Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy – Mariana Mazzucato

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

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From Story to Novel

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M.L. Davis has a great post on learning to write short stories from the perspective of someone more used to novels.

This post is about the other side of that. I’m more familiar with writing short stories (even like this tiny boye), and had to learn a few things before I managed my first novel.

Giving Characters Space

The main thing was finding the right approach to planning for me.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

Novels are big. Readers will be hanging out with the characters for a much longer time, and plots become more multilayered and sprawling.

Different approaches to planning work for different people. You need to find your own balance, giving yourself enough structure to keep things on track while also giving the characters space to develop and use their own initiative.

Ultimately, the plot is what the characters do. When you’re working with words by the tens of thousands, and with many more plot points than in a short story, it will become more glaringly cruddy if the characters are shallow puppets with the plot imposed on them. And more gripping if characters take control for themselves.

Life Doesn’t Have Chapters

This is another shift in mindset that helped me. In early novel attempts, my chapters were too strictly episodic. One plot sequence happened, then jolt into this one, jolt to the next, and so on, each a bit too compartmentalized. They didn’t connect smoothly.

Chapters and scenes are very important for the writer and readers. A satisfying story will have its rises and falls, building tension and resolutions, driving action and reflection in well-paced balance. After a battle scene it may be good to have a steadier chapter with more reflection, dealing with the aftermath. So, as writers, we start on a new chapter with that in the back of our minds.

As far as the characters are concerned, their life is a continuous stream. Not a set of episodes. They, the ones doing the plot, continue acting in line with their motives just as before. Unless this is metafiction, none of them see Chapter 14 flash in the sky when the other side surrenders. They only know the battle is won, they’re knackered, and people are dead and injured – and act accordingly.

Deeper Worldbuilding

As Coffee Stars Books said:

I like to start with worldbuilding before character and plot because I think it influences both of those things a lot. I tend to find that my plot is very character driven, and in turn my characters are formed from their own experiences and upbringing and the world around them.

Particularly for something like fantasy, you need to know more about the setting, culture, and magic and technology. If you add magic to a world, that should have logical impacts throughout society, down to shaping the lives of your characters. Writing a novel gives you a chance to get into much more detail with all these things than a shorter form allows. It’ll be fun!

Of course, excess exposition will be one thing to edit out later on – it’s okay to know more than you include.

One Step at a Time

A novel is a lot of words. A number like ‘90,000’ can be disconcerting. Set a non-scary target – mine was 500 words – and try to do that every day. If you can write 500 words, you can keep on doing that until it all adds up.

Some days will be easy, in which case it’s fine to keep going past the target. Others will be hard, in which case embrace the trash – bad writing is what editing’s for.

If a whole section is a struggle, keep at it. Forget about phrasing everything nicely, and be open to the characters veering off your plan. At some point you will know what’s going on again, and any tricky editing that needs doing is future-you’s problem.

Whenever you finish a day’s write, a chapter, a section, you’re achieving something. The end goal is the sum of all those steps along the way, so take heart in your progress.

Gardening

A short piece in ‘The Drabble’.

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By Alex Page

After the spores spread, and defied the nukes, and left me roaming the empty city haunted by my wife’s final fungal gurgles, I tried to join her and discovered my immunity’s true scope.

I found others chosen. We watched the rain battle concrete, tarmac give way to grass, the night sky deepen to countless stars. Eventually we heard Pan’s voice, his whispers in the leaves, and understood he’d always been speaking, ignored.

He claimed back his world, keeping us to drape skyscrapers with ivy, sow fields with flowers, gather plastic for eventual compost. Gardening, immortal, until the damage is restored.

         
Alex Page writes because making fantastical things up is fun.

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Shepherd Boy

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Billy huddled closer to the fire, prodding it with a stick and jolting when sap burst.

He glanced back from the fields to the house. A warm bed indoors would be nice right now. The grass was getting slick with dew and the wind was biting, whipping clouds across the moon. He straightened up, searching for signs of movement. A sheep twitching in sleep. Branches swishing. His eyes were leaden.

Something whooshed in the distance. There was a sound like someone shaking out a sheet. In the span of a heartbeat something swooped down by the ground and away. A sheep screamed, the flock stirred.

Billy stood, brandishing the stick. Now he was awake. What’d happened? It’d been too fast to see. Probably nothing. Too early to call out. He’d just been trusted to take a turn watching. Embarrassing to wake up the village over nothing on his first night. He started walking over, using the stick to get down the muddy hill, pushing down the thought of what he’d do if a wolf or something was running around.

The sheep were bolting away from the area. He couldn’t see anything the matter, heaving a sign of relief.

Then it happened again.

Something vast dove down in front of him, grabbing a sheep in scythe-like claws as it went, and soared away with flaps that shook the grass and hurt Billy’s ears. The animal’s cry vanished with the rest of it. Billy fell back in the mud, the stick cracking as he tried to catch his fall. He screamed, running towards the house, clambering around panicked sheep and up the hill, covering his hands in mud.

He paused, wheezing, just before his knuckles hit the door. What was he meant to say? He knew how it’d sound. Silly boy catching a fright. Got spooked in the dark. Fell asleep and lost some sheep, knew he’s too young for the responsibility, too old to make up stories like that. Those nice clean clothes. He stood frozen in place, sweating and dirty, pulse racing. The fire crackled.

He couldn’t tell them a dragon stole the sheep. He couldn’t stay out here with a dragon. Finally he pounded the door, calling out, ‘Wolves! Wolves took two sheep!’ Feet pounded on the stairs inside and his dad appeared, hastily putting on boots and a coat.

Billy grabbed onto him, burying his face in his belly, wailing. Big rough hands rubbed his shoulders then nudged him away, finding the mud on his face.

‘What’s all this? You didn’t run after them, did you?’

He tried to calm down. ‘It – they were so fast. I-’

‘It’s okay, Billy. It’s alright. You did fine.’ They settled down by the fire, a few other villagers coming to the commotion, checking on their flocks. ‘They’re getting bolder these days, coming down from the mountains.’ His dad shook his head, cast in silhouette, and spoke with a chuckle. ‘Almost like something’s pushing them out of there.’

May’s Departure and the ‘Human Level’

May resignation speech

Theresa May has announced her upcoming departure, in a speech (transcript) closing with tearful ‘enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’

I found her speech really frustrating, and the ‘oh you’ve got to feel sorry for her, on a human level’ responses troubling.

If you feel for May in that moment, I can understand why – but bear with me here. I’m not asking you to harden your heart, but quite the opposite.

First, let’s look a bit at how she ‘served’ the country.

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For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton — who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport — was my constituent in Maidenhead.

At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.

He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.”

It’s too easy to harp on May’s pathological stubbornness in the face of that advice, so I’ll focus on the irony of her using this man in particular as anecdote fodder.

The Windrush scandal isn’t something a government rooted in the humanitarian ideals that motivated Kindertransport could be responsible for. British citizens were denied access to healthcare, made redundant, homeless, or deported – thanks in large part to May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which sought to actively make the country unwelcoming, such as by sending vans round telling people to ‘go home’. Lovely!

Politico’s Jack Blanchard puts it plainly: ‘May has been badly exposed by the Windrush affair, which is difficult to see as anything other than the responsibility of whomever was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.’

What’s more, a report this year found that the Home Office was doing ‘as little, rather than as much, as possible to find and help people affected by its actions’. People are still suffering because of this – effectively because they’re the wrong colour.

That this scandal alone didn’t bring May’s career to an immediate and shameful end says something dark about us a nation. We think so little of people who came here, faced enormous prejudice, and spent their lives contributing to society.

I have striven to make the United Kingdom a country that works not just for a privileged few, but for everyone. […] I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan.

Well then, she’s failed utterly, hasn’t she? By pretty much any standard inequality has ballooned. I mean, the DWP made someone starve to death. Even ‘I, Daniel Blake’ didn’t go quite that far.

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK makes for stark reading, with ‘2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.’

Alston was right to say that ‘The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial [but] many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations[.]’ Routinely, May and her ministers shook their heads, laughed, or resorted to misleading stock phrases and massaged stats in response to the opposition et al raising these issues.

With Universal Credit linked to suicide risks, how can May claim to advocate for mental health?

I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower

And the Fire Brigade Union’s response:

‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.’

72 deaths, no prosecutions.

the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.

This is a very ‘trickle down’ version of feminism, in which a woman leading is woke regardless of what she does.

The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.

Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.

This is another purely performative statement. This solidarity applies unless you’re from Windrush, or poor, or disabled, or…

Oh, did you know the government deports LGBT asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk and tells them to ‘pretend to be straight’?

Aside from that, Theresa May is on your side.

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Journalist Owen Jones pointed out on Sky News that we should be feeling sympathy for the victims of May’s policies. To which the interviewer said, ‘You can’t just respond on a human level?’ But as Jones said – ‘I have’.

I’ve commented on my issues with civility-centered discourse before, and here it is again.

A political opponent isn’t a member of an opposing sports team, with the codes of sportsmanship and noblesse oblige which that implies. They have different values, and implement policy accordingly. It’s one thing to suggest a role for compromise and mutual understanding in the world, that we recognise the humanity of opponents and work together where appropriate. But if their policy leads to death and misery, we’re supposed to shake their blood-soaked hand at the end of the match as though it didn’t happen?

What is the appropriate way to respond on ‘a human level’ to someone responsible for mass misery and hardship weeping in their resignation speech? What could be appropriate but to center their victims?

YouTuber Mexie has discussed the distinction between the sort of flashy fast violence that’s easy to appreciate as such, and the more systemic, genteel type of violence that happens in offices distant from the scene.

It’s hard to grasp quite what May’s career has involved. This kind of violence can be abstract, passing through the rapid news cycle. Even reading the reports and checking the stats doesn’t do it justice.

Imagine May, during her speech, throwing a grenade into a crowd (selling weapons to Saudia Arabia, despite Yemen). Or imagine she took you from your house in the middle of the night in winter, and locked you in a cage outdoors to die of exposure (soaring homelessness). Or imagine she bundled you in a van and abandoned you in another country (unjust deportations).

Really think about it. See what I mean?

The only differences between the direct violence I’m asking you to imagine, and her government’s ruinous policies, are scale and ‘legitimacy’. It would have been better if May committed direct violence rather than stamping documents, since one person can’t inflict anywhere near as much harm as a state apparatus. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.

How is lobbing a grenade in a crowd different from arming Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen? The latter kills more people. Would you ‘feel for’ the bomber being arrested? No? So why feel for an arms dealer resigning?

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The thing is, after all that, I still think Theresa May is a human. Of course she is, and due universal inalienable rights as such. Recognising that, though, doesn’t have to imply throwing all perspective out the window, to the point of ignoring the reality of her actions.

It’s hard to genuinely wrestle with the humanity of people you profoundly disagree with, who are responsible for terrible things. It’s much harder than pretending political opponents are just like players on a different sports team, so you can take the real challenge out of ‘love thy enemy’ and still feel magnanimous.

The fault isn’t simply hers, but endemic in a Conservative party which measures human life by market value, despite the performative rhetoric and crumbs from the table. When May sobbed I think she genuinely believed she’d done good, really saw herself as trying to ‘serve the country I love’. That’s tragic and frightening. It shows just how little of an impression reality has on the spin, how little some people count.

Here’s a human level: it’s heartbreaking for all involved that Theresa May never served the country in the way she claims to have wanted to.

Book Reviews (11)

books 11

Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.

An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

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Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?