The story of radio storymaking–with cartoon illustrations


Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio - Jessica Abel

Back in 1999, cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel  wrote a slim but very interesting graphic novel-like book–maybe you’d call it a nonfiction comic book–about how the radio show This American Life creates its often irresistible stories, stories that lead to “driveway moments” where you’ve arrived home but can’t get out of the car because you must hear how those stories end. I’ve treasured my copy of Radio: An Illustrated Guide for years and now Abel has written a greatly expanded update.  


At 200+ pages Abel’s new book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, includes other American radio shows with high quality narrative nonfiction, shows like Snap Judgement, Radio Lab, Planet Money, The Moth, 99% Invisible, and Radio Diaries. The people who work on these shows are characters in the “story” of how they put together their various radio pieces, and Abel uses graphic images in ways that I didn’t expect but that really work well on several levels.


She shows herself interacting and  in conversations with many of the radio people she interviewed for the book, creating  dialog and  pictures that give a sense of the personalities involved while also conveying  information about the sometimes varied story processes the shows use–Snap Judgement and This American Life have very different  philosophies for instance. Some of the picture panels are set in radio offices, meeting rooms, or broadcast areas, but Abel also puts her characters in a myriad of other more dramatic locations, including wandering around lost in a dense “German forest” and scaling a treacherously steep a rock cliff, images that vividly and charmingly illustrate the creative steps the characters are struggling through.


It’s both amazing and fascinating how much goes into making these shows as compelling as they are–it might take hours or even a whole workday to get 20 seconds right. I’m a big fan of radio, I think it’s natural for a bibliophile to treasure a medium where words play such a key role, so I already loved many of the radio shows in the book but I’m listening now with a lot more alertness and insight into the techniques behind the finished products.


The book is broken into chapters that explore how to: come up with story ideas that will work, find the right characters and voice, structure the story’s components, use sound and music to create images and scene breaks, and edit hours of tape (they still call it that, even in the digital age) into a tight radio segment. I think anyone interested in radio, the creative process, or what it is that makes stories riveting will find this book as fascinating as I did.


I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the website LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

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Gripping sequel more than lives up to first book’s promise


Run You Down (Rebekah Roberts Novels Book 2) - Julia Dahl

I didn’t think it would be possible for the second book in this series to live up to the first, which is a compelling personal story, a suspenseful mystery, and one of my favorite novels of 2014 (my review here), but this new book by Julia Dahl is at least as gripping as her debut. At the end of the previous novel Rebekah  learns that her long lost mother would like to talk,  but when this one opens several months later Rebekah still hasn’t been able to get herself to give her mother a call. Aviva Kagan was a troubled teenager when she left her Hasidic Jewish life in Brooklyn, ran off with a non-Jewish college boy, gave birth to Rebekah, and then fled to parts unknown, leaving her fiancé and infant daughter behind.


Rebekah is working her dream job as a journalist, but coping with anxiety (long term) and depression (new) is affecting her reporting skills and threatening to derail the career progress she’s made. When she’s contacted by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who hopes she’ll look into why his wife’s suspicious death hasn’t been investigated so she can write an article to prod the police, Rebekah gets involved with the insular religious community her mother grew up in and finds herself investigating a group of white supremacists.


For the first two-thirds of the novel Rebekah’s mother recounts her life to explain her actions in chapters that alternate with Rebekah in the present day until the two plotlines begin to converge. I was equally drawn to the stories of both women, and it’s all written so realistically and set so convincingly in a timeline of real events that it’s easy to get swept up. Characters with varied levels of religious belief  and disbelief are all portrayed with insight and sympathy, and are allowed shortcomings as well as strengths. It’s a disquieting but potent story and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Took me on a wild ride that I didn’t want to end


Trouble is a Friend of Mine - Stephanie Tromly

With snappy dialog, off-beat teen characters, and a whip-smart high-speed plot, this book took me on a wild ride that I didn’t want to end, so the only thing that disappointed me was reading the last page which made me long for a sequel. I’m not sure if one is planned, but some questions are left hanging and the story could definitely continue.


Zoe Webster’s parents have just split up, forcing her to move to a small town with her mother, though she’s always been closer to her type-A father, and leaving her feeling displaced, resentful, and bored. Trying to make inroads into her new high school’s insular social scene has been a disaster, and then neurotic, intrusive, super-smart, utterly idiosyncratic Philip Digby shows up with his crazy ideas and rash schemes and things get even worse.


It’s not that trouble follows Digby, he chases it and for some reason includes Zoe in all his plans. She could refuse–and sometimes she does or tries to–but Zoe’s got nothing else to do, she’s tired of obsessively trying to strategize her future, and besides she’s intrigued. The book opens in the middle of their story with Zoe desperately and inexplicably trying to get inside a house wired with enough explosives to level the block, then jumps to the first day of school and Zoe’s initial aggravating, unsettling encounter with tell-it-like-it-is-to-the-point-of-rudeness Digby.  


It turns out there’s some reason in Digby’s mad schemes, but we don’t find out what that is for a while. Digby has a difficult family situation and an unresolved tragedy in his past that drive his actions, which makes it sound like the book might be heavy but it’s almost absurdly funny.


A religious cult, a skeevy gynecologist, high stakes crime, and the jungle politics of high school all figure in the plot. There’s some romance, but it’s far from typical, and a crime is solved, but a mystery is left hanging. Front and center is Zoe’s maddening, enlightening relationship with Digby and their harebrained, rapidly evolving adventures. This is a debut novel–can’t wait for the next book.

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Small town thriller with a down and out heroine


Little Pretty Things - Lori Rader-Day

I have a special fondness for stories about far from perfect, less than amazing characters. Throw in an insular small town setting and I’m generally hooked–which certainly proved true with mystery thriller Little Pretty Things; I could barely put the book down to get on with my own life.


Juliet Townsend was a promising track star in high school, but she always took second place because her best friend Maddy ran just a little bit faster. Never coming in first meant no scholarships to prestigious schools and when her father died suddenly Juliet dropped out of college and returned home, which is where she still is ten years after high school graduation. She works cleaning rooms in a dive hotel, barely supporting herself and her mentally fragile mother and compulsively pocketing random items left behind by guests. After a decade of no contact, her former best friend shows up with a huge diamond engagement ring and the desire to reconnect, but Juliet, full of resentment, brushes Maddy off. By the next morning Maddy is dead, and Juliet is a suspect in her murder.


Of course Juliet investigates, partly to clear her name but also to find out what happened to the friend she regrets rebuffing. This takes her back into the world of high school, this time as a substitute gym teacher coaching girls on the current track team, and being there gives Juliet new perspectives about her own participation in the sport. Juliet also spends time sneaking around in the dark, going after possible clues, and though I had a fairly good idea of who the murderer would turn out to be the story is highly suspenseful.


Without being didactic Little Pretty Things addresses some important issues, racial prejudice and teenage sexulity among them. The well drawn characters really made the story for me–I especially enjoyed the relationships between Juliet and Lu, the slightly older Hispanic woman who also cleans rooms at the hotel, and Juliet and the female cop investigating the murder, a testy former high school classmate Juliet had ignored when she and Maddy were track team celebrities. I’ll be looking for the next book from Lori Rader-Day.

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Books of May

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré Redemption Key - S.G. Redling I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith Wild Strawberries - Angela Thirkell Desert Run - Betty Webb

Pictured above and listed below are the books I enjoyed but didn’t review:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–A reread, obviously. This time I listened to the audio which made gave me some new perspectives.

Redemption Key–S. G. Redling’s second thriller featuring the wonderfully nerdy Dani Britton, this time in the boondocks of Florida

I Capture the Castle–Crumbling castle, eccentric family, and Cassandra–an optimistic but thoughtful teenager who loves writing, relishes life, and sees herself as a Bronte-Austen girl ripe for adventures–I was utterly charmed.

Wild Strawberries–Lady Emily Leslie is having a summer country house party in Angela Thirkell’s second witty, delightful Barsetshire novel.  Young love, misunderstandings, French monarchists, uninvited guests, lots of fun.
Desert Run–Tough but damaged PI heroine, some local history, a WWII tie-in, Arizona scenery, a Hollywood producer, a Native American partner–what’s not to love? This is Betty Webb’s fourth mystery featuring Lena Jones.

And here are the books I reviewed, with review links below:

The Lola Quartet - Emily St. John Mandel The Oregon Trail: An American Journey - Rinker Buck Monkey Beach - Eden Robinson Of Noble Family - Mary Robinette Kowal

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. ChestertonEarth Flight - Janet Edwards Circling the Sun: A Novel - Paula McLain

The Lola QuartetThe Oregon TrailMonkey BeachOf Noble Family

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaThe Man Who Was ThursdayEarth FlightCircling the Sun

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