Recommended Reading List: September 2012

I finished writing a particularly troublesome novel in September. That novel only let me read very dark fiction, nonfiction, or YA novels. (Yes, what I write often dictates what I read.) So I was limited on the first half of the month. As for the second half, I started a lot of books I thought I’d love and didn’t finish them.

I also read several books in favorite series. They were all unremarkable, and one just has me questioning the premise of that particular series. (How many times can one guy stumble into a bad situation with worldwide implications?) I shouldn’t be questioning. That’s usually a sign that the series is getting repetitive.

I read the second book in what will be a series. I loved the first book so much that the second book disappointed me. I debated recommending it anyway, but most of what I have—despite the great characters, lovely writing, and fantastic setting—are complaints about that second book. So I’m not going to recommend after all.

I also read a 600-page anthology in which I found nothing to recommend. What kept me reading? Some of the stories were okay. I kept hoping to find a gem. But nada. I was rather surprised since it was one of the big anthologies of the year with lots of big names. [sigh]

I’m hoping October will be better.

Below, you’ll find are spectacular reads that got me through all the other stuff.

September, 2012

Brenner, Marie, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” Vanity Fair, August, 2012. Fascinating piece on the journalist who got killed in Syria earlier in the year. Marie Colvin was an old-fashioned war reporter, who ran toward danger to report it rather than huddling behind the safe lines. It cost her a lot of joy before it cost her life—she suffered from PTSD, and drank her way out of it—but she reported wars for almost thirty years. In fact, she was at more war zones than most soldiers ever ever are. She was an amazing woman and worth reading about.

Burfoot, Amby, “Strange But True!” Runners World, August, 2012. I know, I know, the Olympics are so last summer, but this article about truly weird moments in past Olympics is still worth a look. Some events are headshaking, some are truly bizarre, and all are worth looking at.

Hand, Elizabeth, “Pavane for a Prince of the Air,” Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, M Press, 2006.  This past year, my life has been filled with a lot of death. People getting ill and dying, or coming close. It’s been hard. So you’d think a story like this one, about a dear friend’s last few days, would be impossible to read. Instead, I found it lovely and heartwarming and just what I needed. Hand brought her slipstream magical sensibilities to the loss of someone dear and that gave the story great emotional power. Healing and wise, this story is worth the price of the collection.

Hand, Elizabeth, “The Saffron Gatherers,” Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, M Press, 2006.  The last part of Saffron and Brimstone is a collection in and of itself—an homage to a friend and a series of 9/11 stories. All are good, but “The Saffron Gathereres” is spectacular. Liz manages to catch that feeling of having a somewhat normal day and then having it turn upside down by a cataclysmic event. The writing here is stunning, the characters real, the event itself wonderfully done. Yes, I said “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is worth the price of the collection, and so is this story. Spectacular.

Hand, Elizabeth, Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, M Press, 2006.  I liked every story in this collection, and loved three of them. One of the stories I’d loved, “The Least Trumps,” I had read when it came out in 2002, and still remember it as if I had read it yesterday.

It took me longer than it should have to read the collection for one reason. The cover is stunningly ugly. So much so that I turn the book over rather than look at the cover image. I know it’s supposed to be arty, I know it fits one of the stories, but wow, that image would never sell the book to me if I did not know the writer. And ironically, I bought this collection twice. The first copy of the book got savaged when one of my cats spilled water all over it, making it completely unreadable. I had to get a second copy to read, which I did, with the cover turned downward.

The content is spectacular. If there’s an e-book (I didn’t check), get that. Otherwise, turn the cover over and read Liz’s wonderful, wonderful stories. You’ll be happy you did.

Hitt, Jack, “Words on Trial,” The New Yorker, July 23, 2012. Fascinating article about forensic linguistics—in other words, linguists using what someone writes/says to identify them as criminals in a trial situation. Or to find them, track them down, make them suspects.  Most of us are familiar with how this worked in the Unabomber case, but it has become more complex and fraught than that.  Fascinating stuff.

Kantner, Rob, “Down Home Blues,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, edited by Jeffrey Deaver, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.  I first started reading this anthology when it came out, then stopped when one story in the middle put me off. I finished the anthology the other night, and found this wonderful story by Kantner.

Ben, a Detroit private detective, has returned to Georgia to attend a family funeral. While there, he offers to help a cousin with some repairs in her rental cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Of course, he sees something that’s a bit off, and that gets him investigating. The story is hard-boiled, a bit dark, and very powerful.  Kantner, a regular in the digest mystery magazines, obviously couldn’t place this one (probably because of the darkness), and published it on his blog. I hope the story got a lot of readers there and in this volume. Enjoy!

McPhee, John, “The Writing Life: Editors and Publisher,” The New Yorker,  July 2, 2012. Fascinating article about McPhee’s relationship with his two main New Yorker editors, as well as his publisher at FSG. A lot of what McPhee did is not possible in traditional publishing any long. Nor is what happened with many of his books, which stayed in print for years despite poor sales. (He recounts one that received a $1500 advance that took 7 years to earn out—which should tell you how awful the sales were. No one would keep that book in print now.) Fascinating look at lives and personalities and the business as it used to be.

Silverthorne, Lisa, “A Dark Blue Gloaming,” Shipwrecks in Sea Minor, Elusive Blue Fiction, 2012. A wonderful historical mystery that I first read in a workshop, “A Dark Blue Gloaming” is a story that I’ve remembered for years.  Powerful and touching, on a side topic of all that Titanic lore that not too many people have written about. Wonderful.

Stead, Rebecca, Liar and Spy, Wendy Lamb Books, Kindle Edition, 2012. Georges’s life is in turmoil. His father loses his job, his mother works double shifts, and they still lose their house—the only home Georges has ever known. The family moves into an apartment complex in New York, and as they do, Georges meets a strange little boy with a name weirder than his own. Safer—that’s the kid’s name—believes Mr. X, who lives upstairs, is up to no good. He wants Georges’s help proving it.

The story is at turns funny and heartbreaking. It’s a tale of denial and imagination, and the way we all cope with the things that terrify us. A fantastic book for all ages.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Kris -

    Have a question for you. When you read a short story collection or anthology, do you finish every story, or do you stop reading a story that doesn’t interest you?

    Probably a silly question, but I have all these collections and anthologies on my shelves I haven’t cracked because I feel I have to finish every story I start reading. Oddly, I don’t have this same sense of obligation with novels. I’ve stopped reading many novels after 80% because I got bored with them.

    Maybe I’m just looking for someone to tell me it’s all right not to finish a short story once I begin reading it.

    Can I have permission to do so? :)

    Reply
    • If the story doesn’t hold me after a few pages (or sometimes paragraphs), I skip. Life’s too short. I do read in order though. (I’m so anal.) As for novels, if I can’t remember what I read a few days later and have to review or if I really hate what I’m reading, I quit.

      So. Permission granted. :-)

      Reply
  2. Hi Kris

    I’m always taken but how many works of non-fiction you pack in to your reading schedule among all the fiction work and reading.

    Following from your post, it’d be interesting to know about more about your approach to reading (writing?) series – you described one as a fav though repetition seen, suspending or interrupting at least, your enjoyment around the overall premise; and, the premise again possibly comes up in the other, ie “…what will be…” a series, where the first book worked but despite plusses the second didn’t quite work for you, and possibly you stop there with that prospective series?

    I imagine that while a series offers a writer much potential, in so many ways, it also provides readers with many stepping off points, perhaps unlike a one-off story – although, as Jeff raised the point, we may stop in many things.

    Would be great to know more of how those choices, reactions worked for you on the series mentioned, but also your approach to knowing what would be (for whatever reason) a good series to invest in as a writer. Thanks.

    Patrick

    Reply
    • I love nonfiction, Patrick, especially when it’s well written. So it’s all of a piece to me.

      As for reading a series, I keep with the series as long as it interests me. I give the writer one or two bad books, but if there are three in a row or the series is going in a direction I don’t like, then I quit. But I monitor. I ask friends with similar tastes–did the series improve? Change directions again?

      When I recommend, though, I only recommend the memorable books. So if the series is going just fine, but I can’t tell the books apart, I don’t recommend. If one book really, really stands out, I recommend.

      I think the biggest problem with a series is balancing what’s good about it with keeping it fresh. That means twists readers don’t expect, and lots of work. When I write a series, I try to make each book better than the last, whatever better is. I don’t rest on my laurels.

      I mentioned two series, above. One didn’t start out as a series, and doing a series kind of negated the first book, which irritated me. Now, I’ll read the next several books because I love the characters and I’ll probably forget how annoyed I was at the negation.

      The second series is hanging by a thread for me. It’s been going for fifteen or so years, and it’s starting to caricature itself. It was a lot more realistic in the beginning. Now, it seems, the writer doesn’t quit know how to continue the set-up after 25 books, and rather than shake up the series, he’s just going through the motions. Imho.

      So invest in the series you like, but if you’re getting bored, figure out why. It might be that it no longer surprises or pleases you.

      Reply
      • Thanks, Kris

        The challenge and opportunity of series does interest me. There is, too, for me, a consideration of how we also absorb them in visual media, such as TV where it can range from stand-alone episodic with almost zero character transformation (but great for syndicating/selling for use in any old order) to long-arc progressions (where you feel you missed something if not in from the start and continuing to watch). Of course, there are many in between.

        A challenge, indeed, to balance the series & character brand familiarity without getting stale when doing the more episodic, whether as TV or book. But also for realising, if not risking (as such), that quite often fewer watchers/readers may follow a longer form narrative, or sub-brands. All comes back to creator’s intent, I imagine, in deciding what is wanted and why, and which is therefore vital to sustaining many, many stories.

        “Give us more of the same, but different!” A classic dilemma.

        As a writer, broadly do you enjoy creating series more than stand-alones? Or that doesn’t much matter – it is particular stories that jump up for you, wherever, and that the buzz. Can be in a series mythos or stand alone? Whatever – the tale if the tell!?

        I have found it hugely enjoyable to play with all this in distilling ideas and fictional worlds/types of approaches to stories. In terms of output, I kicked off with The Eyewitness Protocols and while the long-arc first collection of episodes comes to a conclusion, and is quite a long tale in itself, I came to realise that I saw other possible strategic steps for the further development of the characters and challenges of that world. Other series are in development. Great!

        I also wonder, these days of ebooks (but also POD), about story length (generally) for series books as well as standalones. Wondered what thoughts you might have on that too.

        Thanks for the great posts, and blog.

        best, Pat

        Reply
        • I write whatever the story demands. Sometimes it demands 5 books, sometimes 5,000 words. That’s how I do it.

          Sometimes the universe I’ve created suggests other stories, and then I work with those.

          That’s my method. YMMV

          Reply
  3. How do you have time to do all this reading and writer a troublesome book? I’ve been struggling through a draft for about 6 weeks trying to avoid killing one character without losing the impact. I’m not sure I’ve done it, but I’m almost finished the draft. When I have, I’ll check out some of your recommended reading.

    By the way I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award, the details are on my blog http://pawilson.ca/one-lovely-blog-award/

    Reply
    • Not reading is like not breathing for me, PA, so I have to read something, even if it’s just cereal boxes. :-)

      And thank you, thank you, thank you for the nomination!

      Reply
  4. It’s great to see you recommend Lisa Silverthorne’s story. I still remember that one from the short story workshop as well, and enjoyed it greatly.

    I am so envious of her writer super-powers. Must… write… more :-)

    Reply
    • Yeah, it’s quite a memorable piece, isn’t it, Ken? And yes, please do write more. :-)

      Reply

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