“Knowing what people are expecting allows you to subvert the trope. Expectation is its own red herring, built right into your reader.”
Stuart Turton, author of the brilliant The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and newly released The Devil and The Dark Water, admits, “I’m obsessed by the structure of novels.” He particularly likes “books that cross genres and mess with the traditional way stories are told.”
Here Turton explains how he played with crossing genres to create the effects he wanted in his two novels.
This is a topic that fascinates me. Here are two blog posts I’ve written that deal with the topic from a reader’s rather than a writer’s perspective:
- How Narrative Structure Works in Fiction: And How It Differs from Plot
- Review: “The Blinds” by Adam Sternbergh
There’s a lot said and written about the importance of introductions in fiction, but not so much about endings. And for good reason: to discuss the adequacy or inadequacy of an ending, you have to give away the entire contents of the book.
Here Ron Charles, book reviewer for The Washington Post, takes on this subject. He cites a survey of Goodreads reviews done by the online retailer OnBuy.com , which yielded a list of the Top 12 Most Disappointing Endings. Charles also solicited comments from Post readers about the novel endings they’ve found most disappointing. His conclusion: “If there’s any common thread, it’s that the endings that offend us most appear in the books we love most.”
And while you’re reading Charles’s article, take advantage of the link offered whereby you can sign up for his weekly Book World newsletter. It lands in my inbox every Friday and is one of the highlights of my literary week.
Publisher’s Weekly offers the scoop on “the forthcoming tabletop game Mother of Frankenstein,” which “combines aspects of immersive theater, escape rooms, board games, puzzles, role-playing games, and parlor games in one package, making for a 15-hour playing experience.”
Good news indeed, as it seems we’re in for an extended period of pandemic isolation.
How have I not heard of this?
Elisa Shoenberger reports on the annual Tournament of Books, which takes place in March. “It’s March Madness but for literature.”
From the U.K. Guardian: “We know the heyday of the ghost story mostly as the province of men like MR James and Charles Dickens. But archivists are finding that some of the finest exponents were women.”
Read why the women pioneers in ghost stories who have been “effectively erased from history over the last century.”
This article on “the concentration of power in UK publishing” reports on the lack of diversity in the Booker Prize.
Author Jamie Harris writes that “The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history” and is seldom awarded to writers published outside of London:
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller.
Reading comprehension, defined as the “ability to process and retain information from texts,” is something we usually think of as happening to children in their early years of school. But here Christine Ro reports on some recent research into enhancing reading comprehension for adults and offers some suggestions for doing so.
Unsurprisingly, some of her suggestions involve slowing down while reading and actively engaging with the text, for example, by annotating, all examples of slow reading.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Every September, the Primetime Emmy Awards are handed out, celebrating the best that television had to offer from the previous season. Usually, this event entails the red carpet, designer dresses, flashing lights, and giant crowds. Well, this year is going to be a little bit different. This year’s virtual ceremony will combine pre-recorded and live video of host Jimmy Kimmel and the nominees. And of those nominees, a whopping 12 shows were adapted from books.
“Critics say Reclaim Her Name fails to reflect the array of reasons authors chose to publish under male pseudonyms”
Nora McGreevy reports in Smithsonian Magazine about the Reclaim Her Name project recently launched by the Women’s Prize for Fiction in conjunction with Baileys (of Irish cream liqueur fame).
More about the project in a minute. But first, a personal digression. When I click on the link for the Reclaim Her Name project given in the opening paragraph of this article, I get sent to a page with this URL: https://www.baileys.com/en-gb/reclaim-her-name-campaign . OK, since Baileys is a sponsor. But there’s an overlay on the page that requires me to submit my birthday: “Can we see some ID please? It’s part of our commitment to responsible drinking.” I can’t get into the site without giving them my birthdate. An ID to read about books? I don’t think so. Consequently, I can only report on McGreevy’s article, not on the Reclaim Her Name project itself.
According to McGreevy, the Reclaim Her Name project, “a joint initiative honoring the literary award’s 25th anniversary,” focuses on “25 classic and lesser-known works by authors who historically wrote under male pseudonyms.” The Reclaim Her Name collection comprises free ebooks that feature the writers’ actual names on the covers.
But, McGreevy writes, “Despite its arguably well-intentioned aims, Reclaim Her Name quickly attracted criticism from scholars and authors, many of whom cited a number of historical inaccuracies embedded in the project.” Most complaints, many of which this article links to, involve a general disregard for the reasons why individual authors chose to publish these works under pseudonyms.
This article from the Los Angeles Times delves into the history of the Little Free Library movement as well as the benefits and problems of unmonitored distribution of books during a health epidemic.
The Ox-Bow Incident: William Wellman’s stunning Western illuminates how righteous cowboys can become a mob of vigilantes
The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the best novels to illustrate how a writer can use language to convey a character’s state of mind. In this essay for the Library of America, Michael Sragow argues that the 1943 film version of The Ox-Bow Incident “generates a visceral and emotional force that equals or surpasses the power of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ruminative, soul-quaking 1940 novel.”
Lilly Dancyger looks at Alisson Wood’s memoir Being Lolita, which Cancyger calls “a fearless interrogation of her own experience being groomed and manipulated by an older man—and a reclaiming of the narrative of Lolita, reminding readers that the cultural understanding of the novel still tends to favor the predator’s perspective, and that teenage girls need support, not objectification.”
Katy Waldman addresses what she calls the reflexivity trap in fiction:
This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance. The problem with such signalling is that it rarely resolves the anxieties that seem to prompt it. Mocking your emotions, or expressing doubt or shame about them, doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy, cowardice, or racism won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical, cowardly, or racist. As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point. To the extent that this discourages further action, oblivion might be preferable.
“How Life’s Shifting Identities Filter Into the Work of a Novelist”
Novelist Caroline Leavitt discusses how personality changes can occur and how she explored their significance in writing her books:
I realize that the only thing any of us—including my characters—can know is that everything you thought you knew about yourself or others can derail. But unexpected transformation can also revive, burnishing new possibilities you never expected, and that new person you might become can actually turn out to be your truest self of all.
I love mysteries and thrillers, and I’ve read a lot of them.
This list of reading recommendations, by the PBS show MASTERPIECE Mystery!, comes from the creators and writers of the program Grantchester as well as “ a selection of mystery insiders.” The list includes works by the following authors:
- Louise Penny
- Nicholas Blake
- Kate Griffin
- Thomas H. Cook
- Eva Dolan
- Margaret Millar
- Anthony Oliver
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
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 Sally Rooney’s best seller (and now a TV series), Normal People. I’ve had this novel on my TBR shelf since it first came out, and I had every intention of reading it before working on this month’s challenge.
However, unlike the people in Rooney’s novel, these times (COVID-19 pandemic and, here in the U.S., racial injustice with associated protests) are not normal, and I didn’t get a lot of reading done over the past month. Since I therefore am not ready to deal with Normal People thematically, I’ve had to look for another approach to this month’s challenge. A check on Goodreads revealed that Normal People received a lot of accolades:
- Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018)
- Costa Book Award for Novel (2018)
- Dylan Thomas Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019)
- Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2019)
Further digging revealed that I also have on my TBR shelves several novels that in the past received these same awards.
1. Normal People was on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019). The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a former winner of this annual prize.
2. Normal People was on the long list for the 2018 Booker Prize. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes received this award in 2011.
3. Normal People received the Costa Book Award for Novel in 2018. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry won the same award, plus the Costa Book of the Year Award, in 2016.
4. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize in 2013.
5. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders also won the Booker Prize, in 2017.
6. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Award, which later became the Costa Novel Award, in 2015.
It’s comforting to know that I have so many good books still on my TBR shelves. And I also discovered that I’ve already read several past prize winners:
- Booker Prize: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984), Possession by A.S. Byatt (1990), and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
- Women’s Prize: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
- Costa Award (formerly Whitbread Award): The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The moral of this story is that I should pay more attention to literary prizes in the future.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Recently my husband and I traveled back to our neighboring hometowns for a family funeral. We’d been back for visits periodically, of course, but we haven’t lived there for 50 years.
Each time we visit, I feel a distinct sense of dislocation. The adage “you can’t go home again” is true for two reasons:
- Your hometown is not the same place as it once was.
- You are no longer the same person you used to be.
Most “you can’t go home again” novels I can think of involve small towns. I grew up in a small town in New England. With only one elementary school in the town, I knew all the kids in the same grade with me, and I knew just about everybody, and all their siblings, in the entire school as well. Our parents all knew each other, and many of us had grandparents who knew each other. Some of the roads in the town were named after prominent multi-generational resident families, such as Lyons Road. Janie Lyons was a couple of years younger than me, and her mother and my mother had gone to school together.
All of this intergenerational overlapping within the same limited geographical boundaries makes privacy nearly impossible. Anybody who had a deep, dark secret in their past that they wanted to keep hidden would have to leave such a small town and start a new life somewhere else. This is probably why the protagonists of “you can’t go home again” novels come predominantly from small towns rather than from big cities. And it’s also probably why most such novels have at their heart some damning action or traumatic event from the past.
Here are five “you can’t go home again” novels that illustrate the Big Three of mystery/thriller tropes: secrets, lies, and betrayals.
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
In this prototypical “you can’t go home again” novel, Nicolette Farrell returns to the home town she left 10 years ago to help care for her aging father who exhibits early signs of dementia. Now engaged and working in a city, she returns to the place where everyone knew her as Nic and remembers that she, her brother, and her hometown boyfriend were involved in the unexplained disappearance of her best friend back then.
Soon after Nic returns, another girl vanishes under similar circumstances, and suddenly Nic and those around her are once again under suspicion. To understand what is happening now, Nic begins to try to understand what happened to her friend all those years ago. But does she really want to know the answers to all the questions that her previously unexamined memories turn up?
The Dry by Jane Harper
In Harper’s stunning debut novel, federal investigator Aaron Falk travels from Melbourne back to the small Australian farming community where he grew up to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, and Luke’s wife and six-year-old son. The Hadlers were shot in their home, with only infant Charlotte left alive. The working theory is that Luke, under significant financial pressure, killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself.
But Aaron doesn’t believe Luke would have killed either his family or himself. Back in their teenage years, Aaron and Luke came under suspicion for murder, but the case was never solved. Now Aaron begins investigating the Hadlers’ murders, wondering if this case could be related to that earlier one. What he learns solves both cases and explains why Aaron’s father moved his teenage son to Melbourne, a lifestyle change that young Aaron hated and resented.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Before Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl, she wrote Sharp Objects, the story of troubled reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has just returned from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to her job at a city newspaper when two young girls are murdered in her small, rural home town. When her editor tells her to go visit her family and report on the crime, Camille tries to get out of the assignment, which will reunite her with the domineering, narcissistic mother who never loved her and the much younger half-sister whom Camille barely knows.
But keeping her job depends on her compliance, so Camille goes back to the poisonous environment she’s been trying all her life to escape. The assignment forces her to experience some of her childhood pain all over again but also suggests she may begin to find a pathway toward healing.
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
This novel (my least favorite of Ruth Ware’s novels so far) illustrates a variation on “you can’t go home again” novels: the return not necessarily to home, but to a place where a significant childhood action or event occurred. The crucial location here is Salten, a girls’ boarding school in a small English village near the cliffs of the English Channel. Four girls—all misfits for various reasons—meet here as teenagers and form an exclusive clique. They alienate everyone else by their constant lying game, unending attempts to pass off outlandish claims as true. The main rule of the lying game is that they are never to lie to each other.
Seventeen years later three of these women, now in their 30s, receive a text message from the fourth, Kate: “I need you.” The three women, all living near London, drop their professional and family lives to run back to Salten, no questions asked, to help Kate. The novel then proceeds in two separate strands, one the present time and the other in the past, the year the girls spent at school together. Kate is still living in the home she shared with her father, the school’s art instructor, during that year, and much of the backstory focuses on how much idyllic time the four girls spent together in that house, a kind of surrogate home for the other three with unstable family lives, before their antisocial behavior got them all expelled.
As the complex mystery unfolds, the changed situations of the adult characters strain relationships formed around such a tenuous bond so long ago. As the women come to understand how both their schoolmates and the village residents viewed them back then, they discover that they truly can’t go home again.
The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor
This novel illustrates another variation on the “you can’t go home again” formula: Sometimes you can’t go home again even if you never left in the first place.
In 1986, 12-year-old Eddie and his friends rode bikes around their English village. To stave off boredom they developed their own secret code, chalk stick figures they used to send messages to each other that no one else could understand. This was great fun—until a mysterious chalk man message appeared and lead them to a dead body.
Thirty years later, Ed still lives in the same village. When he and a friend each receive a letter in the mail containing a chalk figure, they think it must be a prank. But when another death occurs, Ed realizes that to save himself, he’ll have to figure out what happened in the village all those years ago.
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown
Here’s a short entry for this busy holiday week.
An interesting look at the bulk of novels published this year:
They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem. Each week it seemed that a promising new novel emerged that reimagined fiction — for politics’ sake, for literature’s sake, for the sake of expanding whatever the hell fiction might become in an age when Twain’s old maxim about the truth being stranger is tragically truer than ever. Not every one of these novels will become a “relevant classic,” but this year they spread their roots so far and deep that they essentially choked off the usual white, male suspects.
And I particularly like the writer’s conclusion: “ This golden age of women’s fiction is the resistance that we didn’t know was coming to save us.”
Rebecca Makkai, author of the novel The Great Believers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, addresses the questions “Is it really okay to talk about art right now? To leave the real and broken world behind and talk about fictional ones?”
I also like her conclusion:
Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.
This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive.
Andrew Case writes that, while journalists and lawyers have for years been exposing the unreliability of analyses of spatter patterns, shell casings, shoe prints, and tire marks, “nowhere is discredited science more alive than in crime fiction.” Since I read a lot of crime novels, I was interested in his analysis.
Case notes that in 2009 a panel from the National Academy of Science concluded that “No forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” Case argues:
Junk science doesn’t just lead to wrongful convictions—it contributes to the already-enormous racial disparity in wrongful convictions in this country. Skepticism towards pattern evidence is not just for scientists and lawyers, but for anyone interested in reducing racism in our criminal justice system.
In the world of crime fiction, Case argues, a plot based on such methods of analysis
can descend into bad storytelling. Our age is complex. Solutions are rare. And stories that reflect that complexity will seem more true. Crime may be down, but most crimes still don’t get solved—the clearance rate for major index crimes for the NYPD last quarter was only 33%. Stories that reflect this reality are in turn more compelling.
He advocates instead for stories “ filled with surprises and twists grounded in human psychology, not whether a fingerprint or a bullet magically solved a crime.”
Washington Post book critic Ron Charles discusses the seemingly eternal conflict between high-brow and low-brow taste in literature.
After serving as a judge on several literary contests — from the National Book Critics Circle to the Pulitzer — I’ve come to believe that the best measure of the legitimacy of a book prize is the vibrancy of the discussion it inspires. The terms “best,” “favorite,” “acclaimed” and “popular” are slippery, but they aren’t useless. If awards don’t tell us anything definitive about the books themselves, they certainly indicate something illuminating about the era. Notice, for instance, that 17 of this year’s 21 Goodreads Choice Awards were won by women. (Ian McEwan famously observed, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”)
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown
Loosely translated as the practice of piling up books you might never read, the Japanese word tsundoku seems to be everywhere right now. In recent months, The New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, and plenty of others have reported on the phenomenon.
Here’s the feature’s subtitle: “We want to see your shameful stacks of unread books.”
Well, I, for one, see absolutely no shame in my collection, seen at the top of this post. I do have to admit, though, that this isn’t my entire collection of not-yet-read books. There’s no way I could fit all of them into one photograph.
How about you? Are you willing to share your tsundoku photos in the comments?
Every time we travel to another country, I’m amazed at how fluent the local people are in languages other than their native language. Many people even speak two or more languages in addition to their language of origin. When I ask them at what age they started learning foreign languages, they often give an age between 8 and 12 years. And the reason they most often give is that they are required to choose another language in school.
We U.S. residents could learn a second language, too, if it were an academic requirement. In this article Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences, professor of global studies, and professor of sociology at Bentley University in Massachusetts, explains why he believes:
Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.
He has some interesting reasons for urging us all to become polyglots.
Fiona Gartland, a journalist with The Irish Times for 13 years and newly published novelist, addresses the issue of ageism in publishing. Most publishers, she says, expect writers to have published a book by about the age of 40.
English author Joanna Walsh, who runs @Read_Women, has argued that ageism in publishing silences minorities and women in particular because women are more likely to be the ones who spend part of their lives caring for children, which makes finding time to write more difficult. She says “older women are already told every day in ways ranging from the subtle to the blatant, that they are irrelevant and should shut up”. Placing age barriers, for example for writing awards, is arbitrary and “a particularly cruel irony” for those unable to write in their youth, she says.
But “Not everyone finds a voice in their youth,” Gartland argues, and that “doesn’t mean what they have to say is any less valuable or any less worthy of hearing.”
A consistent outsider in the bookies’ odds, Anna Burns’s Milkman is the sort of boldly experimental – and frankly brain-kneading – novel that is usually let in at longlist stage and gently dropped as the competition narrows. And for that reason alone it is a smartly provocative choice – one that has been waiting to be made as the publishing industry searches for the soul of its next generation.
Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian that Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, winner of the Booker Prize, will challenge both bookstores and readers. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the novel features an 18-year-old narrator with a “relentlessly internalised” narrative that portrays “a social dysfunction that is both gothic and comically Kafkaesque.”
Milkman, Armitstead writes, is a novel that speaks “to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”
Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, involves an old house and a secret hidden away there for 150 years. “Goodreads asked Morton to recommend her favorite novels where a house is nearly a central character in the story.” (See 6 Illustrations of How Setting Works in Literature.)
The use of place as an integral part of a story can add psychological depth to a novel. See what five novels Morton includes on her list.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown