July Recommended Reading List

On Writing Recommended Reading

A great month for reading until the last week or so, when I got bogged down in a book by one of my favorite authors. Had anyone else written it, I would have quit on page 100, but I was convinced it would get better (based on her track record). It didn’t, but I slogged through. I was relieved to leave it and read a few children’s books afterwards just to clear my palate.

Otherwise I had a lot of fun. Excellent books here, a few of which surprised me—in a good way.

July, 2008

Calonita, Jen, Secrets of My Hollywood Life: On Location, Little, Brown, 2007. I had read the earler volume, Calonita’s debut novel, Secrets of My Hollywood Life. While I liked it well enough to buy the next book, I described it to friends as Princess Diaries meets Hollywood.

In the second volume, Calonita finds her own voice and her own story to tell. Our heroine, Kaitlin Burke, teen celebrity, has a heck of a problem. She’s working on a film where everyone seems to hate her, even her assistants. Stories leak to the tabloids, high jinks ensue, and in the end all is made right. But the journey is original and a great deal of fun.

I’m buying the next volume the minute I hit the bookstore, and putting Calonita on my to-read list for every time a new book comes out.

Connelly, Michael, The Brass Verdict, Little, Brown, October, 2008. Yet another book that’s not been released. That’s the benefit of having a friend who goes to Book Expo and brings you back autographed copies of your favorite authors’ works.

The Brass Verdict takes two of Connelly’s characters, his detective Harry Bosch and defense attorney Mickey Haller, and brings them together in the same novel. The novel is truly a legal thriller, written in first person from Haller’s point of view. It becomes clear by the end why Connelly chose that technique.

The book is a fascinating balancing act between a mystery reader’s expectation of justice and a defense attorney’s job (which is to make sure everyone accused of a crime gets to be treated as innocent in court [even if they’re not]).

The book is so well written, the Los Angeles venues so well drawn that the morning after I finished, I woke up thinking I had actually seen the murder house on television the day before. It’s difficult for an author to achieve such vivid detail without sacrificing story, and Connelly does it here without using an extra word or sacrificing an ounce of plot.

Good book, great story. Recommended.

Cowell, Alan S., The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder, August 2008. This is the account of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who was poisoned by polonium in London in 2006. Intriguing for a variety of reasons: the examination of an ex-patriot’s life in London, the personal impact of the fall of the Soviet Union on one of its partisans, and the details of the murder and subsequent investigation.

I’d followed this thing in the press because it was so bizarre—murdered with a radioactive isotope in a hotel bar in London—and the way that the police were able to track the killers using the radiation. The book goes deeper into all of that, and postulates reasons for the death.

Once I got used to Cowell’s distinctly British style, I read quickly. Fascinating.

Estleman, Loren D., “The Profane Angel,” Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Best Crime and Mystery Stories, Pegasus, 2008. An old Hollywood story, filled with half-remembered movie stars and long gone glamour. Touching and warm, and just a bit surprising.

Ferriolo, Jack D., The Big Splash, Amulet, September, 2008. Another proof. This one caught me right after the Big Name debacle mentioned in my introduction. The Big Splash is for the 10-14 age group, but I think adults will like it too. In fact, adults might like it better, since this is an homage to The Big Sleep, set in Middle School.

The voice is pure Chandler, and all the hard-boiled tropes are here. Only the head mobster is a bully who makes his money selling fake hall passes, the beautiful bad girl is “twelve but looks fourteen” and wields a mean squirt gun. Our hero is the jaded son of a single parent who is trying to hold the entire corrupt world together with the force of his morality, and only just succeeding.

It’s clever and it’s fun, and it makes more sense than The Big Sleep. This reads like the start of a series, one that I will continue to follow.

Franklin, Ariana, The Serpent’s Tale, Putnam, 2008. I’d read Ariana Franklin’s first book in this mystery series set in England in the 12th century. The title of that one caught me: Mistress of the Art of Death. The series follows a woman trained in medicine in Salerno, where a medical college existed. Those trained in the art of death are essentially forensic pathologists.

The first book led me to this one, which is wonderful. Characters include Eleanor of Aquitane, Henry the Second as well as a motley crew of heroine, her smelly dog, her infant daughter, some English helpmeets and a Muslim man who pretends to be the doctor (and who pretends he can’t speak English) so that the English will accept her.

The history’s good, the descriptions/settings are wonderful, the history of medicine accurate so far as I can tell, and the whodunnits just marvelous. Highly recommended.

Goonan, Kathleen Ann, “Memory Dog,” Asimov’s April/May, 2008. Oh, how I wanted to hate this story. It starts dark—the world has ended and an important child has died—and it threatens to go darker. The POV character is an augmented dog. If the story went true to most sf published in the last two decades, this dark story would become an unbearable read.

But Kathleen’s prose kept me in the story, for which I am now quite grateful. Because the story took the cliches of the past twenty to thirty years and turned them upside down.

Powerful, insightful, and worth the price of the entire issue.

Gorman, Ed and Martin H. Greenberg, Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Best Crime and Mystery Stories, Pegasus, 2008. Normally when I read a year’s best volume, I skip a few stories that just aren’t to my taste, find a few brilliant stories, and stop reading a handful midway through because they’re not holding my interest. I only stopped reading one story in this volume and that was because I figured out where it was going and I didn’t want to go there. (I even skipped a bit ahead to make sure I was right.) Otherwise, I didn’t skip a story. I found a few that I really liked (mentioned elsewhere on this list) and the rest were enjoyable reads. This is my favorite year’s best mystery volume each year and that’s partly because Ed and Marty rarely publish a bad story. The other year’s best mystery volumes (and most of the ones in sf/f and mainstream) are just too uneven, with as many unreadable stories as brilliant ones.

I’m not sure if I short-changed some of the authors in this volume by not mentioning them individually. The quality in this book is so high that I might have failed to mention them because they didn’t stand out here—although they would have in the other year’s best volumes. Buy it. Read it. It’s good.

King, Stephen, editor, Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. The volume sags a bit toward the middle, with several beautifully written stories that lose track of their plot. But as I thought about the book overall, I realized the ratio of excellent stories to mediocre ones is extremely high. If this were one of the previous volumes of this anthology, I would have been happy with the saggy stories—there’s a lot about them to recommend. The problem here is that they’re surrounded by such good stories that the sag is much more noticeable.

I only gave up on two stories, which is considerably fewer than some sf/f year’s bests I’ve read—and one of them I gave up on because I simply can’t stomach the topic (nothing to do with the writing/author/plot at all).

Usually, I’m happy if I enjoy about half of the stories in an anthology. I enjoyed considerably more here, and recommended a surprising number of them. (See the listings below and in June & May.)

When this anthology has a good overall editor—as it did this year—the memorable stories are among the best I’ve ever read. (I still recommend Ha Jin’s “When Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” from a previous volume as one of the best clash of culture stories I’ve read outside of sf.) The anthology covers the range of fiction– mainstream, mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction—just like a volume that calls itself the year’s best stories (without genre label) should do. In here, you’ll find historical tales, werewolf stories, futuristic tales, and some meaty crime stories in addition to the stories of daily life.

Highly recommended.

Levinson, Richard, “A Prisoner of Memory,” Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Best Crime and Mystery Stories, Pegasus, 2008. Another old Hollywood story. Gorman & Greenburg chose it as the title story of the collection and for good reason. If I say too much more, I’ll spoil it. So all I’ll say is read it.

Pollack, Eileen, “The Bris,” Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. If I say too much about this story, I ruin it for you. Read it. It’s one of the best in the volume. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wince, and you’ll understand. Enough said.

Russo, Richard, “The Horseman,” Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. The title didn’t do much for me. Still doesn’t. I had to go back to the volume to remember what the title is.

But the rest of the story is marvelous. Richard Russo is one of my favorite writers, whether he’s focusing on small towns or on academia. Here his target is not just academia, but academic writing and research.

Great insights about writing in here. Great insights about living. If you’re a writer, you should read this story.

Tunstall, Tricia, Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson, Simon and Schuster, April, 2008. My husband picked up this book when it was on my reading pile and shook it at me. “Someone actually published a book about piano lessons?” he asked.

Not only did someone publish it, but it’s wonderful. The last chapter actually made me cry.

If you’ve ever taken a music lesson—or taught one—buy this book. If you wonder what music lessons are like, buy this book. If you want to read good literary non fiction, buy this book.

It is, bar none, the best book I’ve read all year.

Van Pelt, James, “Harvest,” Alembical, Paper Golem, November 2008. If we’re lucky, Alembical will be a new novella series—much needed in the sf field. This first volume, which will premiere at World Fantasy Con, has four stories, by excellent writers. The story that caught me is James Van Pelt’s “Harvest.” Van Pelt manages to catch the ambivalence that is the teenage years, with a tender look at friendship, mixed with the horrors of family life. This story has compassion, which so many dark stories do not, and the compassion gives it great power.