on switching genres: the benefits of being a reviewer

Look, it’s not a glamorous life, that of a reviewer. Sure, I get a lot of free books, and people at work think I am the Wise Old Elf of crime (it’s all a ruse), and some people even buy books that I say nice things about (augh! It makes me feel like I’m saying “Do you want fries with that?”), and I get paid an amount that doesn’t really reflect the amount of time spent, but frankly that’s because I spend way too long trying to figure out how to stick a stupid joke in five lines. Of course – and any reviewer knows this – you get really burnt out after a while, only being able to read books you have to read rather than want to read, even if you kind of do want to read them. Between these reviews, MWF, and my book club, the last time I read a book that I chose myself was six months ago when I went out for a long lunch on my own and took The Old Man and the Sea with me, because I knew I could finish it over my sandwich (and I did.) I’m not really complaining, of course – better too many books than not enough! – and the one thing I’m extra grateful for is that this job of reviewing around ten books a month for the Readings Monthly means that I have to go outside my comfort zone. Since I don’t want to just review ten books that fit into my specific criteria (well, of course I WANT to, but I probably should not), I need to make sure I cover a lot of ground, so almost every reader gets to hear about their favourite style of crime. So instead of just huddling up with my own favourites (which currently applies to southern USAmerican crime and, obviously, Australian crime, though preferably written by ladies) I have to taste all of it.

Sometimes, I still don’t like a certain genre, but I can distance myself enough to know that I can’t just push in my own preferences, and can objectively appreciate parts of it. I really stretch to enjoy historical military crime, even as I understand that military books have a huge following, but I did recently get swept up in Alan Furst’s A Hero in France (though that could’ve been because it was very short, which always makes me feel kindly towards a book in advance.) I’m not always partial to cosy styles unless I am in a particularly cranky mood and need to be soothed, but I still smashed the first third of Kate Saunders’ upcoming The Secrets of Wishtide without wanting to put it down. I am just about at the very end of my enjoyment of Scandinavian crime after reading approx 5,000 of them, but I’ll still give them a try. I didn’t think that I liked Lee-Childlike action thrillers, but every time I pick one up I genuinely enjoy them, so I’m glad I kept trying.

One style that I really struggle with at the moment is the British psychological thriller. There’s something about this current influx of books with twentysomething British women who are terribly normal and drink a lot and get caught up in some kind of giant murder case that I can’t wholly enjoy. It’s not really the plotting, which is always tight, but some kind of across-the-board sameness that means many of them feel like they’re written by the same author. Here’s where I confess  never read The Girl on the Train, because I picked it up, started it, and felt it had that samey writing style. If you like that style, which around one hundred million people do, then this is your time to swim happily in the sea of that style – and do that! I’m not the boss of what makes you enjoy literature. But when I pick up a book, and think, “Is this the new Paula Hawkins or Sabine Durrant or…?” then I’ve already lost interest – though I will gamely try, for my readers. I am nothing if not generous, and also humble.

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!

the gone girl who was on fire

There are always trends in books, especially crime books. You’ll notice everything released one month suddenly comes from Norway, or has a misty tree on the cover, or has the same plotline as the book you just started writing the other day and was convinced was the most original piece of literature to ever exist. Well, let me become unnecessarily enraged about a recent trend: The Girl Who Was In This Book.

I’m sure there were other books with this type of before, but let’s blame Stieg Larsson and his multi-kazillion-copy-selling Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Fine, they’re part of a trilogy, it’s understandable that they share similar titles. But then what happened? This happened: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, The Girl with all the Gifts, The Girl on the Train, The Girl who Wasn’t There, The Girl in 6E, so many more that you’ll get bored before I finish listing them. That’s what a successful series will get you. Endless imitators, not of content, but of titles. It’s almost like when you send your grandmother into the video store to pick you up a copy of Guardians of the Galaxy and she comes home with something with a name like Galaxy Guardians, the knockoff version immediately filmed on a budget of $11.70 in the hopes that people who aren’t paying attention pick it up accidentally.*

But, of course, these books aren’t cheap imitations of Larsson, or of anything—they are good. The Girl with all the Gifts is an unnerving zombie/vampire (zompire?) thriller with an ending that made me almost chew the book in a frenzy of emotion. The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is a shifty little number with disorienting characters and a whole lot of twisty moments. I almost threw The Girl who Wasn’t There across the room when I saw it, so frustrated I was with the title alone, but instead was caught up in a completely original and bananas plotline that I immediately tried to share with everyone who came near me. I continue to learn my lesson about not judging books by their covers. (I’m a slow learner.)

What does genuinely bother me about these titles is the word “girl”. Only in The Girl with All the Gifts is the girl actually a youth of some kind. The other women these books are named after are all adults, yet here they are, consistently referred to as girls. Larsson’s prickly twenty-something mega-hero Lisbeth Salander fights the whole way through her series to be an adult deemed capable of making her own decisions; the titles don’t even give her the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, could you imagine Raymond Chandler’s incredible Phillip Marlowe books with names like The Boy who Looked at Gams? Or Poirot starring in The Boy with the Grey Matter? No, it’s just women left to be infantilised and nameless in covers. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is indeed a boy; The Boy who Could Tickle Clouds, who spends the majority of the book as a growing boy before becoming an adult, getting up to shenanigans, losing his dad and making me cry. I hunted for more, but they seemed, essentially, to be about children.

Book fashions come and go, but like the mullet, this one needs the chop. Women are not girls. Marketing departments: you’re doing an ace job, guys, keep it up—but we need new titles. And to my fellow readers: continue to not judge books by their covers.

Regards, The Woman at the End of her Rope.

*Analogy may not work in 2014.

opinion: from eighteen to thirty with nothing in between.

Recently I put word out in the Twitterverse for any ideas about crime fiction starring protagonists under the age of thirty. The only two I could think of off the top of my head were Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the excellent PM Newton’s Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly from The Old School, both ladies, and both around twenty-four. The other suggestions I received were all YA books: Harry Potter & co, Famous Five, Secret Seven, Pigboy by JC Burke, Darkwater by Georgia Blain, the Henderson’s Boys series by Robert Muchamore. Which leaves a great wasteland from the end of teendom to thirty or so—when I thought about it, I’ve rarely shared an age bracket with a crime hero since I (sadly) got older than Nancy Drew. It’s only now that I have hit the other side of thirty that I share an age-bracket ticky-box with heroes whose experience and education make them a good enough detective to solve a crime and star in a book. This is probably true in reality—but where does that leave fiction?

I doubt there is anyone who only reads books about people their own age—that would be narrow-minded and boring and I would almost entirely be reading about the pursuit of love in all the wrong places (did you consider your attractive best friend? Because that would probably save a lot of pages)—but as soon as I began my dreaded last lap towards the end of high school I realised that there weren’t any books I could find that were about young, post-high-school-drama adults. What happens in those mysterious years after you graduate high school but before you become a professional with a new car and a table instead of a 1987 Mitsubishi Colt and a tea towel thrown over unpacked boxes of Babysitter Club books? How did you learn? How did all those detectives, able to solve a crime with just an experienced sigh in the direction of a crime scene, get so damn good? Are those stories—ones of seeing your first dead body, of going through police academy with those guys from Police Academy, of having your superiors teach you what to look out for—not worth telling? As I said in my last opinion post on the need to assault women in books: anything can be made into a good story with the right author.

This also seems to invalidate younger adults as engaging people. Of course they are: just because they haven’t had an extra few years, which they are hardly personally to blame for (even those annoying successful ones that I hate), doesn’t mean they don’t have interesting experiences. Hell, many people younger than me are much wiser on basically every level. I’m a different person now than I was when I was twenty—I think I was probably more of a jerk back then, but I led a much more thrilling lifestyle than my current one (wake, pull stupid faces at baby for twelve hours, put baby to bed, go on internet)—but I was filled with enthusiasm for just about everything and scooped up knowledge like future Fiona scoops up sultanas (seriously baby why must you always fling them to the ground? They are for MOUTHS.) I work with a pile of people in this very age bracket and they are some of the funniest, smartest, kindest, most politically astute people I know, and I would love to read about them. Incidentally, none of them read crime fiction.

Books are read for many reasons: identification is one of them. When you leave blank a decade of life in a genre you face the danger of alienating that readership. I can’t realistically see a scenario in which a reader will refuse a book on the basis of the characters’ ages, but where do younger readers find their introduction into crime fiction when the more popular titles start with characters twice their age, with family and addiction problems already comfortably intact?

I’m not sure this is a problem that the world should stop and immediately fix; twentysomethings are hardly a marginalised part of society. When you next look at the great wash of books on the crime fiction section, all murky covers, snow, trees and shadowy figures and VERY BIG BUT VAGUE TITLES, consider that today’s internet-powered target-market yoof are turning around and looking elsewhere. (Probably at their e-readers, little paper-saving ruffians.)

opinion: women in boxes.

While I love crime fiction—always have since my days of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, and always will—like any relationship, there are faults. Occasionally I’ll bring them up as topics of discussion, and I’m happy for the opinions of anyone and everyone, though I am obviously always going to be right.

 

One thing that I am most frustrated by in crime fiction is the ridiculous lengths some authors will go to in perpetrating violence against women. Now, most people are reading crime for the mystery, to find out who committed a crime, whether they like to try and figure it out themselves or just let it wash over them. In order for you to care, authors must make the stakes high enough for you to want a resolution. I guess, then, their theory is that the worse the crime, the more you will want the case solved. So authors create the most atrocious of monsters.

However, I think this misses a lot of other points. Readers go into crime fiction because they understand the law and that breaking it has consequences; there are many laws, and they’re mostly in place for the safety of others. Stakes are almost always high in breaking the law; that’s the entire point. Still authors skip some crime—car theft, property theft, tax evasion—to go for the blood and gore and, let’s face it, sexual assault. Too much of crime falls back on the lazy trope of women being held hostage/murdered/raped, while some brave police officer tries to outwit the batshit insane person at the heart of it. This isn’t to say books with this plot are never good—of course some of them are—but I’m sick of reading about it. It’s in the news all the time. This is boring. I’ve read it a thousand times. Try something new.

This was made excruciatingly obvious to me recently when I sat happily with my fresh pile of crime new releases, going through them to pick out the best-looking ones to read (as I barely have time to brush my hair with a kid, let alone read three books a week like I used to.) I decided on Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex, as it had been collecting a lot of hype and I am always happy to feed into such things. It was fine, but I didn’t finish it—I got maybe a third of the way through, but, sick of the chapters and chapters about the titular Alex being stuck naked in a tortuous wooden box suspended from the ceiling, I decided I didn’t want to give it any more of my time and put it down in favour of the next on my list, Koethe Zan’s The Never List. Just imagine my enthusiasm when, far too swiftly, another woman appeared in a wooden box, trapped in a basement. I put it down and took a few days off reading crime altogether. (I think that’s about the time I discovered Candy Crush on my phone and became trapped in a metaphorical box of chocolate-destroying.)

Now, I did finish (and enjoy) The Never List, and the person who requested a look at Alex said I shouldn’t have stopped and that it was a great book, but—seriously—when two books at the same time have this ridiculous and similar torture of women it just makes me so frustrated. (It is also worth noting, however, that from what I read, neither of the boxed women suffered sexual assault alongside the physical torture.)

Another book that took female-based violence to a different level was Australian Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. Having heard really positive things about him, but never having read anything by him before, I was glad to grab a copy, not knowing it wasn’t quite as light-hearted as his previous books. On the contrary, it was so gruesome that I felt almost physically sick sometimes; he absolutely did not hold back on any graphic violence that his main antagonist committed, and even remembering it right now makes me go a bit pale. I have quite a strong stomach despite the point of this piece, but I don’t remember being this affected since I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book gets a fairly decent Goodreads score and was well written, but—and here’s the rub—I found it difficult to read past the violence to enjoy the story; I just wanted it to be over. (As I mentioned in a previous review, a fabulous antidote to this book is Maggie Groff’s Good News, Bad News—where the crime is a missing husband returning from the dead.)

This isn’t all to say that there can be no violence against women in books. We make up half of the population, so kill half of us off if you really feel it is necessary. But I, and other readers I’ve spoken to, now avoid a book if it contains the crime of torture or sexual violence against women, because it’s been done, and it happens in reality far too often. If you are a publishable author, you have the skills to haul in a reader’s interest without resorting to these overdone felonies. Every crime has its stakes; raise them with great writing, characters you almost feel next to you, and some original ideas. Go write a book about stealing persimmons from a neighbour’s tree. I promise you I’ll read it.