What I Read in 2010
I’ve been in the habit of posting all the miscellaneous things I’ve read from quarter to quarter, and I’ve decided to continue doing that, only in a slightly revised format. We’ll call these “book-teases” since they’re not really reviews, but brief blurbs which will include a general thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system. I don’t like having a story spoiled before I can read it and I wouldn’t presume to do it to anyone else.
I think I have to preface this little list with a disclaimer. I enjoy a wide range of styles and subjects. I have guilty little pleasures that some people would make the literati scoff or snicker. And sometimes, I have curiosities that need sating, and more often than not, those curiosities are what help me define what I do NOT want to become as a writer.
Don’t mistake this list as any kind of umbrella endorsement, though there are stories and books here that I would recommend. There are some that only translated into a significant waste of my time. I’ll highlight the gems and the stinkers:
* The Artist in the Office – Summer Pierre : A slim little volume that piqued my curiosity and is now sitting on my shelf at work for those days when The Day Job seems an insurmountable obstacle and I need a little lift in my day.
* On Writing – Stephen King : I keep coming back to this book over and over. I’ve read it at least four times. I always find some new tip or inspiration to get me through the “not-stuck” times.
* Linchpin – Seth Godin : It took a while, since I read this sporadically. While I like what he has to say about becoming indispensable to your organization, I struggle with his concept of art and artist. My struggle with the labels or niches he’s trying to create and the meaning he’s imbuing them with are a major obstacle for me getting through this book. Even after hearing him speak about the same subject, I can’t say that I can swallow that hook.
* 200 Pomegranates and an Audience of One – Shawn Wood : This one is a significant break from my usual topical preferences, but I was curious. I think I will reserve this one for a post of its own.
* Bless Your Heart, Tramp – Celia Rivenbeck : This is a book of Erma Bombeck-style essays that caught my eye while traveling for work a few years back. I picked it up but never got around to reading it. It’s not really something I can easily attribute to enhancing or refining my skills at fiction, though it was an interesting study in creating character through voice. I think did help me with a recent freewriting exercise where I developed a very distinctive character voice just through the character relating his experiences during a particularly bad day.
* French Women Don’t Get Fat – Mirielle Guilano : I’m fluffy…well, as of 10/12/10, 30lbs less fluffy than on 7/1/10, but still fluffy. The majority of my interests and primary occupations are relatively sedentary not to mention my love of food. Not a good combination. I’m trying to find a new perspective, if nothing else.
* Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert : I am always curious about the books that become cultural phenomenons, even if only briefly. Since this book was all anyone could talk about for the longest time, and is now a movie, it counts. For more details of what I thought, take a look here.
* Shrink Yourself: Break Free from Emotional Eating – Robert Gould : A part of my personal project. Suffice to say that it has already made a difference.
* Reading Like a Writer – Francine Prose : I enjoyed this book. I can’t say that it was earth shattering information, however, it did remind me of some of the things professors and teachers used to goad us into looking for. It reminded me to slow down and take the story word by word. While I may not slow down my “casual” reading for this purpose, when I’m reading for research, or when I’m reading to edit my own work, I will certainly be applying the pointers she brought to my attention.
Novels and Novella-length fiction:
* Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen : A classic and always a pleasure to read. I’ll admit that I re-read this one in preparation for the next novel on the list and while I enjoy it, it’s the dowdy sister of both Pride and Prejudice or Emma.
* Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters – Jane Austen and Ben Winters : I think it’s enough to say that I gave up less than 100 pages in. If you want an entertaining spin on an Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is light years ahead of this one in quality. P&P&Z set the bar high for this genre and S&S&SM failed to reach it. I’m a little nervous to read Jane Slayer and Android Karenina now…
* Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett : Excellent, entertaining read. Not only was the story well written, I enjoyed the vibrant, witty characters who brought a well-blended mix of purely fantastical happenings and reality into the realm of possibility. When a story has an angel, a demon, the anti-Christ and the four horsemen of the apocalypse as characters, how can you possibly go wrong?
* Son of a Witch – Gregory Maguire : It was ok…not as good as Wicked, but better than its successor. (See below.) This is another story where the predecessor sets the example and all the subsequent titles fall flat of that expectation.
* Pride Mates – Jennifer Ashley : Ok-ish for a romance novel. Quick read, not entirely credible characters, somewhat predictable, but it was a good distraction and change of pace from what I had been reading.
* A Lion Among Men – Gregory Maguire : Far from the best of his works that I’ve read. This is in no way equal to Wicked, or Mirror Mirror. In my opinion, if you loved Wicked, skip this one. It’s only a disappointment.
* The Thirteenth – L.A. Banks : One of my guilty pleasures. Sex, action, vampires, sex, the supernatural, religion, and sex. Who wouldn’t love this little dose of literary cotton candy? Wait…don’t answer that…
* Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte : For all the bitching I heard about this one from people forced to read it for one English class or another, I was fully prepared for disappointment. I wasn’t. I loved it, and I’ll admit, I ended up with a bit of a crush on Heathcliff.
* Persuasion – Jane Austen : I’m a sucker for Austen, what can I say? This one was a quick, enjoyable read with all the elements that made me love her to begin with.
* The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger : This is probably the third time I’ve read this one, and I love it more every time. Holden is one of my all-time favorite characters and his voice is unique and disturbing all at once. I was bouncing between reading this and listening to Stephen King’s audio version of On Writing at the time, and Holden somehow adopted King’s voice. It made it even more entertaining. I was somewhat unnerved when I was reading Mr. Antonelli’s speech to Holden and felt as though it was directed at me, though. Maybe I’ll write more about that later. I need a little…distance from it, I think.
* Dear John – Nicholas Sparks : This one is one of the aforementioned “curiosity” books and I can’t say I’m loving it. I was intrigued by the movie trailers; a love story where the characters are loving each other from miles away through the written word. At the moment, though, the story is more of an irritant that I can’t get away from. I might even take the time to really review it after I’m done. I’ve spent plenty of time mulling over it in the shower and why it bugs me so much, I might as well invest the keyboard time into the subject.
* Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman : This is book 2 of my love affair with Gaiman. I adored this book and the bizarre circus it became. He managed to surprise me at every turn with this labyrinthine story by allowing me to expect certain things, but making sure I never really knew exactly what was going on.
* World War Z – Max Brooks : The sense of reality in this book was so stunning, so startling. Brooks broke the necessity for suspension of disbelief; he did such a great job with detail and fleshing out the reality of the world he created, I could easily believe any or all of the events taking place. Suffice to say, this book scared the bejesus out of me.
* Villa Incognito – Tom Robbins : I’m not sure if I wasn’t in the mood, but this one just didn’t appeal to me like his previous works. The whole idea of the tanuki felt belabored, forced and overshadowed what might have otherwise been an enchanting story. Maybe I’m just past the point where I enjoy the magic realism of Robbins. That makes me a little sad.
* The Thief of Broken Toys – Tim Lebbon : I’m not sure how to really classify or discuss this story other than to say that the style of writing was interesting and the story was well written, and the characters believable. The chapters all begin as if you’re looking down on the scene from afar and a conspiratorial, confessional type narrator is discussing what is laid out in front of you, then the focus narrows and you’re back into the story and the narrator fades away until the beginning of the next chapter. The first time, this was disorienting, but as the story progressed, it made sense and gave context to the happenings you read. It felt a little like the old HBO promos where the camera started way over the city and then ended up doing Superman-fly-by’s through the city streets. What made this story frightening was the potential for losing the memory of loved ones when the symbols reminding us of them are removed from our life. I’d recommend this one, but not to a parent, especially not one with a young child. It made me a little neurotic, and I can’t imagine how it would mess with their heads.
* Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl : I needed a breather from adult stories, and I couldn’t think of a better distraction than a book I adored as a kid. This one, the sequel and the Lorax were the books I ALWAYS had out of the library when I was in elementary school. No, really. The librarians spent hours trying to convince me to try something new. This book brings back great memories.
* Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator – Roald Dahl: Two words – Vermicious Knids. There ought to be more Vermicious Knids in everyone’s life.
* Brains: A Zombie Memoir – Robin Becker : This was light-hearted, snarky take on “What if zombies were more than mindless brain-munching…well, zombies?” Professor Barnes is a thinking zombie who can write, and he assembles a group of other, err, differently-abled zombies to lobby for the rights of sentient zombies everywhere. It was intelligent, well-written and funny.
* Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett : An epic novel reminiscent of The Thorn Birds or Gone with the Wind. Given that this focuses on medieval England and centers on religion and how it impacted society, politics and daily life, I expected to be in love with this book. I enjoyed it and looked forward to reading it, but it didn’t whisk me away as I expected. There isn’t any obvious reason why I wasn’t sucked in; the characters were believable and engaging, the story meandered purposefully into a richly woven set of complicating circumstances that impacted each character and family differently, the religious message wasn’t didactic. I liked it, but I don’t see a reason to read it again.
* The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N. K. Jeminsin : This was recommended to me by a writing friend of mine and I’m very glad. This is Jeminsin’s debut novel and one extraordinarily well written. It’s hard to believe this is a first novel. I burned through this in just over two days and as soon as I was done with it, I ordered her second book. I’m very excited about reading it and I’ll likely drop whatever I’m reading as soon as it arrives.
* The Broken Kingdoms – N. K. Jeminsin : I didn’t end up dropping everything to read this when it arrived, but it was the next book I picked up when I finished what I was reading. This story lived up to the first in its complexity, quality and enjoyment. I raced through this book for the sheer enjoyment of the story. I will admit marginal disappointment in the lack of Nahadoth in the story, but the depth that Jeminsin explores her characters helped me see past that. I’m looking forward to the release of The Broken Gods, the final volume in the series, especially since it appears to be told by Sieh.
* The Passage – Justin Cronin : When I saw this in the horror section at Borders, I was intrigued, so I used one of my Audible.com credits and downloaded it. To see what I thought, check out this post.
* Blockade Billy – Stephen King : This was a break from the Stephen King I expected. I was a little surprised by the style of the story; George “Granny” Grantham is regaling the Master of Horror with a tale about Blockade Billy – Billy Blakely. I listened to this one as an audiobook and the sensation of eavesdropping on a conversation was eerie. In a couple of places in the narrative, Grantham addresses his silent audience as “Mr. King” and even stops, requesting a drink of water. I wouldn’t say the story was frightening, but there were elements of the unsettling and eerie in it, however this is a great example of a study in a character voice. I highly recommend it for fans of baseball as the games are almost a character in and of their own right, not just a setting for the characters.
* Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy : This is technically a re-read, but because I read it so long ago, it was almost like reading it for the first time. This time, I feel like I had a greater understanding and appreciation for the “boring” parts where Tolstoy crafted Anna Karenina’s world and how it drew the reader in to the monotony of her life and how, after her various paranoias, her end feels not only right, but becomes a relief for the reader. Other moments I don’t have as much of a fondness for (such as Levin’s musings on religion near the end), but I can see where they’d have merit if I were more invested in the character. This is a great one to learn from on several levels – character development, using environment to set the tone for the character’s mental state and use it to draw the reader into the character’s head and the sheer structure of social class and how it is portrayed. I could go on, but those more eloquent about such things already have, so I won’t attempt to steal their thunder. 😉
Short Story Collections:
Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre – H.P. Lovecraft
There really isn’t much I can say about Lovecraft other than the fact that I hope that someday I will have the pleasure of giving someone chills the way his work does. I can only aspire to keep someone’s attention as rapt as he kept mine. There’s a reason his work has endured for so long, and I am still in awe.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse – edited by John Joseph Adams
I loved every moment that I was lost in this collection. It starts off with an explosion – King’s “The End of the Whole Mess,” and includes striking tales like “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow and “A Song Before Sunset” by David Grigg. There were some that struck a strange chord with me like “Episode Seven: Last Stand against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers” by John Langan and “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt, but I can respect their work and what they created. I can’t say that I liked them, but that may be a result of the way they made me feel, and if that’s the case, then they did a great job with their craft. There are great examples for any aspiring writer in this book, and to say that this collection inspired my imagination is a bit of an understatement. I highly recommend this collection to anyone who loves the “what if’s” associated with the idea of the apocalypse.
Poe’s Children – edited by Peter Straub
This is a collection of “New Horror,” and the classification was enough to intrigue and interest me. Much To my chagrin, the label was the cause of much of the consternation I felt reading the book. While there were shining gems (“Bees” by Dan Chaon, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” by Elizabeth Hand, “The Sadness of Detail,” by Jonathan Carroll, “Leda,” by M. Rickert, “In Praise of Folly,” by Thomas Tessier, “Plot Twist,” David J. Schow, “The Two Sams,” by Glen Hirshberg, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” by Stephen King, “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman), I struggled with how some of the stories fit under the label of horror. With a horror story, I have an expectation of tension, of fear and of having that moment of chilling adrenaline coursing through my veins and leaving me changed in some way once the story is done. I expect that story to come back to me during unexpected moments, like while walking through a dark parking lot and hearing the rustle of leaves against the pavement. I expect to carry that fear with me and scaring myself silly for no reason. Some of the stories in this collection fulfilled this expectation, and others were so counter to it that trying to figure out why they were between the covers distracted me from whatever enjoyment I might have otherwise experienced from them. The definition of “New Horror” left me intrigued, but if each story is a bullet point to lend clarity to the definition, I’m sorry to say that I’m thoroughly confused by what it means. On the whole, the collection didn’t live up to the title and the images it conveys.
Blood Suckers: The Vampire Archives – edited by Otto Penzler
This was a good collection of stories with vampiric themes. These stories are not all “traditional” vampire stories, but thankfully, no sparkly vamps here. The stories I liked the most are those that clung less to the traditional blood sucker stories, namely “The Sea was Wet as Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson, and “Carrion Comfort” by Dan Simmons. These are innovative takes on the vampiric theme without actually dropping fang and tapping a vein. Some of these stories were chilling, others just creepy, but overall, a good collection and worth the time to read if for no other reason than the innovative twists on the vampiric themes these artists have wrought. There was only one that I disliked because I thought it was over-written and the writer just enamored of his own literary skills and vocabulary. If you pickup this collection, unless you’re interested in a lesson on when to kill your darlings, or feel a driving need to expand your vocabulary, skip “The Death of Ilalotha” by Clark Ashton Smith.