By Letitia Coyne
Posted April 12, 2012
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How do you choose your next book?
I never know what I’ll choose. Cover art first, definitely. I’m a sucker for judging a book by its cover. I look at the blurb, never the comments, and then I’ll open at random and start to read. I don’t have to know what’s going on, as long as I want to keep reading.
But I could start out in any section of the bookstore and I’m hopeless with decision making.
Humor is a favorite. Life can be such a bitch; I really like to read stories that make me laugh. It can be hard to know what will work, though. PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams are always a sure bet, but their backlist has been covered and there’s no chance of any posthumous releases. Terry Pratchett, Stella Gibbons, Oscar Wilde; all done with their careers, sadly. Should I risk a new name? David Sedaris?
I could move to general fiction. A lot to sift through, there, but I like a book that cracks along. I hate bogging down in detail and slogging through looking at page numbers to see if I’m half-way through yet – but then there are slow books like Moby Dick which I love. Some books have such beautiful language it doesn’t seem to matter if the hero spends a chapter and a half just sitting on his porch watching fireflies. How am I ever to know? Covers never warn of a tedious read.
Well drawn characters are a big plus, too, so I look for dialogue. I like people I can like. Or hate. I like people I can feel something for, even if it is strong dislike. And I want to be able to understand them. I don’t want someone who is cruel or kind or bitter if their actions make no sense. I like books with characters that have their motivations examined. Yes. Good, deep, real people moving through a strong storyline.
Storyline – that’s where you have to trust the blurb, isn’t it. You have to hope the publisher stayed close to the truth when they chose which highlights to share. I have a friend who goes to the library each fortnight and returns with a stack of books. She complains sometimes that she has read everything she likes the look of. She has to wait for new stock – at a library! And she reads them all. And she remembers what she read! See, I don’t persevere anymore. If I am not enjoying a storyline I put the book aside. Life is too busy. And when I used to keep reading only ‘because I’d started’, I’d forget the details anyway. A good story. Hmm. How do you decide what will be a good story?
Well, fantasy is good. I like a good fantasy, especially if Aragorn is there somewhere. Let’s face it; the slightly disheveled, mounted, sword wielding, enigmatic loner with dark eyes and a hidden past is usually Aragorn in a different skin. He might ride a dragon rather than a horse, but he’s basically a Tolkien hero. And I’m partial to a Conan, too: sweat and muscle on a quest for vengeance with an Amazon at his side. Now suddenly the characters have become less like real people. Okay, so the characters can be stereotypes, as long as they are convincing. And on a really good quest. A quest? So those stories can be a bit formulaic, too, but it should be beautifully written.
One way I’ve tried to reduce the overwhelming choice of covers and genres is to follow authors. There are a few who I’ve loved. I read every Wilbur Smith novel up until The Burning Shore in 1985, then ran out of patience for misogyny and bloodlust. Raymond E Feist, Julian May, Jean M Auel …. Clive Barker is a favorite, except he seems to have said all he has to say about the world, now. He is still writing, but it seems to me to be the same story, repeated. Stephen R Donaldson saddened me by writing the third Covenant Chronicles. That step too far; quit while you are ahead. Or perhaps he is wise and well paid to have written them, and I should simply not have read them. No, not even authors can always be trusted.
You know, I like value for money, too. I always reach for a nice big block of a book. When choosing a book takes me such a long time, I don’t want to be doing it again next week. Books today seem to be afternoon reads. A friend recently commented, ‘What the hell? I just started ‘Prince of Thorns’, which the whole world is salivating over as the best fantasy book last year, and every chapter is 3-10 pages long. What am I reading, a James Patterson book? This is a fantasy book? Enid Blyton writes longer chapters.’ I’m with her. Soundbites. Books today are all about soundbites. Sketches. Brief encounters. No, I like a brick of a book.
That is one thing I can decide on the spot, then, at least: length. And reading a section from any part of the book will tell me immediately if I like the style of writing. That’s where I find the longed for immersion in text. Either not seeing the words, only the images the words create, or just as delightful, seeing every word and loving the sounds and the rhythm of every sentence. I can trust the blurb, I hope, to point me toward something original and intriguing. I can scan for dialogue to see if I like the characters and their interactions. And the cover. Always the cover.
That whittles it down to a manageable range to choose from, and all this with the certainty of disappointment. Not because it will necessarily be a bad choice. It might be, but even if it turns out to be brilliant, I’ll come to the end of it and stare at the last pages, wishing more worlds would appear. Then grieve for the lost friends, and pack myself back to the bookstore to start all over again.
And how will I choose my next book?
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