When a Writer Gets a Chance to Read . . .

Kate: One of the questions we’re often asked by audiences at our book events is some variation of

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

“What are you reading right now?” or “Who is your favorite mystery author?” I’m sure my answers to that question are often frustrating, because when I’m deeply immersed in my own work, I don’t like to let other writer’s voices intrude. It’s also the case, when I’m not writing obsessively (and I tend to be quite obsessive) that because I review books, and teach, and often have friends who are looking for quotes for their book jackets, my reading calendar tends to be pretty full. I’ve found that I have to build in “reading vacations” when I take a break, curl up in my rocking chair on the porch, and read and read and read. On my last such vacation, I read Nancy Picard’s The Scent of Rain and Lighting, a tale of family secrets and long-ago crimes that still haunt the family in a present-day small Kansas town. Nancy has a finely honed ability to choose exactly the right telling details to convey the habits of her people and the character and customs of that small farming town. So impressive that I carried the book with me the next week and read bits of it to my class. What about the rest of you?

Kaitlyn: I try to avoid reading novels at all similar to whatever I’m working on at the time, so I don’t read other people’s historical novels when I’m writing one of those and I try to stay away from humorous cozies when I’m working on a Liss MacCrimmon mystery. Somewhere along the line, I developed a fondness for a genre it is unlikely I’ll ever write in at all, the paranormal mystery. So, my most recent read is Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story, I’m about halfway through Kelley Armstrong’s Spell Bound, and next up is a collection of short stories edited by Charlaine Harris and fellow New Englander Toni Kelner, Home Improvement: Undead Edition.

Sarah: I avoid reading the kind of thing I’m writing, too — I’m an unconscious mimic and don’t dare risk bsorbing anyone else’s style while I’m working. Not much chance of that from what I’m reading now, though. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is inimitably his, even though it was assembled by editor Michael Pietsch from material left behind after Wallace’s death. I don’t want it to end — so smart, so skilled. Although I wouldn’t start with it. It’s a real brick! To get a taste of Wallace, a person might first try one of the essay collections, maybe A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or Consider the Lobster.


Barb:  Wow.  I don’t avoid reading anything.  In July, I read Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, Kate Atkinson’s Left Early, Took My Dog and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was a Soldier.  It felt like a master class.  I can only hope some of that rubs off on me. I love the way Atkinson doesn’t avoid coincidence as a plot device, but rather runs toward it and embraces it.  Right now I am reading Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You.  I bought it in the wonderful Maine Coast Book Store in Damariscotta because the book was there and I was there–and that’s just how it happens, right? Like a lot of

Kate Atkinson's Case Histories

people I started reading Flagg with Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and just kept going.  She’s older than I am and southern, so her books have a nostalgia for a life I never lived, but there’s also an underlying optimism, similar to what I find in Alexander McCall Smith.  Even though I’ve always been the–I prefer “realist” to pessimist–in any relationship, personal or business, I’ve ever been in, I do resonate to this underlying optimism. BTW, it says on the cover that I Still Dream About You is a mystery, though I’m more than 100 pages in and haven’t seen a mystery yet.

Kate: Atkinson’s Case Historiesis on my short list of favorites. Indelible characters and an amazing talent for interweaving such seemingly disparate events into a linked story.

Gerry: I’m always a bit reluctant to answer this question at book events because my reading habits are eclectic, to say the least. But here goes. I’m reading a book called A Missing Plane by Susan Sheehan, about a World War II bomber that crashed in New Guinea and was found in the 1980s. Interesting look at how they identify bodies using just a few bones. Also, I’m reading The Vaults by Toby Ball, a New Hampshire  mystery writer I met when we were on a panel in Portland with Cornelia Read. The Vaults is Toby’s first. Good noir-ish story set in a sort of Gotham City. It begins in a vast criminal records vault deep below ground, and overseen by an odd but meticulous fellow who notices something wrong in one of the files and decided to investigate. I bought the book at the event but someone borrowed it and it just came back. Also beginning a book-sale paperback, Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. A memoir about growing up on the frontier in Saskatchewan before 1920. And lastly, I’ve decided to reread Outsider in Amsterdam by the late great Janwillem van de Wetering. I’ll be on Janwillem’s former boat this weekend off Mt. Desert Island (the new owner is a good friend) and I hope rereading one of his ethereal mysteries will conjure up Janwillem’s spirit.

Kate: van de Wetering was one of my early guides into the world of mystery writing. I loved his series set in Amsterdam, with his ecclectic group of detectives, especially the Commissaris and his tortoise. That series and the Maj Stovall and Per Wahloo series set in Stockholm were early favorites that still get reread. Wonderful novels rich with a sense of place and culture, as well as a great education in the use of an ensemble cast of cops that has been very influential in creating my own Portland-based Joe Burgess series. I got to meet van de Wetering at a mystery conference, and he told this wonderful, and probably

Death of a Hawker

apocryphal story. Having had a book published after a haitus in his publishing career, he drove up to Bangor to do an interview with the local TV station, but found that the station had moved. After driving around for a while, unable to locate it, he gave up and went into a local diner. After he’d ordered, he realized that the guy sitting at the other end of the counter was Stephen King. King was trying to eat, and food kept falling out of his mouth. To explan his awkward eating, King wrote, “Dentist” on a napkin, and passed it to van de Wetering. van de Wetering then wrote: “Can’t find channel six” and passed it back. King scribbled and returned the napkin. It read, “YOU can talk.”

Gerry (again): Yes, Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo! Love them. The Fire Engine that Disappeared is a great mystery and one that has a permanent place on my study bookshelf.

Paul: Reading for pleasure has been one of the casualties of my book contract. Between all the writing and editing I do at Down East, and having to write a novel a year, I have found that I have a hard time maintaining a regular reading schedule. As a result, it’s difficult for a book to hold my fragmented attention. By my bedside I have three very good novels with bookmarks stuck halfway through: The Killing Floor by Lee Child, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. Eventually I will finish these (I hope). The last book I completed was the forthcoming American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Down East Contributing Editor Colin Woodard. I am willing to go out on a limb and predict that American Nations is going to be a big, big book during the approaching political season, and Colin will become a fixture on MSNBC and CNN and NPR. The last novel I actually finished was A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Every night, I read aloud to my wife to help her fall asleep, and that’s what she wanted to hear. It’s an impressive work of fiction. I don’t read much speculative fiction anymore, but Martin’s work deserves its accolades.

Vicki: I am still plowing through the blasted Fountainhead! Holy narcissistic architects, Batman — will I EVER finish that book?  Anyway, before I embarked on that adventure, I read Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais (I did a Junior Year in Paris and am still une francophile rabide,) Julia’s One Was a Soldier, and Moonlight Mile. I enjoy nonfiction, too, and am waiting to read How Italian Food Conquered the World by John Mariani. I heard a review of it on NPR when it first came out and gave it to my husband “from the kids” for Father’s Day. Back in May, he and I biked across Italy and ate the most fabulous food imaginable.

Lea: My reading habits are eclectic.  In July I read Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession, a great true crime book about the quest to capture an international thief who specialized in endangered butterflies. Also on my list was Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg, who discovered after his mother’s death that she’d had a sister. His decision to find out about his aunt, and why her existance had been kept secret, was a fascinating real-life detective story. Fiction? Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, which I re-read because she’d done such a beautiful job of creating a contemporary spiritualist, and one in the past – and there is a spiritualist in the book I’m writing now that is set in 1861. I wanted to learn from her. And my current favorite book officially written for children, but also wonderful for writers of all ages — Patricia MacLachland’s Word After Word After Word, about 5 fourth graders whose teacher shows them how words can change their lives.

Julia: I agree with Sarah and Kaitlyn; I tend to avoid books in my own genre when I’m face-down in my own manuscript. That having been said, I took Kent Krueger’s upcoming Northwest Angle with me on our trip to Bar Harbor. I happily held the family’s place in line for lunch at Red’s (for non-Mainers, the legendary lobster rolls at this Wiscasset eatery are matched by equally legendary waits) with my nose in the book. Bringing books along while traveling is one way I get around the reading-time-crunch; another is listening to audio books. I recently listened to Kathryn Stockton’s The Help, which I’d been avoiding because I thought it was going to be one of those depressing “Oprah books.” My local librarian swore I’d enjoy it, and she was right. Terrific vocal performances all around.

There’s one genre I love to read in summer. It’s the one I call “Feet at the Beach”:


My most recent read in this vein was Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan. (I loved her first novel, Commencement, which I picked up after our oldest was accepted at Smith.) Lots of sunning, scheming, drinking and intergenerational family drama in an idyllic setting on Cape Neddick. Just what you want to keep you glued to your beach chair!

Jim:  I’m going to make this one short.  I just finished one of the best and best written mystery/thriller novels I’ve read in a long long time.  Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog.  Great title. Great characters. Great twisty plot. Great writing. Atkinson’s a British writer and I’ve just picked up a couple more of her books (When Will There Be Good News, Case Histories)  because this one was so good.  If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so.  Totally original. Totally wonderful.

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5 Responses to When a Writer Gets a Chance to Read . . .

  1. Pj Schott says:

    Love to hear what other folks are reading. Kate: Thank you for the story about one of my favorite Dutch men.

  2. I was so happy to see SCENT OF RAIN & LIGHTENING featured here! Not only did I love this book, but Nancy played a huge role in the recent sale of my first novel. Every time I see her book, it makes me smile. I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s work as well. Great picks!

  3. Betsy Pohl says:

    So glad to see Kate Atkinson mentioned a few times. She’s wonderful! Each book in the Jackson Brodie series is different. She is a master plotter and a creator of unforgettable characters! Start with Case Histories and read all four.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Betsy…nice to see you here. Got an suggestions for us? We’d love to see more Maine librarians involved.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Betsy–I agree completely. I’ve read them all in order and then lent them to my mother and sister-in-law who are following right along.

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