Recommended Reading List: October, 2017
I’m line editing another Fiction River, so some of my reading time has been taken up with that. And I had a workshop at the end of the month, the Business Master Class, which kept us all going 24/7 (okay, there was a little sleeping in the middle of it all). So less reading time than I wanted. Of course, there’s always less reading time than I want.
Two things happened before the class, though. I got a new reading chair! The cats had trashed the other one so that it was unusable. (Long sad story, filling with cat hair and claws and…never mind.) So Dean and I bought new chairs at the start of the month—just in time, because the other thing was that my chronic illness flared less than a week later. (Not a surprise: it’s brought on by stress, sometimes, and this fall has been nothing but stressful.)
So I crawled into my new chair and read a book start to finish. Such luxury! With the proper chair, I find myself sneaking a lot more reading time, just so I can sit in it. Our remaining two cats are afraid of the chair at the moment, so it’s all miiiiiiiine.
Speaking of Fiction River, the new volume came out in time for Halloween. Feel The Fear is a strong volume, with more than just straight horror fiction. There’s some nice shivery stuff, some paranoia, and a lot that will make you think. If you want to pick it up along with some other scary things (even though Halloween is over), check out the Fear Bundle on Storybundle. You can pick up the book, along with nine others, for less than the list price of the volume. (That deal will disappear in about 5 days, so hurry.)
Tried to read a romance novel during the Master Class, but the novel didn’t hold me. I realized midway through I loathed the hero and would have had my elbow in his gut about fifteen minutes after meeting him. When the workshop ended I returned to short stories and essays, which took more brain power. I was relieved to find them.
Just started the Best American Essays at the end of the month, so have no idea if I’ll end up recommending the whole thing or not. Right now, I’m only highlighting the essays that caught my attention.
Oh, and (blush). I resubscribed to Vanity Fair. I was really, really, really going to miss it. I ended up reading on my app, and it worked okay. I figure if I get a perfumed issue, I’ll toss it and read on the app. (Some features are easier to read on the app. Who knew?)
Experienced a lot of good reading, which I hadn’t expected when the month started.
Arment, Jason, “Two Shallow Graves,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Written by a vet about his experience in Iraq, this essay grabbed me and didn’t let go. Don’t read the introduction (by Leslie Jamison) because she spoils the ending of this piece. (And most pieces.) But wow, wow, wow, did this touch me. Superb.
Atwan, Robert, “Foreword,” The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. I initially got impatient with Atwan’s foreword, since he was discussing an essayist from World War I whom I had never heard of and whose essays were not in the volume. And then I began to understand the point. An excellent point, in fact, and one that took my breath away by the end of it. Usually Atwan, who is the Best American Essays’ series editor, writes good and serviceable forwards, but this year, he rose above my expectations and gave me something marvelous. Which is good, since I found the actual editor’s introduction annoying once I dove into the essays and realized she had spoiled many of them by giving away the most powerful points. (I have a strong memory for sentences, and she’d often quote the “punch” of the essay in her introduction.) I suspect Atwan knew that, and wrote his essay as a curative. (I’ve been known to do that as series editor.) Atwan made me want to find that long-dead essayist, and he gave me a lot to think about. A great start to the volume.
Cohen, Rich, “The Bestest Generation,” Vanity Fair, September 2017. Cohen writes about Generation X, calling it the bridge generation between Millennials and Baby Boomers. The last generation to grow up with an “old-time” childhood, which is true. I have been thinking a lot about generational differences of late, and this article simply added to those thoughts. Hadn’t given Generation X much thought in the past decade or two, so this was a nice refresher.
Cole, Alyssa, An Extraordinary Union, Kensington, 2017. Amazon recommendations work. Also-boughts led me to this book. (People who bought the book you just finished also bought this book…) I had read one of Alyssa Cole’s shorter works, and while I liked it, I didn’t like it enough to seek out her novels. Then I saw this one.
It has a subtitle— A Novel of The Civil War—and some book club questions at the end. Plus it was published in trade, not mass market, so Kensington hopes this goes wide in book clubs, which it probably will. But have no doubt: this is a romance novel, and a risky one at that. One false step and it would have been so wrong in so many ways.
But Cole didn’t make any false steps here. Her heroine is a true hero. Elle Burns is a spy for the Union. She has an eidetic memory (or perhaps something even more powerful than that), and she uses that skill to listen in on conversations. She has gone to Richmond, where she voluntarily becomes a slave in a high-ranking Confederate’s household so she can spy on him.
There she runs into Malcolm McCall, a Pinkerton Detective, who happens to be white. He’s also Scottish, with his own history of governmental mistreatment, so he has compassion as well. He’s undercover, just like she is, and they fall for each other as they stumble on a plot that could ruin the Union effort in this early part of the war.
Cole has done her research, and she echoes a lot of the real events that happened at the time. She based Elle on Mary Bowser who was in Jefferson Davis’s household during the war. I recognized another of her characters—Robert Grand, who was based on riverboat pilot, Robert Smalls.
The research never feels intrusive here. It all serves the story. And the tension is great, not because the two characters refuse to talk to each other or misunderstand each other or some other stupid romance plot. Because it’s illegal for them to marry, and dangerous for both of them to be together. Really well done. I immediately ordered the next book in the series and can’t wait to read it.
This is the kind of book I have longed for for years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were a lot of historical novels about the Civil War that looked at the real history (not that horrid Lost Cause crap, mourning the Confederacy). And then those books vanished. They were sagas, mostly, not romances, but nonetheless, I loved them and I have really missed them. It’s nice to see this book. I hope it leads to many more.
DuBois, Brendan, “The Man From Away,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Long-time readers of my Recommended Reading lists know I love Brendan DuBois’s work. It surprises as it builds a world with great characters. This story is the same. A man whose bitchy wife suffers a terrible accidental death deals with that death in the only way he knows how. Stated like that, the story sounds simple. It’s not. One of Brendan’s best.
Johnson, Craig, “In The Land of The Blind,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. I haven’t read any of Johnson’s Longmire series, until I read this short story. A short holiday tale without the usual holiday sappiness. In fact, a drug addict takes some people hostage in a church on Christmas Eve. The way that the hostage situation gets resolved is one of the most logical things I’ve seen. Well done.
Krueger, William Kent, “The Painted Smile,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. I read the story, liked it a great deal, and then went looking for it in the table of contents a day or so later. Couldn’t remember what it was about, based on the title. I had to look at the opening sentence, and then I knew. Terrible title. Great story.
A ten-year-old believes that he’s Sherlock Holmes, even though he clearly knows that Holmes is a literary character. The ten-year-old might be delusional or he might be on to something. Or both. One of the best stories in the book.
McGee, K., “Dot Rat,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. No, this is not a computer story which is what I thought from the title. (Again, a terrible title.) But the story is strong. An older woman deals with a young intruder in her house, thinks maybe the kid is homeless, and…if I say much more, I spoil the story for you. Nice look at preconceptions, for everyone, including the dog.
Morgan, Sarah, Holiday in the Hamptons, Harlequin 2017. This novel is part of Morgan’s From Manhattan With Love series. I like most of the books (although I couldn’t finish one, for reasons I still don’t understand). However, this book is mostly set in the Hamptons. Fliss married Seth when she was still a teenager, but the marriage didn’t work out, and they haven’t seen each other for ten years. She has a thriving dog-walking business in Manhattan (with her twin sister) and he is a vet, who has just showed up at the local clinic. She runs away to the Hamptons to escape him, and…oh, all the usual (or unusual) romancy things happen. The novel veers toward the stupid once or twice and veers away so fast that I was relieved every time. An added bonus? A great grandmother, some poker playing gossipy women, and some really, really great dogs, including Lulu, the former dog TV star who loves to play dead. If you want something light and enjoyable, this will be just right.
Murphy, Cullen, “Cartoon County, USA,” Vanity Fair, September 2017. You learn something new every day. When I started working at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, it was based in Connecticut. At that time, the magazine’s publisher was worth a few million, and he called himself one of the poorest people in the area. I wondered how the magazine ended up there. This article answered that.
Apparently, in the 1940s, Connecticut was a cheap place to live, and it was a train ride away from New York City. So artists, writers, and editors could live in Connecticut and commute to where the action was. That led to F&SF’s home in Connecticut. It also led to a group of famous cartoonists for the various magazines and newspaper syndicates living in the same county. One of the cartoonists even drew a map of cartoonists, but he stopped keeping it up in the 1980s as the cartoonists started dying out.
Written by the son of one of the cartoonists, this article feels like a bit of lost lore to me. I hadn’t been aware of any of this. I asked Dean if he was too, and he said he hadn’t known either. I didn’t see reference to a book, so I’m not sure if anyone else has written about this. For the record, the cartoonists behind Prince Valiant, Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, and almost everything else you saw in the newspaper lived within a few miles of each other. Fascinating reading, this.
Nolan, Ali, “Lost and Found,” Runner’s World, September, 2017. Usually, when someone writes a personal essay about their high school running experiences for Runner’s World, the writer waxes nostalgic for times gone by. The great coach, the camaraderie, the thrill of victory and the agony of de-feet. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) But Nolan got sent to reform school in high school, and her championship track team was mostly about punishment, not about joy. Although she learned some joy there. She writes about that experience, ties it to music and running, and recovering something good about yourself in the midst of pain. Don’t miss this one.
Popkes, Steven, “The Sweet Warm Earth,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. This story first appeared in the magazine I used to edit, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (Note to copyeditor for HMH, the title of the magazine has an ampersand, not “and”). There is a slight fantastic element, but there’s a clear reason why this story is suited for the best mysteries as well. I loved the piece, and found it more remarkable for being in this volume than I might’ve found it in F&SF. The best thing about the story, though, is the uncompromising narrator. There’s no happy touchy-feely life changing crap here. The man is who he is, even though he saw something that disturbed him. Love that.
Sanford, John, editor, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. This is a good volume. I read through it in just a few nights. Apparently Sanford and I agree that mystery/crime stories should have plots. Although there are a few stories that are too damn arty for my tastes (including one by a favorite author), the good stories are really good and the great stories are stellar. If you want a good sampling of mystery, pick this one up.
Tur, Katy, Unbelievable, Dey St., 2017. Katy Tur, reporter for NBC and MSNBC, was not very well-known in 2015. In fact, she got the assignment to report on Trump’s campaign for president because she was one of the few people in the offices the afternoon he was going to make his presidential announcement. No one, including Tur (who lived in London at the time), expected Trump to make it to the primaries, let alone the presidency.
I love books by reporters about their experience covering things. There are a lot of classics in this genre, including The Boys on the Bus (covering the 1972 Presidential campaign), The Girls in the Van (covering the Clinton Senate Campaign in 2000), and a whole bunch of Making of the President volumes. None of them are as honest as Tur’s, some of which she wrote on her phone when she was really frustrated or tired. (One sequence, as she tries to catch a flight, was particularly relatable.)
I loved this book. It reads fast and really captures the insanity that comes with a certain kind of reporting.
Warren, James“Two Rivals, One Truth,”, Vanity Fair, September 2017. I guess things political caught my attention this month. Or at least, journalistic and political. James Warren’s article on the revival of The New York Times and The Washington Post in the wake of last year’s election fascinated me to no end. Especially in the way both papers (papers? Is that what they are?) are starting to make money again. What goes around comes around I guess.