February 2009 Recommended Reading List

On Writing Recommended Reading

Not only was February a short month, it was also a busy month for me.  I read a number of books that I liked but wouldn’t recommend simply because they’re not memorable.  And then there were all the research materials, none of which would interest anyone but me.

So the list is a bit short, but within it, you’ll find some great works.

February, 2009

Allyn, Doug, “An Early Christmas,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2009.  I thought I was ahead of Doug in this story.  I had figured out whodunnit and why, and as I read, wondered what made this a Doug Allyn story, as opposed to anyone’s story.  There was a small twist, one that I couldn’t believe no one else saw, but I figured, that’s enough.

Then I got to the last five paragraphs, which snapped the story into place. They might be too subtle for most readers (it’s a perfectly good story, even if you don’t understand them), but it’s worth going back, rereading, and rethinking everything he told you in this carefully laid-out piece.

Well done.

Delinsky, Barbara, An Accidental Woman, Pocket Books, 2003.  An Accidental Woman is set in the same town as Delinsky’s earlier book, Lake News, which I liked a great deal.  This one focuses on one of my favorite storylines—a woman in town with a hidden past gets arrested when that past catches up with her.  Interestingly, she is not the main character of the novel.  The main character is a woman injured in a snowmobiling accident years before, and who is now in a wheelchair, along with her family, and the investigative journalist who is interested in her (and who may have spilled the beans on the other woman).  It’s a compelling read.  I finished the book in two quick sessions, and am not sure if this is going to lead to another Delinsky binge.  (I tend to read her books in big lumps and then stop for a while.)  Time will tell.

Estleman, Loren D., “Wolfe at the Door,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February, 2009.  Another in the series of stories that honor the Nero Wolfe stories.  This one is about identity theft (which is funny, since our hero is actually taking Nero Wolfe’s identity as best he can) and is so short, I dare not say much more. Except read it.

Hockensmith, Steve, “Greetings from Purgatory,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February 2009.  Steven Hockensmith is writing a series of stories (and novels) about two Sherlock Holmes fans in the old West.  The two Amlingmeyer brothers, Big Red and Old Red, started as rather hapless characters and, over the series, have become pretty good detectives.  Big Red can read, and read he does to his older brother. They’ve modeled their lives on Sherlock Holmes, with Big Red playing Watson, and Big Red has written up their adventures for the Smythe and Associates Publishing Company.

By the time of this story, they’ve solved many mysteries around the West, and have actually published a few of their adventures. Still, the stories come in the form of letters to the publisher, and they’re marvelous. This is a bridge story between the most recent novel and (I’m guessing) the next. The overall idea doesn’t get resolved, but the small mystery does, and it’s quite satisfying, mostly because we’re dealing such fun characters. 

Kerrigan, R.W., “The Last Drop,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February, 2009.  An adventure mystery that takes place in the world of white water kayaking.  Kerrigan gets all the details right, and throws in a few of his own. The mystery is tight, the characters excellent.  A memorable piece of short fiction that will make you feel like you’ve actually been in rough water.

Tenn, William, “—and a kind of excuse-it-please memoir,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March, 2009.  Gordon Van Gelder is doing a nifty thing for F&SF’s 60th anniversary year.  He’s having people who were in some way connected with the magazine write introductions to classic reprints from those people’s years with the magazine.  William Tenn’s essay introduces the Robert Bloch story,  “That Hellbound Train,” which, if you’ve never read it, you should. 

What I didn’t know—and I’m a former editor of F&SF—is that for about a year in the 1950s, William Tenn edited the magazine.  I had thought that the editorship went from Anthony Boucher to Avram Davidson to Ed Ferman to me to Gordon Van Gelder.  I did not know that Tenn took over for Cyril Kornbluth, who took over for Boucher but (so far as I can tell) never managed to put out an issue before his fatal heart attack. (Kornbluth’s, not Boucher’s.)  I also didn’t know that Tenn was called in on an emergency basis to take over the magazine.

Fascinating sf history all.  But even better is Tenn’s analysis of what it takes for a writer to become an editor.  And even better than that is how it feels.  Excellent essay, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Williamson, Jack, Wonder’s Child:  My Life in Science Fiction, Bluejay Books, 1985.  Jack Williamson won a Hugo for this memoir, and the Hugo was richly deserved. The book is marvelous. 

By the time Jack died, I had known him for two decades. Which is amazing, since he was in his seventies when I met him.  He had completed this book two years before.

Jack was a painfully shy man and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  In those twenty years, he and I would talk whenever we got together.  I remember many Green Room conversations at various Worldcons, where we went to get a drink between panels, because that might be our only opportunity to converse.

During those conversations, Jack told me a lot about his life. But as I read the autobiography, I realized he had told me the Reader’s Digest Condensed version.  For example, he always said he came to New Mexico in a covered wagon and survived on one of the last frontiers.

But he never told me that he was born in Texas, spent much of his babyhood in Pancho Villa’s Mexico, and nearly died there because he was so far from anything.  Or how much he traveled during the Great Depression.  Or how extensive his experiences were in World War II.

He also never told me about the writers he met and admired, how he felt about Hugo Gernsback who bought his first story and is the father of the science fiction magazines (Jack didn’t like him, which is saying a great deal).

For me, this book was like a long conversation with my old friend.  I missed him every single moment I read the volume.  I wished I could go and ask him for more stories.  I wished I could convince him to write the memoirs of the last 20+ years of his life.  But for some inexplicable reason, I waited years after Jack died to read the memoir.

As a science fiction reader, I found the book wonderfully illuminating.  Jack traveled the entire field of science fiction, literally and figuratively, from one corner of the U.S. to the other visiting writers as well as publishing in everything from the pulps to mainstream hardcover novels, from comic books to movies.  He made his living as a writer during the Great Depression, which I found quite inspiring since I was reading the book piecemeal during the worst of the downturn in December and January.  Jack kept such good records that he actually recorded how much he made each year—which I could plug into the internet calculators and compute in today’s dollars.  He made a great deal of money, especially for a single man with no dependants.

He married late and gained a readymade family, which made him a bit more worried about money.  But he still made the bulk of his living from writing.  The house I had visited in Portales was the house he built fifty years before, remodeled of course, but essentially the same.

Structurally, he did something fascinating for this book.  He began each chapter with the highlights of the year he was about to cover.  Usually the highlights were scientific highlights, so that we readers could compare where science was as opposed to where science fiction was.

He was a science fiction fan his entire life, as well as a hardcore reader and a writer whose career spanned nine decades.

This book is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a very, very long time.  It’s an important history of the sf field, and it’s just an amazing adventure of a man who thought he would never have any.  Highly recommended.