Sunday, August 9, 2009

Unexpected Favorites by Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice, mystery novels set in Hawaii, as well as the romance novels and Three Wrong Turns in the Desert (coming September 29 from Loose Id). He edited Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog and the gay erotic anthologies Hard Hats and Surfer Boys.

Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professor of English at Broward College's south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

Unexpected Favorites by Neil Plakcy

If you know me as a writer of a police procedural series featuring a gay cop in Honolulu, Hawaii, you might make some assumptions about what I like to read. For the most part, you’d be right. I love mysteries, an affection I nourished throughout my teen years on a steady diet of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and other classic detective authors.

I read almost everything that comes out in the gay mystery niche, which is bigger than you might think—there were 19 nominees for the Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery last year. It’s not a stretch to assume I’d read other gay fiction and at least a few books from the best-seller list. Delve a little deeper into my background and find that I was an English major in college, that I have a master’s in creative writing and I teach writing at a college, and you can see that I might appreciate James Joyce, Jane Austen and George Eliot.

But I have a few unexpected favorites, too. There’s a fantasy trend that runs through my reading, from Tolkien to Rowling to Neal Stephenson, whose works encompass historical and speculative fiction. Naomi Novik and her Napoleonic dragon series, and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, feed that appetite.

Those British mysteries honed my appetite for Anglophilia. I read the R. F. Delderfield historicals in high school, as well as the village stories of Miss Read, a pseudonymous country school teacher whose books are as charming as Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Ramotswe series, without quite so much murder and mayhem. (Though when the gypsies bring their carnival to Fairacre, watch out!)

When I ran out of library books at home, I could always dip into my mother’s teetering stack of Harlequin romances, and from them I developed a taste for chick lit and humorous romance. I love what are called “Aga Sagas” in Britain, big thick romances by Jilly Cooper and others, named for a kind of stove.

Maybe that’s what led me to Laurie Colwin.

For the most part, I don’t reread books. Colwin is one major exception. Happy All The Time is like comfort
food to me, something I dip into over and over again. Colwin’s charm, insight into human behavior, and the way her domestic details illuminate character draw me back to her whenever I need a boost.

I’ve worn out one paperback edition and replaced it with a newer one. I’ve read and enjoyed her other books, including the two collections of her Gourmet magazine essays called Home Cooking. But Happy All The Time is the book that draws me back. It’s the story of two young men of wealth, education and privilege, living in 1980s Boston and New York, and the women they fall in love with. It’s a simple story, in the end, but the characters are so vivid, the locales so perfectly evoked, that it somehow transcends its simple material.

I’ll bet we all have one or more of those unexpected favorites. What are yours?

What might your friends or fans be surprised to learn that you read?


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi Neil - Welcome!!! O.K. - I'm dying to hear some more writers of "Aga Sagas," please!

I am a total push-over for those long saga novels that we're not seeing any more.

Looking forward to reading Laurie Colwin.

Neil Plakcy said...

The "Aga saga" writers I like best are Jilly Cooper (my very favorite); Catherine Alliott; and Fiona Walker (who is just hysterica). You're reminding me I need to see if these gals have anything new on the market!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Hi Neil!

If you teach college-level, I'm not surprised by anything you read! I was an English major myself, and love the classics (modern ones, too.)

People who know I read cozies might be surprised by the fact I enjoy reading hard-boiled sometimes. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Odell said...

I can't imagine anyone who really knows me being surprised at anything I read. I'll read cereal boxes if there's nothing else around. I read my way through the World Book Encyclopedia (which I could type only by singing the Jiminy Cricket tune), my brother's Hardy Boys books, all of Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and when my daughter was engaged to a nuclear physics grad student, I read most of Larry Niven, his favorite, because I couldn't discuss his work.

Mystery, romance & science fiction were my staples, but if there are words, I'll read them.

Right now I'm reading Motor Mouth by Janet Evanovich.

Anonymous said...

Funny...I love the Percy Jackson books and borrow them from my 13 yo son.

I wish I could remember all the book titles and authors that have had books that remain my favorite, but I can't. Their stories I will never forget though.

One that I read every few years is The Thorn Birds. The whole family dynamics and a forbidden love draws me in each time.

Vicki Lane said...

Hi, Neil,

Interesting post! I've never heard that term -- Aga Saga and I love it. Would this include Rosamund Pilcher?

As Terry said, I'll read most anything. People might, however, be surprised to know of my long-lasting affairs with Ian Fleming and Robert Heinlein.

Gerald Warfield said...

Interesting musings, Neil. I especially appreciated your interest in fantasy. I often despair that readers of police procedurals and mystery (who seem to be the majority of readers these days) will deign to read Tolkien and Rowling. As you can guess, I write fantasy.

This is also a lovely website. Thanks for the invite.

Gerald Warfield

Pat Brown said...

Like Neil I mostly read mysteries, gay and straight. But two books I picked up and enjoyed that I never would have expected to, nor do I imagine anyone would see me reading was The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Two other books I've been known to reread even today, are Little Women and Gone With the Wind, totally not my style.

I think it's good to occasionally step out of the regular. Try something different. Ruts are never good.

NL Gassert said...

Naomi Novik and her Napoleonic dragon series, and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, feed that appetite.

I, too, love Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and Naomi Novik’s dragon. I can’t remember why I started Riordan’s series, but I recall being very hesitant about it, because it was YA and I’m very much an adult. Then last year I came across Paper Scissors Death by Joanna Campbell Slan. Again, I was hesitant. The book’s heroine is passionate about scrapbooking and that’s something I know nothing about. But what do you know, I loved it. It’s a Scrap-N-Craft mystery and I recommend it.

Have you read Deborah Turrell Atkinson, Neil? Her mysteries are Hawaiian-based also. And she’s a friend of mine :-)

Neil Plakcy said...

Interesting choices! And yes, Nadja, I love Debby Atkinson's books. They demonstrate a knowledge of Hawaiian culture I can only aspire to. We had great fun at Left Coast Crime in Kona this year as a group of Hawaii mystery writers got to sit down together.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Neil:

Great post! I imagine people would be more surprised by what I don't read than by what I do read. My Do-Not-Reads are fantasy, science fiction, horror, and especially serial killer-rapist-child abuser crime fiction. There's more than enough of that in the daily news.

I grew up reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Edna Ferber, Hamlin Garland, and the King James Version of the Bible, for the sheer beauty of its language.

So enough about you, let's talk about me.(-: Sorry. Didn't mean to ramble on so long.

Oh -- surprising news in your blog -- that there were 19 nominees for Lambda awards. Wow! Where can I find a list of nominees?

All the best,

Pat Browning

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Rosamunde Pilcher - I loved her books (well, not her novellas as much as Shell Seekers, September, etc.) and was sad to hear she wasn't writing any more. And those old Susan Howatch sagas; I drooled over those.

Michael Haskins said...

Neil, good post. Like you, I am a big mystery fan. It began in the 60s when I moved to S.Cal. Twenty years later I joined MWA and 20-years after that my first book was published. I don't ready much non-fiction, but I am a reader of Irish history, that might surprise people, especially about the "troubles." And I love anything Jimmy Breslin writes, or is it correct to say wrote? I would've loved to see a top 10 list of your favorite books. Next time, maybe?

Neil Plakcy said...

I agree with Pat Browning on avoiding horror and serial killer/child killer/rapist books. I close my eyes when ads for those kind of movies come on TV, too. Just too creepy.

The list of nominees for the 2009 Lambda Awards, in all categories, is here:

Michael, I don't know that I could ever put together a list of my top 10 favorite books; the list is always changing as I keep reading and my tastes change.

Maybe a better list would be "Ten books that have influenced me." I'll have to work on that!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

This is fun!
I'd love to see this list too, Neil. Post it here if you're of a mind to OR you're welcome to do another guest post for Meanderings and Muses if you'd like. Or, if you blog someplace else and post your list, let us know, please! (I just love lists!).

Anonymous said...


I checked out the Lambda finalists and saw two familiar names: Ellen Hart for Sweet Poison, and Neil Plakcy for Mahu Fire. Congratulations!

Ellen Hart is a terrific writer. I read one of her books, loved it, wrote a review, and then lost track of her. Time to go back and look for her.

And you are brand new to me. I'll have to look up your Mahu books. Do I have to start with the first one or can I jump in anywhere?

Pat Browning

Neil Plakcy said...

Since Alyson Books came out with their own edition of Mahu, my first mystery, in May of 2009, it should be easily available. (Lots of libraries have the older edition,too; they're almost identical.)

That said, you can start anywhere in the series, but like most, I think you get more out of the character's emotional growth and development if you start with the first book.

Thanks for asking!