Recommended Reading List: February 2012

free nonfiction On Writing Recommended Reading

February went by much too fast. I got a lot of reading done, but not as much as I expected. I was (and still am) on an urban fantasy kick. I’m finding that most of what I read is predictable and easy to skim, even series that I read all the way through. I’m not recommending most of it, sadly, because while it is giving me brain candy, I can barely remember what I read.

I also read a lot of student manuscripts, most of which were excellent. If the students let me know when and where the manuscripts that I liked are published, I’ll let you know in future lists.

However, everything I’ve listed below are things that I can remember and have greatly enjoyed. So here’s what I read in February that’s worth sharing.


February, 2012


Andrews, Ilona, Magic Burns, Ace Books, 2008.  As longtime readers of my recommended reading list know, I’ve been searching for someone to replace my favorite urban fantasy writer. I love that writer’s books, but a few novels ago, the attention turned from what interested me—stories set in a recognizable modern time—to stuff set in a made-up fantasy world. Lost me. (I do keep asking friends if the writer has moved away from that stuff yet. So far, no.)

Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy, most of which drives me insane. I like world-building. I like what used to be called “hard” fantasy, where the worlds made sense. If magic existed, then this would happen. It wasn’t all arm-waving. I’ve found some good practioners of the genre who give me a good read, but nothing to write home—or here—about. I’ve also read some spectacular short stories that haven’t translated into spectacular novels.

Ilona Andrews (a husband and wife writing team whom I will still refer to as “she” for ease of discussion) caught me with an earlier short story.  I liked it a lot. So I picked up the first novel in the series, which was okay, and I was a bit disappointed. The short story had rigorous world-building. The novel was a bit confused, so much so that at times I had to reread sections.

Neither of those problems exist in the second book of the series, Magic Burns. In fact, I’d recommend that you start here and read the first novel when you’re feeling completest. This novel almost feels like it was written by a different person(s?).  It is smooth, clear, and the world-building is explained when you need it explained, instead of you trying to figure it out yourself.

Andrews has a way of making fight scenes interesting (most people don’t) and she has excellent characters, which got me through the first novel. I care about these people. Also, her vampires are icky (not someone to fall in love with) and her werecreatures can be quite terrifying. It’s all wonderfully done, set in an Atlanta (a world, really) in which magic sweeps in and destroys technology, rather like a horrible wind sweeps in and brings down electrical lines. Lots of possibilities there and by this second novel, she’s using all of them to good effect.

As I said above, start here. The book is a quick, fun read.

Block, Lawrence, “The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days,” Mystery Scene, Holiday, 2011. This is part two of Lawrence Block’s memoirs of working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, but you can read it without reading part one. I do hope he later turns this into an e-book, because the essays are marvelous. The Meredith Agency, for those of you who don’t know, was extremely influential and extremely shady. Block discusses all aspects of it here. Those of you who believe agents can do no wrong should realize that many of the big-name agents still working today got their start at Scott Meredith, and learned their trade at the agency. Those of you who believe that an agency will “look out” for its writers over its bottom line should read this as well. Block is reminiscing here, talking about the bad and the good of the agency. Worth reading. By the way, if you’re a mystery reader and you don’t get Mystery Scene, you might want to correct that. Of all the magazines for readers, this is the best.

Crais, Robert, Taken, Putnam, 2012. I couldn’t put this novel down. I picked it up and three hours later, I was done. It’s an excellent novel.

Two young adults get kidnapped by what looks like human smugglers who help Mexicans cross illegally into Southern California. It quickly becomes clear that something more complicated than that is happening, but what, exactly we don’t know.

Shortly after he’s on the case, Elvis Cole gets taken as well, and his partner Joe Pike begins a frantic search for him.

Here’s the nifty thing about this book: It’s simple. It’s a story of kidnapping and possibly murder, a story about a few days in which things go very, very, very wrong.

Bob tells it out of order.  We see the young adults get taken, we know right from the start that Elvis will disappear as well, and when we first see Joe Pike, he’s beating the crap out of someone who knows where Elvis is. Bob tossed the timeline in the air, caught the pieces, and came up with an unputdownable thriller.

If he hadn’t done this, the book would have descended into an almost unreadable mass of imprisonment, claustrophobia, and hopelessness. This way, the novel is compelling and memorable.

Clearly Bob had trouble finding the right mix. His acknowledgements mention pushing up against his deadline, many re-reads of different drafts, and the assistance he got fixing this book.

What new writers—and many established writers—don’t understand is that what Bob did was rewrite the novel. He didn’t tinker with the words to try to fix it. Rewriting isn’t word-tinkering. It’s story-fixing. Sometimes the story comes out right, and sometimes it doesn’t. If it’s truly screwed up, then the writer must start all over from scratch without touching the original manuscript—or even looking at it.

But often the writer can mix up the elements and find a better way—using the existing material—to tell the story. Then the only word-tinkering is to delete repeated information and to write better transitions. Fixing sentences wouldn’t have helped in this case. Fixing sentences and line editing usually don’t help much at all, and often hurt the story. So writers: when you think about revision, never ever ever think about the words. The story’s not about the words. It’s about the tale you’re trying to tell. Tell it the best way possible.

Like Bob did, in Taken.

Gladwell, Malcolm, “The Tweaker,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2011. This unfortunately titled article is about Steve Jobs, kinda. Gladwell looks at the history of invention, and claims—with some pretty strong evidence—that the people who monkey with inventions and improve them are as important as the inventor themselves. He says Jobs was a “tweaker” which is slang for a meth addict. I don’t think Gladwell or his editors know that, which sometimes makes this piece unintentionally hilarious, but doesn’t negate his point. Jobs improved things, he didn’t invent them. This one is short and worth reading, even if you’ve overdosed on analysis about Jobs.

Lauterbach, Preston, The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock ’N’ Roll, Norton, 2011. I loved this book. The only thing it missed was a CD (or a download) with versions of the music he mentions. Some, I know, are unavailable, but other pieces aren’t, like Big Mama Thorton’s version of “He Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog.”

Anyway, Lauterbach wrote a history of the black nightclubs during segregation, and how they became the breeding ground for rock ’n’ roll. This might sound dull, but it’s really not. There are fires and murders and gambling and hookers and the real words to “Tutti Frutti,” (oh, man are my eyes open now). Early history of B.B. King (which I mostly knew), Little Richard (which I most definitely did not know), James Brown, and so many others you’ll recognize. The ones you won’t recognize, though, like Walter Barnes, truly make the book.

I read a lot of music history (particularly rock history) and a lot of black history, and most of the things that Lauterbach writes about here, I’ve never heard of. Wonderful, eye-opening, entertaining stuff.

Lepore, Jill, “Birthright,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2011. This piece is on the history of Planned Parenthood. Now, I studied women’s history and try to keep up on the reading, and I didn’t know a lot of this. I knew about Margaret Sanger, but not about the history of Planned Parenthood from the 1950s forward. Very interesting, no matter what side of the political aisle you sit on.

McPhee, John, “Progression,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2011.This one falls under a New Yorker subheading called “The Writing Life,” and the tagline that some editor put on it isn’t accurate. The tagline is “Starting a piece the wrong way.” That’s not what this is about. It’s about the way a writer’s mind works, how he circles his way to the correct topic, which is often one he didn’t even know he wanted to write about. This is especially true of nonfiction, but I’ve done it in fiction as well. McPhee has been writing for decades, and has written some iconic articles. If you want to be a writer, already are a writer, or are a passionate reader, this one is really worth your time.



17 thoughts on “Recommended Reading List: February 2012

  1. As always, thanks, Kris, for acting as trailblazer into wonderful lands. I’ll certainly look for the Block since he’s already one of my favorite writers ever since The Burglar in the Closet and The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep encountered in the early 80s. I used to buy Writer’s Digest purely for his column.

    However, I already finished Taken by the time I arrived here. Starting in media res is one thing. Crais took it to a whole other level of tension, a kind of auctorial rendition of Billy Jack notorious kick scene: “What I’m going to do is tell you exactly what’s going to happen and you still won’t be able to put the book down because of the suspense.”

    “Is that a fact?”

    “That’s a fact.” Whup upside the head.

    Unmentioned in your analysis was the amusing cameo appearance of the police officer bearing the Hugo Award-winning moniker who talks to Jon Stone.

    “Tweaker” is also used for meth-heads here on the East Coast, but I assure you that it had equal footing in computer-engineering parlance with “hacker” back when I was at MIT in the 70s, as in “We just need to tweak the code a bit.”


    1. Bob and I have many mutual friends, JJ, and he always throws me out of a book by using someone’s name in a really inappropriate way. He’s murdered a few friends, made the most mild-mannered into gang leaders, and so on. It’s hilarious, but it does make me leave the action for a minute. And yes, you’re right. He tells us what will happen, and then makes it infinitely more interesting than anything we could imagine.

  2. If you’re looking for something different try “Kraken” by China Mieville. Some of the Britishisms threw me, but very creative. The reviews for it (on Amazon) have been all over the place, though.

  3. I agree with your analysis of Magic Burns. The series gets better as it goes on, too, though I’m sure you’ve already picked up on some of the foreshadowing. The authors have said that the first book had to be cut quite a bit, so I suspect some of the “…Huh?” points are due to things that were lost in the editing.

    And to continue the urban fantasy note, have you tried Seanan Mcguire’s Toby Daye series, yet? That’s another one that gets better as it goes along, though I do think #1 (Rosemary and Rue) is better than the aforementioned #1 by another author. A tad more predictable, but it’s more coherent.

    Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll be checking out some of those other links. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Carradee. I suspect you’re right about the cutting. I also think that they (the authors) didn’t yet know how to smooth out a collaborative piece, so there’s different styles to contend with in #1 as well. I’ll look up Seanan Mcguire. Thanks for the rec!

  4. I love your selections, and would like to buy them from your store, but it doesn’t include kindle versions, only paper. Right now, I need ebooks only (I’m moving). Perhaps next month you might consider adding the ebook links for people like me?

    As someone who works with a lot of self-publishers and new authors in my pro bono time, I am so glad you’re hitting the structural fixes vs. line-editing distinction so hard. It’s as if most would-be writers have never even heard of the possibility of deeper levels of editing. And that is a crying shame.

    Last, but not least, I love, love, love John McPhee. His series on geology was astounding! And the books he has done on the Merchant Marine and on other forms of transportation? Who else could have made the UPS central distribution facility spell-binding? You’re so very right to pick that piece.

    1. Marion, all you have to do to get to the Kindle versions is click through on the link. Then you can chose which version to buy. It’s harder to link to the Kindle versions (in that, I have to go through a couple more steps), so it’s just easier for me to link to the paper and have you click twice.

      Thanks for the comment on line editing v. structural fixes. I’ve had traditional editors as well who don’t understand that editing isn’t about line edits: it’s about the structure and the story. When I teach a craft workshop, I spend days on that point alone.

      And I too love John McPhee. I read his work whenever I see it, and I’m always pleased with it.

  5. Man, I must be getting old, or I’m just way more out of it than I thought. But I’d never heard that “tweaker” had anything to do with Meth. If you hadn’t said that, I would have thought exactly what the folks who wrote the article probably thought: it’s a person who tweaks stuff, making little changes here and there.

    Learned something new today and it’s not even 7 in the morning. 🙂

    1. Yes, but is it something you wanted to learn, Michael? 🙂 It’s a pretty common phrase, unfortunately, but you now make me wonder if it’s regional. It’s been in strong usage in the Northwest for nearly two decades.

  6. Hey! You’re caught up on the Recommended Reading! Congrats!

    And I chortled all the was through “The Tweaker,” too. I kept imagining Steve Jobs twitching and scrubbing the tile grout through the whole thing.

    TK Kenyon

  7. Great reading list. The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock’N’Roll sounds awesome; I’ll definitely have to pick it up. Because my curiousity was peaked, I looked up the original lyrics to Tutti Frutti. And was quite suprised. There’s an ice cream flavor named after that song…

  8. I’m delighted to see you are as big a fan of The New Yorker as I. I very much enjoy your “retrieval artist” books. Have any new ones in the works?

    1. I am finishing the new one now, Eric. You did pick up Anniversary Day, right? And there are some novellas available as e-books…

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