Got a lot of reading done in January. Much of it had to do with a novella I was working on, so I dipped in and out of a dozen research books. I also started a lot of books that I didn’t finish. Two of the books were from long-running series. One of those books was unreadable. The other got me to page 200 (of a 680-page book) and I realized I was bored. The author wrote and wrote and wrote, and nothing had happened. I don’t mind that in some mainstream fiction, but this was a mystery. We even knew (although the detective didn’t) that the guy who had died was murdered—it said so on the cover. So 200 pages and nothing.
Which got me thinking: Was it me? Was I getting too critical? Then I realized that both series authors had never published any other kind of book. No stand-alones, no other genres, no pen names. Just their series novels, which had been running for 30 years in one case, 20 in the other. They had gotten stale. Worse, they let others dictate how the series should go. (One of the authors blogs about how her agents (yes, plural) and her editors in the UK & US always tell her what to do next. Unfortunately, she listens.)
I hadn’t liked the two books previous by either author. I gave up on a different series (same problem) after three stale books. I guess I give my favorite series novelists three strikes before they’re out. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—I give novelists who try new things about five or ten tries before I give up on them, figuring some books just aren’t to my taste. Another reason to diversify as an author, I guess.
I also read the first book in an urban fantasy series. The book was good enough for me to finish, good enough, in fact, for me to buy the next. I debated about recommending it, but I’m not going to. The book was better than many urban fantasy novels which often drive me nuts with their illogic and terrible world-building, but it wasn’t good enough to recommend. I hope a future book in the series will be. (First books often aren’t the best an author can do.) I did discover this writer through short fiction, so I’m expecting that the books will improve over time.
However, I did read a lot of excellent things as well. Here’s what I read in January that I want to share.
Bear, Elizabeth, “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, January, 2012. Keeping my promise to myself that I’d read the digests this year (although so far I’ve only managed Asimov’s), I went back to this issue after reading February’s. I’ll be honest: the title of the story is what put me off the issue. The title is on the cover. I can’t tell you why the title didn’t work for me, but it didn’t. Then I read the story and realized the title is absolutely perfect for this story. So what do I know?
Set in a future India, “In the House…” follows a murder mystery among other things, but it also keeps with the issue’s theme of distant relationships. Relationships seem almost impossible in this world, and yet a detective must explore all relationships—good and bad—in order to solve a crime. The story’s a brilliant conceit, with genetic manipulated cats and cloning and a rather inventive murder (or is it?) in a locked room. Nicely done, and worth the price of the issue all by itself.
Brenner, Marie, “To War in Silk Stockings,” Vanity Fair, November, 2011. Fascinating piece about Kathleen Harriman Mortimer. Until she died, in her nineties, no one in her family (or her biographers, it seemed) knew about her life in World War II, or about the diaries she kept. The family (she’s Averell Harriman’s daughter, if you’re wondering) released those diaries so that scholars could look at them. Marie Brenner gives us a shorthand look, and quite a look it is. It makes me want to see all of them. Fascinating stuff.
Howe, Barton Grover, “Twas The Night After Christmas…Argh,” the News Guard, December 28, 2011. Local humor columnist, Barton Grover Howe, occasionally knocks it out of the park.) He takes on Clement Moore’s Night Before Christmas and makes the modern day poem work. A lovely and sentimental holiday piece with just enough bite to make it entertaining.
Johnson, C.W., “The Burst,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, January, 2012. Johnson’s story, “The Burst,” follows a post-doc student in the near future who is working with a world-class physicist. Or overworking (although most post-docs I know went through something similar). The story explores quantum theory and relationships both, and it made me tear up. If I tell you much more, I’ll ruin it. But I loved it.
King, Stephen, 11/22/63, Scribners, 2011. Wow. This book hit all my reader cookies. I love history, I love stuff that deals with the Kennedys, I love alternate history, and I love Stephen King. I was actually afraid to read the book because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to expectations. It did and more. In fact, it gave me a small homework assignment, which I’ll get to in a minute.
King manages to convince me that high school teacher Jake wants to change history by killing Oswald before Oswald kills Kennedy. There’s an inexplicable time travel portal in the back of a local diner—you go in, and it’s September 1958; you come out two minutes after you left. No risk, right? Except that you age normally, so you could stay ten years and come back looking ten years older.
Wonderful conceit, which means that Jake—in order to do the deed—must live for five years in the past. And when you live somewhere, you can’t help it: you develop relationships and you have an impact, which he does.
The strength of the book isn’t in the time travel or the alternate history. It’s in the history itself and in the relationships. King always excels at setting and characters, and they carry the show here. The tension is high, and the book—even at 850 pages—is a page-turner.
I mentioned homework, and King gives some at the end. If you’ve never read Jack Finney, you should. But King also references other books throughout, including John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, The Gold Watch, and Everything. He doesn’t call the book by name, but that’s what Jake hopes for in the end—the girl, the gold watch, and everything. I asked some MacDonald fans about the book while I was reading the King and became convinced that he was referencing it throughout. (MacDonald’s books litter this one.) Now I’m going to read it to find out what subtexts I missed.
King mentions in his afterward that he tried to write 11/22/63 in 1972, but it was too soon. He’s right about that. What I’m not sure if he realizes is that he did write a version of the book in 1982 (?) when he published The Dead Zone. Similar themes, similar conceits—would you kill a man to save the world, and if you did, would it change you? Plotwise, the books are quite different, but thematically and structurally, they’re much the same. Including the fact that both Johnny and Jake are teachers.
11/22/63 is the better book, written by a writer in control of all of his tools. He can wave us past a few unbelievable things, and he can make us care about a mission we know will have unpredictable repercussions. I was glad, too, that he took a historical view of Kennedy instead of a starry-eyed one; that makes a difference in the last part of the book.
11/22/63 is now one of my favorite King books. I don’t even feel bad about the fact I bought it twice. (First in hardcover, and then when it got too heavy to hold up at night, for my Kindle.) Highly recommended.
Lewis, Michael, “California and Bust,” Vanity Fair, November, 2011. Lewis has had a series of articles in Vanity Fair on the current economic crisis, but none more frightening than this one. California has always been a bellweather state, and the bell it’s weathering right now is an economic crisis of amazing proportions. Lewis goes all the way down to the local level to look at the effect of the economic crisis on the state; the one thing this article doesn’t mention is that California was in crisis before the Great Recession hit. Since I live in one of California’s sister states, I knew something more about the crisis than, say, people in Texas do. But I had no idea the extent of the crisis on the local level. This piece is terrifying, even though he tries to end it on an up note. Read this one with the lights on.
Neville, Stuart, Ghosts of Belfast, Soho Press, Kindle Edition 2009. This puppy was billed as noir, and oh, boy is it. An extremely dark thriller, one I couldn’t put down, about a former killer during the Troubles who is being followed by the ghosts of 12 people he killed. (In Ireland, the book is called The Twelve.) He discovers somewhat accidentally that if he gets rid of the people who ordered the hit on the ghost, the ghost will disappear.
It sounds like a rather traditional horror novel, but it isn’t. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland after the Troubles have (theoretically) ended, the novel looks at redemption and guilt, remorse and opportunism in the face of a country that used to be at war, not just with its English masters, but with itself. The resonances here are great, and the novel itself surprising. I did not know how it was going to go. I even liked our killer, even though he had done terrible things.
A wonderful book. A fantastic thriller. Be warned, though. This one will keep you up at night—both because it’s a thriller and because it makes you think.
Quinn, Julia, Just Like Heaven, Avon Books, 2011. Thank heavens for Julia Quinn. After reading Stuart Neville’s book and the very dark January issue of Asimov’s back to back, I need levity. Quinn provided it—although I worried in the middle, as Marcus, our hero, lies ill from an infected cut. The book is set in the 1820s after all, and technically, the cut should’ve killed him. But why read a funny romance novel about a dead hero?
Quinn’s books are interlinked. For eight or nine novels now, she’s been torturing her characters by making them attend the Smythe-Smith musicales, an annual party around a concert held by a family that is tone deaf. It’s been a lovely set-piece in all of the novels. And now she takes the gutsy approach of writing about the tone-deaf Smythe-Smiths, with the climax of the book happening at the musicale itself.
I won’t spoil it, except to say that she has another set-piece—an egregriously bad Perils of Pauline type novel that everyone is reading, and they all comment on how bad it is. In each book, someone mentions that the heroine’s mother is pecked to death by pigeons (as an example of the made-up book’s awfulness) and each time I encounter that line, I laugh out loud. I did so here as well.
Just Like Heaven follows Honoria Smythe-Smith (who has an accurate first name) and Marcus Holroyd as they fall in love. They’ve known each other since childhood, and slowly realize that their relationship has changed. It’s a lovely book: the perfect antidote to all that darkness I’d been reading about. A nice pick-me-up if you’re in search of one.
Wolcott, James, “Still Cuckoo After All These Years,” Vanity Fair, December, 2011. James Wolcott has been on a roll. His last couple of columns have really spoken to me. This one is about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Wolcott looks at the book’s history and influence, and he did something courageous—he reread it. Rereading a favorite novel is always risky: you’re not the same reader, so often the experience sours you on the book. Wolcott was happily surprised. He found the book better than he remembered and even more relevant, if that’s possible. So take a peek. This one’s worth reading.