What do you think makes a good book good? For you, I mean? For me it means a book in which I can get lost. A book which transports me. A book I want to crawl inside and experience the places and the events along with the characters. Even if those events are difficult or dangerous.
I remember reading Diary of Anne Frank as a young girl, and feeling as if I were there in Amsterdam, in that attic. I ate bread and cheese with Heidi and the Grandfather and tried to make Boo Radley come out with Scout and Jem. But I loved best the books where the kids operated as if the adults in their lives were superfluous. If they got into a fix, they solved their own problems. Like Trixie Belden.
I think that’s why I grew tired of Nancy Drew books as a kid. She always got stuck somewhere near the end of the book and her father Carson Drew had to come to the rescue. At least that’s how I remember them. And even as a kid that sort of plot resolution seemed to me to be too easy. Like the “we woke up and it was all a dream” ending I used to warn my writing students to avoid. Seriously, I think the only time that ending worked was on the finale of the Bob Newhart show.
Whatever age I’ve been reading them, good books have to grab me and hold me fast. If a book is good, I will read it anywhere. At the doctor’s office. In the car eating a take-out lunch or sipping a latte. Sitting on the side of the tub waiting for the bath to fill. Standing in the kitchen leaning against the counter, “watching” the potatoes so they don’t boil over. And usually not succeeding because I was reading my book. Ha. I remember years ago bonding with the mum of a student when we discovered that we both always had our noses stuck in a book. Often at inopportune moments. She said her husband railed at her for reading while cooking.
I can read most of a good book, most anywhere. But when I get close to the end of a good book, I have to be sitting comfortably, with no distractions. I want to savour the ending, not just find out what happened.
A good book has to have an interesting and well-constructed plot. One without too many unbelievable and superfluous complications, seemingly tossed in near the end for the sake of upping the excitement. That’s what drove me away from the books of S.J. Bolton and Patricia Cornwell. One too many silly plot twists at the end. Mysteries and thrillers are read primarily for their plot, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be well-crafted plots. And mystery novels which meld great plots with great writing style are my favourite.
Style is a biggie for me. I have to admire the way the writer puts words together. Take Dan Brown for instance. His plots are interesting, but his style is sometimes so cliché I can’t read his books. P.D. James was a master stylist. And Reginal Hill, well, he was a genius. Lately I’ve found that Tana French, Susie Steiner, and Peter May are right up there as well. Hubby is almost as bad as me about writing style. Maybe he’s not quite as rabid as me when it comes to redundancy. I mean there IS a difference between repetition for emphasis and just being a lazy editor.
Hubby also says that a book has to “flow” for him. A book that flows is easy to read. Not because it is simplistic. But because the reader doesn’t notice the bones of the book, the scaffolding upon which the whole thing hangs together. That’s how I used to describe a well-written piece to my students. A good book is so well constructed and so well written, style-wise, that we read without noticing how the writer constructed it.
In a good book, setting is integral. For me, anyway. I love a wonderful description of setting. Evocative details which transport me from my sun room to wherever. And whenever. Moody skies, peeling paint, muddy lanes and hedges dripping with rainwater, scorching sunlight, ocean waves lapping or crashing, birdsong, trenches lined with mud and old boards, the yeasty smell of baking bread, or the acrid stink of burning garbage. Details are what I love. All the details good and bad. But not too many, mind you, just enough. Good writers know when to add detail and when to desist.
I’ve abandoned the works of otherwise good writers because they didn’t know when to quit with the detail. Especially violent detail, and obviously gratuitous gore. Stuart McBride is a really good crime writer but, after a few books, he just didn’t know when to stop with the body count and the macabre detail. I love a good murder. But great mystery writers, like Reginald Hill and Ann Cleeves, know that the best part of a murder mystery is not the gore.
Of course I don’t only read murder mysteries. I lost myself in lots of good books this past year. Books like Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Actress by Anne Enright, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, or After the Party by Cressida Connolly. But I’ve written about all of these books before on the blog. Lately, feeling slightly battered by everything that’s been happening this year, I have been reaching for gentle reads. I read several D.E. Stevenson books in a row and found them comforting. And enjoyable. And well written, I should add. Just because I am looking for something slightly less angsty, doesn’t mean I will read sentimental tripe. But I told you all about the books of D.E. Stevenson last week, so I won’t go on.
This week, my friends, I have been reading a very good book. We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet. This book meets all my criteria. And it has been occupying my every waking hour. I’ve been reading it in bed at night, over breakfast, sitting on the side of the tub, and standing in the kitchen while the potatoes boiled over. In fact, I read it all yesterday afternoon when I should have been writing this post. And all last evening when I also could have been writing this post. Ha. I loved, loved, loved this book.
We Must Be Brave is a book primarily about love. The story centres around the love that develops between a young wife, Ellen, and Pamela, the child she fosters during the early days of World War II. Liardet’s plot moves back and forth between the story of Ellen and Pamela, and Ellen’s early life, her difficult childhood, her poverty, and then meeting and marrying her older and kindly husband, Selwyn. Later the plot deals with the aftermath of Pamela, and how Ellen’s and Selwyn’s lives move forward.
At the beginning, the novel drops us effectively into the war years, the fear and chaos, and the small privations faced every day. Liardet deals with the historical events of the war on a micro level. We are with Ellen when she almost crashes her car into barbed wire on the road to Plymouth, but the historical details of the war which precipitate the placing of the barbed wire are only hinted at, not overtly discussed. We are shown what it was like to live there and then, not told of wider political events. That’s because it’s not a novel about history. But about the lives of very specific characters who live during that time.
The best thing about this book, for me, is the character development. I loved the people. I wanted to know them. And know about them. Contrary to what I read in reviews on Amazon, I found the secondary characters to be integral to the novel. Even the minor characters seem to step off the page, they seemed so real to me. It’s a long book, but I would not have shortened it a bit. I wanted to get to know these people, wanted to find out what became of them after the war. I loved seeing how their lives change when the plot jumps forward to the seventies. And I loved how Liardet handles the plot resolution in 2010.
We Must Be Brave is not a ground-breaking book. Nor is it a perfect book. There is one plot element late in the book which I thought too contrived. It’s not on the level of great books like Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins or Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. We Must Be Brave doesn’t really say anything new about life during and after World War II. But it does deal masterfully with all kinds of love. How the characters struggle to find love, and to cope with the loss or the lack of it. I found it an immensely entertaining and comforting book. In many ways it reminds me of books of an earlier age. Despite the fact that there is privation and heart ache, it is still a gentle read. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a kind of pastiche of some of my favourite writers: a little D.E. Stevenson, quite a lot of Dorothy Whipple, with a dash of Barbara Pym, for Ellen could quite easily walk onto the pages of Excellent Women and be right at home.
Anyway. That’s what I’ve been up to when I should have been blogging. My apologies for getting this post out a day late. But if you have lived your life with your nose stuck in a book like me, I’m sure you realize that there is no better excuse for not doing what one should have been doing. At least in my books.
So how would you define a good book, my friends? Not necessarily a great book. Not necessarily a literary triumph. Just a good book that has you captivated, such that you read it at all hours, desert your post, and even let the potatoes boil over.
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