Recommended Reading List: October, 2018
Alas and alack, October did not start well. The traditionally published novel I read first was disappointing. Sadly, it wasn’t the author’s fault. Her stupid traditional publisher ruined everything.
Let me explain without naming the book. The book had three reversal/surprises built into the narrative. The first, nearly halfway through, is that a character we thought was dead turns out to be alive. That should make us re-evaluate everything we read. The later twists depend on that first one.
But the stupid publisher put the first twist in the blurb. So I waited and waited and waited for our heroine to discover that this family member had faked her own death. Meanwhile, the carefully planted clues to how the lies started and what precipitated it all and who did what to whom became a road map rather than something for re-evaluation. By the time of the big reveal, I had already figured out the remaining two reveals—because I knew the character wasn’t dead. If I had thought she was dead, I would have missed all of that lovely foreshadowing.
I was so frustrated by this. If we were supposed to know that the character was dead, then the book would have been structured differently. The author would have gotten to that bit of information within the first 50 pages, and then the book would have been paced differently.
Trad pub makes this mistake all the time, because editors write the cover copy and can’t remember much about the book by the time they do so. So they blow big secrets often. Indie writers make that mistake at times too, because the big reveal is what is important to them. Writers, watch out for that in your own work.
I read a lot of mediocre short stories and a couple I had missed from old favorites. One of them keeps playing over and over again in my mind, although I’m not sure why. I think it was a passing insight that gave me a major realization and not the quality of the story itself, so I’m not going to recommend it.
I had the Business Master Class in the middle of the month, and had to do a lot of prep for that, so I had less reading time than I wanted. And I line edited a bit more, so there are stories I want to tell you about, but can’t for months.
Here’s what I liked enough to share (and please note that there are Amazon links here only because I’m lazy, not because I’m advocating anything).
Als, Hilton, “Introduction,” The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als, Mariner Books, 2018. Usually the introductions to the Best American series follow a pattern. Some insight, and then recommendations that reinforce the favorites of the essays in the book. Instead, Als wrote about the changes in his life recently, and how those had changed his perspective, implying that the new perspective would be in the book. He also wrote about some of the themes being explored in the media, given the prominence of stories about the way whites view African-Americans. This introduction is beautifully written, and worth the price of the volume all by itself.
Baldwin, Kristen, “How Golden Girls Creator Susan Harris Changed TV Comedy Forever… And Why She Doesn’t Watch It Now,” Entertainment Weekly, October 19-26, 2018. Learn something new every day. I had no idea that one of the major creators of TV sitcoms, including The Golden Girls, Benson and Soap was a woman. She’s quite impressive, judging from this article, and she got her start because she had written a short story. Fascinating stuff.
Estefan, Emilio, The Rhythm of Success: How An Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, Celebra, 2010. If you pick up The Rhythm of Success expecting great prose, you’ve picked it up for the wrong reason. This is a talky book, a bit repetitive, that Estefan probably dictated. Who cares? There’s lots of great material here, if you run businesses, or if you want to. It also reflects on how to be a long-term artist in the 21st century. If you are on my Patreon, you know that I’ve been reading and reacting to this book all through October. (Those posts will appear on the website soon.) I found this to be a goldmine, which I hoped for, but hadn’t expected. Great stuff.
Gabaldon, Diana, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, Delacorte, 2007. This is a pure historical novel, without a touch of the fantastic in it (if you ignore the fact that Jamie Fraser, who is a bit player in this book, is catnip for all heterosexual women and all gay men). Ostensibly, Lord John is trying to figure out who killed his father, but the novel is so much more than that. It’s about relationships, the things people will do for love, and it’s also deeply about betrayal.
Toward the end, there’s a chapter that’s all battlefield. It’s probably the most riveting thing I have ever read about war. I was there, with John Grey, as he struggled to survive, had surgery, and nearly died. Throughout, Diana remained in John’s point of view, yet she managed to give the wider perspective of the war, and give us enough details to know what kind of surgery he had (as he was having it). Spectacular, amazing, wonderful craftsmanship. I’m still impressed.
I gave up on the Outlander series a long time ago, but I’m enjoying this side series immensely. Unfortunately, I read a follow-on novella before I read this book, but that novella (“Lord John and the Haunted Soldier”) makes so much more sense now. I may read it again.
Jamison, Leslie, “The March on Everywhere,” The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als, Mariner Books, 2018. I wish I had read this essay thirty years ago. Jamison writes about protesting and standing up, and how ackward it can be to be part of a march or a crowd of protestors. She captured that uncertainty, as well as the practical things (did I bring sunscreen? Snacks? Will there be bathrooms? How can I meet my friends?) and she also reflects on the power inside of collective action. She puts it in a near-past historical context as well, since she comes from an activist family. (I did not.) She wraps in essays by Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, two personal favorites of mine.
I’ve bookmarked the essay and will return to it many, many times. I don’t think all of her wisdom has filtered through to my brain yet.
Did I say how much I loved this essay? Because I love it. A lot.
Johnson, Jean, “How To Be A Barbarian in the 25th Century,” Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Titan Books, 2017. Oh, I needed this story the day I read it. I read it in the middle of the bombing week, when bombs were being delivered everywhere. I wasn’t sure anything could make me smile, and this story did.
In his introduction, Bryan states that this story has a lot in common with “sword and planet” fiction (Conan and the like), and it does. But it’s still military sf, and a great deal of fun. Read it. You’ll laugh—and never see mini marshmallows the same again.
Nagata, Linda, “Red: Region Five,” Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Titan Books, 2017. Linda is one of our best writers, and this story shows why. She manages to explain her entire (marvelous and frightening) world in only a few thousand worlds, makes us empathize with a new character altogether, show us the future of war (in a terrifying way), and had a character do something heroic, despite the odds (making me tear up). Excellent, and worth the price of the anthology.
Shalvis, Jill, Rainy Day Friends, William Morrow, 2018. I did not plan to read this book. I had avoided it, in fact. I love Jill Shalvis’s work (and have 3 other unread novels of hers in my TBR pile), but this was marketed as women’s fiction, and eh. I haven’t been in the mood for women’s fiction in a long, long time.
I was at the grocery store and saw a copy, and picked it up just to see if it sounded intriguing. It did. It had secrets and betrayal and an obvious love story. I started the book the same day, and almost gave up because I thought there wasn’t enough of the juicy stuff. I went back the next night because I was tired and didn’t want to start a new book. On the very next page (right after I had left off), the juicy stuff appeared.
Lanie Jacobs’ husband dies six months before the book begins, leaving her to discover that he had married a number of women, not just her. She takes a job at a local California winery while she’s trying to piece her life back together, finds a new family, and a good (but equally damaged) man in her life. He has twin daughters, one of whom hasn’t spoken since her mother left them abruptly.
The story seemed like it was on rails until one of the fake wives shows up…and she’s homeless and pregnant. She took over the book, and made it impossible to put down.
Shalvis’s characters are always too good to be true, and that’s the case here, and honestly, with all that’s been happening in this country the past year, I needed some of that. So the book really resonanted with me.
And this isn’t women’s fiction. It’s a romance, pure and simple. Which means I’ll have to find more of her “women’s fiction” in addition to all of her romance fiction.