Friday, March 9, 2012

What makes an interesting book?

In trying to get my eight year old to read more widely, I embarked on a project to read a book that was a little beyond her grade level with her every day. That is a little challenging with a two year old and a three year old vying for my attention. Consequently, I found the best solution was to move up the kids’ bedtime half an hour and read in bed with my oldest every night. We began with “The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman. The first night we did the first chapter. By 10 pm I insisted she go to sleep. 10:30 she was still reading and begging me to extend her bedtime even more. By 11pm I practically wrestled the book away from her. But I decided to read the next chapter. I crawled into my own bed sometime around 1 AM. I had read the entire book. It was so interesting.

What made this book so riveting that I could not put it down? Why is it that a child that I have to actively encourage to read protests when I ask her to put down the book? Here are some of the things I found about the book that made it so interesting.

The pace
The book started with the prime character and kept a steady pace that made you want to find out what happens next. It’s not that the book is an adventure novel or a cliff hanger. It’s just that each chapter left you wondering what happens next. How will the book end? Unlike romance or detective novels where the outcome is always the same (the girl gets the guy; the bad guy gets caught), this book did not fit into the mold of any explicitly defined genre. There were no lulls in the pace.

The voice
I swore I was back in the fourteenth century living in the quagmire of poverty, when I read the book. The prevailing voice transported you to that time and place, without extensive descriptions of the physical settings. The choice of words reflected the language. The rhythm of the writing made me feel that the narrator was talking with an ancient British accent. I felt I was Beetle. Even with the extremely long sentences that made it hard to catch a breath, there was a melody to the words. The choice of words both in direct and indirect speech made the book experiential.

The perspective
The story was told from the POV of the main character Beetle, who later renamed herself Alyce. I felt Beetle. Even though the story was in third person, it felt like it was being told in Beetle’s own voice. There was a lot that was not spelt out in the book, but it was very clear what was happening. Most of all you could see inside Beetle’s head. You experienced her growth from a person who was nobody, empty inside and had no place in the world, no confidence, to a budding young lady confident in her ability and her beauty. You could feel when she finally felt she had a place in the world.

The book used the events to illustrate what was happening rather than description. Even the seasons were denoted more by the farm activities than by an overt description. The development of Beetle’s self confidence, for example, was illustrated by her renaming herself Alyce because she realized Alyce was someone important who could read. Beetle’s interaction with another homeless boy brought out her ability to love and nurture, something unknown to her before.

Now I know there is much more that makes an interesting book than what I’ve covered here. I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. That’s where you come in. What makes a book riveting to you such that you can’t put it down?


Charles Gramlich said...

The primary thing is probably story, but it has to be filtered through the characters. A great topic. I love to think about this one myself.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks Charles. Sometimes dissecting a compelling book to see what hooks us in and keeps our attention is a good way to improve our own writing.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'd be interested to know what your daughter thought made it so interesting that she wanted you to read more, and more, and more.

So many of the middle grade and early YA books I've read (for research, because I'm thinking of writing a YA book) have a very slow pace and standard characters, and I find them boring. The Midwife's Apprentice sounds as if it moves along.

You ask a hard question about what makes a book so riveting that I can't put it down. I know what I generally like in a book—complex plot, lots of characters, a setting strong enough to be a character on its own—yet I had trouble putting down The Da Vinci Code even as I realized it nothing going for it but short chapters and a fast pace.

I looked back over books I read recently that kept me reading, and there was not much in common. With one book, it was the voice that kept me reading; with another, the complexity of the major and minor characters; and with another, the adventure and the desire to know how long the main character's honor and desire to do the right thing would last as the situation became more and more dangerous.

Liane Spicer said...

I read across many genres and the one thing I'd put above all the others is probably the voice. The voice is what pulls me in from the start and lets me know I'm in for a good cosy interlude in someone else's universe.

Humor scores highly too, and mastery of language. Stories that provide insights into the human condition, even tangentially, tend to pull me in, as do stories that stretch my understanding and appreciation of anything from history to relationships, ecology to cuisine.