One Twist Over the Line… or… Problems Only Book Lovers Understand

Sometimes the life of the dedicated book lover is not an easy one.

Like that fact that there are so many wonderful books to read. I remember an interview on CBC radio years and years ago; Vicky Gabereau, the wonderfully witty and engaging interviewer, was speaking with Robertson Davies, the wonderfully witty, erudite, and engaging icon of Canadian literature. And he said something to the effect that his one regret in life was that there were too many books to read. I’ve always loved that answer. So yeah. There’s that. Keeping up with my constantly accumulating “to read” pile… that’s hard sometimes. Good thing I’m retired.

her interview with Robertson Davies was a classic
Vicky Gabereau source

And then there’s the opposite problem. Finding good books to read. Especially when many of one’s favourite writers in a genre have died. Like P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell, and Reginald Hill. And Canadian novelist L.R. Wright, her mysteries are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong; there are lots of wonderful writers out there… the problem is finding them.

I get lots of ideas for new books and new authors from book review sites, and yearly lists of recommended books from book reviewers and editors, and long lists and short lists for awards. And great suggestions from readers of this blog. And even from former students, like Sarah Weinman whom I taught many years ago. Sarah’s a writer and critic in New York now. And recently, I subscribed to her newsletter The Crime Lady. It’s filled with all kinds of talk about books, and links to other articles about books. I also read writer Adrian McKinty’s blog The Psychopathology of Everyday Life where he talks about books, the ones he reads and the ones he writes. You might recall that I’ve mentioned (here and here) how much I enjoyed his “Troubles Trilogy.” But, you know, all this searching for book ideas takes time. Good thing I’m retired.

And then I find a writer I like. Whose work interests me. Who is talented, and inventive. Whose books are well written stylistically, which is important to me. Who does his or her research, and as a result, their books have that “value added” thing I talked about a while ago, where the reader learns about all kinds of new and interesting things and places. And I’m excited and really enjoying their books. And then they let me down. Not me personally, of course, but me as a reader.

Problems only book lovers understand
Sharon Bolton  source

Someone like, say, Sharon Bolton. Whose work I’ve read with interest for a while now. She’s a talented writer. Her settings are so well drawn that you feel like you are right there. Her characters are interesting, if a bit overly angst-filled at times. Even the secondary characters have intriguing back stories. Her plots are suspenseful and well crafted. That is until Bolton throws in that final plot twist that spoils it for me. And instead of surprise, I feel only incredulity. Really? Really?

Let’s take Bolton’s latest book Little Black Lies as an example. Set in the Falkland Islands, it’s a story of loss and revenge, of two women who are life-long friends, one of whom has lost her sons in an accident caused by the carelessness of the other. The novel skilfully recreates life in the sparsely populated Falklands twelve years after the war, breathtakingly beautiful but bleak, with a society that is isolated and inward-looking. Bolton deals with the aftermath of the Falklands War, when Britain can’t decide what to do with this “relic of empire.” Former soldiers cope with PTSD, local conservationists deal with the harshness of nature, and amidst all this, children begin to go missing. The story moves deftly between several narrators. I was fascinated by Bolton’s picture of the Falklands, and by her depiction of the lives of the three main characters who have been so damaged by war or by happenstance. And how they cope, or do not cope with tragedy. Until the end. The end really pissed me off… if you’ll pardon the profanity. It was an end unworthy of the rest of the book, in my opinion.

Little Black Lies is based on a great concept but is a flawed book.
I hate it when that happens. A weird plot twist that “stretches the imagination a bit too far” as one reviewer puts it, an unexplained loose end, gratuitous violence that clearly panders to the “best seller” market but adds nothing of value to a book… all of these really put me off a writer. And their work. No matter how talented they are.
As Michele Peckham says in her review of Bolton’s earlier novel, Dead Scared, Bolton’s work is definitely “worth reading if you like psychological thrillers and don’t mind suspending all common sense.” And sadly the blog The Literary Lawyer has similar comments about Bolton’s book A Dark and Twisted Tide, calling it timely, unique, well written…. but flawed, even venturing into “the bizarre and the bone headed” as far as plot goes.
Interestingly, neither of these reviewers has given up on Sharon Bolton as a writer. And neither have I…. yet. Despite my criticism, I think her books are worth reading. I just think it’s a shame that someone as talented as Bolton doesn’t have an editor who will read her the riot act and help her to produce work that’s worthy of her abilities.
I felt the same about Val McDermid’s book The Vanishing Point. Strangely enough it deals with one of the same themes as Bolton’s Little Black Lies, namely missing children. But it also explores the world of ghost writers, the celebrity autobiography, and the reality TV industry that manufactures these celebrities. I found McDermid’s exploration of the life of a trashy, but deviously brilliant, reality TV star, turned mother, turned media darling fascinating. Until, like with Bolton’s book, I started snapping it shut, thinking, “Really? Really?” Come on, Val. The supposed ‘Queen of Tartan Noir’ can do better than this. And yet, I finished the book because I wanted to know what happened. And what happened pissed me off even more…. if you’ll pardon the profanity… again. I couldn’t find a reviewer on-line who agreed with me, not really. You can read a couple of those reviews here and here.  Except on Goodreads, where it seems that several reader/reviewers felt the same as me. Kind of cheated.
Both Sharon Bolton and Val McDermid have new books out this year. And I’ll probably read them. But I won’t be happy if their plots have one too many twists over the line… of credulity… so to speak.
That’s because as an avowed bookworm, when I read, I forget that I’m even reading. I’m holding the book, and my eyes are moving across the page, but I experience the story as if there’s a movie playing in my head. And when something that I can’t “buy” happens, a character steps out of character, or the writer makes a major mistake, the movie stops. I totally lose my “suspension of disbelief” as my grade ten English teacher used to say. And I realize that I’m not in the Falkland Islands, or nineteenth century Yorkshire, or on a cliff on the island of Lewis… I’m just sitting in my sun room, holding a book, and those black squiggles on the page are just.. black squiggles. And I hate it when that happens.
But that’s just one of the many problems with being a dedicated book lover. Sigh. Life is tough, people.
Yes, the life of  the dedicated book lover is not an easy one. Too many books, not enough books, books that promise you will love them and then let you down. And then there’s all those people in your life…. who just keep getting in the way of your reading.
Or if you’re my friend Jane, two ginormous dogs who want to share the sofa with you when you all you want is a moment alone to finish that darned book.


Jane and Hugo… reading. Thanks for the photo, Jane.
Do you have any book lover angst you want to get off your chest? Come on…. we’re listening.




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15 thoughts on “One Twist Over the Line… or… Problems Only Book Lovers Understand”

    1. I know. I remember those stories… and can sympathize with the frustrated sighs, when someone wants to talk and you just want to finish that book:)

  1. You've made some really good points here & yes , it's not always easy being a book lover . I've just finished a murder mystery by Rennie Airth & I enjoyed it very much but it was over 400 pages & a good editor should have hacked away chunks of the first hundred pages . Perhaps they think they are giving us background atmosphere but it felt so slow . I won't read Val McDermid now as the book I tried had so much horrific torture that I put it in the dustbin ! It was too horrible to send to the charity shop . Lots of angst here – but fortunately there are plenty of great books to go at
    Wendy in York

    1. I've read a couple of Rennie Airth. They are long, now that you mention it. Not sure what's up with old Val. I used to really like her stuff. That gratuitous violence is why I abandoned Stuart McBride a while ago.

  2. Yeah, so The Martian. OMG. Everyone is freaking out about The Martian. Even a colleague of mine sends me an email: You HAVE to read the Martian. So I read The Martian. It makes me so angry. I quit reading on page 292 of 310 (or so). It's an action thriller. It's an example of awesome science fiction – from the 1960s!!!! No demands on the reader. No second level of meaning. No payback for hours of slogging through factual scientific details. Really???? If I wanted to read Robert Heinlein without the wit or rough edges or questionable ideology that make responding to the novel worthwhile, I could read The Martian. But I don't want to read mediocre Robert Heinlein. I am a rabid science fiction fan – because it's challenging. Because it plays with IDEAS! Because it cares about the impact of technology on the social body. The Martian does not fulfill ANY of those conditions. OF COURSE, Hollywood made it into a movie. Because it's an ACTION THRILLER, not Science Fiction.
    Okay. I'm okay now. That felt good. Please don't read The Martian.

    1. Now that was a wonderful book rant! I bet you're glad to get that off your chest. Hope to see you at Marina's in December for cocktails. I may wear a hat!

    2. Neat! Speaking of hats, I'm just starting to read Gregory Maguire's After Alice. I am hopeful that it will be a book I can add to my growing collection of riffs on Professor Dodgson's masterpiece. It might even be a book for you to read, what with the mysterious missing children and all.

  3. I love to read your comments about reading and your book and author reviews. It reminds me of what I sought, and never found, in book clubs (which I eventually gave up on because we never discussed the books). As a child, I was frequently admonished to "get…(my) nose out of…(my) book and join the land of the living." In college, I was all for reading fiction and poetry but had far too little interest in academic texts. Then, when I flew for an international airline, life was so fast, so broad-based and so adventurous that I did not have the focus to read much. After that, law school immersed me in a completely different kind of reading, and I yearned for the days when I would be able once again to read for pleasure. Then, however, marriage, parenting and practicing law immersed me in relationships and work, and reading (except for children's books) once again took the sidelines. Now that the children are grown up and living faraway, I have once again jumped into reading for pleasure…and once again, I have to work to make sure that I balance the reading with some living of actual life with actual people. So for me, reading can be too engrossing. How to know how much of my free time to spend reading and how much of it to spend experiencing other aspects of life?

    1. Thanks so much Leslie. I'm not surprised that you didn't have time to read for so many years. What a varied and interesting life you've lead. Did you work after your first degree and then go back to law school as an older adult?
      I agree about the "too engrossing" bit. Now that I'm both writing a blog and doing a lot of reading, I'm sitting way too much. Thank goodness for the books on my i-pod. Listening to books lets me walk, pedal my exercise bike or even do a little housework (little being the operative word here) and still be immersed in my book.

  4. When I'm into my book, I want a people-less experience. Sadly, that's when the phone rings with that important call you were waiting for two hours before. Or one of the pre-schoolers need something RIGHT NOW. Or Husby has just had something amazing happen that he needs to tell you immediately. Or . . . you know . . .

    1. Yep… "people-less experience" is exactly what we need when we're reading. My husband comes to "join me for tea" in the sun room sometimes. And when I look up, and then close the book with my finger in it… he generally laughs and says.. "I know when I'm not wanted. I'll come back when you've finished the book."

  5. I've been thinking for many years now – why is the ending so often so hard for writers? Why can't their editors help them? I read the most recent winner of the Man Booker prize. SO AMAZING. So subtle, masterful, broad, deep, deft. And then. The ending is a broad stroke that makes me want to throw the whole book in the garbage can. Why?!?!?!?!?!

  6. Haven't read Bolton for years, but ugh! That McDermid was bad! I wonder sometimes about the publisher's pressure, the contracts, but still, thankfully, the Jordan-Hill mystery that followed had McDermid back on track. Patricia Cornwell is another whose series can skew wildly, beyond disappointing to enfuriating.

    1. I remember reading Patricia Cornwell's earlt books and then she went completely off the rails into a kind of weird thriller/smaltzy romance thing. And I haven't read her since. I did hear that McDermid's book after The Vanishing Point was better, though.

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