What I’ve Been Reading

The streak of excellent books is continuing, more or less, and I feel very blessed.  Here’s a sampler:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame, has delivered once again, a stunning literary fantasy about time, personal responsibility, family connections, and power. “Oh, I can’t play with time and memory in a first person narrative?” he says. “Watch me.” And then he does. Go get this book and read it right now.

1215, The Year of the Magna Carta. Danny Danziger and John Gillingham published this charming overview of the life and times in 1215 in 2003. The book spends a couple of chapters on the disastrous reign of King John (they were right to make him a villain in the Robin Hood stories. What a jerk that guy was,) but most of it talks about other things; the landscape, the economy, the cities, farming, every day life and the political and economic pressures that led to that famous intervention in Runnymeade.

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. This “sorta sequel” to King’s The Shining is not a perfect book, but it’s darned good. Danny Torrance, who survived the Overlook Hotel, now goes by Dan. He’s an adult, a recovering alcoholic whose “shining,” which had grown dormant, has suddenly sparked up again. Dan must rescue Abra, a girl whose shining is even stronger that his was, from the True Knot, a traveling band of immortal energy vampires. What is different is how much time we spend with the energy vampires, especially their leader, Rose. She is evil, but we come to understand her and even admire her at times.

Locke and Key; by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez. Staying in the family, so to speak, I binge-read all six trade collections of Joe Hill’s horror-themed graphic novel. The concept and theme of keys is used wonderfully. The dynamics of the shattered Locke family are bedrock realistic and heartbreaking. Rodriguez’s artwork compliments this story perfectly. It is gory, violent, and scary, and at its heart is a family struggling to heal itself after trauma.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. She lives in Petaluma, fifteen miles from my home town. She wrote part of the book in the local Peet’s Coffee. I was going to try very hard to like it no matter what, but to my pleased surprise, this debut fantasy novel is pretty darned good! The title character is taken from her forest home where she was raised in seclusion, to try to claim the throne. Kelsea was raised by faithful friends of her mother, the Queen, who was assassinated. The odds are good that the “regent,” Kelsea’s Uncle Thomas, will have her killed before she reaches the capital city too. Kelsea has, in many respects, been well educated by her foster parents — and in other, crucial ways, left completely in the dark. She has to survive, learn to rule, make serious moral decisions that have frightening consequences, and in her spare time she must learn to use the magical jewel that is her inheritance. Kelsea learns truths about her mother that shake her; she is disillusioned but grows stronger by the end of the book. The backstory of how Kelsea’s people came to be where they are is plausible, although it isn’t yet fully fleshed out. I am not sure whether this is meant to be YA; Kelsea is 19, so it probably is. The hardcover got the full treatment too, with a great cover and even a fabric ribbon bookmark.

This is the first book of a series. Give it a try.

Right now I am about halfway through Last Plane to Heaven, a collection of Jay Lake’s short stories. I always admired Lake’s prose. I had trouble with his novels, but I liked the short stories of his that I read. This “final collection” reminds me just what a treasure we lost when he passed away earlier this year.

And last but not least, a great book for writers, aspiring writers and writing teachers; Fred White’s The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus. Fred and my writer friend Terry are married and I consider him a friend; and I consider this book to be one cool writing tool. Fred has broken basic types of stories into categories, and the categories into chapters. Each category has ten story ideas listed beneath it. For example, he has chapters titled “The Mystery of X,” “The Adventure of X” etc. In the Adventure chapter, there may be a category for treasure-hunting; for spying, etc. Fred provides a basic situation (and in some cases even the plot twist, as in, “… but the result is not what the doctor expected”).  These are great starting ideas right out of the gate, and I can’t wait to use them with my young adult writers group, but nothing stops the aspiring writer from playing with them, turning them sideways and even, as White suggests, blending more than one together. This book is a find.

I have got to say, whatever else has been bad about 2014, it rocks for books.


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