As you can tell from the long list below, I read a lot of great stuff in July. What’s truly amazing to me is that much of what I read was merely good, not great, so I didn’t recommend it at all. I don’t think I read anything truly bad in July, which has to be another first. You’ll note as you read that I write these short reviews right after I finish the book or article.
So here’s the best of the best. I hope you find some stuff to read as well.
Acocella, Joan, “Henry Hitching’s ‘The Language Wars,’” The New Yorker, May 14, 2012. The New Yorker always uses something current to include a long essay on a particular topic. Often the essays don’t interest me much, but this one does: it’s the history of language usage—what’s prescribed and what’s not, and (more importantly) who gets to decide.
Acocella uses Hitchings’ new(ish) book on the language wars to explore that topic herself. She covers everything from Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage to Orwell to Strunk & White, and more. If you write or love words, take a peek at the article. It’s a lot of fun.
Burke, Declan, editor, Down These Green Streets, Liberties Press, 2011. I read this one slowly, while reading other things. The volume has some stories in it, but mostly it’s essays about Irish crime fiction. Fascinating stuff, with a reading list that I need to delve into. I recommended an essay or two in the past, but really, the entire book is worth your time. I have not read the fiction yet. It goes below some of the other short fiction anthologies that I’m behind on, but every story is by a well-known writer whose work I like, so I’m not hesitant to recommend it.
Irish crime fiction is growing and thriving. If you’re at all interested in it, this volume is really worth your time.
Butcher, Jim, “Bigfoot on Campus,” Hex Appeal, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2012. Yes, Bigfoot. On campus in Oklahoma, which, as a Pacific Northwesterner, I take offense to. That’s our monster, dude.
Seriously, Butcher puts Bigfoot and his kin into the Dresden universe and makes it work. Bigfoot isn’t just a one-off. He’s human (kinda) and there are many others like him. This particular Bigfoot had a son with a human woman and stayed out of the kid’s way so that he could have a normal upbringing. The problem is that he’s not a normal kid, and now that he’s in college, he’s in for trouble.
Bigfoot can see that trouble’s coming, so he sends Dresden to investigate, and Dresden discovers all kinds of nasty, including vampires of the White Court, and lots of things even college kids shouldn’t be involved in. And the manner in which Butcher tells the story is equally wonderful. A shaking Dresden is trying to explain what happened to a disbelieving police officer named, of all things (at least for my reading experience), Dean. Lots of fun. Worth reading.
Caine, Rachel, “Holly’s Balm,” Hex Appeal, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2012. Unbelievably creepy story about a resurrection witch being called to a crime scene. I have trouble with zombie stories, I really do. They (ahem) fall apart for me in all kinds of ways.
Caine managed to write me past the questions I have about the world (although once or twice I had to actively force myself not to think about logic) by writing a compelling story. The witch, Holly, discovers that the crime scene is not only identical to a crime scene she saw the year before, it has the same victim. Who died in the exact same way. Again.
A serial killer is reviving his victims and killing them again, and this time it’s worse for them because they have memories of the previous death. Icky, icky, icky.
Yet the story is fast and frightening and, while not quite uplifting, a satisfying read. I’ll remember this one for a long time.
Carter, Stephen L., The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Knopf, 2012. I loved this book, and read it quite quickly even though Carter’s style is a bit dense at times, and the book deals with 19th century Washington, the vagaries of the law, and the way that Congress worked at the time. Plus Carter had to impart the way that the post-Civil War era was as opposed to what the average American believes it was. He manages all of it and more.
The alternate history begins when Lincoln survives the Booth’s assassination attempt. Johnson didn’t, and Seward did not recover well from his wounds. Lincoln is mostly alone, without some of his best advisors, and he’s then being impeached by the Radical Republicans for not taking a tougher attitude toward the South.
Our heroine, a black law student named Abigail Canner, is believably at the center of everything, including a murder mystery.
I spent a lot of years studying this period and reading about it, and Carter has everything right. He didn’t pop me out once. He’s even right about the black law student—female law student. He wisely places her at Oberlin to get her first degree. (Back then, potential lawyers did not go to law school, they apprenticed and “read law.”) Oberlin was perhaps the most open college in all of the U.S. at that time.
More historical details work, but you don’t need to know that. What you need to know is that the novel itself is compelling and impossible to put down.
I found the book because of The Washington Post’s highly positive review by Ron Charles. But the review made me angry with one word. (Ironically, I did not get angry when Charles used Nancy Drew as an insult, or the phrase that Carter is “wasting his talent” on plots like this. I guess I’m used to that crap from reviewers.)
The offending word was in this sentence, “In every novel he’s written, starting with his multimillion-dollar debut, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” Carter has proposed — not subtly — that a few African Americans have always possessed more money and power than most white Americans realize.” The word that irritates me is “proposed.” He’s not “proposing” anything. He knows, like anyone who has studied African-American history—or even African-American communities—knows.
That word got me riled then, and gets me riled now. Carter deals with it a bit in his afterward, in which he discusses the alternate in the alternate history, but he’s clear about one thing: The African-American community has always had success stories. Major success stories that have remained mostly invisible to history. Carter writes about them here. The dicey question of race in American relations is ever-present, but the book isn’t about racism per se. It’s about a part of our history that most people know nothing about: how hated Lincoln actually was within his own party, and how frightened the survivors of the Civil War were.
It was, literally, the bleakest time in our history. Carter uses all of that to great effect. Good alternate history novels are rare: this is one of them.
Elrod, P.N., Bloodlist in The Vampire Files #1, Ace Books, 2003. I’ve heard about P.N. Elrod’s vampire books for years—and the first time was from her editor (always a good sign). The first book in the Jack Fleming series appeared in 1990, when I was editing, and I did not read sf/f/h for fun in those days, so I didn’t read the series.
Then the vampire craze started, and I read a lot of crummy and stupid vampire books, putting me off them. So I never picked up this series, despite repeated recommendations from friends. It wasn’t until I read two of the Jack Fleming short stories back to back that I realized I’d probably enjoy these. Plus I loved the straight mystery story that Elrod wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (and which eventually won the Readers’ Choice award).
So I gave the first book a try. The only paper edition I could buy it in was this one, which gave me all three of the first. That’s good, since the ending of Bloodlist is my only complaint with the volume. It just ends. There is no real validation, no final chapter after the climax. Judging from the later work, Elrod fixed this writing problem later on.
The book itself is wonderful fun. The quote on the front compares it to Raymond Chandler (with vampires), which is more accurate than these quotes usually are. Except that Jack Fleming is a warmer man than Marlowe, and certainly warmer than Hammett’s Continental Op, also a progenitor of this type of mystery.
Set in the 1930s, the historical details are nicely done. One or two things made me question (were there rearview mirrors yet in 1936 cars?) but mostly, I was happy with the history, the setting, and the details. The characters shine here, and so does the logic of vampirism. She dealt right away with one of the things that bothers me the most about vampires—if everyone who is bitten turns into a vampire, then how come we’re not overrun with the creatures? Deftly dealt with, and it makes the story seem even more grounded in reality.
Usually the first book in a series is the weakest book. If this is the weakest one, then I have a great summer of reading ahead, because this was lovely.
Elrod, P.N., “Her Mother’s Daughter,” My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2007. I’m not a big vampire-as-hero fan, but P.N. Elrod has won me over with her hero Jack. I’ve read several short stories about him now, and I must find out more [see above]. It helps that the historical details of 1930s Chicago are spot on. This story forced me to buy the novels.
The groom disappears right after the cake-cutting at a mobster’s daughter’s wedding. The daughter, not wanting Daddykins to think her weak, hops in a cab (wedding dress and all) and ends up on Jack’s doorstep. He takes the case, and the fun begins. Nicely done.
Elrod, P.N., editor, Hex Appeal, St. Martins Griffin, 2012. Yes, I’m blowing through these books quickly now. I read the other two in the five-book series when they came out. This one arrived a week or so again (I do love pre-orders!) and I’m done already.
Lots and lots of fun. Only one that I couldn’t read which is, as I said below, not unusual for me. The quality in this volume was higher overall, but most stories didn’t jump out at me. I could be becoming jaded—yeah, they’re good, whatever. Sometimes, though, in an anthology, the overall quality is so high that it takes an exceptional story to jump out at me. I think that went on here.
As you can tell, I enjoyed the volume a lot.
Elrod, P.N., editor, My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, St. Martins Griffin, 2007. This book was just as much fun as My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding. I read this one much quicker, probably because I didn’t have to use it to clear my palate from the depressing (but good) stories I read in June. I found stories I loved here (mentioned this month and in last month’s edition), and stories I enjoyed, but didn’t find to be that memorable. One or two I couldn’t get through, but I never get through every story in an anthology. The fact that there were only one or two is a recommendation in and of itself.
This is a lot of fun. You’ll enjoy it.
Goodrich, Joseph, “Anthony Shaffer: Grand Artificer of Mystery,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Spring 2012. Fascinating article on an interesting playwright. Anthony Shaffer also wrote one of my favorite plays/movies—Sleuth. If you want to have a fun night watching old films, I’d suggest a double feature of Sleuth and Death Trap. Both have Michael Caine, both are tricky fun bits of acting/writing, and both mess with your brain. Shaffer did not write Death Trap. That was Ira Levin, but I cannot believe he wrote it without Sleuth’s influence.
Shaffer lived a fascinating life, and did a lot of work in the mystery field. Goodrich wrote a good short piece about all of it. If you like reading about writers (which I do), find this piece and read it.
Handeland, Lori, Blue Moon, St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2004. I almost didn’t recommend this novel, mostly because of me. I ordered it reluctantly, wondering if I’d read it. I had read Handeland’s story in My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, and loved it. (Recommended it last month.) So I immediately went to find her books, saw the cover, saw the description, and thought, ick. However, I’ve been published through St. Martin’s and I know that often the covers don’t match the books and the back cover copy can be iffy. So I figured I’d give her a chance.
The book has a ton of stuff I hate—or thought I would hate. Native American romances, which this got billed as, usually have badly researched fake-o Native stuff. Handeland didn’t help herself by setting it in my old stomping grounds, Wisconsin, among tribes I actually know of and understand. (Plus, I went to school with Native kids from those tribes.) But she lives in Wisconsin, so I figured she’d know something.
And she did. She got the culture right, the problems and racism in the small town right, the snarky heroine right, and—
Well, I also dislike the whole sleeping-with-a-predator thing that’s going on in romance and urban fantasy right now. Yeah, this supernatural guy hates and kills people for food, but he makes an exception for this one because it’s pretty. Um, no. I don’t know any guys who fall in love with cows (at least and admit it). But Handeland flirts with the falling-in-love with a predator thing, and makes me believe it. (I love her resolution, too.)
Plus the sudden appearance of horrible awful werewolves in this small Wisconsin town is very believable. Her backstory on the whole thing works. My inner sf geek was very happy with her hard fantasy bent. (That’s like hard science fiction, only with fantasy. In other words, her world-building is great.) The book reminds me of the TV series Grimm, which I love.
So why wasn’t I going to recommend it? Because…oh, man…clearly these are going to be guilty pleasure novels for me, and who admits to a guilty pleasure? (Apparently, I do.)
I blew through this book in two hours and want more. Plus, it seems, I’ve somehow missed reading Handeland entirely. She’s published more than fifty novels, novellas, and short stories. So I have a lot of catching up to do. I scrolled through her bio, and discovered some historicals that look interesting as well. More reading. Wah. My life is hard.
MacAlister, Katie, “Cat Got Your Tongue?” My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martins Griffin, 2007. I am now officially put off about going to some Scottish castle for a special event. MacAlister’s regular characters, Rafael St. John and Joy (I never did catch her last name), have married and are on their honeymoon. Clearly these are series characters, but I haven’t read the series. Yet I felt very invested in them, quite quickly.
Turns out—and you knew this would happen given the title of the book, didn’t you—that the castle is haunted by three ghosts, all of whom have history with each other. Two are married and one is the spurned first wife. They’re at war, which doesn’t exactly make for the most restful honeymoon.
Mayhem ensues, and yes, there is a cat involved—a rather large cat—and everything resolves well. A charming, fun read.
Paumgarten, Nicholas, “Here’s Looking at You,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2012. Fascinating article about drones, drone technology, and drone usage, covering the history of the tech as well as the uses it’s being put to now and the uses it might be put to in the future. Worth reading, just to see how our world is changing. (Or, if you prefer, how the science fiction universe is turning into our universe.)
Pearson, Ridley, The Risk Agent, Putnam, 2012. I’m mixed about this book. Putnam is advertising it as the first in a series, in which case I liked it very much. But as a stand-alone title, a breakout book, well, except for the setting, I’ve read it before. Or seen it, on countless TV shows.
Generally, I read Pearson for his plots and his settings. His plots are usually fascinating, taking me to places I haven’t been before. (I recall one that occurred in high-end grocery stores, teaching me all about grocery distribution.) This book does that; it’s set in Shanghai, where Pearson lived for a year not too long ago. That’s nifty. All of the details feel authentic, and I feel like I’ve been to Shanghai now.
The plot is a standard kidnapping plot with a twist that I really didn’t care about. We get to the twist 100 pages from the end as it felt like the book was wrapping up, which is a clue right there that there’s a twist. At that point, I wanted a double-twist, which I didn’t get. So I read with interest, but I wasn’t compelled.
So why am I recommending it? Because if Pearson gets his feet under him, he’ll have a fascinating series with characters and a setting we haven’t seen before. It’s a good start. I hope it does what the best series do, and gets better with age.
Sawyer, J. Daniel, “The Society of Miserable Bastards,” AWP Fantasy, Kindle edition, 2012. I love this marvelous story, which I read at a workshop several months ago now. It’s Southern Gothic, quite dark, and really, really, really well written. The fact that I can remember it vividly now, months after I read it, speaks volumes about the story.
The assignment he was writing to included the phrase “secret babies,” which is a romance genre trope. There are secret babies here, and secrets galore, but no romance…
Check this one out.