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‘Killing People in Fiction Was Fun’: Mysteries That Have Stood the Test of Time

Like many of us, Sarah Weinman initially thought that the coronavirus lockdown would allow her to read, read, read. And also like many of us, she soon discovered that “Focus has evaporated. The cognitive load of living through the coronavirus has gone straight for my literary jugular.”

Her antidote for this condition has been a return to “much-loved classic crime fiction.” With the help of audiobooks, Weinman has enjoyed books by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Margaret Millar.

The Erosion of Deep Literacy

Here’s an article you might want to bookmark for reading after we emerge from the current coronavirus lockdown. The article deals with how modern technology is causing us to lose the ability for “deep literacy” or “deep reading”:

In her 2018 book, Reader, Come Home, [Maryanne] Wolf uses cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics to study the reading brain and literacy development, and in doing so, helps identify what is being lost. According to Wolf, we are losing what she calls “deep literacy” or “deep reading.” This does not include decoding written symbols, writing one’s name, or making lists. Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight

The loss of this ability may be crucial for future human development because “Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural.”

With its emphasis on brain evolution, this article goes well beyond the common laments on how technology is making us stupid.

This is a long and complex piece, the kind of thing that I’m having difficulty focusing on enough to comprehend and to, well, think deeply about. So I have put it away to look at again in the future. 

Not everyone hates being stuck at home. Some people are thriving

Molly Creeden writes in the Los Angeles Times, “the unusual circumstances of being cloistered at home have proved a welcome change of pace, if not wholly enjoyable. And while no one is happy about the reasons we find ourselves in this abbreviated style of living, those well-suited to it are thriving.”

Read some of the explanations by people who appreciate the changes the current situation has brought to their lives and who hope to carry over some of those changes when the isolation restrictions ease.

Top 10 Scottish crime novels

Craig Robertson writes, “I’m not a big fan of tartan noir as a label for Scottish crime fiction. It works as an advertising slogan but doesn’t capture what the broad church of Scottish crime fiction is all about. There are so many fine novels within the canon that are either not tartan – with the archaic and cliched connotations that word can offer – or aren’t noir.” 

Here he offers a list of novels that “fit into a tradition of Scottish crime novels driven by issues of duality, redemption, the nature of good and evil, and a dark, dark, humour” by authors including William McIlvanney, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid.

Lionel Shriver Is Looking for Trouble

Ariel Levy writes in The New Yorker about author Lionel Shriver, “Shriver has often been convinced that we are freaking out about the wrong things—focussing on climate change, for instance, instead of contemplating the population explosion that fuels it. The coronavirus, she believes, will ultimately prove less destructive than the international fiscal contraction that it has provoked.”

Shriver’s breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, featured a mother facing the fact that her son had committed mass murder at school. Levy writes, “her novels tend to explore almost perversely unappealing issues.”

7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

Ellen Gutoskey offers “seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.”

My own favorite is this one:

7. “You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read.” Theodore Roosevelt

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The Curious Creation of Anna Kavan

Although I’ve heard of Anna Kavan—mostly through occasional references to her works—I know nothing about her. But I’ll have to change that, after reading this profile in the New Yorker. She examined the nature of identity, both in her writing and in her personal life.

Not long after being discharged from a Swiss sanitarium, in 1938, the English writer Helen Edmonds, who was born Helen Woods and had published six novels as Helen Ferguson, replaced her long brown locks with a neat blond bob and started calling herself Anna Kavan. The name was borrowed from the protagonist of her most autobiographical novels, “Let Me Alone” (1930) and “A Stranger Still” (1935), and chosen, at least in part, because it echoed the name of the writer who inspired the shifts in literary approach that accompanied her change of identity: Franz Kafka. It was in this new guise—born-again avant-gardist—and under this new name that she became known to the Home Office (as a registered heroin addict); to her most important publisher, Peter Owen; and to a small but avid readership.

How to Start a Love Affair with Audiobooks

I have carried on a 30+-year love affair with audiobooks, but I know many people who still either don’t like listening or insist that listening isn’t the same as reading. Here author Victoria Helen Stone explains how, after a rocky start, she came to appreciate audiobooks after learning how to listen to podcasts.

Fragmented Narratives Are Broken, Independent, and Honest

Sinéad Gleeson, author of the essay collection Constellations, discusses the nature of this collection, a series of essays that each stands on its own but that also work together to create a whole:

You can pick up an essay collection, read one, and then ditch the whole thing. It can be read in any order, anti-chronologically, and still fit together. The book’s title—Constellations—happened for a couple of reasons. I began thinking of objects that are whole but comprised of several distinct things. Each essay is a unit. They are autonomous entities in their own right, but are part of a larger framework. A constellation seemed like an obvious choice—especially because I loved astronomy as a kid, and spent a lot of timing seeking out Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper.

How to Help Librarians and Archivists From Your Living Room

If you’re looking for something constructive to occupy all this time you’re spending at home, Atlas Obscura has some suggestions:

IF TIME AT HOME HAS you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

“In the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.”

the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.

Jill Lepore burrows into plague literature over the centuries.

Returning Once More to a “Little House in the Big Woods”

Soon after I read about a librarian who had settled her fourth-grade son on the couch with a copy of Little House in the Big Woods, I came across this article in which Rebecca Mead hails the book as “a manual for self-sufficient social isolation.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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HOME SWEET HO…MAYBE NOT: THE HAUNTED HOUSE IN FICTION

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 . . .

How locked-room mystery king Seishi Yokomizo broke into English at last

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.”

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE FICTION?

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.

Finding Self-Help in Fiction: A Stranger Truth

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.”

A YEAR OF MOURNING AND READING

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.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How a Twitter war in 2010 helped change the way we talk about women’s writing

A look at how the 2010 dust-up between writers Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen engendered a decade-long pop culture discussion over two basic questions: “What kinds of stories do we consider to be worthy of respect? And to whom do those stories belong?”

7 OF THE BEST BOOKS ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS FROM 2019

“One of the most practical ways to combat stigma around mental illness is to raise awareness in society about it, and what better way to do that than through books.”

This article discusses these 7 books from 2019:

  • THE HEARTLAND BY NATHAN FILER (FABER)
  • MIND ON FIRE BY ARNOLD THOMAS FANNING (PENGUIN)
  • NOTES MADE WHILE FALLING BY JENN ASHWORTH (GOLDSMITHS PRESS)
  • THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS BY ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG (PENGUIN)
  • BIPOLAR DISORDER – THE ULTIMATE GUIDE BY SARAH OWEN & AMANDA SAUNDERS (ONEWORLD)
  • WHERE REASONS END BY YIYUN LI (HAMISH HAMILTON)
  • DORA: A HEADCASE BY LIDIA YUKNAVITCH (CANONGATE)

Gone Boys

Hillary Kelly writes in Vulture that during the past decade women have replaced men as important authors:

Where once a passel of middle-ish-aged men — Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, the rest of the Jonathans (Lethem, Safran Foer) — dominated the scene with their big, important distillations of the world, the voices that now stand out, the ones that drive the conversation around fiction, largely belong to women.

The Top Twenty-Five New Yorker Stories of 2019

The New Yorker lists its top stories of the year in terms of how much they influenced readers to subscribe to the magazine. These are the stories most relevant to the literary world:

5. “What If We Stopped Pretending?,” by Jonathan Franzen

“The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

8. “A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions,” by Ian Parker

“Dan Mallory, who writes under the name A. J. Finn, went to No. 1 with his début thriller, “The Woman in the Window.” His life contains even stranger twists.”

10. “The Art of Decision-Making,” by Joshua Rothman

“Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be.”

13. “The Lingering of Loss,” by Jill Lepore

“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”

17. “Father Time,” by David Sedaris

I can’t predict what’s waiting for us, lurking on the other side of our late middle age, but I know it can’t be good.

“Little Women” and the Marmee Problem

“The anger of Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, is central to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and yet it’s hidden in plain sight.”

Is Sentimentality in Writing Really That Bad?

Poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert discusses the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in writing.

In these new audiobooks, great tales are matched with great narrators

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I don’t talk much about them in terms of their distinctive format. Here, Katherine A. Powers recommends three new audiobooks with “great narrators.”

The Long Tail of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

In The New York Times, Alexandra Alter discusses Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, published in summer 2018:

A year and a half later, the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” an absorbing, atmospheric tale about a lonely girl’s coming-of-age in the marshes of North Carolina, has sold more than four and a half million copies. It’s an astonishing trajectory for any debut novelist, much less for a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia, where she studied hyenas, lions and elephants.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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‘Your throat hurts. Your brain hurts’: the secret life of the audiobook star

If you think narrating audiobooks is a dream job because all you have to do is sit there and read, you’d be wrong. Way wrong. Read all about the complex matters of matching specific books with appropriate readers, of preparing, and of carefully avoiding extraneous noise in the recording studio. At the end of the article is an added bonus of a short history of talking books.

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall
The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall

Writer Alison B. Hart rediscovers the joy of reading for pleasure—“ that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story”—by reading Anne of Green Gables aloud to her 8-year-old daughter.

Giving life experience its due

Older adults, particularly older women, often feel invisible, ignored and completely misunderstood by the younger world moving quickly around them. This article by Peter McDermott showcases several Irish authors whose recent novels feature older adult characters. There’s much insight here. For example, McDermott asked about younger authors portraying older characters:

Asked about possible pitfalls in depicting older characters, [Caoilinn] Hughes [the 34-year-old author of Orchid & the Wasp (2018)] said they would be exactly the same as a “writer can fall into when writing any character: undermining their humanity through lazy writing by privileging assumption over observation.”

Joan Didion’s Early Novels of American Womanhood

This article caught my eye because, although I’ve read quite a lot of Didion’s nonfiction, I haven’t read any of her fiction. 

What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do: marry, have children, and keep her marriage together, despite the inevitable philandering, despite her other hopes and dreams. Didion’s women have an image in mind of what life should look like—they’ve seen it in the fashion magazines—and they expect reality to follow suit. But it almost never does. In Didion’s fiction, the standard narratives of women’s lives are mangled, altered, and rewritten all the time.

Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed, finds academic

Scholarship has generally dated the first writing by English women to about the 12th century. But here Alison Flood discusses a new book, Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond 650-1100, by Diane Watt that places the emergence of women’s writing much earlier, in the 8th century. “Watt, a professor at the University of Surrey, lays out in the book how some anonymous texts from the period were probably created by women, and contends that men rewrote works originally produced by women.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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WHEN MURDER COMES HOME

Psychologist J.L. Doucette also writes mystery novels. When a body was found buried in the back yard of a house formerly owned by her grandmother, Doucette began to “question my choice of genre as if by writing about murder I was somehow complicit in bringing violence into the world.”

The 50 Greatest Coming-of-Age Novels

The great power of fiction originates in the universality of the particular stories it tells. Since growing up is something we all must do sooner or later, coming-of-age novels are among the most prevalent and most affecting of all.

cover: Middlesex

Here Emily Temple offers her list. I agree with some of her choices: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Cider House Rules by John Irving. 

Cover: The Art of Fielding

But there are a lot more I would add: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni.

How about you?

Are there other novels you’d add to this list?

Audiobooks or Reading? To Our Brains, It Doesn’t Matter

I hope we can finally put this tiresome argument to rest, thanks to these study results from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

HOW READING ROBERT CORMIER’S DARK YA HELPED ME SORT THROUGH MY TEACHER’S DEATH

Fiction writer Brenna Ehrlich describes how the dark, brooding fiction of Robert Cormier helper her, as a teenager, get through the brutal murder of local teacher. 

The Goldfinch: can a film solve Donna Tartt’s most divisive book?

cover: The Goldfinch

While The Goldfinch was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, it divided critics. One challenge to film-makers is its length (864 pages in the current paperback edition; well over 300,000 words). It was called “Dickensian” by some admiring reviewers, but the largest Dickens novels rely on highly elaborate plotting and a large cast of characters. The Goldfinch offers neither of these.

I loved Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, but a lot of people did not. The film version will be hitting theaters soon, and I’m eager to see it. But, as this article discusses, many are wondering whether this novel can be made into a satisfactory movie. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Audiobooks Fiction Personal Reading

Authors/Series I Stopped Reading–For Whatever Reason

What a time-consuming yet fruitful project this turned into. When I started looking back at my long-term reading log for the 6 Degrees of Separation meme, I discovered a lot of authors and/or series that I had begun to enjoy in the past but had not kept up with more recently. Many of these authors and series I discovered back in the early days of recorded books, which were called books on tape back then because they came as a series of cassettes in a cardboard box that we mailed back when we were done with them so that we could order more. Back then our daughter was swimming competitively, and we spent lots of time in the car driving to and from swim meets. I therefore went through a lot of recorded books.

Eventually CDs replaced cassette tapes, and then the CDs gave way to downloaded audio files. Those changes combined with the end of my daughter’s swimming meant that I listened to fewer audiobooks. That was when I lost track of many authors and their next publications.

There are a few authors whom I’ve followed faithfully and have read every one of their books in some format (printed book, ebook, or audiobook):

  • Michael Connelly  
  • John Sandford 
  • Harlan Coben  
  • Tana French 
  • (formerly) Sue Grafton

The list below (ordered alphabetically by author’s last name) comprises authors whose works I’ve lost touch with over time. Only a few of them are authors I gave up by choice because their novels no longer worked for me. So unless stated otherwise, assume that I haven’t read these authors recently because of this most cruel fate for book lovers:

So many books,

So little time.

fancy scroll

Kate Atkinson

I first learned about Kate Atkinson back in 1997 when my library book group read and loved her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I next read Case Histories for another book group, the introductory novel of her Jackson Brodie series, in 2006. Over the intervening years I’ve read a couple more of Atkinson’s novels but none of the Jackson Brodie series. There are now four more, which I’m looking forward to reading after rereading Case Histories.


Alan Bradley

One of the series that I dropped on purpose is the Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley.

I know I’m in the minority here, because a lot of people love this series. But after reading the first novel in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I had no desire to read any more. I like a good child narrator, but little Flavia just annoyed me right from the beginning.


Edna Buchanan

I’ve missed Edna Buchanan. In fact, I thought she might have died until I recently came upon this article. Now in her early 80s, she’s still a fixture in Miami but hasn’t published a work of fiction since 2011, a fact that explains why I’d heard nothing about her for a while.

Buchanan first made a name for herself by reporting on crime for Miami newspapers. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper work in 1986. I discovered her back in 1992 when I read her nonfiction work The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, a compilation of cases she’d reported on. But I most enjoyed her crime novels set in Miama featuring reporter Britt Montero.

For a further look at Edna Buchanan, see the New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin from 1986.


James Lee Burke

My husband and I both love Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, which we discovered in the mid 1990s, in our heyday with books on cassettes. I’ve listened to seven Robicheaux novels, but I have some catching up to do, since the series is now up to 11 books.


Sarah Caudwell

Sarah Caudwell was the pseudonym of British barrister Sarah Cockburn. She wrote her four-book Hilary Tamar series over the course of 20 years.

Reminiscing about Sarah Caudwell in Mystery Scene Martin Edwards writes, “Sarah Caudwell’s books are admittedly an acquired taste. . . . Readers who crave penetrating social comment or in-depth characterisation in their mysteries should look elsewhere.”

I read both the first (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) and the last (The Sibyl in Her Grave) books in this series but never felt compelled to read the two middle ones. What I remember most about them is that they never reveal whether Hilary Tamar is a man or a woman. This is harder to accomplish than it might seem. Imagine having to construct every sentence so as to avoid using either he or she—and to do so without having the sentences sound awkward or unnatural. 

According to her publisher, Penguin Random House, Sarah Caudwell died in 2000.


Patricia Cornwell

I initially liked Cornwell’s series featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. But I quit that series after book #9, 1998’s Point of Origin because, as Kay Scarpetta became more shrill and self-centered, the story lines also became more improbable. According to Patricia Cornwell’s website, she has published 14 more Scarpetta novels since Point of Origin. She also has two additional series and a bunch of other books, but I won’t be reading them.


Stephen Dobyns

I discovered Stephen Dobyns back in 1994 when I listed to a book (on tape) from his Charlie Bradshaw series, all of which contain Saratoga in the title. The series comprises 10 novels published between 1976 and 1998, plus an 11th book published in 2017. These are entertaining mysteries featuring a former police officer now working, by choice, as a private investigator. One of the recurring themes is Charlie’s mother’s complaints that he should get a real job and his attempts to convince her that he’s a PI because he WANTS to be. These mysteries features some of the quirkiest yet most lovable minor characters you’ll ever meet.

I also have to mention Dobyns’s stand-along novel The Church of Dead Girls, an unflinching depiction of mob mentality couched in a murder mystery. And his novel Cold Dog Soup is, no kidding, about the weirdest yet most engaging novel I’ve ever read.

Dobyns is also well known as a poet and a writing instructor.


Earl Emerson

Earl Emerson was a firefighter in Seattle, WA, for 32 years. He began publishing mysteries and thrillers in 1985. I discovered him when our daughter entered the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, the city where Emerson was born. He’s the author of two series—the Thomas Black series and the Mac Fontana series—as well as several stand-alone novels. His books have won several awards. 

More information about Emerson and his books is available on his website.


 G.M. Ford

I discovered author G.M. Ford at about the same time I became aware of Earl Emerson because both lived in Seattle. (But according to Ford’s current publisher, Harper Collins, he now lives in Oregon.) I’ve read a few of Ford’s 

Leo Waterman novels, which feature a fiesty private detective living and working in Seattle. Ford’s first published book, Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? (1995) introduced the Waterman series and was nominated for three mystery awards. There are currently 11 Waterman novels, of which I’ve read only a few, but I have several more waiting on my Kindle.

Ford also writes the Frank Corso series, which is now up to six novels. In addition, he has published three stand-alone novels.


Sue Grafton

Like just about every other mystery fan, I loved Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. I usually preferred the audiobook format of these novels because I liked hearing a spoken version of Kinsey’s quirky voice.

In detective series, the authors have to balance a certain inevitable sameness — we read these books for the comfortable familiarity of hanging with someone we know — with a need to keep things fresh. Sue Grafton made a dramatic change midway through the alphabet with her Kinsey Millhone series; the books became significantly longer, and less private-eye caper than nuanced psychological thriller, employing a variety of narrative voices (not just Kinsey’s). I liked the change, for the most part, but I heard from readers who didn’t.

Moira Macdonald

Unfortunately, Sue Grafton died in December 2017, after the publication of “Y” is for Yesterday. She had planned to name the next book “Z” is for Zero, but complications from cancer treatment prevented her from doing much work on it. After she died, her family stated that, for them, “from now on, the alphabet ends with Y.”


P.D. James

I first read some of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series back in the early 1990s, although I didn’t read them in order. These novels use most of the classic mystery plot devices but rely on well-developed characters to hold the reader’s attention. Her Inspector Dalgliesh is an introspective, deeply moral character. The last of the 14 Dalgliesh novels, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. I hope to read the rest of this series.

James also wrote two novels featuring Cordelia Gray, a young private detective, and a few stand-alone novels, which you can read about on the author’s website.

P.D. James died on November 27, 2014.


Jonathan Kellerman

I discovered Jonathan Kellerman’s series featuring clinical psychologist Alex Delaware back in 1992, with the fifth book in the series, Time Bomb. I’ve read eight of these books, but, as the series is now up to book #34, I have a lot more to look forward to. I have #10, The Web, on my Kindle now.

For more information about Jonathan Kellerman and his books, see his website.


Ed McBain

Salvatore Albert Lombino (born in 1926) legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952. For more than 50 years he was a prolific writer of fiction, screenplays, and television episodes but is probably best remembered for his fictional 87th Precinct series, 55 novels published under the pseudonym Ed McBain between 1956 and 2005. This series set the standard for what would develop into the genre of police procedural fiction.

The 87th Precinct novels are set in the fictional city of Isola, a thinly disguised version of New York City’s Manhattan. Although several characters appear in many of the novels, the focus is always on the squad as a whole rather than on individual detectives as they work to solve crimes.

In addition to crime fiction, Evan Hunter published science fiction and wrote many film and television scripts under several names before his death in 2005.


Val McDermid

I also discovered Scottish crime writer Val McDermid on tape. She currently has four series going, but I’ve only read (or listened to) several from the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. This series features clinical psychologist Tony Hill working with detective Carol Jordan to solve crimes by getting inside the mind of the criminal. With the next installment of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, How the Dead Speak, due out in the U.S. on 12/3/2019, I have some catching up to do here.

I should also mention McDermid’s stand-alone novel A Place of Execution, which is so good I’ve read it twice.


Denise Mina

Back in 2001 one of my book groups read Garnethill, Scottish writer Denise Mina’s first novel, which won the CWA John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel. Since then, I’ve been aware of Mina’s subsequent publications and the prominence they have brought her. According to just about everyone, her fame is well deserved, so I should try to catch up with her work.

Her complete publication list appears on her website, along with other information about the writer and her career.

Update: Why We Love Denise Mina’s Mysteries


Marcia Muller

I discovered Marcia Muller back in 1996, when I got interested in contemporary portrayals of female detectives. Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first novel in Muller’s Sharon McCone series, was published in 1977. McCone therefore preceded both Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, both of whom were introduced in 1982 (Milhone in “A” Is for Alibi and Warshawski in Indemnity Only).

Back in 1996 I read the first two Sharon McCone novels. According to Goodread’s Sharon McCone page the series is now up to more than 30 books, with the most recent, The Breakers, having been published in 2018.


Sara Paretsky

Along with Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky revolutionized the portrayal of women detectives with her V.I. Warshawski series.

I’ve read several of those novels, but by no means all. Paretsky lives in Chicago and is an outspoken critic of efforts to silence women’s voices and to take away their rights. More information about both her fiction and her nonfiction is available on her website.


Ann B. Ross

I discovered Ross’s Miss Julia series back in 2000 when my library book group read the first novel, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. Miss Julia is a Southern widow of a certain age, with a sharp tongue and crazy friends. I should read more of these books now that I myself have attained a certain age.

More information is available on the author’s website.


Minette Walters

When I realized that I hadn’t heard anything about Walters, including any new publications, I went looking and found this article in The Guardian dated May 8, 2017. According to the article, Walters helped create the genre we now know as the psychological thriller with “an unbroken run of bestsellers from 1993 [that] ended abruptly in 2007 with her last crime novel, The Chameleon’s Shadow.” Walters attributes this long break to burnout over writing crime fiction. The article heralds Walters’s shift to historical fiction with the publication (in November 2017) of her first novel in 10 years, The Last Hours, about the Black Death.

I love to innovate and, while it pleases me greatly that I’ve helped create the genre of psychological crime fiction, I’d be going against my nature if I didn’t look towards different horizons.

Minette Walters

A look at my reading database and Minette Walters’s website reveals that I’ve read the first seven of her novels, so I have many more—including a few of her early psychological suspense and several more recent pubications—to look forward to.

I particularly recommend her first novel, The Ice House, and her third, The Scold’s Bridle


Stephen White

I discovered the Alan Gregory series by Stephen White back in the early days of books on tape. I listened to the first eight books in this series featuring clinical psychologist Alan Gregory but then lost touch with the series as technology changed and books on cassettes transitioned to audiobooks for download. Finding book #9, The Program (2008), recently on sale as an ebook reminded me of this excellent series.

A recent check of Stephen White’s website revealed that his latest novel, Compound Fractures, is the 20th and final installment of the Alan Gregory series. But White assures his fans that he can’t imagine himself not writing. He’s currently working on the development of two television dramas and has several ideas for novels bouncing around in his head.


Stuart Woods

I don’t remember exactly what lead me to author Stuart Woods, but I know I discovered him back in those heady days of books on cassette tapes. I have first-hand knowledge of four of his series:

1. Will Lee series 

I very much enjoyed Woods’s first novel, Chiefs (1981), based on a family story. This novel became the first in the Will Lee series.

2. Stone Barrington series

After Chiefs, I started reading Woods’s series featuring former NYPD detective now turned lawyer Stone Barrington. I began with the first novel in this series, New York Dead (1991). I read several more of the books in the series but eventually stopped because the stories became progressively more and more outlandish and just plain silly.

3. Ed Eagle series

I’ve read only the first book, Santa Fe Rules, in this series featuring New Mexico lawyer Ed Eagle.

4. Holly Barker series

I’ve also read only the first book, Orchid Beach, in this series.

Woods also has three more series, which you can read about in Liberty Hardy’s article A Definitive Guide to All of Stuart Woods’ Series. But the Stone Barrington series, now at more than 50 books, is obviously the author’s baby. The other series are all much shorter, and many of their main  characters appear at least tangentially across more than one series.

Stuart Woods has also written several stand-alone novels, of which I’ve enjoyed several. For more information, including a downloadable PDF checklist of all Woods’s books listed by series, see his website.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Last Week's Links Literary History Reading

Literary Links

SCI-FI DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DEPRESSING: WELCOME TO SOLARPUNK

Welcome to solarpunk, a new genre within science fiction that is a reaction against the perceived pessimism of present-day sci-fi and hopes to bring optimistic stories about the future with the aim of encouraging people to change the present. The first book that explicitly identified as solarpunk was Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável (Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World), a Brazilian book published in 2012. In 2014, author Adam Flynn wrote Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto.

Tom Cassauwers reports that this new genre began to take off in 2017.

Listen up: why we can’t get enough of audiobooks

Audiobook sales are booming. This article looks at the inevitable question: “is there really a measurable difference between reading with the eyes and ‘reading’ with the ears?”

Crime writers mystified by Colm Tóibín’s criticism

Colm Tóibín recently revived the age-old, snobbish distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction by declaring “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing.”

WHEN CRIME AUTHORS WRITE NON-CRIME BOOKS

Lisa Levy discusses eight books by “crime authors moonlighting in other forms of literature.”

Bonus: for another take on enjoying literature that crosses genres, see A Book You Didn’t Know You Needed.

Enjoying Literary Classics

I came across two pieces about enjoying works of literature that have stood the test of time. 

1. Please Take This Summer to Become Obsessed With The Group 

Mikaella Clements writes about her enjoyment of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, published in 1963 and set in 1933, which she describes as “alarmingly modern”:

Though its politics are deeply rooted in the 1930s—the novel addresses the idea of the New Woman, the optimism of socialism before WWII and the Eastern Bloc, and the rise of fascism—it is as much about the feminist movement of the 60s and the pitfalls of cultural movements that posit themselves as revolutionary and instead find new ways to minimize, cage, and hurt women.

2. LAURA LIPPMAN: MY 35-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR

Novelist Laura Lippman discusses Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, “which I have re-read every year for almost 35 years.” She calls it “a unicorn of a book—a so-called women’s novel, written by a man, that takes its heroine very seriously.” 

Lippman says that she doesn’t know whether Marjorie Morningstar is a great book. “But it is a serious book that finds a big, sprawling story in what seems like a small, narrow life. More novels, even crime novels, should dare to do the same.”

The Rise of Rural Noir

When we hear the word “noir,” our minds flash to black-and-white movies driven by hard-boiled, big-city detectives. But in the 21st century, a new genre of crime fiction has risen from the swamps, mountains, and suburbs of the South. Norris Eppes interviews seven rural noir masters to make sense of a thrilling literary genre that rings true to our region.

The authors interviewed here are Brian Panowich, Ace Atkins, Karin Slaughter, Attica Locke, Tom Franklin, James Sallis, and John Hart.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Last Week's Links Reading

Last Week’s Links

THE BEST BOOK DATABASE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

Abby Hargreaves talks about Novelist, a database that librarians use to recommend books to patrons. This database, which may be available to you through your local library’s web site, is especially good for finding recommendations on what to read next if you liked a particular book and would like to read more similar to it.

While NoveList only organizes fiction, there’s a companion database called NoveList Plus that includes nonfiction, too.

The Thing About Families and Thriller Writing

Because I love thrillers, I read a lot of descriptions of books in that genre. Here, thriller novelist David Bell explains why some many of those descriptions contain two elements: families and secrets.

It’s true that we thriller writers often exaggerate the problems and secrets that families deal with. Most families don’t experience murder, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance. (Some do, of course.) But so many times those wild, exaggerated crimes that occur in a thriller start with something small. Something ordinary. A secret kept. A promise broken. The smallest splash becomes a tidal wave.

And he offers a possible explanation of why readers love thrillers so much: “When they see the disasters that happen to fictional characters on a page, they feel relieved.” No matter how messed up our own family members might be, most of them are nowhere near as bad as the characters that inhabit the latest  best seller.

Look, Read, Listen—What’s the Difference?

I’ve always insisted that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as you listen to the unabridged version. But in this piece author Betsy Robinson argues differently: “ audiobooks and books are as different as movies and books.”

A former playwright now turned novelist, Robinson believes that audio productions minimize “the value of the direct relationship between books and readers.” I agree with her analysis of the reading process, called reader-response theory or transactional reading, and I therefore agree with her in the case of people who fall asleep while listening or are “missing whole paragraphs when one of the kids spills his Cheerios.” Since I no longer have a child whose eating requires monitoring, I’m seldom distracted in that way. But if I do miss a chunk of the recording, I back track until I get back to something I remember, then relisten.

And for that reason, I will continue to include unabridged audiobooks in my yearly count of books read.

We Should All Be Reading Ancient Poetry Right Now

Here’s something we classics major have always known:

There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.

Books: Loeb Classical Library
Loeb Classical Library

How Does a Novelist Write About a School Shooting?

Cover: Empire FallsOne of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The novel contains a school shooting, which most people assume was based on the 1999 high school shooting in Littleton, CO. Russo explains that he finished the book’s manuscript before the Colorado shooting and that, in fact, the fictional incident was based on a shooting in Paducah, KY, that occurred in 1997.

But, Russo continues, which event formed the basis for the novel’s plot is not important. Once such an event has occurred, it’s nearly impossible for writers NOT to incorporate it into their work:

as I wrote and revised the novel, . . [e]ach day became an exercise in magical thinking: If I could face the worst of my fears on the page, maybe I’d be spared in real life. I didn’t want to write the story, but how could I not?

Because, Russo writes:

And yet it’s novels we turn to for a deeper understanding of life than we get from politicians and others with ideological axes to grind, which is why some other novelist (probably thinking, How can I not?) is no doubt at work on a book that centers on a school shooting. Every day she sets about her horrifying task, trying to imagine, What if one of the dead kids in Parkland was mine? Could I go on? What would my mission in life become after life as I knew it ceased to exist? Questions like these drive novelists, not because we have answers, but because we don’t. All we have is moral imagination, which, over time, can help heal wounds but also has a nasty habit of opening them, as my novel did and continues to do.

That novelist currently writing is in an even more anxiety-ridden spot that he was because “such tragedies have become commonplace.” And also because:

As a nation, we have not decided that our children are more important than our guns, and any new novel on the subject will have to address that tectonic shift. We’ve changed. Our nation has changed.

Writing about all this, as Russo does here, is an act of tremendous bravery for which he deserves our gratitude.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Fiction Last Week's Links Libraries Literary Criticism Reading

Last Week’s Links

As Far As Your Brain Is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not ‘Cheating’

I love audiobooks; they enable me to read while plodding along on the treadmill or doing chores around the house. I’ve always thought that listening to a book instead of reading it is not cheating as long as I listen to the unabridged version.

And now I feel validated:

This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews

Book critic Jennifer Senior writes:

Now, as a person who writes reviews for a living, I am curious to know: How do professional authors handle unsparing criticism, written in just a few days or weeks, of something they’ve toiled over for years?

She put this question to her friend, Curtis Sittenfeld, “author of “Prep,” “American Wife” and most recently, “Eligible,” a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” Read here how Sittenfeld feels about reviews of her books.

Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m always interested in ways in which literature crosses over into everyday life. Here’s one example:

In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled. But it gave states a lot of leeway to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called “the Lennie standard.” That sounds like a reference to an august precedent, but it is not. The Lennie in question is Lennie Small, the dim, hulking farmhand in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The article ends with remarks by Thomas Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck.

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

If you don’t yet know Maria Popova’s astounding brainpickings, you’re in for a treat. Here she discusses “the significance of books and the role of reading in human life [that] comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled ‘Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.’”

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown