Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

What Do Book Club Audiences Want?

Author Kathryn Kraft in Writer Unboxed says book clubs have “the potential to serve as a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists.” We’re all familiar with the marketing boost books have received thanks to the endorsement of Oprah’s book club and now Reese Witherspoon’s (with more than 800,000 followers), among many others.

Millions of Americans belong to book clubs—the formal kind that have regular meetings in libraries and living rooms—and the loosely organized kind that operate through social media, including GoodReads, with its 90 million members. A 2015 BookBrowse survey of people who read at least one book per month found that over half belong to at least one book club, with the percentage of readers who are book club members rising with age.

Another BookBrowse survey of more than 5000 book club members, conducted last year, found that “overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will promote good discussion.” In other words, they’re looking for books whose features intrigue them.

Recognizing a learning opportunity here, Kraft analyzed a number of book club reading guides to discover major topics presumed to promote book club discussions. They relate to issues writers ponder all the time, and it’s encouraging to know they get readers talking too. Here they are:

1. A protagonist with a unique perspective – Think Maggie Gee’s new book Blood, with its unforgettable narrator Monica Ludd or Rice Moore in the Appalachian noir prize-winner Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin. Characters with strong voices like these give book club members “a chance to look at life in a new way,” Kraft says.

2. A character or characters readers can relate to – I have nothing in common with manipulative New Orleans gangster Frank Guidry in Lou Berney’s November Road, but I certainly related to him. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like me (please, no!) for that to happen; the character just needs to be richly portrayed.

3. A story that reflects some larger issue – In this way, the character’s deeply personal experience can become “universal and political,” Kraft says. Gin Phillips’s thriller Fierce Kingdom begins with a mother wanting to take her toddler home, and the rest of the book is about that thwarted journey. Home is always more than an address.

4. A structure that helps set expectations and convey meaning – Denise Mina’s Conviction, with its story-within-a-story format not only engages the reader in two plots, the relevance of the second story gives the protagonist a chance to reflect on her past and motivates her current actions. Think Dov Alfon’s A Long Night in Paris or Chris Pavone’s new The Paris Diversion that puts the time of day at the head of each chapter in this fast-paced thriller that takes place over a jam-packed 11 hours. The ticking clock is one of the thriller genre’s most popular structural devices. It sure sets expectations.

5. Endings that are tidy or open-ended? I’m sure there’s lots of discussion on this point. Kraft comes down on leaving endings looser, which gives readers a chance to think about all the novel’s foregoing elements and, in an act of co-creation, what’s most likely to happen next. “Imaginations are not constrained to what occurred between the covers of the book,” Kraft says. It’s like movies that end with a “where are they now?” feature as the credits roll, which evoke that same feeling of limiting the possibilities I might prefer. I believe Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing would have been stronger without Tate’s final discoveries. Let readers puzzle it out.

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay   

On Your Reading Radar: Best Books of Spring


(photo: Andy Atzert, creative commons license)

Already reading as fast as I can, I stumbled onto Google’s enticing menu of the 30 Best Books of Spring. The “delightfully unhinged” stories in Helen Ellis’s The American Housewife sound like fun, as does Dexter Palmer’s Version Control about a possible near-future involving a woman who works in customer support for an internet dating site and her scientist husband is trying, it seems, to develop a time machine.

Jo Nesbo is always a winner in the crime/fiction genre (new book: Midnight Sun, whose protagonist is a runaway hitman), though I’m still trying to steel myself to read his reportedly most chilling book, 2012’s The Snowman.

Two more that sound intriguing are: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (an opera singer combs her colorful past for clues about who has betrayed her) and Jung Yun’s Shelter (a financially struggling couple must take in his parents. Tensions mount.). Finally, I cannot resist a book whose title is The Little Red Chairs (Edna O’Brien), set in Ireland, about a war criminal in hiding.

Frankly, having read so, so, so many book blurbs, they all start to sound cheesy. I tried to get past that in reviewing the Google list. You might pick out others. But wait, there’s more.

Publisher’s Weekly’s list of “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016,” plays it safe by emphasizing well-known authors. Its list is “culled from the 14,000+ titles” known to be forthcoming soon [!]. With that tsunami of prose, who can blame the editors for defaulting to the reliable?

In that rundown are a couple of debuts, but also:

  • Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (an ill-fated hunting trip, North Dakota, 1999)
  • Martin Seay’s Venice trifecta The Mirror Thief (16th c. Venice, Venice Beach in the 50s, and Las Vegas’s Venice casino today)
  • Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (late 17th c., New France. “10 years in the writing,” 800 pages) and
  • Stephen King’s End of Watch, the conclusion of the crime trilogy begun with the Edgar award-winning but overly formulaic Mercedes.

Finally, if I can get these read, I can be ready for the November publication of Moonglow, by one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, which explores a family’s hidden past and, says GoodReads, “the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.”

Separating the Wheat

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

With more than a million new books a year being published in the United States, readers have to look harder than ever to find the book perfect for them. Book reviews work, if they’ve found a reviewer whose opinions they trust; best-seller lists reveal what other people are buying (or do they?); and online consumer recommendations can help, too. Even in my mystery/thriller niche, the number of new books is overwhelming. I need help!

Blogger Sandra Parshall recently reported on an excellent panel discussion involving three top book reviewers. The reviewers and samples of their reviews in the mystery genre are:

  • Maureen Corrigan, who reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air and is a contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers; she recently reviewed Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, a crime drama she calls a noir vision of an “American gone rancid”
  • Dennis Drabelle, crime fiction editor at The Washington Post, who recently reviewed the “mesmerizing” Malcolm Mackay thriller trilogy featuring freelance Glasgow hit man Calum MacLean and
  • Bethanne Patrick, creator of twitter’s popular #FridayReads hashtag, who reviews for multiple venues. She recently reviewed Mary Kubica’s psychological thriller Pretty Baby for NPR.

Every week, these reviewers wade through hundreds of advance review copies of new books in search of gems, including those in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. They have a few groundrules that make it easier: no self-published books; look at those by well-known authors while keeping an eye out for new talent, such as Vu Tran, mentioned above, or “something unusual”; and look at the books from publishers with a good track record. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the writing that makes a book stand out, they said. (My decision rules for book reviews are described here and here.)

Parshall quoted Corrigan’s distaste for market-driven gimmicks—no “vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” I’m guessing she didn’t review any of the vampire versions of Pride and Prejudice. Zombie ones, either.

Finally, they said best-seller lists are not a reliable guide to finding quality books. Marketing expert Tim Grahl, posting on Hugh Howey’s blog The Wayfinder last year, would agree. Grahl says, “I’ve become incredulous at the complete disaster that is the major best seller lists.” And he feelingly describes how the two biggest-impact lists—those of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—are created. Not how you think they are.

George Orwell was a frequent, but cranky, book reviewer, saying it was like “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.” Now, new legions of book reviewers are rising up to cope with the massive numbers. They’re the “consumers” whose reviews and recommendations we can read on Amazon and other book-buying sites, the social networks Goodreads and Library Thing, and others. While many consumer comments don’t rise above a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, some are thorough and thoughtful. They’re updating the most popular strategy people use for selecting a particular book, the recommendation of a friend.

In addition, aggregator sites like Crime Fiction Lover, for which I am one of a dozen reviewers, have appeared. Similar specialty shops for reviews of romance, science fiction/fantasy, and other genres exist. And hundreds of websites like this one, that regularly review books of all types.

What are You reading?

4 Reasons to Read Literary Fiction

child reading, children's books

(photo: Tim Pierce, creative commons license,

Reading is good for you! It brings pleasure, it broadens perspectives, it builds language, it imparts knowledge . . . readers know this. Research is starting to show that what we read is also important and are finding positive results from reading literary fiction, as compared to non-fiction or popular fiction. A recent round-up of this research by Will S. on The Literacy Site included the following four examples.

  1. People who read literary fiction are more empathetic. Reading a story provides a compelling experience that helps the reader understand another person’s mental state, say researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. In other words, it provides the experience of walking in another person’s shoes, and “the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on,” says Will S.
  2. Stanford University researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to study the brains of people active engaged in close reading—in this case, a text by Jane Austen. The results show that careful reading (versus skimming) engages many parts of the brain and requires “the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” This suggests that studying literature—beyond its other benefits—trains people to engage their brains more fully, an increasingly valuable skill in an era of constant distraction.
  3. In an article titled “The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice,” children who identified with the character Harry Potter and read and discussed specific passages about prejudice responded to Harry’s “sympathy for marginalized groups” (such as Muggles or Mudbloods) by showing greater open-mindedness toward outsider groups in contemporary society (immigrants, refugees, gays).
  4. Harry Potter works for children and literary fiction works for adults because “the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple,” according to Kidd and Castano’s research cited above. Literary fiction forces the reader to work harder at fleshing out the characters, and trying to understand what makes them tick mirrors what is required in relationships with other people.

In sum, while reading in general has many benefits, “literary reading amplifies this effect,” Will S. says. “By reading a challenging book, you’re not only becoming a smarter person, you’re also become more empathetic.” Harder books stimulate the brain in more ways. So, he recommends, “In choosing your next book, make it a tough one. Your brain will thank you.


The Books of Summer

book, House of Leaves, Danielewski

House of Leaves page (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The May Wired’s guide to summer fiction leads with two 880-page doorstops: one from my fave Neal Stephenson titled Seveneves (I’ve pre-ordered!), and the other from Mark Z. Danielewski. Danielewski’s is The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, with a planned 26 more volumes to come, BTW. If Danielewski’s name is unfamiliar, you may recognize the title of his last convention-shattering tour de force, House of Leaves (my review). He may have done it again, suggests Jonathan Russell Clark in his Literary Hub article, “Did Mark Z. Danielewski Just Reinvent the Novel?”

Also out in May is Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a thriller set in the near future when the water supplying Las Vegas and Phoenix runs out. “It’s just as apocalyptic as his first book (The Windup Girl, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, among many others), more political, and though it didn’t seem possible, angrier,” says Wired reviewer Adam Rogers. “These days are coming,” thriller writer Lee Child says about the book, “and as always fiction explains them better than fact.” Bacigalupi views his books as thought experiments—by seeing where the world is headed, people can “make different decisions and vote for different politicians.” In other words, “Let’s not do this.”

In the same Wired issue, Caitlin Roper interviews Hollywood’s Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) about their new film, Tomorrowland starring George Clooney, and the omnipresence in entertainment media of a catastrophic future. Lindelof says, “I think one of the real reasons for all these dystopian movies, TV shows, and videogames is that it’s just easier to wreck things than it is to build something new.” Tomorrowland, he says, began with the notion of recapturing the “idea of an optimistic future, which has become completely and totally absent from the landscape.”

That’s certain true in fiction. In an NPR essay, Jason Heller says that ever since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the dystopian literary trend has been unstoppable, if only because “the world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever.” Like Bacigalupi, Heller believes that “by imagining what it’s like to lose everything, we can value what we have.”

11 Novels for Expectant Parents? Maybe Not

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

(photo: Ed Yourdan, Creative Commons license)

Electric Literature presents a compendium of 11 books expectant parents might want to read instead of parenting books. Compiler Allison Gibson hit on this idea because the books she read while pregnant were “both too specific to prepare me for what I ended up encountering and too generalized to grasp before I even had a look at my own son’s face.” I had one of those very specific books, but I found it reassuring. There were answers. Somewhere. If I could find the book under piles of laundry, toppling stacks of diapers, and a storage unit’s worth of babygear.

Gibson quotes award-winning writer Marilynne Robinson’s view that fiction is “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification,” which does make fiction seem both appropriate and vital preparation for greeting that diminutive stranger about to take over your life, 24/7/365/forever.

Here are some of the books that she recommends and why:

  • We the Animals by Justin Torres – to relish “bright moments of outright joy,” which actually seem few and far between for this family in the throes of domestic abuse
  • Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky – to understand challenges facing new parents and their relationships, exemplified in this novel by the nanny who takes off for Paris with the toddler she minds and the baby’s father
  • White Oleander by Janet Fitch – to confirm “every parent’s dark suspicion that with the responsibility of caring for a child comes the capacity to do tremendous damage” and
  • More than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss – the title tells all

Nice try, Ms. Gibson, but I don’t think so. Just the thought of reading from this collection brings up the visceral memory of an acquaintance who asked me, nine months pregnant,“Did you see the interesting PBS show last night about SIDS?” Are you insane?

All 11 choices sound like interesting and worthy books to read, sometime. Just not until baby is safely in college. Or married. Or . . .

Another friend like to say that deciding to be a parent is “deciding to wear your heart on the outside.” Special handling required.

A Cozy Arrangement

Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as

a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.

This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:

  • cat reading

    (photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)

    Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female

  • The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
  • Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.

The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.

I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.

Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.

Best Reads of 2014

2015-01-04 10.28.26This is the season when the lists of “Best Books” published in the previous year sprout like mushrooms after a wet week, and the Wall Street Journal has produced a handy consolidated list in different categories. (Scrolling down that web page I encountered the surprising revelation that Lena Dunham is “friend” of the WSJ.) Other lists take into account that people actually read books in years other than the one in which they are published, and this is one of those. I read and listened to 56 books last year, and here are the 11 very best: Links below are to my full reviews.

The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker – I hope I’ve worn you down sufficiently in my praise of this novel to make you give up and read it for yourself. An adventure tale when life was, if not without complexity, less ambiguous. As refreshing for today’s reader as cool morning air after a sleepless night in a smoke-filled room.

Down by the River by Charles Bowden – this nonfiction book describes the failings of the U.S. War on Drugs and the consequent destruction of Mexican society. In the 12 years since the book was written, the situation has worsened. Bowden died last summer, and my review includes links to remarkable reminiscences about his work and fearless character.

Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict – a collection of amazing short stories by an author whom I met recently at a celebration for his former teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. (Got his autograph, too.) Benedict’s viewfinder is just one click away from reality as you see it. Unforgettable.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling – caught up in Monuments Men fever, I found this novel hit just the right note of adventure story, intellectual interest, and writing style. A bit of a sleeper.

His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis – historian Ellis set out to write a readable, not over-long biography of Washington and for the first time succeeded in making him interesting—no, fascinating—to me.

The Fragrant Harbor by Vida Chu – I would read more poetry if it were as satisfying as the work in this slim volume. Poems to revisit and savor.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – a novelization of the Dreyfus case, in which anti-Semitism ran amok in late 19th c. France. I never could keep straight what this case was all about. I’ve got it now.

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor – having spent so much time in Upper Canada (Ontario), I was captivated by historian Taylor’s descriptions of the motivations and tactics of people on both sides of the St. Lawrence. A much more interesting war than you probably think (!).

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – To preserve my mental health, I allow myself only one Cormac McCarthy novel per year, given his bleak plots and searing (here’s a case when that word legitimately applies) writing style. Wouldn’t have missed it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Some readers found this novel hard to follow. I listened to it, which can make continuity problems even more difficult, but had no trouble. A contemplation on “how things might have been different,” from the perspective of a hall of mirrors. The author must have cornered her local market in post-it notes.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – OK, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received mixed reactions, and it’s the only Big Book on this list (Big also in terms of its 775 pages). I’ve read and liked her other books, and I liked this one a lot. Especially Boris. See if you don’t end up speaking with a Russian accent . . .

Off to a great reading start in 2015, with four new book reviews to post soon.

Reading Pathways

path, forest, jungle

(photo: wikimedia)

After listening to Stephen King’s mind-bending 11/22/63: A Novel, and reading his book of advice for writers (reviewed here), I’m willing—eager, actually—to read more. But my tolerance for the horror genre is limited, and he’s written, a gazillion books, so where do I start?

You may feel the same way about Margaret Atwood, Nick Hornby, James Baldwin, China Miéville, or other notables. The folks at Book Riot see our confusion and want to help. They’ve created “Reading Pathways” for 34 notable authors that introduce the works of great authors in a thoughtful, non-random way.

Their three-book selections are geared to encourage affection for the writers’ best and most accessible works, so that new readers will want to keep going. I tested their method with the Reading Pathway for Charles Dickens, since I have read or listened to every one of his novels at least once. And their advice was pretty good.

But Book Riot doesn’t just cover authors you’ve heard of forever and the musty fusty classics. David Foster Wallace is here, as is Zadie Smith. A little sci-fi and fantasy, too.

A New Year is coming up. Maybe it’s time to follow a new Reading Pathway! Me, I’ll be reading King’s Under the Dome. Does that sound  like the right first step to you?