor to other writers I am reading two as yet unpublished books I know will be in bookstores in the next couple of years: The Fire This Time by Stuart Liss and A Bad Run by Garreth Fennelly. Both mysteries of a sort – that’s happenstance so far as my involvement is concerned – both wrenching, both spectacularly wonderful; and yet entirely different from each other. Stu’s prose is dense and rich. I want to lick the page to taste more words. Garreth’s sentences skim the mountain tops but indicate the hidden valleys. Fire is about a flare up in the old Irish/Jewish feuds so much a part of the ethnically defined Boston in which I grew up; Brahmins to the right, everyone else to the left. Run is set in today’s Republic of Ireland, a cop story that’s really about kids and parents, made fresh and new by its delightful and free-of-clichés setting.

Then there’s the fact that as a writer I believe the bedrock truth to be G. B. Shaw’s dictum, “All of writing is rewriting.” So I am constantly rereading my own work in order to rewrite it. This is true from the first word of the first sentence of a new novel until I hold the published book in hand – sometimes beyond. Which happens to be the case right now as I am preparing e-book editions of a few titles from my backlist. So I’m reading Women’s Rites and A Matter of Time by Beverly Byrne, and Juffie Kane and Mollie Pride by Beverly S. Martin. And finding, thank God, they’re still books I’m proud to have written.
View the City of Promise book trailer, and visit Beverly Swerling's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 12, 2011

John Dalton

John Dalton is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His first novel, Heaven Lake, won the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Heaven Lake was listed as a best book of the year by Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dalton is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he teaches in their MFA Writing Program.

His new novel is The Inverted Forest.

Recently I asked Dalton what he was reading. His reply:

Along with a group of very astute and fearless graduate students, I just finished reading David Mitchell’s astounding Cloud Atlas. It’s six divided novels packed into a huge, one-of-a-kind book. These sub-novels range in time period from 1850 to the distant post-apocalyptic future. Mitchell’s ambition is writ very large. And I’m tempted to complain about the disorienting challenges of Cloud Atlas… except that moment by moment, scene by scene, journal by journal, the novel, if you allow it to work its magic, is so alive and entertaining and smart. If you’re seeking a less challenging David Mitchell experience, try the wonderful coming of age, Black Swan Green.


Just started reading the very engaging Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins. It’s about thirteen prominent scientists, artists, inventors who, because of bad luck or personal flaws, are no longer remembered. They’ve been swallowed by time.


I’m making my way through the selected poems of Wallace Stevens. Why? My favorite contemporary poet, Stephen Dunn, references Wallace Stevens in several interviews. I decided it was time to go to the source.
Visit John Dalton's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Inverted Forest.

My Book, The Movie: The Inverted Forest.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Amy Reed

Amy Reed is a YA author living in Oakland, California. She is the author of Beautiful (Simon Pulse, 2009) and her most recent novel, Clean, which has been described as “the Breakfast Club in rehab.”

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
A book I read recently and absolutely adored was Room by Emma Donoghue. This is one of those books that deserves every bit of attention it’s received, which has been a lot--it’s been nominated for a ton of big awards and continues to be a best-seller in paperback. It’s the story of a young mother and her 5-year old son who are living together in an 11x11 foot room. The mother was kidnapped seven years earlier, and her son Jack has never known a world besides the room.

It would be easy for a book like this to use plot as a crutch--the stakes are always so high that the reader would probably stay hooked even if the writing was mediocre. But, my god, the writing is anything but. I’m a sucker for a strong 1st person voice, especially if it’s a kid’s, and this is by far one of the strongest and most compelling narrative voices I’ve ever read. This is an entire novel written in the voice of a five-year old, and I believed every second of it. I’m a big fan of five-year olds in general, how they straddle the worlds of logic and magic, and Jack brought that unique blend of wisdom and innocence to everything he experienced and described. Through him, Donoghue was able to paint a complex and surprising world where we were forced to notice things we normally wouldn’t. Yes, it was disturbing, but it was also strangely beautiful. In the way a bad acid trip might be beautiful, but still.

It’d be hard to think of a much more depressing premise, but for me, Room felt far from depressing. Through Jack’s eyes we saw a very scary world, but we saw it with the filter of someone who hasn’t lost hope. It’s a story about courage and love and what people are capable of in the most hopeless of circumstances. And I am always a sucker for books like that.
Visit Amy Reed's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

Writers Read: Amy Reed (October 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Kathleen Ann Goonan's first novel, Queen City Jazz (the start of her Nanotech Quartet), was a New York Times Notable book. The Bones of Time, her acclaimed second novel, was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2000. Crescent City Rhapsody (third in the Quartet) was a Nebula nominee, and Light Music, also a Nebula finalist, was described by Booklist as the "brilliant conclusion to a tetralogy as consequential in sf as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy."

Goonan won the John W. Campbell Award for her novel In War Times.

Her new novel is This Shared Dream.

Goonan's response to my recent query about what she was reading:
Much of what I write is historic fiction, so my library is full of the kind of nonfiction that feeds that addiction. Last spring, wearing my Visiting Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology hat, I taught a Science, Technology, and Ideology course that I created, using biography. I began with Desmond and Moore’s Darwin, which, I think, was an eye-opener for my students and of great interest to me.

In that vein, I am presently reading The Philosophical Breakfast Club, by Laura J. Snyder, which expounds on the rich vein of the history of science in Victoria’s England. These were heady times, and the people and events of the age led straight to our present technological age with nary a bend in the road. We were just waiting for the necessary scientific tools, the painstakingly catalogued data, for the explosion to take place.

Snyder’s Prologue features a cameo of Coleridge proclaiming, at the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge in 1833, that these new practitioners of what was formerly known as “natural philosophy,” who dirtied their hands with excavating, collecting beetles, and exploring, ought not be called any type of “philosopher,” whereupon William Whewel, one of the principals of this book, who was hosting the meeting, suggested the appellation “Scientists.” Rarely does one encounter or recognize such a succinct, defining moment, but it is the work of a good writer to use these moments, as does Snyder, to illuminate a narrative and an age.

Song of Slaves in the Desert, by Alan Cheuse

I love the possibilities of narrative fiction. My own life unfolds with inexorable linearity; literature and story telling is the gift of our peculiar form of consciousness that allows us to slip those bonds and explore minds, times, and sensibilities different from our own. Therefore, I enjoy big novels that leap, like poetry, hither and yon; I welcome tapestries woven of many voices; I crave the experience of immersion in first one century and now another; one continent, and then another. When unified with as much mastery as does Alan Cheuse in Song of Slaves in the Desert, this approach to Story frees me from the limitations of time and space.

It seems that I am always writing a novel, and during that process all that I read is research for the novel. I read history, biography, books about science—any nonfiction that seems fruitful or related. While writing, I rarely read fiction. If it is good, it subsumes my entire being and I get no work done, and if it is not good, it is a waste of time. So in that delicious burst of freedom after I turn in a novel, I read fiction. However, when I turned in This Shared Dream in the summer of 2010, I immediately took up my post at Georgia Institute of Technology, where I teach writing, literature, and a cultural course in science, technology, and ideology. It is fascinating, and I love teaching, but there was no free time to read, and I thought that there would be no free time this summer, either.

I was right about having no free time, but I may need to think more deeply about why I don’t read much fiction.

What I ask of my fiction is that when I finish it I close the book I must sit, like one thunder-struck, in the after-silence, so that the whole washes through me at once: images; dialogue, beautiful language; lives. Not all novels do have this effect, but it is why I read fiction. It is one of the best feelings in the world. The author has reached into me, through words, and changed me. Something is left behind.

So perhaps I read such a small amount of fiction because so few novels fulfill that promise. I am a patient reader, but I expect much. I expect to have to surrender to a novel: surrender time; my own sense of self. I do not put down a novel to which I am committed after a paragraph, a page, a chapter. At some point, the inevitable pull of so much time invested in characters, in story, in worlds, keeps me going, and I keep reading until the book falls from my hands at three in the morning, or until the rude interruptions of life hit me on the head.

Song of Slaves in the Desert pulled me in immediately, and I was lost. I read it in about twenty-four hours. It is a satisfyingly big novel—I don’t like short novels—but I am a fast reader. During that time I slept adequately, gave a cookout, dealt with my credit card company, and so on. I hardly noticed all that, though. I was in the world Cheuse draws so completely that it is four-dimensional, particularly since it contains so very, very much time, and one only realizes toward the end who the magnificent main character truly is. She is in the process of realizing herself throughout the entire novel; her soul is her work and her soul is linked to the Africa of her ancestors and moves toward a state almost unimaginable for her, but toward which she deeply dreams, and in the realization of which she acts strongly and decisively. There are many points of view. Each is necessary, and all are compelling.

The novel begins in the 1850’s and is set on a South Carolina plantation. It is about many things. It is about slavery and freedom. It is about a family. It is about literature, and about the power of literature to free any individual. But mostly, it is about characters. The novel contains many rich voices, so at the end, at that book-closing, deeply satisfied moment, they all sound at once, in perfect balance, moving out into the great ocean of life in which we all live and infusing it, as a great novel should.

You can read about the plot, or read reviews, but my strong recommendation is that you just ought to read this book, and read it now. I am quite glad that I took the time to slip the bounds of All That I Must Do. In practical terms, that meant I ought not to succumb to the dream of fiction at all this summer, despite the tall and lovely stack of books I pile up toward the time when I can. So I thank Alan Cheuse. It is tremendously pleasant to remember what it is like to read wonderful, deeply felt, masterfully wrought fiction. It is like seeing someone I have not seen in a long time, someone I have missed, whose name is Love of Reading, or like taking a drink of water after a long, hot race. I hope I do not go so long between drinks again.


Early this summer, to slake my need for at least some fiction, I decided to read Chekhov. My prescription: read one story a night; dream well.

An unrepentant collector of Books I May Someday Wish To Read (rather than a collector of Books As Valuable Objects), I have several intact libraries that have survived the sturm and drang of many moves. I visited the 1970’s library presently housed in my shed, and there, in a neat, compact row assembled by a former organized self who seems to have vanished, perhaps out of frustration, were four paperback collections of Chekov stories. I lifted out the books in one piece, like so many slices of bread, and scurried back to the house, a thoroughly satisfied hoarder.

I slip from collection to collection, from translator to translator, sometimes puzzled by what seems vagueness. How can “The House With the Mezzanine” possibly be the same story as “The House With The Attic?” Is it “A Boring Story,” “A Dreary Story,” “Awful Story?” None of the above, but those adjectives seem to have more in common with one another than an attic might have with a mezzanine. This does not give one much confidence. I began hoping to find some translations by Nabokov, a famous stickler, but only found sentences such as this, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981: “I heartily recommend taking as often as possible Chekhov’s books (even in the translations they have suffered) and dreaming through them as they are intended to be dreamed through.” Some translators infuse Chekhov’s sentences with a grace and beauty that may not be literal translations, but they satisfy the poet in me.

I find some of Chekhov’s character’s attitudes regarding science surprisingly modern—particularly that of the dying professor, Nikolay Sepanovitch in the either Awful or Boring or Dreary story. Stepanovich says of a fellow academic, “Another characteristic is his fanatical faith in the Germans. He believes in himself, in his preparations; knows the object of live, and knows nothing of the doubts and disappointments that turn the hair of talent grey. He has a slavish reverence for authorities and a complete lack of desire for independent thought.”

These stories unfold through character, could be said to be, essentially, plotless, and I am thoroughly satisfied. Often, when reading a short story collection, I begin to feel nauseous, as if I had eaten too many similar candies, but each of Chekhov’s stories is unique and a thing of wonder.
Visit Kathleen Ann Goonan's website.

The Page 99 Test: In War Times.

The Page 69 Test: This Shared Dream.

--Marshal Zeringue