Recommended Reading List: April 2012

I promised I would get the Recommended Reading List up by the 10th of every month, but some hacker conspired against me. Rather than clutter up everything the week that I came back, I left this one for the end of the month. Here’s the best stuff I read in April of 2012.

Despite this being one of the weirder months of my life, I managed to get a lot of reading done. Most of what I read was good to excellent, and I’ve recommended the best of the best below.

I had two disappointments. One book made me feel like a sucker. I bought it as research for a novel I’m working on, so that’s my excuse, but I was interested just in general. The packaging—from Atlantic Monthly Press—had all kinds of quotes on the back that look like pull-quotes (someone commenting on the book itself). Instead they’re from inside the book and were made as the crisis the book is about was going on.  The crisis turned out to be not a crisis at all (unlike what the cover promised) and the entire thing ended up being a book about nothing. Which I wasted precious reading time on.

The second was yet another attempt to read one of my favorite writers. I have loved her books from the beginning of her publishing career thirty years ago. I have been having trouble with her work for a while. She seems to have forgotten plot. I ordered her latest, which came out in April, because it seemed like she was returning to her roots. The opening is spectacular and I’m thinking that she’s baaaaack! Then the middle was slow. She throws in another conflict later, and I’m thinking okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

And then she resolves it all with three pages, doing something she could have done on page 100. I ended up both mad and bored. I guess I’m done with her work, at least until she gets better, and I’ll have to trust reviewers and readers to tell me that. After I finished, I looked at the reviews of this one and they all complained about something, particularly in the middle. I’m wondering if she’s getting bored. After all, she’s written a variation on the same book for thirty years now. Maybe she should branch out into a new genre, or try something that scares her. Because for the last two years, none of her books have worked at all.

Below, however, are books that delighted me, scared me, and made me think. I also believe that Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham is the best book I’ve read in years, and that’s saying something, because I’ve read some marvelous books. So out of an excellent month of reading, here’s the best of the best.

April, 2012

Clark, Rod, “Voice Over,” Rosebud, Spring 2012. I’ve commented on Rod’s Voice Over columns before. He writes wonderful essays, just like he used to do wonderful commentary for our Wednesday night newscasts on WORT way back when. This particular Voice Over reflects on the late 70s and early 80s when Rod was writing for Broom Street Theater in Madison, starting to freelance, and struggling with addiction. This is a moving piece about the people in his life at the time, how he managed to write under amazingly difficult circumstances, and the choices all of this led him to. Marvelous stuff. If you’re not reading Rod Clark’s essays in Rosebud, you’re missing something.

Faye, Lyndsay, The Gods of Gotham, Amy Einhorn Books, 2012. The Gods of Gotham is, hands-down, the best book I’ve read in years. I read a brief review of it online, then clicked on the book itself, and glanced at it. The review compared the book to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, which I loved. I glanced at the book, thought, I’ll give it a try, and whoa am I glad I did. The Gods of Gotham is better than The Alienist. Less dense, better pacing, better characters

The ebook is horribly overpriced. Penguin/Putnam (Amy Einhorn is both an editor and an imprint) pushed me to the hardcover, and I went there. But they almost made sure I didn’t buy the book at all.

If I had seen this book in a store, I might not have bought it. The cover is spectacularly ugly. You can’t read the Michael Connelly blurb, you can’t tell whatthe image is unless you look at the book, and the title is off-putting, if accurate. I usually hate reading books about gods.

This book isn’t about gods. It’s about the beginnings of the NYPD and the Five Points riot in 1845. Which sounds really dull. It isn’t. When the book arrived, I opened it as I always do with new books, glanced at the first page (which, btw, was not the sample page I saw on Amazon) and looked up 215 pages later, only because Dean interrupted me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stopped reading at all.

Someone called this a thriller, and yes it is. It also brilliantly portrays New York in 1845, and things we wouldn’t normally worry about, like our hero getting pricked with a knife, become quite threatening. He could die if that knife’s edge is filthy. After all, there are no antibiotics in 1845…

I’m not going to tell you much about this book, because I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say, I think it is the mystery/thriller novel of 2012, and it might be the novel of 2012. It’s spectacular. Go. Buy. Enjoy.

Foster, Lori, “Under Pressure,” RT Book Reviews, April, 2012. New writers often think they’ll feel better about their writing after they make their first sale. Foster debunks this myth in her lovely essay on writing. She deals with expectations—her own and those of her readers—and how most writers feel insecure, no matter how many books they’ve published. Worth reading, particularly if you’re a writer.

Franklin, Tom, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, HarperCollins Kindle edition, 2010.  I put off reading this book for most of a year, even though I’d heard only good things about it. Franklin wrote a brilliant short story called “Poachers,” that I read years ago and fell in love with. But the short story is exceedingly well written and exceedingly disturbing, so I thought that the novel might be nearly unreadable for me.

I shouldn’t have worried. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is disturbing, but not for the reasons I thought. The violence is no more or less than many other novels I’ve read. But the characters…oh, they’re heartbreaking.

The book is a crime novel, but it deals with much more than that. It’s about lost opportunity and being frozen in time by past events, and all kinds of other things. It’s set against the backdrop of a racially segregated Mississippi as well as the modern Mississippi, and shows the damage of the past better than many novels I’ve read.

Stephen King haunts this book; he was clearly an influence. His books are mentioned and referenced over and over again. Franklin does remind me of King in his lucid prose, his vivid details, and his stunningly real characters. It’s almost as if he decided to take King’s Maine characters and see how they would work in Mississippi. The primary difference between the authors, as far as I can tell, is in their treatment of women. The female characters just aren’t important here, where they’re always important in King (even as side characters).

Wonderful writing, excellent characterization, with a difficult plot. Franklin has crammed a lot into this short novel, and it really is worth your time.

Kaplan, James, Frank: The Voice, Anchor Books, 2010. I read an excerpt from this book in Vanity Fair a few years back, and decided to order it. I’m not a big Frank Sinatra fan, although I happen to think the man was an amazing singer. He could make songs come alive. What brought me to the book, though, wasn’t Frank himself. It was Kaplan’s writing. Even in the truncated Vanity Fair piece, Kaplan’s writing made Sinatra come alive—so alive, in fact, that I felt like I was reading a novel.

I first saw the hardcover in a bookstore and decided against picking it up. The book is a literal doorstop—nearly 800 pages—and it was an exceedingly expensive hardcover. Still, I knew this was a book I’d dive in and out of, not one I’d read in one sitting, so I didn’t order it for my Kindle. Instead, I waited for the trade paper.

When it arrived, I did dive in and out, and never lost my place. I read the book over a period of weeks while I was reading other things, and still found it compelling and amazing. Kaplan’s writing is superb and while that hooked me, what held me was a feeling of relief.

Sinatra had a major career crash, one I’d heard about vaguely but never really understood. The man should’ve been a has-been, only he was tenacious as hell. So what I found most fascinating about this book wasn’t the rise to fame or his marriage(s) or the women he slept with or even his approach to music. It was Sinatra’s survival instincts. The man didn’t just crash. He crashed, burned, and should have dissolved into ash. He didn’t. He came back stronger, sadder, wiser, and a better artist. I dunno if he became a better person—hard to judge things like that without meeting someone—but he certainly gained my respect here.

If you work in the arts, then read this book. We all go through ups and downs in our career, but we rarely have the kind of incredible down that Sinatra went through. Look on it as a life lesson from someone who survived it. I know I look at it that way.

White, Randy Wayne, North of Havana, Berkeley Prime Crime, 1997. Ever since I discovered Randy Wayne White a year ago, I’ve been dutifully reading through his series in order. Then I got stuck on the book before this one. Not only was it badly designed with (I swear) eight-point type, but it also was not available on Kindle. Plus the storyline wasn’t a mystery. It followed one of those goofy Carl Hiaasen /Tim Dorsey plots, apparently in a misguided attempt in the 1990s to market White as a Florida writer clone.

I kept looking at North of Havana, the next book, with longing. It took me six months to get a clue. Screw finishing the previous book, which I loathed. Read North of Havana and see if it was the book that put White back on track.

Boy, am I glad I did. There’s still a bit of the weirdness from the previous book in the novel—White had to deal with it, after all—but it is dealt with seriously and with respect to the series fans. Plus he adds a promise that the books won’t follow that path again.

I’m glad, because White is more the heir to John D. MacDonald, imho, than he is a clone of Carl Hiaasen. This book takes our hero, Doc Ford, to Havana where he must rescue his hippy pal Tomlinson who has gotten into a hell of a scrape. Ford, who has a rather interesting past, has been to Cuba before and is terrified of returning, afraid his past will haunt him. He’s so focused on the past, in fact, that he misses some clues about the present. It doesn’t make him stupid (thank heavens), but human.

Lots of Cuban history here, plus a sense that White himself has been to Havana and knows its back streets. I was riveted, and immediately ordered the next three White books. When I recommended one of White’s later books, one of the commenters warned me that the early ones are uneven. Yep. I get that now. I hope the next three stay on track. If they don’t, I’m moving onto the next. No waiting six months for the book to marinate and hope that it will improve or my tastes will change.

Whitney, Daisy, The Rivals, Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, Kindle edition, 2012. Last year, I read and recommended Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds, which I loved. I still remember it vividly and I still love it.

The Rivals directly follows The Mockingbirds. The Mockingbirds are an illegal student judicial system at a private boarding school somewhere back east. This boarding school is evil, I swear, and not in the Lord Voldemort way. These are contemporary novels, so theoretically schools like this one exist. Maybe.

I had some reservations about The Rivals. Quite a few, actually. The protagonist of the last novel, Alex, is back, and this time, she’s one of the Mockingbirds instead of a victim standing before them. She struggles with being in charge of what is essentially a vigilante system, and she breaks some rules and loses some friends along the way.

The book deals with vigilante justice, which crimes should be prosecuted, and whether or not, in the absence of real law, vigilante law is a good substitute. When the book focuses on those issues, it becomes muddled. The muddle does represent how it feels to be a teenager, so that actually works, although I had the distinct impression that the writer hadn’t yet settled some of these issues on her own. (And I’m not fond of the idea that vigilante justice is good when good people do it, and bad when bad people do it.) There’s also an unnecessarily violent scene at the end that I’m pretty sure the novel was heading toward, but it irritated me and didn’t make me sympathetic to the protagonist; it made me annoyed at the writer.

All that said, I’m still recommending the book. It’s well written, the characters are very well drawn, the world is compelling, and the issues important. Just because I don’t agree with the conclusions is a personal thing, not a flaw in the book. In fact, my discomfort and willingness to disagree with the book is one of the book’s strengths. It makes me (and other readers) think about very difficult issues—and come to our own conclusions.

So buy this book. You’ll find a lot here. I would recommend, however, that you start with The Mockingbirds, so that you have some background. You can read The Rivals without it, but I suspect once you finish, you’ll want to read The Mockingbirds anyway, so you may as well start there.

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