Recommended Reading List: November 2016
Back on schedule, more or less. I’m scheduling these recommended reading lists as I start them, so if they seem a little incomplete, it’s because they go live whether I like it or not. No more tinkering!
I’m still adding recommended books from my one-year hiatus. I’m not marking which are which, but you might be able to tell. Also in the past year, I canceled my New Yorker subscription because I had stopped reading it. I just thumbed through it. Then I got The Best American Essays, and discovered that hardly any of the recommended reading in it was from The New Yorker. Seems like I’m not the only one who got disgusted with it.
As for the reading month in November, well, some of my time got taken watching too much election coverage on TV. Then I had to line edit a Fiction River. I had farmed out the line editing for a few issues, which caused some serious problems, so I’m back on it. I’ll list the Fiction River when it comes out. It’s a really strong issue.
It took a while after all that focus on the real world to return to the fictional one, but I managed to cross back over. Thank heavens. I like fiction soooo much better. 🙂
Almond, Steve, “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?” The Best American Mystery Stories 2016, edited by Elizabeth George, Mariner Books, 2016. I loved this story. And when I started it, I was afraid I would hate it. It came from a literary magazine, and I was afraid it was going to be about some idiot who murdered his family.
Bowen, Sarina, The Year We Fell Down, Rennie Road Books, 2014. I had been getting very frustrated with my inability to find a good contemporary romance. The indie publishing movement has been hard on discoverability in romance—not because of a lack of books, but because so many writers have no idea what a romance is.Those writers mislabel their books. Frustrating.
So when I search for romances, I generally find erotica or things that aren’t romance at all. And traditionally published romances have started to sound the same (a little plot, a lot of sex, a little more plot…). I wanted a good story, so I asked some of my writer friends who they’re reading.
Most of them—romance writers!—said they had stopped reading romance for the reason listed above. But one mentioned Sarina Bowen. At the time, Sarina Bowen was strictly indie published, and in New Adult. (Now she has some traditionally published books.) I fell in love with her writing, and even assigned the first 3 Ivy Years books for my romance class in the spring.
This is the first of the 5 Ivy Years books. I loved it. She tackles issues-romance, which no one seems to do any more, and generally handles it well. The characters are great and yes, there’s spicy sex, but it doesn’t overtake the story. Start here, and you’ll find a great new writer. (I recommend, on her indie published titles, that you get the ebook. The trade papers are badly designed.)
High school hockey star, Corey Callahan, got paralyzed in a January game her senior year. Determined to live her life anyway, she moved halfway across the country to attend Yale—I mean Harkness University. She has to live outside the freshman quad (Yale—I mean Harkness—huddles all its frosh together) in a handicapped accessible suite. Across the hall is one of Yale’s (I mean Harkness’s) hockey players, Adam Hartley, who broke his leg in two places and is on the DL.
These two strike up an amazing friendship that turns into an attraction. Sensitive, warm, and tough, this book will capture your heart whether or not you read romance or New Adult.
Bowen, Sarina, The Year We Hid Away, Rennie Road Books, 2014. I think this is my favorite of the first three books, much as I loved the other two. Powerful book about college students dealing with things no one should have to deal with. Bridger McCauley, who is one of the antagonists (more or less) in book one, gets his own book here. And he has a huge problem. Scarlett, the woman he falls for, also has a problem straight out of the headlines.
Bridger’s mother slipped away into drug addiction after his father died. Bridger is out of the house at Yale—I mean, Harkness—as one of the townies, but his eight-year-old sister is still at home. He rescues her between books, taking her from their mother. afraid that social services will take the girl away, he’s hiding her in his dorm room.
Scarlet has changed her name legally after her father—a big name hockey coach—becomes embroiled in a massive pedophilia scandal (involving his charity and little boys). Think Joe Paterno’s teenage daughter. She’s hiding from everyone, and making up stories about her past that aren’t true.
She and Bridger meet in class and of course, there’s a romance. But there’s a lot of real life drama here, and tension. I hurried through this one, worried to death about Bridger’s little sister and Scarlet and all those kids…
Everything resolves a little too neatly, but I don’t care. It’s a romance, it’s powerful, and it’s heartwarming, which is what I require of my romances. Beautifully done.
Bowen, Sarina, The Understatement of the Year, Rennie Road Books, 2014.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Alphabetically, this should go above the first book. But it’s the third book in the series, and frankly, it’s not the place to start. You have to get to know these characters ahead of this book. Unlike the first two books, the protagonists here are two men, hockey players both of them, and Bowen takes on stereotypes, sports, and the difficulty of having a secret that contains your entire identity. Fantastic book. As heartwarming–and heartbreaking–as the others.
Crais, Robert, The Promise, GP Putnam’s Sons, 2015. Bob brings most of his major characters together in a tense and ultimately heartbreaking/heartwarming novel about choices and the aftermath of great pain. I couldn’t put this book down. In it, you’ll find Joe Pike, Elvis Cole, Scott James, and his dog Maggie—all of whom give us their opinions on the action. It’s one of those books in which the reader knows more than the principles, and that’s okay. Read it. It’s marvelous.
Dubé, Marcelle, Shelter, Falcon Ridge Publishing, 2016. Marcelle Dubé has long been one of my favorite writers. Her stories are quietly deceptive. They creep up on you, and make you think.
Ash Gantry is on the run from her abusive husband. She finally finds a place she wants to stay, but she has to confront demons—hers as well as some that exist in the town itself.
Shelter is exactly the kind of novel I’d craved for a long time. Not romantic suspense, exactly. More like a gothic women’s fiction novel, complete with ghost.
The novel has a marvelous sense of dread. The dread got so severe that I finally had to make a decision: set the novel aside or read it on one lump to the end. Of course, I opted to finish it. Marvelous book, dark and rewarding.
Grisham, John, Witness To A Trial, Doubleday, 2016. This is a short story, a prequel to The Whistler. I hadn’t read The Whistler when I read this, so I have no idea how it fit in.
Grisham has a nifty style I haven’t seen many contemporary authors use. He has a wry narrative voice that tells the story of the trial, mostly in summary, although he dips into the characters’ heads throughout. This style enables him to tell a large story in just a few words, which is what he’s done here. He manages to tell a twisty tale in just 30 or so pages.
Worth the read.
Kumar, Amitava, “Pyre,” The Best American Essays, edited by Jonathan Franzen, Mariner, 2016. There are a lot of great essays in this volume, so many that I’m already behind on writing about them. I’ll dribble them into the Recommended Reading list as I go. But I wanted to write about this one the moment I finished it.
Amitava Kumar writes about flying home to go to his mother’s funeral. He describes Hindu death rituals unfamiliar to me, but does so in a heartrending way that makes this experience universal. I remember thinking the same things at my mother’s funeral—just how strange the rituals of death are. Kumar captured all of it and then some. Very touching, and worth the price of the volume all by itself.
Moldavsky, Goldy, Kill The Boy Band, Point, 2016. Okay. This is a book I wish I’d written. I’ve been giving it to all of my friends who like music, YA and New Adult books. It’s funny and dark and weirdly perfect.
Four girls who have bonded over their fannish obsession with a boy band called The Ruperts blunder their way into kidnapping a member of the band. I won’t tell you much more except to say that the voice here is marvelous. Here’s an example from the back cover (which is also the opening of the book):
Just know from the start that it wasn’t supposed to go like this. All we wanted was to get near them. That’s why we got a room in the hotel where they were staying.
We were not planning to kidnap one of them. Especially not the most useless one. But we had him-his room key, his cell phone, and his secrets.
We were not planning on what happened next.
Read this–and ignore the egregious book design. If I hadn’t known that the book was traditionally published, I would have thought some indie writer hired a series of book designers who didn’t know what the heck they were doing. Maybe the ebook is better. I have no idea. But wow, bad design. Great book.
Okorafor, Nnedi, “Binti,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, edited by Paula Guran, Prime, 2016. Yes, yes, I’m behind in some of my reading. I hadn’t read any of the other sf short fiction in 2015, because I was editing the mystery best of.
So when I got The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, I started reading. (I’m still not done.) The first story, “Binti,” is amazing. The story won best novella in both the Hugo and Nebula awards and clearly, clearly deserved it.
Space opera adventure told beautifully, with a sharp-edged point that you can ignore if you like. Binti is a math prodigy, the first of her people (the Himba, a real Namibian people, postulated into the future) to travel across the stars to an alien university that will use her talents. The trip doesn’t go as planned. At all.
Breathless, impossible to put down, an absolutely perfect science fiction story. If you missed this one, like I did, rectify that now.
Silva, Daniel, The Black Widow, Harper, 2016. One of the reviews of this novel call the grand finale deeply unsettling. The entire book is deeply unsettling, beginning with the foreword, in which Silva writes that he wrote the first draft of this book before the attacks in Paris and Brussels. He decided to publish the book as it was originally conceived.
“The similarities between the real and fictitious attacks,” he writes, “including the links to the Brussels district of Molenbeek, are entirely coincidental. I take no pride in my prescience….”
Okay, maybe so. But clearly the evidence was there for all to see. I’ve seen this kind of thing in fiction before. Spy fiction writers who were writing before September 11, 2001, also had similarities like the ones in Silva’s book in their works. Sometimes, the powers that be don’t heed the evidence; sometimes there’s nothing they can do.
The Black Widow is the first book of Silva’s I’ve read in hardcover. I’ve been catching up since I discovered his work a few years ago. His character Gabriel Allon and I hold different political views about the American president(s) and the United States government, which also makes the books refreshing for me. I feel like I’m peering into the mind of someone very different from me.
Note that I do not say that Silva and I hold different views. I know nothing of his politics, and I haven’t gone searching it out. I suspect his views are different from Allon’s as well, since Allon is an Israeli assassin, and Silva is an American writer. But I don’t know that.
What I do know is that my suspicions from earlier works–that Silva could see the near-future pretty clearly–is born out here. Allon exists in an alternate timeline that veered off from ours several books ago. There have been no bombings at the Vatican or in downtown London (in the way he describes) or at Gare Nord in Paris. I doubt that one superhero spy manages to be in all the hot spots all at once.
I love Silva’s work, though. Not for the prescience, which I find unnerving, but for the characters whom I adore (although he has sidelined Chiara now that she has become a mother, which I find both proper [she should care for her kids] and infuriating [she’s as bad-ass as her husband. Why isn’t he caring for the kids?]). Sometimes I find the plots compelling, and sometimes I don’t. This time I did.
Silva doesn’t cheat, either. If his characters are up against an impossible foe, then they will lose, only to fight another day. I like that. Not all the endings are happy ones.
Also, Silva is a master class of technique all by himself. He uses point of view like a weapon, and his descriptions of setting make me feel like I’ve been all over the world. You can start with this one, if you dare, but I would suggest you go back to maybe The English Assassin or Moscow Rules. See if you like the books and then move forward. I’m disappointed that I have to wait a year for the next. These novels are fascinating.