STICKING THE LANDING: HOW AN ENDING CAN BREAK A BOOK

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how books end, mainly because I’ve read some that do such a terrible job of ending, or that present a reasonable ending and then undermine it. I’m not saying that a book that’s annoying and incredibly flawed throughout will be saved by a spectacularly brilliant ending (though in my experience, a book with a spectacularly brilliant ending will not be annoying or incredibly flawed throughout the rest of it).  I am saying, though, that an author who screws up an ending is doing harm to the book as a whole and annoying readers.

One problem with an ending is that it’s not actually an ending.  I’m not talking here about the nasty practice of surprising the reader by announcing only at the end that this isn’t a fully complete story in itself but part one of a series (though I really do hate that).  I’m talking about a book that wraps everything up nicely and then undermines its own ending.  I’ve read two thrillers recently that did this, and while I liked both books, I think I would have liked them better if they’d had the confidence of their ending.

Without naming names (if you really want to know which they are, you can email me and I’ll tell you), the authors of both those thrillers seemed to feel that merely bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion was for wimps, and that the best way to end a book is to pull the horror movie trick where you think the monster’s gone and everybody’s safe and then, at the very end, you see the monster’s hand reappearing out of the grave (I blame the movie version of Carrie for this; movies might have done that before, but that’s where I first encountered that annoying trope). Especially with a good thriller, where you’ve been tearing through the book, always aware of how high the stakes are and how difficult it’s going to be for the protagonists to succeed, and where there are numerous situations where they come close to succeeding and then fail, and then only finally succeed by the skin of their teeth, you want to feel that there’s closure.  At least I do.  As my heart rate drops back to normal, I want to feel the relief that this time the good guys came out ahead and the horrible disaster didn’t actually occur. I don’t like having the rug pulled out from under me at the last moment (in the last pages, usually) and discovering that, no, whatever horrors the protagonists battled through and survived, their struggles were in vain because the danger is still there and may even be worse.  I don’t mind the situation where the author is saying, “Hey, this could happen again, it was only through sheer luck that we made it this time.”  What I mind is the author’s essentially saying, “You thought we stopped this from happening, but no, we really failed all along and everything you suffered through with the characters was totally useless, ha ha.”

But even that isn’t the worst thing an author can do with an ending. The worst thing is what I saw in another book I read recently (and didn’t review here for this reason), where the author gets to the very end and undermines everything you thought the book was about.  If, for instance, the whole premise of the book is that this person is being unjustly railroaded by the legal system for reasons the person couldn’t control, that the person is the victim of prejudice and because of their background is likely to be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, and the climax is that the person is acquitted of that crime, and then at the end the author shows you that, yes, the person actually was guilty all along, you the reader have every reason to feel you’ve been wrongly manipulated.

Again, it turns on the premise of the book.  If the whole premise of the book is that you’re reading about a person who does terrible things and you know he’s doing terrible things and yet you’re rooting for him not to be caught (hi, Dexter), it’s okay if you see him evade justice, because that’s the whole theme of the book.  Or if the premise of the book is that you’re dealing with a completely unjust system that will never do the right thing because it’s totally corrupt, seeing someone dodge punishment for a crime he committed feels depressing, but it feels right in that context.  If, on the other hand, the whole premise of the book is that people are treating the protagonist wrongly because of prejudice, and the protagonist is this pure innocent creature who’s being crushed by the system, showing me that the protagonist was in fact guilty of the crime for which they were tried turns the premise on its head. No longer am I thinking about how wrong the other people and the system were.  Now I’m looking back at the protagonist (whom I’m still supposed to see as a wronged, innocent creature) and disliking the character.  Not only that, this wrong ending forced me to see all the other problems with the characters and the plot in general, which I was originally overlooking because I was carried along on the premise of the book. This is, in my opinion, no way to keep a reader happy, and unhappy readers do not come back to read your later books.

The ending is the thing readers are going to remember about the book.  The author needs to trust the readers with an ending that doesn’t insult them.

WHEN AUTHORS CHEAT

I don’t usually write here about books I don’t like, so possibly readers get the impression that I love everything I read, which is absolutely not true.  I generally feel that there are so many terrific books out there it makes little sense to waste time talking about not terrific books, let alone loathsome books that make me seriously consider tossing them at a wall at high speeds.   But still, it’s helpful to consider what makes a book so throw-able.  There are many factors, and they vary from bad and lazy writing to ridiculous plots to paper thin characters to nasty ideas being propagated.  One of the worst, in my opinion, is when the author is so eager to give readers a twist that the author cheats.

There have long been books that used twists in the plot to keep the readers’ attention: the revelation about Milady’s background in The Three Musketeers  was a big surprise, for instance, and Agatha Christie was skilled at playing with readers’ expectations.  It seems to me, though, that the success of Gone Girl and its ilk led to an expectation, especially among thriller readers, that a good thriller needs an unexpected twist or it’s not worth reading.  For what it’s worth, I personally found the repeated twists in Gone Girl to be less and less interesting as the book went on, and the only reason I read through the whole book was because I wanted to see both the main characters die in a fire at the end (spoiler: they don’t).  Twists of plot for the sake of having a twist, or surprising the reader, become just a trick if they’re not done well, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well.

If a twist in the plot is done right, it’s a revelation to the reader. It causes the reader to rethink the basic premise of the book, or the basic nature of the characters or everything that’s gone before. That’s the fun of it, having the rug pulled out from under you when you thought you knew where things were going.

However, it’s only fun if you can look through the book again and see how the twist makes sense in light of the earlier part of the story. Here’s where a lot of writers screw up. To be a revelation, the twist has to be surprising, but to be meaningful, the twist has to be set up much earlier, and the reader’s attention diverted away from the clues that are there in the narrative.  Leaving out those clues is cheating. It’s like playing a game for the first time with someone who keeps changing the rules whenever you think you’re winning.

For instance, a thriller I read recently, a bestseller which was touted on the front cover as “the perfect thriller” by an author who should have known better, turned on a surprising twist about the nature of the relationship between the two main characters. Unfortunately, when you look back to the earlier parts of the book, there is no way you could possibly have seen any hints about that twist, because the author treated events which had happened in the deep past as if they were happening in the present of the narrative. Yes, that makes it harder for you to guess what the relationship between the two main characters was, but it also makes the revelation feel bogus. And when the big surprise feels bogus, the whole book, as you look back on it, feels the same.

You don’t need a massive big surprise for a thriller to work. I’ve enjoyed many thrillers which didn’t have those kinds of twists.  I realize it’s the fashion now, and I’m sure lots of writers feel they have to include shocking revelations in order to sell a book.  Sure, have the big surprise, the unexpected twist in the plot, but for heaven’s sake, make sure it’s justified by the rest of the book, or I guarantee you, that book is going to slam into the nearest wall at great speed.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 2: OLD SCHOOL

If you’re someone who has no access to physical libraries right now because they’re closed (in New York, for some reason, libraries aren’t considered “essential”; go figure), and for whatever reasons you can’t access electronic resources or don’t feel reading on devices is the same as “really reading” and yet you’re dying for reading material while you’re staying at home, are you completely out of luck?

No, of course not.

This is the time to look around your house and check out all the books and other reading material you already have at home*.  If you’re like me, there are probably a lot of books in bookcases, on end tables, on nightstands and all over the place in your house.  Those books come in two different categories: the ones you’ve never read, and the ones you’ve read before. Both of those can come in handy in a crisis like this.

Let’s start with the ones you’ve never read.  You might be the kind of virtuous person who never buys books without reading them.  I’m not. There are all kinds of reasons why I have books I haven’t read: people gave them to me, I bought them used and they were really cheap, I bought them because they looked interesting but then I never got around to reading them, they were advance review copies I picked up at Book Expo or the equivalent.  Now is the time to start reading those books.

Maybe you didn’t read them before because you didn’t have time (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which has been sitting on a shelf on my computer table for YEARS).  Now you have time.

Maybe you did start reading them and then got distracted. If the distraction’s gone, why not give the book another try?

Maybe it’s a classic, one of those books you got because you always intended to read it, and then you were so intimidated by it that you couldn’t bring yourself to start it, or you started it and then were overwhelmed and couldn’t bring yourself to finish it.  Ulysses is that book for me; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started that book and never got farther than a hundred pages in or so.  Wouldn’t it feel great to check that one off my life list?

Maybe you started it, put it down for a bit and then lost it (don’t laugh, I’ve done that more often than I care to admit).  Now you can dig it up again and give it another try.

Maybe the reason you never finished it was because it wasn’t the right time for you.  There are just books that you’re not ready to read until you’ve experienced certain things.  For instance, I’ve long thought it was stupid of English teachers to assign Dickens’ Great Expectations to high school students, not because it’s by Dickens (whom I love), but because the themes of the book are much more likely to resonate with adults who’ve had a chance to see the distance between their youthful dreams and the realities they’ve made than with kids who haven’t been disillusioned that way yet. So if there’s a book you’ve kept on your shelves but never read because it didn’t seem to have anything to say to you, maybe your life has changed enough that the book will resonate with you now when it didn’t before.

Now let’s turn to the books you’ve already read. If you’ve read them and kept them around, you must have liked them (or else you just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them or give them away, but even so, if they were books you really hated, even the person who’s most afraid of destroying books would find a way to get rid of them). There’s definitely something to be said for reacquainting yourself with old friends like that. If it’s been a long time since you read them, all the better.  You might not even remember the plot or the characters, so it will be like reading them for the first time.

And even if you remember the plot and the characters and bits of dialogue, so what? Sometimes you can read something a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time and see things you didn’t see the first time, when you were reading for plot, or turning pages so quickly you didn’t notice details. Sometimes it’s cool to be able to see the nearly invisible structure that makes a book work, to notice the footwork that leads to the exciting and brilliant effects.

Besides, with the books you’ve already read, you know what you’re getting, so you can choose the book or books that gives you what you want or need right now.  When I’m feeling the need for funny short stories about British lawyers, I turn to my collection of Rumpole books by John Mortimer. When I want some American history, I can choose my era, reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for a thrilling one volume history of the Civil War, or Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris about Theodore Roosevelt, or Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, about the later years of President John Adams (yes, I am a history nerd; is anyone surprised?).  Or I can go through my collection of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (I’m not sure I have all of them, but I have quite a few), for some wonderful characters and brilliant satire.  I can slant my reading to my mood and be sure of getting something I’ll enjoy, and how often can you say that about something new?

So if you’re a reader and you’re feeling anxious about this current shutdown of libraries, you can find ways to keep yourself happy and well-read.  And don’t worry, there will be plenty of new books to devour when the libraries open up again. Promise.

 

*If for some reason you don’t have any other reading material at home, then I’m sorry, you really are out of luck.  But if you’re a reader, I’m willing to bet you have reading material at home somewhere. Keep looking.

READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 1: ELECTRONIC WONDERS

So maybe you’re stuck at home in quarantine.  Maybe you’re not actually sick yourself, but your state’s governor has instituted a “For the love of God, stay home!” order, and maybe (as is the case in New York, where I live and work) the government in its great wisdom has failed to include libraries in the list of “essential businesses.”  I know, it’s terrible! Not being able to go to the library and check out the new book (or the old books, or all the books by that author of the book you just read and loved) makes everything harder, and of course everybody knows that reading is a great way to get through hard times.

You can’t go to the physical library, but at least here in Westchester County, you can go to the virtual library.  Take your library card for a spin (as I always tell people) and head over to www.westchesterlibraries.org and take a look at all the cool stuff under the tab “Listen, Read and Watch.”  You can check out ebooks and e-audiobooks (which you can listen to on your phone or any other device) from four different collections (Overdrive, Freading, RB Digital Audiobooks and Hoopla) with varying degrees of effort.

Don’t have a Westchester library card?  You still have ebook options that don’t require you to pay money to get reading material. If you live in the State of New York, you can get a New York Public Library card and access all kinds of digital resources (https://www.nypl.org/).

Wherever you are, you can check out Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/), and get THOUSANDS of ebooks.  Granted, you’re not going to get the latest bestsellers on Gutenberg, but think of all those classic books you always told yourself you wanted to read.  Now that you have the time, if you have the devices, you can get your (virtual) hands on them via Gutenberg. For instance, if you want something surprisingly timely, you could check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (about the bubonic plague in London; nonfiction), or The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (sort of The Canterbury Tales in Italy, except that the storytellers are quarantined outside of the city due to plague), or, one of my personal favorites, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (seriously, for a short story, it packs a wallop).  If you’re looking for something a little less on point (and I wouldn’t blame you), you could read Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (great witty dialogue), or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (and if all you know about the book is the Lilliputians, you’re in for a treat when you read the whole thing), or The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (one of the great misanthropes, but so funny as well as biting).  You could check out P. G. Wodehouse if you’re in the mood for something light and funny, or you could read Jane Austen or Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle and lose yourself in a different era. Or, if you really feel ambitious, there are the huge classics: Moby Dick, War and Peace, Les Miserables.  Nothing like a sweeping, epic novel to take you away from your current limitations.

Ah, you say, that’s all well and good, but I don’t know how to read books on my devices, or I don’t like reading e-books.  What should I do then? Keep watching this space. I’ll be talking about that next.

THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019, AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED

This is the time of year when everybody’s putting together their “best of 2019” lists, so who am I to buck the trend?  Many of these lists run to 10 or even 20 books, but I’m only limiting my selections to (a) books I actually read during 2019, (b) books that were published during 2019, and (most important) ( c) books that stood out, that I really, really liked.  Most of the books I’ve written about this year are books I’ve enjoyed (I’m not one of those people who likes to write bad reviews of anything), but the ones I’m listing here went above and beyond and stick with me months later. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are my top choices.

NONFICTION

Yes, I do read nonfiction, and even write about it sometimes. There were two nonfiction books this year that really stood out.  These are not listed in order of importance or quality; as far as I’m concerned, they’re equal.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold, is the kind of book that turns accepted history on its head.  How many books are there about Jack the Ripper, speculating about his identity, luxuriating in the details of exactly what he did to his victims and when?  This is the first I’ve seen that focuses instead on the victims, the women who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the author does a terrific job of bringing them to life for us, challenging the standard story that he was killing prostitutes by showing us that most of them weren’t what we would call prostitutes.  What they had in common was poverty, and poverty in Victorian England was often a death sentence for women. One of the best things about this book, in my opinion, was the way the author brings you through the woman’s life up until the moment before she’s killed, skips the details of how she was killed, and then looks at the aftermath for her friends and family. If you were reluctant to read this book because you were afraid of violence and gore, don’t be. It’s not that kind of Jack the Ripper book; it’s much better.

Midnight in Chernobyl: the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, is another of those books that tells the story of something you think you already know, and illuminates it in ways you couldn’t imagine.  This is probably the most terrifying book I read all year, made all the more chilling because every detail of it is verified and documented. Reading this is like watching the kind of horror movie where you’re screaming at the screen for the characters not to do what you know they’re going to do.  There are descriptive passages that H. P. Lovecraft would have given his eye teeth to have written; there is suspense the likes of which the best thriller writers would envy. It is appalling and vivid and terrifying and one terrific read.

FICTION

Every year there’s at least one book I recommend to everybody I encounter at the library.  This year, that book was Hollow Kingdom, a debut novel (amazingly) by Kira Jane Buxton.  When I describe the book to people with one sentence, I tell them it’s the zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow named S.T. (the initials stand for an obscene description of the crow by his human), and I can see people turning off at the thought. Trust me, though, it is not your typical zombie apocalypse.  For one thing, nobody uses the Z word. For another thing, our main narrator (there are multiple narrators for brief parts of the book, almost all of them animals, giving us different insights into what’s going on worldwide) is such a vivid character, funny and touching at the same time. For another thing, what’s going on with humans (called mofo’s in the book; this is what S.T.’s human, Big Jim, used to call people) is only a small part of the book. Human beings are being destroyed and destroying things, but the focus of the book is how the animals who survive are creating their own world without us.  I have to confess, there were times during my reading of this book that I had to stop because I was so moved, not just by the fate of the humans, but by S.T.’s sorrow and longing for human beings. The book has everything: humor, tears, adventure, thought-provoking reflections, characters you care about deeply, and even a satisfying ending (it’s not necessarily the ending I would have chosen, but it works and it’s satisfying). Keep an eye out for Kira Jane Buxton: judging by this book, she’s quite talented and packs quite a punch.

And yes, in any year in which Jo Nesbo publishes a Harry Hole novel (not frequent enough for my taste), you know I’m going to pick his book as one of the best of the year.  This year his book was Knife, and as one of my co-workers remarked, nobody has ever seen me get so excited about a knife before.  Jo Nesbo is a fiendish writer, and, despite his undue cruelty to his main character, his plotting is better than ever.  If you’re a fan of these dark and enthralling books, I don’t need to tell you anything other than that there’s a new Harry Hole book; if you’re not a fan but you’re interested in dark thrillers that take you by the throat and keep you frantically turning pages till you reach the end, you should start at the beginning of the series and check Nesbo out.

And here’s to all the good books we haven’t yet encountered in 2020!  Happy reading to us all!

WHEN TO GIVE UP ON A BOOK

I know we were all taught to finish what we started, and that many of us still have that deep-rooted feeling that if we start a book, we MUST finish it.  But I’m going to advance a radical idea: sometimes a book just isn’t worth finishing at this time. It took me years to come to this conclusion (and to fight down a lifetime of education to the contrary), but I can safely say I am a better reader and a happier person for it.

The question, of course, is when you should give up on a book, and the answer depends on a number of factors.

The first factor is whether you HAVE to read the book.  If it’s a book for a course you’re taking (especially if the course is all about this particular book), then yes, you absolutely have to read it, no matter how difficult it may be.  If it’s a book you’re reading for book group, then yes, of course you have to read it, especially if it’s a book your whole group chose and ESPECIALLY if you were the person who proposed this book in the first place. As a book group leader, I try to be tolerant and accepting in general, but really, if you’re not going to read the book (the whole book), why are you coming to this meeting to discuss the book you didn’t read (or didn’t finish)?

If it’s not in one of these categories, is there another reason you feel you HAVE to read the book?  And thinking you have to finish every book you start doesn’t count as a reason here. For instance, if someone you love gave you the book or recommended it to the sky and insisted that you read it, you might feel an obligation to that person to force your way through the book. Only you can decide how to balance your affection for that person for the amount of trouble you’re having with the book.  If you have a good relationship, you might be able to tell the person honestly that you couldn’t get through the book (with or without an all-purpose excuse like, “I was just too busy”) without harming the relationship too much.

Once you’ve decided that you can stop reading the book (and this is a personal decision, of course), how much time should you give yourself before you give up.  There are some books in which you can tell in the first few pages that this is not for you, and in that case, there’s no point in forcing yourself to slog through any more.  But if you’re not actively repelled, or put to sleep every time you pick the book up, and the problem is just that it’s not catching your attention the way you’re like, a good rule of thumb is to get through 50 pages.  If it’s still not working for you, for whatever reasons, then you can say you gave it a fair shake and you can give up on it with a clear conscience. Think of it this way: if the book’s 200 pages long, you’ve read a quarter of it, and if it’s 400 pages long, you’ve read an eighth, and if you haven’t found anything you like in an eighth to a quarter of the book, odds are good you’re not going to find anything you like in the rest of it either.  Sometimes it takes more than 50 pages. For instance, I always tell people to give The Time Traveler’s Wife 75 pages before giving up in confusion; it takes that long to get the rhythm of the book. 

Don’t feel bad because you’re giving up on a book.  There are tons of great books out there, and just because one of them, this particular one, wasn’t right for you at this time, that doesn’t say anything bad about you. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you to read this book, and maybe you’ll be ready to read it another time.  That was the case with me and Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  The first time I tried to read it, I found it utterly impenetrable, but then (being stubborn) I picked it up again six months later, and whizzed through it.  The book hadn’t changed, but my circumstances had, so I could focus better on the book. Or sometimes you’re not at the right point in your life for a particular book: when everything seems to be going wrong, probably reading a great but seriously depressing book like A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, would be too much for you, but when you’re feeling stronger you might be able to deal with all the pain and horror of that book (which is, I reiterate, a great book, even though it’s 700+ pages and made me cry several times).  

And even if you don’t come back and read that particular book at a later time, think of all the wonderful books you’ve made space in your life for by not forcing yourself to plow through some book that’s trying to destroy you.  

FINISH THE STORY!

Perhaps this has happened to you.  You’re reading a book, you’re interested in the characters, the plot is carrying you along, and you’re really looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to work out, especially as complications ensue and twists occur and you’re looking at the amount of the book left to read and it’s getting shorter and shorter.  You reach the end, and only then discover that no, the author isn’t going to resolve the plot in this book because there’s a sequel! There was nothing in the publicity or the reviews for the book, and nothing in the book itself that indicated this wasn’t a stand-alone book, so you feel doubly gypped.

That’s happened to me a few times, most recently with Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, and when it happens, whatever good feelings I had about the book drop dramatically when I discover that the author(s) pulled that kind of trick on me. My feeling is that readers and authors enter into a sort of implied agreement : the author is going to play fair, not pulling solutions to plots out of thin air, not violating the rules the author has set up for this particular universe, and finishing the story by the end of the book.  If the author is not going to finish the plot in one book, I feel it’s only fair to let the reader know in advance, by indicating somewhere that this is the first book in a series. Leaving the reader to find that out in the last pages of the book feels like a violation of that author-reader agreement.

It’s not that I don’t like books in series, or that I don’t understand that sometimes a story is too long and too complicated to be told in one book. I’m perfectly happy to read a book that’s part of a series, as long as I know it’s part of a series when I start, so I can decide if I want to read the first part now and wait years for the next part or not.

It’s possible, too, for a book to be part of a series and yet tell a complete story in itself. For instance, there is a several book arc in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series in which a wrong done in the first book finally gets righted, but in each one of these books, the main plot line is resolved, even if those other issues are left for a later book to resolve.  In the same way, Felix Palma’s Map books (The Map of Time, The Map of the Sky,  The Map of Chaos) are obviously all connected, and it’s much more fun to read the later ones if you’ve read the earlier ones, but each book resolves (and in each case the resolution is both surprising and perfectly reasonable, given things that happened earlier in the book), and none of them leaves you hanging and waiting for a sequel to find out what happened to the characters. The more I think about series I have enjoyed in the past (including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land,  and Hilary Mantel’s still unfinished series about Oliver Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), the clearer it is that I have no problem with a series as long as each book in the series is self-contained.

Nor do I have a problem with a series where the story is continued over a couple of volumes (I grew up on The Lord of the Rings, after all), when I know from the outset that book one is not going to answer all the questions it raises.  It’s about expectations, really. My expectations may be unreasonable (I don’t think they are, but then, who thinks they’re being unreasonable?), but if you want to make me happy as a reader, play fair and tell me at the outset whether you’re going to tell the whole story in one book or keep me on tenterhooks till you get the next book published.