Book tour gone bad

r/suggestmeabook: I want a cozy mystery steeped in publishing and fandom focused on solving a murder.

Cozy mystery

Rating: PG

Pages: TBA

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Publication date:  June 8, 2021

From the publisher: Meeting your favorite author in the flesh can be the chance of a lifetime. But for one unlucky fan, her plum place in line at a book signing will lead to her untimely demise.

First, let’s get the disclosure out of the way: I didn’t read the first book, so some of my issues might be solved by reading it. But it won’t cure all the ills I perceive in this cozy mystery.

tldr: Flat characterization; tell, don’t show; hard-to-swallow situations

Victoria Gilbert has posed a good puzzle. Most of the clues are there at the beginning, although the key clue isn’t given until toward the end. If your taste runs to plot uber alles, then you may be fine with this story.

I’m a character junkie, and this book just didn’t give me my fix. There was very little to distinguish among the characters aside from the initial physical descriptions and names. I was constantly having that moment of “Now, who is this again?” among a cast of less than fifteen (I think), which is a magnitude lower than the epic fantasies I have less trouble keeping up with the characters.

They all have the same voice. Granted, you’re getting everything filtered through the first person protagonist, but even so, I’m spoiled by first person protagonists who have the gift of mimicking the people around them. Charlotte, the amateur sleuth and narrator, tells us often that she was a high school teacher, and perhaps that’s what we’re hearing—she flattens everyone out with the same speech patterns, making them all speak proper, grammatical English.

“Sounds like a good beach read,” Ellen said.

“Definitely perfect for that. And it is written pretty well. The English teacher in me can’t fault Ms. Nobel on her writing.”

Victoria Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Not only that, Gilbert repeatedly violates the common mantra for fiction: Show, don’t tell. Again, in a first person narrative, I expect to hear the thoughts and opinions of the narrator, but I also expect to have enough to go on to make my own conclusions. Instead, many of the characterizations are made up of conclusory statements and it feels unskillful to write a description of a person in a way that the actions don’t speak for themselves.

For example, several of the characters are described as having bad tempers (as part of the reason they might be suspects), and yet the most I saw any of those characters get huffy was one who bangs his fist on a table. Okay, I said “several,” and it turns out there were only two. Seemed like more, perhaps because it was repeated several times and I didn’t have the names connected solidly to the characters (see flatness, above).

“She had a real bad temper, at least back then. The hair-trigger kind. She’d be all fine and cheerful, but someone would say or do something that ticked her off and bam!”—Damian snapped the twisted towel through the air—”just like that, she’d go off on them.”

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Likewise, almost all of the background information needed for the solution of the mystery is provided in talking head sequences. There’s very little sleuthing involved, and people divulge the information in long speeches with little prompting. Little of the dialogue was just for fun, and when it wasn’t about the mystery, it seemed to often run to the mundane. Some of it was to set an atmosphere (“Would you like a lemonade?” appears to be an exceedingly common question in the summer in coastal North Carolina), but my overall impression was there was a lot of filler.

Let me get to the trickiest part of this review, something I feel I have to raise, even though I’m not really qualified to weigh in on as a white, older, middle-class female. Yes, it’s about the depiction of Black characters (I think they’re supposed to be Black—more to come on that). I would have loved to refer you to a reviewer who could, but this is an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley, and none of the other reviewers on Goodreads (when I checked) self-identified as Black or any other POC, so I didn’t have that option.

I fretted about what to do about this, and posted about it to solicit opinions, and I can’t tell you whether the depictions are problematic. As I said in the previous post, I get that white authors have a dilemma—you don’t want to posit an all white world and erase POCs from the picture, but you also may be challenged in your depictions of those characters if you include them.

Let me be crystal clear on this: I AM NOT SAYING THE AUTHOR IS RACIST. I am saying that we live in a world that privileges whites, and that even the most well intentioned author in the world can miss the notes on this, because it is so very difficult to play the songs correctly. However, as one of the commenters on the post of doom mentioned, (I’m paraphrasing) even if there was no malicious intent (or even a positive intent), if the effect of the writing still promotes institutional racism, then there’s still an issue.

Anyway, the depictions made me raise my eyebrows, partially because of the way they were coded as Black. The flatness of character is a universal issue in the book, so it’s harder to say that they should have been excepted from the general shortcoming to be well-rounded. But the first one to come up, Alicia, is described as a “short, plump woman in her early sixties” without a job title, simply as having worked in the B&B forever. Because of the bigger problem of being trapped in my own whiteness in the world, I consciously process it, but I defaulted to thinking of the character as white.

But then there was this:

Pete and Sandy Nelson…always claimed I’d inherited Alicia along with the B and B. I suppose that was true, in a way, although it wasn’t a sentiment I liked to repeat out loud. Although I admitted that Alicia was integral to the success of Chapters, she was a person, and not some object my great-aunt could pass down, as she had the extensive collection of books that filled Chapters’s library and guest rooms.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

I found it a little clumsy on first reading, but was pulled out of the story later when I processed that in the context of later statements, thinking, “Wait. Alicia’s supposed to be Black? What did I miss?” Am I supposed to realize that because she’s essentially Calpurnia for the B&B? Is it more racist to default to her being white if not specified? As you can see, it triggered my own concerns about how to be anti-racist, and I sought help in the afore-mentioned post and on Twitter.

It could be read as an attempt to be sensitive; it could also be read as an issue that it’s even been included. IDK.

Later, I was relieved when the narrator said this:

I frowned as I realized how little I knew about Alicia’s life before Chapters. Because you never asked, I thought, flushing with embarrassment. Perhaps I had treated her like something I’d inherited along with the house than a person with her own, independent life. At least, more than I liked to admit.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

“So she’s going to show this as a character arc,” I thought. I can get behind that, even if I do still have some issues about how the two Black characters were coded, which, to my mind, raises questions about the extent to which they reinforce stereotypes.

But then the quoted sentiment was never followed up on. Perhaps in the next book? Maybe it’s supposed to be a flaw in the character, even if she’s supposed to be the heroine?

As I said, I can’t say anything about the Black experience or how Black readers might react, but it bothered me enough to raise it. I’d suggest referring the novel to a sensitivity reader specializing in race issues, as it may be an easy fix.

Wow. Glad to have gotten through that mess.

Last on my list of complaints is definitely the most idiosyncratic problem, and one I wouldn’t have downgraded the book on if it had been the only issue: things that I can’t suspend disbelief over. First there’s the neighbor who’s a retired spy. Again, I haven’t read the first book, so perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for how she knows that, but the retired spy’s openness is just mind-boggling to me. I have relatives who were in various classified areas of the military, and they won’t tell their children, spouses, or parents any details, so I just can’t buy into anything but an absolute need-to-know.

Similarly, I have issues with the characterization of the police detective. She doesn’t sound like any I’ve known, but, of course, geography matters. All but one of the cops I’ve known were from large metropolitan areas in Texas, not a small-time PD in North Carolina. But it bothered me.

Believe it or not, the review is about to come to a conclusion. The writing is competent, but sterile, and the characters flat. I don’t get enough opportunity to observe the characters to determine who they are; the narrator or others mostly just tell me. Gilbert is good on plotting and descriptions of the environment, but that’s just not enough for me.

A reviewer’s dilemma

A self-indulgent ramble on anti-racism, writing, and reviewing

Brandon deWilde, Ethel Waters, and Julie Harris in Member of the Wedding, from the novel by Carson McCullers, a novelist noted for groundbreaking portrayals of Black characters.

I’m about to review a book that has raised my hackles about how the author has written about two Black characters, which has raised a big question for me. How do I, a white woman, critique another white woman’s depiction of these characters. (And what am I going to do about the capitalization of white/White?)

As usual, I start with research, and started Googling the issue. Laura Lipman’s article in the Washington Post basically told me not to ask any Black acquaintances, and I get her point, but that’s not helping me decide what to do or say.

This article from Writer Unboxed was great, but, again, didn’t really help me from a reviewer’s point of view. Additionally, the specifics she raises doesn’t really address the particular situation.

The thoughtful article by Sarah Schulman, White Writer, gave a better theoretical framework for considering the issue. To oversimplify, the idea is that white writers addressing Black characters should make sure they are not reinforcing privilege and “cultural dominance.”

I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my own evolution in the struggle for anti-racism. I grew up as a military brat, and, although I can’t say there wasn’t racism, there was at least a good faith effort (well, I perceived it as good faith) to create a more equal environment. My first experience of the N-word was on a school bus on the way to Hamura Elementary, a DoD school that occupied a former Japanese POW camp sometime in the late 60s. (Take a second and unpack that. I’ve tried to find more info about it as an adult, but no joy yet.)

Some kid yelled the word at another kid, and a chorus welled up from listeners. “OOoooh, your dad is gonna get in trouble for that,” was the main version, although the phrase “court martial” was also thrown around. I was in second grade.

My next memory of awareness was in recess at the same school, a year or so later, when I was confronted with the choice of playing with a Black girl. I didn’t like her, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t dislike her because she was Black regardless of her character. I played with her, begrudgingly.

Makes me think of this bit from 30 Rock, particularly the interplay between Tina Fey and Wayne Brady:

Fast forward to the 90s (I’ll omit the rather long story of moving to Alabama in 1972). For various reasons in my life and surroundings, I had few Black acquaintances until my thirties. First was my husband’s work friend, another military brat with whom I had more in common with as a result of that shared experience than with many white friends. The second shaping experience was a multitude of interactions with my students when I started teaching at the local community college.

At that point, I was consciously raising racial issues in classes. I’d learned late about white privilege, and was determined to get that out there, as well as historical perspectives on how we got to where we are. This forced me to really think hard about how to talk about difference.

I realized that I had originally thought anti-racism was just pretending nonwhites were white. I had trouble identifying someone as Black or Mexican American (San Antonio, remember) for a long time, as though it might embarrass them somehow–as if it were a social disease.

But I realized that was a paternalistic racism, an attempt to erase difference in favor of the white version of reality. So I started facing the issue head-on, asking questions in classes made up of Black, hispanic, and white kids. I found that there was often ignorance of each other all the way around, and the conversations were useful. (I still remember a Mexican-American kid saying after one of the movies I showed (I want to say Mississippi Burning) that he didn’t realize how bad it had been for Blacks. My jaw about dropped.)

One consistent reaction was to my presentation on white privilege. The white kids usually were unaware of the concept, and the Brown and Black kids had a hard time understanding how they couldn’t be. That blindness, the inability to see the food sticking in our teeth and swiped across our faces, is what makes us ask the dumb questions about “is this racist?” to friends and acquaintances of color. (My favorite comment in response to something I’d said and then questioned was, “Probably, but you mean well.”)

So in the current climate, where we are elevating the discussion of anti-racism and looking at our issues, it seems remiss not to discuss what I find to be insensitive handling of race in a book I’m reviewing. On the other hand, it’s so charged that I anticipate an overreaction if I raise it.

In this case, I wouldn’t say that you could simply omit the Black characters. It’s set in North Carolina, and the two Black characters are the housekeeper and a cook/chef. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, so to pretend that it’s otherwise would be inauthentic.

But it seems like the writer is trying to dodge around their Blackness, which seems to me to be as big a problem as caricaturing them. It triggers my judged past of treating Blackness as a social disease. But i’m not sure how I’d tell her to fix it beyond not ignoring it and them making those characters fully rounded individuals, not just place holders. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but that’s where I am in the process.

I understand that there’s a problem inherent in this situation for the white writer: how do you write the Black characters in a way that doesn’t exclude them, but doesn’t pretend you know something that you don’t, nor does it whitewash them? (Guys, really, read Sarah Schulman’s White Writer,)

And then another thorny bit: there’s a reference to a joke about the protagonist inheriting the housekeeper with the house. I didn’t realize until that point that the housekeeper was supposed to be Black, and it was only because of a clumsy attempt to distance the protagonist (it’s first person) from the joke which more clearly references slavery. It could be argued that it’s a way to get the protagonist, that you need to see her flaws, but it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to me for that—more that the author doesn’t even realize it’s problematic.

What’s a reviewer who wants to be sensitive to both the race issues and to the writer do? Truly. I’m asking. What do y’all think?