April Recommended Reading

Some excellent reading this month. I also started a number of books that I couldn’t finish. The authors of the books I couldn’t finish seemed to have no sense of pacing. They wrote beautiful chapters, but the chapters didn’t make me want to read the next chapter. It was strange and a bit discouraging. Good thing I found all this other wonderful stuff.

Balogh, Mary, Simply Perfect, Delacorte Press, 2008. I have loved Mary Balogh’s romances since I first read a novella of hers in the early 1990s. The novella sent me searching for her novels, which I read as fast as I could. Simply Perfect is her latest release, an excellent book that I had trouble putting down.

It’s one of her best. On page 102, she drops a bombshell so stunning that it changes the meaning of every word one character uttered up to that point. The writer in me wanted to go back and reread that opening to see how she’d done it, but the reader won out. I devoured the rest of the book in one sitting, thrilled to be in the hands of a master.

Brande, Robin, Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, Knopf, 2007. A first novel that’s funny, charming, and impossible to put down. Its heroine, a high school student, has been thrown out of her church for her actions in defense of a boy. The novel starts as the school year starts, in science class with several members of the church protesting—you got it—evolution. Somehow Robin manages to maintain an even balance between hot button issues—creationism and evolution—while writing a strong YA novel. She’s a writer to watch.

Cordery, Stacy A., Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, Viking, 2007. For years, I’d heard about Alice Roosevelt Longworth. She died in 1981, and even then I’d known about her position as THE hostess in Washington, D.C. As the years progressed, I’d heard more about Alice, as people called her, but I could never find a good biography of her.

Alice is a good biography, although not a great one. I wanted more on Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s years as a Washington power broker (the 1940s to 1970s), but the book mostly focuses on her years as the First Daughter (for those who are confused, she’s Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest child), her marriage to Speaker of the House, Nick Longworth, and her affair with Idaho’s most powerful Senator William Borah. All interesting juicy stuff—she is, perhaps, the first modern feminist—but the last decades of her life get short shrift here.

Still, it’s hard to write an excellent biography of someone so interesting and touch on everything. The book is about 600 pages long as it is—to add what I want would have taken another 200 pages minimum.

I did enjoy the volume, however. It’s well written, which is unusual in biographies. The writing is up to the subject, which is also unusual.

If you’re at all interested in one of American’s great women, read this book. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, for all her pedigree, was always on the wrong side of history—backing the wrong candidates, and taking what turned out to be the wrong position—but she still manages to be someone whom, even now, we can’t ignore.

Deaver, Jeffrey, “Afraid,” More Twisted, Pocket Books edition, December 2007. Deaver has set himself a tough task with me. I love his short stories, but almost all of them rely on a twist. Now that I know that, I’m usually ahead of his twists. But I wasn’t here. The story scared me, shocked me, and surprised me, which I wouldn’t have believed possible.

Deaver, Jeffrey, “Afterward to Afraid,” More Twisted, Pocket Books edition, December 2007. Deaver analyzes the story, “Afraid,” from a writer’s perspective, examining how to create fear and suspense in a short story (and in a novel). Every writer who wants to better herself should look at both the story and the essay.

Deaver, Jeffrey, “Locard’s Principle,” More Twisted, Pocket Books edition, December 2007. I love Deaver’s hero, Lincoln Rhyme, and this is a Lincoln Rhyme short story. Sometimes, writers who take their novel heroes into the short form fail miserably, but Deaver didn’t fail here. The story is a great introduction to Lincoln Rhyme—and it’s a strong story to boot.

Gardner, James Alan, “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story,” Asimov’s, February, 2008. A intriguing science fiction story that manages to surprise all the way through. Its ending is warm and touching, yet also made me smile.

Langer, Elinor, “Famous are the Flowers: Hawaiian Resistance Then—and Now,” The Nation, April 28, 2008. Lately it seems that the political magazine, The Nation, contains as much about history as it does about current events. The history here, on the annexation of Hawaii, seemed, on the surface, familiar to me. But as I read, I realized I knew almost nothing about it. What I did know came from James Michner’s novel Hawaii (very big when I was young) and (I kid you not) Magnum P.I. While that example shows the power fiction has in imparting information (and a point of view—different from Michner to Magnum), it doesn’t say much for my history degree. I did have a class in U.S. imperialism. I checked my bookshelf; nothing at all on Hawaii, even though the class covered the years of Hawaii’s annexation. (And it was an annexation; I checked some of the information in the article in books I’ve bought since college, and found enough to show that the article is accurate.)

Fascinating stuff here, both for the science fiction writer in me, and for the historian in me. Lots of cultural change (which both appreciate), a great deal of examination of the goods and bads of U.S. history, and the effect its having now. I have no opinion on Hawaii’s status as a state now; I haven’t even traveled there. But Langer’s article makes me want to see Hawaii for myself and study its history.

Sometimes it seems to me—particularly in an election year—that we on the mainland forget Hawaii. When I watch returns as I do for all of the primaries, I noted that Hawaii’s got short shrift, not just in the campaigning, but in the coverage as well. The time difference from the East Coast is almost insurmountable. I can’t imagine what kind of programming they get. On the West Coast, watching network news is a bit of a joke, since they’re three hours ahead of us, and often miss important stories in the taping. I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch network news in Hawaii.

When I grew up, all things Hawaiian were the rage because Hawaii became a state the year before I was born. The rage lasted until about 1970 or so. Now we rarely discuss the state—even out here on the Pacific Coast. (And folks from my home town often move to Hawaii for the weather or vice versa: we seem to have some sort of reciprocal arrangement with the island.) It was nice to have the state and its unique history brought to my attention. The article’s bibliography will put several books on my “to read” pile.

Lashner, William, Marked Man, Harper paperback edition, 2007. Lashner writes very witty legal thrillers. The voice in these books is so strong that I often read lines aloud to anyone who is nearby. The characters are great and the setting superb. (You should see his send-up of L.A. in toward the end of this book. It’s lovely.) The plots wrap, which is good, but that’s not why I read Lashner. I read him for the human insight, plain and simple. And for his writing which is tremendous.

Lerner, Edward M., “Inside the Box,” Asimov’s, February, 2008. A very short story about Schrödinger’s Cat, the thought experiment, not the cat itself. The story holds together—which is amazing, considering that he’s trying to illustrate the thought experiment—and has a very good point.

Mamet, David, “Helpful Hints on Writing a Screenplay,” Bambi vs. Godzilla, Patheon, 2007. In reality, this essay should be called “Helpful Hints on Storytelling,” but since BVG is a book on Hollywood, Mamet focused on storytelling as its done in screenplays. This little essay (by no means his last word on writing in this volume) contains a nifty mini-essay inside of it, on the need and purpose in the human animal for stories. That analysis alone makes this essay worth reading.

Mamet, David, “An Understanding and A Misunderstanding of a Repressive Method,” Bambi vs. Godzilla, Patheon, 2007. A nice short essay on the reasons why audience testing doesn’t work for the movies. If you extend the analysis, the same reasons explain why critics often miss the best entertainment films/books/television.

Resnick, Mike, “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders,” Asimov’s, January, 2008. As you can probably tell from the title, this story belongs to that subset of fantasy stories called the magic shop story. Seventy-eight years before, two 12-year-old boys meet in Alastair Baffle’s. They become lifelong friends. Just before they die, they try to find the story again—and because this is a fantasy story, they do, and the shop has the same proprietor. What happens next is a wonderful reflection on life, aging, and the importance of magic. Resnick is a master at the short form, and he shows it again here.

Robinson, Peter, Friend of the Devil, William Morrow, 2008. I love Peter Robinson’s mystery novels. I started with In A Dry Season, then found the first book in the Inspector Banks series and worked my way forward. Unlike so many series authors, Robinson’s work holds up from the beginning. He has gotten better, but his early works are still good reads.

Friend of the Devil does bounce off a previous book, but I think you can read the new novel without it. Friend of the Devil takes two cases and brings them together in a clever way, but just as important to me, the series reader, is the arc for Annie Cabot, Inspector Banks’ old partner. I’m as concerned about her as Banks is, which is a neat effect—and tells you just how well Robinson’s characters live and breathe on the page.

Roggie, Deborah, “The Mushroom Duchess,” The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. I didn’t want to like this story. It’s a fable and I think most modern fables are poorly told. But this one isn’t. I liked the twists. Even the mushroom details were fun.

Sherman, Delia, “Walpurgis Afternoon,” The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. I got behind on my year’s best reading with my trip to Europe last fall, and only got to this volume a week or so ago. The book opens with this story, and it’s just plain charming. It’s about small communities and prejudice and all kinds of deep stuff, but handled in a light-hearted manner. Nice opening to a very thick book. Recommended.

Silverberg, Robert, “Reflections: Aladdin’s Cave,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January, 2008. An unintentional companion piece to the Resnick story in the same issue, only Bob is writing nonfiction here. He reminesces about one of those once-in-a-lifetime bookstores, where he found great treasure that changed his life. A magical memory, recorded in a lovely essay.

Vanity Fair, March, 2008. My very favorite magazine was Premiere, which I read from its first issue to its last one about a year ago. Premiere covered the movies from the upcoming crop to the very first films. Its film history articles were wonderful, and its gossip pages were charming. I miss it. So when I opened “The Hollywood Issue,” about a week ago, I was stunned to find that for one issue, Vanity Fair, achieved about half of what Premiere used to do. And that was good enough for me. I enjoyed everything I read in the issue (and that was most of it). I don’t want Vanity Fair to do this every issue (I want Premiere back instead), but if this is how they handle films once a year, well, then viva la March issue!

Waldrop, Howard, “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On),” The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. Howard Waldrop is one of sf/f’s treasures. He doesn’t write enough and when he does, the story is always worth reading. This is minor Waldrop, which is to say it’s better than 99% of anything else you’ll read this year. Find it. Enjoy.

Walker, Jerald, “Dragon Slayers,” The Best American Essays 2007, edited by David Foster Wallace, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. Walker’s essay is a profound examination of the way that we view ourselves and others, and the expectations we bring to our interactions with other people. While it is, at its heart, a reflection on racism, the essay also touches on writing as well. I’ve been thinking about this essay ever since I read it, which is the strongest recommendation I can give to an essay. Excellent.