Recommended Reading List March 2011
I read a lot of anthologies in March, most of which I will not recommend. I’ve been searching for a certain type of writer, because one of my favorites has repeatedly failed me, and I’d like to replace him with a similar book. I’ve been reading the anthologies cover to cover, forcing myself into some stories I wouldn’t normally read (usually by very popular authors), trying to see if I haven’t given them enough of a chance. Sometimes I haven’t, and I revise what I think of them to the positive. Often, though, I realize they’re just not to my taste.
The other thing I’ve realized is that a lot of published short stories have no point. Oh, they have an adventure and something happens, but it’s not very interesting. There’s no depth, nothing to make the story memorable. Often the story lacks an emotional center—horrific or heartwarming, it doesn’t matter. Even more often, the story lacks a reason for existing at all, except that some editor asked for the story on that topic and the writer obliged. Because I’ve been reading primarily urban fantasy short stories, I’ve noticed that a lot of them are just gaming scenarios—the monster shows up, our hero(ine) kills it, and the Big Evil is averted. Okay. Fine. Designed a bunch of those when I was a Dungeonmaster. Read a million of those at F&SF, and wasn’t impressed then. Not impressed now. In fact, I’m quite disappointed.
But I have discovered some lovely writers, writers most of you already knew about, and I’ll probably be recommending some of them in the next few months.
I also read two mainstream novels—or part of two mainstream novels—and found a different genre problem there. The narrative voice is contemptuous of the characters, all of whom I found sympathetic. The characters are in pain and struggling (sometimes valiantly) but the writer holds herself above them and reminds us that they’re just silly little people with silly little lives. In one, which I was looking forward to (by a writer I hadn’t read before, but the topic intrigued me), I had to quit halfway when I realized that not only did she hold her characters in contempt, but the contempt was getting worse as the book went along. Naw. I don’t read to prove myself superior to other human beings. I read to understand them and listen to their stories.
Quite the educational month for me as a reader.
And now I can share the good stuff with you. Here goes:
Andrews, Ilona, “A Questionable Client,” Dark And Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. I haven’t read any of Ilona Andrews’ novels, and I think I might be missing out here. According to the bio at the end of the story, this piece is part of her Kate Daniels’ series. It didn’t read like a series short story. The world-building alone is spectacular. I love what she’s done with magic and technology. The creature in the center of this story is quite inventive, and just a bit creepy—not in a booga-booga way, but in an oh-gross way—and I liked Kate quite a bit. So now it’s time to try one of the novels. I hope it’s as good as the story.
Caine, Rachel, “Even A Rabbit Will Bite,” Dark and Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. Absolutely the best story in the collection and probably the best story I’d read all month up to this point. The story is a stand-alone tale about the last dragonslayer who has one last dragon to slay. Even though I figured out the twist early, I didn’t figure out the ending, which is damn near perfect. Highly recommended.
Elrod, P.N., “Dark Lady,” Dark and Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. Every time I read one of P.N. Elrod’s Jack Fleming stories, I enjoy it. I have no idea why I haven’t picked up the series. (Note to self: pick up the series.) I particularly liked the interaction between the ghost and one of the side characters in this tale. Touching and suspenseful, with some great historical details. Nicely done.
Gilman, Laura Anne, “Illumination,” Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow, Ace Books mass market edition, 2010. Marvelous story about a young woman just coming into her talent. She’s dealing with a messy family situation. Her father—who did not raise her—has gone missing. Laura Anne nicely deals with the dicey family dynamics while telling a powerful story. It wasn’t until I read the author blurb at the end that I realized this was part of Laura Anne’s Retrievers universe, which I’ve been planning to read. The story felt deep, like the author knew what she was doing, but it didn’t feel like part of a larger piece—which is a very, very good thing.
Gopnik, Adam, “Sweet Revolution: The Power of the Pastry Chef,” The New Yorker, January 3, 2011. To be honest, I was going to scan this essay. Food essays that go on for longer than four pages usually bore me to tears. But this one, about the recent history of dessert, complete with yummy descriptions, thoughtful commentary, and interviews with innovative chefs (as well as a brief history of sugar) fascinated me.
Jones, Chris, “Back to the Studs,” Esquire, February, 2011. A wonderful essay on remodeling a house, but also on doing something yourself. I loved this piece. It actually applies to writers as well. For those of you following my business blog or who have read The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, check this out about hiring people:
“That was the other big mistake we made the last time around. I hired out a lot of the work. I think, like a lot of people, I was scared of messing up, of losing all that I’d already invested. I believed each tradesman who told me that if I did it myself, with my tender, inexperienced hands, I would only ruin everything. So I paid people to ruin it for me. I was rarely happy with the work of others; they talked much better games than they played. I felt beholden to smirking plumbers and carpenters who billed for three hours for every one they worked. It made me feel like less of a man, and I began feeling as though my life wasn’t my own anymore. No one cares about your love as much as you do.”
Isn’t that what I said in the sections of The Freelancer’s Guide on hiring people: No one cares about your love as much as you do.
That’s not the only great thing in this essay. There’s some marvelous writing, and some lovely insights. Also, I learned that Dean’s exceedingly foul language when something isn’t going well in construction is an American-guy thing. I guess they teach boys this in shop class. I can’t tell you Dean’s magic talisman word to get something to work right, but it’s less vulgar (to me) than Jones’s which is a word I have never used in my entire life. I am incredibly foul mouthed, and I can’t even bring myself to let a bad guy use that word in a novel.
Anyway, check this one out even if you never ever plan on lifting a hammer in your life.
King, Laurie R., “The House,” Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow, Ace Books mass market edition, 2010. On its face, this is a traditional story with a somewhat predictable ending. That doesn’t matter. The writing is stellar, the characters are heartbreakingly real, and the situation is suspenseful. A group of teenagers go to the neighborhood haunted house and bad things happen. But in this case, no one seems to care about the person to whom the bad things happen, except a friend. At its heart, this is a story about lost children, neglectful parents, and making a better life in a better place.
Loewen, Andrea, “The Best Catch,” Soul’s Road Press, Kindle edition, 2010. Loewen’s story is a wonderful short romance. I’ve long complained that short story romances vanished along with the women’s slick magazines—Redbook used to carry them, for example—and it was a short story genre that I missed. Now e-publishing is bringing them back. This is a particularly fine example. Like all romance, it’s about finding the right person. What makes “The Best Catch” work are the details. Do you name fish? Are pets an investment? Lots of fun here and worth your time. Now it’s time for Loewen to post more stories or a novel or something. One story ain’t enough.
Langewiesche, William, “The Wave Maker,” Vanity Fair, February, 2011. Langewiesche’s article focuses on the man who surfed the largest wave ever, Ken Bradshaw. Bradshaw, in his late fifties, makes me think of the man my husband would have been had he continued his life as a professional skier and a professional golfer. Their early histories are quite similar, then they veer off when Dean decided he needed an education. The other interest in the article for me was also personal. From my window, I can see the Nelscott Reef—or at least, the ocean covering the Nelscott Reef—which is where one of the big wave competitions get held whenever the surf is right. Big wave surfers fly in an two-days notice from all over the world to compete, which just fascinates me. No long-term planning, just get there: it’s time. It takes a certain personality type to be able to do that. I don’t have it, but I’m fascinated by those who do. I think Langewiesche explores that part of Bradshaw quite well. Fascinating stuff.
McGrath, Ben, “Does Football Have a Future?” The New Yorker, January 31, 2011. I’m a casual sports fan, and somewhat picky about how I view my sports. I like baseball—but not on television. It’s much better in the stands, with the crowd, enjoying the summer afternoon. I adore basketball on TV or live, and hope some day to have season tickets to the Portland Trailblazers. I grew up in a football culture, and appreciate the game. I like watching a good football game on television, and spent much too much time last fall watching the Oregon Ducks’ Cinderella story. I didn’t miss a game.
So all of this stuff about the concussive injuries that’s been in the press lately has made me feel guilty about my casual football habit. I worry less about the pro players (although I probably should worry about them, since this article tells me the average career is 4 years—certainly not enough time for a young man to save those hundreds of thousands he’s earning). I worry about the high school players and the peewee players and the college players. I wonder what they’ll sacrifice for these dreams, and for the game.
This article does a nice analysis of the way that this concussive story evolved. It also focuses on the future of football—will it go the way of boxing? And it’s a sympathetic portrayal of the forgotten men: the stars whom we all rooted for once upon a time who are now broke, ill, and maybe losing bits of themselves. Worth reading, even if it does make you question your own complicity.
Morgan, Piers, “What I’ve Learned,” Esquire, February, 2011. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched Morgan’s show. I think I watched Larry King Live five times. I know who Morgan is only because I follow pop culture, kinda. Anyway, Esquire runs a feature called “What I Learned,” and some are interesting, some are dull, and some are amazingly profound. Morgan’s is interesting, but I’m putting it here just so you read the “bloke with the green bollocks” story he tells. That’s tabloid news at its finest. Go, read. It’ll take five minutes max.
Pinker, Stephen, “My Genome, My Self,” The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Like most of Pinker’s work, I found this dense and slow-going, but definitely worth my time. Pinker decided to have one of those genetic screening tests, and then he wrote a very personal essay (for him) about what the results meant, which ones were bogus and which ones actually had relevance to him, his life, and his physical conditions. I love reading about genetics and I learned a few things here. I also adored the insights. Long but worthwhile.
Purdom, Tom, “From That Day Forth,” Vanity Fair, February, 2011. I keep saying I’m getting tired of Vanity Fair’s Kennedy obsession and then I keep recommending the articles. I read this one last and almost didn’t because it’s yet another Camelot kinda piece. Only it focuses on the JFK inauguration, and for someone who is a political junkie, an historian who loves American presidential history, and a woman who reads Entertainment Weekly on the sly, I found this article surprising. I didn’t know any of the history in it, I had no idea about the storm that shut down D.C., no thought of the prep for that particular event. This piece focuses primarily on the entertainers from Sinatra (who organized it) to names now forgotten by most like Sammy Cahn. Wonderful work, filled with such detail that I’ll have to keep the damn issue with my 1960 Presidential books. (sigh)
Reed, Annie, “Just My Luck,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle edition, 2011. Another Diz & Dee detective story. I could read these like candy. Some lovely character insights, great writing (a sidewalk description alone was amazing), and a solid plot that I didn’t quite see coming. Annie published this in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and it is a St. Patrick’s Day story, complete with leprechauns. But even though St. Paddy’s Day has passed, don’t let that stop you. Read and enjoy.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “I Killed The Clockwork Key,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. When I met Dean, he was writing a series of stories set in a subdivision named “Bryant Street.” These stories were often quiet horror, but sometimes they were straight mainstream. This is one of the mainstream stories, powerful with very deep meaning.
Smith, Zadie, “Speaking in Tongues,” The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010. Originally written as a speech, this essay is on accent and language and how it applies to identity. Smith covers everyone from Shakespeare to Obama here, with some nifty detours. In the end, though, this is a personal essay about choosing who you are. Thought-provoking and well done.
Stabenow, Dana, editor, Unusual Suspects, Ace Books mass market edition, 2010. I was on the fence about recommending this anthology. About half the stories in the volume missed for me, and missed big time. I bought this book in Tennessee to read on the airplane when I couldn’t have my Kindle on, and was immediately disappointed because the Charlaine Harris story is a reprint. (Well, technically, I first read the Harris story in another anthology—and that was the reprint.) But suffice to say, I’d already read it and that started me on the wrong foot with the anthology.
What changed my mind about recommending it is this: The stories that work are among the best fantasy stories I’ve read in years. I listed them in the January recommended reading and in this month. I actually stopped reading after a few stories didn’t work for me, but I came back because I really wanted to read Laura Anne’s story. I’m so glad I did. So buy this, with caveats.
Watts, Peter, “Malek,” Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Solaris, 2011. I’ve been writing a lot of sf lately, and so I can’t read as much sf as I would like. (I try not to read the same genre I’m writing in.) I’m going through this book slowly, much as I want to read it quickly. The Watts story made me want to read through the book fast, even though I haven’t been able to for the past few weeks.
The Watts is stellar, one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. Written from the point of view of a killing machine, a drone, with some awareness and a fascinating programming system, the story is a tour de force of hard sf. The POV is rigorous, the story itself heartbreaking, the language beautiful. Very creepy, very well done. A top-notch story of any genre.
Williams, Sheila, “¡Ay, Caramba!” Asimov’s SF Magazine, February, 2011. Sheila’s editorials are always a highlight of Asimov’s, and this one is a particularly good example. She writes about the influence Isaac Asimov had on modern life, everything from the introduction of the word “robotic” into the English language to (perhaps) all the “i” named electronic items in our world. I think an editorial is extremely important to any magazine, but especially important in fiction magazines. The editorial gives the magazine a unifying vision and a voice. Sheila has had a strong editorial voice since she took over the magazine, reviving it and giving it a real sense of purpose. It also has brought back a long lost and much missed sense of adventure to sf literature. So check out the magazine, but always start with the editorials.