Recommended Reading List: December 2011

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With this, I’ll be caught up on all of my Recommended Reading lists for 2011. January’s should post in the first 10 days of February. I’ll have one more overall reading post, a numbers post, in a week or two, and then I can put 2011 behind me. Here’s the list, with everything on it written sometime in December.


What a weird year. I’m glad it’s done. I ended up with a lot of time to read this month—and please note that I’m not recommending everything I read here. I never do. But I did notice something. Unless the book/article/story is in paper, I’m having to read past some errors. This isn’t just an indie problem. In fact, most traditionally published e-books are worse. I’m just finding some fascinating errors.

If the book is indie published, it generally has two mistakes—whatever the author doesn’t know (for example, hyphens get misused) or typos that spellcheck won’t catch such as (in one rather hiliarious instance) “groan” for “groin” You get maybe three of those per book. The indie-published formatting and structure is often superior to a traditionally published book. I know some of my short stories have these issues, particularly from the early days of WMG when I had to do my own copyediting. So you indie-writers—spend the money. Hire a copy editor. It’ll make all the difference.

Traditionally published books have terrible formatting errors—still!  And often have OCR errors, particularly in older titles that are being reissued. The publisher isn’t springing for a copy edit on the previously published book. Then they scan that book, and every page is riddled with gobbledygook or wrong words such as (in another hilarious instance) “farting” instead of “flirting.” (That has got to be my favorite error of all time. Our heroine is surprised that the hero is farting with her. Yep. I guess that means they were compatible.)

Traditionally published books with OCR errors have them every page or two, and are annoying to read. The indie published books with copyediting issues have a pattern that can be ignored. Once you realize that Author A doesn’t understand hyphens, you can read right over them. Otherwise the  book is pristine.

I suspect all of this will change as everything shakes out. But we’ll still end up with a lot of books that remain in print riddled with errors—particularly from traditional publishers. Be forwarned when you get your e-editions.

As for the actual reading itself, it was a mixed bag. Some things were wonderful, and some awful, but a lot was entertaining while I read it, and annoying by the time I got to the end. For example, I read a series book by a favorite author and I think his main character is getting careworn. Or maybe I got struck by a bit of morality. Because by the end our “hero” had killed his ranking officer while in the Pentagon (and our “hero”’s law enforcement friends covered it up) as well as a top-ranking senator & his son (and again our “hero”’s law enforcement friends [a different group]  covered it up), and you know, I just didn’t believe it. I really didn’t. My sense of disbelief got strained to the breaking point.

I also read a lot of Christmas stories this month. I started an annual holiday recommended reading list in November which I’ll put up every holiday season, adding titles. So what you see recommended below will be added there next year.

But wow, did I read some holiday dogs. Including an anthology from a major traditional publisher that was awful. The first story was so!full!of!exclamation!points! as to be unreadable, and the third story was one gigantic romance novel cliché (two people who don’t know each other trapped in a snowy mountain cabin, lots of sex, no relationship, and no story). The second story had possibilities, and I did read it all the way through, hoping for the best. Great setting, fascinating set-up…and then the author decided to have these two characters not talk to each other for the entire novella. (sigh) It would have been so much nicer if she had actually used the set-up…

Every now and then I do read something that makes me grumpy, and that anthology qualifies. Yuck….

I also dipped into a lot of Tomes for research on a topic I really don’t understand and must understand before I write about it. (Dang that story brain.) So I’m reading bits and pieces of lots of fascinating things, none of which I can recommend because I’m not finishing them.

Fortunately I was able to read every word of the pieces below. They’re wonderful and they made my reading  month. I hope you find something that’ll interest you here.

December, 2011

Allen, John, On Wisconsin, Fall, 2011. Maybe only a former editor would appreciate this, but the best magazines have themes. The issues have a flow and a message, if read in order. (Of course, you must ignore the columnists [who never get the memo], and the regular features.)  The articles in this issue of the University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine are all about reinvention, of lives, of science, of futures.

I read three different alumni magazines—Dean’s, and the two from my college career—and the only one I ever recommend articles from is Wisconsin’s. They’re not puff pieces. They’re good journalism with a UW slant. This is a particularly top-notch issue.

Berg, A. Scott, “The Hunt For Hemingway,” Vanity Fair, October, 2011. Years and years ago, I read Berg’s book on the editor Maxwell Perkins. It’s fascinating stuff]. Apparently Berg is working on a book about Hemingway, and managed in the past decade, to get to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home in Cuba. There  he and Perkins’ granddaughter, who started the ball rolling on all of this, found a treasure trove of never-before-seen material by and about Hemingway. Never-before-seen, of course, since Hemingway left Finca Vigia fifty years ago. There’s a huge gap in Hemingway scholarship, and the answers are all in Cuba.

The article is fascinating, about the arrival, the hunt, everything. The letters are not as interesting for me, because I’m a Hemingway fan not a Hemingway scholar. But this piece is worth the read, just for the look into a writer’s life—and the strange circumstances that occurred after his death.

Block, Lawrence, “Murders in Memory Lane: Scott Meredith, Part 1,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Fall, 2011. Lawrence Block is writing a nifty column for Mystery Scene about the folks he’s known in the field. He’s known some interesting ones. As a writer who got her start in the 1980s, I heard a lot about Scott Meredith the “super agent.” In fact, most of the agents I knew when I started out had been Scott Meredith trained. Once, when I was searching for a new agent, Ralph Vicinanza and I had a meeting. He asked if I wanted him to represent me. I almost did, until he made a comment. We were discussing my previous agent, who had gotten his start at the Scott Meredith agency, and Ralph said, “I guess you just have to figure out what kind of Scott Meredith agent you want.” Because Ralph had also been trained by Scott.

Well, the previous agent had burned me, and so that cooled me down on Ralph as well. (He probably didn’t realize what he had said wrong at the time.) I had heard stories about Scott Meredith from everyone. Nothing surprises me about Meredith any  more, but I’m still fascinated by him.

Block’s column this time deals with the beginnings of his job at the agency—how he got there, and how he ended up with them as his agent. Good writer that he is, he ends on an ominous note. But it’s only ominous if you’ve already heard Scott Meredith stories.  That ending does what any cliffhanger should—it makes me want to read the next column right now.  I love these columns. I hope he collects them into a book at some point.

Connelly, Michael, The Drop, Little Brown, 2011.  A new Harry Bosch book. I love Connelly’s work and usually buy it the day it’s released.  I get most of my mystery hardcovers through our local independent bookseller, and this time, his shipment of signed Connellys was late. Like a month-plus late. Ack! I didn’t read reviews, I tried not to drool at the book that Amazon kept offering me, I waited—and got it two days before Christmas. And managed to read it—despite everything that was going on—in two days.

Part of that rapid read is because this book is short—maybe 70,000 words when the average novel these days is 100,000. Maybe. Little Brown did a lot of tap dancing with wide margins, increased font size and lots of white space to stretch this thing to its 388 pages—which made it easier for my tired eyes to read in the print version, but probably caused the production people nightmares.

But I can’t attribute my rapid read only to the shortness of the book. This thing moves. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

The Drop finds Harry Bosch in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD, with a case that looks like it might be police misconduct. He doesn’t want to investigate, but of course he does. And as he does, he gets another case—a current case—because an influential political party asked him to investigate. The cases aren’t really related except by something that Bosch calls “high jingo”—stuff that’s done for political reasons, not because it’s important or sensible.

The book is impossible to put down, and the last line is a killer. (Don’t peek.)  I loved it and immediately searched for any unread Connelly books around the house. Of course, there are none. [sigh] So I must wait until next year for the next Connelly. Proof yet again that readers can go through books faster than the fastest writer can write them. Buy this one: it’s good.

Dittrich, Luke, “Two Dozen Strangers in a Cooler,” Esquire, October, 2011. This is an incredibly riveting article that reads like a piece of fiction. It’s about the Joplin tornado and the 24 people who hid in the cooler at a minimart. It’s not about what happened to them afterward, nor is it about how their lives changed. It’s a survival piece about the tornado itself, a minute-by-minute account of what happened, how it felt, and how they barely managed to get out of a totalled building with their lives. Extremely tense, extremely dramatic, extremely well done.

Howe, Barton, “One Small Step–For Everyone Else,” The News Guard, December 14, 2011. I’ve mentioned Barton’s humor column before. He writes for the local paper, and sometimes his pieces are too local to make sense to anyone outside of our 7,000-person community, but sometimes he writes a piece that I think everyone will appreciate. This one was “written” by his 18-month old daughter. Which sounds really twee. But it isn’t. It’s a fun perspective on being…18 months old. Somehow he nailed it.  (I do wonder what his daughter will think of all this in 18 years, but hey, not my problem.) Take a look. All of Barton’s columns are on his website, and are worth your time to check out. [link]

Johnson, Simon, and Kwak, James, “Debt and Dumb” Vanity Fair, November, 2011. Fantastic article that puts the financial history of the United States in perspective. How the system got set up, what it compares to, why it works, and what could screw with it. Yes, this is political, but it’s more of a history lesson which, it seems, we badly need in this country.

Kelly, Christen Anne, Home Run, Blue Cedar Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2011. Anyone who read The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction when I edited knows I’m a sucker for a baseball story. I love baseball stories, much more than I like watching baseball on TV. So when I saw the proposal for this book at one of our workshops, I begged Chrissy to write it. I knew this would be a book I would like. I just knew it.

When the book came out, she sent me a copy and I confess: I felt nervous. I always worry when I read the proposal and then the book arrives. I already have expectations. I expected this to be good.  Fortunately, it is.

Technically, Home Run isn’t a baseball story, although it features a former professional baseball player. It’s a softball story—girls’ softball. Laurie coaches a softball team for 12-year-old girls, and she fiercely protects them, because her father ruined the game for her by turning it into work when she was their age. Her father’s plan succeeded: Laurie went to college on a softball scholarship and was one of the best players ever, but she quit because she hated playing.

Although she still loves the game. And she loves her girls. She worries about them when Jack shows up with his daughter, Elizabeth. Parents are enough trouble when they aren’t former Rookies of the Year, when they don’t have a reputation for being difficult, and when they aren’t so handsome that a girl can’t think straight.

The book could go along the lines of a contemporary romance—and it does—but not on rails. The novel is really about dreams: how important they are, how easy they are to crush, and how they must be nurtured. Parents play a huge role in this novel, and so does the entire team. Elizabeth is a great—believable—kid, and the situations here (her father’s divorce, the love of the game, the conflict the adults around her feel) makes the story even more powerful.

This is one of those unclassifiable books that drive traditional publishers nuts. If you like sports novels, you’ll like this—even if you don’t like romance. If you like romance, you’ll like this—even if you don’t like sports novels. If I were marketing it, I’d market it as romance, but cringe a little, because I know I’d miss half the audience. Now, with the indie revolution, we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. Books like this one can find their audience.

Wonderful book, chockful of unexpected surprises. There’s a bonus short story at the end of the Kindle edition, which I haven’t read yet, and more short stories in this world of girls’ softball. Chrissy is a former star softball player herself, so the book’s got authenticity in spades. It’s also the first in “The Home Run series” of novels. You can bet I’ll be first in line for the second novel—and I’m off to get some short stories now.

Liu, Ken, “The People of Pele,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, February, 2012.  A wonderful traditional science fiction story about exploration, about leaving family and friends behind to do something spectacular. Without FTL, this ship must use cold sleep, and the inhabitants wake up decades after they’ve left everyone. This is a multi-cultural mission, one that is to bring the world closer together, but run by the Americans. And you can guess: the first message they get from Earth, sent shortly after they left, hints at tensions. Then they’re told to claim Pele for Earth. This is the subtext that is happening while they’re trying to learn about Pele, discover other life forms, and oh—it sounds like something you read fifty years ago (if you could read fifty years ago, which I couldn’t)—but it’s really modern and really relevant and quite wonderful. The sf snobs who believe that sf should never repeat old ideas will not notice this one, but you should. Read it.

Lubrano, Alfred, “Tracking the Ties That Bind,” On Wisconsin, Fall, 2011. An essay from Lubrano’s book called Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. I learned when I taught—and through my husband and two of my friends—that folks with blue collar upbringings (especially from forty, fifty, sixty years ago) had different training than little ole white collar me.  The training and expectation mean that I have to teach differently when I start folks with a blue collar background on a path, or we don’t communicate. It took years to realize that.

Lubrano illustrates it in this article about Fred Gardaphé, who graduated from the UW in 1976. He came from a particularly tough (read: mob-infested) neighborhood of Chicago, and went on to be a professor. This is a look at his life, the things he overcame, and the things he now appreciates about his friends from the neighborhood and his home. Fascinating stuff. There’s also an essay in here by Gardaphé, which you should read after you’ve read the Lubrano piece.

McAllister, Bruce & Malzberg, Barry, “Going Home,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, February, 2012. A powerful, powerful story about…well, read it. It touches on the Golden Age of sf, on writing, on editors, on the way things change, but it’s…well, if I tell you, I’ll spoil it because it’s only about 2,000 words long. But they’re marvelous words. Read this one too.

Price, Jenny, “Prison Breaks,” On Wisconsin, Fall, 2011. A short piece about JD Stier who went to prison in 1998, and is now working in the White House. This is about the efforts of one teacher who showed Stier a way out—and Stier himself, who took that opportunity and ran with it.

Reed, Annie, “Essy and The Christmas Kitten,” Kindle edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2011.  This story is not as sweet as the title implies. Instead, it is a bit dark and moody, so much so that I read with one eye half closed, worried that something would go wrong. But it is a Christmas story in the best way, and quite memorable.  One of my best Christmas reads this year.

Reed, Annie, “Roger’s Christmas Wish,” Kindle Edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2010. Somehow I missed this in last year’s Christmas reading. Young Roger’s grandmother moved in with him, taking his room. His parents are unhappy, and so is Roger. All he wants for Santa to do is make his grandmother leave. The story is sweet, with unexpected twists. It’s also a nicely done e-book. I read it in the Kindle app on my iPad and it felt like I was reading a real book. Nicely done.

Reed, Robert, “Murder Born,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, February, 2012. What’s wrong with traditional book publishing today? Pretty easy to show you rather than tell you: Every major sf editor rejected Robert Reed’s proposal for a novel based on this idea. Bob writes, “This is the same essential story, chiseled down to the bone. There is one plot element added to the original tale, and everything that the editors wanted taken out has been shoved forward and made obvious.”

Honestly, truthfully, this story just might win Bob a Hugo. It’s that powerful, that original, and that well written. I  know what happened in the book houses: they were afraid of this.

The story was inspired by the way that Bob’s home state carries out the death penalty. He wanted to write a story about a way that would make the execution of some heinous human worthwhile—and without spoiling what that is, let me tell you he accomplished it. It’s a powerful story about futures, about life and love, about death, about man’s inhumanity to man, about all that great stuff that the best sf does. It’s a spectacular story, and we Asimov’s readers benefit from the book editors’ cowardice. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Keep it in mind at Hugo voting time.  I know I will.

Williams, Sheila, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February, 2012. Because 2011 has been so awful for me in terms of reading and life and all of that fun stuff, I missed my goal. My goal was to read all of the digest magazines, or at least give it the good old college try. Well, I revived the goal for 2012, which means I have to start now. February’s issue arrived in my mailbox early because I have a story in the issue as well. I did not reread my own story, and am not counting it as part of the recommendation for this issue. (I’m self-serving, but not that self-serving.)

I grabbed the magazine when it arrived yesterday, read Sheila’s take on winning her Hugo, and mentally upbraded myself for not doing the same thing at F&SF when I won for editing years and years ago. (I’m still honored by that Hugo. It means more than I can say.)

Her essay is marvelous. The cover caught me as well—I love Bob Reed’s work, and the title sounded great—but I promised myself I’d read all the way through before I got to his issue-closing novella, which I did.

A few of the stories I liked, but not quite enough to recommend on their own. But the ones that I have recommended, I love.  I devoured the entire issue in an evening, then made sure I put January’s on the top of my TBR pile.

There’s a reason Sheila—who does not campaign like some editors—won the Hugo in 2011 on merit alone. She’s a spectacular short fiction editor. Her work is top of the line. Asimov’s is my favorite sf magazine—and probably my favorite fiction magazine.  She’s doing a hell of a job. Support her by buying issues, either on your e-reader or in paper. And since I mentioned Hugo voting above, keep her in mind as you fill out your 2012 ballot. She’s doing a great job.

Wolcott, James, “Norman Mailer Sent Me,” Vanity Fair, November, 2011.  Wolcott has a memoir coming out (or maybe it’s out by now—I’m really behind in my reading), and this is an excerpt. It’s about the beginning of his career. He quit college and moved to New York on the thinnest of opportunities.

Wolcott’s essay shows why some writers (and artists) survive, and why others fall by the wayside. Reading between the lines here, you see a man who has incredible drive, who tried and tried and tried, and finally ran out of resources before he gave up. And even then, he gave his given career one last try—and that try worked. (Who knows how many other times he would have “given up” before the final try worked? Those of us with incredible drive say we’re giving up when really, we don’t see how to keep trying—and even then, we’re looking for a way not to give up.)

This excellent essay also captures early 1970s New York, and the literary scene there. Highly recommended.

9 thoughts on “Recommended Reading List: December 2011

  1. Thanks Kris for taking the time to list and review all these books/mags etc. After all, you could be (gasp!) writing for yourself!! I’ve read a few of these, and have made a to-read list as well on several more. As a would-be writer, I’m always looking to stretch and more great reading is a must.

    1. Between you & me, Celia, I am doing this for myself. Recommending good writers/stories/articles is one of the things I miss the most about editing, so I’m doing it in a tiny way here. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. That means a lot. Thanks.

  2. Wow, Kris. I just wanted to say thank you again – and I’m so glad the story lived up to that first proposal. A nerve-wracking, personal experience and yet so worth it in the end. Thank you for the recommendation. And do you think I could use this for some pull quotes? 🙂

    On a totally unrelated note – I really enjoy these lists. I always find a couple more to add to my to-read stack.

  3. Thank you for recommending my Christmas stories. 🙂 They’re both very personal to me, in vastly different ways.

    I haven’t read the new Michael Connelly yet but I will. I did pick up John Grisham’s The Litigators based on your recommendation, and you’re right — it’s a marvelous book so far.

    I subscribed to the e-book version of Asimov’s as a trial and liked it so much I’ll be doing the same thing when my Ellery Queen paper sub expires. Now when you recommend something in Asimov’s and I want to read it right now, I can. *g*

    1. You’re welcome, Annie. They’re both very good. Niiice. The new Connolly is marvy. I’m glad you’re like the Grisham. He had fun with it, I think. And nice to know you’re subscribing to Asimov’s. Hope you’re keeping your Queen sub too. 🙂

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