Category Archives: Books and Reading

{2015 Goals} Reducing the TBR Stash – The First Five

Even though I haven’t bought that many new books since we moved from our house into the condo three years ago (I have indulged in the occasional book-buying binge – I admit it – but not many) my physical TBR stash hasn’t reduced in size. My TBR books are double and triple stacked on whatever surfaces I can afford to give over to them (which means closets and the tops of bookshelves).

So I thought I’d motivate myself and see if I can’t do something about the state of the TBR in 2015. As I mentioned in my previous post (A Short Story a Day), I just don’t do well with reading challenges – although I really get tempted. I know there are quite a few reading challenges aimed at helping us bookish types reduce our TBR piles, but knowing me, the moment I sign up for one of them, I’m doomed never to even look at my TBR stacks in the new year, much less take books off of them and – gasp – read them.

But there’s nothing wrong with a little quiet, informal self-challenge. I went through my TBR stash and picked ten books that I really really want to read. Why these books were still hidden away in my TBR stash beats me – it’s not like I was saying to myself, “Oh, I don’t remember buying this!”. Every book I pulled from my stash, I knew full well was there. Because, as I mentioned, these are books I really really want to read.

I think it’s about time I read them, don’t you think? I’ve picked ten books. Here are the first five:

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1. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completelyaccurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .

What more can I say? It’s about time I read this, that’s for sure. I expect a lot of laugh out loud moments when I do.

2. Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz

“The dead don’t talk. I don’t know why.” But they do try to communicate, with a short-order cook in a small desert town serving as their reluctant confidant. Meet Odd Thomas, the unassuming young hero of Dean Koontz’s dazzling New York Times bestseller, a gallant sentinel at the crossroads of life and death who offers up his heart in these pages and will forever capture yours.

Sometimes the silent souls who seek out Odd want justice. Occasionally their otherworldly tips help him prevent a crime. But this time it’s different. A stranger comes to Pico Mundo, accompanied by a horde of hyena-like shades who herald an imminent catastrophe. Aided by his soul mate, Stormy Llewellyn, and an unlikely community of allies that includes the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Odd will race against time to thwart the gathering evil.

I decided I wanted to read Odd Thomas after I read In Odd We Trust, the Odd Thomas graphic novel. The link is to the review I wrote of it – back in 2009. Uh, yeah, I may not have mentioned this, but I apparently have books that have been in my TBR stash for quite a while now. Quite a while.  

3. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.

Another one I’ve been wanting to read for a long while. The blurb absolutely captivates me.

4. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova

No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?

We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.

I first saw this on Brain Pickings (2013, so aha! This one hasn’t been in the TBR stash that long!). It’s the only non-fiction book in this list – I think it’s because it was with some of my other fiction TBRs. Now that I think about it, I have a lot of non-fiction books I want to get to, too …

5. The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

In the present day, as the man-made apocalypse unfolds, three strangers navigate the chaos. Lila, a doctor and an expectant mother, is so shattered by the spread of violence and infection that she continues to plan for her child’s arrival even as society dissolves around her. Kittridge, known to the world as “Last Stand in Denver,” has been forced to flee his stronghold and is now on the road, dodging the infected, armed but alone and well aware that a tank of gas will get him only so far. April is a teenager fighting to guide her little brother safely through a landscape of death and ruin. These three will learn that they have not been fully abandoned—and that in connection lies hope, even on the darkest of nights.

One hundred years in the future, Amy and the others fight on for humankind’s salvation . . . unaware that the rules have changed. The enemy has evolved, and a dark new order has arisen with a vision of the future infinitely more horrifying than man’s extinction. If the Twelve are to fall, one of those united to vanquish them will have to pay the ultimate price.

I LOVED The Passage  – as you can see from my review, I couldn’t stop raving about it. I was so excited about the sequel. So much so I even bought it in hardcover (I hardly ever do that). And then – I never got around to reading it! Partly it’s because I kept thinking I really should reread The Passage first, to reaquaint myself with the world. And when I start thinking like that, well, you know how it is. Now I have to find the time to read two big books. Big obstacle right there.

But I’m not sabotaging myself this time around. I’ll just plunge into The Twelve, trust that Justin Cronin will bring me up to speed relatively quickly and put me right back into the story.

So these are the first five books from my TBR that I plan on reading in 2015. Next five will show up tomorrow (because, you know, I’m blogging every day now …)

What’s the state of your TBR? Do you have any strategies for reducing your TBR piles in the new year?

{2015 Goals} A Short Story a Day

I am terrible at reading challenges. The few years I succumbed to the temptation and signed up for a few (well, okay, several), I totally failed. As in, big time. In fact, out of the several reading challenges I signed on for in those years, I only ever completed one, because it was an easy one. I did a reread of all the Harry Potter books in audio (and if I’d signed on again for something similar this year, I would have completed it!).

It almost seems to me, if I sign on for a reading challenge, it means I’ve increased my chances of not completing a single book associated with that challenge for that year. I’m serious. That’s how bad I am at them.

At this time of the year, I always find myself so tempted as I see everyone announcing the great reading challenges they’re joining in 2015. I want to join in, but I just don’t trust myself.

When it comes to reading challenges, I’m like the little kid who sits when she’s told to stand, and stands when told to sit.

But I did set myself a kind of mini reading challenge earlier this year, of reading a short story a day. And I did do it for a while – and best of all, it was a lot of fun while I was doing it. And if this 365 days of blogging is any indication so far (well, okay, it’s only been seventeen days, but they’ve been seventeen days of easy, effortless blogging, which rather amazes me), I might have more success with self-challenges.

So in 2015, I’m going to do a short-story a day reading challenge. I have short stories from several more anthologies to add to my short story box, and I’ll continue to use the randomized method of selecting a short story to read, since this random method worked so well for me earlier this year.

Photo 2014-12-17, 4 10 31 PMThe Short Story Box, for Totally Randomized Reading Fun

There are a few reasons why I want to read short stories more regularly:

  1. As a reader, I have a lot of short story anthologies, but for some reason, when I’m wanting something to read, I never reach for any one of them. Even though I know I’ll enjoy them (I mean, good grief, I have a few short story collections by Neil Gaiman that I haven’t read yet!). So I have stacks and stacks of short story collections just sitting around gathering both physical and digital dust..
  2. As a writer, during the period earlier this year when I was reading a short story a day, I just buzzed with both ideas and writing energy. It was really quite an incredible creativity booster, and yes, I’d like more of that in 2015, please.

If you’re interested in joining me, just let me know in the comments.  I’m not going to do anything formal about this challenge. I’ll tweet about it occasionally, maybe using a hashtag like #shortstoryaday (it’s probably being used for another, similar challenge, but I’m sure it will be fine).  I’ll probably also post once a month with a list of the five or ten best short stories I read that month, in order to keep myself accountable (since it is a challenge, after all!).

It’s very likely there’s already a formal short story reading challenge out there (or two or three …). I don’t dare look, because I’d be so tempted to sign up, and that would just jinx my plan to read more short stories in 2015!

[TSS] Bookish Bliss: When a Book Has All the Right Ingredients

I’ve been reading 14, by Peter Clines, in audio and really really enjoying it. It’s got so many of the ingredients that make me pick up a book in the first place, and it’s now carrying out its initial promise of having the right ingredients.


It’s also been making me think about certain “ingredients” in a book that will almost always send me into anticipatory bookish bliss.

Of course, I need the book to be well-written and the author has to have the skill to make the characters come alive. That’s a given, for any book that I read. But there are certain things that really have the “wow factor” for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean a book with some or even all of these elements will be a great read, but these are all things that will make me pick up the book in the first place and read it:

  1. A team. I really really like it when there’s a good supporting team for the protagonist. I tend to stay away from most “lone wolf” books, because the dynamics of working within a team – with all the drama that can go with it, too – help make a story come alive for me. I think the only “lone wolf” books I’ve enjoyed are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and that’s mostly because Reacher is more or less invincible and there are times when I really need an invincible hero. And Reacher doesn’t always lone wolf it – my favourite Reacher book is Bad Luck and Trouble, and of course it’s because in this one, Reacher has a team of sorts.
  2. Cinderella/underdog. I am a sucker for the Cinderella or underdog story. This particular taste of mine extends to movies as well. There is nothing I like better than cheering on someone who’s not supposed to be able to do it, someone everyone else says doesn’t have quite the chops for doing what needs to be done.
  3. A mystery. By this I don’t mean the book has to be a mystery, although I do enjoy reading mysteries. But I like there to be an unknown that is slowly revealed to the reader (and the protagonist) as the story moves along. I’m not really a big fan of romances where the romance is the main plot, for example, but throw in a good mystery of some sort and suddenly the book becomes more palatable to me.
  4. Diverse characters. I don’t read nearly enough books which feature non-white characters in larger roles. For me, a novel that’s populated by a more diverse cast of characters feels more real. It better reflects the multicultural world in which I live. And by diverse, I mean more than just bit parts like the Korean storekeeper who gets robbed or the elderly black woman who lives down the hall. Unless, of course, the storekeeper or the elderly woman are a lot more involved in the plot then their stereotypes tend to be.
  5. Strange and unusual maps. I don’t know what it is about maps, but they seem very magical to me. I love books where maps play a central role (although I can’t think of any right now, but I know I’ve read them). When I’m reading a book blurb and there’s clearly a strange  and unusual map involved, chances are good the book’s going on my to-read list.
  6. An ancient book. This is much like my fascination with maps. I really like it when an ancient book shows up in the plot. I just have this feeling, yes, this is going to be a good read, because there’s an ancient book involved. Even more so if it’s a grimoire. Of course, it’s not always (or even usually!) the case that the story will be good, but I forever live in the hope that an ancient book signals a great read.
  7. Numbers. Numbers are another thing that feel magical to me. Numbers in fiction can pop up in a number of guises, and I like them all. Codes, coding, patterns, math, chess, numbers with hidden meanings, equations – I love them all. Remember the TV show Numb3rs? One of my absolute favourite shows of all time.

I’m loving 14 and guess what? It’s got numbers 1, 3, 4 and 7 in it. Not to mention all the Scooby Doo references. (Which, now that I think about it, should probably be on my list too.)

On the flip side, there are certain things which have the power to turn me off a book instantly.

  1. Weak female main characters.  Unfortunately, this usually can’t be determined anymore just by reading a book’s synopsis. You can have a female character who’s, oh, I don’t know, battled malaria in impoverished countries, or graduated with a Ph.D in biology from Harvard, but it’s only  as you’re reading that you discover these are only trappings with which the author is dressing the character, and have absolutely no impact on how the character acts. When I encounter this while I’m reading, it makes it really easy for me to put down the book and never remember to get back to it. The Toronto Star recently published this article about a business school assignment which featured a ditzy female business student who needs her fiancé’s help to determine which compensation package she should accept. The scenario featured in the assignment is almost laughably absurd but sadly, stuff like this doesn’t just appear in the occasional business school assignment, it continues to show up in novels as well. 
  2. Main character is framed. And must clear his or her name. While on the run. From both the cops and the bad guys. I don’t know what it is with me and this scenario, but I really don’t like it. I guess it was well-done in The Fugitive, but whenever I see this type of plot, I put the book down. (I won’t even watch it if it turns up in a favourite television series – I’ll just skip that episode.) I’m not saying I’d never read a book like this, but it would have to have a really original idea driving it first. I know there’ve been lots of great reads centering around this particular story line, but for some reason, I just don’t like it.
  3. Main character, who works on the side of professional law enforcement, always ends up personally targeted by the bad guy. I’m fine with an occasional helping of this – I mean, it does make for more thrills and excitement –  but there are some mystery and suspense series out there where this happens almost all the time. So every single time the protagonist gets a case, blink and before you know what hit you, she’s opening her front door and there’s a dead skunk in a box with a “you are next” message waiting on her front doorstep (and I’m saying “she” and “her” because – have you noticed? – this kind of thing tends to happen more often to female main characters). The problem with this kind of situation, used constantly and injudiciously, is that it really pulls me out of the story. I start thinking, boy, if this happens all the time to real-life female professionals involved in law enforcement, they really need increased danger pay. The ones that manage to survive, that is.

So there you go. These are the kinds of things that will either make me grab a book, or drop it. What about you? Are there any particular story ingredients you really love, or really hate, to see in a book?

Library Magic

One of the reasons I love reading book blogs:

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This is my latest library stash.

I have a very beautiful system set-up which keeps me well-fed with interesting reads, you see. As I browse book blogs, I check my library’s online catalogue to see if it carries the title – since moving to Toronto I’ve discovered the chances are often good that the library will carry the title I’m after (with the exception of middle grade fiction and non-fiction, which tends to be more hit and miss, unfortunately).

If the library does carry the title, I’ll put a hold on it. A few hours of book blog browsing will usually net me a nice collection of titles to add to my TBR.

And here’s where the magic happens.

Even if I happen to be first in line for a title, it will still take a week or so for the book to make its way through the system to my library branch. In cases where a book is popular, it can be weeks or even months before I get the email notification that the title has arrived.

So every time I go to the library to pick up my holds, I really have no clue what awaits me. And there’s nothing quite as magical as coming back with a stack of books, reading their blurbs and feeling my heart quickening with absolute delight.

I’m surprised all over again, you see. Surprised, delighted, excited, all in quite a magical way.

Like Jackaby, by William Ritter. I couldn’t remember why, exactly, I’d put it on hold – until I read the blurb, that is.


Jackaby sighed and drew to a stop as we reached the corner of another cobbled street. “Let’s see,” he said at last. I observed you were recently from the Ukraine. A young domovyk has nestled in the brim of your hat. More recently, you have picked up a Klabautermann, a kind of German kobold attracted to minerals. Most fairy creatures can’t touch the stuff. That’s probably why your poor domovyk nestled in so deep.”

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

How could I resist?

The other titles in the picture of my library stash at the beginning of this post:

Now I just have to find the time to read these before they’re due back …

[TSS] 52 Sundays of Bookish Bliss #1: The Gift List

Sunday Salon

This is my first Sunday Salon post in a long while, and it’s so good to be back!

I was lying in bed last night, thinking about what I would blog about for today’s Sunday Salon – I’ve found that’s one of the side effects of challenging yourself to 365 days of blogging: I actually think about what I’m going to blog about the next day. (Maybe I should challenge myself to 365 days of writing and see if it works the same way …)

Anyway, this title came to me: 52 Sundays of Bookish Bliss. What if I blogged about all the bookish things I’m grateful for each week? And since I’m supposed to be doing 365 days of blogging, I would have to blog for 52 Sundays anyway, right?

(The actual title that initially came to me was “52 Sundays of Bookish Gratitude”, but after some reflection, I thought that didn’t have quite the same oomph to it as “52 Sundays of Bookish Bliss” and anyway, for bliss to be bliss, I feel it has to be grounded solidly in gratitude.)

So here’s what’s made me bookishly blissful this Sunday – my gifts-to-buy list! I am blessed to have both readers and not-really-readers among my nearest and dearest, and every year, without fail, I try to give at least one book to everyone on my list. For some (the readers) it’s pretty easy; for others (the non-readers), this can be quite the challenge. This year I’m pretty excited because I have some great books lined up as gifts.

(Luckily, none of my nearest and dearest actually read my blog, so I figure it’s safe to write about the delightful books I’m going to be buying them.)

Here’s what’s on this year’s Gift List, so far:

Not Love but Delicious Foods

My sister Dawn told me she’d love to read more foodie graphic novels, so I asked around on Twitter for suggestions. There were a lot of great ideas, and this is one I think she’ll both enjoy and be surprised by. Recommended to me by Sarah Hayes, Not Love But Delicious Foods by Fumi Yoshinaga looks like it will be a delicious addition to Dawn’s bookshelves.

There is a Japanese saying that goes, “Hana yori dango,” or “dumplings over flowers.” And no one is more of an advocate of this adage than mangaka Y-naga, a woman whose life revolves around her intense work and equally intense sleep schedule. The only thing that can rouse her out of this infernal cycle of deadlines and being dead to the world? Food. As Y-naga and her friends visit restaurants around Tokyo to satisfy their appetites, their individual approaches to food add an extra dimension to their witty and comical interactions. Friendships are explored and lifestyle choices revealed, all over exquisite culinary creations that prove that variety on an empty and open-minded stomach is, indeed, the spice of life.

Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty, by Christine Heppermann, is the book find I’m really really excited about. I came across it at Ana’s Things Mean a Lot, and as soon as I read her review of it, I knew this was something I would definitely be buying for my daughter, Hayley. Hayley is not-really-a-reader (except for graphic novels) – she’s a filmmaker and her life generally revolves around films, videos and manga. But as soon as I read about Poisoned Apples, I knew it would be something she’d enjoy. The examples of the poems Ana posted are beautiful, and the subject matter – the lives of girls and eating disorders “told through the lens of fairy tales” – is definitely one that will appeal to Hayley.

Every little girl goes through her princess phase, whether she wants to be Snow White or Cinderella, Belle or Ariel. But then we grow up. And life is not a fairy tale.

Christine Heppermann’s collection of fifty poems puts the ideals of fairy tales right beside the life of the modern teenage girl. With piercing truths reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Hopkins, this is a powerful and provocative book for every young woman. E. Lockhart, author of We Were Liars, calls it “a bloody poetic attack on the beauty myth that’s caustic, funny, and heartbreaking.”

Smile and Sisters

A few months ago, I picked up Raina Telgemeier’s Smile from the library. It was a hectic few weeks, though, and I wasn’t able to get to it before I had to return it to the library. In the meantime, however, I’d left it on the sofa (ever since we got rid of our coffee table in the living room, which was always too overloaded with books, everyone’s taken to leaving their books on the sofa and the armchairs), where Dylan, my 11-year-old, picked it up one morning and began reading it. He loved it! And as he’s one who enjoys re-reading graphic novels, when I saw this boxed set, which includes both Smile and Sisters, Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel, I knew I had to get this for one for him.

I’m still on the lookout for books for my older son, Sean, and my husband, Ward. Sean’s a reader, with very similar tastes to mine. Last year I bought him Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, Lee Child’s Never Go Back and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan, and he enjoyed reading them all. This year, though, nothing’s really jumped out at me as being a good read for him. I’m hesitant about King’s Revival, as it doesn’t sound like something Sean would really enjoy, and while there’s a new Jack Reacher book out – Personal – I have it in audio and didn’t find it as enthralling as the other Reacher novels I’ve read (I left off halfway and haven’t gotten back to it, actually).

And as for my husband, this year we’ve pledged to only purchase things on each other’s lists, and I haven’t received his yet, so I don’t know if there are any books on it. If there are, they’ll likely be cookbooks! Or books about opera.

So this is my gifts-to-buy book list. I’m pretty excited about my gift ideas so far, and I’m sure I’ll be adding more to the list as we head deeper into December.

What gifts are you buying the book lovers in your life this season?

{Want} The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated and edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Annotated HP Lovecraft

I’m so excited about this one – it’s on my Christmas wish list and I know I’m getting it! (I love surprises, but when you know you’re going to get something? The anticipation makes up for the lack of surprise.)

I had requested it from the library but cancelled the hold on it because surely I can wait until Christmas. And I don’t want to ruin the surprise of holding this book in my hands, reading Alan Moore’s introduction (yes, Alan Moore!), flipping through looking at all the illustrations.

The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated and edited by Leslie S. Klinger, is a massive tome, clocking in at nearly 900 pages. It contains over 1,000 annotations and nearly 300 illustrations, including original artwork from various pulp publications like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories.

The book covers twenty-two Lovecraft stories comprising the best of the “Arkham Cycle” stories (Arkham is the fictional New England town these tales are centered around), including “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Dunwich Horror”  and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

I love the thought of going through the annotations. Lovecraft’s writing style isn’t necessarily the easiest style to read – he had a tendency to be verbose and use a lot of antiquated words. From the reviews I’ve read, the annotations are very helpful in shedding light on some of the more denser passages. According to Bookgasm:

The notes, which for the most part appear on the same page as the story under consideration, are of three types: Klinger defines the antiquarian and obsolete words Lovecraft was so found of; he discusses the historical and cultural background to many of the events and people mentioned; and he verifies (or, when necessary, corrects) the assertions of fact Lovecraft used to embellish his stories.

Klinger also annotated and edited the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories and the The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels), both of which are on my wish list. But I’m not so sure either of these will show up under the tree this year. The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, though? It’s definitely going to be mine!

New to Lovecraft?

If you’re new to Lovecraft, you’re probably not prepared yet to go through a massive book like The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Luckily, though, all of Lovecraft’s works can be found in the public domain. The version I recommend is from The Cthulhu Chick. She’s put together The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft  in a variety of ebook formats and it’s available for download for free here.  It’s a nicely formatted version, with all of Lovecraft’s stories included in chronological order.

And if you’d like to learn more about Lovecraft? The Speakeasy blog at The Wall Street Journal recently posted an excellent read on “Why H.P. Lovecraft Matters More Than Ever“, including some insightful quotes from both Klinger and Moore on Lovecraft’s racism.

“The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, and”Biography of a Story”

It was late – 10:30 pm. I had to wake up early the next morning, as it was observation day in the ballet program my son’s been in for all of July.

But I hadn’t read my short story of the day yet. In the week since I started this short story of the day ritual, I’ve come to anticipate it, delight in it.

In a word, short stories, I have found, are addictive.

So even though it was late, I pulled a story from my story box, which has been getting fuller on a nearly daily basis as I continue to add more and more short stories to it.

The story I pulled? “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson.

I’m a bit incredulous myself that I have never before read this famous, classic short story. Written back in 1948, I’ll tell you this: it still packs a punch.

But perhaps the most delightful part? I finished the story and decided to read Jackson’s essay about “The Lottery”, a piece called “Biography of a Story”. Both pieces are in the collection, Come Along With Me.

“Biography of a Story” talks about people’s reactions to the publication of “The Lottery” in the New Yorker back on June 28, 1948. It’s a great read.

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

Jackson then shares snippets of letters she’s received from people from all over the world in response to her story. First, there are the ones who appear to think the story is non-fiction, or based on fact:

Will you please tell me the locale and the year of the custom?

And then there’s this one:

I think your story is based on fact. Am I right? As a psychiatrist I am fascinated by the psychodynamic possibilities suggested by this anachronistic ritual.

And then there were the letters which tried to explain the meaning of it all. I thought this one was the funniest:

The only thing that occurs to me is that perhaps the author meant we should not be too hard on our presidential nominees.

Several people seemed to think the magazine deliberately left out a few much-needed paragraphs:

What happened to the paragraph that tells what the devil is going on?


The printers left out three lines of type somewhere.

As for the third category of letters, here’s what Jackson had to say:

Far and away the most emphatic letter writers were those who took this opportunity of indulging themselves in good old-fashioned name-calling. Since I am making no attempt whatsoever to interpret the motives of my correspondents, and would not if I could, I will not try now to say what I think of people who write nasty letters to other people who just write stories.

Ah. Human nature (or should I say, “troll-la-la-la-la”?) It appears some things never change.

Here are my thoughts, on reading the story for the first time 66 years after it’s initial publication. It’s a good story. I kind of knew where things were headed, since it has, after all, been 66 years and in that time, writers have continued to push boundaries. But it’s still a good read after all these years. And “Biography of a Story”? Delightful. Such fun to read about the reactions of those readers who felt compelled to write letters to the New Yorker, letters which ended up in the author’s hands (the New Yorker faithfully sent her all letters, except for anonymous ones, which went into the garbage). Jackson herself takes it all in with a nice, practical grain of salt.

I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public, or the reading public of The New Yorker, or even the reading public of one issue of The New Yorker, I would stop writing now.

The Short Story Box: A Short Story A Day, Randomized

When I was in my early twenties, I read a lot of short stories, but then somewhere between then and now, I fell out of the habit.

Last year, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, and remembered how much pleasure a well-crafted short story can bring to me as a reader. I decided back then that I wanted to read more short stories (yes, it was about a year ago – I procrastinate quite well).

Fast forward to now. Since that time last year, I have, rather unconsciously, been collecting short story collections and anthologies. Last week, I took a look around at my bookshelves, both physical and digital, and realized I’d amassed quite the collection.

I also realized something else. I don’t reach for a book of short stories the way I reach for a novel.  With a novel, I get these squiggly bookish feelings of anticipation and when these come, I naturally reach for whichever novel it is, and start reading.

This doesn’t happen with short stories. Have you noticed how short story collections are often great big thick books? I find they make me feel a little wary.

But I still have this desire to start reading more short stories.

So I decided, if the idea of a big collection of short stories is off-putting, why not have some fun with things instead?

Fun, as in surprising myself with a different short story every day!

Here is my Short Story box:

short story box

I made up a list in my Bullet Journal, giving each short story collection or anthology a letter. Then I cut up a bunch of paper from the paper recycling box. I began going through each of the books, jotting down the title of the short story (and the page number, for print books) on a small slip of paper, which I then tossed into my Short Story box.

My plan is to pick a short story from the box every day. No more resistance to those thick short story anthologies. No more trying to decide what genre I want to read. It will always be a surprise!

If this works out, I’ll simply keep adding more books to my collection, and more short story titles to my Short Story box. If this doesn’t work out, well, I’ve been having a great time writing down titles, and marvelling at how imaginative some of them are are.

Here are the short story collections/anthologies I’ve gone through so far (I have many more, plus ones I’ve saved to Pocket from various places like the New Yorker magazine):

Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

he Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2007: 20th Annual Collection

M is for Magic (Neil Gaiman)

Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries, vol. 9

The O’Henry Prize Stories, 2013

Best American Mystery Stories, 2011

Come Along with Me (Shirley Jackson)

Best Horror of the Year, vol 6

Best Horror of the Year, vol. 5

Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman)

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24

Others still to be added include short story collections from Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury, as well as a lot more anthologies in the mystery, horror, thriller, science fiction and fantasy genres. I’m going for an eclectic mix, and will be keeping my eye out for new anthologies to add to my collection.

It feels like a lot of fun to me, and if I can stick with a short story a day, by this time next year I will have read 365 short stories! I like the sound of that.

Do you like to read short stories? If yes, do you have a collection/anthology that you would highly recommend? A favourite short story author?

My Reading Notes: London Falling, by Paul Cornell

I recently downloaded this very handy little iPhone app called Drafts, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much use I’m able to get out of it. The feature that appeals to me the most is the app’s ability to append text to plain text documents I’ve got uploaded on Dropbox.

I decided to give the app a try by using it to document all the thoughts running through my head as I’m reading a novel. It worked like a charm, and now I’ll be able to post these thoughts as “My Reading Notes”!

Here are my first set of reading notes, on London Falling by Paul Cornell. This is the first in a series featuring four London police officers who develop “the Sight” after touching a supernatural artifact. I admit, the main reason I wanted to read this book was because I wanted to be familiar with the characters so I could read the second book in the series, The Severed Streets, in which the team tackles a killer who appears to be imitating Jack the Ripper.

london falling by paul cornell

My initial thoughts, on beginning the book:

The beginning is a bit of a challenge for me, but knowing all the supernatural stuff that’s to come is getting me through it. I’m on page 12 now and things are starting to settle with me as I get to know the characters better.

And then things started clicking:

On pg 38: Interview with Toshack. Wow. Okay, now we ‘re rolling.

But I’m still a little confused:

On pg 51: There’s still a lot of things referred to in the text that I don’t understand …

Despite the confusion …

On pg 65: This is getting good!

On pg 98: I love this. No denial crap going on for pages. Thank goodness! I’m hooked now.

On pg 106: I’m starting to see now, a good urban fantasy has a strong element of horror to it. At least, this one does.

Still confusing sometimes as to who’s speaking. Some great lines. Pg 133 “He never told jokes; it had just slipped out and made a change in the world.”

On pg 196: So inventive! Enjoying this thoroughly.

On pg 251: Love the technology they use. Hurray for Google Street View!

On pg 272: Waiting for significance of five over four. Wonder who it will be?

Then, WHOA!

On pg 304: !!! As in, OMG

A good quote:

On pg 327: “It is time that defines whether something is real or not. Time is what makes what people experience a tragedy or a love story or a triumph. Hell is where time has stopped, where there’s no more innovation. No horizon. No change.”

And finally, on finishing the book:

Final thoughts: so much imagination here. Amazing how many different aspects of how the Sight shows you he’s come up with. Think it could have used some tighter editing in parts but overall it was all so inventive and I really enjoyed it. Stayed up till 2:30 am to finish it, which says a lot.

So there you have it. My thoughts on London Falling, in real time, so to speak. I am really looking forward to reading The Severed Streets now!

Book Cravings: Salem’s Lot

Have you ever had a book craving? Where you find yourself really wanting to reread a book, usually one you haven’t read for quite a while?

I have book cravings occasionally, and the past couple of weeks, another one crept up on me.

salems lot

It’s been quite a while since I read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. I’m pretty sure I was still in my teens, during a period when I was reading a lot of horror novels. I’d been reading King’s Danse Macabre recently, and that might explain the craving.

So it’s loaded up on my iPod now. I’m on Chapter 5, and yes, it’s really as creepy as I remember it to be.

“…old horrors colliding with modern technology and investigative techniques.”

- Stephen King on Dracula in the Introduction to Salem’s Lot

Do you ever have book cravings? What was the latest reread you absolutely craved?