My Back Pages: Reading is Discovering

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Every time a reader opens a book, a discovery is made. We find ourselves in a new world of words, an experience unique and ineffable. That sense of novelty can be addictive. Once we make that discovery, how can we follow the trail to new worlds and new words?

Debut novels are a great way to find new work; look no further than My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh for an excellent example in the fictional world, and All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior for non-fiction. But one of the true joys of reading is to find a new author and discover a huge back catalog of titles to read. If you find a writer you like, finding a lot of books to like by that writer is like hitting a mother lode.

It turns out that there are a lot of writers closer than you think, of all varieties, who have extensive and often varied back catalogs. With these writers and their works, you can always have something fun, engrossing, and even intellectually stimulating to slot in between the many worthy newbies in your to-be-read stack. We are definitely living in a time when anyone who's willing to read can find their heart's desire ready to set before their mind's eye. Here are some eye-opening examples of writers with great back catalogs to give you a reason to wake up every morning -- and keep you up at night.

tad_williams-2014-pgcBased on his recent Bobby Dollar trilogy – The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Happy Hour in Hell and Sleeping Late on Judgment Day – you might think that Tad Williams is America's best urban fantasist. Set in the fictional town of San Judas, a conflation of San Jose and Woodside, these intense and hilarious novels follow the adventures of Bobby Dollar, a.k.a. the Angel Doloriel, an advocate for departing souls hoping to reach Heaven as opposed to Hell. Williams writes what he calls "hard fantasy," which, akin to hard science fiction, tries to play it by the rules.



Look a little -- well, maybe a lot -- further back, and you'll learn that Williams is simply one of our best practitioners of the fantastic. You can start some ahem years ago with Tailchaser's Song, an epic fantasy set in the world of cats. It's dark, complex and only hints at what would follow. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy brought a level of grit and intensity to fantasy that helped to inspire the writer of a currently well-known televised series.

williams-sleeping_late_on_judgement_day-490The Otherland trilogy crafts a virtual future where a powerful elite controls the alternate universe where our fantasies can play out, often in a deadly manner.  [Note; this series is fiction, not non-fiction.] The Shadowmarch trilogy once again explores a world of magic and peril. By the time you get through these, you can look forward to the thirty-years later sequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Last King of Osten Ard, which will be yes -– a trilogy. Williams has more –- The Ordinary Farm Adventures, co-written with Deborah Beale, and a sack full of standalone novels and short-story collections. He's busy writing to keep you busy reading. You can listen to Tad Williams discuss his latest Bobby Dollar novel and the trilogy to come here.

baker-in_the_garden_of_idenHistory, we are told, is written by the victors. The late Kage Baker, who spent most of her life in Pismo Beach, is a winner by any measure. Her signature work is the series called simply The Novels of the Company. In them, she uses time travel to explore history and a technological convergence to an immortal future. The premise is that time travel is discovered in the 24th century, and run by Dr. Zeus, Inc. The past cannot be changed, but The Company can send immortal cyborgs back to cache unknown rarities to be retrieved and sold in the far future. From simple beginnings with her first novel, In the Garden of Iden (in which she crafts her characters and riffs about gardening in the Elizabethan era), a remarkably complex and literate series emerges.

baker-rude_mechanicalsThis is a series that readers can start now, knowing it is complete. Baker, who was one of the minds behind the original version of the Renaissance Faire, was steeped in literature, history and the history of California in particular. Her Company stories traveled far, but returned home often. Sky Coyote riffs off of local Native American legends and Loony Tunes cartoons. It is both hilarious and heartbreaking. And while the whole sequence of novels tells a long story, Baker wrote plenty of short stories that stand alone. You can hear her read her superb evocation of Sutro Park here. She also wrote more traditional fantasies, with a literary spin, and lots of short stories. Hers is a permanent back catalog, and a true treasure for readers to find. Not surprisingly, she wrote well about pirates.  She discusses her entire body of work in a conversation recorded in Pismo Beach at Spyglass Park, overlooking the ocean, here.

alan_cheuse-2012You've heard his voice on the radio, on KQED, innumerable times. Alan Cheuse, "the voice of books" for NPR, the man who has been instrumental in reaching millions of readers in his reviews both in print and on the air, is himself an accomplished author, with a back catalog of fiction, non-fiction and memoir to keep his fans busy reading for any spare second they might have when they're not reading the books he recommends.

cheuse_prayers_for_the_livingHis newest book, Prayers for the Living, manages the unique feat of being both his latest published work and, at the same time, an entry in his back catalog under the title The Grandmothers Club. This time around, he's chosen to edit it, as he told me, by changing the punctuation in a manner that significantly changes the reading experience. File this title, then, under both back catalog and re-reading. When you’re done with this look at three generations of the Bloch family, you can go back into the generations of Cheuse's catalog. If you're enamored of his reviews, why not check out Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing? Here's a book that speaks to both those who would write and read fiction. With Nicholas Delbanco, he's written magnificent textbooks that are worth reading for pleasure.

Pleasure is to be had in his fiction as well. I found To Catch the Lightning, his historical novel about photographer Edward Curtis, who took 1,500 portraits of Native Americans that would fill 20 volumes, to be immersive and intense. On the other side of the coin, The Fires is a collection of novellas that burns with contemporary passion. For readers, Alan Cheuse is a portal to a universe of reading, both what he reads and what he writes. You can hear a discussion about To Catch the Lightning  here.

king-beekeeper_uk_coverI can still remember seeing Laurie R. King's first novel, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, in our (now, alas, closed) local bookstore. It had a sticker that read "Local Author," and featured Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, his titular apprentice. If only I had bought fifteen copies back then. Her latest novel, the 13th in this acclaimed series, Dreaming Spies, is out this week. With modern spins on the classic character all the rage, here is a series that has earned its keep, and our respect. Plus, there is that instant, ready-to-read back-catalog. King is remarkably consistent in her ability to craft page-turning, thought-provoking historical mysteries wrapped around two fantastic characters.

laurie_R_King_Mystery_Author_Bay_Area_Portrait_Photography_400But there's a lot more to Laurie R. King than the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels. She's two books into her superb Stuyvesant & Grey series, with which she aims to take readers from the ending of World War I to just before World War II. Touchstone is a sort of English country house mystery, written with an understanding of what it takes to be a terrorist, and The Bones of Paris takes us to jazz-age Paris... and underneath. There are five extra-fine Kate Martinelli contemporary procedurals, the last of which intersects with the Russell & Holmes series. There's an informal duet that many contend to have her finest work, starting with Folly, followed by Keeping Watch. A Darker Place draws on her knowledge of religion, and Califia's Dauighters gives readers a glimpse of California's future. Your reading future is well covered once you start down this path. Laurie R. King discusses her past, present and future here.

larson-dead_wake-400It's easy to think that the back-catalog world is limited to serial fiction, but, happily, you can find this in non-fiction as well. It's the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, and your best bet to relive this complicated tragedy is Erik Larson's forthcoming book, Dead Wake. The basics are well-known; a British state-of-the-art luxury liner full of tourists is sunk by a U-boat torpedo in the early days of the first World War. Larson dug deeper, found some new facts, and then set forth to turn history into story. Larson is a master of writing about real events in novelistic form. He gets into the minds of his characters, understands their arcs, and truly understands how to keep readers glued to the pages while he etches the lessons of history into our minds.

Erik-Larson- Benjamin Benschneider
Erik Larson (Benjamin Benschneider)

Fortunately, he's been doing this for a while, and you can go back and discover more than you thought possible. His book The Naked Consumer, inspired by a rash of junk mail sent to his parents, became a PBS documentary. Lethal Passage has the distinction of being "The Story of a Gun," while Isaac's Storm tells the story of the Galveston Hurricane that killed 10,000 people. The Devil in the White City tells the story of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the serial killer who used it as a lure. Thunderstuck explores the connections between Marconi's invention of the radio and the trans-Atlantic pursuit of a killer. And his most recent book, In the Garden of Beasts, looks at the lives of the American Ambassador to Germany, who lived in Berlin with his daughter as the Nazis were taking over. No matter what Larson looks at, he brings a documentarian's accuracy and a novelist's heart. Larson writes history so you are happy to read it and not doomed to repeat it. If only our leaders read his books. Or, they could listen to him talk about the politics of the United States just before the Second World War here.

Rarely does the publishing world offer newcomers to an established author a chance such as that afforded by A Fine Summer's Day, the latest novel from the mother-son writing team Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd. This novel is a prequel to their entire Inspector Ian Rutledge series, most of which occurs after World War I. In A Fine Summer's Day, we meet Ian Rutledge before he goes to war. He's a very different man, in ways that are best enjoyed by reading the novel. When you're done, there are fifteen more Inspector Rutledge mysteries to follow. Rutledge is a great figure, traumatized not just by what he experienced in the war, but more so by what he did in the war. The authors manage to speak to the present by focusing on the past. Finding A Fine Summer's Day is like striking a rich gold mine of great reading, where the latest novel leads you on to the rest of the series.

todd-a_fine_summers_dayBut the Ian Rutledge series is not their only period work. The Bess Crawford series currently stands at six novels, with another due later this year. We meet Crawford as a nurse on the doomed ship the Brittanic, and can follow her path through the war, and the crimes committed on and off home soil, during the war. There are period Holiday novels to fill out the oeuvre and offer a bit of pleasantness to combat all the combat. You need never leave the twentieth century -- but while you're here, you can hear the team talk about their collaboration.

cara_blackCara Black, on the other hand, will make sure that you need never leave your favorite place to read while making very sure that you can spend quality time in Paris with her detective, Aimée Leduc. She's lived in the Bay Area since she was five years old, where nuns who spoke French taught her a love all things French. Starting with 1999's Murder in the Marais, she hit upon an ideal method of crafting her books. She travels to Paris, entrenches herself in a different part of the city, then finds the crime that fits her detective, and her sense of story. Now that is a gold-plated business plan, popping from one ideal city to the other, writing off your travel with a motto of keeping your work fresh for your audience.

black-murder_on-the_champs_de_marsAppropriately enough for the high-tech focus of the Bay Area, Aimée is a computer security expert. She's also a very stylish girl who rides a Vespa at a pace to rival that of the books themselves. Don't be daunted by the depth you find here. These books will go every bit as quickly as your vacation in Paris, if they do not in fact become your vacation in Paris. Black's latest novel in the series, Murder in the Champs de Mars, finds Aimée a new mother to a small baby while helping a young Gypsy boy whose own mother may have a clue to a mystery in Aimée's past. But the boy's mother has disappeared. Aimée has to move at the speed of a novel by Cara Black to keep up. Readers will be happy to follow suit.  Cara Black discusses her travel plans both real and fictional in this interview.

michael_marshall_smith-2011In the US, we've always known him as Michael Marshall. His most recent novel, We Are Here, is a gripping story of surrealistic urban terror, and ultimately, love. It plays on those faces we half-glimpse on the streets. There are so many people around us. Who are they? Sometimes it seems as if they must be connected to us, even if they are complete strangers. What do we imagine their lives to be and just how powerful is our imagination? Marshall's story is emotionally powerful with a knockout mystery that is insanely compelling.

marshall-we_are_here_usPoke a bit father back in Marshall's list, and you'll find the same characters first show up in Bad Things. You'll find Killer Move, where the perfect suburban life is so easily twisted into the perfect suburban nightmare. His novel The Intruders, which recently came to the US as a BBC America TV series, is a twisty and complex story of power and the corruption of the innocent. Look back further to his trilogy offering a deeply disturbing United Theory of serial killers, The Straw Men, Blood of Angels, and The Lonely Dead. These books gave him a foothold (and his name) here in the U.S. Hunt them down before the characters within hunt you down. But you're not done with Michael Marshall yet!

smith-only_forwardTake another step back in his catalog, and you find the British version of the man, Michael Marshall Smith, who before he became our prime writer of imaginative thrillers, wrote wildly imaginative and often hilarious science fiction. Spares was the first novel to look at cloning as a source of, well... I won't tell. Only Forward is the almost indescribably weird detective novel that won Michel Marshall Smith a Philip K. Dick award. And he's only just getting started. Excavating the work of Michael Marshall Smith is particularly pleasurable.  He discusses his tilt towards the strange and how to write the perfect thriller for a live audience in this interview.

dan_simmons-2013-pgcDan Simmons is easily the greatest American writer who has seemingly sabotaged his career at regular intervals simply because he's a restless man with a restless and unboxed mind. His first novel was a surreal thriller set in modern-day India titled Song of Kali, which though it arguably contains no fantasy, nonetheless won a World Fantasy Award. He followed that with an unconventional novel about psychic vampires, Carrion Comfort. Soon after came what many consider his signature novel, Hyperion, a far-reaching science fiction novel about the end of mankind told in the style of the Canterbury Tales. It won a posse of science fiction awards, was optioned first by James Cameron, and was last under option by Bradley Cooper. Three sequels followed, but every time Simmons achieves success in any form, from mainstream to genre, he jumps ship and does something completely different.

simmons-song_of_kali_firstYou may know him from his Joe Kurtz detective novels, Hard Case, Hard Freeze, and Hard as Nails. You can whip through his semi-serial mainstream horror novels, Summer of Night, Children of the Night and A Midwinter Haunting. You most likely know him as the author of a series of recent historical novels. The Terror imagines what we can only guess, based on the true story of a failed Northwest Passage attempt by the HMS Terror. He followed that with Drood, based on the life of Charles Dickens; both came years after The Crook Factory, which looked at Hemingway's time in Cuba. The Abominable scaled Everest, and explored a nascent Nazi Germany. (Shades of Erik Larson.) Simmons has left a trail of awards scattered in the dust behind him.  He discusses both The Abominable and previews his latest in this interview.

Hsimmons-the_fifth_heartis newest looks to step outside of any lines one might imagine. The Fifth Heart, coming in March (as is the author, to the Bay Area), riffs on both historical reality and the reality of fictional characters -- to wit, Sherlock Holmes. It begins with Holmes meeting Henry James as they both contemplate suicide; they eventually end up collaborating as they try to solve a real-life murder. It's intricate, brilliant, imaginative and compelling. And different from not only anything Simmons has written, but from anything you have read. It's a discovery, one of many you can make when you journey into the long list of works by Dan Simmons.


Such a journey into a back catalog can start anywhere. I encourage readers to contribute their own suggestions in the comments. After all, the journey down a back catalog comes from the same instinct that inspires any reader to begin a new book. We are humans, and we want to embark upon a journey of discovery every day of our lives. Books give us the means to travel anywhere in the universe, real or imagined. Or both!