Books — Part II

Last time, I wrote about some literary fiction I’ve read during my hiatus from writing my fourth novel. I figured I had too much material for one blog post, so I made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between Literary Fiction (always intoned with those capital letters) and mysteries (always lower case). I really do hate the distinction. There are fine writers in both groups, and the distinction seems foolish to me. Here are some mysteries I read both for enjoyment and edification:

Dark Sacred Night (Michael Connelly) Harry Bosch, one of the great detective protagonists, works with Renee Ballard, a Los Angeles detective. This is a police procedural at the detail level. Connelly makes the details work for the story, giving a realistic picture of how a detective’s day might actually play out, with all the high points and frustrations rolled in over the story line. Both Connelly and Alex Lettau (below) have a challenge most writers have difficulty overcoming: the technical lecture. Ballard the cop speaking directly to Bosch the former cop would say something like, “LT’s gonna need a DD5.” Both cops … but few if any readers … would know what that means. Sometimes, details are unnecessary, a reality I need to remember. Connolly handles the problem nicely … the narrator steps in and gives reader a line of succinct definition. Just enough to answer the reader’s “huh?” Lettau provides more detail, and repeats definitions so reader will be sure to know the precise etiology of the disease he’s discussing. Balance is the issue, and I can see some rewrite coming in my stuff.

Yellow Death (Alex Lettau): I’m always looking for stories similar to mine. Agents want ‘comps’ to give an idea of what kind of book yours is. In that spirit, I picked up Yellow Death, which has some similarity to the plot of the story I’m writing now, Fatal Cure. Yellow Death is written by a doctor, and the plot detail shows it. The main characters are medical professionals … doctors, epidemiologists, public health officials … and there are a lot of them. Most would speak to each other in medical dialect, leaving most readers scratching their heads. The detailed medical terminology gives an air of authenticity to the story, a good thing. But Lettau stops and explains his terms almost every time a technical conversation occurs. That slows plot development, and the idea of imminent catastrophe (five days!) needs the plot to move quickly. A learning experience for me, since my series leans toward technical jargon.

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell):  Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, is surely one of the great British mystery writers. I said in my review that reading it reminded me of watching a tree sloth make its way slowly along its arboreal path. That wasn’t meant as an insult; the slow ballet of the tree sloth is beautiful, and its slowness allows appreciation of each movement. Vine’s plot moves that way.  I did have a difficult time keeping attention on the reading. The slow, slow, slow development played a part, but I didn’t particularly like the main characters. Learning in detail the inner workings of the mind of a person you don’t much like is a job of work.  Lesson learned. Characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. Fine writing, but I struggled to finish.

One Mississippi (Steve Ulfelder): I admit to bias for Ulfelder, who was my teacher in a marvelous seminar on mystery writing several years ago and was nice enough to review my first book. That said, this new series featuring Arch Dixon and his unlikely sidekick Kevin Day looks really great. Ulfelder has just the right touch of gritty detail when he’s taking us through the underside of Boston. Ulfelder reminds me that a great protagonist is usually one or two steps away from being a villain, or at least an incompetent. I have some work to do there.  Ulfelder is also master of the sentence fragment to punch up tension and keep the story moving.


Books I’ve Been Reading

I mentioned last post that I am convalescing from a sudden, major operation.  So, what’s a writer to do when the anesthesia is not quite well enough dissipated to tackle the draft of that next novel?  Read, of course. As usual, I had a stack of books waiting to further educate me. 

I have the problem of many of us who pretend to be writers: it’s almost impossible to read a book without analyzing it, panning for the gold of a good idea, a well-turned plot twist, or the mechanics of a story. Sometimes this drains the read-on-the-porch-in-summer pleasure of a book, but that’s mostly compensated for by the good ideas from great writers. (A side benefit of knee-jerk analysis is it eliminates badly written books quickly.)

My to-read pile was split into literary fiction, non-fiction and mystery/thriller novels.  I’ll start with the literary fiction, which I often read because of my long-distance membership in a fine Gainesville, Florida book club.  Reviews are on Amazon and Goodreads.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tocarczuk). Quite a story, which won the Nobel for literature. I ended up wondering why and how the Nobel committee came to select this book. My learning experience was the value of an unreliable narrator, in this case the loveable sociopath Janina Duszejko. With straightforward narration, the book would have been a screed against a variety of societal ills, including entitled men and small-minded local government. Fortunately, Janina was unreliable, which drew me along trying to imagine what was really going on. 

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) I think I see why it has remained a best-seller beyond all expectation: It hits so many of the reasons different readers pick up a book.  It’s a heartstring-tugging story of a girl/young woman rising above difficult circumstances. Not quite the intensity of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, but engaging.  It’s promoted as a mystery, which captures another wide audience, even though its mystery structure is weak at best. And most convincingly, it’s a fine piece of description of a beautiful, mysterious place.

This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) Marvelous writing, a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the somewhat smaller world of southern Minnesota. One thing I saw in this was the value of fine descriptive writing. Unlike Crawdads and almost anything by James Lee Burke, Krueger didn’t have a magical place that made breathtaking description easy … but he did it nonetheless, making the ordinary seem palpable and beautiful.

Late Migrations (Margaret Renkl): My undergrad writing teacher used Breakfast, a short story from John Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, to explain the notion of ‘show, don’t tell’. I go back to it often. Now I have a companion. Renkl’s book is a pastiche of short writings about family, nature, love, and loss. I haven’t read much of it yet, but when it arrived (we indulged in a hard copy, even though adding a book means getting rid of another in our apartment bookshelves), I flipped randomly to a piece called Howl. In a single page, Renkl shows pain, sorrow and love in jaw-dropping profundity, and she does it by describing the simple act of an old dog settling. Surely the finest piece of descriptive writing I’ve read in a decade. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Next up: a pile o’ mysteries.