Kate here, on the day after Christmas, settling in for a week away from my desk, and the delicious pleasure of uninterrupted reading. I have no idea what books my gaily wrapped packages may hold, but whatever comes at me, I’m looking forward to being pulled into story and held there by the power of writing.
When I a little girl, I used to go down to the library on Friday afternoon, take out a stack of books, bring them home and start reading. I’d read five or six on the weekend and the rest during the week. (Yes, I confess, I sometimes had fiction hidden in my school books.) What fascinated me then, and continues to fascinate me now, is how a writer can tell a story so well, and create such a compelling world, that I get completely lost there and have a hard time coming back to reality. It was a magical experience then, and it’s one that I still want. I want writers to capture me, carry me off, and hold me hostage until I reach the words: The End
And here’s my problem. I’ve been writing seriously since 1983, when I took some time off from work after my second son was born. At this point, I’ve written, from start to finish, twenty-two books. I’ve imagined twenty-two different worlds. Plotted that many stories. I’ve blown life into hundreds of characters. I’ve also been teaching writing for at least fifteen years and for many of those, I’ve also been reading and critiquing other writer’s books. I know how a mystery is constructed. I know how clues are hidden. I know how our suspicions are manipulated. I know that a good bad guy is often hidden in plain sight, and I know that someone who seems to be a good person may turn out to be a bad one.
When I read a mystery, I don’t try to figure it out. I’m there to be entertained. I wanted to be carried away,
and carried along. I don’t want to see what the writer is doing. If I start a book and I know on page thirty who did it, I’m going to put it down. If I can see how I’m being manipulated, I’ll usually put it down. I may be childish or unreasonable, but I don’t want to see those bones. I don’t want to see the skeleton of the book. I still want to be enchanted. I want to be so immersed in my reading that I forget about lunch, and the day flows by, and the room grows dark around me, and I haven’t moved from the couch. I want to read stories that make me need to know what happens next. That make me rush ahead, leaning toward the page, to see whether everything will be all right. Mary Stewart used to do that for me. At her best, Lisa Gardner still does. She’s just such a wonderful plotter and has such a knack for the surprising reveal. Elizabeth George has a talent for the intricately woven plot and, at least in her early books, handles her complex cast of characters so deftly. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are utterly improbable, and yet I find the character totally compelling.
Sometimes I can be enchanted even though I CAN see the bones, or suspect that I can. Sometimes a writer doing it right makes me think of something that might work in my own book, so that I have to put their book down and go tinker with my own chapter nine, but I will come back to that book. Sometimes, like everyone, I am enticed by the wonderfulness of the writing. Nancy Picard’s two Kansas mysteries, The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning give me a serious case of envy, especially in the way she chooses and uses small, closely observed details to nail the characters and their culture.
Of course, I don’t always read mysteries, maybe because I keep seeing the bones. Among the books that have enchanted me recently are one quite unusual mystery–Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (talk about a weave of stories), and two novels, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Stone’s novel is like the grand family sagas I grew up reading. A vast, international sweep. A cast of characters I cared deeply about. A foreseeable, inevitable ending that still had to be reached and read. And The History of Love was a weave of stories as intricate and deftly handled as a complex sweater pattern, a story that held me in suspense, waiting for the next segment of each character’s story, to see where it would all finally come together.
I don’t know which book I’m going to open today, but I know I’m going to open one, full of high hopes and expectations, and wait to be swept away. I know that one book I’ll be reading is Dead Calm, an anthology of New England crime stories. Reading Dead Calm will be like opening a big box of chocolates. There will be light and dark, some of the stories will be long, while others will be short, and the fillings will all be different. And another book that’s on the must read list, which someone HAS to give me, since I’ve hinted so broadly I might as well have put up a billboard, is P.D. James’s new Jane Austen mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley.
Are you reading this week? And what books have swept you away this year, and why?
Kate, you have completely expressed the way I feel about fiction–my love of being fully transported to another world.
I agree about the bones. Sometimes I think of the “set up” like the first part of a roller coaster ride, when you clank to the top of that first steep incline. I recently watched a Hollywood Rom Com where the set up was so ridiculous and therefore so long, it went on for 3/4 of the movie and all I could hear was clank, clank, clank.
Have a wonderful reading week.
I was impressed by The Lock Artist this year. I was *so* worried about the main character, who was a criminal but still terribly vulnerable.
I received novels about writers–still undecided which to enjoy first. Daphne, about Daphne DuMaurier, or Charlotte and Emily, about the Bronte sisters?
Two of my favorite books of 2011 — the incomparable Louise Penny’s latest, which I think is the best of her best, A Trick of the Light, and Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. I’ve read all of both of those authors’ books, and they just seem to get better and better with each new book. I highly recommend both.
The fact that I have repeatedly thanked Lea for introducing me to the work of L. Penny and the fiction of G. Brooks says it all. They are masters of the art Kate. I read all of Penny’s books this year and Caleb’s Crossing as well. No we don’t do EVERYTHING together or always have the same taste, but in this case, we’re joined together in admiration.
I hope you’re deep into your after Christmas reading and enjoying every minute of it. For me, this is the week I read less than usual because I spend the week before the new year starts bringing all sorts of records and inventories up to date. However, I recently read two terrific mysteries. One is new from Poisoned Pen Press, Jane Finnis’s Danger in the Wind, set in Roman Britain. She does a wonderul job of world building as well as creating an excellent crime novel. This is the 4th in the series. The other mystery is the latest from Margaret Maron, Three Day Town, in which she has her current series character, Deborah Knott, meet her other series character, Sigrid Harald of the NYPD. I had not read any of the earlier series, but after reading this one and discovering that Margaret has been bringing the Sigrid Harald books out in eformat, I’ve gone back and started reading them from the beginning. As isn’t surprising from a writer who won the Agatha, Anthony, and Edgar for the first Deborah Knott book, the stories are excellent. No bones showing.
Hello all and Happy Boxing Day…
I received two books for Christmas. One from my friend Lynda Chilton called, The Winter Travelers, which has a very beautiful cover that she designed. The second, The Dirty Life, is a memoir about farming, food, and love. Great title, huh? My son Nate gave me that one. Two books I knew nothing about and can now explore!