WHEN A FAVORITE AUTHOR FAILS YOU

What do you do when an author you love fails you?  I’m talking about the situation where you’ll read anything this author writes, they’ve never let you down, you recommend their books to all and sundry, and you grab their latest book eagerly and it turns out to be a dud.  This happened to me recently, and I was both surprised and really disappointed.  I’m not going to detail the name of the author or the book, because life is too short to waste time talking about bad or disappointing books.  Suffice it to say that I had never had a bad experience with this author before, and then as I was reading their latest book, I kept wondering what happened to them, why the book was so clumsy, the characters so annoying, the depth I usually love missing altogether. If the author had been someone I hadn’t read before, I might not have even finished the book at all.  I kept reading because I convinced myself that I must be missing something and the book would end up being the usual enthralling work I’d come to expect.  That didn’t happen.

Will I read this author again?  Probably.  Anybody can have a bad day, and I’ve read several other books by them and enjoyed them all very much.  

It’s the “several other books” that makes the difference for me.  I know at least two authors who wrote books I really loved, and then I read their next books, or started and couldn’t finish the next book, in the case of one of the authors (I don’t think I made it through 50 pages, it was that annoying), and that ended my ever wanting to read anything by either of them again. One good book can be a fluke, too, and if the second book isn’t at least interesting (it doesn’t have to be great), then I’m going to assume that first book was the aberration, and the author isn’t really that good after all.

It also depends on how bad the bad book turns out to be.  If it’s really egregious (multiple cliches, tropes that send me screaming out of the room, obvious and stupid “twists”), then the author’s other books would have to have been spectacular for me to want to pick up the next book.  If it’s that bad, as a matter of fact, I might find myself thinking back to those other books and questioning my judgment about them, maybe demoting them from the pantheon.  Someone who’s a good writer may have a bad day, an unfortunate book that shows them at less than their best, but a good writer (and you can argue this with me if you like, but you won’t win) will never write something that’s actually terrible.  Even a book that falls short of their usual standard will at least be readable, and have some interesting parts (the book I’m thinking about now had a clever solution to the murder, which made up for some of the idiot plot developments earlier).  And, contrariwise, someone who writes a dreadful book which piles on the cliches, forgets about proper character development, turns on ridiculous “twists”, is unlikely to be capable of writing a truly good, well-written book. 

So an author who’s high on your must-read list can make a mistake and come out with something you wish you’d never bothered to read, and the author can still remain on your “I’ll read the next thing they write” list.  They may just get reduced to a lower spot on that list, until they either redeem themselves or write another stinker and make you reconsider their position on the list at all.

WHY IS IT A TELEVISION SERIES?

I’m not rigid about the difference between books and movies.  I understand that they are two different media, and you can’t expect a movie to do the same things that a book can do, even if the film is “based on” the book. Sometimes the differences between the two are almost comical (the Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, completely changes some of the characters), sometimes they’re so vast you can hardly trace the outlines of the original in the movie (and yes, I know the movie, Blade Runner, is a classic, but it is VERY different from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and while I love the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t think I would have loved it as much if I’d read the source, Q & A, first).  What’s interesting to me now is the difference between books and television series based on the books, which actually turns out to be the opposite of the difference between books and movies.

With a movie, the book is almost always better because the author can go into depth in the characters and their thinking in a way that’s almost impossible to depict on film.  An author can have a character musing over things, considering alternatives and possibilities, for pages and it’s interesting.  In a movie, showing someone thinking is the same as showing the person doing nothing, and nobody likes that.  Books can go into greater depth with subplots and side characters, where movies have to cut all that “extraneous” stuff out to get on with the story.

A television series, though, has enough time and space to cover all the details of the book.  Subplots and side characters can be developed and shown because you don’t have a two hour limit.  The problem with a television series based on a book is that the series needs more, and so the way a series diverges from a book is in complicating things and adding things to the book, whether those things might be strictly necessary or not.

For instance, the first season of Dexter followed the first book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, fairly closely, with one or two dramatic differences (people live at the end of the book who are killed in the series, and vice versa).  Characters who were mentioned in the book got their own subplots, but on the whole, if you read the book, you had a good sense of where the series was going.  After that first season, though, the television series took a completely different path, complicating Dexter’s backstory, adding more characters and more relationships, until finally the only things the series and the books had in common were some characters and a general concept of who and what Dexter was.

The Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book, Good Omens, was delightful, a romp through the apocalypse and the efforts to avoid the apocalypse.  The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale, the devil and angel (respectively) were just two among a whole assortment of strange and entertaining characters.  The television series, while mostly following the arc of the book, changed its focus to Crowley and Aziraphale, developing their relationship over the course of human history and giving them much more of a part to play in avoiding the end of the world.  They are charming and funny characters, and I’m not saying that the series was bloated or in any way bad.  I enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the book more, though, and I think that’s because (a) I read the book first (always a factor, to be honest), and (b) the book was more balanced among the characters and the plotlines. I understand there’s going to be a second season of Good Omens, and I have to wonder what it could possibly be about, since the whole story of the book was covered in the first series.

More recently, I’ve been watching the series of The Old Man, and, while waiting for the next episodes, I read the book, by Thomas Perry. The television series is baroque, especially for a thriller: there is a backstory involving the Russian war in Afghanistan, there are multiple characters with multiple identities, and (as there should be in a show about spies) questions of loyalty and betrayal.  The book is lean and mean; the characters are fewer and less complicated, the plot is clear and moves like a racehorse.  It would make a terrific movie in the same way The Maltese Falcon made a terrific movie.  What I can’t understand is why someone chose to take this book, with this plot and this speed, and wrap it around with multiple lines of secondary characters, political intrigue, mistaken identities and the like to drag it out for hours and hours of a television series.

I’m sure there are books that would be perfect for a television series (Bleak House, for instance) where the writers wouldn’t need to add extra characters and extra plots and complications to stretch the material out.  But on the whole, I believe television series and books are two entirely different kinds of creatures, and they should stay that way.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT MYSTERY

Over the last couple of years, since I’ve been running the Field of Mystery Book Group, I’ve had lots of occasions to think about what makes a good mystery.  Some of the books we’ve selected have been all right, some have been less than all right (one I actually hated, and said as much in the meeting), and some have been really good.  Reading our most recent selection, The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves, helped me to come to some conclusions about what kind of mystery I like best.

I’m as fond of a good twist as the next person (though, having read a lot of thrillers and mysteries, I’m a little harder to surprise with a twist these days), and a clever puzzle with lots of red herrings and dead ends is always entertaining, but what really makes a good mystery for me is more than the plot, however clever and twisted.  

The depth of characters and the breadth of the world the author creates are what I’m looking for. I want a mystery that sucks me into a whole world, a place that feels alive and realistic, where you feel the people go on and have lives outside their roles in this particular case.  When you’re reading the book, you should feel as if you’re actually there, whether “there” is a small town in Devon, England, or a private school for girls in Dublin, or a neighborhood in Tokyo. 

The other thing I look for is characters as complicated and conflicted as real people.  I especially love a book that starts out with a character presented in a particular way that then reveals more and more facets to the character, so you’re forced to question whether the initial impression was accurate at all.  For instance, in The Long Call, we’re given one view of the victim at the outset, and then as we gradually learn more and more about him, he becomes more and more of a human being, flawed and struggling, and quite different from the person we originally thought he was.  Lots of writers devote this kind of attention to their main characters and the continuing characters in a series, but to me, the mark of a really good writer is that they give that kind of loving attention to many characters, not just the detectives and the suspects, but the people surrounding them.  P.D. James was good at this, as are Tana French and Ruth Ware and Ann Cleeves and Minette Walters, to name a few.

Which is not to say that plot isn’t important.  Obviously a mystery where the answer is obvious from the outset isn’t much of a mystery, and neither is a mystery where the answer, when revealed, seems to have no relationship with the rest of the plot.  A great mystery plot turns on the particular characters of these particular individuals, and when the solution is finally revealed, you feel as if you should have guessed it all along but you didn’t because it was too cleverly hidden from you through the book.

Reading a good mystery is an immersive experience, one that engages the emotions as well as the intellect.  I’m delighted to have discovered so many really good ones through the book group, and hope you, too, will find the kind of mystery that keeps you up extra hours because you just have to find out what happened to these characters you care about.

WHEN YOU NEED A CHANGE

I recently finished reading a couple of really dark novels, and was in the middle of reading a third, and I just felt so emotionally drained that I knew I needed to read something completely different.  I needed a reading palate cleanser.

Don’t get me wrong: the books I’m talking about (one of which is Once There Were Wolves, which I was reading for the Field Notes Book Group) are well-written and engrossing; for the most part, they’ve been page-turners.  And as anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m never afraid of a book that goes to scary dark places (no one who’s as big a fan of Jo Nesbo as I am could be sensitive to violence and gore).  Most of the time, I can zoom from one serial killer book to another, from one book in which horrific violence is done to the characters to the next without hesitation.  It’s just that sometimes (like now), it’s just a bit too much.

Possibly it would make more sense to switch my reading around a little, alternating more (and more frequently) than I have been.  It’s easy to fall into a routine, and pick the same kinds of books over and over, and let’s face it, there are a lot of cool thrillers out there (and my running a mystery book group as well as a regular book group makes it more likely that I’m going to find myself reading books in that genre) just begging me to read them. The problem is that too much of a dark thing can make the whole world seem depressing and miserable, and it’s hard to get yourself psyched to keep reading when you know the next thing that happens is going to be terrible and upsetting (and even if you’re wrong and this time the next thing isn’t terrible and upsetting, you still know that terrible and upsetting things are lurking in the near future).  Not to mention that reading some of these books right before bed isn’t really conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Today I headed for the library shelves and chose a couple of rom coms, which I’m going to dive into as soon as I get them home. I might go through one right after the other, as a matter of fact, giving myself completely to the delights of ordinary people doing silly things around each other, making mistakes, opening themselves up and ultimately getting to that happily ever after. 

It doesn’t have to be a romantic comedy, either. That’s just what occurred to me first. I could have also gone for a book of poetry, or essays, or an engrossing nonfiction book. I could even have gone back to an old favorite, just to remind myself that there’s more to read out there than what I’ve been — should I say wallowing? — in recently.

So there’s nothing wrong with switching gears now and then.  You should never feel defensive about what you’re reading, and if you need something that’s going to make you cry, that’s fine.  If you need something that’s not going to make you feel as if everything is just a meaningless nightmare, that’s also fine.  It’s a big literary world out there, and there’s something that will work for whatever mood you’re in, give you whatever you need.  All you have to do is look.

FLOOD YOUR LIFE WITH BOOKS FOR THE NEW YEAR

I’ve been reading about this wonderful custom in Iceland called Jolabokaflod, in which people give each other books for Christmas and spend Christmas Eve reading their new books.  I think it’s a terrific idea and, though I’m too late for Christmas 2021, I want to propose we try it for New Year’s Eve.

It doesn’t have to involve gifts; it doesn’t even have to involve new books, though if you got new books for the holidays or if you went to the library to take out dozens of books because you’ve got some time off and thought you could catch up on your reading, you certainly could spend the time reading new books.  I just love, and want to encourage, the idea of setting aside a particular night to read.  Just read.  Dive into a book and let yourself be carried away.  Leave behind all the craziness of the world around you and remember why you love to read in the first place.

I’m proposing New Year’s Eve.  Yeah, I know in America we tend to spend New Year’s Eve at parties of various sorts, drinking too much and whooping it up as the old year ends and the new one begins, but especially this year with the Omicron COVID variant rampaging and many group events being curtailed or canceled altogether, it feels like a good time for a new ritual, something a little less dangerous and a little less likely to leave us starting the new year feeling hungover and a little delicate.  Considering that New Year’s Day is a holiday for many people, you don’t even have to feel guilty about staying up later than usual to finish just one more chapter, because you don’t have to get up early the next day.

I’ve got a stack of books I’m either reading at this moment or ready to start reading.  I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to a flood of books, a flood of reading, and beginning a new year pumped up with the delights of reading.  I hope you can join me.

CLICHE ENDING NEEDS TO STOP

In S. E. Hinton’s book, The Outsiders, published in 1967, the end of the book was Ponyboy’s writing down the story of recent events for a school paper, and — what a surprise — the story he’s starting to write is the novel we’ve just read.

That was an interesting way to end a book, in 1967.  Over the decades that have passed since then, that kind of ending has become more and more frequent, and less and less interesting. It has, in fact, become kind of a cliche, almost as annoying as the “and then he woke up and it was all a dream” ending.  

This ending is one reason I’m always a little leery of books where the main character is a writer, or wants to be a writer; the chances that the book I’ve just read will turn out to be — what a surprise — written by that main character increase.

I recently read a book (and no, I won’t name it; as you know, I don’t name books I don’t like, for the most part), and I had mixed feelings about it as I was reading it, but having that “and he wrote the book with the title of the book you’re reading” as part of the ending just tipped the scales against the book for me. 

It’s laziness on the part of the author. We’re not going to believe this is a true story just because of this trick. It’s not going to bestow any more credibility on events in the book that feel incredible. It feels as if the author is doing some special pleading, trying to get the readers to like the book more because they like the character in the book who supposedly wrote it.  It suggests that the author can’t think of another plot or set of characters for this character to create. 

None of these is a good thing to be thinking about at the conclusion of a book you just read. 

The trope can be done with a little cleverness (the book version of Freaky Friday did it in an amusing way), or it can be done a little obliquely (some might say the ending of The Once and Future King is a version of this trope).  And if the rest of the book is really good and well-written, I’m willing to overlook this little detail, though I guarantee I will roll my eyes at it even if I still like the book. 

But frankly, it’s past time to retire this type of ending.  It’s not clever, it’s not deep, and, at least in my case, when I see an author pulling this kind of thing, I make a mental note not to read anything else by this author.  Give me a good ending, a clever twist, something that reaches back to the beginning of the book in an original way. Give me a “and that book he wrote is what you just read” and the book is in danger of getting thrown across the room.

PUBLISHERS PLAYING GAMES WITH READERS

What do V.C. Andrews, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Robert Parker and Dr. Seuss have in common?  

They’re all dead people who are still, somehow, publishing new books regularly.

Now, I have nothing against the idea of dead authors continuing to write and publish.  In fact, I think it would be really cool.  Imagine what Charles Dickens would have to say about modern British (or American) society.  Or what James Baldwin would be writing in 2021, or what Philip K. Dick might come up with if he were aware of modern technology.  The mind boggles.

However, that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening is that books are coming out with the names of these dead authors prominently displayed, even though they haven’t written a word of the book in question.  Often, as in the case of Robert Ludlum or Robert Parker or Tom Clancy, there’s another author’s name on the cover, much lower and much less prominent, but sometimes the author’s name is just printed there without even an acknowledgment that the author had nothing to do with the book in question (V.C. Andrews, for instance, wrote 7 of her books before her death; everything after that has been written by someone else who STILL, even though people know who it is, doesn’t get any credit for the books).

It’s a kind of fraud, which is annoying in itself, but it also turns authors into commodities. This isn’t a unique product of an author’s imagination, it says: this is a Tom Clancy product, manufactured to his specifications, just like every other Tom Clancy product.  And if people want the original item, and not someone else’s version of those characters, it would be better to only put the name of the actual author on the book, so a reader can make up their own mind about whether they want to read this author’s take on the characters.

I know what the argument is from the publisher’s side: people love these series and they want more books about, say, Spencer (Parker’s creation) or Jason Bourne (Ludlum’s), and they associate these characters with the author’s name, so the publisher is doing readers a service by prominently showing the dead author’s name on the cover.

To which I say, nonsense.  People have been writing about famous characters for a long time (how many different versions of Sherlock Holmes are there out there?), and readers have been able to find the books they’re looking for without having to see the name of a dead author purporting to have written this latest version.  If you want people to know this is a book about, say, Spencer or Jesse Stone, or Jason Bourne or whoever, you can put the character’s name on the cover.  They’ve been doing that with James Bond books for decades, after all, and nobody seems to have any trouble buying those. 

Let’s have honesty in books.  If Tom Clancy isn’t writing the books, don’t put his name on the cover.  If you’re a fan of Spencer, you’ll find books in his series even if they don’t pretend to be by Robert Parker. Give us a little credit and stop treating readers as if we’re unable to read.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK SNOB

I have recently faced the painful realization that I am, in fact, a book snob.

I’m not the kind who refuses to read whole genres of books.  As I hope comes across in this blog, I’ll read all kinds of things: speculative fiction, romances, thrillers, mysteries, all varieties of nonfiction.  There’s so much wonderful stuff out there, I would be selling myself short by ignoring any genres or types of books.

Except there is one type I carefully avoid, and the time has come to admit it and try to do better.

Recently my Drum Hill Book group chose the book The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, as the book to read and discuss.  This wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere, of course; I bring the selections to the group, trying to pick books that are likely to be interesting to the group which also have enough books of the right type (mostly large print) in the library system.  This time I included The Girl on the Train because it had the right numbers and I thought the group might enjoy a bestselling thriller.  I had never read the book before, because it was a bestseller that had been on the bestseller list for years.  I figured (and here’s where the snobbism comes in) that if it was a bestseller it was probably not a good book, and I would probably not enjoy it.

Well, the fact is that I did enjoy The Girl on the Train.  It’s not a great book, and, as some of the people in the book group noted, it wasn’t great literature, but then, it wasn’t trying to be.  It was a decent thriller, and the author did a good job of playing with perspectives and throwing one red herring after another, so that at different points I was convinced that different people (including one of the narrators) might have been the murderers. The twist was set up well (when you looked back, it made sense and didn’t come out of thin air), and the ending was satisfying.  

Are there things I wished had been better?  Sure.  Characters you could root for were few and far between, and there was no reason for the “girl” in the title (one of my bugbears in general), as Rachel, the supposed girl, was clearly an adult.  But even so, decent thrillers that play fair and have good twists and keep you guessing are books I often read and enjoy.  So the only reason I didn’t read this when it first came out was because it was popular.

Part of my snobbishness comes from my blog’s orientation: I figure bestsellers don’t need my promotion, as they’re already going to get lots of readers (I can’t be the only person who will read anything my favorite author writes).  And part of it is having been burned in the past (just because Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller didn’t mean it was good; ditto for Gone Girl, though the two are in no way in the same league of badness) and realizing that my taste seldom coincides with that of the great majority of book-buyers. 

But as they say, the first step toward changing your behavior is recognizing it, and from now on I won’t ignore bestsellers just because they’re bestsellers and popular.  Who knows?  I may find another favorite author that way.  No guarantees, of course, but I’ll at least give them a try.

BOOKS THAT JUMP THE QUEUE

I’ve already admitted to being something of a rebel in that I read more than one book at a time, but I am, for the most part, orderly in how I choose which book I’m reading first and which ones I put off for later.  Usually, since I get my books from the library (duh!), I choose the book that’s going to have to be returned first, or the one that’s so hot I know I won’t get a chance to renew it if I need more time (this is an advantage of working in a library, of course), or I’ll read the one for the book group that’s coming up first, before I start on one that I’m reading just for myself, and so forth.

However, sometimes there are books that make me an anarchist of sorts, that jump the queue and cause me to drop whatever else I’m reading to make room for them.

At this moment, for instance, I was reading a couple of other books when suddenly I got Alison Bechdel’s The Secret of Superhuman Strength on hold.  I’d been waiting for that book since it first was published, and it seemed to have been in transit forever (probably it was just a couple of days, but you know how it is when you’re eagerly waiting for something; time changes its meaning entirely). As soon as I got the book into my hot little hands, I put everything else aside and dove into it. I was, naturally, aware that I was throwing my reading schedule into complete disarray and that there was a non-zero chance that I would lose track of the other books I’d been reading, but that was a price I was willing to pay.

Sometimes the queue-jumping book is like that one, something I’ve been waiting for eagerly for a while and know I might not be able to get again quickly.  Sometimes it’s a book by a favorite author (hi, Jo Nesbo, hi, Seanan McGuire), or a book in a series I’ve been following assiduously.  Sometimes it’s a book I know I’m only going to have for a short time, so I have to read it now or lose it for months (this is not an exaggeration; some really popular books have hold lists in the three or even four figures).  Sometimes it’s a book I’ve just taken out, and glanced through in an idle moment (yes, I do have some of those), and have been sucked into hopelessly as if I’d stepped on the edge of a black hole. 

It’s always a pain when the new book that’s thrown everything into disarray turns out to be less wonderful than I wanted; then I feel all the guilt of putting other books aside for this one.  That’s usually not the case, though.  I don’t pull this stunt unless I’m really REALLY excited about the new book, and nine times out of ten, when I’m that excited about the book, it lives up to my expectations.

So don’t be embarrassed if you fall in love with a book and cast all the other things you’re reading aside.  You’re not in school anymore (probably), and you don’t need to be rigid about what you’re reading and how orderly you are about your To Be Read pile. The delicious pleasure of reading out of order, devouring something now just because you can’t wait another minute to read it, is worth all the guilt, trust me.

ALL HAIL MURDERBOT, NEBULA PRIZE WINNER, 2021!

It’s no secret to anyone reading this blog that I am a massive fan of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series.  Ever since I read the first novella in the series, All Systems Red, I have loved the books: the complex plots, the excellent worldbuilding, the characters, and especially Murderbot itself, in all its grumpiness, its love of teledramas, and its sardonic take on all things human. I was so pleased when Wells gave Murderbot an extended storyline in last year’s novel, Network Effect, since she pulled off the greater length and complexity with aplomb.

I am obviously not the only person who feels this way, because Network Effect just won the 2021 Nebula Award for Best Novel.  I’m not a Nebula voter, but I am thrilled and delighted that the book has been recognized this way, and of course I encourage everyone to launch themselves into the series (start with All Systems Red and read them in order; they’re more fun that way).  Now you have no excuse: it’s an award winner!