Recommended Reading List: December, 2014

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Not quite as many books, articles, or stories to recommend from my December reading as I found in my November reading, but I read just as much. One of my favorite novelists disappointed me greatly with the ending of his latest novel. He badly telegraphed a “twist,” and it came—I’m not kidding—on the very last page of the novel. The end. The abrupt ending left such a sour taste in my mouth that I’m rather angry at the book. He didn’t even try to ease me out of the novel. He just ended it with this bad thing happening to our longtime hero. Naw. I’ll buy the next, but if the author does this again, I’ll stop picking up the books when they come out.

There. A vague and unfocused threat. How’s that for a way to start a blog on recommended reading? {VBG}

Over the holidays, I read part of the Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches. Still haven’t finished, but I’ve enjoyed what I read (see below). I’m not done with Magic Motorcycles either. I’m just behind on my anthology reading, for reasons I don’t entirely understand.

Some of it might be all the Christmas stories. I went back to The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, which I’d abandoned last year after the holidays ended. Still haven’t finished it, so I’m sure I’ll read more next year, but I have some stories to recommend from it.

As well as other Christmas stories, plus some ghoulish books and of course, magazine articles (that I’m still way behind on) and some wonderful essays. 

December, 2014

51FMhTkBJfL._SL300_Baum, L. Frank, “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” Short Stories For ChristmasSaland Publishing audiobook, 2013. I believe this story was read by Bart Wolffe, but I’m not certain, and the book listing doesn’t say which stories he read. The story itself was a revelation for me. Yes, this is L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and published it in 1900. I had no idea he wrote Santa stories, but he did, and this one, at least, is surprisingly modern. I mentioned it to Dean, and he had known about Baum’s Christmas stories. They were a surprise to me.

Some things aren’t the same, of course. Santa lives in the Laughing Valley, not the North Pole, and the elves and such are very different creatures than the ones we’re used to. But the sleigh, Santa’s midnight ride, all of that is quite modern. In this, Santa gets kidnapped on Christmas Eve and can’t make his ride. Very tense, and quite exciting. I have no idea how the story would be to read, but I found the audiobook marvelous, and worth recommending. I haven’t listened to all of the stories in the collection, but I plan to eventually.

Clark, Rod, “Voice Over: Stealing From Dragons,” Rosebud, Winter, 2014. I love Rod Clark’s brain, I really do. I love how he analyzes things and then brings them back to the personal. Ostensibly, this is an essay about J.R.R. Tolkien, but really, it’s an essay about storytelling, storytellers, and story lovers. If you’re not reading Rod’s essays, you’re missing out.

Cohen, Richard, “The Ride of His Life,” Vanity Fair, October 2014. I admit to a deep curiosity about Robert Downey, Jr. It started back in the 1980s. He’s a physical type I find very attractive (from his looks to his sharp verbal intelligence). As a young man, my first husband looked a lot like Downey.

So he was on my radar from the beginning of his career, and as he fell deeper and deeper into trouble, I began to think he was one of those talented people who were their own worst enemy. But not only has he somehow controlled and corralled his worst habits, he’s also learn to balance his fame with his talent. Like Clint Eastwood, Downey makes films that are blockbusters and quieter, smaller films close to his heart.

This article is one of the first I’ve seen that takes on the redemption story as something more than a success story. As something actually difficult, that a real human being survived. And that I find much more interesting than any frothy “look at how great he is” piece.

9780062282712_p0_v4_s260x420Gay, Roxane, “Bad Feminist, Take One,” Bad Feminist, Harper Perennial, 2014. Fascinating essay (as is the matching one, below) about the misappropriation of the word “feminist,” as well as what it means to identify yourself as a feminist. The expectations, the strengths and weaknesses of being female in modern society—and how loud the negative conversation has become. She writes:

I sometimes cringe when I am referred to as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word “feminist” is an insult. The label is rarely offered in kindness. I am generally called a feminist when I have the nerve to suggest that the misogyny so deeply embedded in our culture is a real problem requiring relentless vigilance.

This. Exactly. I’ve noticed this when I speak out as well. Often I’m told I’m overreacting. No, I’m not.

So it’s nice to see calm essays about things people are generally not calm about, rational essays about difficult subjects, like being called a feminist.

Gay, Roxane, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Bad Feminist, Harper Perennial, 2014. Much as I liked the first essay, I love this one. Whenever you identify yourself with a group, you end up measuring yourself against the mores of the group. Gay deals with that here, especially in her opening, which I wanted to quote here until I realized I would quote more than half the essay.

Male, female, self-identified feminist or not, read this essay. It’s about the contradictions and strengths of being female, of accepting a label, and of redefining that label to mean something to you. If you don’t read any other essay in the book, read this one.

It’s powerful, and true.

Gay, Roxane, Bad Feminist, Harper Perennial, 2014. As I suspected I would last month, I loved this collection of essays, and will look for more of her work. The middle slowed for me, partly because it deals with books I haven’t read or movies I have seen (and hated as much as Gay did). So some of it actually felt like a discussion with a friend about something we agreed about—which oddly enough—isn’t as interesting to read (imho). (Yes, I hated The Help, a lot. It was historically incorrect and racist, and I just couldn’t handle it. I’m sorry I saw it. I couldn’t make myself see Django Unchained: it looked like violence porn to me.)

She tackles some amazingly difficult subjects in this book. While not every essay is great as a literary work, each essay contributes something to conversation. And the essays that hit the mark, surpass it tremendously. This is a worthy book. Read it.

9780142412145_p0_v1_s260x420Green, John, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Okay, I get it now. This is the first story I’ve read of megaseller John Green’s, and it’s a lot of fun. This is one of three linked holiday romances in the Let It Snow volume, and is perhaps the liveliest one.

Set in the middle of a Christmas blizzard, three friends get called by another friend to get to the Waffle House ASAP because a trainload of cheerleaders (literally) are stranded there. The adventure is the journey to the Waffle House, and all the character arcs, etc., punctuated by reports from the Waffle House itself. Extremely fun, extremely memorable story.

Johnson, Maureen, “The Jubilee Express,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Jubilee’s parents get arrested in a brawl at a collectibles store the day before Christmas, so they send her to spend the holiday with her grandparents. She has to take a train, which stalls in the middle of a blizzard in a small town. She doesn’t want to sit in the cold train for hours (and maybe days) so she hikes in the snow to the Waffle House, followed by a gaggle of cheerleaders. I thought I had the story figured out twice, and I was wrong both times. Loads and loads of fun, with great characters and lots of heart.

Kinsey, Michael, “Everyone Into The Pool!” Vanity Fair, October, 2014. One of the best essays about Obamacare from someone who actually has to use it, and who is used to thinking about policy and the bigger picture. The essay is not full of talking points, but human experience tempered with some good analysis. Read this one.

2940150375888_p0_v1_s260x420Lang, Michele, “The Witch of Budapest,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, October, 2014. Set in 1936, “The Witch of Budapest” captures its time period beautifully without oppressing us by it. The magic is incredible, and story answers some questions that I had long ago, when I started reading Michele’s Lady Lazarus series. A great introduction to the whole series.

Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. I normally label books by author, but I have no idea how to label this one, because it’s listed in three different ways on the three different websites I went to. So I gave up and did this.

Let It Snow is a series of linked holiday romances written for young adults, but really, who cares who the target market is? The stories work. All three of them are good, but the first two are so good that I found myself a bit disappointed with the third. Had I read it as a standalone, I probably would have loved it.

The sense of teenagers at loose ends on the night before Christmas in a blizzard comes through all of the stories. The romances are believable, the stories powerful, and the settings wonderfully done. If you need some holiday reading, pick up this book.

9780345802989_p0_v2_s260x420Lovesey, Peter, “The Haunted Crescent,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. A delightful Christmas ghost story with a twist that I never saw coming. I shall say no more, except to remind you to go and read this one.

MacDonald, John D., “Dead on Christmas Street,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. This story, first published in 1952, feels surprisingly contemporary. A woman dives out of a seventeen-story window. The death gets investigated, of course. The forensic details are accurate for the time, and the entire attitude expressed here feels like something someone could have written now. MacDonald was/is a master, and stories like this prove why.

9781476727257_p0_v3_s260x420Melinek, Judy, M.D. and Mitchell, T.J., Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, And The Making of A Medical Examiner, Scribner, 2014. I blew through this book. It wasn’t as graphic as I expected, and it was surprisingly heartwarming. Melinek (who is married to freelance writer Mitchell) received her training as a forensic pathologist in New York City, starting in 2001. Fortunately for the book, she saves the details of 9/11 for a later chapter, when we can understand the work as she describes it.

Her perspective on life, death, and those things what kills ya is fascinating; both dry and calm, and sad and worried. The book is a compelling read, and not at all ghoulish. If you want to know how a real forensic pathologist works, instead of all the magic on CSI, then read this book.

Page, Norvell, “Crime’s Christmas Carol,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. I’m sure Dean had heard of Norvell Page, but I never had. Page was a prolific writer for the pulps in the 1930s. This story was first published in 1939, and was a riff on O Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” only with a heck of a criminal twist. Yet somehow Page managed to pull off a happy ending. The story becomes more poignant when you remember that it was written and published during the Depression.

Patterson, Irette Y., “Worth,” Saturday Evening Post, December 19, 2014. A lovely short Christmas piece by Irette. I read it on Christmas Eve, and it really added to an already special day. A short story about money, holidays, and love. This one’s good any time of year.

9780752852454_p0_v1_s260x420Rankin, Ian, Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey, Orion, 2005. Designed as a kind of travel book, Ian Rankin’s book on Scotland is more of a memoir focused on the difference between an author and his most famous character. Both were raised in Scotland and have a lot in common in their backgrounds, but one is older than the other—and it isn’t the usual way. Rebus is older than Rankin (who is exactly my age). There’s a lovely ending to one of the chapters about the difference between creator and created:

When I start writing a book, I know I am about to enter a debate with the creature I am bringing to life. My attitudes will not necessarily be his…It’s fortunate I’ll never meet him: I have the feeling we wouldn’t get along…

I read that right after reading a stupid comment on someone else’s blog about how some wannabe writer knew what kind of person J.K. Rowling was based on her political opinions as expressed by her characters in Harry Potter. I wanted to ask, “Which characters? What opinions?” because it seemed to run the gamut to me.

There are lots of little passing gems like that quote in the Rankin book. There are also wonderful photographs of the settings in those books, taken by Tricia Malley and Ross Gillespie, who did some of the British covers for Rankin’s novels. This is a British book with no American edition (that I could find). But if you’re a Rebus fan, you don’t want to miss this.

2940150518766_p0_v1_s260x420Walker, Leslie Claire, “Phoenix,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, October, 2014. Set in a side of Houston most never see, “Phoenix” is filled with scary, high-stakes magic. I’m amazed at how much tension and story Leslie can pack into a single story. I couldn’t put this down, even though I read it in the middle of baking, so I almost burned pies. “Phoenix” is part of Leslie’s Hunt Universe, which I’ve read some of, but this tale stands alone just fine.

2940150346642_p0_v1_s260x420Weldon, Phaedra, “New Frost,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, October, 2014. This is a coming of age story, kinda, set in one of Phaedra’s universes. I hadn’t read the novel that came before and will now, which is exactly what a short story that’s part of a series should do. Amelia Frost is the daughter of Jack Frost, but she’s been raised human. She has some fascinating winterish magic—and I don’t dare say more. Just read this.

White, Ethel Lina, “Waxworks,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. Ethel Lina White wrote seventeen novels, two of which became classic Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase. I hadn’t heard of her until I encountered this story, but it soon became clear why Hitchcock felt her to be a kindred spirit.

Sonia, a young reporter, has decided to make her reputation by spending New Year’s Eve in the Waxworks, ostensibly to catch the haunt or whatever it is that was causing all the spooky noises. She describes herself as “not timid” and “fairly perceptive” and believes she can solve this mystery.

Only things get a little more mysterious as time goes on. Someone dies, and some really spooky occurrences happen, and Sonia…well, read this. You’ll soon forget, as I did, that it was written in 1930. I actually pictured a waxworks I’d been to recently as I read it. Probably the most memorable story of the volume for me so far.

3 thoughts on “Recommended Reading List: December, 2014

  1. Oh, no so many good stories here and my reading list growing to unwieldy proportions. I have Bad Feminist sitting beside me now that I plucked from your last list. Really enjoy these reviews, thanks – even if it means a toppling pile for too few quiet moments.

  2. Some good stuff here; as usual, I added some books to my wish list.

    And wow, Saturday Evening Post! Go Irette! 😀

    Angie, sending virtual fist-bumps to a workshop buddy

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