Thursday, June 6, 2013

What makes a literary novel?

I've just posted reviews for two more novels and would have tagged both as literary, if only I'd thought to create a literary shelf in my Goodreads library. But can you imagine going back through those 952 reviews to see which books should have been literarily shelved? Of course, if someone would sell me more hours in the day (preferably free) I'd give it a go... but no-one's offered yet. So the books are shelved under mystery and cultural instead. Meanwhile I'm wondering, what makes a novel literary?

I was wondering that last time I went to church too--strange the thoughts that drift through the brain sometimes. They were taking the collection and the choir was singing a truly beautiful song--but what makes a song beautiful? What lifts one song in church above all the rest?

With my mongrel Christian background, not to mention my English childhood now I've moved to America, I find lots of unfamiliar hymns and religious songs in church services. But I do like to sing and I do my best to join in. Some tunes have a kind of sweet predictability which makes them easy to learn. I hear one line on the piano and I almost know what the next line has to be. Even if I guess a note wrong it will blend rather than standing out. Then the person next to me will say "I didn't know you knew that one," to which I reply, "I don't."

Other tunes are dramatically complex, straining the singer's imagination, begging just to be listened to because how can anyone ask a congregation to match that twisted beat and those musical jumps. But others, like that haunting melody the other Sunday, seep into the brain, begging a response, building up inside though you'd never dare spoil the magic by joining in. You don't sing along with songs like that but you know, almost, where the next note will lie and you drink in the sound like water fresh from the stream.

I'm not sure what makes a song lie in that last category. But if notes were words, such a song would surely qualify as literary. The novel might be a mystery like Howard Owen's The Philadelphia Quarry, or contemporary cultural drama like Paint the Bird by Georgann Packard. But behind its label is music, words that flow and characters that grow, a storyline that never stretches the imagination too far, nor lets it relax...

Two literary novels: I guess I ought to give you links to the reviews and invite you to coffee now I've mentioned them, so pull up a chair and grab a cup...

The Philadelphia Quarry, by Howard Owen, is a modern noir mystery filled with the smoky hard-living atmosphere of a newspaper room and the urgent investigative power of a reluctant campaigner for justice. Willie Black's pulled into another investigation where editorials have cast their verdict before the case goes to trial, and the reader's pulled into a convincing world where parents and children play out their changing lives. Highly recommended--enjoy with a bold dark intense 5-star coffee.

Paint the Bird, by Georgeann Packard combines frailty and strength in a novel of relationships, secrets, betrayals, and families. Birth blood and choice determine who's related to whom, but letting go is hard, however the relationship was made. As two strangers let go in their different ways, they find themselves clinging to each other, learning what they need by looking at the world through different eyes. A novel of beautiful perspectives, or a painting in words, this is one to enjoy with a rich, elegantly complex 4-star cup of coffee.

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