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.”

 


activism ahead

February 7, 2014

fightback

It’s time to fight back – mass surveillance does not keep us safe.

Read more about it at ProPublica, The Guardian, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Security Archive or in the news.


January Pick: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

February 4, 2014

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, which I picked up more or less on a whim, and if I had read a description of the plot first, I probably would have put it down unread. That would have been a shame, because it was a terrific reading experience.

Here’s the part that will make it sound awful: it’s narrated by a woman in a coma and is addressed to “you,” her husband. She has landed in a coma after rushing into a school that has caught fire. Her small son and the other students were safely evacuated, but when she realizes her nearly-adult daughter who is working at the school is inside, she Afterwardsdoesn’t think; she acts. Now, she’s in the same hospital as her daughter (who is suffering from extensive burns and is sedated), and they find they can wander the halls of the hospital and talk to each other, if not to anyone else. Leaving the hospital is trickier – it’s painful, and the further they go, the more difficult it becomes – but they can manage it, just. In this way, they do what they can to learn who was responsible for the fire, which becomes particularly urgent when the police focus on an innocent person.

Lupton does an excellent job making this unlikely scenario work because she’s really good at writing about emotional responses and the relationships among the characters and manages to whip up an excellent plot, as well. It includes touches of commentary on the wider world (why are privately-run schools attractive to British parents? How might money influence decisions made at the school?) but is mostly a character-driven story told with imagination and perfect-pitch language.

One of the reasons I picked this book up is that I’m trying to do a better job of balancing my reading choices this year so that I don’t favor male authors though inattention. There are a lot of reasons that so much of the crime fiction I read is by men. I prefer books at the dark end of the spectrum. A lot of the books I read are sent to me by publishers to review, so they tend to be books with a publicity budget. My guess is that those budgets correlate loosely with hardcover publication, and men are more likely than women to be published in hardcover in this genre, at least going on the hundreds of books submitted annually for Edgar award consideration. I also pick up on ideas about what to read from reviews, which tend to favor male authors. All of these factors are interconnected and subtle and I’m not blaming anyone, because these biases are subtle and systemic. But what I can do is be conscious of my own choices. I have no doubt that plenty of women are writing books that will suit my tastes. I just need to make sure I’m not overlooking them.

As I finished this book, I did ponder whether male readers would enjoy it as much as I did. The protagonist is a woman. Her strongest passions revolve around the need to protect her children. The drama is doing that while being disembodied and voiceless. The resolution of the crime was not entirely satisfactory for me for reasons I can’t explain without a massive spoiler. But the way the author wraps up a central dilemma in the book – one involving a mother and her children – was both satisfying and emotional. In many ways it fits the definition of a category of book I’ve always bristled at: women’s fiction. It’s by a woman, stars a woman, and is primarily about her relationships (though in this case there’s a meaty mystery to go with it).  To me, books by women about women and focused on relationships are novels and I’m not sure why they shouldn’t appeal as much to male readers as to female. Thinking about the appeal of this book, though, I found myself thinking “would a man feel differently about this book than a woman reader? Would he find the relationships overdone and the emotional part of the story manipulative or mawkish?” That’s hard to say – but for me, it was great fun to read and full of narrative invention.


A Good Year for Mysteries

December 30, 2013

books1

I read some really terrific mysteries this year. Two are by new-to-me authors and several are by authors who have been on my top ten list in the past. The nationality of authors is fairly varied: two Swedes, two Danes, two South Africans, three Brits, one Irish, one book by a Norwegian set in the US and one Norwegian-set novel by an American. It’s not well balanced in terms of gender – eight male authors, four female (with two men and two women writing together). A new year’s resolution is to get around to reading more of the fine women writers in the genre in the coming year.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to reviews . . .

Sundstol, Vidar – THE LAND OF DREAMS
A moody story about a Norwegian murdered in Minnesota and a forest ranger who finds connections between the murder and his family’s immigrant past. A touch a woo-woo, an occasional info-dump, but a book I really enjoyed. First in a trilogy.

Faye, Lyndsay – SEVEN FOR A SECRET
Second in a historical series starring Timothy Wilde, who (with his dangerous brother Valentine) try to help a mixed-race woman recover her family when they are abducted by slave traders. Evocative language and gripping history that we shouldn’t forget.

le Carre, John – A DELICATE TRUTH
A rather silly diplomat is called to Gibraltar to oversee a dodgy terrorism task force operation which goes wrong. Later he joins forces with an energetic young officer and a Welsh soldier to find the truth. At times parodic and bitter, but also impassioned and thrilling.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis – DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
A young mother who has sought asylum in Denmark is caught up in violence that has its roots in the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine in the 1930s. Difficult reading at times, but unforgettable.

Stanley, Michael – DEADLY HARVEST
The amiable and principled detective Kubu investigates crimes that may be “muti murders” – in which young people are killed so that wealthy believers can gain power. The Botswana setting is, as always, a main attraction.

Miller, Derek – NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
An elderly New York Jew whose granddaughter has brought him to Norway finds himself in charge of a small Balkan immigrant, pursued by violent men and his own regrets about war. Reminded me of Kate Atkinson.

Mark, David – ORIGINAL SKIN
An imposing, kind, and socially awkward detective in Hull investigates some brutal drug murders and a suicide of a young man with a peacock tattoo that perhaps isn’t. Brilliant writing.

Dahl, Arne – BAD BLOOD
Don’t let the gruesome opening put you off. This is an interesting take on the tired serial killer story, originally published in 1999 but strangely topical.

Herron, Mick – DEAD LIONS
Charming, oddball, busy, entertaining espionage story featuring an office full of losers. Herron is a terrific writer.

French, Tana – BROKEN HARBOR
A creepy, slow-burning fuse of a novel about a family attacked in their falling-down house in one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” but really about the trauma caused by the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger economy and the values it embodied.

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