Friday, October 19, 2012

Choosing That Next Great Book

Finding that next good book is like finding a new friend; you find out a little bit about them (the synopsis), talk to acquaintances (reviews), and then spend time with them (reading it for yourself). The personality, opinions, behavior, and common interests will determine whether or not it is a lasting friendship (a book that ends up on the Top 10 list), or one that quickly falls apart (i.e., I never want to see this book again!). Just like a friend, you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time with this book, so you want to make sure it’s worth it.

That’s the attitude I take on when I’m looking for a new book to read: I’m “friend shopping.” And just like my friends, my book choices are eclectic. It’s the soul of the story that appeals to me, not necessarily the genre. My book friends consist of classic romances like Wuthering Heights and Emma; supernatural twisters such as The Dead of Winter and The Near Witch; social satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Nicholas Nickleby; Victorian mysteries purely for girls – A Spy in the House – and ones more geared towards guys – Ripper. I have sci-fi and fantasy; dragons and pirates; hardcore historical fiction and fairytale retellings; dystopian and Little House on the Prairie. I even have one or two dark romances, though the only vampire who will ever grace my shelves is Dracula. 

So what exactly makes me choose the books that I choose? Do I just pick up whatever is at hand and sit down with it? Well, I don’t do that when I’m finding new friends, and since I liken book-shopping to friend-shopping, you can assume that the answer is no. I’m just as choosy with my books as I am about my friends, though it may not seem like that. One method is a mutual acquaintance – in the case of a book, it would be either an Author whose works I am extremely familiar with, or a well-trusted friend’s recommendation. Example: I love Ann Rinaldi; she’s a terrific historical fiction Author. I am a huge fan of historical fiction – especially the American Revolution – so becoming initially acquainted with her writing was not difficult. I have never once been disappointed with one of her books, so whenever I see an Ann Rinaldi book floating around, I go right up to it and say, “Hey, we both have a friend in common!” The same applies to trusted-friend recommendations. 

Now, I will not pretend that I do not judge a book by its cover. Everyone does, and while there is a risk of being wrong, outward appearances can – and do – tell you a lot about a book. Anything that even remotely looks as if it has to do with fallen angels, boyfriend-cheats-on-girlfriend, zombies, vampires, or those horribly depressing stories about teens who make all the wrong choices and then commit suicide I will not even bother to read its synopsis. I dislike those sort of stories intensely and won’t waste my time with them. If a book has a rather noncommittal cover, or a clearly historical fiction/fairytale retelling/mystery/ect., one, I’ll pick it up and read its synopsis. As soon as zombies or legions of undead are mentioned (like The Gathering Storm; sounded like a good Romanov story until that came up), it goes back on the shelf. If there’s vampires, it is an immediate dismissal; I don’t care what era it’s based in. 

I am also drawn in by title’s and title fonts. Yes, I know – it sounds like a super trivial thing to base a book of off. But that’s just an initial attention-grabber, sort of like you see some random person drinking your most favorite beverage or eating your most favorite candy bar. There’s an immediate desire to talk to that person (or mug them, depending on whether or not you are criminally inclined, and only care about being in possession of that candy bar). Curly text, bold text, silvery text – anything fancy and shiny – all attract me. The text sometimes even gets me to ignore the cover just long enough to read the synopsis – kind of like if said person eating a Hershey bar also happened to have a I Heart Basil Rathbone T-shirt on, I would be willing to overlook that because clearly someone who eats a Hershey bar is a really interesting person, and loving Basil Rathbone is a minor flaw that could be got over.

But the real key to me spending time with a book is the synopsis. It has to grab my attention. And a lot of things will grab my attention enough to give a book a try: the historical event it deals with, the mystery that’s being solved, the fairytale that’s being retold, the dystopian world it takes place in, ect. And sometimes if the story sounds just plain weird enough – A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place – I’ll give it a try, because sometimes the weirdest storylines are the best (provided they make sense in their own twisted way in the end). Age range is never a barrier for me; I’ll read Juvenile as readily as Young Adult. The only reason I don’t usually read Adult too often is I am picky about content, just as I am picky about my friends’ behavior. Too much language, sexual content, and the like are a deal-breaker, no matter how much I might enjoy the historical era it takes place in. 

Even so, I still stumble over rotten apples. With the wide range of genres I take in, it’s hard not to. There have been books that I have been dying to read, and have waited and waited and waited for it to come out. I buy (or borrow) my copy and at last it comes in! The cover glossy, the pages new and white, the spine still free of use. And then . . . absolute disappointment. The writing is bad, the storyline was a huge letdown, that protagonist just really drove me up a wall, the Author decided that while his last two books were clean, this one just simply and absolutely required a graphic bedroom scene. It happens, I am sorry to say. Scarlet was a book like that. I only had a very few minor misgivings about it because I hadn’t yet read a Robin Hood retelling that was bad. And anyway, the cover was just too pretty to ignore. The book was an absolute letdown in almost every possible way, and it served to remind me why I never do faith-buys. Always read a book first before buying it, unless you know the Author to be incapable of mistakes. 

And sometimes there are the fluke reads – a spontaneous Oh, you look interesting pick that just happens to turn out to be one of the best books you’ve ever read! This actually happens to me a lot. I’ll be browsing at the library, killing a few minutes until my ride picks me up after work, not looking for any book in particular, and I’ll stumble upon one or two that look kind of interesting. Well, I have nothing planned for the weekend, I think. Might as well give it a whirl. If it’s bad, I’ll at least get some fun out of pointing out the mistakes to my sister. Start reading it, and I can’t stop. EntwinedRipperThe Ruins of Gorlan, and Sword Song were like that – among others. They were amazingly good and three of my favorite books. Sword Song, while it didn’t make to the “Top 10” list, introduced me to Rosemary Sutcliff, and a pile of books that did. 

Every book has different ways of attracting a Reader’s attention. There really isn’t anything specific about a book that will shriek READ ME! at me. And if it did, I’m afraid I would automatically think about what happened to Alice when she obeyed the instructions of an inanimate object, so I wouldn’t read the book. Something small, like the title’s font or the cover design, has to catch my attention first, before a book screams READ ME! I may read a lot of different books, but I am an elusive Reader to catch. But so far, books have done a pretty darn good job of catching me.

See what makes other people choose what books they read at Hazel West's Character Purgatory!

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