Saturday, April 14, 2018

Thinking Out Loud on the Homefront - Getting Newspaper People Right

Book 17 for me in this year's endeavor was one that grabbed my attention simply from its title: The Good Byline. This debut novel by Jill Orr focuses on a mid-20s heroine, Riley Ellison, and many of the people who have known her for most of her life in her home town of Tuttle Corner, Virginia.
There are many who would classify this book as a "cozy" mystery. Truth be told, I've read my share of those. I have turned to them if I wanted something lighthearted with just enough hints dropped by the page to keep me guessing "whodunit?" In this book, I found that there were some parts of the story I pieced together quickly, while there were other plotlines that were not fully revealed until the end in a way many in this genre tend to  do: all but just the underlying plot lines tied up in a neat little bow, while a couple others entice you to pick up the next book in the series. Orr succeeded in doing just that.

The plot of The Good Byline follows Riley as she tries to prove that her childhood friend's death does, indeed involve foul play. Along the way the reader is treated to Riley meeting and reconnecting with a host of characters as she is a library employee by day, and a wannabe investigative journalist at night. We are also quickly brought up to speed on Riley's personal life, which has seen one long-term relationship end and, as a response, readers are treated to emails that Riley receives from an online dating site at different points in the story.
I found myself chuckling as I read each email, and I hope that was the intent. The site provides Riley with a "Personal Romance Concierge" who offers tips on what to wear, what to eat, and where to go on different dates. And the more help Riley wants, or thinks she might want, the more things cost thanks to "an additional $12.95" or a "one-time fee of" another amount. Having never been on a dating website (though fully aware of some happily married people who met on one) I can't speak to whether such services work or offer extra features. But as far as the story goes, each email serves as a way to forward the story along. In fact, and this is a severely minor spoiler, Riley's use of the online dating site becomes part of her investigation into her friend's death.
Now as you are fully aware, my reviews in this space skew toward the emotional. By that I mean I try to find a way to relate to a book and its main character. In Riley, I found that many of the traits she possesses, and many of the aspects of the newspaper world that are described, are almost exactly how I acted or felt when I held the position of either reporter or editor at various stops in my professional life. It should be noted, though, that Riley's dream is to follow in her grandfather's footsteps and write obituaries. The author uses a variety of quotes from real life subjects to explain that obituaries are about life, not death, despite them being about dead people. Truly, this is a unique way of thinking that is tough to argue against.
To illustrate this point, Orr quotes Jim Sheeler, author of the novel Obit, and explains that the obituary section is "journalism's best-kept secret - a place of raw emotion and endless wisdom, a place where you find lessons of life more brilliant than anything you'll ever find from the traditionally designated 'noteworthy' people who usually appear in the rest of the newspaper." As a reporter who has had to write obituaries in the past, I can't argue with this. I've written probably thousands of news stories. The ones I remember most are of a beloved high school English teacher who once had the task of teaching me, and of a close-knit community's long-time sportswriter whose work was cherished for more than 50 years. In both cases, I knew the deceased, and in both cases, I felt it was absolutely necessary to show they were more than their jobs. I suppose the fact that there were so many lives that they touched proved that.
There was another aspect to the newspaper business that I found a bit intriguing, and it was kind of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bit. As Riley continues to dig for details, the editor of the community's weekly paper tells his employee, Holman, who is helping Riley, that she is not qualified. This could be taken a number of ways, but I'll take it this way: one cannot apply for a job in a great many newsrooms across the country unless one has experience, so finding a job that will take inexperienced reporters is not easy. Plus, jumping right into a reporter's shoes without having any idea of what one is doing is difficult, as it would be for anyone changing careers on a moment's notice.
Getting back to the story, though, I suppose I should mention the worst part of the news business as it pertains to investigative journalism. A good reporter has a "nose for news" and a good reporter can also "BS" with the best of them, and therefore can normally pick up when a person is lying to his or her face. The problem with that, however, is that sometimes it is difficult to break down the amount of barriers one has to get through in order to find the "smoking gun" that will break the liar's story wide open. I could relate to that part of the story, too, all the way up until the ending because, unfortunately, the biggest story I was following in my career was cut short by the closure of the newspaper I was working for at the time. Oh well. Life goes on.
I suppose I would be remiss in not mentioning that The Good Byline also involves a bit of romance, but it is not the main focus, nor is it overdone. In fact, the way Riley's personal life is portrayed is of equal comedic value to the emails she receives from her online dating site. However, the comedy is a bit more in your face. And, for the record, it is completely relatable because in most instances described in the story, we have all been in a similar situation. But I won't get too far into Riley's personal life here, because there is more to the story as Orr's second book, The Bad Break, has only recently been published. Any good reporter will tell you it is bad to jump to conclusions, right?
Howie Balaban will be back next week with another "what this book means to me" review. It will probably be about Book 19 or 20 of 2018. Til then, keep reading!