September Pick: Tana French’s The Secret Place

September 14, 2014

I’ve been writing reviews for Reviewing the Evidence for a few years; I’ve been a fan of the website for much longer and am happy to have the chance to contribute to it. In the latest issue, I wrote about a couple of good books, including Tana French’s latest, and am reposting that review here with RTE’s permission. It’s an interesting exploration of how much pressure girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality and has a really interesting narrative structure that manages to unfold the mystery twice over. I have found novels about the fraught relationships among adolescent girls really irritating (largely because I found it irritating in real life) but French’s focus on the pressure girls feel turned out to be quite interesting.

The Secret PlaceTHE SECRET PLACE
by Tana French
Viking, September 2014
464 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0670026328

Tana French has won praise for her loosely-linked Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with IN THE WOODS, which swept awards, including the Edgar. Each volume in the series has a different narrator and a different tone, though all of them feature passages that are gorgeously descriptive and protagonists who make acute observations of other characters (while sometimes failing to understand themselves).

The story begins when Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of a homicide squad detective, brings a message to Stephen Moran, an officer she met six years earlier when she was a child witness in a murder case. She’s found a card pinned to a bulletin board in the posh girls’ boarding school she attends with three close friends. The board is “the secret place,” a localized imitation of the Post Secret website, where the girls can say whatever is on their minds anonymously. The head of the school believes it gives the students an outlet for secrets they can’t otherwise share, though it also becomes a site where rumors and accusations are shared anonymously. Holly’s card bears the photo of a handsome young man who Moran recognizes. Chris Harper attended the adjoining boys’ school and had been found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of Holly’s school the previous year. Though the crime went unsolved, whoever pinned the note to the board glued cut-out letters to the card that read I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Though Moran has hopes that this lead will help him get a foot in the murder squad door and out of the professional backwater he’s in, he knows he runs a risk. The detective who handled the case, Antoinette Conway, has no patience with her male colleagues’ sexist banter and has consequently been ostracized and sabotaged. The fact that she didn’t chalk up a solve for this high-class, high-profile murder has left her in a precarious situation. If Moran aligns his fortunes with hers, he could take a tumble. As she reluctantly agrees to let him go with her to find out what they can, he begins to think she’s all too likely to kick him down the stairs herself.

The novel is told in two timeframes, skillfully intertwined. One is the 24-hour period within which Moran and Conway try to crack the case before it can be taken away from them, a ticking clock that lends to their narrative a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The other is a series of scenes in the school, counting down the months and days until the murder. Though we learn a great deal about Holly and her three close friends, about Joanne, the imperious leader of a terrorized yet devoted pack, and about the hothouse culture of an elite boarding school where the students speak in a weirdly American patios, we’re solving the case along with the detectives. We also learn a lot about the pressure the girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality. The bond between Holly and her three friends, forged out of the realization that they don’t have to conform, gives them a heady sense of power that spills over into other unusual skills that seem to have be conjured up out other girls’ accusation that they are witches. Though some readers may object to these small touches of the supernatural, they signify both the four girls’ shared power in choosing their own identities and the fragile magic of adolescent friendship among girls.

As usual, there’s some brilliant writing. As the girls leave the local shopping mall, where the teens negotiate their public roles, consuming and offering themselves for consumption, one of them observes “their faces on the way home afterwards look older and strained, smeared with the scraps of leftover expressions that were pressed on too hard and won’t lift away.” French conveys the feeling of being that age very well. One of the friends remembers being told as a child “don’t be scared,” a very different message than the commanding voice she hears now. “Be scared you’re fat, be scared your books are too big and be scared they’re too small. Be scared to walk on your own, especially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. . . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.” French is very good at conjuring up the emotional maelstroms of adolescence and sharp in her observations of the roles we impose on the young.

The only drawback to this feverishly evocative writing is that, as the murder approaches in the one narrative strand and the two detectives grow desperate to solve the crime in the other, the sheer length of the book weighs it down. Trimming it by 150 pages would have let the pace twist tighter and the writing burn brighter.

Apart from that quibble, it’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play.


activism ahead

August 29, 2014

On September 10th at midnight some of us who support network neutrality will have sporty widgets on our website that show what it would be like if big corporations could buy Internet access while the rest of us are stuck in the slow lane. Meanwhile, Fight for the Future has some comix-style images to dramatize the issue. 

You can read about why network neutrality matters from the ACLU or the American Library Association. Or listen to John Oliver, who pretty much nails it.


Sisters in Crime September Sinc-Up

August 29, 2014

Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:

  • Which authors have inspired you?
  • Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
  • If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
  • What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
  • Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
  • What books are on your nightstand right now?
  • If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to webmaven@sistersincrime.org, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.

I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.

The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”

Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?

I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.

Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.

Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)

I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.

lisa brackmannPart of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.


Calling Crime Fiction Book Bloggers

August 10, 2014

Some time ago, I posted about a sabbatical proposal I submitted – and now I’m actually enjoying that sabbatical! I am studying online reading communities and am hoping readers who blog about books might be willing to take this survey. I estimated that it might take 10-20 minutes, though honestly if you want to complete it in five or less, I am pretty sure you could – it all depends on whether you want to give short answers or write more in response to open questions. Though I’m primarily looking at online reading communities that focus on crime fiction, any book bloggers are welcome to participate, whether or not crime fiction is your preferred genre.

One thing that made this survey different from others I’ve created in the past is that bloggers are writers (even if their main identity while blogging is as a reader), so I have tried to be explicit about rights issues and let you choose whether or not to have your words attributed to you. The default position is anonymity, but if you’d like credit for your commentary, you may attach your name to any response. Here’s the fine print you’ll encounter on the survey:

You retain the copyright to your answers and you may do whatever you like with them, but by participating in this survey you grant me the nonexclusive right to draw on your responses for the purposes of this research project only. I will make every effort to handle survey results confidentially and represent your thoughts accurately and ethically. If you write something in a response to a particular question for which you would like to be credited by name, please inlcude the name you wish to use in your response and an email address for verification.  (It will not be used for any other purpose). Otherwise, responses will be treated anonymously.

I will be creating a couple more surveys – one for authors and another more general survey for readers of crime fiction – but I thought I’d start with bloggers who write about books primarily from the perspective of being a reader.

surveypoint

photo (CC-NC) by Farrukh


review of The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath

August 3, 2014

The most recent issue of Reviewing the Evidence has a review in it I thought I’d share here (thanks to the editor’s generous policy – do visit the site, as it has a search feature for its over 10,000 mystery reviews, all provided through that mysterious process that Yochai Benkler calls commons-based peer production. You know, that part of the Internet that works as it should rather than being a vacuum for monetizable personal information and platform for showing off. It also has a “sixty seconds with” feature with this author, who manages to find some funny and informative things to say in under a minute.

THE BONE SEEKER
by M.J. McGrath
Viking, July 2014
328 pages
$27.95 in it
ISBN: 0670785806

One of the pleasures of a hot summer day is cooling down with a book about Edie Kiglatuk, a smart and principled guide to the culture and climate of the far north. But it’s much more than a refreshing beach read.

Edie’s people are the Canadian Inuit who over generations developed ingenious ways to survive the rigors of life beside Hudson Bay. Unfortunately for them, the government decided during the cold war to forcibly relocate many of them to a more northern and remote terrain, Ellesmere Island, to discourage world powers from considering it an uninhabited and available. (This historical injustice is described in McGrath’s 2006 nonfiction work, THE LONG EXILE.) While McGrath, in her fiction, introduces readers to the ingenuity of people who have adapted to life in the high arctic, she’s unsparing in counting the costs to individuals and their society.

That’s not to say the book rubs readers’ noses in misery and hopelessness. Edie Kiglatuk has fought her way out of alcoholism and despair by caring fiercely for her neighbors. As this third volume in the series opens, she has taken a position teaching summer school. When one of her students disappears, she’s not willing to chalk it up to teenaged flightiness. She badgers the local law enforcement official, Derek Palliser (known to locals as the Lemming Police, thanks to his off-duty fascination with lemming colonies) into launching a search, and the girl’s body is found in the shallow waters of a lake. It’s a significant location. The locals avoid it, considering it an evil place.

When Palliser can’t get adequate help for the investigation, he buys out Edie’s school contract to put her on the case with him. She can help, both as a scout who understands the landscape but also as a liaison to the community. But as soon as they start to look into the possibility that the girl’s killer is one of the soldiers at a nearby military installation, they run into interference from the Department of Defence, which is already well acquainted with the girl’s family. Her father has spent years fighting the federal government over land claims and has pushed to have the area where his daughter’s body was discovered, the site of an old radar station, decontaminated. It seems likely that the murder will be more than a family tragedy; uncovering a killer might just reveal uncomfortable state secrets.

This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Edie Kiglatuk is a tough, resourceful, and tender-hearted sleuth with a foot in two cultures. Apart from a disappointing moment when she puts herself in unnecessary jeopardy to advance the plot, the story unfolds in a well-paced puzzle that does a beautiful job of balancing setting, character, and story. Though the investigation uncovers something bigger than Edie and Palliser anticipated, the loss of a girl’s life is never overshadowed. All in all, M. J. McGrath proves that it’s possible to honor the conventions of the genre and provide good entertainment in a story that provides even more.


Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation

July 1, 2014

[Cross-posted from the Digital Reading Network blog, where I was invited to share some ideas - they have lots of interesting stuff over there, and tend to be far more scholarly and rigorous than me. I'm realizing I'm more of a dabbler and paddler than a deep diver.]

Last week, I discovered yet another way to share reading experiences online: Call Me Ishmael. It’s a somewhat self-consciously retro website launched in the US in early June that invites readers to call Ishmael and leave a voice message about “a book you love and a story you’ve lived.” Selected stories are published on the site’s main page, along with links to find the book in a library or buy it from a bookstore and a synopsis. The site says nothing about who created it, and its domain has a proxy registration so is equally mysterious. It is, at least, transparent about sales supporting the site, though the prominent inclusion of a library search link suggests it’s not primarily commercial in nature. For each story selected, a video is introduced with a key phrase:

Maybe I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore . . .

Shortly after getting an autism diagnosis, I was so focused on trying to fix the situation, and on how to get my son back, that I was missing the point entirely.

I know it’s about love & ‘blah’ but …

(I’m on a plane and) all of a sudden I hit a stretch of narrative that just totally wrecks me, and I start sobbing, and I mean like complete, shameless, snot-flowing-down-my-face kind of sobbing.

Each audio recording is accompanied by a transcription that appears as if from a manual typewriter using a battered Courier typeface. A video introducing the project includes the image of the phrase “sometimes books give meaning to our lives.” The letters then rearrange themselves: “Sometimes our lives give meaning to books.”

Unlike many social sites devoted to sharing reading experiences, this one invites the performance of reading experiences, but is unusually anonymous. We don’t know who Ishmael is. We don’t know who the people leaving messages are; they share intimate stories with the world from the safety of anonymity. In the past week, a new part of the site has launched where visitors can listen to galley calls, referring to galleys as pre-publication copies of books and as the part of a ship where food is prepared. They then can vote for whether the message should be transcribed or not, with ratings chosen from a list and confidential. There is also a call for volunteers to help transcribe messages for the site.

This site bears less similarity to book-focused social platforms such as Goodreads or LibraryThing than to PostSecret, an “ongoing community art project” which invites anonymous contributors to submit artwork on a postcard. These have been collected into books and exhibited in museums by its founder, Frank Warren. Like the PostSecret site, Call Me Ishmael offers a curious mix of archness, cultural aspiration with a populist flavor, emotional connection, and anonymous exhibitionism. Its premise deliberately shifts the act of reading from the kind of literary analysis learned in the classroom into personal self-actualization. Books are a therapeutic mirror; after we gaze into them, the stories they tell us are turned into stories about us that we can share.

This is the kind of reading that Oprah and Richard and Judy encouraged. When books are hard work, it’s because they contain secrets about our lives that have to be coaxed out and interpreted. Some literary scholars think this affective and personal response to reading can tell us valuable things about the reading experience (as Janice Radway famously explored with romance readers) or because it might be a useful bridge for students toward more nuanced critical reading. Rita Felski argues that enchantment as a quality of the reading experience is distrusted by her fellow literary scholars because it is associated with women readers and their supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare while also being a crass kind of manipulation performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. She writes,

 While much modern thought regulates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. (76)

What interests me at the moment is not just what the act of sharing reading experiences tells us about readers and the role that books play in their lives, but how the technical platforms we use to share these experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 2ist century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.

Trevor Owens has studied twenty years-worth of manuals to explore the ways coders’ and community managers’ changing assumptions about how and why people interact in online communities has influenced their platforms which, in turn, has influenced users. He points out that “online communities are governed by a logic of ownership, control, and limited permission (161) and he urges researchers to bear that in mind when using the record of these communities in research.

It’s important to ask whose voice is heard here? How do I know this is what it purports to be? What parts of this set of records are missing? Who constituted this collection of records, and for what purpose? Lastly, where might I look in this data for perspectives and points of view that differ from those who had the power to decide what is and isn’t kept? (169).

If we fail to consider the ways the platform shapes participation and expression, we are likely to read into people’s reading a kind of agency and freedom of expression that is constrained by the platform’s architecture and design.

As Lisa Nakamura puts it in a study of Goodreads,

Now more than ever, literary scholars must bring their skills to bear on digitally networked reading. Researchers who are versed in reading’s many cultures, economies, and conditions of reception know that it is never possible for a reading platform to be a “passive conduit.” For reading has always been social, and reading’s economies, cultures of sharing, and circuits of travel have never been passive.

image from Machines, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889, Paris, France by Detroit Publishing (LOC), courtesy of Pingnews


May Pick: Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley

June 6, 2014

This book by a first-time Irish novelist (who is not a first-time writer, as she is RTÉ’s Arts and Media Correspondent) was a first for me. I heard about it from a Quercus publicist, and thought I probably was out of luck having a US address. But she told me it was on NetGalley and would tweak things so that if I requested it, I’d get a digital review copy. Though I’m not a fan of reading devices and the rights readers give up (privacy, for one), I have grown accustomed to having a few books on my iPhone for emergencies. Yes, there are times when I let such things trump my passionate desire to reset the net and stop having the Internet turned into a surveillance-industrial complex. So I read this one on my phone and enjoyed it very much (though would probably have enjoyed it a smidge more on paper).

I wrote a review of the book for Reviewing the Evidence, which has recently published its 10,000th review! Holy cats! RTE’s editor has kindly allowed reviewers to repost reviews after they’ve run on the site. If you haven’t previously discovered that remarkable site for mystery reviews, do make a visit.

An added bonus for me with this novel is that it’s about online communities, the subject of my sabbatical research. Crowley does a good job of seeing both the good side of these kinds of digital communities and the potential for bad things to happen. Oh, yeah, privacy is at issue, too. You can see why it ticked all my boxes.

CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
by Sinéad Crowley
Quercus, May 2014

from the May 24th issue of Reviewing the Evidence

Caring for newborns can be an isolating experience, and some young mothers turn to the Internet for company and advice. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective.

 Guard Claire Boyle has a real puzzle on her hands. There’s no obvious reason her victim was murdered, and the company that let the flat where her decomposing body was found has little information about the tenant who stopped paying rent and vanished. The deceased seemed completely occupied by caring for her young child when not at work as a university lecturer. The night she left the baby with her parents to go out to “meet friends” for the first time since becoming a mother, she vanished. No sign of sexual assault, no theft, no clues to who killed her – or why.

 Meanwhile Yvonne, a transplant from London, is at home with a new baby, bleary with exhaustion and unable to get any help from her irritatingly charming husband, Gerry, whose job in television production keeps him constantly busy. She finds going out to baby yoga or other social events that the visiting nurse urges her to participate in draining and dispiriting. Instead, she relies on an online forum, Netmammy, where mums chat with each other under nicknames, dispensing advice, sharing good news and troubles, finding company in moments snatched while their babies are napping. When one of their number stops posting, Yvonne grows concerned.

 Between Yvonne’s chapters and those that focus on Claire Boyle’s investigation, postings from the Netmammy group are interspersed. At first these seem irritatingly shallow and chummy and a test of one’s patience for Internet acronyms. (“OMG” is the opening of the first of these passages, which are replete with references to DH, DS, and DD – dear husband, son, or daughter – and banal chatter about diapers and BF – breast feeding). However, these passages grow more and more informative and integral to the story. The participants’ voices begin to distinguish themselves and it becomes clear that the key to the mystery will be found in the group. The title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum.

There are a couple of moments when the detective makes choices that seem unlikely for a professional if handy for the plot, and though there are twists, some of the villainy is signalled a bit too clearly for seasoned crime fiction readers. That said, the story is cleverly assembled, the characters are well drawn, and the suspense nicely regulated to increase as the pages turn. The chatty sections are insightful about how a group of strangers who don’t even share their real names can get to know and care about each other through social media.

Yet the warning the book provides about how such innocent sharing can, over time, provide a far more detailed portrait of our lives than we realize is timely. Shortly before this book was released the former director of the NSA, participating at a public event at Johns Hopkins University, testified to the value of such aggregated information: “we kill people based on metadata.”

 


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