Recommended Reading List: March, 2014

free nonfiction On Writing Recommended Reading

While I was reading the Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel book listed below, I was also reading a recent issue of RT Book Reviews. I noticed something that surprised me. Almost all of the novels in their historical romance section were set in the Regency era. A goodly 80%, and most of the rest were set in England or Scotland either in medieval times or the Victorian era. I thumbed forward, looking at the contemporary romances, and saw a similarity there too. And the romantic suspense novels had military/paramilitary/serial killers in common.

Traditional publishing has gotten so risk-averse that novels like the Wind would simply not be published now out of the big houses. And haven’t been published for years from them. I had forgotten how diverse genres were as recently as fifteen years ago. No wonder so many writers have vanished. They’re not writing the prescribed thing.

In fact, one of my favorite romantic suspense writers has moved to Regency, with mixed results. She’s a realist, so her history is as accurate as she can make it in the fantasy genre of Regency, and her characters are sometimes…creepy…by modern standards. I wish she’d return to her old roots, but doubt she will because she’d entrenched in the old publishing ways.

The Wind/Samuel experience (outlined below) made me go back to my bookshelf and pull off a few books I’d meant to read, and look up some authors whose work I had forgotten that I loved. Many of those writers are publishing their own work now. I’m going to find them—even with the crapazoid covers some of them have slapped on their books—and read.

At least, that’s my plan.

This month (and next) I’ll be doing some hardcore Fiction River line editing as well. I’m the line editor for the series because editing short stories isn’t something the average editor (or copy editor) can do. It takes a special eye. So I’m reading and rereading some stories, which took time from my leisure reading.

9780615935164_p0_v1_s260x420If you want to see some of my editing work from last spring, pick up Fiction River Special: Crime, which just came out. I’m really pleased with that volume. The invited authors turned in fantastic stories, and the authors who competed for the leftover slots wrote fantastic stories. It’s one of the stronger anthologies that I’ve edited, in my opinion.

The rest of the reading month has consisted of research for two upcoming short stories of mine. If I sound a bit buried, well, yes, I am. But in a very good way.

Here’s the best of the best—and not the Fiction River stuff, which you’ll see in the volume.


March, 2014


Ballantine, Poe, “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. I finished this essay and was disappointed to be done, just the way I am when I finish a great novel. I had never heard of Poe Ballantine, although, apparently, he’s been writing almost as long as I have. This is how discoverability works, my Business Blog readers. Because I finished the essay, went online and found  more of his work—and ordered a book of essays that looked like it might be related to this one. We’ll see if I’m right.

Anyway, this particular essay—with a title that actually put me off—is written like a first-person short story, set in a dive hotel-apartment, about a man’s struggles to get by as he begins to find his way around his art. Yeah, sounds like every crappy self-involved creative writing class essay you’ve ever read, but it isn’t. The writing is crisp and precise, the characters—yes, characters—are fascinating, and the situation is oddly tense. Pick up the book for this essay alone.

Churchwell, Sarah, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, And The Invention of The Great Gatsby, The Penguin Press, 2013. Wow, I loved this book. Not for the reasons I thought I would love it, either. I thought I would love it because of the true crime story—there was a very weird double homicide crime of the century around the time that Fitzgerald moved to the East Coast which may or may not (I vote for not) have informed The Great Gatsby beyond a sliver of a memory.

9781594204746_p0_v1_s260x420What makes this book wonderful are the details. Churchwell does her very best to recreate the autumn of 1922, a time that clearly did influence Fitzgerald’s most famous work. Every detail is here, from the kind of cabs that existed (including one whose logo was a swastika—before that symbol got used for other things) to the traffic lights to the ash heaps to the entertainment. She also recreates as best she can the interactions between a tight (in both senses of the word) group of writers who hung out near New York City that year.

Her writing is excellent and the story she tells fascinating. I doubt her scholarly conclusions, but that’s such a small part of the book. If you like author biographies, read this one. It’s very well done.

Kamp, David, “Heeeeere’s Jimmy,” Vanity Fair, February 2014. If you had asked me which article I would have recommended from the February Vanity Fair before I read it, just based on the table of contents, I would have said the piece on e.e. cummings. Nope. It’s this one, on Jimmy Fallon.

One of a dozen or more puff pieces that NBC’s publicist managed to plant for The Tonight Show switchover, this one is actually a profile with a little meat. It shows why Fallon is well-liked and how he managed his approach to humor. The other pieces that I read truly were puff pieces, and this one, while being upbeat, actually feels like the writer did the work—the interview, watching Fallon’s Late Show—and appreciated what he saw.

I personally find Fallon the only enjoyable late night host in the past twenty-two years. I liked Carson and I like Fallon. I’d watch Leno if I was in a hotel room, and I tolerated Letterman. I loathed Conan (still do), appreciate Craig Ferguson (particularly when he interviews authors) but never went out of my way to watch his show. Arsenio has never recaptured his old glory.

I really hate that frat boy white guy snark that passed for comedy since Letterman joined the late night crowd in the 1980s, and I’m happy to see someone break out of the mold. As, apparently, is David Kamp. So, here’s a fascinating article about a guy named Jimmy…

Mead, Rebecca,Written Off: Jennifer Weiner’s quest for literary respect,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2014. I’m not sure what it is about New Yorker profiles that require the writer to have a tone of superiority about their subject, particularly when it comes to genre writers, but Mead gets that tone spot-on here. I suspect, if Mead were writing a profile of some major activist, the tone would have a lot of respect, even if the quotes were the same. But here, that tiny hint of snark kept me out of the essay in depth.

That said, there’s a lot of good writing advice here, a lot of fascinating writer’s life stuff and a bit of a cautionary tale. I often warn my students who are just starting out to have a discussion with their spouse about their career and the ups and downs of it. Sounds like Weiner and her ex discussed the downs, but never the ups. And the ups, here, destroyed the marriage. Or, as it’s recorded here:

“We expected that things would proceed one way—he’d be the primary breadwinner, a successful attorney, and I’d make less money, stay home with the kids, with fiction essentially a lucrative hobby,” she says. “When it didn’t work out that way, I think we both had a hard time rewriting the contract of the marriage.”

Success causes a lot of problems for writers, with friends, with the writing itself, and inside marriages (and other relationships). And, apparently, with nonfiction writers. 🙂 Despite the tone, this one’s worth reading.

9780544103887_p0_v1_s260x420Schmitt, Richard, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. As the folks who attended the anthology workshop in February know, I’m really not fond of carnival or circus stories. I think very few are done well. This, being a circus essay, was slightly higher on the scale, but only because Schmitt 1) eased me into it and 2) actually worked in a circus for a long time.

He eased me in by asking why we say people “ran away to join the circus” when we don’t say that about other things (“she ran away to join a college” would be my personal history). He mused on that a bit, then described how he got his circus job, and went on, mixing language and circuses into something quite intriguing and powerful.

Plus he touched on something that has bothered me for a long time. We Americans seem to believe there’s one circus, one carnival, and it’s all the same. Clearly, it isn’t, and it’s nothing like the thing that shows up in most fiction (and most TV—damn you, Grimm. [shakes fist for emphasis]). This essay’s fascinating; well worth your time.

Smith, Dean Wesley, Kill Game, Smith’s Monthly, March 2014. I blew through this novel in an evening. It’s really good. It’s a full-length Cold Poker Gang story, with a very personal case that has an impact on all of them. For a while, I was convinced I was ahead of the plot here. Heh. I was wrong. I found it impossible to put down.

The book also made me realize something: I sure don’t see a lot of traditionally published novels set in west of the Mississippi, unless that setting is Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Las Vegas sometimes. But Boise? Portland? Very rare. This book is set in Vegas, Salt Lake, and Boise, and just the settings alone made the mystery seem fresh.

The book itself is strong and fun, and another to remember during awards season.

9781561467006_p0_v1_s260x420Smith, Dean Wesley, “Remember Me To Your Children,” Smith’s Monthly, March 2014. Set in the Dust and Kisses universe, this story is stunning. In fact, I tried to get Dean to submit it to one of the other publications because I think it’s an award contender. (But he said no.) I can’t tell you much about this story, except that it carries a heck of a punch. Read it!

Smith, Dean Wesley, “You Forget The Night’s Scream,” Smith’s Monthly, March 2014. Poker Boy. Banshees.  Yeah, it surprised me too. And yet somehow, Dean came up with something chilling (no pun intended) and very touching. Enjoy!

Surowiecki, James, “Do The Hustle,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2014. Usually by the time I get to James Surowieki’s Financial Page in The New Yorker, the information is out of date. This time, it’s a fascinating (if short) look at hustlers and con men and America’s love affair with them. Take a peek. You might not learn anything new, but you will find some things to think about.

9780061030123_p0_v1_s260x420Wind, Ruth, In the Midnight Rain, Harper Torch, 2000. I have a weird history with this paperback. The actual book. I bought it because I saw Barbara Samuel’s name on the copyright page. I love her work. I’m not fond of the title, and the cover of the paperback is…uninspiring…to say the least. I bought the book new, and finally read it this month. Fourteen years. Wow.

The book itself was worth the wait. A music historian goes to a small town in East Texas to find information on a blues singer who vanished in the 1950s. The singer wasn’t really famous, but influential, as many blues singers were at the time. Ellie, our heroine, discovers a photo of the singer and that inspires her to make the singer’s story her next book.

Ellie has an ulterior motive as well. Her mother, who died when she was two, lived in that town one fateful summer, and returned home pregnant. Ellie hopes maybe she’ll discover who her father really is on this trip.9781452496993_p0_v2_s114x166

A lot happens, Ellie learns all sorts of things, and she meets the love of her life, a damaged widower who grows orchids. And all of this sounds dull as dishwater, which is probably why I had trouble picking up the novel way back when.

It’s not dull. It’s fascinating. Beautifully written and quite fast moving.

Anyway, there’s a new edition out, under Barbara Samuel’s name, with a much better cover. Buy that one. And enjoy.

Zoepf, Katherine, “Shopgirls,” The New Yorker, December 23 & 30, 2013. Articles like this make me realize just how barren most science fiction and fantasy is. The article, under the heading “Letter From Riyadh,” discusses how women have finally gotten the right to sell lingerie to other women in Saudi Arabia. The piece is all about the cultural upheaval this has caused, and how the religious police don’t like it. Plus the problems it creates within the family unit. Cultures are very different from each other here on Earth: most sf writers (and readers) fail to realize that, and hence their “alien” civilizations are pretty dang normal to someone raised in the Western culture. Read articles like this one to understand how being born in one culture leads to an entirely different upbringing than that of someone else of the same age born in another.



9 thoughts on “Recommended Reading List: March, 2014

  1. The past is an alien place.

    Don’t know who said that first, but my research for a Fantasy set in a pseudo-Roman setting showed me that I was going to have to pick and choose what I used.

    Did you know that pedophiliac rape was considered just fine in Rome? Or that rape of anyone of a lower social class, whether male, female, young, old, or in between was legal?

    I didn’t. I looked at my research, and decided that I wouldn’t use that as part of the setting. It would be too upsetting to most readers.

    The Regency period no doubt had it’s own oddities, and I can imagine that they’d be rather startling to anyone not a historian specializing in that period 🙂


    1. Oh, yeah. The past is an alien place. That’s part of the point of Fiction River 10, Past Crime. We only touched the surface with that one, so I’ll do it again. We didn’t get alien enough for me–but it was a start. What fascinates me are the crimes that are no longer crimes–and the things, like you mentioned, that we consider crime and they didn’t.

      Thanks, Wayne. 🙂

  2. Great post. Looking forward to checking out Churchwell’s book! Ballantine has an interesting memoir set not far from where I grew up in Nebraska. It’s called Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere and, among other things, explores a real-life small town mystery.

  3. Wow, Kris, fourteen years! Just how big *is* your tbr pile? 😉 Thanks for the great recommendations!

  4. A friend and I were just complaining how romances are all either Regency, cod-medieval, or born-again Christian. So the Samuel book sounds pretty neato. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for something Elizabethan. Or Medici. Or ancient Roman that isn’t about persecuted Christians. 19th century that isn’t Regency, Victorian or Wild West. What about Europe in 1848?

    I was going to say “Hey, I just read a mystery set in Denver!” but then recalled it was indie. I also read an indie mystery set in Winnipeg once.

      1. I’ve been meaning to. George Martin recommended it to me before he started the Game of Thrones (tells you how long ago that was), and I have had it as a TBR ever since. Looks like I should get to it! Thanks.

  5. I used to enjoy contemporary category romances back in the 90s, before it became impossible to find any where the hero was a nice, ordinary guy with a nice, ordinary job. I’m not all that interested in billionaires, sheikhs, or others of their ilk. And so I quit reading them, which is too bad as I rather like the whole process part of a category romance (the *how* will they, as opposed to the will they, which is a given, obviously).

    I also miss historicals set in the North American west, which are all but gone, too. I really ought to open my ‘keeper’ cupboard, write down some names, and see what those ladies are writing now, too.

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