What I Read in 2011

New year, new roster of What I’m Reading. There will be quite the honor roll this year, as I have issued myself a 25 Book Challenge for 2011, and there are some heavy hitters on there and some big name classics. It will definitely be a challenge since my first two books of the year aren’t even on the list… 😉

Novels and Novella Length Fiction:

* Android Karenina – Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters : This one actually has something resembling a proper review. Click here to read it!

* The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde : I had a vague understanding of the story from other sources, namely the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I knew it would intrigue me, but I didn’t expect the humor infused through the text. I loved this story. I loved the darkness in the story, and the contrast of the sarcastic, ironic characters in the story that make you laugh at things that you almost feel bad laughing about. Their cavalier attitude about things others hold dear almost feels like a guilty pleasure and allows you to indulge in their type of dark thinking. Based on my expectation of the story that I’d been exposed to, the ending wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be, but it was fitting and enjoyable in a dark and creepy sort of way. I highly recommend this one.

* Dawn of the Dreadfuls – Steve Hockensmith : The reason why I love speculative fiction is strongly related to how many times the question “what if” gets asked. “What if Jane and Elizabeth Bennett become kick-ass zombie slayers? What would happen to their social status?” or “What if Mrs. Bennett had a past love that never gets mentioned in Austen’s story, but makes a return after she is married with children?” These are the types of questions that makes this book a fun romp with familiar characters. Like other mash-up fiction, it doesn’t necessarily stay true to the original envisioning of the characters, but in this kind of a story, it’s close enough to recognize the familiar people and still have fun. This explores what happens before the outbreak of the dreadfuls, and delves deeper into the training of the Bennett girls. It is a fun compliment to the original, and one that makes me look forward to see what Hockensmith will do with the sequel.

* Dreadfully Ever After – Steve Hockensmith : This is the third book in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trilogy. Find out what I thought by checking out my Something Like a Review here…

* It – Stephen King : I “read” this one as an audiobook. I remember it being one of the scariest books I’d ever read, but when you can actually hear the panic and terror in the narrator’s voice it brings it to a whole new level. I was able to really focus on the words and how he used them to construct the mood, build the emotion and craft the terror that infects the reader. I don’t care who you are, even in broad daylight, this one is still effin creepy!

* Dracula – Bram Stoker : The last time I read this, I was in high school. Though I was an “advanced” reader, I can honestly say that I didn’t get as much out of it then as I did this time around. I’d forgotten much of what happened, so while I remembered the basic story line, I was pleasantly surprised by the tension that still remained in the story for me. Reading this one, it’s easy to see why the HWA named an award after Stoker. He was a true artist and laid the foundation for all of those who came after.

* Invitation to a Beheading – Vladimir Nabokov : I listened to this one as an audiobook, and I struggled with it. I’m not sure why. Nabokov’s writing is dense, and this story is somewhat Kafka-esque. The elements of the absurd against a grim setting and then the incalculable angst of the main character made it difficult to digest for me. I ended up being very frustrated by the main character. I wanted to care about him, but really, even though he was condemned to death, I wanted him to STFU and stop whining. It felt more like a healthy dose of vegetables that were cooked in some unpalatable manner and I had a hard time choking them down and not spitting them out in my napkin for discrete disposal later.

* Julie & Julia by Julie Powell :  check out my “Something Like a Review” here.

* Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley : I read this one years ago and while I remembered the basic plot and some of the details, I’d forgotten Shelley’s voice throughout the piece. I enjoyed losing myself in this story and getting caught up in the tensions that run through the later part of the book. I’m glad I had a vague remembrance of how the story picked up, because during the monster’s story about the family he learned from, I was sorely tempted to put the book down. The payoff of the end is worth slogging through that part, though. (Ended up reading this one twice because of school…too bad I can’t count it twice in the challenge. 😉 )

*Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn : I listened to this one as an audiobook and it is stunningly beautiful, the words lyrical and the voice talent could not have been more perfect. Hearn has a breathtaking way with words that kept me captivated. While I occasionally feel my mind wander with most audiobooks, this one kept my attention rapt and I finished it much sooner than I did with other audiobooks of similar length. I highly recommend this book, even as a cross-genre read.

* Falling Angel – William Hjortsberg : I had more to say about this one than was appropriate for just a little blurb. Check it out here.

* Macbeth – A. J. Hartley and David Hewson : I think this line sums it up “If Shakespeare had been a novelist instead of a playwright, this is the Macbeth he would have written,” but to read the whole thing, click here.

* Fear – L. Ron Hubbard : I had preconceptions of this when I saw the author credit on this book. I can’t really explain what it was because it came more as anticipatory eye-rolling rather than a verbal explanation of my reservations. I was pleasantly surprised, however. The story is well-written and has a slap-in-the-face ending that makes you realize that some part of you expected it, though never really acknowledges it as the truth behind the strange happenings. It’s worth reading, and will make you understand how someone who reads his “non-fiction” books like Dianetics and Scientology might get caught up. Hubbard has the talent to write fiction credibly…just sayin’.

* Hell House – Richard Matheson : Quite possibly the scariest book I’ve ever read. I have been working lots of overtime, and I still burned through this book in 3 work days. Awesome. Just awesome. I want to read it again already, even though I know what happens. I may try finding this as an audiobook so I can do just that.

* The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty : One of the most surprising and most enjoyable parts of this book was the visual and sensory experience of the story. That’s not that it was always a pleasant sensory experience, but it was vivid and deeply experiential. The story was well-researched yet accessible to someone without extensive classical religious education. The story created a great sense of helplessness and being at the mercy of the powerful who cannot or will not help. The climax of the story was my favorite part and will stay with me for a long time. There were two major drawbacks for the story for me, both of which were character related. Chris McNeil never felt like a female to me, but as a male posing as a female. Her personality never rang true for me as a woman. Kinderman felt too cheesy to be a “real” person, even one “putting on the schmaltz” as he claimed to be. These were conquerable distractions, but did detract from the story at times. Overall, well worth the read.

* Rosemary’s Baby –  Ira Levin : This was a tightly woven story with believable characters and a taut undercurrent of unease even when Rosemary didn’t seem aware of exactly what was going on around her. The typical apartment-dweller paranoias heaped in with black history amplified the heebie jeebies for me. I was concerned that the end was going to be a sell-out, but was pleasantly surprised that it was a credible ending that maintained the tension of the rest of the story. The only negative I found about the story was relatively minor; Rosemary’s dream sequence felt contrived, like an over-used device from similar stories. It may have been me. This book has heavy black-magic overtones in places and I may have read it too closely after Falling Angel, another book that has significant references and usage of black magic. This is a quick read and well worth the time.

* The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien : This is an interesting, unsettling and unnerving illustration of the human condition. The backdrop is Vietnam, but there are pre- and post-war stories in it that give the reader the understanding that even without the extenuating circumstances of war, or without the unusual setting, these stories could have and do happen all the time. The stories in this book are a strangely woven fabric of truth, extrapolated truth and fiction. These are the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, the way we warp our own experiences to extract meaning and sense, to give ourselves peace of mind. They show the way we deny and obfuscate so we never have to look in the eyes of the Gorgon within. This is an excellent example of The Story in our world, no matter what our circumstances are and how it maps our position relative to others.

* The Stand – Stephen King : This is a second reading for me, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it much more this time. The first time I read it, I was 14, and I realize now, after reading it with significantly more experience and a broader world-view (not to mention more of an understanding of the horror of a post-apocalyptic world) that I wasn’t ready the first time. I didn’t understand the implications, and the gross-out was more significant than the creeping terror of an illness that cannot be cured, Harold’s fixation on Frannie was understandable, but the nuance of what it meant for her, her future relationship and on the community as a whole didn’t register. Suffice to say the even larger, overarching contexts of good and evil, technology and the way man tinkers with the natural world with reckless inhibition were utterly lost on me. This is a great story, an intricately woven tale that delivers a powerful punch and even a little social commentary on the way. I can’t say that it’s my favorite Stephen King piece, but it’s damned good and I’m glad I gave it another chance.

* Bedbugs – Ben H. Winters: This one had me itching to post Something Like a Review, but I managed to wait until release day…

* Let Me In – John Ajvide Lindqvist : I listened to this one as an audiobook and was hooked after the first morning drive. Outside of his reactions to being mercilessly bullied in school, I didn’t always believe that Oskar was a kid, but his precocity when balanced against Eli and the world of adults who sometimes behave more credibly as children. Despite the moments when I had to remind myself that he was 12, he was a character well suited to his world. Vampires are not new, and Lindqvist had respect for the trope while still bringing new life to them. I really enjoyed this story and would recommend picking it up. (Just don’t be confused…this is the movie tie-in title – it’s the same as “Let the Right One In” by the same author. It took standing in the book store flipping to random pages and comparing them to figure that out. 😉 )

* A Room with a View – E. M. Forster : This was the story I chose to be the introduction to my subscription to DailyLit.com (and you can read more about that experience here). I’m a big fan of Austen and was pleased to find an Austen-esque story. This is one of those stories that bolsters my belief in the ability to emerge victorious in spite of the odds, or the obstacles littering the path. One of the obstacles, Charlotte Bartlett, was the one thing in the story that managed to irk me throughout the story, but in the end, she redeemed herself. The ending of this one is a little darker than Austen’s work, but I think it makes for a richer denouement and feels more modern and realistic. I definitely recommend this one for the Austen fans out there. It’s familiar enough while being different enough to draw you in. Try it out. You might just find a new friend.

* The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon: I eyed this story from afar for quite some time before I finally dropped it into my audible.com basket and downloaded it. I’m picky and most “popular” fiction makes me roll my eyes hard, say bad words and rant about the evils of the brain-washing cult of Oprah and her book club. On the other hand, I’d heard great things about the story. The reviews were back and forth; people loved it, people loathed it. The minority reaction was ambivalence. The concept was interesting enough to finally make me give it a shot. A story told from the point of view of a 15-year-old autistic boy. Having worked with and supervised a young man with autism, I thought I’d be able to approach it from an uncritical place and with an open mind. I’m very glad I gave this one a shot instead of letting the nay-sayers dissuade me. The voice of Christopher is credible, brilliant and insightful. There were times in the story when I could close my eyes and hear his words coming from the young man I’d worked with. What impressed me most was that Haddon had a sensitivity and compassion that allowed him to portray Christopher in such a way that the humor resulting from Christopher’s understanding of the world wasn’t mocking or ridiculous, but endearing. Very well written and enjoyable. It’s a relentless story, but so is dealing with autism and Haddon found a way to make it translate into an experience some people may not have had, but might find themselves in at any time.

* The Help – Katherine Stockett : This is a polarizing story destined to make people uncomfortable. There is racial tension throughout the story, language and situations that our post-civil-rights era generation will find offensive and it will challenge those who live in the south where antediluvian reminders of this very real past still abound. There were times when I felt incredibly awkward listening to the story because of the racism, the social and political tensions, and there were times when I thought Stockett backed off from what could have been more poignant. I felt more comfortable than I thought I should have the right to feel. She did well packing a punch, the only problem was there were times she hit like a well-bred southern lady might…if a well-bred southern lady did such things. This is an excellent study in voice, in character differentiation, but it is not for the faint of heart or those who cannot deal with controversy. I really enjoyed it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll receive it the same way I will.

* The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson : This was awesome, and I can’t understand why it didn’t make the Must-Read list from the HWA book. I loved “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I find it difficult to understand how I didn’t make the leap from that to this story. This is a solid haunted house story, and like the angles within Hill House, it keeps you off-balance as you wander through the winding story, knowing that something lurks just beyond the next turn, but not knowing quite what it is. It is an excellent tale and one I will definitely revisit, preferably in a dark and spooky house in the woods…I’m just going to make sure someone else drives me home.

* Nightlight: A Parody – The Harvard Lampoon : Understand that I have an almost feral loathing of the Twilight series. My disgust is informed; I’ve read all four books and while I think that she had a salvageable idea, the execution was lackluster and the rabid fan-dom defending the “merits” of her efforts only serve to uphold my reasons for disliking it. That being said, this parody made me laugh when the chaotic rambling,  poorly written passages, and paper-thin characters are compared with the original. This is by no means A-list reading, and it will make the grammar nazis howl and cringe in pain, but for those who “get” the points they’re making, it’s hilarious. Not for everyone, but if you are not a fan of Meyer after reading the series, go for it. You’ll enjoy it.

* Watchers – Dean Koontz : This is the first story I’ve ever read by Koontz. No, I didn’t grow up under a rock, I just had something like tunnel vision, and when I did pick up a Koontz novel, for whatever reason, the blurb just didn’t draw me in. I really enjoyed this story, and understand why it appeared on the list. The seemingly disparate threads at the beginning of the story were neatly and expertly woven together as the story developed, and all the questions were answered in the end. I was surprisingly moved by the villain at the conclusion of the story, making me enjoy the story all the more. I’ll be more likely to look past the blurb and pick up a Koontz novel going forward (but given my formidable TBR piles, I’m not going scouting any time soon).

* Something Wicked this Way Comes – Ray Bradbury : I’d read this book a long time ago and I even thought I still had it in my bookshelf. Somehow, it disappeared and while I grumbled when I forked over the cash for a book I knew I already had, I’m glad I did. There are moments when the language becomes a little overblown and a little too…flowery for my tastes, but it works with the story and the atmosphere that Bradbury is creating. I enjoy the sense of menace he creates around the carnival characters, and I remember that when I first read it, going to the state fair was something I looked at with a different set of eyes. Though there was no sideshow, I was leery of the merry-go-round and I tried to image what the song would sound like played backwards. I suppose it made even the most mundane rides seem thrilling. Reading it as an adult, I’m impressed by the duality of the vision – a child seeing the darkness most adults overlook because of sheer distraction. It reminds me of the RPG, “Little Fears,” and gives me soooo many ideas…. now I just need some time to get them on paper!

Short Story Collections:

* Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King : (Nominated for WON a Stoker award! Well-deserved, I might add…) It’s rare that a Stephen King book fails to give me frissions of delight while reading, though there have been a notable few. This one is, by far, one of my favorites collections of his short stories. Encompassing four novella-length tales, these stories were dark, twisted, and made me uncomfortable from time to time, but I burned through this book in just over two days. My favorite of the four was probably “1922,” with “A Good Marriage” being a close second. While there’s plenty of blood between the covers of this story, the terror lies in the parts that aren’t bleeding….and that, my friends, is the mark of a horror master. My scribbler’s heart beats green with envy.

* Just After Sunset – Stephen King : Yes, yes. I’m a Stephen King groupie and I’m not ashamed to admit it. For a long time, I kept up with every single book he released and I had read just about everything he’d written. I have fallen behind lately, and am working on catching up. Since I’m trying to focus on reading short stories and novellas to build my skills for writing them, this book just so happened to fit the criteria and I picked it up between courses in the 25 Book Challenge. There were some curious little delights in here that surprised me (“Willa,” “The Gingerbread Girl,” “Graduation Afternoon,” “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates,” “The Cat from Hell,” and “Rest Stop,”) some that I was either ambivalent about or just didn’t like (“Harvey’s Dream,” “Ayana,” “A Very Tight Place,”) but the shining star that won me over on the whole collection was definitely “N.” I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for this one (especially because it’s in that stupid longer-than-a-regular-mass-market-paperback-and-won’t-conveniently-fit-on-any-shelf-other-than-a-store-display size, but that might just be my own personal issue), but it is worth checking out. There’s also a graphic novel of “N.” available where comics are sold. It’s as chilling as the story and I highly recommend it.

* The Essential Harlan Ellison: A Fifty Year Retrospective – edited by Terry Dowling : I have become as enchanted with the person behind the words as I have been with the words themselves. I found myself learning as much about the craft and art of storytelling as I was entertained by it, and by the enigma of the wizard behind the curtain. It seems that Ellison’s personality bleeds through the words and the reader alternately recoils in horror, laughs self-consciously, feels empathy and even sympathy and then sits back wondering when the hell the cavalry is going to arrive and the battle will begin in the epic battle of Ellison against the world. In the end, though, I have nothing for respect for the man. Dude has some seriously huge cajones and I can only aspire to speak as plainly as he does without fear…or while pretending not to fear, at least.

* Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural – edited by Wise and Fraser : This is a great collection of classic stories that no horror aficionado should be without. While most of these stories have been reprinted elsewhere (and with good reason), this collection provides a sweeping overview of stories of varying intensity. While the older stories in it were somewhat dated and didn’t shock me as a modern reader, considering when they were written, they would have been ground-breaking. To show the importance of this volume, this was also used as one of the texts in a class I took on the horror story. As a writer, collections like these are important; you have to know where the shoulders of the giants are if you want to stand on them.

* The October Country – Ray Bradbury : One of the things that struck me about this book was the introduction. Bradbury talks about how words or things catch his attention and he writes down a word, phrase, idea or sketches an image in his mind with a few spare words that stick with him and from that, develops a story. This method struck me because I’ve had similar experience and reading the stories in this volume like “Skeleton,” and “Jack in the Box” really spoke to me and showed me how the simple bare-bones idea developed into a vivid story. The two that have stuck with me and randomly pop up to give me chills are “The Small Assassin” and “Next in Line.” The most disturbing aspect of “Next in Line” was that it was based on something real, and utterly chilling.

Short Works:

* Morality – Stephen King : A great character study looking at how far people are willing to go to change the circumstances of their life. This came as a part of the Blockade Billy download and honestly, I enjoyed it more than the title feature.

Non-Fiction:

* How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy – Orson Scott Card : I’m not really a sf or fantasy writer, though elements of both seem to creep into my work. Nonetheless, there’s a good deal of information in that book that any writer can use. It’s geared primarily for the sf genre, but anyone with any interest in using elements of the genre should give it a read. I started highlighting too late, and will likely go back and re-read it to catch all the things that I know I missed. This could easily be one of those books a writer studies over and over and always finds something in there to learn.

* On Writing Horror-A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association – edited by Mort Castle : This one took me a while to get through simply because there was a lot to digest in this (relatively) slim volume. With Big Name contributors, it’s not really a surprise that there’s something to learn from each essay. That being said, while I know I gained a lot from reading this one, I feel like there’s a lot that I’ve missed also. Each writer has his or her own take, and there are times when it conflicts, but for wildly different reasons. It’s up to the reader to try what’s there and see what works and what doesn’t for their individual style. I do recommend this one and will be reading it again. Not only is it a solid resource for the horror writer, but there’s good information that any writer will find of value, but just remember, much of it is opinion and personal preference. This is not a book of formulas to follow and each bit of advice will have to be tried and tested by each reader to see what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t do the work, you won’t reap the value of the time spent reading it!

  1. August 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Some brillant horrors on this list! I love a lot of these classics. Dracula give me goosebumps whenever I read it!

    • August 27, 2011 at 12:59 am

      Thanks! I loved Dracula! I got sucked in and I think I read through it in a couple of days. The one on this list that has scared me most so far is Hell House. It’s….chilling and enthralling.

      Much of the list is pulled from suggestions from The Horror Writer’s Association book

        On Writing Horror.

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting!

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