I came across this quote recently, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
“To want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pate de foie gras.”—Arthur Koestler
All the same, it made me wonder which of my favourite authors I’d like to have a friendly chat with—for the purposes of this flight of fancy, I’ve allowed time-travel to include deceased writers. In no particular order, my wish list includes:
Guy de Maupassant, Richard Brautigan, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, Barbara Kingsolver,Alice Hoffmann, J B Priestley, James Lee Burke and John Steinbeck.
In reading crime novels, I frequently find that I guess what’s going to happen with characters long before it does. For instance, I’m currently enjoying one of the excellent Hap & Leonard novels by Joe R. Lansdale.
Honky Tonk Samurai has a plot involving a missing girl, who may have been working for a high-class prostitution operation, which makes most of its money from blackmailing clients. Her granny hires Hap & Leonard to track her down, and asking around they pay a shady character $1,000 for information. This career criminal tells them of a dreaded assassin who works for the extortionists, called the Canceler who garottes his victims with a wire, before slicing off their testicles to keep as souvenirs. The snitch says he needs the pay off to flee town. When I read that, I thought “He’ll stick around, be killed and end up in the trunk of his car—without his balls.” Sure enough, 20 chapters later, that’s exactly what happened.
I wasn’t that disappointed, for I’m familiar with plotting my own crime stories, and I must have read a couple of thousand crime novels in the last 50 years. I even had a glimmer of satisfaction at having guessed what would happen—something that fans of any genre enjoy—it pays to state the expected sometimes.
What’s more rewarding, is when a complete surprise happens…a believable one, I mean, not something so wildly improbable that the reader gets annoyed. As thriller writer John Buchan advised:
“A good story should have incidents, which defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible.”
I’ve been trying to think of novels I’ve read in the last couple of years, where something totally unexpected happened. Dennis Lehane’s Since We Fell starts with a surprise, as the protagonist is killed by his wife:
‘On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead. He stumbled backward with an odd look of confirmation on his face, as if some part of him had always known she’d do it.’
The plot is convoluted, a tangle of conspiracies, which throws out a few shocks, although the opening with the apparent murder of the husband is explained away with one of the most far-fetched tricks I’ve come across in fiction.
I should say, that Dennis Lehane fabricated one of the best twists in modern psychological suspense writing, with the ending of Shutter Island, revealing that the protagonist is really a mentally unbalanced murderer who’s fantasised the story.
In 2018, I read Adam Hamdy’s thriller Pendulum which uses the writing technique of having most chapters end with the hero being thrown into jeopardy. It was skilfully done, but preposterous at times, as he’s involved in so many violent fights that he makes James Bond look like a wimp. The author gleefully kills off some engaging characters, which wrong-footed me a bit.
When it comes to best-selling novels, praised for their edge-of-the-chair tension and unpredictable plots, I found that my jaw didn’t drop over Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, Fight Club or Cara Hunter’s Close To Home.
Part of the problem for me was, that far from being books I couldn’t put down, I was so repelled by the unlikeable characters, that I didn’t much care what happened to any of them! As Mark Twain said:
“The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell together, as quickly as possible.”
Maybe I’ve become unshockable from being a writer. I wrote about this drawback in an old post.
Well, I’ll be damned, I’ve been surprised in a slightly spooky way, for I just finished reading Honky Tonk Samuraito find it has an ending identical to my recently completed novel The Dead Need Nobody—the hero gets stabbed in the last chapter and is at death’s door on the final page. I’m glad I finished my story before reading it, as it might have forced me into altering my work.
It all makes me wonder if the surprises I’ve put in my Cornish Detective novels will work on my readers. I try to throw in at least one you-didn’t-see-that-coming incident in each story. For example, in An Elegant Murder,my detective was working on his garden, thinking about investigations, when a mountain lion leapt over the fence and stalked towards him. There’d been rumours of exotic big cats on the loose, and various savaged livestock corpses were found, but suddenly he had dramatic proof of their existence. I took myself by surprise writing that confrontation, which I hadn’t planned, so maybe the spontaneity will catch the reader out.
What books surprised you?
Do you try to hoodwink your readers with twists and turns?
Are there any supposed surprises in great literature that you just couldn’t believe?
I’ve learned a lot about the techniques of writing, since returning to creating stories six years ago. I’ve admired many authors, from boyhood, savouring how they transported my imagination. I like howthey did it, as much as the story they told.
As I aged, I decided that life was too short to waste it reading badly written books. Persevering with novels that annoyed me, seeing them through to the end, made me disappointed in myself and contemptuous of the author. I tend to avoid writers who don’t engage me in some way. That’s not to say that they’re second-rate, for there have been bestsellers and literary prize winners that simply leave me cold.
I’m suspicious of the hoopla that surrounds authors who are household names, and of challenging novels of literature that takes a committee of eminent writers to decide which is best. I’m glad that books are getting recognition, but not so gullible as to believe that reading these much-lauded authors will be a pleasant or character-improving experience.
It’s possible to admire a work of art, but notlike it very much. I admire the movie Citizen Kane, but don’t enjoy watching it. I admire the technique of Paul Auster, but don’t get any pleasure from his novels.
I recently started reading a highly-praised crime novel You Will Know Meby Megan Abbott, an author new to me. The opening chapter was bewildering, a confused hotchpotch of one sentenced conversation between partygoers, as witnessed by a drunk mother. I didn’t know who any of these characters were and had to read paragraphs a couple of times to get an idea of what was going on.
I immediately recognised what Megan Abbott was trying to do, by introducing an unreliable narrator, but it came across as a poor copying of Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Trainand Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I scanned pages further into the story and was similarly confused and unimpressed. Considering how much we’re advised by writing gurus to grab the reader’s attention with our opening five chapters, this was a dismal failure.
I gave up on it, turning to one of my favourite authors Dennis Lehane. Reading his World Gone Bywas like entering a beloved restaurant where I knew I was going to enjoy the meal. Then, I noticed signs of a run-on sentence, which Lehane had rewritten, to make three shorter sentences. It still read clumsily, but…hang on, I’ve forgotten the storyline…what was it he said? So I reread the paragraph, annoyed with myself for dissecting writing technicalities rather than enjoying the whole.
So, does being a writer spoil your enjoyment of reading?
Now is the time of year when the media publish ‘Best Of’ lists for a variety of categories, including books, television series, music albums and films, so I thought that I’d join in with a baker’s dozen of favourite reads from 2017. Some were published this year, and all came out recently, so should be readily available.
It made me laugh and it made me cry. A brilliant portrayal of a grumpy old man, a stickler for petty rules and regulations, who’d be a nightmare to know on brief acquaintance. But, he has a heart of gold concealed within his leaden exterior and is blessed with the love of a good woman.
Worthy of all the attention it’s received, as much for the unusual way the story is laid out, with scattered thoughts from the spirits of the dead who haven’t quite passed over, but who exist in a state of limbo or ‘bardo’. Some are more aware of their condition than others, and the most confused is Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie who’s just died of typhoid fever in the second year of the Civil War. He’s further unsettled by his father visiting the crypt to hold his corpse, as part of his mourning.
Not an easy read, and if you try, I recommend doing so in at least 20-30 page chunks, to get a sense of who all of the dead spirits are; it’s a very moving experience—horrific, contemplative and loving.
The best novel that I read this year or for many a year. A stunning achievement and just what a novel should be, for it involves the reader in a deep-seated mystery as the naive protagonist tries to unravel a tight knot that hides family identity, wealth, betrayal and who he really is and who he wants to be. Travelling between Norway, the Shetland Isles and the battlefields of northern France, it’s sure to be turned into a film.
If you want to know what it feels like to be a brain surgeon, this is the book to read. I was immediately in awe of Henry Marsh, and it’s one of the most humbling memoirs I’ve read. Truly terrifying too, it will make you count your blessings. I’m on the waiting list at my local library for the sequel, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon.
A highly-praised debut crime novel by a British author, who does a fine job of making the reader feel the heat, claustrophobia and paranoia of an isolated community in the Australian Outback where the murder of a family makes everyone a suspect.
Winslow is without equal when it comes to writing tense crime novels involving the drug trade and the inevitable violent betrayals, paranoia, self-loathing and multiple murders. His The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars must have the highest body counts of any novels. In The Force, a corrupt detective who’s been taking dirty money and operating as part of an unofficial police unit within the NYPD finally gets his comeuppance. He’s a totally believable flawed hero, compromised by many ‘well-what-would-you-do’ situations.
Grieving the unexpected death of her father, the author returns to an early love of falconry, by raising a goshawk. Her road to recovery is involving, tearing at your heart as you will her on. Macdonald writes brilliantly about wildlife, the weather and the landscape. I found it captivating.
One of the best thrillers that Dennis Lehane has ever written, and that’s saying something when you remember Mystic River and Shutter Island. The plot has more twists and turns than an epileptic snake, carrying the reader along in a state of excited confusion.
A rollicking good read, that deserves all of the praise and awards it’s received. Spufford knows his stuff historically, and he pens a believable world in 18th-century New York, where things turn frighteningly violent very quickly. I’m eager to read the sequel.
This absorbing novel will probably get lost by being shelved among Westerns in bookshops and libraries, and though it’s set on horseback, the three gormless heroes have adventures that say much about human foibles. It’s lewd and crude in places, but very entertaining.
An unusual crime novel, which was unjustly overlooked, and, I fear, will remain a neglected treasure. I only noticed it, as it was the last book shelved in the novel section of my local library! A debut novel by a mature writer, it tells of a strange friendship between an implacable, imprisoned serial killer, a complete psychopath, and a gullible young deputy, who finds missing people in the Montana snow—usually dead. Zupan rivals Helen Macdonald for his descriptions of landscape, and you’ll soon be feeling cold. It’s one of the most memorable stories I’ve read.
I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy this tale set in the days of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, mainly as the author had previously written quirky titles for young readers. However, I was swiftly gripped by the dilemmas faced by a dozen different characters, including coppers, drug dealers, store owners, nurses and the homeless. Some scenes were real edge-of-the-seat stuff—and I mean real—much scarier than any imagined dystopian worlds.
The reader is transported to New York in the early 20th-century, where the protagonist works as a mermaid in her father’s museum of freaks, among such as the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl and a century-old turtle. She meets a handsome Russian immigrant photographer, who has left the confines of his Jewish community to concentrate on his career. When he photographs a tragic factory fire, he gets embroiled in the case of a missing girl and dark forces hunt the two youngsters. Hoffman is superb at summoning up the atmosphere of the streets, river and surrounding countryside of a young city. Best-known for Practical Magic, which was turned into a film, and to which she’s recently published a prequel called The Rules of Magic, Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is sure to be filmed too as it’s equally spellbinding.
What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.
Which writer’s work do you eagerly anticipate reading, impatient for their new novel to be published?
It could be someone who writes a series of novels featuring the same characters, or an author who takes years to pen their new story, which finds itself shortlisted for major literary awards. You might be working your way through a writer’s back catalogue, enthralled by their skills, while still taking glee from the occasional stinker of a title, that simply didn’t work.
We’ve all got our favourite authors, and some of them aren’t highly regarded by the critics, but who cares? If books are like food, why not have the occasional naughty treat?
My own list of got-to-read authors includes Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Camilleri, Annie Dillard, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Henning Mankell, Elizabeth Strout, Jo Nesbø, Justin Cartwright, Haruki Murakami, C. J. Sansom, Ann Patchett, Joe R. Lansdale, Don Winslow, Donald Ray Pollock and Jane Harper.
I read two hugely impressive debut novels in 2017, which whet my appetite for the second titles by Lars Mytting and by Kim Zupan.
My list of authors I seek out is based on those that I like. There are plenty of novelists whose books I admire, but don’t particularly like. As an example of this, I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which was written in a complex way, with long sections devoted to streams of consciousness. Woolf was experimenting with ways of writing a novel, as part of the Modernist movement, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.
Who floats your boat?
Which author makes you forget what you’re doing, to read their story?