2014 Books #8 – #12

red bookYes, I have continued to read books this year, even though I haven’t been able to talk about the books I’m reading. I’ve been reading almost exclusively as a judge in more than one contest involving published books, so I haven’t been able to tell you what I’m reading. But like last time, that doesn’t preclude me from telling you some of the things I’ve learned from these books I’ve read. So here goes.

Of the last four books I’ve read, one was surprisingly good and one was surprisingly horrible. The one had me looking forward to when I could find a few seconds to sit down and read it and turning pages at lightning speed as I did. The other had me dreading having to sit down and slog my way through it. In fact, if it wasn’t a contest book, I would have given up after a few chapters.

So what makes a book un-put-down-able and what makes it un-pick-up-able?

In the case of these two books, the answer is in how the ideas of the author were presented. Both were romance novels with unlikely pairings. You know, the kind of pairs that on the outside should never get together. Without giving anything away, these were both cultural and idealistic differences.

What I loved about the book that I liked was the way that the author presented a culture and viewpoint that was unfamiliar to me. Yes, that’s a reality for some people, but it isn’t mine. That meant that the author had to sell this different lifestyle to me in a way that I could both accept and be interested in. She didn’t do it by glossing over details or beating around any bushes. In fact, a lot of the facts were, as they say, cold and hard. It was enough to make me truly root for the one character to get out of that place.

By contrast, the thing that I found so odious about the book that I didn’t like was the way that the author tried so hard to drive her point about which culture was “right” and which was “wrong” home. The author’s bias was right out there on the table, and any of the characters that disagreed with it were all black and the ones that did were all white. The message of the book was bold on the surface of the story the whole time, and I felt as if it reached out of the words to beat me over the head in each chapter.

The book I liked definitely had a message and I believe the author had an opinion about the values of the different cultures involved. I am pretty sure she was driving at a particular moral stand. The way she did it, however, was so subtle and so well-crafted that I felt coaxed along instead of overwhelmed by it. And it’s not a viewpoint I would have naturally come to on my own. She took an issue I only know the tiniest amount about and made me see it from several points of view before honing in on her opinion about it. I appreciated that.

The other big difference and major lesson I learned from these books was in the way that secondary characters are presented. It’s so easy to paint secondary characters with one or two colors. They aren’t the movers and shakers in the story, so we can fall into the trap of making them walking clichés. The book I didn’t like had about a hundred secondary characters, and every one was a cookie cutter. The book I liked had a few key secondary characters in pivotal roles, and for the most part they were all multifaceted. I truly appreciate that. I like reading a book and wondering if the author is going to write an entire story for one of the secondary characters.

I still have about half a dozen more contest books to read before I can once again start doing book reports with the names of the books included. I’m having fun thinking about what I want to read once I’m able to choose for myself too. I recently watched the Star Trek reboot movies, and now I want to go back and read some of the Star Trek books I read in high school, or maybe some other science fiction. Any suggestions? It doesn’t have to be sci-fi either.