Don’t Tell Mom What I Read by Kennedy Quinn
Kennedy Quinn is the author of a new sexy and exciting mystery about a Macgyver-esque physicist-turned-detective who’s out to solve a murder. In honor of its pub, Quinn shares the favorite books she’s (sometimes) embarrassed to share.
Ever hesitate to own up to what you read? Not willing to let mom see the paranormal romance with the buff (and aberrantly tanned) vampire on its cover that’s lying open on your nightstand? If your BFF spots the dog-eared copy of “Pat the Bunny” on your coffee table, do you tell her that it belongs to the neighbor’s kid? Yet the truth is you just read it to the cat while noshing on graham cracker/strawberry jam sandwiches like the ones Meemaw gave you when she read it to you.
As an author, I’m frequently asked what my favorite books are. And I answer honestly…most of the time. Oh, sometimes I leave a title off the list. Why? Because people judge you by what you read. They deem you more, or less, interesting, intelligent and even moral based on their opinion of the kinds of books you like. And sometimes, I don’t want to deal with the hassle. But in solidarity with fellow readers, I’ve listed below the top books that have most influenced me as an author and as a person.
First off my all-time favorites is Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”. Who can’t get behind an eight-year old orphan who thought “with any luck at all” she should have been born a werewolf? Actually, anything by Shirley Jackson is worth multiple reads. Her plots are as psychologically complex (and disturbing) as Stephen King’s, and her pitch-perfect pacing creates the exquisite suspense of Hitchcock at his best. And you really owe it to yourself to read her “The Haunting of Hill House.” If you saw the 1963 version of the movie you have only a fair idea of how good the book is. Sadly if all you saw was the dismal 1999 remake, entitled “The Haunting”, you have no idea how superbly this gifted author sculpts her characters. Although I write mysteries, I dream of being able to craft suspense into my writing with half the elegance and effect of this incredible writer.
Next would be Raymond Chandler’s The High Window or, actually, any of the Philip Marlowe mysteries. You can practically smell the whiskey and Camel cigarettes when you open any of the novels featuring Chandler’s iconic gumshoe. These books might have had their roots in the pulp fiction of the 1930s, but Chandler’s talent for turning a phrase is worthy of the finest literary masters. Be prepared if you’ve never read Chandler before, though, for his works to seem heavy on the old chestnuts. His characterizations are so complete, settings so evocative, and plots so compelling that multitudes of authors and screenwriters have tried to copy him. So reading him today is reminiscent of the joke about the woman who tries to read Shakespeare only to give up because his work is full of clichés. While I won’t even pretend to match Chandler’s skill at creating characters, I did create my protagonist’s boss in homage to his wise-cracking, hard-bitten Philip Marlowe.
Then there is Dinah Maria Mulock Craik’s “The Little Lame Prince”. Despite being copyrighted in 1909 this children’s fairy tale is far from dated. It tells of a young prince, crippled as a baby. He is subsequently banished to an isolated tower, robbed of his birthright and effectively discarded as damaged and unworthy by the very people who were supposed to nurture and protect him. The prince’s fairy godmother gives him a magical cloak that, like a flying carpet, carries him across the skies to show him the wonders of the outside world. As a child, books were my magical cloak, helping me to combat my sense of isolation and fostering in me a determination to find my better world. This book still touches my heart. But if you do seek out a copy, do yourself a favor and hunt down a first edition. They are not too hard to find and they include the gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Hope Dunlap whose artwork is as much a part of the wonder of the book as the story. And, yes, every now and then I make myself graham cracker/jam sandwiches and read it to my cat.
As many of my readers know, in my day job I’m a scientist. So it should come as no surprise that one of my favorites is George Greenstein’s absolutely wonderful book entitled Frozen Star: Of Pulsars, Black Holes and the Fate of Stars. Primarily written for the layperson, it outlines the fundamentals of space-time, cosmology and astrophysics regarding black holes in an approachable format. As it was written in the early 1980s the science is a little dated, but still accurate enough for the non-scientist. Moreover Dr. Greenstein’s prose and imagery is as elegant as it is literate. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by it. Even if you’re not intrigued by the subject, I strongly recommend you find a copy and read chapter 7 entitled “Fire and Ice: The Time Machine”. This nine-page tale of the Sun collapsing into a black hole—which is not actually possible as it doesn’t have enough mass—was a deliberate fiction meant to evoke the sense of scale and power of black holes and is told with great poignancy. I read the book for the first time in the 1990s and the imagery still haunts me. I long to write such eerily evocative scenes.
Okay, I’ll admit it, I read urban fantasy. And one series in that genre tops my favs list. To go back to the subject of judgment for a moment, I can tell you that many of my science colleagues would definitely look askance at my reading novels about werewolves, vampires and wizards. And, yes, I realize that much that fits in this category is often time little more than a bodice-rip away from being out-and-out steamy romance. So, I don’t always admit to reading this genre to all my friends. But some of it is quite well done. Take the works of Molly Harper, Darynda Jones and Jeaniene Frost; the plots are entertaining and the protagonists are interesting. They are fun reads that don’t pretend to be anything more than a good time.
But one series in this genre really deserves accolades and that is Jim Butcher’s, The Dresden Files. Told in first person, Butcher’s protagonist, Harry Dresden, is sympathetic, complex and vulnerable. And yet, when besieged by overwhelming odds and unrelenting attacks, Dresden’s daring, reckless, often boorish antics make him seem like a completely different character to the world around him. It’s a unique and well-crafted spin on a Walter Mitty paradigm, and I continually strive to give such complexity to my own characters.
Last on my list today is something that always raises eyebrows: the Bible. Yes, that Bible. Yes, I am a scientist and, yes, I am a Christian. And, yes, I do realize that a fraction of readers have just spontaneously decided that I can’t be a good scientist or even a particularly intelligent person if I believe in God. That happens all the time. Conversely, I’ve also had the sincerity of my beliefs questioned by those who decide, prima facie, that I’m one of those evil faith-challenging scientists. Prejudice is not the exclusive domain of either science or religion. I’ve studied the subject extensively, with a critical eye, and have made my own choices. Enough said. But irrespective of what one believes regarding its truth claims, this is a complex book. It deals with subjects that are thought-provoking and challenging and is filled with some of the most beautiful prose and poetry and exquisite imagery ever written. And, in my estimation, there are few works that more completely reveal the intricacies of human nature, a subject that every author wrestles with.
Now, several people who read this article before I submitted it cautioned me to take that last favorite book off. I was told that I would I would alienate some readers by appearing too reverent or, oddly-enough, not reverent enough. I left it in, because it makes the point I began with. We are judged by what we read. That’s part of the human condition. And it’s perfectly reasonable and perfectly wise not to want to expose oneself to judgments. But that’s not what’s most important here. It doesn’t matter to whom you chose to tell what you read. What’s important is that you read. And you should read what pleases you, what informs you, what challenges you, what instructs you, what comforts you. Read widely and read wildly. Just read, and let it make of you what it will.
Kennedy Quinn has a Ph.D. in Physics and Master’s in Nuclear Science and is a Deputy Director at the National Reconnaissance Office. But this scientist-turned-administrator didn’t get there the easy way. She enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school and served as an aircraft mechanic before achieving an officer’s commission and earning her multiple degrees. After a diverse military career, she retired to join the CIA where she continues to lead research on a wide array of science and technologies. By night, she grows roses in Northern Virginia with her husband; they’re owned by two rescue cats and a retired greyhound.
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