I’m as picky as the next person when it comes to choosing a new book but nowhere near as specific as Chebk’s list of assassins, women wielding weapons, and underdog space adventures.
I blame this entirely on academia. English has been the only subject in which I’ve excelled (and sometimes it is the only subject that makes any sense to me; math, why) and so assigned book lists have ceased to daunt me. Being desperate for credits in my undergraduate work led me to taking courses on The 18th Century Novel (OR Cautionary Tales of Awful Men), Virginia Woolf (War is Awful, Also: Lesbians!), and 19th Century American Literature (Horses Everywhere/Money Problems).
You would think this would have doomed me to a life of bitterness and SparkNotes…and yet I always end up liking what I’m reading (at least while I’m reading it). It is a gift and a curse.
Thus, while Chebk has been having a bad run with picking out books she that end in tepid feelings and lost interest, I have been having pretty consistent good luck with awesome characters and intriguing plots. I’m not always certain this is because I am necessarily reading consistently great things. I think this may have more to do with something else.
First, to answer the big question: What am I drawn to in books I really want to read? My initial answer was: I don’t know, girls, probably. I like fairy tales remixed and supernatural inclinations. Mythology is a plus, and whimsy and dystopia crowd my bookshelves. I like complexity, psychology, and probably sad people. I like narratives about people struggling and trying, because that is what I can most relate to, and if there happen to be graveyard scenes and girls in love along the way, even better. If there is an Asian character or if the book is by an Asian author, I will linger over it longer than necessary, doubting, wondering.
And yet…even if the book has none of these things, there is a defense mechanism that goes up. There are much simpler things that keep me going through a book whose summary may not interest me in the least. I am a sucker for interesting imagery or wordplay. I love authors that try something different with structure or narrative tools or character traits. Natural, sharp dialogue is guaranteed to pin me down, even if the story is about two little old people doing nothing of much consequence over a 24-hour period. Short of all that, I like seeing the ways the author constructs their personal writing, the choices they make in plot pacing and character development. Even if I disagree with their choices and techniques (due to personal taste), I still like learning from their work.
What a nerd answer. But better than, “Girls, I guess.” Sort of.
I am currently reading two YA books — I am still getting reacquainted with the genre after leaving it behind in high school and being tempted back by The Hunger Games — The Young Elite by Marie Lu and The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black. Based on the summary and first couple chapters of the former it’s not a book I would have necessarily chosen for myself. Luckily Chebk chose it for me and I kept reading. There are some unfortunate YA tropes — a narrator who bemoans and stresses her own unfortunate beauty, a possible love triangle creeping up — but also an interesting darkness I didn’t know YA books could explore. All of the characters have hidden interests in the complexities of power and evil; I like that destruction of black and white good versus evil. The interweaving structure of three separate narrative characters is also good research for my own multi-narrator novel.
Since my blessing/curse makes picking books weird at times, here are the rules I generally use when picking up a new book:
- Read the summary AND the first few pages. As Chebk mentioned, the summary is not always written by the author and may not be representative of the actual plot or writing style.
- Skip around and skim. If it consistently catches your eye with interesting sentences, chances are it’ll hold your attention throughout.
- Don’t be scared to give up. If the book is dragging and you feel like you’re forcing yourself to finish, just don’t. LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BORING BOOKS.
Don’t forget to enter OKPotato’s February giveaway to win a copy of either Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest or Melinda Salisbury‘s The Sin-Eater’s Daughter. Also, from the 15th to the 18th we’ll be playing with Sanjiv’s flash fiction prompt of “light horror romance with a socially anxious monk as the main character.” Submit your own short story (600-1500 words) to play along! See you next time, readers.