Wow, when I get behind, I get behind. I ran out of time to write about books as I finished them, and figured I could do it in February. Yeah, right. With two workshops, and a bunch of deadlines, February has proven to be a nightmare of scheduling—which is why this thing barely squeezed in before the month ended.
I read a lot in January. I binged on books while Dean was out of town in the middle of the month, and almost all of the books were worthy. Plus, I read a lot of short stories and articles. All-in-all, January’s reading was a great way to start the year.
Here’s the best of the best.
Baldacci, David, editor, Faceoff, Simon & Schuster, 2014. When I saw the conceit for this book, I thought it was either going to be brilliant or a train wreck. Well known writers are pairing off their most famous characters in a single story. If the writers blew off the assignment, then the story would be nightmarishly bad. But if the writers took the assignment seriously, the story would be anywhere from good enough to brilliant.
The writers in this volume all took the assignment seriously. Some stories weren’t to my taste, but that’s a personal preference. The stories themselves went in directions they wouldn’t have gone without both writers (and both characters) on the case.
The introductions are interesting as well, because each writer/pair used a different work method. If you want to see the wide variety of ways that writers write, pick up this book, read the stories, and then read the introductions.
I loved this book more than I hoped to—and I had hoped to love it a lot.
Chase, Nichole, Suddenly Royal, Avon, 2013. Apparently this book was originally self-published and did so well it got picked up by Avon. I found it in a Barnes & Noble when I was in Berkeley last September. The book has some issues—the writing is not stellar—but the storytelling has great verve, and even though I’d read the story a million times (the Hidden Princess story), I love that trope enough to slog through a rather slow opening.
Chase has wonderful storytelling chops, which overcame some of the craft issues for me. I debated recommending this, particularly since I started the second book and found it impossible to finish, and then I realized what a feat it was to get someone as jaded as I am about Hidden Princess stories to find one that was impossible to put down. Chase did something really right here. If you like romance, you’ll like this book. Just give it a chapter or two.
Child, Lee, and Finder, Joseph, “Good and Valuable Consideration,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. Take two tough loners and put them in a situation they need to size up immediately. Don’t go through the long explanations or the introductions, just fill the story with believable action. That’s what Child & Finder did here. The story’s brilliantly written and, frankly, I’m surprised that it isn’t up for an Edgar like one of the other stories in the volume.
Dark, Juliet, The Demon Lover, Ballantine Books, 2011. Juliet Dark is the pen name for one of my favorite authors, Carol Goodman, something I just discovered this year. Apparently this book had brief life as a Carol Goodman novel, and then got reissued as the first book in an “urban fantasy” trilogy. (I’m reviewing the trilogy in order of publication here, not my usual alphabetical scheme.)
This isn’t urban fantasy. This is a pure modern Gothic of the best kind. Callie McFay takes a teaching job at a very strange private college in Upstate New York, in a town called Fairwick. As I read the entire trilogy, I realized there were a lot of mentions of Oneonta, where I lived until I was two. I e-mailed my sister about Oneonta and asked if there was a private college there. She had gone to SUNY-Oneonta, so I figured she’d know. She mentioned Hartwick. Hartwick/Fairwick…hmmm.
Okay. Personal connection solved somewhat, although I want to go to Oneonta now (I haven’t been there as an adult.)
This book is sexy and dark and lovely and fun and has a marvelous send up of universities, college towns, professors and alumni. Yes, there’s a demon lover, and there’s faerie, and there’s a lot of magic, and more tension than I really wanted when I started reading. Thank heavens I had the next books on order, because I had to read them right away.
There’s also a lot of fun writing material here. Callie wrote a book The Sex Lives of Demon Lovers (a nonfiction book) which was one reason she was hired at Fairwick. And she moves into a house once owned by a famous Gothic writer whose novels she references in her nonfiction book. She finds more material in the attic about that writer, and she also meets the writer’s demon lover.
Wonderful stuff, maybe some of the best stuff that Carol Goodman has written (that I’ve seen anyway). If you love fantasy novels, pick this one up.
Dark, Juliet, The Water Witch, Ballantine Books, 2013. Ballantine really does not know how to market Carol Goodman (or Juliet Dark) which is a real shame. The cover for books two and three in this series are much more literary than the cover for The Demon Lover, and probably won’t appeal to the casual fantasy reader.
The Water Witch picks up the loose threads that The Demon Lover left hanging. Callie’s still in Fairwick, but she faces a fight between the conservative witches of the Grove who want nothing to do with faerie, and the very magical friends she’s made at Fairwick College. Biggest problem? Her witchy grandmother who raised her is a member of the Grove.
After The Demon Lover, the idea that anyone would want to destroy the entrance to faerie or the freedom of Fairwick is horrifying. And the tension runs throughout. Having lived inside academia for the first 26 years of my life, I also recognize the pull between the conservative alumni who don’t understand what kind of school they came from and the professors who want to teach students as they are now.
This book goes to an edge that made me turn the last page, close the book, and pick up the final book in the series that very moment.
Dark, Juliet, The Angel Stone, Ballantine Books, 2013. Whoever wrote the back cover copy on this thing makes it sound like an Outlander rip-off. Ignore that. Read the book.
I can’t explain what happens here without giving away action in books one and two, but oh, wow, is this marvelous and tense and brilliant.
Did I say I love this series? No? Well, then. I love this series. Read it. Now.
Deaver, Jeffrey, and Sandford, John, “Rhymes with Prey,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. I’ve read both series here, although I greatly prefer the Lincoln Rhyme series. This is one of the longer stories in the book, and it needs to be. The two characters—Deaver’s paralyzed character Rhymes, and Sandford’s bull-doggish Lucas Davenport—team up on a case in New York. The characters fit together well, and the authors do something I greatly appreciate: they have each character react to the other in a believable way.
It felt like one of those cross-over episodes of two good television shows. Well done and worth the added length.
Green, Adam, “Innocents on Broadway,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. Fascinating article about Green’s father, Adolph and his writing partner Betty Comden, as they developed On The Town for Broadway in the early 1940s. This article has everything—family history, writer history, World War II, and an odd success story. If you’re interested in what writers face, particularly in first successes, read this one. [Note that Vanity Fair was having website issues when I tried to link, so you might have to type in the link yourself.]
Handy, Bruce, “In A Bookstore In Paris…,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. Like every American who has gone to Paris in the last ninety years, I’ve spent time at Shakespeare and Company. It’s a rite of passage in a way.
I knew that the owner, George Whitman, had died a few years back, but I hadn’t realized that his twenty-something daughter inherited the bookstore. Fascinating piece on one of the most successful independent bookstores in the world, on the eccentric Whitman, and on his brilliant daughter who wants to hang onto his legacy and modernize it without destroying what he built. Worth reading, even if you never plan to visit Paris…
Hendrickson, David H., “Huram’s Temple,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April, 2015. Often I fall in love with a story written at one of our writing workshops, but I can’t buy the story for some reason or another. In the case of “Huram’s Temple,” the story just didn’t fit any projects I was editing, so I told Dave to send the story out to traditional magazines. And he did—and Janet Hutchings picked it up for EQMM. Wider circulation, lots of readers. Win-win for everyone, including you.
“Huram’s Temple,” is set in Biblical times, beautifully evoked as Dave does so well. And, like most short mystery stories, if I tell you much more, I’ll spoil it for you. So pick up the issue and read this one.
Lehane, Dennis, and Connelly, Michael, “Red Eye,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. As I got ready to post this on my blog, I note that this story got nominated for an Edgar. It deserves the nomination. Lehane and Connelly seamlessly blend their two characters into a story that makes sense for both of them.
Harry Bosch is following a cold case all the way to Boston and Bosch being Bosch doesn’t inform the authorities that he’s there…yet. He stumbles on Patrick Kenzie who was staking out the same house for a different reason, and yeah, you know, the story proceeds from there.
The neat thing is that Connelly and Lehane also use their voices to great effect as well. This is a tour de force, and worth the price of the book all by itself.
Lescroart, John, and Parker, T. Jefferson, “Silent Hunt,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. The two authors do deep-water fly fishing together, so they decided to pick two of their characters who would meet on a fishing trip. Add some narcotrafficantes and probably more violence that the writers have their trips, and you have a gem of a short story.
Owen, David, “Floating Feasts,” The New Yorker, November 3, 2014. I have no idea why I found this article fascinating, but I did. It’s about all that goes into feeding the ravenous hordes on a cruise ship. It sounds like more work and planning than my poor brain can handle. Fascinating stuff, and the descriptions—yummy!
Rankin, Ian, and James, Peter, “In The Nick of Time,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. It wasn’t until I typed the title into this list that I realized the title is a pun. Nicely done, gentlemen.
I’d never read Peter James before. Honestly, I’d never heard of him before. I love Ian Rankin’s work. The story, another cold case (kinda), is as good as anything I would expect from Rankin. I also liked James’s Roy Grace, so I suspect I’ll be picking up his books soon. Which is how these highwire acts are supposed to work.
Short, Martin, “My Humble Beginnings,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. I’m not a big fan of Martin Short. He doesn’t make me laugh. It always seems to me like he’s trying too hard. I like him more now than I did when I first saw him thirty-some years ago, but only because he does the I’m-older-and-wiser comedian thing really well.
I almost passed on this article, an excerpt from his memoir, and then I remember that comedians are usually writers first. And this was about his beginnings. I knew none of what he wrote here, even though I read more Saturday Night Live! biographies than I should. I had no idea he was involved with Gilda Radner (I still miss Gilda) or that he got his start in a Toronto production of Godspell with Paul Shaffer, Victor Garber, and Dan Aykroyd. That caught my attention, and the story here kept it. I won’t pick up the memoir (I’m not that interested), but this excerpt was certainly worth my time.
Silva, Daniel, The Messenger, Signet, 2007. As I was finishing up the Anniversary Day Saga, I found I couldn’t read much of anything. I settled on some darker mysteries and, for some reason now lost to time, started the first book in Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.
Silva writes well and the early books were plausible, but he wrote “realistic” spy fiction, so Allon always lost—and lost horribly. I threaded the Allon books with others, expecting the downer. It’s fascinating to read the series years after he wrote the books, because sometimes the things he mentions that “could” happen actually have two or three years after the book got published.
Then I read The Messenger. For some reason, Silva decided to throw out the “realism.” I put that in quotes because this is fiction, after all. But Silva decided to make the world a slightly parallel one to ours.
Anyway, even though Allon works for Israel, he got tied up with the Vatican early on (don’t ask), and is asked to help find an extremist who wants to destroy the Vatican. And within 50 pages, Silva changes the course of his books forever.
I started cheering then, and have continued to do so since. The books aren’t as realistic, but they are much more entertaining. This is the one where Silva finds the correct direction for the series. You can start here, but start with the early ones if you can. If you’re a writer, it’s particularly instructive. If you’re not, go slowly, and read something happy after each one.
Smith, Dean Wesley, Lake Roosevelt, Smith’s Monthly, January, 2015. Oh, things have gotten interesting in Dean’s Thunder Mountain universe. This novel doesn’t start in Idaho; it starts on the Oregon Coast as his heroine is researching mysteries in the past. She goes to a historic diner, and who should walk in, but a man she’s been investigating—from the turn of the previous century.
Those of us who read the Thunder Mountain series know what’s going on, but she doesn’t. And as she learns, things get even stranger. The story’s compelling as usual, but the changes Dean’s making to his universe are also compelling. Another excellent read.