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.
Actors On Guard, by Dale Anthony Girard – a great book on the use of the rapier and dagger for stage and screen.
A young man, a kid really, is doing choreography with a rapier, musketeer blade (double wide épée), cup hilt. He does the choreography well with his partner, an experienced actor and stage combat veteran named Dave. Dave is waiting for the kid to start his schtick.
“What’s the real thing like?”
So it begins.
“I bet I could hold my own in a fight with one of these.” The kid’s looking at the blade with confidence.
“Sure you could,” Dave says. He’s tired from almost three hours of fencing choreography – two classes, a beginner’s class and an advanced. This is the advanced class. He’s sweating and perspiring. He worked all night at his seventeen-year proofreading job, graveyard shift. He won’t go to sleep until that evening – if he can last. Its been 24 hours since he slept.
“Seriously, Dave,” the kid says. “Why won’t Joe fence against me?”
“Just stick with the choreography.”
“I bet I could fence against you.” The kid thrusts his blade tip at Dave’s chest.
Dave bats it away with his hand – his leather gloved hand. He’s more awake now. “You’re not a fencer,” he says with just a bit of an edge. “You’re an actor.”
“I’m pretty good,” the kid’s bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I could fence.”
“Joe,” Dave shouts and turns away from the kid. “Kid wants to see what it’s like to fence.”
An older man, probably in his seventies – the decades speaking in the lines of his face – rouses himself from reading the paper at the teacher’s desk. He slaps the newspaper shut and stands up, pushing his chair back. “David,” he shouts back. The rest of the class stops their work on the days choreography to see what’s happening. “Get the kid suited up.” He smooths back his white hair with his fingers and walks over to a locker, pulls out his gear. Dave gets the kid suited up with fencing jacket, mask, glove, competitive sabre. The old man suits up in similar whites. His fits loosely, like he used to fill it out more. Still he wears it with familiarity. He walks past the kid with his helmut under his arm. He turns smartly. Dave has pushed the rest of the class back so they’re all against the wall – out of range. All except the kid. Dave’s put him in the center with the old man.
“We’ll do three touches,” the old man says. “Dave, you’ll judge.” Dave nods and the old man salutes him, the kid, and the audience, then puts on his mask. The kid, a huge smile on his face, copies him.
“Fencers ready?” Dave asks.
The old man nods and says, “Yes, sir.” He is still. His sabre in the line of three.
Dave repeats his question to the kid. The kid is nervously swaying back and forth, the blade moving from side to side.
“Fencers ready? Dave asks him a third time.
He nods finally.
Before the kid can take a step forward the old man slashes his sabre’s edge across his chest. The kid stumbles back a step clutching his chest with his free hand. He rubs it smartly.
Dave hears him breathing shallowly. He knows that one hurt, even with a canvas jacket on.
The old man cuts the kids arm and the kid grabs the place where he was hit.
“You ok?” Dave asks sweetly.
The kid nods.
The old man waits this time. He drops his guard down, inviting the kid in to an open target. The kid attacks. He cuts to the old man’s head. The old man parries easily in five and smacks the kid hard in the head, hard enough to make him stagger back a step and to make the rest of the class gasp.
The old man swipes off his helmut and throws it to Dave. “Carry on,” he says and retreats back to his desk where his paper waits for him.
Dave directs the others to go back to their choreography. He walks up to the kid. “Ready for choreography?” he asks.
The kid nods. He’s still wearing his mask. He still hasn’t moved.
For the A-Z challenge I’ll be talking sword-play, every letter of the alphabet. I love to fence and I love to do the choreography of stage fencing. Outside of playing rugby there’s just about nothing better. As a writer who’s first book has more fencing and stage combat in it than most I hope this unique expertise can help others figure out how to write about the use of the sword whether it’s a small sword, a foil, a broadsword, a bastard sword, or a rapier and dagger. Maybe it’ll help with your next fantasy novel or historical. If you have questions, ask. Otherwise onward tomorrow to B.
Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.
A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.
But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)
What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?
Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.
It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.
Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…
We talked about a lot of things writing and non-writing. I found out things that surprised me about him and found myself talking about things I haven’t talked about with anyone in a long, long time. I’m still processing the evening.
I will tell you that Andrew is the real deal. He’s a writer’s writer who can talk about words and how to use them to tell stories in the most extraordinary way. He works his ass off on his writing. He’s very disciplined in the way he writes and accomplishes an incredible amount of completed pitch perfect work in addition to being part of a family with two kids, holding a day job, raising horses, and feeding a running habit. He paid his dues working as a journalist and has found a true mastery of the written word in his work as a novelist. If you haven’t read one of his books your life as a reader of books is not complete. You’ve been slumming.
I hung out with Andrew Smith on Friday evening.
I took him to The Fencer’s Club. Outside of rugby, fencing is the greatest sport in the world. You heard it here first. You can close your eyes, sitting on the spectator’s bench and just listen to the music of the blades, tapping, beating, sliding, cutting into the air, and pressing into canvas.
Andrew introduced me to Macallan 12 year old scotch.
Of course I forgot to take pictures.
My wife just rolled her eyes when I told her. Perhaps some things need to be savored in the mind and not on the photographic pixilated plate. Okay. I’m taking pictures first next time I have the fortune to see him so I don’t forget.
What Andrew made me want to do more than anything else when I went home that evening was write. Now because I’d had two scotches and could barely feel my toes much less navigate a keyboard I had to wait until the morning.
But the next morning I got up early and got back to work on my next book, his many words of wisdom ringing in my head.
My son asked me if I had a nickname when I was growing up. I told him yes. When I played rugby I was called Joe Nose, usually accompanied by, “the Nose knows.” I broke my nose 9 times on the rugby pitch, so often that the last few times I had to push it back in place myself before it swelled and I had to go the doctor for rearrangement. Rugby players all have nicknames. I don’t know why. One guy we called IDK because whenever someone asked what his name was none of us knew. “I don’t know,” became IDK.
In Open Wounds Cid calls Winston Arnolf Leftingsham, his cousin from England who comes to get him from the orphanage he is stuck in for five years, “Lefty.” Winston has no left arm or leg (the leg is a wooden replacement) and is badly scarred on the inside and out from mustard gas fighting at Ypres in the First World War. Cid never calls him “Lefty” to his face because… that would be wrong. But the nickname sticks.
My son has had some nicknames so far, like Maximum Max, Maximo, and Maximillion, but nothing that has stuck yet like Lefty or The Nose or IDK. I hope he gets a good one. They’re good for character and myth building.
In case I forget later, I’ll be at Espresso 77 in my neighborhood on Sunday evening 7-8pm reading and talking about Open Wounds. If you’re in Jackson Heights, Queens, come on by and have a latte with me and talk books.
Rugby world cup has come and gone. New Zealand reigns as world champs and France as a close second, Australia is third, and the Welsh are fourth. I watched the game at McCormicks standing at the bar. A friend of mine tried to meet me there but it was so crowded – we were literally wall to wall people with no personal space at all – that he stood a few feet from me and neither of us saw each other. The game started at 4am and I’d arrived to a packed house at 2:45am.
But I watched the game.
I knew early on that France would be a contender. As a friend said of France, they usually have one good game in them during world cup and the final was their good game. It was a nail-biter going down to the last second of the game, final 8-7 – a one point differential. New Zealand did not play their usual free flowing game of attack attack attack and scored their only try off their scrum – second rower who got his first rugby try in the world cup – maybe even ever. Second rows don’t see opportunities like that too often. But their defense was incredible. The French threw every attack they had at the all blacks and the all blacks resisted heroically.
The bar on 3rd avenue was packed with French fans singing the French national anthem and other songs I can’t even name. There were a few of us NZ fans and mostly we just shouted back at them. I had a Guinness and it was grand. When I asked the bartender for coffee at half-time (about 5am EST) he just laughed at me. The place was filled with smoke – even though it’s illegal in NYC inside, anywhere. Even the bartender smoked.
I am passionate about rugby. It is one of the most beautiful, harsh, brutal, challenging sports of all time. It is war on the pitch. I played 16 years (check out my 10 Things (#5) page for my list of injuries) and enjoyed its many aspects as a player and now most definitely enjoy them as a spectator. In the final at least four players on each side had to leave with injuries ranging from blood time-outs (cuts across the face) to concussions, to what could have been a busted knee but is probably ligament damage. When the final whistle blew it was incredible to watch the all blacks celebrate their second world cup victory – only their second. This time they didn’t choke the way they have in past world cups. The number one ranked team in the world finally proved to the world that they truly were number one.
What does this have to do with writing?
Nothing and everything.
The first good novel I wrote (I wrote one before but that was definitely my practice novel just to show myself that I could do it) was called Local Anesthetic and had the game of rugby as a main character. I love that book. It got me my first agent but was never shopped around much (long story about a bad agent relationship) and never picked up by a publisher. I still look at it longingly some days and wonder…