First Page Critique: Unearthed

Today’s first page critique is for a mystery/thriller entitled ‘Unearthed’. My comments follow  – see you on the flip side – and I look forward to getting further feedback from the TKZ community.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall, cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said. A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be. Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

“He isn’t,” Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?”

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

“It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

“Just look,” she said.

MY COMMENTS

Overall, I think this first page has potential. I liked the casualness and tone of protagonist and his reaction to the possibility that the body was that of ‘wino’ he’d seen earlier (someone he’d ignored rather than helped) felt both realistic and sympathetic. For me, however, the dramatic potential of this first page is undermined by some awkward phrasing and dialogue, as well as inconsistencies in Rosemary’s character/reactions. I would also liked a bit more sense of place (more about that below). First, let’s deal with my phrasing/dialogue concerns.

Even in the first paragraph there are some awkward, clunky sentences, repetition and disjointed sentences which initially seemed jarring (at least to me). I had similar phrasing issues throughout the first page and thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to mark up the page – bolding the issues/awkwardness and putting my comments in italics. While some of my comments may seem a bit petty, it is vital that this first page reads smoothly and succinctly to capture the reader’s interest. I’ve also added some comments about Rosemary’s reactions and dialogue – which I discuss in greater detail after the marked up version.

So here goes.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse (seems a clumsy way to begin) lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her (we know it’s Rosemary but grammatically this sounds like the corpse as that’s the subject of the previous sentence) on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall (repetition), cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said (note: at this stage we don’t know Rosemary is his landlady)(Maybe a colon or dash would be better grammatically?) A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be (this is unnecessary and clunky). Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it (what is it? Assume coat but sounds awkward).

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails (sounds like she’s bent over with her teeth pushing against her nails when I think author means she has her nails in her mouth). He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this (awkward/redundant).

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness (weird description for me) under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d (looks weird – I prefer Amanda would) throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

He isn’t,(maybe add ‘sleeping’ to be clear – otherwise sounds a bit of an odd reply). Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?” (Cal hasn’t said this…just ‘oh this guy’ – which doesn’t mean/sound like he actually knew him)

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand (why dismissive?? This seems inconsistent given how tense and worried she’s been). Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.” (Not sure why she says this – doesn’t make much sense as she doesn’t know who Cal saw…why would she know it wasn’t the same person?)

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.” (Again how does she know that??)

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

Just look,” she said. (At what?? Up till now Rosemary hasn’t said she knows anything more about the corpse that Cal does…so why does it now sound like she does??)

ROSEMARY’S CHARACTER, REACTIONS AND DIALOGUE

While I was fine with Cal’s reactions and concerns, I was a little confused by Rosemary. She obviously ran to Cal to tell him she’d discovered a body and, though it was understandable that Cal didn’t believe her initially, Rosemary’s attitude then seems to shift  from tension and concern to a dismissiveness that I found very strange. First she dismisses Cal’s observations out of hand and then seems to be certain that the dead body is not the person Cal saw earlier. The rationale for this is unclear. Perhaps Rosemary saw something on the corpse’s face but, based on this first page, it seems odd that she wouldn’t have said something to Cal right away.

SENSE OF PLACE

Finally, I would have like to have got a greater sense of place in this first page. Apart from the reference to ‘London air’ nipping at him, we have only generic references to a wall, a tree, a park, and a block of flats. I would have liked a bit more specificity. For example if we knew it was an old gnarled oak tree, that Cal had been walking on Hampstead Heath, and if the block of flats was a red brick, post WWII era block – this would have all added more color/texture to the first page and helped ground the reader in time/place.

Overall, I think this page could be an interesting opening to a mystery novel set in London and the specific issues I’ve identified can easily addressed during the revision process.  So TKZers what do you think? What comments would you give to our brave submitter??

 

 

 

 

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Ride Along

As you all know, I’ve been doing the citizen’s academy program with my local police department and – although you might be sick of my blog posts on this – last Friday was my first opportunity to ride along with one of the officers. I chose the graveyard shift and got to experience first hand what its like to be on patrol in the middle of the night in the sleet and snow (since this is Colorado it went from 70 degrees to 30 degrees and it started snowing soon after I started the ride along). Although I’d requested to be assigned to a female police officer, it turned out that she was too junior to conduct a ride along, so I ended up with one of the male officers – a former marine and one of the K9 handlers (unfortunately his dog is currently recovering from surgery so I didn’t have the fun of having the dog with us that night – a good excuse to do another ride along!).

Within ten minutes of starting the ride along I realized that 1) I had no idea how local law enforcement worked; 2) all the questions I had planned to ask were dumb; and 3) I really had no idea how local law enforcement worked…

We started out patrolling the business and hotel district in our community which, late at night, is apparently is the place to be if you’re a criminal. Most of the crime that gets ‘imported’ into our community starts or ends up here. It’s amazing how different a place can look late at night from the vantage point of a police car, especially when you get an officer’s perspective on what looks suspicious (far more than I realized or even noticed, that’s for sure). Although we responded to a number of specific calls, the majority of the night was actually spent following up on these suspicions. License plates were run numerous times and it was impressive how many of the officer’s queries turned out to identify people with outstanding warrants, gang affiliations, or revoked licenses. I guess after years on patrol you know to trust your gut. After riding alongside him for just a few hours, I was impressed not only by his dedication (this guy loved his job) but also his proactive approach. I don’t know why I was expecting law enforcement to be simply reactive to calls…but this ride along certainly disabused me of that.

Starting out, I soon ditched most of the questions I’d intended to ask (I was like, what was I thinking?!) Luckily, the officer was willing to chat openly about his experiences both in combat and law enforcement. When we got a call to assist a veteran experiencing a mental health crisis, I witnessed first hand how, because of his experiences in Iraq, he was able to establish a personal connection with the veteran to help deescalate the situation and get her to agree to go to hospital. For him, these calls are personal. The incident also brought home to me how law enforcement increasingly have to juggle mental health calls with their other patrol duties. Sadly, the recent number of suicides, attempted suicides, and drug overdoses in our community was a sobering reminder of this.

I also learned just how random and capricious circumstances can be for law enforcement. They often have no idea what they’re going to encounter when they conduct a traffic stop or get out of the car and approach someone. They are well aware how many police shootings occur on routine traffic stops, and so, with this sobering thought in mind, the officer I was with always had (or provided) back up for every encounter, no matter the situation. Most of the incidents we attended during the ride along had at least 2-3 squad cars involved. Before every encounter, the officers ensured they had as much information as possible on the car/suspect/person they were dealing with. Technology available in their cars meant they could get access to photographs as well as background details almost immediately. Even with all this technology though, luck still come into play – sometimes an officer just had to be in the right place at the right time. My officer’s assessment of his job was basically “70% luck; 30% initiative.”

By the end of the evening, although I’d not witnessed any actual arrests, I had a renewed respect and appreciation for local law enforcement and a greater regard for the value of hands-on research (as I said, I quickly realized just how ignorant I was!). Even though I have no idea whether I’ll actually ever write a contemporary police novel, I’m sure I’ll incorporate what I’ve learned in some shape or form in my writing to come.

So amongst you TKZers who have done research on local law enforcement, what was the most surprising thing you learned or took away from the experience? If you’ve ever done a ride along, what was one or your key take aways?

 

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The Ordinary Detective

For today’s blog post, I thought I’d give a brief update on my police citizen’s academy program as we just completed two sessions focusing on the detectives. As far as  research goes, it was a fascinating study in contrasts. We had the hardboiled vice detective who had previously worked undercover – he was full  of colorful anecdotes, expletives and jargon, and had an almost stereotypical demeanor and backstory (a divorced Italian American with a dry sense of humor and total disdain for petty criminals). The other was one of the two female detectives on the force. She was meticulous, low-key and calm, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I approached her, you could tell that the other detective was surprised I wanted to ask her the questions, as he was the one that had definitely attracted the majority of interest from the group. Part of the writer in me, however, was quick to dismiss him simply because he represented exactly the type of police detective we see all the time in books, TV, and movies. The female detective in contrast, was almost dull. Her PowerPoint presentation didn’t have exciting crime scenes or drug busts but instead had detailed timelines of burgularies and credit card theft, along with an analysis of a high speed car accident. Not exactly the stuff of movies, but for me, it was far more interesting precisely because it was so…ordinary.

When I approached her to ask her what she thought was the most common mistake made by writers/TV shows about female detectives she had to take a moment to think – because she honestly didn’t have time to read crime books or watch police TV shows.  After work she went home to be with her husband, kids, pets, chickens and horses and, in her mind, did what everyone else did. Being a detective was a job she enjoyed but it didn’t consume her life. So for her the most obvious mistake (apart from female detectives wearing tight clothing and high heels) was that female detectives are often portrayed as being driven, single minded or obsessed with their job. Although it was refreshing to hear such a down to earth approach (given how tortured many female detectives appear in books and movies), she also posed  a bit of a dilemma for the writerly part of my brain – how would I create a character based on her that would be both realistic and interesting? Yet the sheer ordinariness of her world and how she approached crime solving also presented an intriguing challenge. The other, more stereotypical detective would be far easier to portray simply because he represented the kind of detective we see on the screen and page all the time…which got me wondering about writers who have successfully portrayed the ‘ordinary’ lives of local law enforcement in their books…which is why I turn now to you, TKZers for recommendations as well as advice. Who do you think successful portrays the more mundane aspects of law enforcement? Who is the most realistic female detective you’ve read about or seen in movies or on TV? What advice would you give a writer who wanted to portray an ‘ordinary’ detective?

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Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?

 

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Using Real People in Historical Fiction

Happy President’s Day!

Today I want to talk about an issue that was raised a few weeks ago by one of our first page contributors who is proposing to use a real historical figure (namely Samuel Pepys) in his historical mystery. The brave submitter asked whether, if he did use the actual person in his novel, he had to include all that person’s flaws (which could ultimately make the character less sympathetic.) My initial answer was that my preference would be to either use the real person, warts and all, or fictionalize the character entirely…but the question got me thinking about the issue a little deeper, as it highlights the often blurred distinction between fact and fiction in many novels, not just historical fiction (although today I’m going to limit my scope to historical figures, so we don’t have to deal with defamation/libel and all the attendant risks when using real people who are still alive and well!).

Some novels become more ‘faction’ than fiction, when they use historical figures as material for their novels, especially where they try to stick to the historical record as accurately as possible. Even when novelists attempt to do this, however, they almost inevitably come under criticism for aspects that have either been omitted from the book or where the fictionalization differs from reader/reviewer expectations. While I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction novels, I do get irritated when historical figures are used more as a hook or gimmick rather than the springboard for a truly compelling characterization or plot. I see this more in genre fiction and while I admire any writer who wants to incorporate real people in their mysteries, for me it has to be more than just a cute premise – which is perhaps why I tend not to read novels that involve real historical figures supposedly solving crimes when they obviously didn’t.

In my own novels, I use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but not usually as protagonists or other main characters. I do, however, enjoy channeling real people and their stories to create my own characters. For me, it would be a far trickier proposition to use a real historical figure as I would feel constrained by the truth (or at least what the historical record/sources indicate is the truth) and would feel compelled to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of that person. Fictional characters have no such constraints:) The only exception to this, for me, is in the realm of speculative historical fiction – where, again, the speculative/alternative nature of the history presented gives an author far more leeway to deviate from the truth. Having completed a speculative YA novel myself that incorporated a real historical figure, I did, however, feel a duty to research the real person in order to know how to create the speculative or alternative historical version (it was a lot of fun too!).

As with everything in writing, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well. Do your historical research, reach out to descendants if there are any (especially if you’re planning to create a less than flattering representation of the person), be mindful of how you incorporate real and fictionalized elements, and, above all, be conscious of your choices and don’t just use a historical figure as a gimmick but as a real flesh and blood character. My key take home message from all of this would be: if in doubt, fictionalize.

So TKZers, I’d love to get your feedback and opinions on this. What advice would you give a writer who is planning on using a real historical figure in their novel?

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First Page Critique: Death in London

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a historical novel entitled Death in London. My comments follow. Enjoy!

Death in London

The messenger arrived mid-morning. Sam had been at the office since dawn, trying to update and reconcile the Tangier accounts. When the young urchin coughed Sam was startled.

“God save me boy, I didn’t hear you.What do you want?”

“Beg your pardon Sir, Message from the Duke, Sir.”

Ever since the debacle with the Dutch fleet, the Duke of York had become obsessed with wanting regular updates about the provisioning of the fleet. As if Sam didn’t have enough on his plate, now he had to go to Whitehall immediately.  He knew the tide was coming in, so Sam decided to go by water. The walk from his office in Seething Lane to the wharf only took a few minutes. With the incoming tide came the smell of salt on the air, and the promise of the fine autumn days to come.

Sam was short but stocky, and had large inquisitive brown eyes.  His mouth, when it wasn’t smiling, looked as if it was going to. His full lips looked like they were made for kissing, and he used them somewhat more than he should. With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red. His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight, so he felt dressed well enough for the visit to the Royal Court.

As he sat in the back of the ferryman’s boat Sam had that feeling of sadness that still came over him on a regular basis. Not as often as it used to, but regular enough. Elizabeth’s death had been so sudden, and such a shock. He realized with a start that it had been just over a year ago. Work kept him so preoccupied that it was only these times on the river that he had time to think and mourn.

Sam had plenty of female company when he wanted to. Too much according to his closest friends Will, and Jane. But when you lose the person you married when she was only 14, and had had the tempestuous life they had shared for fourteen years, “getting over it” was easier said than done.

At the Duke of York’s chambers in Whitehall, Sam was able to put the Prince’s mind at rest. The spars coming from the Baltic would arrive in good time and be of high enough quality for His Majesty’s fleet. When it came to the detail, Sam was grateful he was able to talk numbers that befuddled the Duke. Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic, so was able to give the Prince more information about quantities than the he was able to absorb.

My Comments

Overall, I found this first page engaging and interesting. I wanted to know more about Sam and his life and would definitely have kept reading. There was good use of selective background details and a great sense of place – in fact I would have liked a little bit more about the sensory impact of traveling the river and the London streets as Sam made his way to Whitehall.

Even after just one page, Sam is an interesting protagonist which is why I think I would prefer the third paragraph not be focus on his outward appearance. The physical description didn’t really sound like one Sam would give of himself – and it took me out of the story – while the other paragraphs provide a good balance of Sam’s thoughts and feelings as well as his background, while keeping the momentum of the story going. I preferred the close POV with Sam and his inner thoughts.

Specific Comments

Historical era/period:  I wasn’t entirely sure when this story was taking place. References to the Duke of York as ‘Prince’ made me think we must be around the Georgian era (I am assuming the Duke of York is Prince Frederick, George III’s son-??)  but I wasn’t exactly sure. The costume description sounded Georgian-ish (cloak and ribbons on boots) but there weren’t enough obvious cues (wigs etc.) and the fact that Sam married a girl of 14 threw me off a bit. I’m no expert on Georgian or Regency era marriages but this seems pretty young – so then I wondered if this was set earlier than I thought. The fact that I was second guessing the time period as a reader signals to me that the writer should give some more clues to ground the reader right from the start in era/historical time period. Given how well the writer created a sense of place with the river and the trip to Whitehall, I think the writer will easily be able to do this.

Tension/Suspense: For a first page, I think I would have liked a little more ‘oomph’ and dramatic tension – perhaps something that can foreshadow the mystery to come (I’m assuming there’s a mystery given the title ‘Death in London). This foreshadowing could come anywhere in this first page (not necessarily the first paragraph as I like how it moves us straight into dialogue and acton – it provides good momentum). At the moment all the reader knows is that Sam is good at finagling the accounts for the Prince/Duke of York – which doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of dramatic tension.

Minor quibbles:  

1) A general reader may not know that the Duke of York is also a Prince so switching between these terms could be confusing.

2) Non-nautical types (like me!) might not know what ‘spars’ are:) A little more context for the fleet would be helpful.

3) I was unsure why Sam wanted to befuddle the Prince with the numbers – is he trying to swindle or cover something up?? That didn’t seem in keeping with his character (at least what we know so far)

All in all, I thought this was an engaging first page and most of my comments are pretty easy fixes. Bravo to our brave submitter!

TKZers what advice or comments would you provide?

 

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What Books Bring You Joy?

I’m sure by now you’ve all seen the social media flap over Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up) and her (much maligned) advice on decluttering books – including the outrage over her supposed instruction to ‘keep only the books that still spark joy’ (ideally less than thirty). The furor was such that I decided to watch the episode on her Netflix show  just to see what all the fuss was about (even though I was sure, no matter her advice, I wasn’t about to part with any of my book collection!)  While I, for one, would never presume to advise anyone on the art of tidying up (even though my husband was super excited by the prospect!), I think the debate over whether you should only keep books that still ‘spark joy’ is a wonderful one…because it reaffirms why so many of us love to live surrounded by our books.

Even though on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram there was a lot of anger and outrage, at the heart of Kondo’s advice there seemed to be some valuable observations about the joy books can continue to spark in people years after they were first read, the benefits of feeling connected to the books you own, as well as the practicalities that every book lover has to face (limited bookshelf space!!!).

I come from a line of book hoarders. Up until recently, almost every available shelf in my parents’ home contained piles of books until they realized the necessity of downsizing meant facing the dreaded task of sorting through their books. I felt their horror. After all, they had decades of book collecting behind them (including amassing a lovely antiquarian collection of English Civil War books which is hopefully going to a museum somewhere). My initial instinct was (of course!) to offer a home to any and all of their ‘orphaned’ books until my husband pointed out that we have no room for our own books let alone anyone else’s…which may be why the concept of books ‘sparking joy’ seems poignantly relevant to me now (not that I’m giving up any of my books yet!!).

In the infamous ‘book’ episode, Marie Kondo asks one of her clients to name the book he will ‘never let go?’ (his answer: To Kill a Mockingbird) and the starkness of this question made me think long and hard (I still have no answer – I have far more than just one book that I’ll ever let go!). Certain books, however, do stand out – like my Chalet School book collection that I obsessively collected into my early 20’s (these school stories were published sporadically and often very hard to find). Although I don’t re-read them anymore, I couldn’t bear to part with them – which must mean they continue to spark joy:)

I’m still resistant to the notion that I could ever declutter that many books (too many bring me joy) or select just ‘one’ to keep – but Kondo’s questions have made me think about why I keep the books I keep – after all, I don’t keep every book – I’ve donated many paperbacks, potboilers, gifts, and duds in the past. I am also an avid library goer (lest you think I’m a complete book materialist!) as well as an e-book buyer (clearly, far less bookshelf space is required for those:)).

According to Kondo, the books I keep on my shelf should (in theory) be those I’ve deliberately chosen as ones that continue to ‘spark joy’…but in practice, this is far more complicated. I keep books that have infuriated and challenged me, classics I was forced to read at school and never really enjoyed but (begrudgingly) learned from, reference books from my past careers (you know, just in case…), books that hold weird sentimental value I don’t quite understand, history books for periods I’ve not written about yet…and the list goes on (not to mention the vast TBR pile!). Sparking joy seems too simplistic a criteria when it comes breadth of emotions literature provides.

What about you TKZers? What do you think about Kondo’s decluttering advice when it comes to books? If she asked you, what is the book you’d never let go?

 

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Morality and the Modern Writer

Happy New Year!

I’m going to dive right into 2019 by raising the tricky and controversial topic of what I’m calling ‘morality and the modern writer’. I’d been mulling over aspects of this issue ever since the MWA controversy over Linda Fairstein, when yesterday (quite serendipitously) the NYT published an article entitled ‘Must Writers be Moral?’. This article got me thinking (again) about how we deal with, and differentiate between, the actions and ‘morality’ of an artist as opposed to their work. In the Fairstein controversy, the MWA withdrew her Grand Master award following an outcry over her involvement in the infamous Central Park Five case. While I don’t intend to discuss this particular case in any detail, it highlights the very public way we are now seeing the line between art and artist play out in society today.

The NYT article (a link to which is provided here) adds a further dimension to the discussion by highlighting the increasingly widespread use of ‘morality’ clauses in publishing agreements today (something, I must admit, I was completely unaware of!). The article details the use of clauses that release publishers from their obligation to publish a book if (in the words of a Penguin Random House contract) “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” Some contracts go even further, requiring authors to return advances should their contract be terminated. As this article outlines, even though publishers’ concern over the marketability of their authors is understandable, the issue of ‘immorality’ can be a slippery concept (especially if the publisher has sole discretion over determining an alleged infringement) and, when it comes to public condemnation, often a moving target. Some prominent writers, such as Masha Gessen, have refused to sign these clauses arguing that there is too much ambiguity involved in these kinds of ‘morality’ clauses, not to mention concerns over censorship as well as public vitriol.

In 2018 there were some very public book cancellations (most notably Milo Yiannopoulos) and scandals involving authors such as Junot Diaz that reflect the post #MeToo era. While I don’t want to engage in a heated discussion about these particular controversies, I am trying to get my head around the distinction (especially when it comes to ‘morality’) between the artist/writer and their work. Any student of literature knows that many famous writers were hardly angels – instead history is strewn with womanizers, drunks, addicts, racists, anti-semites, misogynists..and the list goes on. So how do we separate the person from his or her work? Should we judge an artist solely on their works or is the work inextricably linked to them as people (and thus, their behavior and attitudes)? In the current publishing environment it seems that writers are being held up to scrutiny in both their professional as well as their private lives.

So TKZers, what do you think about these so-called ‘morality’ clauses in publishing contracts? How do you view the distinction between a ‘writer’ and his or her ‘work’? Is such a distinction even relevant in today’s social media age?

 

 

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Are You a Rereader?

Today’s post is inspired by last week’s NYT ‘By the Book’ column in which Michelle Obama was asked “are you a rereader? What books do you return to again and again?” – two questions which prompted me to think long and hard about my own habits when it comes to rereading. Growing up my father reread his faded paperback copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ every year – it was almost a rite of passage and when we saw the book appear once more on the coffee table it signaled something both familiar and comforting. Growing up, I was also a great rereader – all my Enid Blyton books are well-worn and dog-eared from countless reads and rereading my Chalet School collection (an obsession of mine well into my twenties as I sought to find all sixty books in the series) was an annual event (which reminds me, I need to reread them all again – it’s been too many years!).

As an adult, however, I find (like Michelle Obama) that with limited time I prefer to read new books – though there are a few books which I’ve read more than once (or even twice). My Jane Austen collection certainly gets reread (especially after visits to Austenish places like Bath) and I have to admit Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights have had a few goes over. I also have (perhaps a bit embarrassingly) reread my Georgette Heyer collection more times than I care to remember. Going back to these books is like settling into a comfy chair with a box of chocolates – a relaxing indulgence (maybe…) but perhaps also a version of hygge:)

Rereading provides a host of different pleasures to the initial read – there’s familiarity as well as enjoyment, there’s a different kind of anticipation as the book progresses, and a different level of satisfaction when the book is finished. When I think about the books I reread, however, I notice that they really only represent a small part of my overall reading taste. If I’m honest they probably represent the more romanticized and escapist portion:)

So TKZers, are you rereaders? If so, what books do you turn to again and again? What do you think distinguishes a book that you want to reread from one which, while you certainly enjoyed it, you feel no need to pick up and read again?

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The Value of Libraries

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert” – Andrew Carnegie

My local library is a hive of activity with a bustling cafe attached, a used book sale area, and a busy downstairs where almost every table is occupied by 10am with people working on laptops, reading newspapers, or logging on to the free wifi on the row of public computers available. Upstairs, there is wonderful children’s section with story time and other parent-children activities, and meeting rooms that hold an array of community events and speakers. I remain thankful that my local community and government values a library such as ours because in many other places, the very existence of community libraries is under threat. In the UK for example, nearly 500 libraries have closed since 2010 and many libraries are now being run by volunteers due to budgetary costs and restrictions. The results of this are heartbreaking, especially since, by many accounts library use is actually on the increase (see The Guardian’s report on library closures here).

After seeing posts on Twitter about the rise in volunteer-run libraries in England, I began to think more carefully about what libraries mean to me and my community. They are more than just a place to borrow books or DVDs or CDs – for some it’s a safe, warm, place to read or study, for others it may be a way to find social connection in their lives, and for some people it might be their only way of accessing the internet (which could be crucial in terms of a job search or education). The more I thought about libraries, the more I realized how lucky I was to have such a fantastic one in my community.

Growing up in Australia, our local library was really my only source of research (yes, this was in the dark ages before the internet) and it was a family outing to go there to borrow books or to get material needed for dreaded homework assignments. Now, although I can access much of my book research online, I still find myself drawn to my local library – and I’m frequently seen laden down with books as I struggle back to my car. Our library recently updated their online ebook lending system (the app is called Libby) which makes it easy to borrow ebooks and download them to my Kindle. So for me the library has immediate, work related value, in that it enables me to undertake research without completely draining my bank account:) For my twin boys, the library is still their ‘go to’ place for books and they have discovered many new series and authors simply by making a decision to try something new (no risk as no money was expended!).  For many others, the library provides intangible benefits too – offering a means of attaining social mobility, self-improvement and providing opportunities to reach beyond the limitations of social or economic class.

Still, I wonder in this day and age whether people still value libraries the way I do – so I was heartened to read the American Library Association’s annual report (which you can view here) that indicates that American libraries are still receiving the funding and attention they deserve (though that’s not to say there aren’t still challenges or threats to that!).

So TKZers, I’d love to know what libraries mean to you. Do you still visit your local community library on a regular basis? What do you think is the value of a library today?

 

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