The only book in order is my top choice for the year and one of my favorite of all time (I know its only been out a few months but I read it over two years ago and it rocked my world then and continues to so do or do so or doe-si-doe). The rest are arranged in the order that I thought of them.
Winger, by Andrew Smith. This is a great book that perfectly captures the voice of adolescence. Ryan Dean’s voice is wonderful and authentic and did I mention there’s rugby in the book? Everyone should read this book. It is poetic and brutally powerful.
The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness (including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men). I’m cheating. This is three books but they really are one epic science fiction story that will make you cry and break your heart and keep you turning the pages right up until the end. This is how great sociological science fiction is written. And it happens to be a YA book. The gender politics (everyone can hear what men think but nobody can hear what women think) and the commentary on the nature of being human cuts through you right from the beginning. Then there’s the alien race and consciousness. Wow.
Railsea, by China Miéville. I have to say right from the start that this author is not everyone’s cup of tea and… I read another book by him that I liked and another that I couldn’t finish (rare for me). What does this mean? The language is difficult to get the hang of but once I did I really found this story of White Whale hunting and metaphor mapping to be a wonder. But the language… stay with it. I found it an original work of really great and unique science fiction.
11/22/63, by Stephen King. Two friends recommended this to me. I held off until I was ready to travel to Seattle and had 5 hours on a plane facing me there and 5 hours back. So… I have to say this is vintage King writing historical fiction with a vengeance. I loved the main character and would have followed him anywhere after the first couple of pages. Early hook, King never let me go. Time travel, butterfly effect, the 1960s (I was born in 61) all used to good effect. I was sad to see this one end and I’ve recommended to everyone I know since. It’s a long novel and that is a very good thing.
The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King. First know that I love a good western and I love the Dark Tower Series. Given that then you can understand why I loved this King coming of age again story. It is chilling and beautifully written.
Out of my Mind, by Sharon Draper. The story of a disabled child stuck in a wheel chair, unable to speak or communicate yet incredibly smart and aware of what’s going on around her and nobody knows it. This story is so powerful. It’s told from inside the young girl’s head, how she sees and knows the world rather than from the outside in and this makes the experience raw and challenging. I especially liked the ending and its realistic, no Disney fireworks conclusion.
The Dust of a Hundred Dogs, by A.S. King. Reality Boy was terrific too (so I’ll sneak in a quick recommendation as A.S. King rocks with all her books) but I have to tell you Dust of 100 dogs just rocked my boat. I’m a sucker for a western but I’m also a bigger sucker for a pirate story. And this is a love story also! This is told from the protagonist’s point of view from three unique angles (many dogs perspectives, a modern-day teenager, and a pirate from the days of swashbuckling). This is not a story for the squeamish (rape and pillaging abound) but man did it grab me. I saw the ending coming but felt so satisfied when it arrived that I didn’t care.
Calico Joe, by John Grisham. I know I know. John Grisham? Hey, what can I say. I really enjoyed this baseball book about father-son relationships. I can’t believe how fascinating this story was. My father-in-law hated this and I loved it. The insight into why players do what they do was terrific.
Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka (including Volumes 1-8, yes, you read that right, 1-8). I’m cheating but I’m not really cheating. It’s one long epic graphic novel in 8 volumes. And it’s the story of Buddha. And the covers were all designed by Chip Kidd. How can you go wrong? This is the Buddha story with a vengeance. It’s all manga from the grandfather of manga, filled with inside jokes about school in Japan, and part Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s also a deep book about religion, it’s uses and misuses and yes, about why we fear death and how we as human beings can come to terms with it. My son and I read these together. Take your time reading the story and enjoy the pen and ink on the full-page panels. The detail is incredible. This is an amazing lifetime achievement.
The Drowned Cities, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Even more brutal and disturbing than Ship Breaker – more violent if you can believe it. And so disturbing reading about children making war on children. This is total heart of darkness time. Keep one eye half closed as you read, but do read it and hope that Bacigalupi writes another story that takes us back to this world. Just… no more chopping off of fingers, please! Ouch.
Well, that it for 2013.
I’m looking forward to the reading list for 2014.
And my own work moves forward, slowly, but surely. If I can just keep at it I should have two books in to my agent this year. Fingers crossed. Nose to the grindstone.
With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.
1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.
3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.
Reading Railsea by China Miéville is like taking a course in world-building.
I loved this book. It is the kind of book that took me 50 pages to get hooked on but I was intrigued enough from the opening line to get there.
This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
Spectacular opening line.
The reason it was challenging to get into was the same reason it was so fascinating. Miéville creates a world that is told to us by a narrator using a language similar to English but different enough from it that I stumbled through it until I caught its rhythm. I can truthfully say there are a number of things that I read that I truly still do not understand after finishing the book but I don’t care and it in no way took away from the beauty of the book for me. Actually I liked it even more.
Yes, it’s a dystopian world and I like them. Period.
Yes, it has to do with trains and trains are cool.
Yes, it has to do with Moby Dick and the searching for a philosophy or white whale. I liked Moby, even the whale parts.
And yes, the main character is not a superstar, gun and sword wielding hero. He’s pretty mundane, and every-boyish and that’s what makes him so wonderful.
Look at what Miéville does with point of view. It’s 3rd person omniscient through Sham (the bloodstained boy) Ap Soorap’s perspective through the half-way mark and then the narrator tells us it’s time to switch – as if he’s an actor talking to the audience and breaking the 3rd wall. Then the story splits into three stories until they all converge back into Sham. It’s an incredible narrative risk that works spectacularly.
So listen to his narrative. You don’t even need a context:
“No such animal’s crossed our paths,” she said. “Be assured I know now your vehicle’s name, & at the first sign of that beckoning metal in a sinuate mustelid eruchthonous presence, I shall take careful notes of locations. & I shall get you word. On my honour as a captain.”
And then there’s this one from captain Naphi about her “philosophy” the great moldy warpe Mocker-Jack:
“How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”.
He uses the symbol & instead of the word and, and then two-thirds into the book explains why he does.
From word choice, to the rhythm of the narrative, to the way characters speak, to the characters themselves. This world is built from top to bottom and bottom to top. Read it as a reader for pleasure. Read it as a writer for a course on world-building. Read it for the bloodstained boy and the moldy warpe.
May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.
Let me put this out there.
I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.
So I think she’s great.
But here’s the thing.
This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.
What am I saying?
I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too. As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.
Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.
So Cyndi… She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.
But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.
One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.
Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?
I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.
But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.
I’ll get back to it. Hold on.
I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.
Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.