Recommended Reading List: December 2023

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Yes, yes, this one is late. Yes, it’s filled with December recommendations. The reason it’s late, though, is because I read a lot in December and got behind on recording it. So there’s 3,000 words of recommendations here. And now, you get the introduction I wrote almost 2 months ago…

My reading behavior is finally returning to normal. I have a complaint or two about something I read. I see that as healthy.

At the beginning of the month, I started a book, brand new, from a writer I enjoy a great deal. This book is set during Covid, and I thought, well, the mystery will hold me. But nope. I had to quit 38 pages in. I looked at the middle of the book, saw that characters were dealing with the death of a parent alone, in a hospital, from Covid, and others were having Covid-related issues…and I just couldn’t. I had the same issue with a different favorite writer in October. I can read short stories and essays about Covid—and you’ll see that I recommended some here—but I can’t immerse myself for too long in that world again. Did it once. Don’t ever want to do it again. Sigh.

I found some good holiday books, but finished one three days before Christmas. I grabbed another Christmas nonfiction book (I keep a number on my TBR pile), but wowza was it dull. It was an award-winning examination of the history of Christmas in America. I thought it would be interesting, but noooo. It is on my history shelf, though, just in case I need the research.

And then, as I was cleaning up the living room to prep for the holiday, I found a book I was halfway through. I had forgotten I was reading it. I remembered buying it, starting it, and getting a little ways into it, but I apparently forgot it. I didn’t greet it with joy, but confusion, so I set it aside as well. That rarely happens to me, but when it does, it means I truly did not care about what I was reading.

As I was writing this, and making sure I caught every story I wanted to recommend, I found an anthology that I had set aside to recommend something from it. I eventually found why I set it aside, but wowza, did I have a strange few minutes. I didn’t remember any of the stories, even though I’d read them. Oddly, and somewhat angrily, I remembered the stories I didn’t finish, one by one of my favorite writers who murdered a baby at the outset. Ew. Not something I want to read at all. Blech.

Anyway, for all of my complaining, here’s the stuff I do want to recommend.


December, 2023

Cafferata, Patricia D., editor, Christmas in Nevada, University of Nevada Press, 2014. I liked this little book. It examines the history of the holiday throughout Nevada’s history, using primary sources. Primary sources means that there are a few breathtakingly racist pieces in here, mostly from the white point of view, mostly of the good-intentioned kind (let us help these poor unfortunates). Just be forewarned as you read that some of the pieces are definitely of their time.

I did like a lot in here. Most of it is ephemeral in a good way, and brings out the kind of detail that the writer in me loves. For example, people often used tumbleweeds as Christmas trees. I was thinking about that on one of my runs, and then I saw one of my neighbors a few blocks over had strung some lights on a tumbleweed on her porch. I would have just thought that weird before, but I’ll wager it was a family tradition. There’s a lot of fun stuff like that. So if you like holiday history, pick this one up.

Cantrell, Rebecca, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Yultide Thrills: A Christmas Anthology, 2023. I love this story. Rebecca captured the child’s point of view beautifully. This story takes place on two levels: The child’s goals and dreams and desires and what really happened, which we as adults understand. So well done.

Cantrell, Rebecca, Yultide Thrills: A Christmas Anthology, 2023. I started reading this collection during Christmas of 2022, when Rebecca first published it, and finished it this year (2023). I love her voice and the stories here. Some of them are very dark, which doesn’t bother me at all, but might bother some of you. I got the paper edition, and there are some design issues. You  might be better off with the ebook. Also, this is a collection of Rebecca’s work, not an anthology ( a mistake a lot of authors make), so if you expect stories from other writers, you’ll be disappointed. If you just pick it up for Rebecca’s work, though, I can promise that you won’t be disappointed at all. I think it’ll add to your holiday reading for next year.

Coffey, Alex, “The Phillies’ Andrew Bellatti Made A Fatal Mistake As A Teen. A Tale of Remarkable Forgiveness Followed,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, edited by Richard Deitsch, Triumph, 2023. The title of this piece is true. As an 18-year-old, Andrew Bellatti hit and killed someone while driving. He went to prison. The forgiveness came from the victim’s mother. And…well, read this. It is remarkable.

Cole, Harriette, “Nothing But Class,” AARP The Magazine, August/September 2023. A long interview with Sherry Lee Ralph about perseverance, longevity, and the ability to make the best of any situation, in art, at least. Ralph has had a 40-year long career, but she finally became “hot” in the last few years, thanks to her role in Abbott Elementary. If you’re having doubts about your art, read this one.

Deitsch, Richard, editor, The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, Triumph, 2023. This is my favorite anthology series of the year, bar none. I may not read every article (there were some dead horses here and dead kids too), but I read most of them, and of the ones I read, I usually like them. Some I absolutely love. If you want to see the highlights from this year, I’ve pointed them out in this month’s Recommended Reading and in last month’s as well.

Durando, Bennett, “Untold Stories of Harvey Updike’s Last Confessions—And The Plot To Kill Auburn’s Iconic Trees,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, edited by Richard Deitsch, Triumph, 2023. I don’t live in Alabama, and I didn’t know that the iconic trees at Auburn University were poisoned by a crazed fan of a rival school. That’s the start of the story, though. It gets stranger from there. I found this piece absolutely fascinating.

Hagan, Joe, “The Golden Dream,” Vanity Fair, July/August 2023. Really interesting article about the state that California is in, told through interviews of many different kinds of folk, from money people to politicians to people on the ground. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but I do know I read it with a lot of attention.

Hill, Bonnie Hearn, “The Happy Birthday Song,” Mystery Writers of America Present: Crime Hits Home, edited by S.J. Rozan, Hanover Square Press, 2022. It’s not often a short story surprises me, but this one did. I saw a lot of the story coming, but not the ending. It’s good and powerful and worth the read.

Hockensmith, Ryan, “The Secret MVP of Sports? The Port-A-Potty,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, edited by Richard Deitsch, Triumph, 2023. Funny and serious at the same time, this little article on the Port-A-Potty makes it clear how one little invention has made the kind of sports we participate in now possible. The piece follows a man whose job it is to keep a stadium stocked with Port-A-Pottys for a big game. Then there’s the history and, oh, just read this. It’s fun.

James, Eloisa, “A Mistletoe Kiss,” Mistletoe Christmas, Avon, 2021. I bought this anthology when it came out and then kinda forgot about it. I remember picking it up the next year, looking at the god-awful cover and assuming it was indie published and probably had a bad interior design. I didn’t even look to double-check. This year, I did double-check, and realized that nope, this is an Avon book with a bad interior design and a terrible cover. And it was an anthology, not a group novel, which I had also assumed.

The novellas in the book are linked to each other by setting and one event. It’s a Christmas revelry, sponsored by a dying duke. Every one of the four authors who have written for this have set their stories at that party. I had high hopes for all of the novellas, but only two are worth recommending.

This one, by Eloisa James, is the best in the book and an absolute delight. Turns out that the duke’s daughter has been the one who has put on this amazing gathering for the past several years, making it the party of the season. There’s a lot of great family interaction here, a wonderful romance at the heart of it, and believable misunderstanding. Really well done.

Macomber, Debbie, Jack Frost, Debbie Macomber Inc., 2023. I find it fascinating that Debbie Macomber, once the queen of romance, self-published a Christmas novella. Once upon a time, her publisher(s) would pair her stories with the stories of other writers so those writers would get sampled by Debbie’s audience and that would boost their sales. Not so much anymore, I guess.

This is a classic Macomber holiday story. A holiday situation, two somewhat prickly characters, and a holiday solution. She is a master at combining holidays and romance. In this one, a woman misjudges her new coworker until they get stuck together one night when the power goes out. The journey to the happily ever after is not predictable, and the novella is fun.

McCarver, Katie Ann, “Financial Literacy Courses at UNLV Aim To Prepare Students For Life,” Las Vegas Weekly, November 2, 2023. I’m actually sharing this article because I know so many of you come from so many different walks of life. I’m hoping that some of you teach high school or college and have enough influence to start classes like this in your community. Take a look and take some inspiration!

Remnick, David, “Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer,” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, edited by Richard Deitsch, Triumph, 2023. Roger Angell was one of my favorite writers ever. He was the son of Katherine White, a major editor at The New Yorker, starting in 1925. (I love all the idiot writers who think that there were no female editors or writers before their generation. God, that irritates me.) His stepfather was E.B. White, and if you don’t recognize that name, you might want to Google him. Still, though, Roger Angell managed to carve his own place in the world as a sports writer and an essayist. I love all of his writing on both of those topics. In the last ten years of his life, he became an essayist about old age. He died at the age of 101, but as Remnick, the current New Yorker editor says, that’s the least of Angell’s accomplishments. Read this tribute, and then if you’ve never read any of Angell’s work, grab some and settle in for some great reading.

Ridley, Erica, “Mischief and Mistletoe,” Mistletoe Christmas, Avon, 2021. The other well done novella in this volume comes from Erica Ridley. The story features a young woman whose mother fears she will never marry, but the woman herself is more interested in her writing than she is in any kind of relationship. In fact, she fears that the relationship might end her writing forever. I haven’t seen this conflict before in a Regency romance, and found it intriguing. This (and the James) are worth the price of the book.

Rosenberg, Michael, “After Surviving a High School Shooting, He Was ‘An Empty Shell. No Emotion.’ Now What?” The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023, edited by Richard Deitsch, Triumph, 2023. I read a lot of my non-fiction a snippet here and a snippet there. I’ve done that for years. So, this article, which is quite long, took me a while to read. What was weird about it is that I started reading it before the school shooting at UNLV. I wasn’t on campus that day, but that doesn’t mean I avoided the impact. I was acquainted with one of the professors who died. I knew every inch of that campus, so the news reports were eerie. I spent the day texting colleagues and student friends, making sure they hadn’t been on campus. It was awful, and I was not in the midst of it.

This piece is about a kid who actually saw someone die right before his eyes. Who had a near-miss, and ran, and therefore saved his own life, but he is forever changed. The article is good, especially at putting us on scene and making what happened and its aftermath clear. This is an important one. Every American should read it.

Stein, Joel, “School of Hard Laughs,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 25, 2023. Who knew there was something called a comedy fantasy camp. This was the inaugural season, and if you thought print writing was hard, you should try stand-up. Seriously. Try it. Once. That’s writing on the hard edge. Joel Stein attended (I got the sense he wanted to see what it was like and got THR to pay), and had some fascinating observations. I love the phrase “hard laughs.” Read this one.

Stone, Jonathan, “The Relentless Flow of the Amazon,” Mystery Writers of America Present: Crime Hits Home, edited by S.J. Rozan, Hanover Square Press, 2022. Creepy and surprising little story about the Zon…not the river, but the big corporation. And yes, this is set during the pandemic. You’ll see why that’s necessary as you read. Well done.

Walter, Jess, editor, The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022, Mariner, 2022. For some reason, maybe the personal changes/problems of late 2022 into 2023 made me set this volume down without really reading it. But I finished two short story anthologies that I’d been reading during my lunch breaks when I was at UNLV, and so I grabbed this book. I’m glad I did. I devoured it. I didn’t like every story—I never do in this series—and there was just too many dead children stories in the middle (be warned, those of you with tastes like mine), but mostly it’s good and powerful and a reminder of how great crime fiction can be, which is what I need it to be, each and every year. Pick it up and enjoy.

Weiden, David Heska Wanbli, “Turning Heart,” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022, edited by Jess Walter, Mariner, 2022. Great writing, great characters, a lot of heart. Every turn in this story surprised and pleased me. I can’t say much more about it without ruining it, though, so I won’t.

Williams-Childs, Brendan, “Lycia,” The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022, edited by Jess Walter, Mariner, 2022. At first, the formal language of this story put me off because I thought it was written in Serious Writer Voice (as trained by universities). The fact that it first appeared in The Colorado Review reinforced my assumption. But the formal language of this story is essential to the tale it’s telling, which hides as much as it reveals. The emotion is deliberately reserved, as is the story itself, which only adds to its power. Just read it.

Willis, Connie, A Lot Like Christmas, Del Rey, 2017. I had completely missed this book when it first came out. It’s a collection of Connie Willis’s Christmas stories. An expansion, really, of her original collection, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, which I have. I looked to see if I was doing the recommended reading when that book came out, and realized I hadn’t been. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to recommend this collection, because it’s wonderful and full of stories that I just love, like “Newsletter” and “Epiphany.” But I read those stories so long ago that I can’t really comment on them well. So here’s the thing…any story in this collection that was either in Asimov’s in the last century or in Miracle gets my vote.

I read the ones that were published elsewhere or which had a more recent copyright date when I got my hands on this particular collection. I also read all the essays. I am recommending individual pieces from that particular subset of things. Oh, and I wrote about “All About Emily” in a very early Recommended Reading List from November of 2011. (It also shows up in the annual holiday list every year.)

In other words, you’ll find a few Willis stories singled out in this Recommended Reading list, but don’t view them as the only good ones in this collection. They’re all good. Some are just more to my taste than others.

And one other thing…the recommendations at the back. I don’t agree with a lot of them because apparently my taste and Connie’s diverge on the best holiday fare, but that’s great. It allowed me to rethink some of my likes and dislikes. I suspect they’ll do the same for you.

Willis, Connie, “Just Like The Ones We Used To Know,” A Lot Like Christmas, Del Rey, 2017. Maybe my favorite of all of Connie’s Christmas stories, this story is about a truly unlikely snowfall and the power of wishes. It’s lovely.

Willis, Connie, “Now Showing,” A Lot Like Christmas, Del Rey, 2017. I love this story, although it does feel like it was set 100 years ago instead of ten years ago. That’s how much has changed. It makes me nostalgic for a time when movie theaters were teen hangouts and social media was…different. The story is fun, and worth reading, even though it feels like something much older than it is.

Yu, Ovidia, “Live Pawns,” Mystery Writers of America Present: Crime Hits Home, edited by S.J. Rozan, Hanover Square Press, 2022. I am lousy at chess, but for some reason I love a good chess story. This one had me at the edge of my seat all the way through. Powerful and surprising, just the way I like my short fiction.

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