Recommended Reading List: October 2021
Totally insane month with a lot of legal reading—maybe 500 pages—which I find fascinating, but you won’t. I added Grisham’s latest to that, but it’s emotionally cold and didn’t have much of an impact on me. Okay, yes, all of Grisham is emotionally cold, but usually that suits the story. It didn’t here. I enjoyed the read, but not enough to recommend.
Mostly, I’ve been enjoying the short fiction I’m reading. Some of it is for upcoming projects, but not all of it. (If you want to see some of the reading I did in 2020, pick up the holiday anthologies for the 2020 Holiday Spectacular. They just released this month.) I also did a lot of nonfiction reading, as you can see below.
Plus there’s something else here. Rather than explain why there are two best mystery stories anthologies this year in the notes below, let me tell you about it up here. The Best American series of books continues out of Mariner but they used the pandemic as an excuse to change things up. They got rid of The Best American Sports Writing, and let several long-time editors go. The sports volume landed on its feet, in a publisher out of Chicago, and now has a board of people who look for stories, rather than one series editor. Then someone will choose the pieces for each volume.
For a while it looked like there wouldn’t be a mystery volume at all, and now we have two.
Otto Penzler edited the Best American Mystery Series from the beginning. Otto is a divisive figure in the mystery field. He also knows everyone. I don’t know if Mariner used 2020 to get rid of him or if he made someone mad or if they really just wanted to lean into the 21st century. Given the way that they shed the older white male editors in all of their Best American series, I suspect it was a political decision as much as anything else.
Because Otto has the resources, he’s continued the Best of series under a new imprint. And the Best American Series that he edited first now has a brand new, much younger editor, who really does bring a fresh eye to everything. I am reading the Best American Series as I type this, since Otto’s book came out first, but I do have stories to recommend from the newer volume.
I know, I know. It’s confusing. There’s a new series started by an old editor, and an old series with a new editor. I don’t think there are any crossover stories at all, although one author (Alison Gaylin) has a different story in each volume. The Penzler volume feels familiar and solid; the new volume feels fresh and new. The new volume has a few baby editor misses, and is more uneven. The Penzler volume has no truly brilliant story, but has a higher quality of mystery/writing level overall. Nothing dramatically misses. Nothing took my breath away either.
It was fun to read both. Also, it was nice to see the Best American Sports Writing land on its feet. I discuss much of the volume below, even though I didn’t finish it this month either.
Baxter, John, Paris at the End of the World, Harper Perennial, 2014. I find myself on an odd quest to consume materials that have a lot to do with WWI and the flu pandemic. This book satisfies a bit of the WWI curiosity. I’ve had the book for years now, and finally decided to read it. It’s fascinating. Long time readers of this list know I love Australian ex-pat John Baxter’s writings on Paris. Here, he writes about his grandfather, Archie, who served in the war and, Baxter believed, spent time in Paris. His grandfather may have had shell shock or other problems due to the war. Whatever the cause, he was an odd duck who didn’t really fit into the family or so Baxter thought.
He mixes his research into his grandfather with events that occurred in Paris during the war. All of it fascinating, some of it unbelievably so. I found myself reading quickly and sometimes scanning ahead, not because there was a plot, but because the book was so interesting.
Bhatt, Jenny, “Return to India,” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021, Alafair Burke, editor, Steph Cha, series editor, Mariner, 2021. The story is written as a series of depositions. Every time you think you know what happened, someone speaks their truth, and it changes the situation completely. Really wonderful story that I can’t stop thinking about.
Burke, Alafair, “Introduction,” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021, Alafair Burke, editor, Steph Cha, series editor, Mariner, 2021. Burke used 8 rules of good storytelling by Kurt Vonnegut to describe the various stories in the anthology. An interesting choice, I thought, and one that made me think a lot about writing and storytelling. You can read this without picking up the volume, but y’know, if you read it, you’ll probably want to read the stories too.
Casciari, Hernán, ¿Me agregás como amiga? Revista, 5th edition. I found a copy of this story on the internet, and that’s what I linked to, but I read it in this semester’s Spanish textbook, which is what I’ve listed (poorly) here. This is a sweet speculative fiction story about a woman who gets a message just before she logs off for the day, only to discover the message purports to be from her younger self. I did not expect the ending, which is just charming. If you can read Spanish, you might want to take a look at this particular story.
Cha, Steph, “Foreword,” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021, Alafair Burke, editor, Steph Cha, series editor, Mariner, 2021. Writing an introduction to an entire series after you’ve been hired to take it over from an editor who didn’t want to leave is tricky no matter what you’re doing. Steph Cha navigated the minefield graciously and well. I’m deeply impressed.
Child, Lee, editor and Penzler, Otto, series editor, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, The Mysterious Press, 2021. Sadly, even though a lot of my favorite authors grace this book, no story stands out. That might simply be because the overall quality in this volume is off-the-charts good. But what it means is that each story was slightly predictable or no different from stories in previous years. While I enjoyed all of them, not one of them made me think.
That might be the function of Child as editor, but it might also be the mandate to get this series off the ground well with some really big mystery names. I’m not sure. The net effect is one of the best mystery volumes I’ve read in a long time, but no individual stories to recommend. I’m glad this volume exists. It’s better to have more than one best-of, like sf/f has, so that readers can read a range of fiction. This adds to that range tremendously.
de León, Aya, “Frederick Douglass Elementary,” ” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021, Alafair Burke, editor, Steph Cha, series editor, Mariner, 2021. Here’s an example of a story that would not have made it into the Penzler volume. There is a crime in this story—forgery—but it’s done for a good reason, a heartbreaking reason. The story was originally published in a noir anthology, so the ending is appropriate and sad. Another story I simply cannot stop thinking about.
Gay, Ross, and Davis, Noah, “The Ramshackle Garden of Affection,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, Triumph Books, 2021. Two poets, one much older than the other, play pick-up basketball with each other and write each other letters about it. Emotional and tough, beautiful and sharp, this essay startles as much as it reveals.
Graff, Michael, “Hook Shot Charlie is Spreading Hope Through Charlotte. If You Want Some of It, Try The Hook,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, Triumph Books, 2021. The title says it all, really. A former basketball player—not anyone you’ve probably heard of—picked up the pieces of his life and is now hitting hook shots in Charlotte. It’s an uplifting and amazing read.
Horwath, Bryan, “At Amazon warehouse, every delivery detai lis accounted for,” Las Vegas Weekly, September 23-29, 2021. Since we writers do so much business through Amazon and since we consumers buy so much from Amazon, I thought you’d find this as interesting as I did. Apparently, this is how at least one warehouse operates. Fascinating stuff.
Mead, Tom, “The Many Faces of Moriarty,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Summer, 2021. I love literary analysis, particularly when it concerns mystery fiction—and authors who can’t defend themselves. (In other words, authors who are dead.) Mystery Scene published this piece, which analyzes why Conan Doyle wrote about Moriarty in the first place, how little Moriarty showed up in the actual canon, and how he got used in all the licensed (and unlicensed) continuations and retellings of Sherlock Holmes. Worth reading.
On Wisconsin Staff, “How I Survived The Pandemic,” On Wisconsin, Summer, 2021. The optimistic headline comes from that brief period when we all thought this would be over, before the summer’s true insanity of anti-vaxxers mixed with anti-maskers really got underway, before the Delta wave stole our budding optimism. But that doesn’t diminish the article itself. An interview with a bunch of students about the ways they got through 2020. Yet more evidence of how we all went through this terrible experience and shared it, and yet had individual experiences at the same time.
Robinson, Phoebe, “Book Smart,” Entertainment Weekly, October 2021. Interesting material in here. Phoebe Robinson has a new book out and she’s curating a new imprint for traditional publishing. She’s hoping she can change the industry from the inside out. I hope she’s right, but I’m not holding my breath. Read this, those of you who think traditional publishing and managers treat people equally. The crap she went through as a black woman is similar to what I went through as a young white woman (minus the racism, but with all the sexism). Trad pub is truly abusive. I’m not shocked that she was treated this way in 2021. I wish things were different. I wish her well trying to change things. Maybe it’ll work this time.
Rooks, Taylor, “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, Triumph Books, 2021. When I heard that the Best American Sports Writing had been canceled, I was gravely disappointed, partly because I figured if we ever needed sports writing, it was in 2020, the year everything changed. To be even more precise, I was hoping for articles like this one. Taylor Rooks was embedded with the NBA when they were in their bubble at Disney World in 2020, a place none of the rest of us could go, yet something we all understand because we too survived the pandemic lockdown year. This is an amazing piece of writing, both personal and impersonal at the same time. Pick up the book just for this, and read it for everything else.
Schmitt, Preston, “Behind The Scenes on Capitol Hill,” On Wisconsin, Summer 2021. A profile of CNN’s new chief congressional correspondent, Manu Raja, who graduated from the UW in 2002. (Okay, old me must admit that it seems weird that someone who graduated in 2002 is old enough to be a chief anything, but then I do the math and realize he’s in his early 40s. Get off my lawn.) This piece details his day and his rare breaks. It also details the insurrection which he went through. (What a year we’ve had.) Fascinating reading.
Stark, Jayson, “There Might Be A Family Secret,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, Triumph Books, 2021. Some things are just genetics. Like, for example, major league pitching. Apparently, the gift for doing it well can be passed down, even when the child has no idea who the father is. The family secret? Mom had an affair with a major league pitcher, and gave birth to his son. Only with genetic testing did anyone know what had happened, and by then both mother and biological father were dead. I love pieces like this, because they show how complex families are—in good and bad says.
Thompson, Wright, “The Inheritance of Archie Manning,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, Triumph Books, 2021. For those of you who don’t follow American football, Archie Manning is the father of professional quarterbacks and he was an amazing quarterback himself. It’s now looking like he’ll be the grandfather of quarterbacks as well. I figured this would be a puff piece about Archie Manning. God knows, I’ve read dozens of them. It’s not, though. It has, at its heart, the story of Manning’s seminal moment—what he did after his own father committed suicide—and how Archie was determined not to pass on the legacy of that father. Breathtaking piece about the way our past defines us and how we can keep that past from taking over our lives.