February 2010 Recommended Reading List

On Writing Recommended Reading

Travel, workshops, exhaustion.  Many things got in the way of my reading in February.  February wasn’t the reading bonanza that January was.  I did read a few clinkers—more than one all the way through. (Not because I felt I had to finish, but because there was something compelling about the book, just not anything I could recommend.)

The books I did enjoy are listed below, including two stellar nonfiction works.

February, 2010

Bruen, Ken, The Killing of the Tinkers, St. Martins Minotaur, 2005.  Another short bleak novel, beautifully written, with an uncompromising view of the world.  Wonderful stuff.  I laughed aloud in several places, shook my head in surprise, and just enjoyed.  This book is noir, for those of you who don’t know what noir is.  Fiction doesn’t get much darker—or more enjoyable.

Curriden, Mark, and Phillips, Leroy, Jr., Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the Century Lynching That Launched A Hundred Years of Federalism, Anchor Books, 2001.  I read a lot for research and much of what I read is dry, to say the least.  This is anything but dry.  It’s so compelling that I talked to Dean about it the entire time I read the book, exclaiming about it, and wondering why I hadn’t heard about this in my con law or my history classes.

In 1906, Ed Johnson, a black man, was convicted of raping a white woman in Chattanooga, despite having dozens of alibi witnesses.  A mob nearly lynched him right after his arrest.  No blacks served on juries there.  His appointed lawyers were told in no uncertain terms by the trial judge that they could not apply for a change of venue, even though the whole town thought him guilty.  At his trial, a juror stood up and shouted that he wanted to rip the defendant’s heart out right then and there.  At the trial.

His lawyers refused to appeal. Two black lawyers took up the case, but the judge refused to hear the appeal within the time limit for filing. So they went to federal court, asking for a stay. The federal judge wasn’t sure he had jurisdiction (the law hadn’t evolved yet), and stayed the execution long enough to let the lawyers go to the Supreme Court. Which they did.

Surprisingly, the court chose to hear the case—and sent telegrams to the local sheriff as well as the papers and a local magistrate, demanding that Ed Johnson get put into federal custody. Instead, Ed Johnson was lynched.  The locals blamed the Supreme Court for “causing” the lynching with their ruling, and a sign on Johnson’s body—well, I can’t type the foul thing here.

So the Court had to deal with this blatant disregard of its authority, and…you’ll see.  This book is so worth reading.  It’s riveting. The writing is superb. There are two court cases here, and lots of fascinating issues.

Because this was such a big deal at the time, there was a lot of newspaper coverage. The lawyers involved wrote about it, and then there was all the court records. So the wealth of detail in the book is amazing.  A lawyer and a newspaper reporter got together to write this, and the newspaper reporter, Mark Curriden, knows how to tell a story. Or in this case, several stories.

This is an amazing book. If you like history or just a good legal thriller, read this.  I was sorry to see it end.

Larsson, Stieg, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.  I don’t know why I waited so long to read this.  I think it was because of the subject matter as mentioned in the blurb—sex trafficking (which turns out to be a minor, almost unimportant part of the story) and the explosive power of the prologue.   All the reviews have said that this, the second book in Stieg Larsson’s story about Lisbeth Salander, is better than the first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which also made my recommended reading list).  I normally don’t read reviews, but these were hard to miss, since they were everywhere.

This book is better. It has a more traditional structure, and it’s impossible to put down.  It gets more and more fantastic—a gigantic, impossible-to-overpower man fighting the greatest boxer in Sweden, for example—but as it gets more and more outre, the characters in the book remark, “How much more unbelievable can this get?” and that’s more than enough to sustain the story.

Lisbeth Salander is a tremendous character and she’s in grave danger in this book. Because we know her from the previous book, we also worry when she sets her sights on someone who betrayed her.  Not for her, but for that character (scummy as he is).  Excellent writing, albeit a bit creepy.  Particularly the chapter in which a publisher discusses whether or not to publish a dead author’s masterpiece.  Larsson, for those of you who don’t know, died shortly after turning in the third book in this series.  It’s a shame that he’s gone, depriving the world of his stories.  Fortunately, we have these three books.  I’m expecting the third to measure up, even if it doesn’t quite hit the pyrotechnics of The Girl Who Played With Fire.  The next book is on preorder, and I’m tapping my fingers as I wait.

Penzler, Otto, editor, The Lineup, Little, Brown, 2009.  This is the perfect book for the long-term mystery fan.  Penzler asked his favorite authors to write a chapbook about their most famous character.  He gave those chapbooks away at his mystery bookstore in New York to excellent customers.  Eventually, someone convinced him to compile the essays.

Good thing that he did.  They’re mostly marvelous, with fantastic writerly insights, and tales of characters gone wild.  I was going to write about each essay, the way I write about the essays in an essay collection, but then decided against it.  I often found I was less interested in the essays by my favorite authors because I was already familiar with the character and the character’s history.  (The only essays that worked for me by my favorites described the writing process as well as the character.)  Since everyone has different favorites, everyone is going to have a different reaction to the various essays.

The only ones I didn’t like were the ones that the authors wrote in the form of a short story.  It seemed a bit twee to me—and a lot less revealing, about the characters, and about the writing process.  The only one of those that worked for me was Robert B. Parker’s.  But I suspect Parker could have written about the interior of his underwear drawer and come up with something fascinating.  (What a shame to lose him this year!)

If you like mysteries, buy this book.  If you like fiction, buy this book.  If you like knowing the background of your favorite characters, buy this book.  And if you are a writer or an aspiring writer, buy this book.  Enough said.

Willis, Connie, Blackout, Ballantine Books, February, 2010.  I have been waiting for this book for years, ever since I saw the first third of it in the editor’s office.  I’ve known Connie’s editor, Anne Groell, for a long time, and for a while, Anne was my editor.  (I’ve known Connie longer.  Wow.)  At lunch in NYC in 2007, Anne showed me the first third of Connie’s manuscript for her time-travel World War II book.  That first third was about the size of one of my Fey novels—at least 800 pages in manuscript, maybe more.

Connie says this novel grew like crazy, and I can believe it.  It’s now two books—Blackout and All Clear, which won’t be out until the fall. Dammit. Which is much too far away.

Clearly, some of that 800-page draft had been trimmed.  But the book is still big, and complicated.  If I were Ballantine, I’d’ve left some of those early pages, cut the book into three parts, and released them one after the other—in February, March, and April, the way that romance hardcovers get released sometimes.  But I’m not in charge of marketing this.

Too bad, because I worry that current marketing might hurt the book.  The cover’s attractive to WWII fans, but not sf fans, and there is no ending.  In fact at the end, the action has just started to get tighter.  Nothing in the cover blurb or the flaps say that this is book one of anything, which is a problem, I think.

But it’s only a problem for people who are surprised, and now you won’t be surprised.  Pick up Blackout.  I devoured it in a few short reading sessions.  Connie’s trademark excellent characters are here, and her historical detail is spot-on. The time-travel concerns feel frighteningly real, and the story moves quickly.  It’s easy to tell the large cast apart, and to keep track of all the different time periods.

The story so far is about time-traveling historians who may or may not have gotten stuck in the London Blitz of 1940. But there’s more than that here—Dunkirk, the British children sent to the countryside for safety reasons, hospitals, shopgirls, and bomb shelters in the Underground.  Excellent scary stuff, with the bombs as real as if they were falling outside your window as you read.  Read this and then order All Clear immediately, so that Ballantine will buy more books from Connie and we can roam around in her vast imagination once more.  Enjoy!

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