I’m not very selective in what I read, meaning that I’ll take a chance on work in most genres. Sci-Fi and paranormal books are not among my favourites, but once I’m out of the starting gate, I rely on the writer to keep me engaged. Even if the story doesn’t begin with a bang, I will continue if I’m interested in the character and the situation that has been thrown at me. The writing style also plays a role in my response to the novel. If the narrative is dense, I’m likely to put the book aside. However, I have been known to slog through many pages to get to the good parts and trot to the end.
Which brings me to highly-touted books that take the market by storm. I realize it’s smart marketing to build up a following way before a book is released. I’ve visited many blogs where the writers gush about this or that particular book, having read an advance copy. Other readers, fuelled by an enthusiastic review, spread the word and then there’s a rush on to get the book as soon as it’s available.
Now, I admit up front that I might be strange, but sometimes I can’t drum up the same level of enthusiasm over novels that have made the bestsellers lists. I’ll give some examples. On the shelf behind my writing desk, there are a little over fifty books. Some I’m reading, or intend to read in the near future. Added to those are good books I have read, the ones that weren’t that good, but that I finished in a snap, and the ones I haven’t completed.
Among the good ones are Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I’ll tell you up front that literary fiction intimidates me. I think it’s because us humble romance/young adult/contemporary writers feel like literary ants when our work is placed beside something of the calibre of the novel I’ve mentioned above. I’m not sure why I bought the book, other than that I am fascinated with books to do with Chinese & Japanese culture. But having bought it, I devoured it in a short time and the characters have remained with me since I read it more than a year ago. Matter of fact, I’ll read it again as soon as time and my reading list allows.
What made it such a good book? For me, the combination of well-drawn characters, a look at Chinese society in the nineteenth century (Who doesn’t want to understand stuff like foot binding, even if the pain nearly did me in too) and the challenges the two main characters faced as they matured. I can’t find enough good things to say about this book, but I have no doubt that someone else will read the same book and be unable to identify with any of what I’ve said above.
For more than a year now, I’ve been on page 348 of A Respectable Trade (Phillipa Gregory). I bought the novel only because of the slavery aspect, which is another fascinating subject for me. Since the book has 479 pages, I’m wondering why I never bothered to finish, having read two-thirds of it. I suspect the reason might have to do with the fact that I found the main character (Frances Scott) wishy-washy. The most vivid memory I have of the book is the fact that Frances was pallid and prone to the vapours and then there was the attraction between herself and Mehuru, the slave she was trying to teach English. I’m stubborn though, so at some point I’ll probably try again.
The Memory Keeper’s daughter is another one I haven’t been able to finish. I had out-of-the-galaxy expectations of this one that I stopped reading at page 104, again more than a year ago. The most I remember is the storyline. A doctor, the father of twins, asks the nurse who works with him to dispose of one of his newborn twins (the one who has Down Syndrome) in a home. Other than that, everything is fuzzy.
Now, I’m not saying the books I haven’t been able to finish aren’t good. They most likely are, from all the rave reviews I’ve seen, but somehow, they haven’t struck that big of a chord with me. Like A Respectable Trade, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a novel that I will be giving another go at some point – if only to study why they have been such big sellers. Could it be that some books get sold based on the author’s reputation? I know this isn’t the case for the latter above, but perhaps for the former.
And then there are other books, which may fall into the category of pot boilers. They aren’t of the highest quality and are put out to make money, but of course publishers are in business to make money. There’s one I read in a few hours called Undeniable. It’s classified as contemporary romance and was written by Ingrid Monique. I’ve kept it on the shelf behind me because since I read in 2006, I haven’t been able to figure out why I finished it so fast. The plot is simple and the characters unremarkable, but somehow I couldn’t put it down until I got to the last page.
In my quest to be a better writer, I read as both reader and writer. Some books I study to see what devices work and why they work. Having said that, I haven’t got around to reading Undeniable a second time, but I know that one day I will, if only to find out what makes the book move at the pace it does. It wasn’t romantic suspense, but I figure that the writer was skilled enough to put the story together in such a way that she kept me turning the pages until I had consumed every word.
I still haven’t worked out in my mind why I’ve been able to read some books in mere hours and others only up to a certain point. On the positive side, could it be writing style? Clever story telling? Compelling characters? And on the other hand, maybe clumsy story telling? Verbiage? Less-than-fascinating characters? Crass tastes on my part? My gnat-like attention span?
Do you have any answers or thoughts?