THE GOOD BOOK

I’m not referring to the Bible; this about what makes a book a great read.

Let’s start with the cover. Despite the adage not to judge a book by its cover, we all do, and a well-designed and eye-catching jacket will do much to draw attention. It shows an author who was at pains to see that the book comes in a quality package to reflect quality content.

The blurb is key, too. Good writers burn the midnight oil and run through endless drafts to arrive at those mots justes.

Layout, typeface and font size can make or break an oeuvre. Sure, as an older reader, I appreciate a larger and easier to read script, but even when younger, a page jam-packed with some minute lettering was an instant turnoff. Another bête noire is the recent trend of omitting quotation marks in direct and reported speech. Either there’s nothing to replace them, or sometimes a dash at the beginning of the sentence. I’ve found myself re-reading paragraphs four and five times to make sense of them and work out who was speaking. Unacceptable.

Now for the meat, all those thousands of words that will delight or disappoint. Collective wisdom says you have to grab your reader in the first few pages. With a crime novel or a thriller, it’s not that hard to construct a zippy opening. But for a gentle romance – if such still exists in this aggressive world – or a historical novel, drawing in the reader becomes that much harder.

In that opening chapter, you’ll discover the author’s style, which may be just up your street or in extremis, make you hurl the book at the wall. I love words that flow, so that you keep turning the pages and the bedside light on. Disjointed chapters which have you trying to fathom where the hell you are just grate.

Are the characters well-drawn, credible and not so plentiful as to confuse? Does the writer avoid the trap of introducing someone early on who then disappears until much later, forcing you to try and recall who Susie or Warren was, and thumbing irritably through previous chapters to find out?

Is the story an interesting one that hangs together and holds your attention? This for me is the lynch-pin of the good book.

Last but not least comes the ending. I’ve read several books recently where the finale let the entire work down. I like thrillers by Tim Weaver. The first of his books I read, The Blackbird, was faultless, but an earlier work held me on the edge of my seat until the dénouement, which was utterly puerile. I felt cheated.

What’s your idea of a good book?

2 Comments

  1. I’m going to put in a bid for another couple of factors that you didn’t mention, Nigel: the quality of the paper and the binding.
    I don’t understand why so many modern books, especially modern paperback books, are printed on rough paper stock that feels like it’s only two or three steps up from crepe.
    As for the glued binding … the quality of the glue nowadays is very variable. Sometimes it will crack on first reading!
    I have deliberately not bought books because of the paper quality.
    I’m with you on legibility, font, layout, even, to some extent, the jacket. (Though two of my latest purchases have plain covers, so that’s not a make or break factor for me.) However, I’m not bothered by authors who ditch quotation marks. As long as I can follow what they’ve written. It’s a stylistic choice I can live with.
    But the core of any good book has to be the story, I’m back with you there. And isn’t it a disappointment in a good read when the ending turns out fumbled!

  2. I find these days I have little patience with either poor writing or poor story-telling. If I am not caught up in the story on page one, it’s likely I’ll be looking elsewhere.

    I agree about stylistic change-for-change’s-sake on speech marks. Adapted as we are to reading, we don’t notice the speech marks, therefore they do not get in the way of the reading or the story. Changing it brings the punctuation back to the fore and inevitably gets in the way.

    A bug-bear of mine is the use of present tense. My brain cannot make sense of it. We always recount in the past tense, whether the action was years ago or seconds ago. Writing in the pesent tense does not make anything more immediate, but it create a very strang sense of being caught in some kind of timelessness in which the story, while progressing, never moves on in time. This bug-bear extends to the way historians on the telly tend towards present tense when describing events of long ago. ‘The Vikings are over there, we are here….’

    Characters either not thoroughy introduced or, as you say, Nigel, neglected for too long, make reading difficult. I have a particular difficulty with memory, and anyway, do not want reading to feel too much like studying for an exam, so I prefer my meeting with new characters to be memorable, and not too many new characters at once, so that I can get to know them.

    Last week I picked up an Alan Titchmarsh romance and descended into pages of tell of the protagonist’s characteristics. It felt much like the beginning of a diploma course, so I let it go. Instead, I picked up Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, and with the showing of a powerful letter written by one of the protagonists and several dialogue interchanges, I was caught up in complex issues arising from the horrors of trench warfare, seen from several different poiints of view.

    My last no-no is the replacement of the blurb by lists of awards won or best-seller status. I’m not sheep-like, and I don’t choose a book simply because many before me chose it. I’d really like to know what the story is about, if you don’t mind. Wheter it’s any good or not, I’ll decide as I skim the free bit Mr Bezos so thoughtfully provides.

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