Wow, am I late putting this up. I planned to do so during breaks last weekend, but there were no breaks. I barely had time to sleep. So here it is, the January Recommended Reading List.
Despite travel and a convention—or maybe because of it—I got a lot of reading done during January. Much of the reading was short fiction, which I love, but had abandoned for novels last year. I’m clearly back on the short fiction bandwagon these days, as you can see below.
I discovered a great YA author, but she better write another book or I’ll be peeved. I read some dishy fiction and some dishy articles, and just had a jolly good time. So I figured I’d share.
Armstrong, Michael, “The Duh Vice,” Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow, Ace, 2008. A fun story with a serious message about saving energy and the environment. Our hero, a cop in Rawhide, Alaska, finds out that someone is using too much energy (a crime) in his district. He gets warned away from the case, but like any good cop, he investigates anyway. And that’s when things get interesting…
Block, Lawrence, “Murders in Memory Lane,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Winter, 2010. Lawrence Block’s reminiscence about beloved writer Ross Thomas is personal, fascinating, and heartfelt. It covers many years, and deals with both men’s alcoholism, as well as a love of mysteries and a love of writing. It made me want to find the Ross Thomas books in our library. And now I just might.
Bowden, Mark, “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde,” Vanity Fair, December, 2010. This article, about a private detective who solves a cold rape case reads like a mystery novel. The detective behaved precisely the way a detective does in fiction, but not in real life. It’s a fascinating case, and a fascinating article. It made me wish all P.I.s were like this guy.
Calonita, Jen, Secrets of My Hollywood Life: Broadway Lights, Little Brown Books For Young Readers, Kindle Edition, 2010. I love this series. Written by an ex-entertainment reporter, the series is wonderfully dishy in a People Magazine sort of way. The characters are good, the plots light but tense. I read this during Chattacon, and it was the perfect way to relax after a long day of socializing and panels. I felt quite hip. If you haven’t read this series, start with the first book, Secrets of My Hollywood Life.
Carter, Bill, “The Unsocial Network,” Vanity Fair, December, 2010. Speaking of dishy, this article is an excerpt from Carter’s book, The War For Late Night, about the Conan O’Brian/Jay Leno debacle. The writing in this article is amazingly pedestrian for Vanity Fair, but the article itself is like a car wreck. I was driving by and couldn’t look away. I’m going to buy the book now, which is what the article was designed to make me do.
Conroy, Pat, “A Southerner in Paris,” My Reading Life, Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2010. Pat Conroy tells the stories of his life over and over, finding new ways to milk the same material. I love his work, so I’ve read (repeatedly) about his abusive father, his co-dependent mother, and how books saved Conroy’s life. However, I haven’t read the story that Conroy tells in this essay. Mostly this piece is about Paris; Conroy wrote The Lords of Discipline there. But he also had a horrific experience at the very end of his stay, and he talks about it.
This isn’t a love letter to Paris. It’s a clear-eyed view of a city from a foreigner’s point of view. It’s fascinating, not just for his Paris discussions, but also from the perspective of one writer to another. His work methods, his struggles fascinate me. I couldn’t work his way (and I doubt he could work mine). But a writer’s methods and methodology always interest me. A long essay, beautifully written (as always) and riveting. This is one of my favorite parts of this book of essays.
Conroy, Pat, “The Teacher” My Reading Life, Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2010. The best teachers touch our lives forever. Conroy became friends with Gene Norris long after he was the man’s student. And Norris interfered in Conroy’s life in a way no longer permissible in America’s litigious society. But the impact, on both men, was profound. This is a love letter to the very best kind of teacher, the kind who doesn’t just want to change a life but does. It made me think of all the wonderful teachers I’ve had in my formal education, from Daniel Hodnick to Virginia Kruse to Bink Noll, people to whom I got assigned as a matter of course, people who changed my life forever—in a good way.
Conroy, Pat, “Why I Write,” My Reading Life, Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2010. This essay is a poem to writing. Beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, the essay says all I want to say about writing and more. Conroy and I approach the world differently—I don’t feel like I need to write about pain all the time and I don’t feel like I need to be brilliant every moment. But I love what he says about wanting to write the book I was meant to write, and having it be an upcoming book. If you have to stand in a bookstore and read this essay because you can’t afford this expensive little book, do so. It’ll be worth your time.
Hitchens, Christopher, “Miss Manners And The Big C,” Vanity Fair, December, 2010. Christopher Hitchens has cancer. It was diagnosed publicly and dramatically during his book tour last summer. He writes about it as well, in very honest ways. This time, he has taken on the etiquette of cancer discussions—something as simple as “How’re you today?” becomes a minefield of what to say: too much? Too little? And he worries about offending his fans, who are trying to be nice and give him hope. All of us get touched by cancer in one way or another, and all of us must deal with these questions, either on the side of the patient or on the side of the healthy trying to console. We’ve all walked into this minefield. Hitchens has no suggestions about how to extract ourselves from it, but at least he’s discussing it. And that’s a good thing.
Quinn, Julia, The Lost Duke of Wyndham, Avon, 2008. The premise of this novel is absolutely ridiculous. Seriously. A highwayman is really a duke, but doesn’t know it? And he gets recognized mid-robbery? Who would think of a plot like that (let alone who would like it)? Um…well, this is The Prince and The Pauper, the Mark Twain classic brought to Regency romance. And oh, my, does it work. I did have to jump over the premise, however, because I was in just that kind of mood—and then I realized…all historical romance is ridiculous. Because if the romance writers really talked about 30-something men of that era, they’d be talking about smelly creatures in filthy clothing whose teeth were falling out. And let’s not even discuss the chance of surviving childbirth. If you want history and romance, read historical novels, not historical romances. (Or so I said to myself as I paused after the first chapter.)
Once I leapt over the problems I had with the premise—and really, why should I, given my love of historical romance (I didn’t come up with The Prince and The Pauper thing until I finished)—I loved this book. I loved, loved, loved it. I cried, I laughed (and scared the kitten), I raced through it, and even skipped a writing session to finish it. Yep. Liked it that much. And immediately got the companion novel. 100% worth reading.
Reed, Annie, “Night Passage,” Thunder Valley Press, 2011, Kindle edition. A lovely story about a mother and a teenage daughter stranded on one of the scariest roads in America. Sensitively and nicely done.
Shinn, Sharon, “The House of the Seven Spirits,” Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow, Ace, 2008. A lovely, lovely ghost story about loneliness. Heartbreaking and wonderful. Worth price of the anthology (which has just been reissued, by the way).
Smith, Dean Wesley, “My Socks Rolled Down,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. Dean’s doing a heck of an experiment. He’s writing stories each week based on titles he finds in old books. He’s planning to do 100. He posts them on his website for a few days when he finishes (or he’s going to mail them, depending on suitability for major markets), and then he’s working (hands-on) with the kind folks at WMG to get the electronic editions up ASAP. Of course as his spouse and first reader, I get to see them before anyone else.
When Dean relaxes into his writing, he has one of the more original voices in fiction. Honestly, original voices like his or Ray Vukcevich’s, are difficult to nurture—they need an editor who will allow publish them no holds barred.
I would have published Dean at F&SF, but he didn’t send me enough fiction. He was too busy with other things, plus he was worried about conflict of interest charges, which I felt would be moot. His stuff is plenty good enough to stand on its own.
I would have published “I Rolled Down My Socks” in F&SF, if Dean had written it back then and if he had sent it to me. I love this story. It’s off-kilter. It doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to—or any direction, for that matter. He wrote this shortly after the shootings in Tucson, but I’m sure he’ll deny that they had any impact on the work at all. I see it though, just like I see the point he’s making. It’s a good one—and it’s always good to make your point with off-beat humor.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “The Smoke That Doesn’t Bark,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. “The Smoke That Doesn’t Bark” is a Poker Boy story. I’ve made no secret about how much I love those stories and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s tense—all the dogs in Vegas might transform at midnight, which might cause a huge worldwide collapse (it’s Poker Boy; don’t ask me to explain. That’s like explaining Dr. Who)—and a very quick read. Lots of fun, and a good way for Dean to start his challenge.
Whitney, Daisy, The Mockingbirds, Little Brown Books For Young Readers, Kindle Edition, 2010. A riveting young adult novel about date rape at a boarding school. The novel begins the morning after the rape. Alex, the girl who was raped, decides not to report it because she’s afraid her parents will send her home—which (to her) is worse than the rape itself. So she goes to the Mockingbirds, a secret society of students who enforce an unwritten policy. I couldn’t put this down from the first paragraph on. I carried my Kindle everywhere, reading as I went. The book isn’t as tough a read as it sounds, despite the topic. This novel—Whitney’s first—has heart and power.