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Book Groups Bookstores Discussion

Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Coronavirus Diaries: I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive.

I live in Tacoma, WA, about 30 miles south of Seattle, the epicenter of the coronavirus influx into the United States. This article in Slate therefore caught my eye and seems appropriate to pass on since it’s about books.

Laurie Swift Raisys, owner of Island Books in Mercer Island, WA, points out a fear that all business owners must face when nobody is going out shopping: 

As a business owner, you rely on the community and the people that come in and shop at your store in order to pay your bills and pay your employees. Last week was incredibly stressful, and this week has been very stressful, and I don’t really see an end in sight right now.

But what pulled at my heartstrings even more than the purely economic complications of this medical emergency is the community impact:

We’re a community gathering place. Our slogan is “Real people, real books, real community,” and we’ve been around 46 years. My husband grew up on the island, and I worked part time for a number of years as a contractor. My contract ended one year and I decided I was going to do something different. I’d always wanted to own an island business, because I love this community. Everyone knows your name. They know your kids.

Raisys explains that several of her customers are over 60, the demographic most at risk from this particular virus. These people have been ordering by phone or email, and she has been dropping off books at their homes.

Further, “People are hibernating, and it makes it hard for us as a place of community. You cannot be in the business of social distancing, as they’re calling it, when you are a place that people come to for book clubs.” Often, book club represents the sum total of people’s social life, especially older people’s.

It’s easy to lose sight of aspects like this when we’re focused on more immediate health concerns. “It’s a small town, and they [residents] support when they can,” Raisys writes, but this disease is bound to have severe long-term effects after the immediate crisis is over.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

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.

I often hear that crime fiction is just plot-driven entertainment—that unlike literary fiction, or even general fiction, it doesn’t examine the human condition. The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.

Dianne Freeman

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. 

Queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark reportedly scanned the New York City tabloids every morning looking for story ideas, a suggestion she was looking for unusual plot twists.

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

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. 

For me, the best thrillers are a combination of plot and characterization. There is nothing better than a thriller I absolutely can’t put down. That said, it isn’t everything; I also want to feel something for the characters in the books I read. If I don’t, then ultimately I won’t care what happens to them in the end. They also need to feel authentic.

thriller writer Mary Kubica

Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.

We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end.

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction

Is the Locked-Room Mystery Obsolete?

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

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:

Gone are the days of the snowed-in, bridge-down, lines-out country house murder, where everyone dutifully assembles in the library to unveil the killer.

Christopher Fowler

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

cover: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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.


No Exit by Taylor Adams

cover: No Exit

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

cover: In a Dark, Dark Wood

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

cover: The Escape Room

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

cover: The Lost Man

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.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Personal Reading

My Reading Plan for 2020

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


For the past few years I’ve set up a reading plan at the beginning of each new year. In most of those plans I set up goals involving books I thought I should read rather than books I wanted to read. And most of those years I failed to meet the goals of books I thought I should read.

Therefore, this year I’m going to set up my reading plan a bit differently. Two blog posts from the past year helped shape my thoughts about this:

  1. Authors/Series I Stopped Reading–For Whatever Reason
  2. 10 Reading Regrets of 2019

The first made me realize that there are some authors and series that I do want to catch up with. The second comprises recently published books that I just didn’t get around to before 2019 came to an end. In addition, I’ve also recently started participating in The Literary League monthly book group here at my retirement community, so I need to include time for reading those books.

So for 2020 I’m setting up a reading plan with two parts:

Part I: Specific Challenges and Goals

1. Goodreads Challenge

Since I easily exceeded my 2019 goal of 50 books, I’m cautiously raising my 2020 goal to 55.


2. The Classics Club

Even though I just met my goal of 4 books read from this list last year, for 2020 I’m increasing my goal to 6. If I don’t increase my efforts, I might not get through my Classics Club list in my lifetime.


3. 2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

Although I’m staying away from most challenges that require me to read books in specific categories, I’ve signed up for this challenge to motivate myself to write more substantive blog posts in 2020. I’m aiming to write 2 discussion posts per month.


Part II: The Calendar

I’m setting myself specific monthly challenges. I hope that these projections will allow me sufficient time each month to read other works, such as my monthly book club selection and my monthly choice from Book of the Month, in addition to new releases.

January-February

The Jackson Brody novels by Kate Atkinson:

  • Case Histories
  • One Good Turn
  • When Will There Be Good News?
  • Started Early, Took My Dog
  • Big Sky

March-July

The Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series by Val McDermid:

  • The Mermaids Singing (1995)
  • The Wire in the Blood (1997)
  • The Last Temptation (2002)
  • The Torment of Others (2004)
  • Beneath the Bleeding (2007)
  • Fever of the Bone (2009)
  • The Retribution (2011)
  • Cross and Burn (2013)
  • Splinter The Silence (2015)
  • Insidious Intent (2017)
  • How The Dead Speak (2019)

August-September

Since we will be traveling for much of these two months, I’m leaving this spot open for catching up on previous goals, starting new projects, or simply indulging myself by reading what I feel like reading.


October-December

Since time seems to get shorter as we approach the end-of-year holidays, I’m also leaving this time slot open. I plan to spend this time on projects such as, but not limited to, the following:

  • comparison: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf & The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • the works of Shirley Jackson
  • a study of second-person narrative
  • the works of Patricia Highsmith
  • a look at evil children in literature
  • a rereading of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout followed by a reading of the sequel, Olive, Again
  • a study of some novels featuring Older Adults in Literature
  • a rereading of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed by a reading of the sequel, The Testaments
  • notes on slow reading
fancy scroll

How about you?

Do you usually set up a reading plan at the beginning of the year? If so, feel free to leave a link in the comments.

If you don’t already have a reading plan for 2020 but are interested in developing one, here are some resources that might help:

The Ultimate Guide To Creating Your Own Reading Challenge

How to Plan for Your 2020 Reading Challenge

BOOK RIOT’S 2020 READ HARDER CHALLENGE

20 WAYS TO READ MORE BOOKS IN 2020

INTRODUCING THE 2020 READING LOG!

A NEW READING GOAL: MEASURING TIME, NOT BOOKS

What I propose is a new reading goal based on the amount of time you spend reading this year, rather than the number of books you read from cover to cover. I’m excited to give this a try next year. Here are some of the reasons why.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Challenge Discussion Writing

2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge Sign-Up

In an effort to motivate myself to produce more substantive posts next year, I’ve decided to sign up for the 2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge.

2020 Discussion Challenge

This challenge is hosted by two book bloggers:

Thanks to Nicole and Shannon for running this annual challenge, which they’ve been doing for several years now.

My goal for the challenge is to write at least one discussion post a month.

I look forward to reading everyone else’s posts. I expect to come across a whole lot of interesting topics that I haven’t thought of yet but will enjoy thinking about next year!

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown