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Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’

Is it the choice of subject matter?  The genre?  The number of pages?  The use of big words?  Is a Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie book considered to be of a higher literary quality than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer?  If so, why?

I heard an interview on the radio a few months ago with Jeffrey Archer and he described himself as a storyteller.  There’s an interview with Archer on The Browser website where he talks about 5 famous books.  It’s really interesting because in this article, as with the radio interview, he makes the point that Dickens isn’t considered a great writer, but a great storyteller, the same goes for Dumas.  It’s taken the French 200 years to recognise how good a novelist Dumas was.

So the question is this, in 100 years what books written from this current period will we consider classics?   What will they be reading in school?  Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice or Harry Potter?  Will students be studying Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Sebastian Faulks?  What makes these authors more worth studying than Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman or John Grisham?  The latter 3 authors have all won literary awards so aren’t they as good as the others?

I wrote an earlier post asking if we’re aver embarrassed by what we read and I concluded that we shouldn’t ever be embarrassed, as everyone likes something different.  But I do notice that if people ask me what I’ve been reading recently I sometimes will say ‘just some crime novels’ in a dismissive way.  But if I’ve been reading something that’s considered literature I’ll make a point of naming the author.  Is that really pretentious?  I don’t do it all the time – now I sound defensive!

It’s an interesting thought as I personally much prefer a good story to an award winning literary novel.  The Booker Prize long-list was released on 26 July and, not surprisingly, when I looked at the list I had read none of the books.  In fact, I haven’t read any from last year’s list either!  But I have read a huge number of works that are classified as literary classics.  I’ve read every Charles Dickens novel and they are considered classic works of literature – but when they were first published they were the Victorian equivalent of Eastenders!

So what’s the key difference between a literary effort and popular fiction?  Personally, I don’t know how to describe the difference other than in many cases a good story is easier to read.  People criticise Harry Potter and dismiss adults reading these books, but I would much rather see anyone of any age reading Harry Potter or Dan Brown than reading nothing at all.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read every Dickens, I’m a huge fan and I’ll highly recommend Dickens to anyone. But why should you read Dickens rather than James Patterson?  There’s no reason.  They’re both great story tellers, though one does take a few hours longer to read than the other!

Maybe one difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature is what we’re told we should read, like it’s good for us!  Who says so, some critic in the Guardian?  Why should they advise us on what we should read?  I think I’m pretty capable of deciding what I will and won’t read.  I enjoy reading reviews, they provide me with ideas of books I might be interested in reading.  But I certainly don’t choose the books I read based solely on reviews or award lists.  At the end of the day surely the sign of a good book is how enjoyable it is.  That’s the key point of reading, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t read over 100 books a year if I didn’t enjoy reading and I wouldn’t enjoy reading if there weren’t so many darn good stories out there!  So I say, stuff the critics and the awards lists stick with what’s enjoyable.  100 years from now, that’s what we’ll still be reading!

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It’s been a while since I wrote a blog so I thought it was about time, especially as I’ve just updated my ‘Books read in 2010’ page and I realised just quite how many books I’ve read over the last month!  I know that quite a few of them only took a few hours but it’s still quite a long list.

So, what have I been reading and what can we surmise from this list.  Well, there’s been quite a lot of escapism; I was a little unwell so I took solace in quite a few detective/thriller novels.  As I’ve said in a previous post these books are one of my favourite ways of clearing my head and escaping from everyday realities and stresses.  My favourite?  I’d say probably Linda Fairstein’s Hell Gate.  It featured the familiar protagonists and made excellent use, as usual, of the New York setting.  One of the features of this series that I particularly love is learning more about New York and its history, it’s evident that Fairstein is extremely knowledgeable and a fan of this great city.  This really brings an atmosphere and sense of location to the novels and captures the reader, bringing them into the story.  I won’t go into any further detail about the book, other than to say fans of this series won’t be disappointed.

I must say that before I started reading I assumed that Tess Gerritsen’s The Killing Place would be my favourite and it was pretty good but I just didn’t think it matched some of her earlier work.  Although it featured many of the same characters it was based in a new setting and felt a little disjointed.  I didn’t get carried along with the story or caught up in the struggle for survival and rescue that it seemed I was supposed to!  I was particularly disappointed by a lack of emotion in the writing.  Without wanting to give anything away, there were some deaths that seemed almost to be mentioned in passing and had little impact on any of the characters and were barely referred to again.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next in this series is a huge improvement.  Though it does remind me of how Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series went downhill as she focused on the characters and their stories as opposed to the genre itself.  I just want to shake these authors and say, the reason we love these books is because of what the characters do and how they react to grisly murders and risky situations, I don’t really care as much about their emotional entanglements, certainly not enough for that to be the primary focus of the book!

Anyway, onto more enjoyable reads.  I’ve previously read Ben MacIntyre’s Agent Zigzag and I thought it was excellent; brilliantly researched with evocative and emotional language that really captured a sense of time and place.  So not long ago I purchased Operation Mincemeat but then I put it on my TBR pile and it’s been sitting there ever since!  Then I happened across a second hand copy of A Foreign Field and I started reading it.  This is another of MacIntyre’s books focusing on a little known piece of war history.  The story starts with MacIntyre working for The Times in Paris and being invited to the unveiling of a memorial to British soldiers killed during the First World War.  There he meets the daughter of one of these soldiers, born following a war-time romance in this remote little village situated near the front line.  MacIntyre takes us on a journey of discovery as he tells us how soldiers separated from their regiments took refuge amongst the villagers and how in turn the villagers coped with the stress of hiding fugitives, the lack of food and the strict regime imposed by the Germans.  In some ways this is a detective novel, with MacIntyre acting as the detective.  He uses a number of historical sources to build up his story as well as speaking with the remaining villagers who remember that time and the relatives of those who have since passed away.  One thing is clear; everyone believed that someone betrayed the soldiers to the Germans.  MacIntyre feels a compulsion to find the culprit, though the villagers seem keen to let the past lie.  Throughout the book there is a clear sense of how the villagers and soldiers lived and the difficulties they face and it is an excellent read.  One of the great things is that MacIntyre’s writing doesn’t diminish as he brings the story up to date and reaches his conclusion as to who the guilty party may be.  The reader is captured from the beginning and can’t resist staying for the rest of the ride.  I’d highly recommend this as an example of how a historical novel about a true story can be just as gripping and intriguing as any fictional detective story or thriller.

Anyway I think that’s enough for one post.  Though I do think it’s worth pointing out that Chasing Shakespeare by Sarah Smith was really not that great a read, more infuriating than anything.  Especially when she got such basic facts such as the location of a tube station wrong!  But on the other hand George Orwell’s collection of essays, Books v Cigarettes, was a fantastic commentary and insight on a specific time and society and well worth the read.

Generally I would say that the books I’ve read over the past month are pretty typical of my reading habits, a good mix of escapism, fantasy and real life adventure to keep me interested, amused and intrigued.

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I recently read a piece on http://shelflove.wordpress.com called Sunday Salon: Why We Dislike What We Dislike, the piece focused on why we dislike certain books and why we don’t even attempt to read others.  Are they just bad or are we biased or trying to read them at the wrong time?

This set me thinking about how the choices I make when it comes to the books I read.  Why do I pick up the books I do?

I think the first reason has to be favourite authors.  For example I’ve read every Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child and I’ll certainly be reading the next one.  The same goes for JD Robb’s ‘In death’ series, John Sandford’s ‘Lucas Davenport’ and Linda Fairstein’s ‘Alex Cooper’.  I pick these books up as they’ve all ready proven their entertainment value to me and I trust they will deliver again.  But why did I start to read these books in the first place?  I think this brings me to the second, and probably primary, reason for choosing books…

Favourite genres.  I am a fan of thrillers and crime/detective fiction so I’ll often browse that section of my local library and take a chance on authors I’ve not read before.  I also use sites like fantasticfiction.co.uk where you can look up authors and find links to other similar authors.  But I’ve noticed that I do discriminate within this genre.  For example I prefer not to read books set in the UK.  I think this is because I live in the UK and I don’t want to be able to identify the location of a murder, it can add a sense of reality that I’m not looking for, I read this genre for escapism, not realism.

I also like classic literature such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few.  So generally I’ll be more likely to pick up a piece of classic literature rather than a work of modern fiction.  Perhaps because the classic is still around it’s proven that it can last the test of time and is therefore more likely to be worth reading.

So generally I think there’s a lot of prejudice and bias that goes in to choosing whether or not to read a book.  I’ve often told people a book didn’t sound ‘like the sort of thing I’d like’ after only the briefest of descriptions.  But I recognise that I do this and a few years ago I decided to try and broaden my literary horizons and diminish my preconceived notions.

It all started with the BBC Big Read, which I’ve previously mentioned in an earlier post.  When I first looked at the list of 100 books I immediately discounted some as books I wouldn’t want to read.  Why?  Simply because they didn’t fall into the categories of favourite authors or genres.  So I decided to finish the entire list whether I liked the book or not.

This has broadened my reading hugely, I always thought I was pretty well read but now I realise how I had limited the scope of books I read by dismissing so many genres/authors because of preconceptions.  I probably would never have read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series if there hadn’t been some of these books on the list, and now I’m huge fan.  It turns out I love a bit of science fiction!

I’ve also discovered a love of historical fiction too.  Then there are the authors like Salman Rushdie who I wouldn’t have read if he hadn’t been on the list but I probably won’t read again!  As well as broadening my choices I also confirmed a few dislikes too.  But now I can say I don’t like these books and I can back my decision up because I did give them a go, I’m basing my decision on fact not ignorant prejudice.

And then there are those stand alone books that are simply just a good read, it might be due to a fantastic story, engaging characters or a setting/situation that the reader can relate to but generally none of these are good enough to make a book stand out on their own.  I believe the one constant across all good books has to be good writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s simplistic, descriptive or emotive but whatever style it has to suit the characters and story and engage the reader.  No matter what the genre, good writing should stand out.

I think that overall I’m much more willing to give any book a go and not just dismiss books willy-nilly.  As well as reading the BBC Big Read list I also asked friends to nominate a book each that I should read and that was a great way to find new books and learn what my friends liked.  I’d encourage others to get outside their comfort zone occasionally and try something new, you never know where it might lead.

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I’ve read a number of books recently that I categorise as the literary equivalent of TV’s CSI or Numbers. These TV programmes are easy to watch, the characters are familiar and the good guys win. To sit and watch these programmes is pure escapism with a bit of morality, emotion, drama, tension and humour mixed in. So what are the books I’ve been reading that fit this category?

They are Vince Flynn’s Term Limits, Robert Crais’ The First Rule, Harlan Coben’s Promise Me, JD Robb’s Fantasy in Death, and James Patterson’s Worst Case.

I’ve enjoyed them all and as I’ve read most of the author’s previous work it was like visiting with old friends; comfortable and familiar.

But that’s not to say the books don’t have literary merit. Despite my familiarity with these characters I still want to be drawn in to the story and engage with the characters. Just as you can easily switch channels if you’re not enjoying a programme, you need a reason to stay with a book. What I love about this type of book however is that you kind of know what you’re getting. You don’t need entirely realistic characters; you can leave realism behind at the first page and just go along for the ride. You want the characters to be larger than life, able to withstand beatings or the derision of others, you also want them to have fantastic insight into the criminal mind and although they may tread a fine line in terms of the law, they’re still solidly in the good guy’s camp.

For example, I also recently read Lee Child’s 61 Hours. Brilliant! I’m a big fan of the Jack Reacher series and this was one of the best. Quite often, with a book based on a character you’re familiar with, you might be tempted to skim over some of the descriptive elements of the book or feel like you know what’s going to happen.  But Lee Child created a story that captivated me and kept me involved until the final pages.  And the best part, I didn’t expect the ending.  It was excellent, there were a few surprises which kept me on the edge of my seat and left me wanting more.

This is definitely a book I would recommend and I really can’t wait until September for the next instalment! I think I’m going to have to go back and re-read some of the early Jack Reacher books.

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