melissa ginsburg, sunset city (& non-professional protagonists)

Recently I read and loved Sunset City, the grim, Houston-set tale of twenty-two-year-old Charlotte, whose best friend was brutally murdered in a hotel. While the two were intense childhood friends, she hasn’t seen Danielle in a while, after their lives skewed apart due to adulthood and drugs and the wrong type of friends. But recently she and Danielle had made contact, but then, before they could repair their damaged bonds, Danielle is killed. Charlotte searches for the truth, but she’s no detective (though there is one, and he’s mostly there to be attractive). The book does tie up neatly, but it’s not due to any real, deliberate investigation, as much as Charlotte trying to connect with those who Danielle now loved, and getting ridiculously high and endlessly drunk and having some don’t-read-these-parts-on-public-transport sex.

Sunset City is not a style I’m used to, seeing as such a vast amount of crime writing involves alcoholic, bitterly single police officers who sidestep the law gently but with lots of swearing. There are books where the protagonists aren’t professional detectives in any capacity, but have other training that helps, a field of expertise in medical or science backgrounds. The only real talent Charlotte has here – not that I’m implying she’s stupid, more just unfocused – is that she will throw herself into situations with abandon, and they carry her where she needs to be. It seems like lazy storytelling, but the story itself is a heady read, like a literary trip in the most psychedelic of senses. It’s tight, taut, breathless writing, and I enjoyed it. I felt for the character, her broken past, her unsure future, even as I found her lifestyle totally incompatible with my worldview. (Sure, let’s drink a mountain of booze and then get in your car and go drive around with a stranger, why not?)

I do find non-professional main characters, in general, to be an enjoyable foray into how we everyday folk would deal with any kind of criminal situation. You can’t just strut up to the relatives of the victim and ask questions – but you can try. Doors won’t open for you, so you find another way. Sometimes you stumble into answers. Sometimes they stumble into you. And it turns out that it can work–but you’ve really gotta have everything else down pat first: your immersive writing; your dark, neon landscape; your relatable (or at least readable) characters.

Do you prefer your main characters to have investigative expertise on their side? Or does it not matter to you? I can’t say for sure that I do have a preference – I think a lot of my favourite novels still do involve actual detectives – but I’d love to know your thoughts.

on girls in titles

Well, you’ve heard my feelings before about the ridiculous amount of books with Girl in the title that are about grown women. One of my many friends who have suffered though my in-person rants sent me a link to this LitHub article by young adult author Robin Wasserman on the topic, which you can read here. It’s a pretty interesting analysis, but I wish she’d touched on the part that bothers me the most – that there’s no male equivalent, that you never* see books called The Boy on the Train that are about middle-aged men in business suits. But an interesting piece, nevertheless!


So I’ve been neglecting this particular baby of mine lately – which coincides in the most boring, domestic way with the Rocket finally (sadly) no longer sleeping during the day. Those two hours each day when she napped were the times I fit in extra reading and blogging, and I feel the loss of them keenly and with much whining.

Last year I submitted a crime manuscript to a publisher, and while that version of it did not get accepted, I received some pretty great feedback about the work. I thought I’d give that particular novel a break so I could come back to it with a fresh perspective (and be able to poke holes in all my plot points after I’d forgotten them), and in the meantime started writing short stories to send off to competitions and journals. One of the stories was about a primary school kid who spends her school holidays making a horror movie with her friends, and after I got to 80,000 words I realised that it wasn’t very short at all and that I’m not very good at brevity (no news there), and submitted it to the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. I hadn’t written a book for younger readers for years, and it took a bit of mental rearrangement to ditch the swears and cinematic in-jokes to make it better for kids, and at least the horror movie aspect meant I got to put a bit of criminal carnage in, even if it was via prosthetics all over the main character’s little sister’s face.

Today the shortlist for the Text Prize was announced, and I’m on it. I can’t even begin to express how thrilled I am about it. While I’ve been writing reviews for a while (and even get paid for some of them) this makes me feel like all the hours I spend writing fiction instead of pirating Game of Thrones are paying off – that I’m not wasting my time doing this. I feel vindicated – and it feels amazing.