So what is it about the haunted house that spans media types? What is it about the concept that transfixes both audience in the land of imagination, and truth seekers in the science world? Why is this one of those subjects that bridges the gap between fact and fiction?
S.F. Whitaker examines what makes us, while screaming (even if only in our minds) “Don’t go in there!” dying to know what will happen when some character dares to open that door or window . . .
Pushkin Vertigo, an independent press in the U.K., is publishing the first English translations of the classic Japanese mystery novels by Seishi Yokomizo. Yokomizo’s first novel was published in Japan in 1946. Read here about the life and works of the writer called “Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.”
Lyndsie Manusos examines the many meanings that make the term speculative fiction particularly amorphous. Manusos consults sources from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia to the Speculative Literature Foundation, including authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. She concludes:
Speculative fiction is indeed nebulous. It’s actually why I love this over-arching genre so much. I live for books that maintain our world but bend the boundaries. Books that look underneath the skin of our reality and probe what might be or might’ve been.
Rachel Smalter Hall, an editor for audiobook giant Audible (a division of Amazon) writes that, after a difficult year in 2019, she realized that “I get most of my self-help from novels.”
Fiction might not have a checklist at the end of each chapter to help one live a better life, but it does provide a narrative lens through which to view the human experience. It’s proven to help build empathy, and it can give us tools to make sense of our own lives and how we relate to others.
Read her list of six novels that provided her with “unlikely lessons.”
Jaime Herndon describes how her grandmother’s death in January 2019 affected her: “it was hard to write non-work things, but one thing I was still able to do was read. I read and read and read. I read over 250 books in 2019.” Here she mentions several of the books that helped her get through that year.
I wish Herndon offered fuller descriptions of some of the books she mentions, but the Book Riot format is short articles. Even without fuller descriptions, it’s good to hear how reading helped her get through such a difficult time.
I avoided the recent brouhaha over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt while it was developing, but most of the dust seems to have settled now. If you looking for a summary of the situation, this article provides a good overview. It also contains a lot of links, so you can go as far down the internet rabbit hole as you like.
Mandy Shunnarah of Off the Beaten Shelf compares the novels The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, marketed as literary fiction, and Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, whose works are usually described as chick lit.
Here’s the thing, though: I thought The Female Persuasion was good, but I think Mrs. Everything is truly excellent. It’s about as perfect of a novel as I’ve read.
Shunnarah wonders how many other great novels she’s missed because of the way a “publisher has historically pigeonholed” the books’ (usually female) author.
Nick Martin, writing in The New Republic, argues that:
beyond the familiar tropes, every episode of Law & Order: SVU or NCIS mindlessly consumed after work or on a weekend afternoon is also a vehicle for a particular understanding of law enforcement: a police-know-best mind-set that takes all of the mess and violence of our criminal legal system and packages it for tidy consumption. Given the ubiquity of these shows, it’s jarring to consider the scale of it.
it’s clear the market and appetite for these shows means something and that the model works for a reason. So the next time you’re hit with the “Are you still watching?” message after the fourth straight episode of white victimhood and cop ass-kicking, it might be worth thinking about why shows like this have become a kind of comfort food.
The New Yorker profiles science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who died in 2011:
she was brilliant in a way that couldn’t be denied, even by those who hated her. Her writing was at once arch and serious; she issued her judgments with supreme confidence, even when they were issued against herself. She was here to imagine, to invent wildly, and to undo the process, as one of her heroines puts it, of “learning to despise one’s self.” But she was going to have a lot of fun doing it. And, if you were doing anything else, you were not really, to her mind, writing science fiction.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek and her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, have written the nonfiction book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner and often blog about forensics as presented on television. Here they present “the 5 most common forensics errors that crime writers make.”
These five points will change the way you watch TV crime shows and read crime fiction.
That’s probably why I’ve read six of the 10 novels that Sarah Walsh presents here, “books that traipse between different timelines—the nonsequential events of the past and present forming one intriguing narrative spread throughout time.”
When well done—and the six I’ve read of the 10 mentioned here are all very well done—novels with more than one time line can be enormously satisfying to read.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.
Which is more important in fiction: plot or character? Novels that engage in complex characterization are often called character-driven stories or character studies, while books heavy on fast action and unexpected turns of events are called plot-driven novels. But even in character studies the characters still have to DO something (even if all they do is think), and even in plot-driven novels someone must be DOING all that action.
Plot and character are like love and marriage: You can’t have one without the other.
This is true no matter what kind of fiction you’re reading. Some people distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction in which the term genre fiction refers to format-specific categories such as mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and romance. The term is usually used pejoratively, to suggest that literary fiction is somehow better than “mere genre fiction.”
But all fiction requires characters who do something, and the best works of fiction, whether literary or genre fiction, hit the sweet spot of combining complex characterization with interesting plotting.
I gravitate toward mysteries and thrillers because I think that some of the most thought-provoking fiction—novels that explore the extremes of what the human heart is capable of—slots into those genres.
Thriller author Karin Slaughter, when asked what makes for a good thriller, replied, “Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.”
But while the question of whether character or plot is more important may be moot, the question of which comes first in an author’s writing process can yield some interesting results.
I don’t outline at all, actually. In fact, I can’t really figure out what’s going on myself until I’ve been writing the characters for a while. I don’t even know “whodunit” until I’ve been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.
But in the end, plot and character work hand in hand.
Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.
Adam O’Fallon Price describes Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie like this: “The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.”
Price continues: “over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.”
He attributes this lack of moral depth in fiction to the internet, which has allowed everyone to curate all the news and cultural entertainment they consume and thereby to limit exposure to new ideas and experiences. This process has produced “a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.”
Price laments this situation because “situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art.” He connects the lack of a moral level with “reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions.” Most current novels, he contends, are boring because of this failure to examine the relationship between choices and the resulting consequences.
Price ends with a call for a return to “fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post.”
I remember reading, several years ago, an article in which mystery writer Val McDermid described being told something like “You must be a particularly twisted person to write such dark books.” And her reply was along the lines of “I’m very well adjusted because I get all those dark thoughts out of my head by writing those books.”
I’ve never been able to find this discussion so that I can document it, but novelist Bryan Gruley addresses the same issue in this article: “are we (authors) secretly as twisted as the twisted characters we conjure?” I particularly like this reply:
“Ideally, our darkest characters come from a place of empathy, a part of us that wants to understand why other people—people who are fully human, not sociopaths or narcissists—rationalize transgressing important societal boundaries,” says Laura Lippman, author of many acclaimed novels . . .
About his own fictional villains, Gurley writes, “The only thing I have in common with these fictional people is that we’re human. And that matters.”
And this truth is at the root of why I like mysteries and thrillers so much. I’d also argue that the best mysteries and thrillers offer the moral depth that Adam O’Fallon Price laments the lack of in the article above. Perhaps he’s just not reading the same books I am.
Nandi Taylor, a Canadian writer of Caribbean descent, writes here about “what she’d always wanted more of growing up—protagonists of African descent in speculative settings.”
The relationship between art and life is symbiotic: one feeds the other. As representation of marginalized segments of our society has increased, so has respect and tolerance for those segments of society, which has led more accurate and nuanced portrayals of marginalized people, and today we find ourselves with a wealth of diverse mainstream media and heartening advances in human rights.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens, whose debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, will be published in March, offers “an unbeliever’s rereading of Christian conceptions of the afterlife” in Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping.
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
This month we begin with a book that topped the critics ‘best of 2019’ lists, Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I found a copy of Fleishman on the Lucky Day shelf at my local public library. The Lucky Day shelf houses a few copies of current, popular books—the kind of books that probably already have 100 or more pending requests. I had wanted to read this novel and felt lucky indeed to find it waiting for me.
1. The same day I found Fleishman Is in Trouble on the Lucky Day shelf I also found Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok, another book I wanted to read. Sylvie Lee, a woman in her 30s, travels from the U.S. back to Sweden, where she spent her first nine years, to visit her dying grandmother and pick up her inheritance of the family’s jewelry. Before her grandmother dies, she reveals a secret to Sylvie.
2. In Sisters One, Two, Three by Nancy Star, the death of a grandmother triggers questions that finally lead to the revelation of family secrets.
3. The protagonist of The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware finds out about a grandmother she never knew she had when she receives legal notification that she has inherited her grandmother’s family house. On her trip to the house she meets more family members and finally learns about a whole bunch of secrets that her mother had never told her.
4. In The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, Libby Jones has known for most of her life that she’d find out about her birth parents on her 25th birthday. But she’s surprised to learn at the same time that she has also inherited from her grandparents an abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames that is now worth millions. And of course she has also inherited a whole truckload of dark family secrets.
5. From The Family Upstairs we move easily to The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher who gave up her youthful ambitions of becoming an artist, finds the Shahid family, who move in downstairs, mesmerizingly fascinating. The husband, Skandar, is a Lebanese scholar here to take up a fellowship at Harvard. The wife, Sirena, is a glamorous and self-confident Italian artist. Their son, Reza, attends the school where Nora teaches, and through this connection Nora quickly insinuates herself into the Shahid family. Nora assumes that the Shahids feel the same way about her that she feels about them. When a casual occurrence reveals that Sirena doesn’t think of Nora as her bosom friend and confidant, Nora unleashes a torrent of rage and pent-up loneliness and frustration.
6. Nora’s rage leads us back around to Fleishman Is in Trouble, a novel that begins as the narrative of a failing marriage but ends as a statement of feminist anger about what happens to ambitious, intelligent women who overachieve.
What goes around comes around: a chain of six books that ends right back where it began.
Novelist and screenwriter Ned Beauman laments the existence of the website TV Tropes, which breaks down the plots of all forms of popular-culture storytelling into such minute parts as to prevent him from coming up with any original plot elements.
I don’t write fiction but I love reading it, and I read a lot of it. The fact that “there’s nothing new under the sun” has never bothered me as a reader. What I look for when reading is how an author puts together various story elements to create an original work of art.
About all those reported studies claiming that reading makes us more empathetic and compassionate, Mark Athitakis, in The Washington Post, says, “Ugh.” He bases this opinion on his own experience with an emotional rough patch that left the perfectionist part of himself anxiety ridden and unable to read.
What finally helped him through that time was a copy of Sidney Sheldeon’s 2000 novel The Sky Is Falling left in the lobby of his apartment building: “It was reassuring in a way, to be in such a world. What I valued was the simple happening-ness of life. The book reknitted my conception of reading, demonstrated that it wasn’t a stoic march to edification but a way to be open to experience.”
I read a lot of mysterie and psychological thrillers. The usual trope set-up for these novels is a woman under duress, whose carefully constructed current life is about to be ruined by some ex who shows up and threatens to expose all her secrets. In this article crime fiction critic Lisa Levy discusses seven novels that turn this trope upside down by having a man narrate the story.
How could I pass up this article on a web site called Notes in the Margin? (I initially wanted the title Marginalia, but that domain name was already taken.)
Here Ed Simon, Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, declares “in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one.”
One of the reasons for seeking out used books is the possible discovery of marginalia:
Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.
The depiction of homicide in popular culture is continuously evolving, and our ceaseless fascination with these narratives says something about us. Human nature being what it is, we can’t ask “where is murder going?” without also asking “where are we?”
Brian Phillips discusses popular culture’s fascination with murder, particularly as featured in “the wave of psychological thrillers often lumped together under the heading of “Girl books”—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, and so forth.”
Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter, discusses why, when she started to write crime novels in her 40s, she made her detectives two women in their 40s. “Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.” But, she adds, she didn’t create her detectives simply to mirror herself:
For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.
Jackson says she created her detectives to offer a model of a world in which the choices to remain single and not to have children as normal enough to be unremarkable. Published under the name Emilia Bernhard, Jackson’s novels include Death in Paris and The Books of the Dead.
The New York Times introduces Group Text, “a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions, and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.” The focus for book clubs will be on “the kinds of propulsive, thought-provoking books worthy of discussion.”
Its inaugural choice is Long Bright River by Liz Moore:
What it’s about: When their neighborhood is battered by opioids, two sisters choose very different paths through the wreckage. One is a cop; the other is an addict. And one of the two is missing.
I have a copy of this book on my shelf right now. It was my December 2019 choice from the offerings of Book of the Month.
This article includes discussion questions for Long Bright River and some suggestions for related reading. There’s also information on how to join the book discussion on the Times’s Facebook page.
Laurie Faria Stolarz wrote her most recent novel, Jane Anonymous, to focus on “that period of time, post-trauma, when the threat is removed but the wounds remain, raw and searing, as the individual tries to acclimate back in her safer space”:
people’s reactions to trauma are as varied and complex as the trauma itself. Numerous factors can influence one’s reaction(s), including age, personal history, one’s own brain chemistry, and the nature of the trauma. Time, effective treatment, and having a solid support system are also key factors. But, bottom line, while therapists can and do identify common threads and behaviors among victims of trauma, every case is as unique as the person who experiences it.
Here Stolarz discusses six novels that feature some varied reactions to trauma.
In an article related to the one above, S.F. Whitaker, who describes herself as a trauma survivor, discusses how horror literature and films have helped her deal with her experience. Whitaker says that she “gravitated to the grotesque and weird” from an early age: “Before I could articulate where it hurt there were books, and movies to serve as a balm. In the progression of my reading I found familiarity.”
Whitaker says that one might think that reading horror literature or seeing horror films would exacerbate a person’s feelings of grief and trauma. But she points some psychology studies that have shown that the opposite is true:
Studies have shown that horror can help us with grief, anxiety, depression, and a number of other disorders. For someone experiencing a deep loss or processing trauma, it becomes less about the deaths and more about the survivor. Grief studies in particular have found that trying to make someone feel better only makes the situation worse. You’re invalidating their feelings rather than helping. A book can take someone suffering on a journey. You feel the pain with the characters, some surviving while others do not, and there is a resolution of some kind.
Whitaker does not give specific references to those studies, which I see as a weakness in an article like this. However, her discussion is quite general, and her conclusion pertains only to herself:
In my case, Quincy [in Final Girls by Riley Sager] in particular made it feel like I did not have to have it all together. I can be flawed and that’s okay. There is beauty in the journey, even if it’s blood soaked pages riddled with ghosts, ghoulies, and monsters galore.
In an effort to see beyond the fractured state of politics, Heather John Fogarty has decided to read her way across the U.S. in the time leading up to the election of 2020:
I set myself a reading project. In the year leading up to the 2020 election, I would read (at least) one book from each state, as well as from Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., prioritizing contemporary fiction and memoir, with the hope of exploring shared experiences, such as family, identity and a sense of home.
She is reading alphabetically and here reports on books through Connecticut, so this will apparently be an ongoing series.
In 2019 Matt Grant set himself the goal of reading 100 books. After a year of pushing himself to achieve that goal—which he did accomplish—he has decided to “set myself a new goal this year: to have fun reading.”
Read his discussion of how he achieved his 2019 goal and why he has changed his approach to reading this year.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.
As a subgenre of the mystery or detective-fiction genre, the locked-room mystery, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century, has long fascinated both writers and readers. But at least one critic asserts that the format has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. However, five recent novels demonstrate how writers continue to find ways to apply the traditional formula to create works that continue to challenge and entertain readers.
The locked-room mystery presents a story in which a crime, usually a murder, has been committed in a setting that seemingly offers no way for the culprit to exit the crime scene. Imagine a corpse found inside a room with no windows or method of entry and exit other than a single door, which is locked from the inside. Literary historians generally credit Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as the first such story.
Nearly 100 years later, in 1939, Agatha Christie first published her own version of the locked-room mystery, now known as And Then There Were None. In her story several characters are summoned to a mansion on a small rock island with no other dwellings or inhabitants. The only way to get to the island is by catching the only row boat available at a nearby coastal village. A bad storm blows up and prevents the small boat from sailing across the channel over the weekend. Meanwhile, on the isolated island, the guests turn up dead, one by one.
Agatha Christie went on to perfect her own variant of the locked-room mystery, the country-house mystery. In these stories, several characters assemble in a remote country house that is then cut off from the outside world by some type of storm involving either giant snow drifts, road-blocking huge fallen trees, or washed-out bridges. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests.
Prolific mystery author and critic Christopher Fowler has argued that the modern age of instant communication and unlimited information access forces mystery writers to up their game:
Yet these five recent novels demonstrate how writers are finding new ways to use the locked-room mystery formula to create suspenseful, satisfying novels.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
In Larsson’s 2005 novel, wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger hires researcher and journalist Mikael Blomkvist to dig into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, more than 40 years earlier. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker but a troubled young woman now at the mercy of the Swedish welfare system because of the government’s need to protect the identity of her Soviet-defector spy father.
Both the character development and the plotting of this novel are so complex and enthralling that it’s easy to forget that the opening situation, the circumstances of Harriet’s unexplained disappearance—on a day when an accident closed the bridge connecting the Vanger island estate to the mainland—is a locked-room mystery set up.
I have explained my criticisms of this 2019 novel in my review, linked above. Nonetheless, I commend Adams for undertaking the challenge of writing a locked-room mystery novel.
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
In this 2015 novel, Nora hasn’t seen Clare for 10 years, when they were teenagers and Clare orchestrated the break-up of Nora and her boyfriend, James. Then, out of the blue, Nora receives an invitation to Clare’s hen do (bachelorette party). Ware uses elements of the locked-room format to heighten tension and produce suspense in this wild ride of a gothic thriller.
The Escape Room by Megan Goldin
The Escape Room (2019) begins with two parallel narratives: the first-person account by Sara Hall of her job at a large, high-pressure financial firm, and the third-person look at four business associates in an elevator participating in a corporate trust-building exercise. As the two narratives alternate, suspense increases for both readers and the four people trying to figure out how to escape from the elevator.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
I’ve saved the best for last.
Nathan Bright returns to his family’s vast cattle station in Australia for the funeral of his brother, Cameron. Did Cameron commit suicide, or was he murdered? The authorities and the family ponder this question out where only one road leads through town and the nearest neighbors live many hours’ drive away in either direction. Brilliant Australian writer Jane Harper sets this, her third novel (2019), in the Australian Outback, the biggest locked-room on the planet.
Calling herself a slow reader, writer Hurley Winkler describes her 2019 experience of “the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge” she found on the literary blogosphere. During the year she finished several books she “wasn’t wild about” simply because she’d already invested time in reading the first part and didn’t want to fall behind her reading schedule. “The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life,” she writes. She also chose several books because they were short, despite her love for “big, sprawling novels.”
So for this year she has decided to jettison any obsession with productivity: “I resolve to abandon books I don’t like.” She intends to read “intentionally and joyously,” taking the time necessary to savor good books.
If you grapple with the works of Gillian Flynn, here’s really all you need to know:
“I really do think the world can be divided into the people who like to look under the rock and the people who don’t want to look under the rock,” Flynn told me. “I’ve always said, since birth, ‘Let’s look under the rock.’ ”
Women are fiction’s life support system – buying 80% of all novels. But as a major new book argues, their love of an emotional truth has been used to trivialise the genre.
In The Guardian Johanna Thomas-Corr discusses Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor, published by Oxford University Press. “Fiction takes you on indirect routes to truth,” says Taylor.
In graduate school I wrote a paper on Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, a now little-known but at the time immensely popular 19th-century novelist. I was therefore delighted to cone across this article from American University Radio of Washington, DC. On December 26, 2019, novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff and a few fellow writers laid a wreath at the grave of E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mrs. Southworth’s birth.
Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers — male or female — of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“Many of her stories featured women having adventures that Southworth’s readers were often unable to experience firsthand.”