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?