Nosy Parker

So, you’re wondering. What’s all this again?

All this, as you put it, is a short story. It’s related a bigger whole–that is, the novel we’ve been writing, Parker & Winthrop. Since we can’t share a whole novel with you here, though, and since we haven’t quite finished that first draft (we’re very close, though!), we wanted to give you a taste of what we’ve been creating the last few months. Connor wrote this shorty story about our girls, and since today’s her birthday and all (hello, quarter-century!), she wanted to share it with you. Basia wrote one for her birthday, too, which you can find here

We hope you enjoy it! Let us know what you think, and stay tuned: you’ll be hearing more from us about Parker & Winthrop and more about W(REC)’D soon. 

 

Imogen Parker preferred to call herself curious.

She was a learner. An observer. A student of human nature and human action. In short, she would tell you, she paid attention. There wasn’t much more to it than that.

She first heard the term “Nosy Parker” when she was five years old and, perhaps fittingly, had been eavesdropping on her teacher discussing her latest misadventures with the school principal.

It was the same story almost every week: Imogen asked too many questions, she turned up in places she shouldn’t be, and—worst of all, in Imogen’s opinion—squirmy, squinty six-year-old Morris kept ratting her out to Mr. Reed. Imogen was not a fan of Morris. The other kids in her class got along with her pretty well, but Morris had it out for her. Before Imogen showed up, he’d been the fastest reader in class. He didn’t like being shown up by a five-year-old girl. That was fair, she supposed.

After all, she didn’t like Morris.

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a beautiful blue death

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The Facts

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch
Connor rates it: 3.5/5

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady in possession of a fondness for mystery novels must always be in search of another series.

Or at least, that’s the truth I’ve discovered after fifteen or so years in pursuit of, to turn a phrase, novel mysteries. Agatha Christie became one of my favorite authors after my brilliant book club leader decided the group of seventh grade girls she was leading should read Death on the Nile. (I owe a lot to that book club–my love of Jane Austen and The Lord of the Rings included–but I will always be especially grateful to our leader for deciding we needed to appreciate Hercule Poirot.)

The thing is, a girl in her early teens with a mind bent on reading Agatha Christie can accomplish that quite quickly. There are, after all, several Agatha Christie novels and detectives to enjoy, and obtaining them is not particularly difficult: the title of “best selling novelist” isn’t an honorary one. But there comes a time in every mystery lover’s life when she must turn away from the Queen of Crime and pick up the works of other mystery novelists. This was the point where my mother introduced me to what quickly became my next downfall: historical mysteries.

And that is how, after discovering Ellis Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Victoria Thompson, Elizabeth Peters, Peter Tremayne, and, most recently, Charles Todd–it came to pass that I needed a new mystery series.

Or, you know, nine. Ten, even. But at least two or three, and quite probably more.

I did what I always do in moments of literary trouble: I looked my problem dead in the eye, and I tackled it with all the force of a twenty-four year old bookworm with access to the internet. It wavered. It dissolved. It split at the seams. It tumbled into oblivion. It fell down upon the mountainside in ruins. It faded into nothingness. It trembled. It crashed. In short, it crumbled beneath the combined weight of Goodreads, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and my own curiosity, and I emerged with a list of not one, not two, but twelve mystery series to investigate.

One of the books that emerged from this was A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. While not the most technically deft mystery I’ve ever read, I nevertheless enjoyed it quite a bit. The book cover described the novel as something of a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Gosford Park, and P. G. Wodehouse. For once, this was a surprisingly accurate description. I would argue that the Sherlockian tidbits were unnecessary and felt a bit forced, but on the whole the novel does have a Wodehouse/Gosford Park vibe to it.

Which is to say: the prose has an airy, refreshing lightness despite the pages’ content, and the mystery seems less important than the characters involved.

The breezy writing is well anchored in Finch’s main character, Charles Lenox. It is Lenox’s cheery outlook (and occasionally his dour moods) that keep the story moving along, and it is Lenox’s relationships that interested me most: that with his best friend, his brother, and his butler. The butler is Lenox’s most dependable compatriot in any investigation, from ferreting out information to providing background knowledge and an extra set of hands. Lenox’s brother has a much quieter brilliance than Lenox himself, but their clear affection for each other and willingness to help with the other’s difficulties or career is admirable. His best friend, though, is a woman he has known since childhood, the widow Lady Jane Grey.

I have often found that novels professing “life long friendships” leave me wondering how on earth the author expected me to believe these characters were lifelong friends–they never understand each other and, in fact, scarcely seem to care for each other at all. Finch is a pleasant exception to my experience, and A Beautiful Blue Death showcases a quiet, mutual affection between Lady Jane and Lenox that is both believable and lovely to read.

These three relationships–butler, brother, friend–keep Finch’s prose from veering too far into the lightheartedness of Wodehouse while also providing enough counterweight to keep Lenox from veering into despair as he works to solve the case. The murder itself proves a curious one, with enough twists to keep me guessing and a resolution that managed to live up to them, and I look forward to reading Charles Lenox’s next case.

murder on the orient express

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The Facts

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Connor rates it: 4.5/5

Anyone who knows me could tell you I read an awful lot of mystery novels. Almost every other book I read is a mystery novel. Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Tremayne, Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth Peters, Charles Todd–I always have at least one mystery on hand, and quite often two or three behind it. Today, we’re focusing on one of my most-recommended authors, the Queen of Crime herself: Agatha Christie.

I’ve heard more than one person tell me that while the Americans invented the murder mystery (a… sort of accurate fact? Thank you, Edgar Allan Poe), the Brits perfected it. Agatha Christie remains one of the most popular authors of all time–she’s right up there with Shakespeare in the “two to four billion sales, we aren’t really sure which” category–and this particular novel of hers is my favorite.

Murder on the Orient Express is not the first Agatha Christie novel I read (Death on the Nile, seventh grade book club). It is not the one that gripped me most thoroughly (And Then There Were None, one year later in a single sitting), nor even the one with the most startling ending (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a few months after that). But like I said: it’s my favorite.

In addition to M. Hercule Poirot, that most celebrated of detectives who uses the little grey cells to solve crimes, the audience has an ally in M. Bouc, to whom Poirot often explains (or chooses not to explain) his methods, and the array of murder suspects is numerous and varied enough to amuse even the most persnickety of readers.

While Christie swaps narrative viewpoints like M. Bouc swaps accusations of murder, there’s a reason Murder on the Orient Express remains an iconic crime novel over eighty years after its initial publication. After all, there aren’t many murder mysteries that beg to be re-read; the revelation of the murderer is often half the fun, and a reread means already knowing whodunnit. Murder on the Orient Express is an exception. Christie always keeps her plots and characters interesting and inventive, but in this particular novel–with its peculiar dose of Poirot’s arrogance and misleading clues–she shines.

(And if you insist you don’t have time for this 300 or so paged novel, I’d recommend the audiobook. The most recent version was recorded by Dan Stevens, and his character voices are absolutely phenomenal.)

 

a study in charlotte

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The Facts

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Connor rates it: 4/5

In short: this book is a delight.

Imagine, if you will, your favorite crime solving/crime fighting dynamic duo. It could be Sherlock and Holmes, as we have here in a different light; it could be Mulder and Scully, or maybe early-seasons-Booth and Bones; Batman and Robin, perhaps; Carter and Jarvis, or maybe Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Whichever they are, Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson are sure to join your list of favorites. They are bright and clever, with curious talents and pursuits just enough their own to make them unique, but also just enough in line with their illustrious ancestors to make them absurdly fun to read.

A Study in Charlotte doesn’t just subvert various Holmes/Watson tropes; it finagles its way around them, over them, through them. There are mysteries, subplots, intrigue, secretive chemistry experiments, a Stradivarius–and, of course, the sort of mutual devotion one expects from a Holmes and a Watson.

If you’re worried this won’t live up to your expectations of a teenage Sherlock Holmes: you’ve got the wrong book. This isn’t a book about Sherlock Holmes. It’s a book related to Sherlock Holmes. It’s about legacy and character, history and the modern age, true friendship and loyalty in an age of loneliness and mystery–and it shines.

I will happily admit that it is not perfect. I will also admit that there were moments where I winced, and there were topics that were not handled quite so delicately or deftly as I might have liked.

But I will also admit, wholeheartedly, that this book was more than I had hoped, and I am decidedly looking forward to the next installment of the trilogy. The delicate movement of Charlotte and Jamie from strangers to friends and partners is carefully chronicled here. It’s not an easy road–there is, as mentioned, murder and mystery, and also intrigue! forgery! secret tunnels! a literal explosion!–but then, it wouldn’t be Holmes and Watson if it were.

we should all be feminists

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To be honest, the title says it all.

There’s not much we can say about this that hasn’t been said already by those wiser and more articulate than we (e.g. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie herself), but to put it briefly: we should all be feminists. This isn’t about wanting money (although equal pay is important–and let’s not gloss over the fact that the disparity is greater for women of color than it is for white women. That’s important). It’s not about wanting more women in politics, or in science, or nominated for Oscars, or running corporations.

At least, it’s not entirely about that.

This is about opportunity. This is about attitude. It’s about working together to re-shape society into a place that welcomes and encourages and supports those of us who aren’t white men. It’s about creating an environment in which a woman who wants to stay at home with their kids and a woman who wants to work full time are both given dignity and respect for their choices: a space where expectations are not defined by gender.

It is, as Adichie says, a reminder that culture does not make people. People make culture. And we must–we can, we should, we must–do better.

the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

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There are many answers I give to the question what’s your favorite book, but for the last five years The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has been the first title on my tongue. It has also been my most-given gift. I’m pretty sure I gave away at least ten copies in the last year alone. Friend’s birthday? You should probably buy them a copy of Guernsey. Mother’s day gift for your grandmother? Guernsey will be perfect. Christmas present for your boss? Guernsey.

I first read Guernsey as a freshman in college. There’s one section in particular that I remember reading for the first time: within the span of two pages, it had me sobbing into my pillow and then laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. In the truest sense, it’s a story about friendship: about the solidity of old friendships, the delight of new ones, the way our friends shape us, the way we shape our friends, how they make any place feel like home… and the impact a single friend can have on her community.

Every time I pick it up, I think I can’t possibly love it any more than I already do. And every time I start reading, I am overwhelmed by how absolutely untrue that is. This book grows more and more dear to me with every read, whether a full read-through or a few letters here and there when I need a quick pick-me-up (admittedly, those quick pick-me-ups do tend towards me finishing the rest of the novel instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour). These characters are old friends I can’t wait to see again. I want to be Juliet, talk about books with Dawsey, cook with Miss Amelia, and (of course) smack Markham V. Reynolds, Jr., with whatever is closest at hand the second he comes onto the page.

This book makes me feel much as Juliet must among her new friends: comforted and welcomed, excited but curiously at ease–surrounded by people who already adore you and are only determined to love you more and make you feel at home in a new place that will soon be familiar. In the world of metaphors, Guernsey is a quiet afternoon on a rainy day, a glass of lemonade after sitting in the sun, an unexpected letter from a friend you haven’t seen in ages. It’s comforting and encouraging and engaging and delightful, and I hope you love it as much as I do.

the storied life of a. j. fikry

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The Facts

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Connor rates it: 4.5/5
W(REC)’D: yes!

Fikry is an easy read with a peculiar pacing, but doesn’t feel staggered or rushed for all that it took little time for me to make my way through its pages. The characters are charming, despite their faults, and the alacrity with which I grew fond of them–perhaps especially the titular character, A. J. Fikry–should probably alarm me. The intricacies of Zevin’s prose are delightful to read, and I will definitely be looking up her other books.

My favorite college professor once told me a book doesn’t have to end happily, but it should end hopeful. Zevin manages to do just that without coming across as forceful or heavy-handed in her approach.

on writing, memes, and character description

Back in the early days of what we now call our codependent internet relationship, Basia and I spent a… slightly ridiculous amount of time on Tumblr. (Actually, it was probably a very ridiculous amount of time, but… anyway.)

Tumblr is many things to many people, but one thing it’s always good for is ask memes. What do these memes have to do with writing, you ask?  Easy: they make excellent writing exercises.

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The meme pictured above, for example, is one of my favorite writing exercises. It’s the perfect opportunity to practice character description. If your friends were your story’s characters, how would you describe them?
Take the following one about Basia. I’ve known her for about five years now, and we’ve been good friends for at least three of those. In that time, she’s reblogged this meme at least twice, which means I’ve sent her these summaries/”author descriptions” at least twice as well. Because we know each other well, writing these is always quite fun and, compared to writing for people I don’t know quite as well, fairly straightforward:
Something about her spoke of wolfishness–her grin, perhaps, or the set of her shoulders. Whatever it was, I was not surprised to see her turn an almost predatory glare on any stranger who deigned to ask whether she, an English major, wanted to teach. What did surprise me was the subtlety of her kindness: a self-deprecating joke, a sincere encouragement, a friendly word of advice when pressed. She built with this, using her creativity to string together words that made the world a bit brighter.
In my own writing, I’ve always found that the story flows more easily if I understand my characters implicitly. If I want them to be believable and relatable, I need to be as sure in my descriptions of them as I am in describing Basia.
At first glance she might look like any other underemployed artist. Paintbrushes with colorfully splattered handles stuck out of her bun, her dungarees always had colored pencils and tubes of paint falling out of the pockets. Her smile was quiet but infectious, and her wit as dry as the desert sand. She looked like she belonged on the cliffs by the sea, with an easel at hand and laugh on her lips–or maybe in a window-laden penthouse in the middle of a bustling city, sunshine streaking her brown hair gold as she drafts letters to friends scattered with stars.
Most narratives don’t require this concentration of description–too much all at once, and your writing can get unbearably flowery or ostentatious. It works well for the meme, but not for a story. I try to be more succinct and efficient when I’m describing characters. Take the introduction I gave to the protagonist of a short story I wrote:
Hugo was a worrier.

Being a ghost hadn’t helped matters.

In two lines, I’ve given you my main character and his two defining characteristics: one, that he worries; two, that he’s a ghost.

Ah, you say. If this is just an exercise in excessiveness, then why bother at all?

Simple: this meme shapes your observational skills.

Creativity is a weird monster that often requires the absurd or over the top to be acknowledged before you can sink into what you actually want to write. Practicing showy descriptions gives your brain room to do this. It gives you a space to practice writing out your observations. You’re not going to use the first draft of whatever you come up with. This is a starting point, a sketch of what’s to come. Besides, not every character can be introduced in two lines:

One of the trees gave a giant lurch as something small and dark dropped from its branches to the grass below. The dark blob slowly unfurled and Hugo’s eyebrows shot up as he realized that the small and dark something was a girl.

The girl moved calmly down the brick path. Her long dark hair hung loose and tangled down her back, and the rest of her appearance was equally tousled: grass stains on her knees, a bright red scab on her left elbow, a smudge of dirt on her forehead and under her fingernails. As she walked down the path, she dropped wildflowers on graves and curtseyed grandly to the older tombstones. Her feet were bare and calloused, and she wore overalls, not a skirt, but her smile was bright and her air gracious as she continued through the graveyard.

Gwen’s introduction takes much more time and allows for more of the flowery language I always reach with the meme exercise, but balances observation with action. From the two paragraphs above, you learn that Gwen is small, active, and unconcerned with tidiness–but also that she is kind and cheerful and curiously at home among ghosts and graveyards.

So next time you’re stuck trying to describe a character, try going overboard. Start with the showy phrases and heartfelt-but-somewhat-too-cheesy sentences and see what happens. You might end up with something ridiculous, but you might end up with an idea of just what your character needs.