Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Reading List

I had recently gotten into the habit of reading almost all non-fiction. Especially when I don't have a lot of time to sit down and read - and I haven't - I find it's easier to pick up and put down. However, I think that it’s important to me, as a writer, to stay balanced, so I lately made a conscious decision to read more fiction. The smooth and accurate delivery of information is a crucial skill, and I think I’m pretty good at that. What I continue to work on, as a writer, is painting pictures with words, conveying a sense of place – sights, sounds, and impressions. That’s what I try to get from the fiction I read – how is the writer doing that?

I read Touchstone, by Laurie King, and I enjoyed it a lot. I like most of her work, especially the Mary Russel/Sherlock Holmes ones. Some of her contemporary suspense novels I’m not super crazy about, but even when they aren’t my favorite, I still think Ms. King has a knack for describing places, and she does the “show, don’t tell” thing superbly. Plus, I learned a lot about the period I hadn't known from this novel.

From the website: “Set shortly before Britain's disastrous General Strike of 1926, this stand-alone thriller from bestseller King (Keeping Watch) offers impeccable scholarship and the author's usual intelligent prose, but a surfeit of period detail and some weighty themes—the gulf between rich and poor, the insidious nature of both terrorism and the efforts to curb it—overpower the thin plot and stock characters. When Harris Stuyvesant, an investigator for the U.S. Justice Department, arrives in London to look for the mastermind behind a series of terrorist bombings on American soil, he tells Aldous Carstairs, a sinister government official, that his prime suspect is Labour Party leader Richard Bunsen. Carstairs suggests Stuyvesant should talk to Bennett Grey, whose brush with death during WWI has heightened his sense of perception to the point that he's a kind of human lie detector (he's the touchstone of the title), and to Lady Laura Hurleigh, Bunsen's lover and a passionate advocate of his brand of socialism. The threat of violence at a secret summit meeting held at the Hurleigh family's country house about preventing the strike provides some mild suspense.”

Well, I liked it. I hope Harris makes another appearance.

No one does lengthy description quite like the Victorians. I have plowed through my share of Dickens, of course. But there are other authors of the era whose work survives, and one of them is Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of "Lady Audley’s Secret". Published in 1862, this was one of the best-selling “sensational” novels of it’s day. Now the plot - bigamy and attempted murder – is tame. And the prose is rather meandering. But there are some turns of phrase I liked, and the whole thing just has such an antique charm.

I do like historical novels, but I'll read anything this lady writes: Elizabeth Peters. Her plots are often absurd if you really think about them, but it's such fun that you don't care. This latest one is no exception. Like JK Rowling, she has a gift for creating characters you just want to hang around with, no matter what they're doing. (But they're always doing something.)

And then there was this one: Buckingham Palace Gardens, by Anne Perry. Now, I used to love Anne Perry, and I haven't given up on her. But she is trying to publish two novels a year lately, and wow, her work is really suffering. She has written some entertaining and well-researched Victorian mystery novels, but this one? Sucked. I hate to say that about another writer, but – ew. It’s all very flat, the whole thing feels rushed, and all she does is tell us how people feel. I hope she slows down a bit and gets back to her usual form.

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