WHAT MAKES A ROM COM WORK?

I’ve already admitted my weakness for romantic comedies as palate cleansers and as light, fun reads in between heavier ones (whether those heavier reads are dark thrillers or nonfiction that covers serious and disturbing matters), and I’m not ashamed of it.  A good rom com can make a difference in my mood and outlook, and I really enjoy reaching the happily ever after.

However, I just read a book that I thought would be a rom com that turned out to be less than advertised.  I’m not naming the book here, but it was one that had a cute cover, a clever name, an amusing premise, and seemed, to someone reading the back cover and the front cover, to be something fun and romantic.  And yet, when I finished it, I didn’t feel the lift, the pleasure of reading a good rom com.  On the surface, it had all the right elements: a protagonist who needed to find a different roadmap for her life, an interesting romantic possible lead, a quirky family for the protagonist, a bunch of supporting characters who had their quirks and foibles, and a proposal and wedding in the end which helped solve all the problems in the main characters’ lives.  It should have worked, but it didn’t, and thinking about why I felt so disappointed helped me see what I really want in general in a romantic comedy.

I want romance.  I want the two main characters to care about each other in a believable way. I want to see that at least in a latent form from the very beginning when the characters first meet, and I want to see it build over the course of the book. Two people who don’t seem to care that much about each other one way or another for half the book are not going to convince me that they’re likely to fall in love with each other in the second half of the book.  

I want passion.  Emotion.  Yes, you can have a romantic lead who suppresses their emotions for various reasons, but I want to see a character who HAS emotions, even if they don’t wear them on their sleeves.  I want hints that this subdued character feels things deeply, and a good writer will give even the most repressed character moments of emotion that suggest to the reader that this person has the potential to feel, and show at last, real passion.

I want frustration and yearning.  This is the most basic part of it, to me: the happily ever after, the marriage proposal, whatever the climax of the book is, has to be earned.  That means that someone has to really want it and not believe that they’re going to get it.  I want to see someone who’s suffering in love, even if that suffering is easy to end.  Though it shouldn’t be too easy; the parties should have to do more than just talk to each other to solve the underlying problems, and plots that require a character to act like an idiot for the plot to work are as annoying in the rom com area as they are in other genres. 

And, though this should go without saying, I want humor.  I want there to be funny stuff in the book, whether that’s witty dialogue or plot twists that put characters in ridiculous situations or just the attitude of the main character.  I want laughs.  The best rom coms, for me, are the ones which I read in public and disturb my neighbors because I’m laughing so loudly or so much.

The book I just finished failed all these tests, even though it was billed as a romantic comedy.  I’m still on the lookout for just the right one, and the good news is that here at The Field Library, we have plenty to choose from. I know I’ll get lucky again sooner or later.

IS THIS CHEATING?

    I’ve read enough thrillers to understand that giving a twist somewhere in the book, preferably close to the end, is almost required.  And a good twist can be a wonderful thing, making you look twice at everything you’ve already read and making you question your assumptions about characters and plot that you thought you understood.  I love that feeling, and the better authors are good at preparing those twists, setting them up early and feeding them along the way while having other things going on in the foreground to distract you.

    I am not happy, however, at the twist that comes out of the blue, or, worse yet, that’s undermined by everything that happened earlier in the book.  I have never yet thrown a book into the wall in a rage, but I’ve come close more than once, and this is the sort of thing that makes that horrible action feel tempting.

    There’s a sort of contract between the author and a reader.  The author can throw twists and turns, can throw red herrings at you en masse, can break up the timeline and jump from character to character at critical moments.  But the author has to play fair.  If you’re in a character’s head, you the reader have the right to expect that you’re really in that person’s head and what’s being shown of the person’s thoughts and emotions are really the thoughts and emotions of that character, however unrealistic those thoughts and emotions might be. The character can know things that you don’t know; that’s certainly fair.  But if the character knows something that puts a different spin on everything that’s going on, and there’s no suggestion that the character’s emotions or thoughts are changed by that knowledge, well, in my mind, that’s cheating.

    I just read a book where that was the problem.  I won’t name it, but we’re in the head of the main character for three quarters of the book.  She’s supposedly the victim of a crime, and she’s running around, reacting to that crime the way you would expect someone to react: with fear, with worry, with confusion.  

    Except the twist is that the crime isn’t real; it’s a setup.  And the main character knows from the outset that it’s not real, that nobody is in danger, that it’s a setup.  She was one of the people setting it up.

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief quite a ways, but this was too far.  If you know nobody is in danger, you are not going to be running around in fear and anxiety for the person who’s supposedly in danger. You can pretend to feel that way; that’s fine.  But in your own mind, you know it’s just pretense.  You would be thinking about how you can keep up this act, whether you’re doing a good enough job of faking what the right emotions would be.  You would be aware of it.

    For the sake of a twist, the author cheated the reader. The author pretended to be giving the reader the character’s real thoughts and emotions and all the while they were fake and there’s no hint they were fake until the big reveal late in the book.

    That’s one author I’ll never read again. 

    And it could have worked, if the author had chosen another point of view for the character. If he’d chosen third person limited, so we only saw what was visible to other people, we could have seen the character going through all the motions and we would have believed her as everybody else does, and when the big reveal came, we could admire what a good actress she was, how she had everybody, including the readers, fooled.

    I’m not a difficult person to please.  I start every book hoping I’ll love it, and very often I do. But the author has to play fair, and if he doesn’t, he’s broken my trust and won’t get it back.

CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER : WHY??

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about how the publishing industry works.  My interactions with it are pretty much limited to my buying books for the library.  Possibly there’s some deep and profound reason why books about Christmas all start coming out in the beginning of October.  Possibly there are studies that have been done which indicate that people are most likely to buy Christmas books two and a half months before Christmas.  As I said, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the very last thing I want to think about in October is Christmas.  Good lord, we haven’t even had Halloween yet (and I love Halloween and all the wonderful creepy things that go along with it), let alone Thanksgiving, and Christmas is still later!  The leaves are just beginning to change color around here, and temperatures are just starting to drop a little.  The days are crisp, people are picking apples and pumpkins and cooking and baking all those foods you can’t bring yourself to look at when the temperatures are high.  This is a lovely season all in itself.  I don’t need to fast-forward through this season to jump into the Christmas season, especially when the rest of the world around us seems to be doing Christmas immediately after Labor Day.

And yet, here we are, the first week in October, and already we have Twelve Topsy-Turvy, Very Messy Days of Christmas (James Patterson, who can’t seem to leave anything alone that might make him money), All I Want for Christmas (by Maggie Knox), So This Is Christmas (by Jenny Holiday), Just Like Magic (by Sarah Hogle), Home Sweet Christmas (by Susan Mallery), Once Upon a December (by Amy Reichert; I know it doesn’t have Christmas in the title, but trust me, it’s a Christmas book), and One Last Gift (by Emily Stone, and yes, it is also a Christmas book).  There are more in the pipeline, coming out in the next couple of weeks.

I’m not saying that any of these books is bad.  I haven’t read them yet, and I don’t want to read them yet. They could all be great books, but hardly anyone wants to read about Christmas when they’re starting to think about what treats they need to have on hand, or what costume they want to put together for Halloween. By the time we get past Thanksgiving, when people are thinking about the holidays, those books are going to be buried under all the newer books coming out.

Let’s let Christmas be Christmas.  Let it start in December, not in October.

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.