Reading List — September

October 3rd, 2008

Been writing a bunch and, therefore, not reading quite as much. Which raises a questions for you writers out there: do you read more when you’re writing, less, or not at all? And why? (I know people who fall into all three camps.)

By the way, I’m doing away with the star ratings and also tightening up the reviews, since some of them were longer than the books.

SALVATION BOULEVARD, Larry Beinhart: It’s always nice to read a book and have the feeling that no one else in the world could have written it. Beinhart is an agent provacateur of the first magnitude, a writer who excels at weaving serious ideas into first-rate thrillers — first-rate novels, in fact — without either losing the idea in the action or stopping the action to wave the idea around. I’ve loved his work for a long time, and SALVATION BOULEVARD lives up to the high standard he’s set for himself. In brief, an atheist college professor is murdered, purportedly by a Muslim student, and a reborn Christian private investigator is hired by the student’s Jewish lawyer. In a collision of beliefs and value systems, the goal is always clear: find out who really killed the scholar — but along the way, there’s room for plenty of deeply motivated and extremely well-written soul-searching (and I mean that literally). If you like your thrills wrapped around ideas, this is a book you should grab.

LITTLE BLUE WHALES, Ken Lewis: Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this, since what I read is a pre-pub ARC sent to me by the writer, who runs the NETDRAG podcast operation that has allowed many of us, including me, out 30 minutes of audio fame. I have to confess that I always open ARCS of books written by people I know, and especially of first novels by people I know, with a certain amount of dread: suppose I hate it? Well, I loved LITTLE BLUE WHALES, even though it’s got a serial killer in it and I will usually go several miles out of my way on foot to avoid a book about a serial killer. But I BELIEVE this killer, just as I believe every character in the book, just as I believe the setting. Ken Lewis has serious chops, and this book (and his next, whatever it may be) should be picked up by a major publisher.

PIG ISLAND, Mo Hayder: Hayder scared the pants off of me with THE DEVIL OF NANKING (TOKYO in the British edition), and I bought this one in the expectation that I would once again find myself pantsless. And she can whip up a pretty good dark and stormy night; I have to admit that I read it fast and long, and that I was continually surprised when I finally closed the book to see how many pages I’d progressed. But . . . but . . . it doesn’t work for me in the way that the best thrillers do, and it’s not just because of an ending plot twist that I saw coming 150 pages before it arrived. There are just serious plausibility problems, and when you put those on top of some truly, deeply disagreeable material, what with rotting pigs and all — well, I was sort of glad to be finished with it.

BLACK WIDOW, Randy Wayne White: I’m a sucker for Doc Ford and the Florida milieu that White brings to life — in fact, he’s my favorite of all the current crop of Florida thriller writers. Old Doc is a direct descendent of the sainted Travis McGee, but with a somewhat more modern perspective on male-female relationships. I’m sorry to say that this book disappointed me. It turns on a central implausibility that pretty much ruined things for me. The writing is, as always, economical, pointed, and fresh, and the characters convince, but it’s all orbiting a fundamental plot device that I can’t buy and won’t reveal here. But I’ll pre-order White’s next the day it becomes possible to do so.

MR. WHITE’S CONFESSION, Robert Clark. What a book. This won the Edgar in 1998 or ’99, and it would have deserved it whenever it came into print. Elegaic, breathless, beautifully written, with characters whom you can walk all the way around, this is a novel that should be stuffed forcibly up the nostrils of every critic who separates “mysteries” or “crime fiction” from “literature,” Much of the book is taken up by the journal of the man who turns out to be the prime suspect in the crimes that propel the story’s events, and I don’t think I’ve often read such utterly convincing journal material, which also happens to be piercingly beautiful. Anyone read anything more recent by Clark?

THE AGE OF DREAMING, Nina Revoir: Okay, I get to use the word “elegaic” twice in a single day. Nina Revoir, whom I’ve not read before, but all of whose work I’ve now ordered, puts herself into the first-person narrator, a Japanese man who came to America in 1910 and, through a series of utterly plausible events, became a major star in American silent films (or maybe not so major, since the narrator is in some ways unreliable). The book moves back and forth between the glory days of early Hollywood, which I have never seen captured better, and the novel’s present-day, which is set in the mid-sixties. Behind all of it is a mystery, lost way back in that world of black-and-white film exposed in the bright Southern California sunlight, and you’ll wonder about it, but if you’re like me, you’ll read this book for the sheer pleasure of being in Revoir’s company, as well as the enduring glamor and mystique of the silent film era.

I won’t go into the non-mysteries, except to say that I very much enjoyed John Burnham Schwartz’s THE COMMONER, about the first Empress of Japan not born to royal blood, and Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING, which contains the best sentence I read all month: ” . . . she was a religious woman. That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one’s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like a plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had either lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.”

As someone who writes seven days a week, I can only wonder how it feels to write a sentence like that.

5 Responses to “Reading List — September”

  1. Mitch Says:

    I found it to be interesting that I read almost nothing at all from the time I started my novel to the time I finished it (a little over a month), and that’s quite abnormal for me since I’m always making good progress in at least one book. Reading just became draining after spending two to three hours a day coming up with my own story. Although now that I’m done with my first draft, reading has become more enticing again. I’m about a third of the way through a book called A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read. Pretty good murder mystery so far.

  2. Lisa Kenney Says:

    You’ve got me sold on MR. WHITE’S CONFESSION. After clicking through a number of the Amazon reviews, I had the realization that this sounds like one of those hybrid books (like HOFFMAN’S HUNGER) that is probably not thriller or mystery enough for hard core fans, but is exactly the kind of character study with mystery or thriller components that appeals to me. Or I could be full of it! Isn’t Marilynne Robinson an amazing writer? I really loved HOUSEKEEPING. I think she may hold the record for the longest time between first and second novels. HOUSEKEEPING (which was nominated for a Pulitzer) was published in 1980 and GILEAD (which won a Pulitzer) wasn’t published until 2004. Yikes!

    I never stop reading entirely and I probably read quite a bit more than the average person, or even the typical writer. I think when I’m writing more, my reading slows down a little, but I don’t think I ever read less than a book a week. I’ve never had an issue with picking up another writer’s style while reading him, but I’ve often wished that would happen!

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I keep accidentally erasing my responses to your responses — I’ll open the desktop to manage the site, and there will be (literally) 100 pieces of spam. I get into this loop of pressing DELETE, and almost invariably I delete my own answer to the most recent response.

    So Mitch, for the second time, I probably read the same amount whether I’m writing or not, and I don’t worry about being influenced by other writers, since I am way, way below the line between those who are willing to steal, ahem, adapt, the ideas and approaches of other writers, and those who aren’t. If I were a spider with fingers, I still couldn’t count all the times some other writer’s approach has bailed me out or, at the least, helped me improve whatever I was working on.

    Lisa, I think you’ll love MR.WHITE’S CONFESSION. There’s a passage at the very end of the book, about beauty, that literally took my breath away. And the journals are heartbreaking and also beautiful. And maybe you don’t pick up the style of other writers, but I think we all pick up things — a way to launch a scene, a way to elide time, a way to structure dialog, and on and on and on.

    And how’s the retroactive outline going? Any insights yet?

  4. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Argh. On finishing TFW, I feel like a squirrel that keeps running into the middle of the road and then back to where he started again. I am having a hard time figuring out how to end this and the idea of putting together a retroactive outline has turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be. In short — I haven’t done it and I’m not sure how. I am feeling kind of frozen. Whenever I open up the manuscript, I end up fiddling with the beginning again, looking for clues there about how it should end. Now I’m hoping that the time away in Scotland without the buzzing of the news, the election and the economy will help. Or maybe not. I’m lost.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa —

    I think it’s mostly in your head. Unfortunately, your head is where the book came from in the first place, so that’s probably not very comforting. I’d strongly suggest you do the outline. I’m sending you part of the one I did for MISDIRECTION. As you’ll see, it gives the day and time, the characters (with bold type to identify all major characters who appear in that scene for the first time) and a really short boil-down of the action, with emphasis on the threads that will be most important later. You’ll also see in a few chapters that I’ve made a note to myself about something that needs fixing. I’d suggest that you do that rather than slowing down to twiddle with the chapters you’re outlining.

    I’d also suggest that you talk to someone, Scott and/or a few other people and ask out loud (a) why you think you’re having so much trouble finding an ending, and (b) what a few satisfactory endings might be. You know enough about the story to brainstorm 3-4 endings. Note the ones that make sense and do the outline — or hang up on the outline, and just write one of them — any of them. Then you’ll have an ending to change rather than no ending at all.

    You can do this. You know you can.

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