Lots of reading this month. I am gearing up on various projects so I had to increase my reading time (oh, how sad). I also line edited a Fiction River, which was really enjoyable. Plus, I seem to be getting my magazines in order—finally! So I have some articles to recommend as well.
By the middle of the month, some of the goodness in my reading went away. I explored some of the older books that I had been moving from place to place. One, from 2003, was similar to another published in 2003 (also on my shelf unread). I started it, read 70 pages, and the next day couldn’t remember what I read. So that one will get traded.
Then I read the opening chapter of another 2003 book. In chapter one, our police officer protagonist, demoted for getting the chief’s daughter pregnant, confesses to “making everything right” by forcing her to get an illegal abortion (the book’s set in the 1930s). Then he witnesses a car accident in which a woman is killed. He decides to lie for the wealthy drunk driver who killed her, and goes to work for the man…at which point I was so sickened, I left. This book was by a NYT bestseller with a long history of publishing books. Um, I’ll never even attempt to read another.
Finally, I read the opening three stories in an anthology. The first story was so awful in so many ways that I can’t innumerate them. The second story I didn’t even attempt, since it was based on a fantasy series that has incest as a major plotline (in a nonjudgmental way. Ick.) The third story is by a writer whose work I used to love. I stopped reading his work after some bigoted homophobic comments which he then doubled-down on. I read the first paragraph, thought the story was spectacular, and argued with myself about posting it here. I’m not going to. With all the wonderful writers out in the world, I really don’t think I want to promote bigots (if I know they’re bigots). Even if the stories they write are screeds against bigotry, as this one is. Sigh. The man must be really conflicted internally.
Some of the books I’m not going to recommend this month (and a few of the ones I am) reminded me how important endings are. A couple of the endings just pissed me off. You won’t see those books here. They ruined a pleasurable reading experience with no ending or an ending that didn’t fit or something that was so negative, so nasty, that I didn’t want to ever read anything by that author again. A good reminder for me as a writer.
Here’s the best of this month’s reading.(Please note that I use Amazon links not as a political statement, but because I’m lazy.)
Blauner, Andrew, editor, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, Blue Rider Press 2017. I hate the cover of this book. I truly do, and would never have picked it up if it weren’t for the Roseanne Cash essay (below). But I’m very glad I bought the book. It’s a wonderful examination of the way music, musicians, and memory work together. A few of the essays are dry—most of those written by music scholars—and one is written by a now-discredited “great” writer, who got fired for bad behavior in some #MeToo incidents.
The bulk of the essays are marvelous and well worth your time. I’m going to be highlighting a few below, but you’ll probably relate to a few others. All of them inspired Beatles’ ear worms for me, but that’s a small price to pay for this lovely inspiring work.
For the record, I suspect my favorite Beatles song is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” since I listen to it all the time. It’s not even mentioned in this book. I know a lot of people hate the song, but I love the music, the fluid relationship in the family described in the song, and the sheer joy of the melody. I love a lot of other Beatles songs and hate a bunch too. I realized, as I read, that most of the songs I hate were written by John, whom I always strongly disliked. (He was such an “artist”) and most of the songs I love were written by Paul, whom I still adore. (One of my earlist memories is a fight with my sister about the Beatles. I must have been 3 or 4 and she would have been 19 or 20. She thought George was the hot Beatle and I was all Paul all the time. She married a man who looked like George and, if you look at pictures of the young Paul and the young Dean…well, it’s amazing how early these impressions set in.)
Cash, Roseanne, “No Reply,” In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner, Blue Rider Press, 2017. I first read this essay in the AARP magazine, and the essay itself inspired me to buy the book. The essay is about the song “No Reply” which led Cash to think of an incident in that occurred before her parents (the musician Johnny Cash and his first wife) got a divorce. The writing is stellar here, and heartbreaking.
Gabaldon, Diana, Lord John and The Private Matter, Dell Books, 2008. I picked up the mass market paperback edition of this book from Amazon after I finished the novella I listed below. I hadn’t had a chance to pick up the paperback in my hand. If I had, I would have ordered the trade paper.
This book is a mess. If you writers who believe that traditional publishers do things better, you might want to look at this mass market edition, printed at a time when traditional publishing was at its zenith. Diana was (and is) a #1 New York Times bestseller, so you’d think they would take extra care with her books. Um…no.
The back cover copy is the same as the cover copy on the hardcover edition—which is a problem, because the hardcover included a novella that’s not in the mass market edition. Yet there is the name of the novella, trumpeted first along the back cover. The front rightly cites an excerpt from the “new” novel which is included. But the copyright page also lists an excerpt from yet another novel, and it’s not there either. Not to mention other mistakes…and I wonder why anyone believes that traditional publishing actually cares about writers. Even writers who make them millions.
Rant aside, the book itself is a lot of fun. I had bought the hardcover when it was released, but in a burst of prudishness, was not able to get past the first chapter. (Our hero looks at another man’s penis in the privy and sees that the man is “spotted”—as in has syphilis—which is the impetus for the plot, but not really what the book is about. Anyway, I read that first page several times over the years and it never inspired me to read more. This time, I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.
The rich detail, the great characters, the vivid settings which dominate Diana’s work are all here. And the story is compelling, even if the denouement was a bit Agatha Christie (and hard to believe—I’m not fond of confessions) I didn’t really mind much. The ride was much more important than the whodunnit.
I like this series a great deal.
Gabaldon, Diana, “Lord John and the Succubus,” Legends II, edited by Robert Silverberg, Del Rey, 2004. I used to read the Outlander series. I liked the first book (after the opening section), and read through a few of the others, stopping when I could no longer suspend my disbelief that this couple traveled to many of the major events of the 18th century. Now, I know that real historical figures had done just that—the Marquis de Lafayette comes to mind—but I still had trouble with it. I didn’t really quit reading. I faded out. (And, ironically, I faded out at the same point in the TV series, which I thought I wouldn’t, since it’s so well produced.)
I did love the mix of genres in the books, though, and back in the early 1990s, when the first book appeared, she gave me both the hope and courage to keep mixing genres in my own fiction. I will be forever grateful for that.
I had heard Diana speak of the Lord John series a number of times, but never read one of the stories. This one, in an anthology of sf and fantasy stories, was the first that I’ve read. I’ve been jonesing for a good mystery, and this actually was. And a bonus for its historical accuracy, something I’ve always loved about Diana’s work. So I picked up the first book in the series. The novella did its job: it got me into the series. Now we’ll see if I stay.
Murphy, Cullen, Cartoon County, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2017. One area that traditional publishing still does well is the art book. I’m not sure how much this qualifies as an art book, although it’s chockful of art. But the hardcover is absolutely lovely, and worth looking at, even if you don’t read it.
I learned quite a bit from reading it. Murphy grew up in a rarefied world: his father wrote and drew newspaper cartoons, including the Prince Valiant comics, for his entire adult life. The cartoonists formed a community in what was then a cheap part of the country—Connecticut—which still boggles my mind. The cartoon county of the title was in southwestern CT, a short train ride from NYC. It made sense, mid-20th century, which was the heyday of the newspaper cartoon.
It also explained a tiny portion of my life to me. I couldn’t figure out why The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had always been based in CT. But when the magazine started, it was cheap to live in CT. It certainly isn’t now.
Anyway, Murphy wrote about and showed the way the cartoonists worked. He also discusses their storytelling techniques here, and the way that they used art. The later chapters on Prince Valiant are particularly instructive, since Murphy himself took over the storytelling duties from Hal Foster, who started the strip. Foster’s comments on the use of words and images were (and are) fascinating.
This book is lovely and a great tribute to a world most of us would never have experienced, a world long gone. Even if you don’t like the comic strips, take a look at the book. It’s so pretty…
O’Dell, Claire, A Study in Honor, Harper Voyager, 2018. Early on in this book, I thought it was going to be one of the best books I’d read this year, maybe even in the past few years. The worldbuilding is stellar. The main character is amazing. The writing is wonderful. And then, well, let me tell you what the book is about, and why I’m recommending the book with fewer superlatives.
O’Dell rethought Holmes and Watson and made them her own. She brought them to a near future world in which a New Civil War rages, post-Trump, and boy oh boy is her world plausible. And vivid. And scary. It’s wonderful. Janet Watson is wonderful too. She lost an arm in the war, and has a malfunctioning robotic arm, which is awful for a surgeon. She meets Holmes—Sara Holmes—and they end up moving in together. If you’re familiar with Holmes arcana, then you’ll love what O’Dell has done even more than I did.
Toward the middle, I worried that O’Dell was moving into Holmes/Watson slash fiction. That made me feel squigy, because if these two are lovers, then Holmes is an abusive asshole, and Watson is co-dependent. I can tell you (and ruin a bit of the novel, but hey) the slash fiction aspect is only a feint. Ignore it.
The ending is inconclusive. Clearly, this is the first novel in a series, which was pretty clear from the blurb. But the book reads like the excellent pilot episode of binge-able TV series. The book doesn’t really end. It raises many more problems than it solves and O’Dell doesn’t even try to wrap up. I found that disappointing, but still feel this novel—and any novels she writes after this in the same series—are so worth your time, just for the worldbuilding alone.
Pilon, Mary, “I Found A Dead Body On My Run,” Runners World, July, 2018. A month after I complained about how awful Runner’s World had gotten, it seemed to find its feet again…kinda. And yes, the pun is intended. Anyway, there’s an article in this issue about one of the teachers who died in the Parkland shooting. That was heartbreaking but it’s not the article that stuck with me. This one is.
Mary Pilon ran across a dead body on her morning run through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, quite literally. The police were already there, lucky for her, but they hadn’t gone far enough in their recovery to hide the body from passers by. The man she encountered had committed suicide in a particularly horrid manner. This made her reflect on life and exercise and a bunch of other things, in a very short essay. It’s worth your time.
Schappell, Elissa, “Octopus’s Garden,” In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner, Blue Rider Press, 2017. This essay made me cry. Songs are never just what their authors intended. And this song, for Schappell, is about her father. Because they loved the song together, and he loved gardening and…well, it’s probably the best essay in the book. There are several other good ones, but this one is absolutely the most memorable and heartbreaking.
Schwab, Victoria, City of Ghosts, Scholastic, 2018. I read this book in two nights. It took that long only because I got interrupted. Otherwise, I would have finished sooner. It’s wonderful, and reminds me of Dayle A. Dermatis’s Ghosted and Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, both of which I have recommended.
Cassidy Blake’s parents are ghost hunters, but Cassidy is the one who can actually see ghosts. She nearly died, and woke up after a ghost saved her life. He became her best friend. Her ghost-hunting parents get a TV show that takes them to Edinburgh, the city in the title. And there, things get really dangerous, important, and exciting.
I’m not going to say more. The book is short—it’s a middle grade novel—and you can probably read it in one sitting. As you should.
Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Scout Press, 2018. A friend recommended in this book, which I found hard to put down. I felt smarter than the book much of the way through, but there were enough twists at the end that I didn’t see that I lost that superior attitude toward the end.
I did try to quit reading a few times because our heroine is so stupid. But she’s in a tough situation, and I decided to leap past her dumb decisions to get to the rest of the book.
The book is beautifully written and riffs on Rebecca which is one of my favorite novels. It’s nowhere near as good, but it has some of the same sensibilities. To be fair to you all, I will tell you that this novel did not inspire me to pick up any more of Ware’s books (compounded by my friend, who had read the others and didn’t really like them much), but this one is worth your time, particularly if you like Gothic-ish suspense.