Recommended Reading List: May 2011

On Writing Recommended Reading

Once again, I’m late posting my recommended reading list. I wanted to put this up in June. Fingers crossed that I’ll get the June list up before the end of July. (I have my doubts.) Anyway…

I traveled in May and I had more deadlines than I even want to think about now.  But somehow I managed to read a lot as well.  Maybe I didn’t sleep. I liked some of what I read, and now, a month later, can’t remember most of it. But I do recall that I thought May a surprisingly good reading month, despite all the hecticness.  Or maybe because of it.

Here’s the best of the best:

May, 2011

Arax, Mark, “The Zankou Chicken Murders,” The Best American Crime Reporting 2009, edited by Jeffrey Toobin, Ecco Books, 2009. Superbly written piece about a man who built a chicken franchise out of nothing in Los Angeles.  Then, one morning, he got up, got dressed up, drove across town, and shot his mother and his sister to death before turning the gun on himself.  Sounds lurid, but it’s not.  It’s a meditation on family, on loss, on being an immigrant in America, and on survival after something horrific.  Plus it’s exceedingly well written.  Worth the cost of the volume all by itself.

Bardsley, Greg, “Crazy Larry Smells Bacon,” By Hook and By Crook and 27 of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, Tyrus Books, 2010.  This story surprised me.  I can’t say much more than that except that with each turn, I got more and more intrigued. By the end, I was happily surprised.  Loved it.

Block, Lawrence, “Murders in Memory Lane: Evan Hunter Part 1,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Winter, 2011. Lawrence Block’s “Murders in Memory Lane” column are worth the price of a Mystery Scene subscription all by themselves.  I’ve loved each one I’ve read.

This one is about Block’s memories of Evan Hunter, whom most of you know as Ed McBain.  Neither name is the one Hunter was born with, nor are both names the only names he wrote under.  Block’s columns are always personal essays about the people he remembers.  This is no different. But it’s fascinating to read about the prolific Hunter, who managed both literary stardom and bestsellerdom under two different names. Writers and readers alike should find these columns and read them.

Callan, Michael Feeney, “Washington Monument,” Vanity Fair, April, 2011.  I thought I had read everything about All The President’s Men, and it turns out I have—the book.  But I knew next to nothing about the movie.  This article rectified that.  Worth reading to see how movies got made decades ago, but also to see how creative decisions and political ones collided.  An interesting portrait of Robert Redford as well.

Crider, Bill, “Pure Pulp,” By Hook and By Crook and 27 of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, Tyrus Books, 2010.  A story set in the days when pulp writers lived in the same apartment house in New York—which they did.  (Robert Silverberg deals with this in his autobiography.  In fact, I think Crider uses that very apartment building, near Columbia, as the setting for this story.)  “Pure Pulp” is a locked room mystery with a trace of superhero magic.  Pluse it’s a marvelous writer story.  One of my very favorites in the volume.

Dreyer, Eileen, Never A Gentleman, Forever Books, April, 2011.  Eileen Dreyer’s romance novels are always challenging.  Not to read, because her writing is superb. But because her characters aren’t nice, and sometimes aren’t heroic.  This book is a case in point.  Diccan is a spy for Her Majesty’s Government whose cover is his incredible social standing.  He’s tracking down a plot to assassinate Wellington.  Others tracking this plot down have been murdered.  Diccan gets compromised so that he’s marginalized for reasons he has to figure out.  In other words, why didn’t they just kill him?

How is he compromised? He’s drugged and wakes up naked in the bed of the estimable Grace Fairchild.  Who is considered an ugly old spinster (with a limp) whom no one would ever want to marry.  The bad guys figure our hero will walk away from her, ruining his reputation.  Instead, he marries her, doing the right thing.  And the book goes from there.

But it’s not a standard marriage-of-convenience plot.  In fact, there’s some incredibly icky behavior on the part of Diccan, and it’s understandable, but horrible.  There’s also a plot point that I usually hate, which is: If these people would only talk to each other, there would be no plot.  (Or in this case, there would be a different plot.)  However, these two people don’t know each other, and he’s a spy in a world where the man is king of his own castle—in all ways, he owns the woman he’s married to.  He has no reason to talk with her, and she tries to talk to him.

Quite believable, quite frustrating, and quite riveting.  The book does show—graphically—how intelligent women must have felt in that time period, when they married and were at the whim (often) of a man they didn’t know.  I liked it, even if I don’t know if I could have forgiven someone who did those things, even in the name of King and Country.

Well done.  I couldn’t put the book down.

Gerard, Cindy, “Leave No Trace,” Deadly Promises, Pocket Star, 2010.  A fast-paced romantic suspense novella about a humanitarian stuck in a labor camp in Myanmar, and the deep cover operative who manages to rescue her.  I haven’t read anything this breathlessly suspenseful in months.  And, unlike so many romantic suspense stories, the relationship flows seamlessly into the narrative.  If you haven’t read any Cindy Gerard, this is a good place to start.

Gorman, Ed and Greenberg, Martin H., By Hook and By Crook and 27 of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Tyrus Books, 2010.  This is always my favorite mystery volume of the year because the quality is so consistently high.  In fact, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the reason I don’t have as many favorites is because the baseline quality starts at good and goes up to exceptional.  I listed some favorites last month, and the rest this month, but I did enjoy the entire volume.  It’s also the only year’s best mystery anthology that covers the entire genre—from Sherlock Holmes stories (which I’m not fond of) to gritty noir.  Highly recommended.

Griffin, Laura, “Unstoppable,” Deadly Promises, Pocket Star, 2010.  Top-notch romantic suspense about a forensic anthropologist working too close to the Mexican border. At first, I thought the story would be about illegal immigration, and it isn’t. Griffin surprised me.  She manages to pack an entire novel’s worth of plot into the novella, and she writes a damn fine relationship story.  This is the first piece I’ve read of hers, and I will read more.

Gross, Michael Joseph, “A Declaration of Cyber-War,” Vanity Fair, April, 2011.  Fascinating article on the Stuxnet virus, how it was designed, what its target was, and what it means for the future of warfare.  Some of this I knew because it had made its way into the press, but much of it I didn’t.  Worth reading.

Hemingway, Ernest, “The Hills Like White Elephants,” (There are many collections; take your pick. I read it in a tattered old volume from 1940). Yes, I read this short story in high school.  I remember the experience vividly.  My teacher claimed the story was delicate, a piece that was subtle and powerful. Then he asked us if we understood it.  Yep, I said to myself, I understood it.  It was short, it was beautifully written, and it was—um, vague.  Yep, that’s it.  It was vague.

So thirty-some years later, I reread the story because I was getting ready to teach a short story class, and I think Hemingway’s stories are among the best ever written.  I get to “The Hills Like White Elephants,” and realize I hadn’t understood a word of it in high school.  My teacher was right.  It is subtle.  It is delicate.  It is powerful.

It is beautifully done.

It just proves to me again that certain stories/books don’t make sense until you’ve acquired a bit of life experience, which I most certainly did not have back then.

Mooney, Michael J., “The Day Kennedy Died,” The Best American Crime Reporting 2009, edited by Jeffrey Toobin, Ecco Books, 2009.  So here I’ve been bitching about Vanity Fair’s Kennedy obsession.  (You’ll note I did not recommend April’s Kennedy story.)  And then I recommend this piece.  Only this isn’t about Kennedy so much as about Dr. Robert Nelson McClelland, who was one of the ER doctors who worked on Kennedy.  I’ve read a lot of Kennedy assassination stuff over the years, and I’ve never read this man’s account of what happened.  It’s fascinating for two reasons: First, it shows the way that people react in a crisis, especially folks trained for that crisis; and second, it does show, as the author says, that history is made up of real people, with real bones, and real blood.  Excellent.

Nethercott, Michael, “O’Nelligan’s Glory,” By Hook and By Crook and 27 of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, Tyrus Books, 2010.  A wonderful traditional mystery with some fantastic characters.  This is a classic whodunnit with a detective and his sidekick—or rather, a sidekick and his detective.  Lots of fun.

White, Randy Wayne, Deep Shadow, Berkeley mass market, 2011.  I brought two short story collections with me on my Los Angeles trip, not to  mention five novels on my Kindle, so what did I do? I browsed books at Portland International Airport, and saw an intriguing cover on Randy Wayne White’s Deep Shadow.  I picked up the book, read the back cover copy, and read the book on the spot.

It’s not fair to say that I bought Randy Wayne White blind.  I’d been meaning to pick up his work for about a year now.  But this particular novel is about cave diving in Florida and those of you who have read my novel Diving into the Wreck know I’m a sucker for diving books.

White’s book is a thriller featuring his long-time character Marion “Doc” Ford.  I obviously don’t know all the ins and outs of Ford, and I know I was supposed to have particular reactions when characters appeared.  I didn’t because I hadn’t read the previous 17 books in the series. But, get this, I hadn’t read the previous 17 books—and I’m still recommending this one to you.

I read it as fast as I could, given I had no time in Los Angeles, and I only had two-hour flights in each direction.  The book takes place in less than 24 hours and, for the most part, has a relentless pace.  There is a three-page info dump digression in the  middle of some major action that made it clear to me this information was very important, but other than that, the novel is quite smooth.  When things are unbelievable—and a lot here is unbelievable—White acknowledges it, and then explores it a bit, and then lets us in on the secret: Yep, we’re reading a thriller.  Hang on and enjoy the ride.

Vividly described, with excellent characters.  I felt I was there in the muggy Florida heat, diving a remote lake, with something not human lurking nearby and two desperate killers ready to take on Our Heroes.  Nicely, nicely done.  I already have another Doc Ford novel, and four more on order.  If that’s not a recommendation, nothing is.


8 thoughts on “Recommended Reading List: May 2011

  1. I always find cool new things on your recommended reading list. This time around it was Deadly Promises and By Hook and By Crook. A sample of Deep Shadow is on my Kindle. So many things to read…

    1. I’m glad it helps you find stuff, Annie. I figure the list is like a conversation we’d be having in person. Here’s what I read recently. And I know…so much to read!

  2. A splendid list, Kris! I agree completely re: shifting comprehension with certain stories. “The Hills Like…” is a perfect example. I recall, along those same thematic lines, watching Garbo in “A Woman of Affairs” as a college freshman–not picking up at all on the “flowers scene” until I saw it again a few years back. Reading, viewing –the same maturation process must hold true for writing too?

    1. I think it does, Richard. They say that writers and politicians are young at 50. I think that’s true. There’s a certain richness that maturity brings–not just to the reading/viewing, but to the writing as well. (Politicians and maturity, well, not in this country. [sigh])

  3. Yeah, he’s got some books that are straight ahead thrillers, something almost border on the supernatural, some that have that weird Travis McGee feel, etc.

    1. I’m currently reading The Man Who Invented Florida. Completely different feel from the others. I’m enjoying it though

  4. A couple comments about Randy Wayne White. I think DEEP SHADOW was one of his best. He’s uneven. I hated his last one. Your mileage may vary. The first couple books in the series are in third-person before he moved into first-person. Just my opinion, but I’ve read all of them.

    If you ever get the chance to meet the man or interview him, do it.

    A number of years back I was writing author profiles & such for The Oakland Press and I interviewed Randy on the phone. I’ve done dozens – probably 150 or so – of these types of author interviews over the years for various publications and I still think of the one with Randy as being my favorite. I suspect it’s partly his personality and partly that he was a fishing guide for years and fishing guides are in the business of shooting the breeze with strangers. It was one of the most enjoyable 30-minute phone conversations I’d ever had, even if at the end I looked down at my notes and said, “Damn, what am I going to use in the interview?” But it sure was fun.

    Always worth reading.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I’m already 3 books in and noticing that he’s constantly experimenting, which I appreciate a lot. It reminds me of Ian Rankin–not each book is equally great, but always something interesting to read.

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