Recommended Reading List January 2009

On Writing Recommended Reading

Once again, I’ve hit a series of novels by favorite authors that just aren’t up to my expectations. And again, the problem is endings. One novel I read this month had a spectacular middle (and we always teach new writers that readers will never get to the middle if the beginning isn’t strong—not true if the writer is established and is one of your favorites), but a mediocre beginning and a horrible ending ruined the book’s promise.

How horrible was the ending? I didn’t know the book had ended until I turned the page. The book just stopped. It was a mystery. Our heroine doesn’t solve the crime; someone else does. The villain dies at the hands of someone we’ve never seen before, and the fractured family relationships are left unresolved. The book itself ends with two pages of acknowledgements and a one-page biography of the author. I thought there was at least that much of the novel left until I saw the word “Acknowledgement.” Don’t know if the author had any idea the book was flawed. Don’t know if the editor had the guts to say so (this author is a bestseller). At least this book didn’t make me angry. It just disappointed me.

Same with the YA I read afterwards. It was a funny book with a solid underlying theme about death and dying. But the tone and the ending didn’t work together. The tone says light. The ending was heavy (the dying person did. Die, that is. But all along our heroine kept denying the possibility). This struck me as a case of an Author With A Message, and the message trumped the storytelling. Since the author is new to me, what this means is that I won’t be picking up her next book. Ooops.Looks like I may have to do another essay on Reader Expectations.

On a positive note, I finally managed to finish my 2008 goal of reading each issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Of course, it took me thirteen months….

Here’s what I recommend.

January, 2009

Estleman, Loren D., “The Boy Who Cried Wolfe,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October, 2008. This is another in Estleman’s series of stories about a Nero Wolfe wannabe and his sidekick. After reading the first in the series, I hoped (in my recommended reading list, no less) for more. Seems I got my wish. I really like this series. It’s fun, the characters are vivid, and the mysteries clever. Worth reading.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, “Family Matters,” The New Yorker, December 1, 2008. A fascinating essay on ancestry and its impact on us, and on familial memory. This is a topic that’s always interested me, and certain types of family histories interest me more than others. Gates explores his family’s history, and then takes DNA tests to see if what his family told him is true. Of course, he discovers that some of it is and some of it isn’t. In the middle of it all, he discovers what matters—not just to him, but to the other members of his family as well.

Harvey, John, “Trouble in Mind,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November, 2008. A very disturbing story about an Iraq war vet and his family. Riveting, well done, and impossible to forget.

Howe, Melody Johnson, “What’s It Worth?”, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December, 2008. I seem to love Hollywood mysteries and this is a particularly good example of the genre. The story features Johnson’s series character, a sometimes actress named Diana Poole, and while the crime is fascinating, the Hollywood details even more so (probably because of their accuracy).

Pohl, Frederik, The Way The Future Was: A Memoir, Del Rey 1978. Reading Fred’s interviews in Locus last month inspired me to read this book. We’ve had the book for a long time; I don’t remember where or when we bought it. Over the years, Dean and I have bought a couple of bookstores that were going out of business and kept their inventory, selling the duplicates and the books we don’t want. (I’m not kidding.) I’m assuming we got this book in that fashion.

I’ve glanced at the volume several times over the years. Once to try to figure out exactly what the big 1939 Worldcon fight was all about and once to see exactly how the Futurians started. The beginnings of the Futurians is clear; that 1939 Worldcon fight (which continues among the survivors to this day) is still not something I’m sure about.

No matter. The memoir is excellent. It was a bit uncomfortable to read so much autobiographical material from someone I know (which is probably why I held off reading this in the first place) but at the same time, it’s nice to read stories that I’ve heard finally placed into some kind of context.

For our former students: Read Fred’s analysis of the distribution collapse in the late 1950s. It’s a different take on the crisis than what we taught you, from someone who was there. I learned quite a bit.

Mostly, my reactions varied depending on the section. Fred is my mother’s age, and some of his interests in the Depression and the late 1920s paralleled hers. His words help me understand some of hers. (I’m finding that a lot as I read memoirs of that period.)

Much of the history of science fiction—and Fred was there from the beginning of organized science fiction fandom—is familiar to me. But the trajectory of his career, particularly since he started young (like I did), edited for decades (like I did), and had a business collapse (like I did), and kept writing through all of it, was both familiar and inspiring.

Even more inspiring is the fact that this book ends when Fred is about 58. He’s now in his eighties. He has another 30 years of memoir to write. (And fortunately, he’s doing so.)

Fascinating. Relevent (to me at least), and at times, startling. If you can find a copy, read it. Then when the new autobiography comes out, you’ll want to read that as well. If you’re an aspiring writer, you can see how to sustain a career here. If you’re a long time professional writer, you’ll probably get even more out of the book. And any fan of science fiction—whether you’re a fan of Fred Pohl’s novels or not—should read this book, just for the history of our field. Quite cool.

(And a note: as you can tell from the list, I read a lot of hardcovers. This one, produced 30 years ago, reminded me of the joy the physical product used to be, with its rag cut papers and lovely design. The production values were much higher then which makes the book fun to hold. I don’t want to go back to the costs of making books this way, but I sure enjoyed the actual product as I read it.)

Teller, Joseph, The Tenth Case, Mira, 2008. Teller is a former New York City criminal defense attorney, and so is his character Hamilton J. Walker a.k.a Jaywalker. The plot bogged a bit in the middle and the ending is a tad too Perry Mason for me, but it didn’t matter. I devoured this book in just a few hours—and I’ll be picking up the next Jaywalker book. The characters in this novel are superb, the voice wonderful, and the legal details fascinating. I needed to know how everything was going to turn out, particularly for good old Jaywalker. A fun read and a surprisingly good first novel.

Turnbull, Peter, “Take Death Easy,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December, 2008. I always like Peter Turnbull’s stories and this one is no exception. But what makes “Take Death Easy” stand out for a Turnbull story is its very Victorian use of section headings. For example: “1. Monday—in which…a loathsome man with a loathsome machine makes a loathsome find, and a woman fulfilled becomes a woman haunted.” These headers seem to make sense by the end of the section, but they really make sense by the end of the story, adding to the story’s power. Wow. Hats off not just to a great story but to an excellent technique (that I will probably steal some day [writers like nothing more than stealing techniques]).