November Recommended Reading List

On Writing Recommended Reading

I had more time for leisure reading in November (although not too much), but didn’t find a lot of novels to my taste.  In fact, I sent two to the used bookstore after 50 pages.  The writing in both was lovely, but the characters in one were so unlikeable as to be impossible to read about.  In the other, there was no main character—at least that I could find.  So off it went.  Too many books, too little time.

After I finished Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Blue Religion, I realized I hadn’t achieved one of my goals this year.  I hadn’t read every issue of the mystery magazines.  Since I’d already read May of 2008, I figured I had a head start on Ellery Queen, so I decided to finish those.  It’s December as I’m writing this, and I’m still reading.  But I am enjoying.

Some good articles in here as well and a wonderful novel, as well as a truly excellent creative nonfiction book.

November, 2008

Allyn, Doug, “Pig Party,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April, 2008.  A rather stunning evocation of college life.  A bartender and a reporter go undercover at a frat party, called a “Pig Party,” because the boys bring the ugliest girls they can find.  Things do not go as anyone expects.  A sad and somewhat shocking tale, by one of our best mystery short story writers.

Buentello, John, “A Certain Recollection,” The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly, Little, Brown, 2008.  “A Certain Recollection” is an amazing short story written from the point of view of a retired detective with Alzheimer’s.  Even though we’re in the detective’s POV for the entire story and he is confused, we are not.  We know what’s going on in his mind, what’s happening in the real world, and what he’s managing to accomplish.    A stunning story, well told.

Carhart, Thad, The Piano Shop on The Left Bank, Random House, 2000.    I discovered this book on top of a pile of old books that our local bookstore owner was going to donate to the library.  He let me take it for free.  Clearly, I didn’t pay enough for it. 

This serendipitous introduction to a wonderful book actually suits the book itself.  The Piano Shop on The Left Bank is a magic shop story, even though it’s nonfiction.  Thad Carhart lived in Paris and walked past this dingy shop every day as he walked his children to school.  One day, he went inside—and his life changed.

Truly, the story follows magic shop tropes.  The owner possesses knowledge that will make Carhart’s life better, and introduces him to a magical heretofore unknown (and unknowable) world.  The Parisian neighborhood, usually not open to strangers, particularly foreigners, gets revealed here bit by bit.  So too does a fascinating cast of characters, from Luc the store’s owner to the drunken piano tuner to the elderly man no one knows who stops in the shop one afternoon, plays a flawless (and extremely difficult) Scarlatti sonata, and then leaves, never to be seen again.

If you want to read a delightful book about music, Paris, or the magic in everyday things, pick up The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.

Connelly, Michael, editor, The Blue Religion, Little, Brown, 2008.  This entire anthology is good, with several stand-outs that have their own listing in this Recommended Reading list.  Find it.  You’ll enjoy it.

Connelly, Michael, “Father’s Day,” The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly, Little, Brown, 2008.  I read this story with one eye half open.  Connelly never shies away from difficult subjects and he tackles a big one here:  a child dies “forgotten” by his father in an overheated car.  While such cases are usually homicides, they’re generally of the negligent kind.  (And I usually don’t read about them, even the true ones [the horrible ones] that show up in the newspaper.)  Connelly caught me on the first sentence—“The victim’s tiny body was left alone in the emergency room”—and held me all the way to the upsetting ending.  His L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch handled the case, and even the hard-bitten Bosch feels his way through this one.  Extremely good.

Frederickson, Jack, “A Change in His Heart,” The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly, Little, Brown, 2008.  When I started this story, I didn’t like it.  I didn’t care for the characters and I wasn’t sure about the set-up.  But something in the prose kept me reading.  Midway through, I realized I was enjoying the piece, even though I didn’t care for anyone I was reading about.  By the end, I thought it was one of the best stories I’d read this year.  The characters had to be unsympathetic for the story to work as well as it did.   (Gradually, one character become extremely sympathetic.) An excellent story about someone getting his comeuppance—and in a rather startling way.

Goodman, Carol, The Night Villa, Ballantine Books, 2008. I have liked all six of Carol Goodman’s novels.  She writes a literate gothic of the type that Phyllis Whitney used to write.  Of course, the books aren’t marketed that way.  They’re marketed mainstream, with literary covers.

I picked up the first, The Lake of Dead Languages, because of the marvelous title (something she hasn’t duplicated since), and found it to be the sort of book I’d been craving but no one was writing.  Her heroines are always literate, often teachers/professors/writers, and always interesting.  Usually their field of study factors into the book.   The books themselves follow a predictable pattern—one man seems untrustworthy, but is trustworthy, and one man isn’t trustworthy, but is somehow appealing—but even that’s comforting.

In The Night Villa, Goodman takes us to Capri where Sophie Chase, the protagonist, is studying documents found in a dig near Mount Vesuvius.  She translates the documents for us, giving us parallel storylines of a slave girl and scholar days before Vesuvius erupts (and buries the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum), as well as the story of Sophie herself who, just before she left, survived a shooting at the university where she teaches.

The historical details are fascinating, and threaten to overwhelm the modern tale.  The setting is equally fascinating.  Oddly enough, I started this novel just before researching Ancient Rome for a large project, so everything dovetailed beautifully.  It was as if she made the dry historical texts I’ve been reading come to vivid life.  Rarely does my leisure reading and my research come together in this way, and that added to my pleasure in the volume.

King, Laurie R., “The Fool,” The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly, Little, Brown, 2008.  King uses characters from other stories for this one, and I still don’t feel lost. The most compelling character is the title character, a homeless man who speaks in quotations.  How she managed to write this and pull it off, I have no idea, but it’s marvelous.  Apparently this character has appeared in other stories, and now I’m going to go look for them.

Le Carré, John, “The Madness of Spies,” The New Yorker, September 29, 2008.  A bleak personal essay on an aspect of Le Carré’s personal history as a spy before he became a bestselling novelist.  Slowly, Le Carré realized that a number of the people he was working with were delusional.  He explains how he came to these conclusions and what impact (if any) this may have had on history.

He has this lovely passage a few paragraphs from the end, “Faith in spies is mystical, fuelled by fantasy and halfway to religion.” The entire essay deals with the way that faith gets in the way of dealing with the realities of paranoia and madness that lie at the heart of the spying game.

The essay is interesting to writers, of course, because he describes how he tried to debunk the faith in spies in a few of his novels and how he failed.  He also talks about which bits and pieces of his past he used in various stories.  Fascinating stuff, and timely too.

Resnick, Mike, “Article of Faith,” Jim Baen’s Universe, October, 2008.  Mike’s stories are always good, but every year, he writes one that just blows me away.  “Article of Faith” is that story.  (Okay, he had one other, back in the early part of the year—see early Recommended Reading lists.)  Mike let me read this one before it hit Baen’s Universe, so I’ve been waiting to tell folks about it.  Yes, it’s a robot story, but it’s a powerful one.  Go look it up—and then subscribe!