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And when I say “stacks of books” I mean…

January 21, 2013

STACKS 

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OF 

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BOOKS

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More January Reads

January 21, 2013

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The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara Tuchman & All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

As a consequence of reading The Guns of August at an impressionable age I have long been a) fascinated by the First World War and b) determined to make my way through historian Barbara Tuchman’s oeuvre. (All except for that one she wrote about the middle ages. Couldn’t get into it.) After seeing the War / Photography exhibit in Houston I got back into the military history vein and read The Zimmermann Telegram, her short and pithy account of how the United States came to enter the Great War on the side of the Allies. (My client Mark Tiedemann recommended this one, which I had UNACCOUNTABLY not heard of in my previous reading.) As a Texan I’m fascinated with how Germany played on U.S. fears of an invasion from Mexico with the Zimmermann plot.  Basically, by sending a coded missive (over the United States’ own diplomatic telegraph cables, can you believe it?*) dangling the possibility of reclaiming Texas if Mexico would enter the war on the side of Germany, they hoped to keep the United States out of the war by making them fight it on their own doorstep. Tuchman is a sensitive writer with a wide view of what was happening in the world at the time, not just in the narrow view of England-France-Germany-United States. I loved her accounts of the mild-mannered British codebreakers dutifully scooping up German diplomatic codes from submerged vessels and confiscated luggage; her clear-eyed portrait of Wilson as a man with “long-distance wisdom” more interested in being right than being practical; her  portrait of the German political machine in all it’s ambitious, hide-bound glory. It’s a riveting read, if you’re into that kind of thing, and I highly recommend it. Here she is talking about a “secret” meeting of German and Mexican officials:

“The one thing Rintelen and Huerta did not find in New York was a decent privacy… several varieties of secret service agents began to converge on them, tripping over one another as they sniffed in and out of New York Hotels on the scent of the conspirators.”

On the spectre of Pancho Villa in the American consciousness:

 “Ten, twenty, unnumbered times Villa was reported dead, captured, run to earth, beheaded, hung by his own men, caught by Carranzistas, until it seemed as if his face grinned out at the scorched Americans out of every cactus, only to vanish like the Cheshire Cat.”

Far from being flippant, the realities of warfare are never far from the page:

“The whole war had been like that, regiments of lives spent like water, half a million at Verdun alone… now the French were drained, the Russians dying, Rumania, a late entry on the Allied side, already ruined and overrun.”

“Into the Moloch of the Somme they had poured thousands upon thousands of lives, while for three months under the autumn rains, forgotten in the planning, General Haig shouted “Attack!” to men mired in mud and shattered by exploding shells.”

As for All Quiet on the Western Front, I had somehow escaped reading it in high school. Or maybe I was assigned it and didn’t read it? Or read the cliff’s notes? Either way I genuinely cried a few times reading it—sorry, morning commuters! This portrait of disillusionment in wartime feels like it could have been written in any of the wars that came after the Great one—

“The days, the weeks, the years out there shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear, we shall have a purpose and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us, the years at the Front behind us: –against whom, against whom?”

The terrible banalities of war are never far from Paul’s mind as with his school friends turned comrades he forages and fights and runs and shits and watches them fall, one by one, until he’s the only one left.

“At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood—or that it is best to strike a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs.”

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Checkmate, My Lord & A Lady’s Secret Weapon by Tracey Delvlyn

For a nice change in pace, I read my client Tracey Devlyn’s two next books in her Nexus series of Regency suspense. I may be biased (Yes, I am completely biased! Hey, I’m ALLOWED) but I think these are some of the best period romances out there today—her heroines are as nuanced as her heroes, all fighting the villainous perfidy of Napoleon’s agents as well as their own dark pasts. Checkmate, My Lord comes out in February and A Lady’s Secret Weapon comes out in November. Do yourself a favor and order them now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The further I get into my agenting career I find myself looking for new and different ways of looking at story and writing, and this book came up several times on a few podcasts I love (specifically Making it with Riki Lindhome and the Nerdist), so I bought it for my kindle. Lennon and Ben Garant are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of moviemaking (they don’t actually get around to talking about how to write a screenplay until the last third of the book) but they do a really great in-depth look at formula, why it works, why we as audiences connect with it and why studios keep looking for it in films. Maybe not the most applicable book to my work life but definitely a fun read and who knows, maybe in the future it will come in handy.

 

 

 

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I Funny by James Patterson (with Chris Grabenstein)

Full disclosure, the coauthor on this James Patterson middle-grade is a family friend. I don’t tend to read middle-grade (and I definitely don’t represent it, DON’T GET ANY IDEAS, AUTHORS, I SERIOUSLY DON’T REP MIDDLE GRADE) but it was a sweet and heartwarming story about a boy who, after losing his parents and sister (and use of his legs) in a car accident turns to comedy as a coping mechanism. The illustrations are fun, too. Chris Grabenstein, the coauthor, also writes the John Ceepak series of mysteries which are also great reads.

 

 

 

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On Literature by Umberto Eco

I think I bought this when the Borders down in the Financial district was closing two years ago, and hadn’t read it yet. I tend to enjoy Eco’s metas on his own writing—his Postscript to The Name of the Rose is almost as much fun as reading The Name of the Rose and yes, I am a giant dork, thankyouverymuch but On Literature was a bit of a slog. I should have maybe taken a look at the table of contents – I hadn’t read most of the stuff he discusses, but there are some interesting sections, particularly on the vision of America in Fascist Italy, as well as a look into his writing process. I think in the future I’ll just read more of his fiction. (Note to self: acquire The Prague Cemetary. Further note to self: Belay previous note until you have read the massive pile of books you have not yet read yet still somehow own.)

 

 

 

That’s it for weeks 2-3 of 2013 in reading! Currently I’m making my way through volume 1 of James (now Jan) Morris’ Pax Brittanica trilogy. Focuses on the Victorian era from the point of view of the colonies, and the various ways the British were hopelessly naïve and racist in their dealings with the peoples they ruled.

*Barbara Tuchman, master of the History Burn: “House… with the President’s consent, committed the American government to the irregular, not to say simple-minded arrangement of transmitting a belligerent’s message in a code not known to itself.”

This Year’s Reading (so far)

January 7, 2013

Back Story by David Mitchell

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Unsurprising that David Mitchell (the comedian) is a good writer. Using the bouts of walking he undertook to help his bad back as a structure for this memoir is a good idea. Geography supports chronology nicely and place ties to memory in a real and quite moving way. When I got to the end bit, where he meets his now-wife, I genuinely teared up:

            “There’s a down side to all this—and I don’t mean not being able to drink beer in the bath or scratch my balls during dinner, because she insists on both. Neither do I mean the fact that we won’t be living in Kilburn, although I’ll miss it. But Harlesden it has to be—she insists.

The down side is the fear. The fear of something happening to her, the pressure of there being two bodies in the world that I want to keep from harm and only being able to watchfully inhabit one of them. I wonder if you know what I mean. I hope you do, for your sake.”

p. 322, Back Story

My pal Alli from college, who knows me better than any human alive, gave me this for Christmas after attempting to give it to me for my birthday. (That copy somehow went awry. Dear person who ended up with this: I hope you enjoy the read.) David Mitchell (the comedian) is one of my very favorite comedians, one half of That Mitchell & Webb Look and Peep Show. Here he is, as the leader of a shadowy organization realizing the limitations of Evilspeak-

Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

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George Orwell is one pithy dude. After this little collection (one of those little Penguin productions with a truly awesome cover) I think I’m going to seek out more of his journalism/nonfiction. These pieces are charming in their unstinting and surprisingly, occasionally affectionate portraits of the lives (and incidental reading habits of the midcentury British public.)

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson

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Überviolent crime fiction isn’t usually my thing but Thuglit founder Todd Robinson turns what, in anyone else’s hands, would be a fairly standard plot and imbues it with heart and purpose. A hulking bouncer with a heart of gold in Robinson’s capable hands is by turns loyal, violent, and mournful in the pursuit of a missing girl in Boston. I devoured it in one setting. (Full disclosure: he’s represented by my agency, though not by me.)

Girls In White Dresses by Jennifer Close

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Jennifer Close’s debut novel-in-stories follows the twenties years in the life of a group of college friends—twenties as in their twenties, not the 1920s. I read my sister’s copy, which might have been a mistake, because I kept wanting to underline passages and write “I know girl, I know” in the margins. From marriages to careers to pregnancies to that annoying girl in your college class who somehow has it better than you do, almost everything hit uncomfortably close for me. All my twentysomething friends should expect copies of this book at their birthdays this year. 

How To Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

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I read this book because of the New York Times review and found it occasionally funny but mostly kind of facile—maybe because it clearly isn’t aimed at me. “Facile” might be a bit strong, because de Botton is clearly an intelligent guy and is an engaging writer—but how else to describe the suggestion that we as a society substitute the erotic admiration of Boticelli Madonnas for hardcore pornography, or treat the assertion that finding intelligence AND physical attractiveness is something radical that no one has ever considered before? No, this book isn’t for me because it almost exclusively focuses on sex in monogamous relationships, married or not. And though I wasn’t looking for it I couldn’t exactly find any mention of application of his theories to non-heterosexual couples, so not sure how universal this tract is. After I finished I remembered where I had heard his name before—the actor Tom Hiddleston follows him on twitter, and since I follow Tom Hiddleston, sometimes his RTs would show up in my feed. I am not immune to the power of a celebrity plug, people! I followed de Botton after reading the NYT review- he’s very earnest, I’ll give him that. Not sure if this is convincing me to seek out his other works.

From this week (but not this year):

The City and the City by China Mieville

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Oh my GOD I loved this book. SO MUCH. Read it on the plane back from Houston with the help of some in-flight pinot grigio. So engaging, so clever, at every turn doing something I didn’t expect. The intricacies of life in the two cities, the fear of Breach, the magic of unseeing something that is right in front of you.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Barry

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This is a very clever book- the jacket copy describes it as “if Wes Anderson wrote Kafka,” and I’m not sure how far off the mark that is. Maybe I should read some Kafka to make sure. The Manual of Detection really is my kind of read in a lot of ways, and perhaps reading this and The City and the City back to back was a mistake, because they both have a kind of alienating, paranoid feel—this one about a man, Charles Unwin, who works as a clerk in a massive, labyrinthine detective agency, who is accidentally promoted and must investigate his predecessor’s death. Barry is an engaging writer and I dogeared a lot of the pages in this one before lending it to my sister, who tells me she was enjoying it before she accidentally left it in the seatback pocket on her flight. (Jetblue, let me know if this turns up!)

Home where my thoughts are escaping

December 29, 2012

I leave Houston on Sunday to return to NYC, and it feels like the time has gone by quite quickly. I spent most of the first week here reading obsessively and hanging with my parents, and spent most of the second week hanging with my parents and drinking with friends from high school / middle school and reading less than the first week. I also went to the gym a lot with my sister, which was nice in a kind of “Oh, right, those things that move my limbs are called muscles and if I work them they’ll move my limbs better” way. My dog has spent the entire period of my visit either on the couch or hunting for food in the kitchen. Come to think of it, I’ve been doing much the same thing.

Today I went with my parents, sister, and my uncle and aunt (well, technically my dad’s cousin and his wife but WHATEVER I do what I want) to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to see their War|Photography exhibit, which was moving and intense and visceral and … overwhelming? and also somehow oddly organized and disorienting MUCH LIKE WAR ITSELF, come to think of it. It was a very broad exhibit and had several very cool civil-war era (and earlier) daguerrotypes, that one had to hold a black card against in order to see it in the light. The photographs from WWI were very cool, as well, and the entire thing was pretty much heartbreaking.

Afterwards we got dinner at a place in Houston that wasn’t there the last time I was here and I drank like three of these EXTREMELY tasty St. Germain-and-Prosecco-based cocktails and then came home, where my dad and sister and I watched the end of Holes and two episodes of Pride & Prejudice and now I’m in my kitchen with my mom, typing while she learns lines.

All in all, 2012 was good. A little rough, a little good, a lot busy, a lot feeling very lucky. I hope for much of the same for 2013, for myself and for all my fives of readers out there.

 

Addendum to previous post

December 21, 2012
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Since I got back to Houston I have carried through with my promise to spend a lot of time reading:

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Black Tower by P.D. James
A Mind to Murder by P.D. James
The Skull Beneath the Skin by P.D. James
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

As I said before, I don’t actually engage much with Goodreads’ social features- I follow a few people’s updates but don’t pay attention to them, and I never write reviews of the books I’ve read on the site itself. But Goodreads’ stats feature has kept me extremely competitive with myself- can I read more books this year than last year? For improvements, I’d love to see Goodreads do a map of your reading over time, not just by year. (Obviously if this already exists, someone needs to let me know.) Over half the books I read this year I read in the last three months, when I started making a conscious effort to read more in an effort to be more engaged with my queries. (How can you recognize good stuff in the inbox if you don’t read good stuff outside of it, is my theory.)

So, yeah. I highly recommend Goodreads or something like it (LibraryThing is the other I can think of- any other suggestions?) if you want to read more and want to be more competitive with yourself about it. And if you think 53 books in a year is good, there are others who have put me to shame- Pam van Hycklama read 100 published books this  year, and Roxane Gay’s (epic!) end-of-year list had 136 books on it AND THAT WAS LIKE TWO WEEKS AGO.

My goal for next year, I think, isn’t necessarily going to read more, but to write more about what I’ve read–what I liked, what I didn’t like, what made me incandescent with rage, what made me cry a lot. I tend to be pretty passive in my Internet presence- retweeting/reblogging is so EASY, y’all- and should really do more with this space right here.

Anyone else have reading goals for 2013, now that the world hasn’t ended?

Edited to add: Wow, that is a lot of P.D. James in a short period of time.

The Year in Reading 2012

December 11, 2012

Thanks to the magic of goodreads.com, I have been keeping track of my reading. I rarely write reviews there, however, which I realize means I should *actually* be going to something like LibraryThing, but all my shit’s in Goodreads already so I think I’ll just keep using it. I’ve included a list of all the books by their star rating at the bottom of this post. Now, a straight up “list” by stars isn’t actually all that illuminating on what I actually enjoyed this year. Looking over these titles there are a few themes:

This was the year of self-help, apparently

Seven out of forty five books had a self-helpy or a creativity-managing bent to them, eight if you count Writing 21st Century Fiction which I kind of don’t, because, full disclosure, my boss wrote it! (It’s great, and I would say that even if he didn’t sign my checks.) At my last job I had read parts of The Now Habit, but reading the whole thing was interesting. Ultimately the book I took the most from in terms of “How to suck less at things” was Getting Things Done, even though for my personal process, I discard a lot of the physical paraphernalia (I barely have space for seven folders for my clients on my desk, let alone 43. WTF, David?) Tim Ferris’ book The Four Hour work-Week was interesting, but bro-y, and I don’t think applies to me very much. I’m also constantly struck at how much of these productivity modality systems seem there so that the person using them can create more widgets, or fobs, or whatever. I liked Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit better than The Artist’s way, but by far my favorite book on creativity and the creative process was Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker.

Now, this book is not going to be for everyone. Sayers is writing from an explicitly Christian standpoint, and uses the idea of the Holy Trinity as a tool to talk about art, and the things that go into making good art. (NB: I do not mean that she talks about how good art must be Christian art.) Sayers is my favorite writer of all time, pretty much, and I’m just now branching out into her oeuvre beyond the Wimsey novels. Shame on me! This year I also read a book of essays about Sayers by Dawson Gaillard, which seemed … fine, if dry. I read for the first time Striding Folly,a collection of Wimsey short stories, and re-read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase, for a piece I’m writing for KGB (and a possible other Secret Project that I’m pulling together the proposal for.)

This was also the year of … romance novels?

I read a ton of romance in 2012. I did a little freelance assistant-y type work for the always-excellent Thea Harrison, and in the course of that had to read all the books in her amazing Elder Races series of paranormal romances. *Had* to. That makes it sound like someone held a gun to my head when in reality I zoomed through three of the novellas on one epically terrible bus ride to Boston. The woman gives good worldbuilding AND writes great sex, IF you know what I mean (I’m assuming you do, unless you’re a child, in which GET OFF THIS WEBSITE THIS IS INAPPROPRIATE.)

My favorite romance discovery this year is Tracey Devlyn. Tracey is one of my newest clients at the DMLA, and her Nexus series is Regency-era romance like I’ve never read it before. Far from being wilting virgins or awkward society ladies pining for their One True Love, Devlyn’s heroines are strong, self-sufficient, and have motivations of their own beyond falling on the nearest quivering member. In A Lady’s Revenge, her heroine is an undercover spy against the French. How fucking badass is that? And her gentleman love interests are fully developed and conflicted in a way that you don’t often see in historical romance. Her next book Checkmate, My Lord comes out in April.

The three Fifty Shades books are on different sections of the list, as I started out feeling “meh” on the books and enjoyed the series less and less as it went on. Other people have written much more entertainingly and informatively about the particular evils of this series, so I won’t elaborate here. Suffice to say that if you want to get into the erotica “trend,” read the infinitely superior Bared To You by Sylvia Day. The sex is hotter and performed by actual people instead of cardboard cutouts masquerading as characters, and there is an actual plot and real motivations. And did I mention the sex is hot? Once again, any children reading this, get off my website.

Speculative Fiction

This year in an effort to educate myself on scifi/fantasy books I’ve missed (or books that are popular) I read three books that everyone had been telling me to read forever: A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Scar, and The Name of the Wind. I keep having conversations with people about Name of the Wind, because the worldbuilding in this book is so perfect I could cry. Something is keeping me from really “getting” the protagonist, however- his narration smacks of Misunderstood Boy Genius, and all his problems seem to stem from people being mad at him for being good at stuff. The world that Rothfuss has created is so lived in, so real, that even as I was rage-reading and wanting to punch Kvothe in the face, I looked forward eagerly to the next page.

A Canticle for Leibowitz was straight up amazing, however. I realize that I am about 30 years late to it but I don’t care. It’s a nearly perfect book, and I am so sad that the author committed suicide. I also loved The Scar. I had attempted Perdido Street Station and stopped about a quarter of the way through, but my friend Rachel convinced me to give Mieville another try and to start with The Scar. I loved this book. Bellis Coldwine is a fantastic character—prickly and sure of herself and devastated in betrayal. The Armada is one of those settings that I want ten bajillion more books about. I think the next book of Mieville’s that I’m going to attempt is The City and the City—or should I go with Embassytown? Either way, I’m going to try to get through another book of his before attempting Perdido Street Station again.

I think my favorite speculative book this year has to be Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery. He’s the author of Liberation, which is the book I playfully call “The Book That Got Me Hired,” a masterful, hallucinatory journey with six international criminals who band together to end slavery after the dollar collapses and along with it, the United States.
Longest sentence ever on my blog? Possibly. But where Liberation was expansive and frenetic, Lost Everything is focused and tense. It follows two men—Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite— headed north up the Susquehanna River, hoping to reach the house where Sunny Jim’s son is staying with his sister. They’ve got to reach the house before the Army catches them and executes Sunny Jim for an act of terrorism committed during the decades-long war, the origins of which no one can recall. And they have to get there before the Big One hits—the storm to end all storms, a massive maelstrom that leaves nothing in its wake. It’s a book about family, and duty, and hope in the face of certain annihilation, and it’s the first book in a long time that had me weeping at the end.

Other favorites:

The Diviners was a fun, intricate, dark YA novel that I was super pissed isn’t a standalone because now I have to wait like two years for the sequel.

The Heresy of Formlessness and Revelations of Divine Love– religious reading, again, but how can you go wrong with Julian of Norwich? And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Mosebach makes the case in his book for the benefits to the more “conservative” structure of worship, which I found interesting.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy– I hadn’t ever read any LeCarré before, and this was pretty great. Although I have to say that Peter Guillem’s love story in the book didn’t do anything for me.

and finally

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente. This book. Oh god, this book. It’s the only book currently on my “flail” shelf on Goodreads.

There’s still a few weeks left in 2012, and I’ve got a couple of books running at the same time, including Tom Pollock’s THE CITY’S SON (my coworker Amy’s client). I am putting most of this reading on hold in the next few days so that I can get through a lot of the work I have to do before I go home for the holidays, and when I’m home I foresee a lot of time on the couch in the living room, reading.

Five Star Books
Thames: The biography by Peter Ackroyd
Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
Dorothy L. Sayers by Dawson Gaillard
Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery
Lord’s Fall by Thea Harrison
The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers
A Lady’s Revenge by Tracey Devlyn
Hunter’s Season by Thea Harrison
Natural Evil by Thea Harrison
Heresy of Formlessness by Martin Mosebach
Unnatural Causes by P.D. James
Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti
The Diviners by Libba Bray
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Scar by China Mieville
Cover Her Face by P.D. James
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (rearead)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Four Star Books:

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass
True Colors by Thea Harrison
The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Three Star Books
Bared To You by Sylvia Day
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Sky Conducting by Michael Seidlinger (which I reviewed for KGB)
Getting Things Done by David Allen
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed by Anna Campbell
The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
Fifty Shades of Grey
The Lampshade by Mark Jacobson
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Two Stars
The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki
Fifty Shades Darker

One Star
Fifty Shades Freed

my 2011 Year In Reading post

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to get BBC miniseries treatment

November 30, 2012

Tor.com is reporting that Susanna Clarke’s epic, beautiful novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is going to be a BBC miniseries, adapted for television by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes. Now, my first reaction was to nearly wet myself with happiness, since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite books. But then I got thinking about similar titles that would translate really well to the screen, small or otherwise. Here are my thoughts- what are yours?

the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix
I read Sabriel in middle school and then plowed through the sequels. Garth Nix’s trilogy would translate well to the small screen, especially the river of the dead! (IMHO.)

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
With its sleepy college town setting and plenty of fraught relationships, this could be the basis for an entire CW miniseries. Esp. if they played up the actual Tam Lin part.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Maybe a higher budget production, but- Sex! Trains! Ghosts! Mechanical insects! More sex! Loneliness! Heartbreak! Redemption!