Recommended Reading List: March 2017
I came out of the anthology workshop a little dazed. I read for one day afterwards before starting on the reading I hadn’t finished for the science fiction workshop, coming in April. (I’m reading the year’s bests, below, for the sf workshop.) I also have a lot of editing to do this month, so that takes some of my reading time. Still, I found time to read things other than the assigned reading. (Always a good thing.)
Shortly after the anthology workshop, the Regency binge ended. After reading the Kleypas book (below), I found nothing satisfying. I remembered why I considered one writer (not Kleypas) uneven: the books I bought didn’t have setting or likeable characters or a situation I wanted to read. I’m going to put those books mostly unread in our used bookstore; maybe someone else will want them. Blerg.
Oddly, I went from Regencies to a standalone thriller featuring an assassin. Go figure. 🙂
I tried a Gothic by a once-favorite writer, but she seems to be repeating herself. To say I’m disappointed is a bit of an understatement. I feel a bit like I’m marking time with the novels I’m reading, but I sure am enjoying the short stories that are crossing my desk right now.
So here’s the best of what I read that was actually published (and not in manuscript).
Block, Lawrence, “Some Thoughts on Series Characters,” Mystery Scene, Holiday 2016. I love Lawrence Block’s work, particularly his short stories. They’re perfect little gems. But, as he says, he’s best known for his series books. In this issue of Mystery Scene, he explores the various ways to write a series, which way is best (Spoiler Alert: Depends on what you want to do), and the benefits of all of them. I’d say pick up the entire issue, because this issue also features interviews with David Morrell, who is writing some grand series books, and Lee Child, who writes the Jack Reacher books. You’ll find different advice in those interviews. I like Larry’s advice best, but then, I can’t imagine writing only one character for more than 20 years, so I’m biased. 🙂
Chen, Qiufan, “The Year of The Rat,” translated by Ken Liu, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2016. Creepy, creepy story about young people who are enlisted to fight mutant rats (in the Year of the Rat) on the border. The rats aren’t what they appear to be, and neither is the mission. The ending sent a shiver through me.
Clark, Rod, “Voice Over,” Rosebud, Winter 2016. I love Rod’s essays at the front of his magazine, Rosebud. The essays are always good, and sometimes they’re stellar. This one is stellar. It’s simply about Rod waking up in the middle of the night and stoking the fire in his old farmhouse, but it’s also about so much more than that. (As all the best essays are.) If you’ve never read one of Rod’s “Voice Over” columns, this is the one to start with. Great stuff.
Guran, Paula, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, Prime Books, 2016. I started this book last summer, but got distracted by work. So I assigned it for the upcoming science fiction workshop. The writing here is uniformly good. I love the novella form more than any other form. I think it’s perfect for storytelling. And, aside from my own, I had not had time to read the other stories when they were first published, so they’re all new to me. Some stood out more than others, and I recommended them either below, or before (“Binti” is missing from this month’s list because I recommended it previously. That’s a hell of a story). If you want to see the state of sf & f right now, this is an excellent example of the best of the best.
Hao, Jingfang, “Folding Beijing,” (translated by Ken Liu) The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1, edited by Neil Clarke, Night Shade Books, 2016. Yes, yes, I know. This story won the Hugo. Sue me. I’m behind in my reading. Actually, I’ve been behind for a number of years now on the Year’s Bests because of my own editing stuff and building several businesses. It feels good to be back reading the books, especially for stories like this one.
I think “Folding Beijing” is one of the best sf stories I’ve read ever. Not the best of the year, not the best of the decade. Ever. It’s warm and fascinating. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, the characters are spectacular, and the storytelling is amazing. I couldn’t put this story down. I wasn’t admiring it from a distance, like I sometimes do when I’m reading sf. I was living in this fascinating world where cities can and do fold, and people share their city-living-space (like people sometimes share beds in a rooming house). Great stuff. Read it. Now.
Kleypas, Lisa, Devil in Spring, Avon, 2017. Even though it’s set in Victorian London, this romance feels more like a Regency than a historical romance. Still, for the most part, Kleypas’s historical details ring true. (Although she catapulted me out of the book with a dialog about carrot cake. Um, no. Not in Victorian England.) I don’t read “historical” romance for the history, though. Not any more. History seems to have gone out the window with most historical romance writers. Kleypas is a rare exception.
The draw in this book are the characters. They’re wonderful. Pandora Ravenel designs board games, and really doesn’t care about clothes or men or socializing at all. She chafes at the strictures of society, and when our hero asks her to marry him, she reacts in horror because she says–correctly–she will cease to be a person, and she will lose everything. That becomes the central problem of the second half of this novel, making it a wonderful and somewhat suspenseful read.
I love Kleypas’s work, and this book is no exception. Made me want to order the next, which wasn’t on preorder when I finished this novel. Dammit.
Kritzer, Naomi, “So Much Cooking,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1, edited by Neil Clarke, Night Shade Books, 2016. Let me be clear. I don’t like end-of-the-world stories (which this is not, but it shares many things in common with them). I don’t like plague stories. I don’t like icky gushy stuff. But this story is about an epidemic–and it might even be called a plague–and oh, boy, is this story wonderful. Told in the guise of a cooking blog, with recipes and frustration and that wonderful tone.
Natalie lives in Minneapolis and has a cooking blog. The bird flu hits, and she must care for her nieces and others in the depth of winter, unable to leave the house for fear of contracting the flu, and still trying to cook and deal with everything. Lovely, perfect tale of a small kind of survival inside a big bad event. Wonderful. Read this one. (Wish I wrote it.)
(First published in Clarkesworld. You can still read the story for free here.)
Malik, Usman T., “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, edited by Paula Guran, Prime Books, 2016. Malik’s story started like a traditional fantasy story, and I don’t have a lot of patience for traditional fantasy from editing F&SF (thank you, burnout) . But I trust Paula, so I gave the story more pages than I usually would. Boy, am I glad that I did. The story is rich and evocative, filled with marvelous characters, and a subtext that becomes the real text at the end. Breathtaking and beautiful, this story is one I’ll remember for a long, long, long time.
Parker, K.J., “The Last Witness,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, edited by Paula Guran, Prime Books, 2016. The opening to this story almost made me stop. Three different paragraphs from the first person point of view, each describing something without a lot of clarity. And then I read the fourth paragraph and figured out what Parker was doing. Brilliant stuff, and so very hard to write with any kind of clarity. Yet, Parker pulled it off.
This is a story about self, the past, memory, and the way the brain works. Is it sf? I don’t know. Is it fantasy? Not a clue. But what I can tell you is that this story is unlike anything I’ve read in years. It’s strong, powerful, and thought-provoking. I’m still mulling it over, and I read it a few days ago. Excellent work.
Smith, Dean Wesley, Ace High, WMG Publishing, 2017. I love Dean’s Cold Poker Gang mystery series. Some of the books are dark, some are light, and they’re all twisted. They’re set in Las Vegas, which Dean knows well. He wrote this book while in Vegas, so the city shimmers throughout.
I worried as I started the book that it would be one of those Pattersonesque serial killer novels, the kind that could never happen in real life. I’m not a fan of those kinds of books. But true to form, Dean took my expectations and smashed them, then smashed them again. The book is impossible to put down, and extremely memorable. It’s a great introduction to the series, so pick it up.