Recommended Reading List: November 2011
I’m doing my best to catch up on the Recommended Reading lists, so that I can be on schedule in 2012. Here’s the good stuff I read in November. All that you read down there, I wrote in November itself (or early December).
I wish I could say that things settled down more in November. They didn’t, really. Thanksgiving snuck up on us. As I write this, on the second day of December, we’re still reeling from the fall. But I did manage to read more and write more, partly because things were inching toward normal.
After Thanksgiving, I launched into my Christmas reading with a vengeance. Clearly I want this year to end. But I’m also ready to move forward. I’ve even organized my to-be-read pile.
What I did read in November was mixed. A wonderful sf novel (listed below), followed by an okay sf novel. A great mystery novel (listed below), followed by one I had to slog through. I couldn’t sustain a long romance novel this month, but the shorts I read were great. Plus there are some good articles below as well. Enjoy!
Cach, Lisa, “A Midnight Clear,” Mistletoe’d, Kindle Edition, 2011. A lovely holiday novella, set in New York at the end of the 19th century. The period details are fun—I had no idea that was when the Christmas card habit started—and the characters are great. Catherine has spent years being wined and dined by her rich aunt, going to London, Paris, and on what was once called the Grand Tour. Catherine has met European royalty and American royalty. She wears fine clothes, and she has an eye for beauty. Sort of. Because Catherine is terribly near-sighted and too vain to wear glasses.
She comes home for Christmas, to her family’s not insubstantial house in a relatively small town, and one of her wealthy suitors follows her. But she also meets a man whom she has no idea is wealthy—William, the owner of the general store. She’s not attracted to him at first because she can’t see him, literally. Then someone (William?) buys her a pair of spectacles and has them anonymously delivered, and suddenly she can see everything much clearer.
A great deal more happens here, including a magical wish by an innocent young girl (is that where the spectacles come from?), and some proper comeuppance for a very bad person. The story is lovely, the details good, and all of it will put you in a wonderful holiday mood. Enjoy!
Gessen, Keith, “The Book On Publishing,” Vanity Fair, October, 2011. This is absolutely the best article I have ever seen in a mainstream publication on traditional publishing. Gessen knows how publishing works, and sees it all, from its foibles to the things it does right. This article also shows you would-be traditionally published writers what can go wrong, what can go right, and how tentative it all is. Everything went right for Chad Harbach in the run-up to the publication of The Art of Fielding. I have no idea how the book is selling now, but the behind-the-scenes stuff is perfect.
The way the agent found Harbach is precisely the way that agenting used to work. But if you look at the agent’s career, you have to wonder how this guy will continue to make money. My first agent discovered me in the pages of Asimov’s. Dean’s first editor discovered him in the pages of Night Cry, the sister magazine to the Twilight Zone Magazine. Apparently this still happens in the mainstream.
I know genre editors and agents look at the awards lists on short fiction for new clients to this day, but I have no idea how long that will last.
Look at the photos, particularly the one inside the publishing house. The room is large for a publishing house, but appropriately cluttered. Note how young the agent, publicity people, and designers are. Note that the oldest person there is the executive editor. Realize how little experience goes into producing these days.
Anyway, read closely. Realize how unusual this all is, and yet so mundane. It’s a spectacular article. Btw, you’ll have to download the e-book, because VF has pulled the article from its website.
Gross, Michael Joseph, “Enter The Cyber-Dragon,” Vanity Fair, September, 2011. Fascinating article on China and its hacking into global corporations. We’re all living inside our computers these days, and Gross shows how mini-wars happen without us even knowing it. Worth reading.
James, Eloisa, Storming The Castle, Kindle version, 2010? James published a short story that ties into her novel, A Kiss at Midnight. James is retelling fairy tales in a 19th century romance setting, so there’s a feel of the fantastic here without any fantasy at all. Still, it’s all wish fulfillment, and lovely stuff as it is.
The opening is particularly fun: Phillipa has just lost her virginity to her longtime beau, and I do mean just lost. The story opens with them both naked. And at that moment, Phillipa decides this is not the guy for her.
Lesser writers would have shown that scene, but it’s a lot more fun to hear about it from the disgusted Phillipa’s point of view. She flees to the nearby castle, which has just been purchased by some royal family from a small principality. (Think Monaco.) Phillipa arrives just as a crisis comes to a head, and of course (this being a romance), she has the solution. She also meets the handsome Wick, who is the prince’s bastard brother.
The story proceeds from there, twisting and turning in unexpected ways. Unlike a lot of short fiction published as promotion by traditional publishers, this story actually has a lot of substance, and feels solid. The story does stand alone. If you’ve never read James, this is a nice inexpensive way to start. (The story is 99 cents—also unusual for traditional publishers.
Kleypas, Lisa, Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, St. Martin’s Paperback, 2011. I saved this one for my holiday reading. In fact, I bought it in October when it first came out—and honestly, I could’ve read it then, despite the title. Because this isn’t a Christmas story; it’s a fall holidays story. Halloween makes a major appearance and Thanksgiving is hilarious, even though the book itself isn’t funny, but heartwarming.
Holly’s mother died in April, leaving Holly’s uncle Mark as her guardian. Mark has never been around children, doesn’t know what to do, but he enlists his brother Sam, and together they try to make a home for this poor little girl who has given up speaking since her mother’s sudden death. Six months later—in September—Holly writes a letter to Santa: she wants a mom for Christmas. Not that Mark wants to marry or anything. You get the rest of the plot, of course.
But the book is set on the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and it’s clear that Kleypas lives in the Northwest because the details are great. The characters are even better, from Holly to Mark to Maggie, the young widow who has just started a toy store. Realistic, sensitive, and touching. You can read this one at any season of the year (but fall would be best).
McDevitt, Jack, Echo, Ace, 2010. McDevitt has both a lot of fun with this Alex Benedict adventure and quite a serious point to make. Even though the Benedict novels are set in the very far future, quite far away from Earth, only one group of aliens have ever been discovered: the Mutes. Aliens here are defined as “intelligent” life, and McDevitt hits every single argument about definitions, about even being able to recognize an alien, about the dangers of alien encounters that have been a part of science fiction almost from the beginning. He dismisses most of them in a short series of conversations.
The plot seems simple: someone contacts Benedict, an antiques dealer, about a stone tablet with mysterious writing on it, writing that can’t be identified. The person who knows about this tablet commits suicide rather than reveal the secret of the tablet, which Benedict (and others) suspect comes from a new alien race.
The novel has a lot of adventure and some great character interaction. It also provides a lot to chew on with bigotry, aliens, prejudice, and the central question: what could be so Other that the people who discover it don’t want to admit it even exists. The answer is both surprising and heartbreaking.
One of the best in the series, and a good place to start if you haven’t read any of Jack’s work before.
Orlean, Susan, “The Dog Star: The Life And Times of Rin Tin Tin,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2011. I almost didn’t read this article. I have never cared about Rin Tin Tin, not even when I was a child. I preferred Lassie. Rin Tin Tin seemed ancient and old to me, even though I loved the silent comedies. A dog on screen without sound somehow didn’t interest me at all.
But this article does. The story of the actual dog, Rin Tin Tin—or Rinty, as his owner Lee Duncan called him—is fascinating. Found in a bombed out German encampment in World War I, Rin Tin Tin was a newborn puppy when Duncan rescued him, his mother, and his siblings. The dog became the most important creature in Duncan’s life. Duncan happened to go home to Los Angeles at the beginning of the movie craze—and the German Shepherd craze—in America. A confluence of opportunity and opportunism created one of the most famous on-screen dogs of all time. The essay’s short, an excerpt from Orlean’s book, but worth the read. I doubt I’ll pick up the book, because even with this, I’m not that interested in old Rinty, but I have a hunch many of you who read the article will end up with the book too.
Robinson, Peter, Before The Poison, William Morrow, 2012. When my bookseller friend gave me this advanced reading copy after he had finished it, I was excited. I love Peter Robinson’s work. But when I picked up the book (which has a fantastically ugly cover), I was momentarily disappointed. The book wasn’t an Inspector Banks novel. I had thought, when I first saw that book announced, that it would be.
Still, I love Robinson’s work, so I set aside the other book I was reading and started this one right away. I’m so glad I did. It’s fantastic. It’s an old-fashioned novel, not quite a ghost story, but haunted all the same. It’s a mystery, but more a mystery of the human experience.
An Oscar-winning composer returns to England after his wife dies. He buys a huge old house and when he arrives, he discovers that, in the 1950s, the previous owner was murdered by his wife. The wife was executed for the crime, which was a sensation in England at the time.
The composer becomes obsessed with the case, and so do we. The book never goes in the direction I expect. It takes us throughout the history of the 20th century, and travels from Paris to South Africa and beyond. Yet it still feels like a haunting.
If this book isn’t on all of next year’s best-of lists, then that’s a crime in and of itself.
Toobin, Jeffrey, “Partners,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2011. I debated recommending this article because I do try to avoid politics on this website. When you discuss Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice, you automatically discuss politics. That’s just the way of things. But I ultimately decided to add it, because the article is just that good and very interesting. It made me change my assessment of Thomas.
Toobin wrote an excellent book about the Court called The Nine [link], and he’s at work on a follow-up about the current Court. This is an excerpt. I liked the previous book, and I will pick up the new one when it comes out. So, even though you probably have an opinion about Thomas, read this. I guarantee it will make you reassess everything you’ve heard about him.
Willis, Connie, “All About Emily,” Asimov’s, December, 2011. For years, Connie Willis’s holiday stories, published in Asimov’s, were part of my Christmas traditions. Then, she got deeply involved in her excellent novels, All Clear and Blackout (which I recommended earlier), and she stopped writing any short fiction at all. Which is, I think, a crime. I love Connie’s novels, but I adore her short work.
“All About Emily” riffs on the movie All About Eve, and explains the film for those of you who missed that marvelous classic. The story is set in New York at Christmas, and our heroine is the aging actress who might be threatened by a new up-and-comer, Emily. And yet, something about that girl….
It’s a fun story, especially if you love old movies, Broadway, theater, and New York at Christmas time. And it manages to be good science fiction as well. It’s nice to have you back, Connie. Please continue writing short fiction while doing your novels.
Yes, now that you point that out, I agree. Both of them are spot on and I found myself rooting for them even when they had competing interests.
I’m not a fan of old movies, Broadway, theater, or New York at Christmas time, but I adore that story. I really had no plans to read it, but I feel I must at least give every story a chance. Since then I’ve read it four or five times trying to weasel out a few nuggets for my own craft. She does it so effortlessly it’s hard to piece together how she’s writing such an engaging story about subjects I have absolutely no interest in. I’m in awe.
Honestly, Tom, I think it’s the characters. She’s brilliant at characterization. If you care about the characters, you care about the story. That simple.
Thanks for this. A solid and fun list. You’re right: one only hears good things about Willis.
Thanks, Nawfal. Connie is one of my all-time favorite writers.