I taught a weeklong short story workshop in June. This means I read a lot of great stuff that I can’t share with you because it’s not published yet. But in keeping with my policy, I’ll share that stuff with you when the authors let me know the story’s in print somewhere. I have no doubt that those stories I read will make other readers very, very happy.
It was a good month overall for reading. Good novels, good short stories, good articles. Yeah, I read a lot of stuff I hated, particularly in a few of the anthologies I assigned for the workshop, but I also read some absolutely stunning pieces. They’re listed below.
In fact, what’s below is the best of the best in a very good month.
Butcher, Jim, “Heorot,” My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2007. Wrigley Field, microbrews, wizards—what’s not to love? Well, honestly, the story only uses those for the beginning and ending. A woman gets carted off in the middle of her honeymoon from a microbrew festival that our hero Harry Dresden just happens to be attending. Spawn of Grendel are involved, as are the tunnels under Chicago. Plus, I love Dresden’s voice. His sense of humor works for me. Lots and lots of fun.
Deaver, Jeffrey, XO: A Kathryn Dance Novel, Simon & Schuster, 2012. I blew through this novel in one night. It was perfect reading after the short story workshop. When Deaver’s on his game, he can fool me like no other author. In XO, he’s writing about a famous person and her stalker—an idea that’s never been done before —and he makes it work.
Country music star Kayleigh Towne has just moved from well-known to star. She has to cope with her controlling father, a former country star, and her entourage. She’s performing at her home stage when one of her crew dies horribly. Fortunately for Kayleigh, she’s friends with California Bureau of Investigation agent, Kathryn Dance.
Dance takes control of the investigation almost from the start. At first, I sighed, thinking this would be a stupid small town police chief book, but it’s not. Everyone—even our eventual killer—gets treated with respect here. And just when I thought I had everything figured out, well, Deaver had a few more surprises up his sleeve.
I wasn’t a big fan of Kathryn Dance when the series started, but I like the books a great deal now. Deaver’s found his rhythm. XO is a lot of fun.
Elrod, P.N., editor, My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, St. Martins Griffin, 2006. Thank heavens for My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding. It got me through some of the reading I had assigned my short story workshop. I always assign best-of short story anthologies, usually ones I haven’t read yet, to the workshop for discussion purposes. Two of the anthologies were so depressing that I felt despair whenever I picked up the volumes. I have still recommended some stories from those volumes over the past few months, but they weren’t something that should have been read in one big lump.
So I didn’t read them in a lump. I ran to My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding whenever I needed a mood boost and didn’t have time to read some romance. This anthology got me through those dark reading times.
Not every story in the anthology works, but they all work well enough to give me a lot of enjoyment. I have already pointed out the ones I loved in previous recommended reading posts, but now I can add to my recommendations the entire volume. It’s really fun, really well done, and a joy to read. Thank heavens.
Fussman, Cal, “The Complete Robert Downey, Junior” Esquire, May 2012. Okay, okay, it’s a celebrity interview. But seriously, I can’t get it out of my head. Lots of great career stuff in here for those of us in the arts. Downey has survived a lot and a long time, been up and been really, really down, and he talks about it. Worth reading if you make your career in the arts.
Groopman, Jerome, “The T-Cell Army,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2012. For years now, I’ve been saying we’re in the last decade of the Dark Ages of Medicine. At some point, some doctor will shudder like Dr. McCoy did on Star Trek, and say, “They used to cut people open to heal them. Can you imagine?”
More and more breakthroughs are coming to make McCoy the norm, not the way we do things now. Groopman often writes about such things for The New Yorker, and he does again here, giving me hope that the future is just around the corner. This one is worth reading.
Handeland, Lori, “Charmed by the Moon,” My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2006. Some writers can ease you into stories about their series characters, and other writers seem to forget that you haven’t read anything of theirs before. Lori Handeland is one of the first kind (the best kind) who eases you into her series. I suspected “Charmed by the Moon” had some characters she’d written about before, but only because the history of the protagonists seemed so well developed, not because I felt left out.
This is a fun story about two people who love each other but maybe shouldn’t get married. There’s a charm involved, lots of magic, and a nicely realistic portrayal of a part of the country that never gets much written about it—the Lake Superior region. Wonderfully done. So well done, in fact, that I bought a book in the series and am awaiting its arrival.
Horrocks, Dylan, “Steam Girl,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2012. One of the things I absolutely love about Strahan’s best-of volumes is that he includes young adult stories. I’m so glad he did. I had missed “Steam Girl” when it first got published, and I had missed a powerful story about reading, writing, belief, and love. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this story, only that I did. Find it. Read it. It’s wonderful.
Jones, Chris, “The Big Book,” Esquire, May 2012. When I recommended an excerpt from Robert A. Caro’s new biography of Lyndon Johnson in The New Yorker, someone pointed me to this article and asked me if I’d read it. I read the magazines in my house slowly, often months behind (which is why I’m writing about May when August is sitting on my desk), and I hadn’t gotten to this. Now I understand why it got recommended to me.
My, oh, my. I had read a New York Times piece on Caro when the book came out, delineating his methods, but seriously, the man is doing biography in a terrifying and fascinating way. Plus he’s still having a 1960s publishing experience, with most of his original book team still on this very long project. Fascinating read about the way things might never ever be again.
Kanon, Joseph, Istanbul Passage, Atria Books, 2012. I like Joseph Kanon’s historical novels. They’re not quite mysteries and not quite thrillers. This one is more of a spy novel than anything.
Set in the days just after World War II, our protagonist Leon is stuck in Istanbul. He works freelance for the American consulate as a spy, but his real job is for Phillip Morris, doing tobacco-y things. His wife, Anna, has quite literally lost her mind after participating in a failed attempt to send Jews rescued from the camps to Palestine. He tends to his wife and does his little jobs. So when his contact, Tommy, asks him to pick someone up at the docks, he does.
Only the situation goes badly and suddenly Leon finds himself in a world without good choices. The novel explores that world well. It makes the reader complicit in that world, trying to make one good choice along with Leon.
Fascinating world-building, fascinating characters, fascinating history. The novel feels true. Whether it is or not has probably already been lost to history, but it feels right. Amazing stuff, and worth the read.
Kayne, C.J., Dragon Trader Baby, Wayne Press, 2012. When I read this story in a workshop, I had no idea that it was part of a series. C.J. Kayne brings you into her fantasy world and makes you understand the dilemma that Sabine faces, all within a few short pages. As I looked for the appropriate information to recommend the story here, I discovered the series, which I must now read.
Klages, Ellen, “Goodnight Moons,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2012. In the introduction to this story, Ellen Klages calls it her Heinlein story. Oh, yes. She has it all—the sensawunda and the subtle darkness, the hope and the fear, and all in a few short pages. One of the best stories I’ve read this year.
Lepore, Jill, “Battleground America,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2012. I almost wasn’t going to recommend this year, because the last time I recommended a piece that I thought handled all sides of an issue well, I got some really really over-the-top political comments that took me aback with their vehemence. That was on the way we are handling our kids’ future. This one is on gun laws and the history thereof, some of which I didn’t know. I figured we could all care about our kids. Apparently I was wrong. This time, I know some of us (on all sides) are unreasonable about guns.
But, no matter your political persuasion, you should read this, if for nothing else than the history Lepore presents. She tries to keep an open mind, which is something I respect, and I think she does a pretty good job.
Because of my experience on the last piece, I’m going to remind you here that I do not accept current political discussion of any kind on my blog, so if this piece makes you angry or if you loved it to death, keep that to yourself. If you feel the need to argue, I’ve linked to The New Yorker website above. Take your vehemence there.
For the rest of you, enjoy this one. It’s interesting.
Roth, Allan, “The Two Faces of Your Financial Planner,” AARP The Magazine, April/May 2012. This is a must read article for everyone. It applies to anyone who advises you on financial issues, from financial planners to agents to money managers. There are a lot of common sense things here, but there are also some hidden “taxes” that everyone needs to know about.
If you have hired a financial planner, will hire a financial planner, have flirted with the idea of hiring a financial planner or have family members who will/have hired a financial planner, you must read this article. Now.
Russo, Richard, editor, The Best American Short Stories 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. I had high hopes for this volume when I picked it up. I love Russo’s fiction, and I know he believes in plot, so I figured a goodly portion of the stories would be more than beautifully written stuff about depressed people which usually fills these volumes. Of course, there are a few of those stories, but only a few. They don’t dominate. Over the past several months, I’ve pointed out my favorites. What I didn’t mention were the two stories set in the future. One is science fiction, the other is—well, a beautifully written story about depressed people in the future. The sf one, while not the best in the volume, was a pleasant surprise.
Lots of the stories here were surprises, some so heartbreakingly real that I had to walk away from the volume for a while. (See my note in the P.N. Elrod anthology, above.) I’m very pleased with this book; I enjoyed a lot of it. If you like short stories, then you’ll find something here that will impress you.
Russo, Richard, “Introduction,” The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. When I finished, I went back and reread Russo’s introduction. It’s a wonderful nonfiction piece about meeting Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the things Russo learned from him about writing. It’s probably the reason this volume has so many high quality stories. If you write, read the essay.