I got an amazing amount of fantastic reading done in September—and I didn’t feel like I had read enough. Yet I look at this list, and realize I somehow squeezed a lot of reading in. Wow.
My tastes were pretty eclectic in September. Romance, mystery, nonfiction—it’s all here. These are my top picks from a very good month.
Balogh, Mary, The Arrangement, Dell, 2013. Somehow, Mary Balogh takes small moments and turns them into a great crisis. If I could figure out how to do that…
This Regency romance starts with two rather big moments—Vincent Hunt returns home from the Napoleonic war permanently blind. He needs to marry to continue his estate, but his mother and sisters are suffocating him. He goes to the country house with only his valet for assistance, so that he can learn how to live on his own.
Because of the mores at the time, he nearly gets trapped into marriage by a conniving family, and a cousin who is living on their charity saves him. The family throws the cousin—our heroine Sophia—onto the street, and that begins the story. A tale of the true worth of people, a tale of appearances, and a tale of surviving difficulties.
Balogh tells the rest of the book in small moments, but those moments become so suspenseful that they made me turn pages quickly. I finished this one in one sitting. Wow, Balogh’s good.
Berg, A. Scott, “A League of His Own,” Vanity Fair, August, 2013. I love A. Scott Berg’s biographies. In my opinion, there aren’t enough of them. We need to clone him or something. Give him extra time in the day. He’s been working on a biography of Woodrow Wilson for 13 years—“without assistants or researchers,” Vanity Fair proclaims as if that’s unusual. Well, it is, and that’s why Berg’s biographies are spectacular.
As someone with a keen interest in history, I have opinions about a lot of the players, and I really loathe Woodrow Wilson for a whole variety of reasons that I won’t go into here. Normally, I wouldn’t even pick up a biography of the man, but I’ll buy this one.
The excerpt that Vanity Fair ran here is about the trip that essentially killed Wilson, a cross-country journey he took to “sell” the League of Nations to the American people. For his efforts, he had a massive stroke, and the U.S. Congress refused any attempt to get the U.S. to participate in the League—which was Wilson’s baby in the first place. Yes, if you’re not aware of how American politics works, we have a history of stupid destructive infighting over all kinds of important things. (In other words, the last few years are really business as usual.)
Anyway, read this excerpt, for Berg’s great writing, for a short history lesson, for a moment in time that feels startlingly contemporary.
Broadbent, Tony, “The Remaining Unknowns,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. I found myself talking about this story for days after I read it. The opening is perfect, the ending superb, and what happens in the middle made me forget the direction Broadbent had initially sent me in which made that ending work. Technique, storytelling, characters, all fantastic. Probably the most impressive story in the volume.
Burke, Jan, “The Amiable Miss Edith Montague,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. Wow, I did not want to like this story. It started like every Golden Age mystery ever written (okay, maybe the sentence-by-sentence writing was better), and I thought, “I’ve read this a million times.”
But I haven’t. And I know people like Miss Edith. Her legacy is a bright and funny one, and it’s also the solution to her murder. This story, the first in the volume for a reason, get me into the volume and had me rapidly turning pages, the best thing I can say about any piece of fiction.
Clark, Rod, “Voiceover,” Rosebud, Summer/Autumn, 2013. The best part of Rosebud magazine is Rod’s opening essays. You never know what you’ll get, but it’ll always be well written and memorable.
This time, Rod wrote about Vietnam. Rod was drafted in 1969, and yet didn’t serve. He says why in this piece. He begins it like this:
“Writing about Vietnam is tough—especially if you didn’t go. It is like throwing fruit at a mountain. The juice and pulp run off the stone, but the enigma remains untouched.”
He goes from there, discussing the divide that still separates people of his generation, the echoes through the generations, and the personal pain of that period. It’s a fantastic essay.
When you finish it, go back a page and read the letter submitted by Bruce Gellerman, who was in the first draft lottery in 1970. Bruce had read Rod’s “Voiceover” in draft form and had to respond to it. Fantastic work, by two excellent writers.
Finder, Joseph, “Heirloom,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. This sly story has a nifty, rather bloody twist to it. I will say nothing more except that it’s one of my favorites in the entire volume.
George, Elizabeth, Believing The Lie, NAL, Kindle edition, 2011. Learned something about myself when I read this book. I had started it right after it came out in 2011. Our friend Bill had just died, and everything was in turmoil. I tried to read this novel and found it dull and unpleasant.
Fast forward two years. The next George novel is about to come out, and it features one of my favorite characters of all time, Barbara Havers. I knew I’d read that novel. I also knew that George’s series novels build on each other, so skipping one really isn’t an option.
I decided to gut out Believing The Lie. Well, the early problem I had with the novel was me. More specifically, I couldn’t take any more darkness in my life at that moment. This novel is dark. It’s view on humanity is bleak, and many of the characters, while interesting, are extremely nasty people.
There is redemption—at heart the George novels are usually about redemption—but it takes 600-plus pages to get there, which I was unwilling/unable to do in 2011. I was in the perfect position this summer to read the book, and I loved it. It felt like a completely different novel, even though it wasn’t.
I’ll be honest: I originally bought the book in hardcover, and I didn’t go back to the hardcover version. I’m learning that for books longer than 500 pages, I prefer to read the Kindle/ebook edition, even if I own the hardcover. In fact, I often buy the hardcover anyway for my shelf. I don’t think reading the Kindle version made a difference, but I wasn’t aware of the book’s length or physical weight while reading, which also might have made a psychological difference.
Believing The Lie is one of George’s best books. It really is worth your time.
Gerst, Angela, “The Secret Lives of Books,” The Mystery Box edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. I actually looked at the first line of this story, saw that it was from the point of view of the writer Colette, and mentally rolled my eyes. (Or maybe physically.) Then I did what I always do: I have the story a few paragraphs—and wound up finishing it quickly. I enjoyed the piece a lot. Normally, I would have said that Gerst should have added more of Colette’s voice here, but I think that would have been a mistake. The lovely (and accurate) details were enough. Well done.
Goodrich, Joseph, “Dear Mr. Queen,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. This story about a young writer in school who wants to be a famous mystery writer is dang near perfect. Written in journal entries and submission letters to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the story works beautifully. I loved it all.
Hubbard, S.W., “Mad Blood,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. Often the best stories in an anthology like this are by the newer writers, and this is no exception. “Mad Blood” is breathtaking and powerful. I would have asked the author to tweak one or two things, but that’s not allowed in this format. The story is memorable either way. One of the best in the volume.
Kelly, Mary Anne, “Angelina,” The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. If I tell you much more than the fact that I found this well-written story memorable, I’m going to ruin it. So—go read it yourself.
Levy, Ariel, “Trial by Twitter,” The New Yorker, August 5, 2013. Once upon a time in a land without computers, gossip spread by word of mouth. Literally. It still does in some places, like the town I live in. You can’t get the local news from the local newspaper. You have to know someone who knows someone.
That’s changing on a wide scale. High school kids don’t realize how everyone can have access to their texts, photos, postings, and what that really means for their futures. Then there are a new crop of online vigilantes who believe they have to police the world for the rest of us. When both kinds of people cross paths, well, then you have the makings of a disaster—for everyone involved.
Levy’s article takes on the Steubenville rape case, its national implications, the events that occurred, and the person who might have lost the most here. (The rape victim, who has been identified nationally and forever online.) It’s a sad article in many ways, but it’s also a glimpse into 2013, and maybe our future. Worth reading, imho.
Love, Matt, Sometimes A Great Movie: Paul Newman, Ken Kesey and the Filming of the Great Oregon Novel, Nestucca Spit Press, 2012. Matt Love’s book chronicles the filming of Sometimes A Great Notion, based on the Ken Kesey book of the same name, in 1970. I had never heard of the film until I moved to Oregon. The film hadn’t done well, and honestly, it shouldn’t have. It has one really amazing sequence—the death of a major character by slow drowning—which you will never ever forget. Otherwise, it’s a shrug film, something you should see if you want to be a completest in your viewing of Henry Fonda and Paul Newman films.
The thing is: this movie was filmed near my house. In fact, there’s a house on the Siletz River called The Movie House. It was built for the film, with retractable walls, no foundation, no plumbing and no electricity. Over the years, owners have added the foundation, plumbing and electricity, and people have lived there. It’s now a vacation rental, and it’s a local curiosity.
Fast forward to the Bob’s Beach Books mass signing in August. Matt Love was there, along with this book. I bought it and he signed it for me. Then I sat down to read it.
Matt Love writes a lot of Oregon-centric books about “events” in Oregon history. I have many of his titles because I write books set in Oregon and he’s already done some of the preliminary work for me. Plus, he can write.
The structure he chose for this book is fantastic. It all centers around a rumor about Paul Newman’s behavior while he was here, and how Love tried to track down the truth of that story. I won’t spoil it, but it unifies the book in voice, tone, and structure in a way that most nonfiction writers would never think of doing. I blew through the book in one night.
I must share one paragraph because it shows Love’s attitude throughout the book:
“As I worked on this project, it often occurred to me that I had chosen a highly dubious editorial strategy for producing a successful regional book: writing about an obscure, forgotten and mediocre forty-one year-old film that most people had never seen, would never see, or had simply forgotten about.”
So why did he do it? He was interested, which makes the book interesting. And, he wants to get people to read the Kesey novel. I never have, but I’m thinking about it now. So he achieved that goal.
The book has lots of pictures, some excellent, some grainy. The production values aren’t up to the writing (and please, next time, hire a different copy editor), but if you’re a film buff or an Oregon Coast aficionado, or someone who likes good writing, pick up this book. You’ll enjoy it.
Mambretti, Catherine, “The Very Private Detectress,” The Mystery Box edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. Lovely, lovely story about the Pinkerton Agency, and a challenge a woman issues Allan Pinkerton. If I say too much more, I ruin the story. So go, read. Enjoy.
Meltzer, Brad, The Mystery Box, Grand Central, 2013. This is one of Mystery Writers of America’s anthologies. The way they work is that the editor invites some favorite authors and the rest of the volume gets filled with stories picked by a committee. Sometimes the committee picks totally mediocre fare, and the anthology doesn’t work. This time, the committee was on its game. There wasn’t a mediocre story in the volume. A few weren’t to my taste, but that’s normal in any anthology.
The stories I truly love, I’ve recommended elsewhere in this list. But the volume itself is marvelous. Pick it up for a wonderful, enjoyable read.
Ross, Alex, “Othello’s Daughter,” The New Yorker, July 29, 2013. Fascinating article on African-American entertainers in the 19th century, mostly focusing on a highly acclaimed Shakespearean actor. Ira Aldridge became a big name in Europe, even though he was American, and one of his daughters went on to be an opera singer. This is a fascinating corner of American entertainment history, and well worth the read.
Ross, Stephen, “The Birdhouse,” The Mystery Box edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central, 2013. A soldier, completely paralyzed in WW2, witnesses a murder outside his window at the convalescent home. He figures out that there’s a conspiracy, but he can’t tell anyone about it. This story—about a person trapped inside his own body—is brilliantly done. I won’t ruin the ending for you except to say that it’s perfect.
Seal, Mark, “To Steal A Mockingbird,” Vanity Fair, August, 2013. If you’re a writer and you want an agent to take care of you, then read this article and abandon your silly dream. As people who read this list know, I’m always months behind in my magazine reading, so as I read this article, the news came out that Harper Lee and her former agent settled this case out of court. No more news was released, and we probably won’t learn what the real outcome was until some enterprising biographer (Hey, A. Scott Berg!) does the research and finds out what really happened.
Anyway, long story short, the rights to Harper Lee’s classic, which still sells hundreds of thousands of copies per year, somehow got assigned to her agent. If you don’t understand how this can happen—how simple it is to assign a copyright, then look at the Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press. Lee, in her eighties and in an assisted care facility, essentially was preyed upon like so many older folks are, by a younger ethically challenged man. This article doesn’t just cover the Lee issues. There are some comments by the children of John Steinbeck as well.
If this sort of thing doesn’t scare you writers, then you’ve either got your head in the sand or you know better than to sign with someone like this guy—right now. Have you thought about what will happen to you when you get older? If your judgment becomes impaired? Hmmmm?????