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Let's talk about tone

We all know tone when we hear it. Is there any mom or dad ever who hasn’t looked at their kid and said, “Don’t use that tone with me.” The words might be innocent enough but the tone matters. If Mom says, “I need you to get off the computer and help me clean out the garage,” and her offspring says, “I’ll get right on that,” Mom might be pleased. Or she might not.

The librarians recently put up a display across from the circulation desk featuring books that rely on humor as an integral part of their tone. Certain types of novels lend themselves to that style while others don’t. So, Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, dealing in bad family relationships, murders, and the dark doings of the big cities in Scotland, are noir detective stories and not funny.

At the same time, any of Carl Hiaasen’s books set in Florida and dealing with serious environmental issues, murders, corruption, bad family relationships and dark doings, are hilarious. I laugh my way through every one of his books. Humor and tone are techniques and choices rather than topics or themes.

One more comment – if you look up literary tone, you’ll see lots of definitions about the tone reflecting the point of view of the author. That’s just not true. Tone used in novels reflects the point of view of the characters or narrator, even the third person narrator. And the third person narrator isn’t the author, but an author creation.

Here are a few books from that library display in case you missed it.

Candace Bushnell’s Killing Monica: Bushnell is funny. She gave us Sex in the City. The topics were often serious, but the tone was always light. Her theme in Killing Monica is the same one that Stephen King used in Misery. What happens when an author is stuck with a character that readers adore but the author is sick of. King’s solution and Bushnell’s are different. King’s protagonist kills off the character and there’s nothing funny about what happens next. Bushnell’s protagonist/author fakes her own death, so she doesn’t have to write about Monica anymore. Critics call the book “sharp, witty, funny.”

Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm features a central character that’s hard to like. For years, this wife and mother has been embezzling a lot of money from her daughters’ private school and hoarding it or spending it on bling. When she’s discovered, she just takes off. Her daughters are determined to find her. For those who like the book, it has a light and funny tone. Some readers, though, just can’t get past despising her. Critics like it.

Robert Dalby’s Kissing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly: This is part of the Piggly Wiggly series set in the Mississippi Delta town of Second Creek. It is in the tradition of light reading set in eccentric little southern towns. Described as a summer read and a suspense story, readers love it. The Nitwit Widows are it again.

John Straley’s Baby’s First Felony: This book is part of his Cecil Younger detective series. Normally, our main character in such series is a detective but, in this case, Cecil is a defense attorney for the bad guys. Discovering that his daughter engaged in a crime, Cecil relies on his sketchy underworld contacts to help her out. Best line that has been featured in reviews: “Nothing good comes out of walking around with a lot of someone’s else’s money.”

Stephen Dobyns’s Is Fat Bob Dead Yet: This one is described as “a strange funny crime novel with oddball characters” featuring Connor Raposo who works for a gang of grifters. Any book that starts off with the combination of a motorcycle accident and the escaping Fat Bob wearing an Elvis pompadour has great potential. The title alone had me.

Now that we have more light in our days, maybe we’d enjoy more lightness in our reading. Find the author with just the right tone for you.

See you at the library – and don’t forget to pick up your new library card!

by Roz Weedman

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