Recommended Reading List: April, 2017
First, apologies for the fact that the font changes sizes below. I have no idea why or how to fix it. I tried a bit, but life is too short. It’s a function of me writing different paragraphs at different times, importing links from other places. Sorry…
April was a fascinating reading month for me. Dean decided to write a short story per day, so I had a new and usually marvelous short story waiting on the breakfast table when I woke up. I’m not listing any of them here because, as of yet, they’re not published.
Dean wasn’t the only author I read in manuscript this month. I ran a short story workshop here on the coast, and the writers finished 600,000 words of new material that week. I read all of it, plus their first assignments that they brought with them. Some truly excellent work there as well, as yet unpublished. But if I become aware of when the stories are published, I will let you know.
I had reading for the science fiction workshop as well. I assigned the first two 2017 issues of Asimov’s, which were fun to read. I get it every month, but don’t always get to read it. I keep forgetting how much I love that magazine. The stories I thought were super spectacular are listed below.
I didn’t read any novels the week of the workshop, but I read several before and after. I keep trying this romance novel from one of my favorites, and giving up after two chapters or so. I think it’s because I don’t like the protagonist who is–according to the author–unlikeable. But it might just be me. So I keep setting it aside. We’ll see if I ever return to it.
Bought a traditionally published book on impulse because it sounded great. One of those wry university narratives focusing on the issues of the day. The writing was spectacular, the situation fraught. I smiled a lot, but I had trouble moving forward. The writing didn’t compel me. It didn’t make me stop and admire the words either. (Yes, I love books like that sometimes.) It could’ve been written by anyone using the same tropes. And, as I usually do with these kinds of books, I despised the main characters. (Mainstream authors seem to believe everyone should be viewed with contempt, even the point-of-view character.) Nothing about the book makes me want to go back to it. The idea of the book was better than the book itself, and I am disappointed.
I fell back on mystery short stories, mystery novels, and some big sagas. What follows are the things I read in April that intrigued me (rather than disappointed me).
Creasey, Ian, “After the Atrocity,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March/April 2017. I didn’t remember this story from the title the night we discussed it in class, but the story itself never left me. And the title does have resonance. The government makes copies of captured terrorists and tortures them to death to get information. A copy of one of the researchers deals with making the copies, which causes some problems all its own. This story does what sf does best: makes us look at the now in very different ways.
Goldstein, Lisa, “The Catastrophe of Cities,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January/February 2017. I loved this story. It caught aging and old friendships very well, the way we lose track of people, and the way that our memories creep into our lives. This is a metaphor story wrapped up in a science fiction story, and as such just astonishing. I saw some reviews on this tonight, as I was looking to see which issue the story was in (I couldn’t remember), and saw some reviewers who did not understand what Goldstein was doing at all. They only saw what was on the page, so they criticized the mechanism of the sf. Um, no. There’s so much more here. Worth the cost of the issue, in my opinion.
Iles, Greg, Mississippi Blood, William Morrow, 2017. Greg Iles finished his ambitious trilogy set in Natchez. He mixes his thriller bones with a courtroom drama with a saga. I’ve had a mixed reaction to all three of the books. The first, Natchez Burning, started tremendously, but then Iles went in a different direction than I wanted to go, so I had to step away from the book for a while. I needed to see it for what it was, not what I wanted it to be. I ended up recommending that book, and I would have (or might have–I haven’t checked) recommended The Bone Tree as well.
This one has some really sketchy moments for me, which I’m not going to discuss because they’re all spoilery. But I’m recommending the book because both Iles and his publisher tried something incredibly ambitious and important. Iles decided to discuss race in America, and do it as honestly and from as many points of view as possible. When he misses, he misses spectacularly (and in cringe-inducing fashion), but when he hits, he’s spot on. He’s a white son of the American South, so when he misses, he tends to miss in a way that’s patronizing (or just plain weird). Sometimes the cringe-inducing stuff has nothing to do with missing–he’s actually discussing how some white people talk and think when they’re dealing “with their own kind.”
The trilogy is 80% brilliant, 10% missteps, and 10% failure. Considering he’s trying to encompass all of the history of American race relations since the Korean War, he has done a tremendous job.
Moving away from the theme and intent for a moment, and looking at the trilogy itself…
Should you read 2100 pages of fiction? Yes. The story is that good. For the most part, it kept me on the edge of my seat. I cared about the characters, I felt deeply immersed in the world, and except for a few missteps at the end, I found most of those 2100 pages impossible to put down. Iles’ strength has always been his storytelling, and that strength shines here. Worth reading.
Jacobs, Laura, “Pride and Prejudice,” Vanity Fair, Hollywood Issue 2017. In 1967, Sidney Poitier had a heck of a run. Three of his classic films came out that year. I had no idea they had come out then, and considering what I now know about 1967, I’m astonished. Poitier was the first black leading man in America, and he took on themes of racism when America really didn’t want to look at itself. A nifty short history of a truly amazing man.
Kashner, Sam, “The Hit Man,” Vanity Fair, Hollywood Issue 2017. Fascinating article for writers about Michael Crichton and his relationship with Hollywood. Fascinating because of what Crichton said and believed about himself. A must-read if you’re a writer or aspiring to be one.
McIntosh, Will, “Soulmates.com,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March/April 2017. When I saw that this story was yet another computer dating story, I cringed. But I promised I would read everything for the science fiction workshop, including everything on the reading list. So I did. And I’m glad I did. This story starts like every other computer dating story, and then goes sideways big time. I raced through the story, worried about our protagonist, worried about us, worried about everything. Top-notch.
Monaghan, Sean, “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January/February 2017. Touching story about father and his two daughters on a vacation to see the crimson birds. The story’s short, and as we get into it, it becomes clear that the vacation is about a lot more than time off. If I say much more, I’ll spoil this for you. But sweet and worthy of its status as the cover story.
Parent, Marc, “Hyperspace Race,” Runners World, March, 2017. Marc Parent used to write a column for Runners World called “The Newbie Chronicles.” Eventually he stopped being a newbie, and felt like he couldn’t continue. A new newbie has taken his place, and I miss him. So it was delightful to see his words in the March issue. The piece is even better. His son had badly injured his knee, and to celebrate its healing, Parent took the boy to run in a Star Wars themed event. He wrote an essay about what happened, a great piece about familial love, fandom, and fun. You can read it if you follow the link. I think you should…
Paretsky, Sara, Fallout, William Morrow, 2017. I have adored Sara Paretsky’s work since I discovered it in the 1980s. Some novels are more challenging than others. Her heroine, V.I. Warshawski, can be difficult and occasionally so impulsive she makes stupid decisions. She’s older in Fallout, not quite as reckless, but just as real as ever.
This novel takes V.I. out of her comfort zone of Chicago and into Lawrence, Kansas. I’m not familiar with Lawrence, and so, for me, for the first time, Paretsky’s setting details (in the middle of the novel) seemed a bit thin. Or that might have been the workshop hangover I was suffering. Nonetheless, I got deep into the story, so deep that I was tempted to thumb ahead to make sure our first-person narrator made it out alive. (Of course, she did because, y’know, first person.)
The book also took me on a different journey. I had no idea how much DNA my detective Smokey Dalton shares with V.I. Smokey’s not as impulsive and because he’s African-American in the 1960s, he doesn’t dare make stupid moves, but he has the same seriousness and sense of purpose that V.I. does. He’s as opinionated and difficult as she is, and lacks a sense of humor about the same important things. Also, the novels share a point: both Paretsky and I use actual events to jump off from. That allows us to talk about current events in a variety of ways.
I had no idea I had absorbed that from her. But I clearly had.
Fallout, which is set now, centers around a 1983 protest at a missile silo near Lawrence. I remember that protest. I also remember the British protest that sparked the Kansas protest. When I was reporter, I interviewed participants in both.
Sagal, Peter, “Dear 23-Year-Old Me,” AARP The Magazine, February/March, 2017. Generally speaking, I find Peter Sagal’s writing annoying. He writes a regular column for Runners World, and while I read it, I often don’t care for it. I listen to the show he does for NPR, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me if it comes on when I’m in the car, but I don’t seek the program out.
So I was surprised by this essay, not just by the insights in it, but also by the fact that I couldn’t shake it for a few days after I read it. At 52, he found himself alone in a new house after a divorce, and flashed back on his 23-year-old self, alone in a new apartment for the first time. He compares his reaction now to his reactions then, and discovers a bit of hope in a dismal situation, hope he wouldn’t have found as a younger man.
The piece got me thinking about the comparisons between my 56 year-old self and my 26 year-old self, the one who took a leap of faith to jump into a new life and then met Dean. It takes a different kind of courage to get older, I think, but one that requires the same kind of leap of faith. Huh. Who knew that Sagal would spark such reflections from me. See what he does for you here.
Smale, Alan, “Kitty Hawk,” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March/April 2017. Judging by the reaction of my sf workshop, this was the story from both issues of Asimov’s that is the most memorable. Everyone loved it. We discussed it for some time. (This bodes well for Alan Smale come awards time.)
Set in an alternate future in which one of the Wright Brothers dies before achieving that historic flight, the story comes from the point of view of Kate Wright, their sister and a heck of a nifty historical personage in her own right. All of us went to “the Google,” as one of our anthology editors likes to say, to see if she actually existed. She did, and she was as impressive as in this story, just in different ways. Another person lost to history who shouldn’t be.
Nifty alternate history, great strong story, worth the price of admission. Check it out.