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I hope that you are all staying healthy and finding solace in activities that comfort you.

Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels

cover: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.

After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.

However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.

The Girl in the Title of the Crime Novel: The Great Crime Fiction Disambiguation Project

cover: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:

Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.

Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.

Our Obsession with Beautiful Dead Girls Is Keeping Us from Addressing Domestic Violence

Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.

Her conclusion:

no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.

The Best Books for Distancing Yourself From Reality Right Now

Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.

How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

“C Pam Zhang’s debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is one of several new or forthcoming books by Asian-American writers set in a period that historically hasn’t recognized them.”

Never mind the Brits, here are five American novels perfect for ‘Masterpiece’ treatment

Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?

Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Reading

Literary Links

Penguin Classics and Others Work to Diversify Offerings From the Canon

“Across the industry, publishers are releasing titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history.”

The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.

After a Husband’s Betrayal, Turning to Mystery Novels

The whole point of a mystery is to create a plot so suspenseful that the reader can’t put it down—which is exactly what I needed, to get back into reading. A terrible crime has been committed (usually a murder) and a detective or amateur sleuth then applies logic to figure out who did it, what happened and why until the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Laura Hilgers turned to mysteries for comfort after her divorce.

I, fortunately, do not have the same reason for liking mysteries. See 5 Examples of Why I Like Mysteries.

Will the coronavirus outbreak lead to new L.A. crime fiction? The jury is out

Los Angeles has been the locus of crime fiction for nearly 100 years. Here’s a discussion of some of the novels, characters, and authors LA has produced as well as speculation about what kinds of novels the current health crisis will give rise to.

Genre Primer: Short Story Examples in (Almost) Every Genre

If you want to use your time at home to broaden your literary horizons, let Annika Barranti Klein be your guide. She offers links to free online stories, plus the names of a novel or two, in the following categories:

  • science fiction
  • steampunk
  • low fantasy
  • second world/high fantasy
  • portal fantasy
  • fairytale
  • myth
  • eldritch
  • magical realism
  • paranormal
  • mystery
  • thriller/suspense
  • noir
  • historical
  • western
  • romance
  • horror
  • gothic
  • literary

And yes, she includes definitions in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, what some of these terms mean (e.g., eldritch, low fantasy, second world/high fantasy, portal fantasy).

Ann Patchett on Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now

Ann Patchett on what she learned by reading the books of middle-grade novelist Kate DiCamillo. Patchett began with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which, she says, changed her life.

9 Great Books With Lonely Protagonists

According to Hillary Kelly:

there’s a certain kind of isolation that makes for a vivid reading experience — when the protagonist is quite literally all alone, whether by circumstance or choice, either struggling to be seen or hoping to disappear even further. The novel, after all, is the perfect medium for that message, the only art form in which an interior monologue doesn’t regularly come off as hokey. If you’re into that kind of thing, and want to grapple a little harder with the bizarre swaddling effect that COVID-19 has had on our ability to simply stand close to another human, here are nine books that offer insights into the wild terrain of the isolated mind.

14 Enormous Crime Books for the Long Days Ahead

“. . . we are stuck at home, and perhaps now is the time to rediscover the lengthy novel,” writes Molly Odintz.

mug that says "I like big books and I cannot lie"

If you follow this blog, you know I love Big Books. Here’s Odintz’s list of 14 crime novels, all of which meet the Big Book definition of 500 or more pages. 


© 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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Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing

Literary Links

I’m Not Feeling Good at All

“The perplexingly alienated women of recent American fiction”

Jess Bergman writes, “the new heroines of contemporary fiction possess a kind of anhedonic equanimity, more numb than overwhelmed.”

Doing No Harm: A Look at Writing Suicide and Self-Harm in Fiction

Alice Nuttall makes the case that “Suicide and self-harm are serious topics, and ones that are absolutely necessary for literature to tackle – but carefully, thoughtfully, and in a way that avoids harming any vulnerable readers.” 

The article provides several links to further discussions of this topic.

A Close Reading of the Chilling Prologue of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

I’m a fan of close reading. Here Emily Temple offers a close reading of the prologue of a big and very complex book.

Why Emma Is Still Jane Austen’s Most Pleasurable Heroine

With the recent release of the new film Emma, Hillary Kelly explains why Austen’s novel is “not a story of a young woman who makes her way up in the world through a lucky combination of strong character, bright intellect, and an estate-owning love match, but one of a bored 20-year-old sprite whose family ‘has no equals’ in the town of Highbury, but whose days have little to fill them.”

Woody Allen’s book could signal a new era in the publishing industry

According to Maris Kreizman:

The book publishing industry last week learned the potency of pushback — that bad business decisions have consequences and that lower-level employees have more power than for which they’d previously been given credit.

The Best of Speculative Fiction

The term speculative fiction means different things to different people. Here’s science fiction and fantasy writer Ken Liu’s definition:

to me, speculative fiction is generally the type of fiction that uses the technique of literalizing some aspect of reality that we usually speak of as metaphorical. By making that aspect literally true—by making that metaphor literally true—we are able to gain a different perspective and understanding of reality.

Here he recommends five works of this type.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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“What Do I Know To Be True?”: Emma Copley Eisenberg on Truth in Nonfiction, Writing Trauma, and The Dead Girl Newsroom

Jacqueline Alnes talks with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of true-crime book The Third Rainbow Girl, “about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter.”

Questions of “the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all” are significant in journalism and in nonfiction writing. In the book, Alnes writes, “Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject.” According to Alnes, Eisenberg inserts herself into the narrative as someone who cares about the region where the crime occurred and can therefore discuss some of the expectations and stereotypes of the people who live there.  “In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.”

I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.

Myriam Gurba was among the first to call out the novel American Dirt, published in January 2020, as “a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans.” She is one of the founding members of Dignidad Literaria, a group that arose out of the American Dirt controversy to demand more representation of people of color in publishing. 

Here she explains, “As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.”

The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation

“Reflections on my father’s novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, in the age of American Dirt”

Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, writes, “With the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my father was the first novelist in modern history to be accused of cultural appropriation.”

And, she continues, “That experience, and what he made of it, reflects complicated truths about mid-century American culture, and maybe offers some guidance for our own contentious times.”

These Powerful Women Are Changing The Literary Landscape

Despite the publishing industry’s continuing dominancy by white men, Kristin Iversen finds some reasons for hope:

While it’s still hard to say what will or won’t be a best-seller, there are a couple of things that are promising when it comes to publishing’s future: One is that most of the last decade’s best-selling books were written by women, and another is that the majority of the people reading multiple books each year are also women. And so it follows that if there’s one prevailing theme in the literary world right now, it’s that the industry’s most influential members — from behind-the-scenes publicity powerhouses to the biggest authors to prominent critics to podcast hosts to, you know, supermodels — are overwhelmingly women.

Read here about the women Iversen sees as the sources of these hopes.

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

Travis M. Andrews discusses the recent HBO adaptation of King’s The Outsider by focusing on “one of the primary challenges in adapting King’s work: taking something so interior (in this case, doubt) and making it visual.”

Joanna Trollope on families, fiction and feminism: ‘Society still expects women to do all the caring’

Joanna “Trollope is the queen of contemporary women’s fiction and seems to be wired to the anxieties of a devoted, predominantly female, readership. The complexities of life and love cascade through novels that have confronted lust, adoption, divorce, infidelity and the changing nature of the modern family.” 

In this piece for the Guardian Claire Armitstead weaves together a short biography, references to Trollope’s novels, and an interview with the author. 

Here’s my favorite quotation from Trollope: fiction “can be a physical confessional: when you’re within the covers of a book, you can admit to all kinds of things that you can’t otherwise. It’s also where you learn about the rest of human life and where you get your most profound experience of life – except from actually living it.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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My mistress Melancholy

Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”

“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.

I READ MY WAY OUT: MY YEAR OF READING COPIOUSLY AND THERAPEUTICALLY

2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”

In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.

Coronavirus feels like something out of a sci-fi novel. Here’s how writers have imagined similar scenarios

“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”

Why Tales of Female Trios Are Newly Relevant

In literature and pop culture, women often come in threes, deriving power from solidarity even as they work to forge their own paths.

How Reading Into The Setting Enhances A Book

I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”

Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Top 10 books of eco-fiction

A blog challenge that I’m working on for next month includes a novel about climate fiction. This challenge made me realize that I haven’t read many works in which this topic figures prominently. I was therefore glad to come across this list by Michael Christie, whose recent novel Greenwood, set in 2038, features a vacation spot where wealthy tourists can visit one of the world’s last forests. In addition to Christie’s 10 choices, there are more than 150 reader comments, some of which suggest other titles. 

The Hottest New Literary Genre Is ‘Doomer Lit’

In another entry about climate fiction, Kate Knibbs describes the trend of doomer literature, which “calls pessimistic fatalism one of the major ‘paradigmatic responses to climate change in recent fiction.’”

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS WHO BREAK EVERY RULE WE THOUGHT WE KNEW

A good unreliable narrator is hard to resist. Here Michael Seidlinger takes the unreliable narrator trope a step beyond the usual: “Using a narrator that doesn’t stick to any preexisting rules makes for structural experimentation that changes the very way a story can be told.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Feminist Disability Memoir

Patricia Grisafi writes a tribute to Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose works such as Prozac Nation (1994) address “the burden she feels as a Young Woman Of Promise who keeps letting people down because of her mental illness.” Wurtzel’s writings made Grisafi “felt seen in a way I had not since reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”

Wurtzel, who died on January 7 [2020], made a generation of women feel as if their shitty lives might make a good book someday. She made me feel like I could get help for my seemingly broken brain.

The Outlander Effect: The popular book and TV series is increasing travel to these Scottish sites

Best-selling author Diana Gabaldon hadn’t even set foot in Scotland when she began the book that launched the popular Outlander series. But she’s made the country so attractive to readers — and to watchers of the Starz television program . . . — that the Scottish government’s tourism agency gave her an honorary Thistle Award for generating a flood of visitors to the fens, glens, jagged mountains and soft jade landscapes she so alluringly describes.

PRH Makes Progress in Green Initiatives

I usually avoid pieces based on public-relations announcements, but in light of the first two articles in this listing, that seems both appropriate and praiseworthy. Publishing giant Penguin Random House explains its plans “to publish its books responsibly and minimize its environmental impact.”

Top 10 random encounters in literature

British writer Will Harris, author of the recent poetry collection RENDANG, lists 10 works that “all helped me to imagine the self as a collision point.” Read his discussion in praise of the random encounters in literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Audiobooks Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

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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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Author News Book News Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Television

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American Dirt Starts An Important Conversation But Not The One Author Intended

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.

What You Miss When You Snub “Chick Lit”

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.

Bingeing on Cop Propaganda

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.

His conclusion:

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.

JOANNA RUSS, THE SCIENCE-FICTION WRITER WHO SAID NO

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.

Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 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.

10 Dual Timeline Novels with Plots You’ll Be Desperate to Unravel

I love novels with unusual narrative structures.

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.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Fiction Last Week's Links

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The Subjective Mood

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.” 

ARE CRIME WRITERS AS TWISTED AS OUR CHARACTERS?

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.

On My Love of Locked Room Mysteries: The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr

I recently wrote about locked-room mysteries.

Here Scott Adlerberg offers his own appreciation of a classic locked-room mystery, The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, recently reissued by American Mystery Classics.

THE POWER BETWEEN THE PAGES

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.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Die

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.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown