I hit upon a theme in my reading this month, and it wasn’t deliberate. I realized that I love writers who challenge themselves. They reach for something that might just be out of their grasp. Sometimes they hit, and sometimes they miss.
Mostly, I don’t recommend the misses. I sometimes bitch about them in this little introduction without the author’s name. I read three misses this month, and I’m actually recommending one of them, because it has a lot of good stuff in it—and it was the novel of the month among my mystery reading friends. We all talked about it spontaneously, and they brought it up first.
A few of the novels I recommended this month are reaches-for-the-stars—and they succeeded. I love it when a plan comes together.
That makes most of my November reading sound incredibly exciting. It wasn’t. Much of what I read, particularly the nonfiction books, were great research or lacked the insight that the premise promised. I wasn’t disappointed, but I won’t recommend that you slog through those titles.
Still, a great month of reading. Here’s the best of the best—plus one most-discussed.
Butcher, Jim, Ghost Story, Ace Books mass market paperback, 2012. I approached this book with great reservations. I had read all of the other books in the Dresden files, and pretty much gave up after Changes. It wasn’t that I disliked the ending (like other fans had); it was that the early promise of the series was gone. I wanted to read about a snarky Chicago wizard detective, not a wizard superhero who goes into other realms.
I tried dozens of other urban fantasy writers and still haven’t found the detective stories I’m looking for. Then I read some of Butcher’s short fiction in various anthologies, and remembered how much I liked Harry Dresden, the character. So, I figured, if I could get past my wants and desires and see the series for what it is not what I wanted it to be, then I might enjoy Ghost Story. I honestly expected to quit halfway through.
Instead, I devoured the book in a few sittings. (It’s 600 pages in the paperback edition, and I have a life.) It’s a wonderful reflection of what happens after someone dies, and it does some nifty tricky things with its ending that are unusual for Butcher.
There are a lot of echoes to Our Town and It’s A Wonderful Life, which are just perfect here. And a bit heartbreaking. That adds a richness to the book that wasn’t present in the earlier volumes.
I used to joke with another Dresden reader that Harry would meet the Big Evil, nearly die, then save the world, and go to the next adventure. (Which, honestly, got tedious.) In this book, Harry can’t do much. He’s a spirit (not really a ghost—that’s part of the plot), so he’s pretty helpless in the final battle. Which is good. And yes, he nearly dies, but he’s not the one who saves the world this time (also good).
By taking away all of Dresden’s tools and making him rethink his attitude toward life, the book got better rather than worse. And kudos to Jim Butcher for the reimagining of his hero. I’ll read the next, not expecting a wizard detective, but a trapped wizard superhero, and I’ll be okay.
Dubé, Marcelle, Lincoln City Blues, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition. 2012. Marcelle is one of the most charming mystery writers I know. She writes deceptively quiet stories that have a real bite to them. I first read this story in a workshop, and still remember it years later. It’s a classic mystery, which starts with a woman walking into an office, and one you’ll remember for a long time as well.
Dubé, Marcelle, McKell’s Christmas, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition. 2013. McKell, a cop in Manitoba, finally gets a Christmas Eve off. He has dinner with his girlfriend’s friends. One friend brings a new boyfriend, and tensions rise—just not in the way you’d expect. The Canadian setting is real, the mystery is fascinating, and the characters excellent. Pick this one up.
Grisham, John, Sycamore Row, Doubleday, 2013. Doubleday’s billing Sycamore Row as a sequel to A Time To Kill, which is just plain wrong. Set in the same milieu as A Time To Kill, with the same characters, Sycamore Row is a different story altogether. You don’t have to read one to understand the other.
I tell you this because I’m not a big fan of A Time To Kill. I thought it was an ambitious novel that needed work (mostly structural work). So, the advertising campaign made me put the Grisham at the bottom of this month’s read-immediately pile.
I finally yanked it out because I was in a legal thriller mood.
Sycamore Row isn’t a legal thriller; it’s a mystery novel—or rather, a crime novel. It does what crime novels do best: it looks at our society while telling a great story. It does revolve around the law, however, not around a murder or an obvious crime. The crime becomes obvious later.
In Grisham’s fictional Ford County, Mississippi, the richest man in the area commits suicide. The day before he died, he mailed a copy of a brand-new handwritten will to our hero, Jake Brigance.
My only quibble with the novel is something that the lawyers in this book say to each other. In all States, the lawyers claim, the desires of the deceased take precedence.
Nope! Not in Oregon. The strangeness of Oregon estate law takes the desires of the deceased and tosses them out the window. We dealt with that for six months after Bill Trojan died.
So, after screaming at the book for half an hour (and still bitching about it here), I continued reading, figuring that Mississippi lawyer John Grisham knew Mississippi law at least. And the story progressed, dark and filled with family secrets, lots of drama, and some things impossible to put down.
I figured out what was going on from about page 75. I figure folks with any knowledge of African-American history in this country will know exactly what’s going on. Most mainstream reviewers of the book (white folks, mostly) had no idea, so the ending was a Big Reveal to them.
Even without the Big Reveal, the book works. It’s powerful and extremely well-written.
Back to my introduction, this is a reach-for-the-stars book, and Grisham succeeds. It’s a tremendous novel.
Patterson, Kent, “The Wereyam,” A Fantastic Holiday Season, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, WordFire Press, 2013. Kevin put together a holiday anthology of the stories that the writers who used to gather for our Christmas holiday parties wrote and read to each other for those gatherings. Kent’s “The Wereyam” is one of my favorites, so when the book arrived, I sat down and reread this story immediately. It not only holds up, it’s better than I remember.
We lost Kent in 1995, and while it was hard on all of us personally, I think of the loss to writing, and I mourn. He was just getting started in what would have been a fantastic career, and he died suddenly. I’m so glad that this story has been reprinted. Take a look. See if you don’t love it too.
Reed, Annie, The New Year That Almost Wasn’t, A Diz & Dee Mystery, Thunder Valley Press, 2013. I love Diz & Dee so much that I bought one of the stories for Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that about a year ago, Annie had written one and I had missed it! I ordered it immediately, read it immediately, and enjoyed immensely.
The woman pregnant with the New Year’s baby goes missing. Not the first baby born in the year, but the baby who will become the ancient guy by December 31. Great concept, and it becomes even greater when we find out what happens to the ancient guy when his job is done. I’m not going to spoil it. Read this one.
Smith, Dean Wesley, Dead Money, WMG Publishing, 2013. I love this book. Dean decided to write a thriller set in the world of poker, a world he knows very well, having played professional poker for decades. His character, Doc Hill, spends his summers in the Idaho wilderness and his winters playing poker. Dean captures both Idaho here, and the world of professional poker. The book itself has the structure of a poker tournament, and the stakes are high. Once you start this novel, you won’t be able to put it down. If you like thrillers and you’re looking for something that’s different from all those serial killer novels, then this is the book for you.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “A Pity About The Delusion,” Smith’s Monthly, November, 2013. Powerful short story set in the same world as Dean’s Dust & Kisses novel (which is out in the October issue, and will be released in January as a standalone). This story stands alone too. It takes place several years after the world has ended—kinda sorta—and one of the survivors is finally able to look into what happened to her parents. A short, sharp shock of a story. Worth your time.
Smith, Martin Cruz, Tatiana, Simon & Schuster, 2013. I read this slim volume very fast. I was going to read all of the Arkadey Renko novels in order, but this one’s subject fascinated me and honestly, I’ve been having trouble finding my way through the Cuba book. So, when this book arrived, I read it immediately. It has a surprise in the middle that I truly did not expect, even though it was there in every sentence. I also learned about Kaliningrad, which I had never heard of. The map on the end papers is fascinating all by itself.
Excellent story, and utterly spectacular writing. I read parts of this book out loud to Dean because it was so well written. When a writer can combine fantastic writing (yes, blog readers, sentences) with a fantastic story and great characters, then he’s working at the top of his game. Clearly Martin Cruz Smith is. Check this one out.
Turow, Scott, Identical, Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Honestly, I think this book is an ambitious failure. I had it on the recommended reading list, then I took it off the list, then put it back on the list, because I found myself mentioning it in relation to other books. Identical is one of the books I’ve been talking to other readers about this month, which all by itself makes the book worth recommending.
The book’s about a murder in the past, which one identical twin goes to prison for and the other doesn’t. If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, the book won’t surprise you. But the characters are interesting (in a good way), and the book is hard to put down.
I think ambitious failure novels are worthwhile reads. I love to see authors stretch and try and do their best to grow. I think that’s what Turow was doing here.
But, let me address Mr. Turow directly as both a reader and an editor. Mr. Turow, you needed a line editor. I know you used to have one at Farrar Straus Giroux because that was the culture of that particular publishing house. I doubt Grand Central believes they can force you to use one.
Use one. The unclear antecedents (however deliberate) and the typos were truly distracting. And not just to me. Everyone I know who has read the novel has brought this up before I did. I know you were trying something hard here, but you needed assistance, and your publisher (for whatever reason) didn’t give it to you. I hope you fix that problem before the paperback comes out.