Them’s Good Readin’

Habits certainly change over the years and I’ve gone from a person who finishes each and every book regardless of quality to a person who reads the first few pages of many books in search of something irresistible. What is the indefinable quality I seek that makes some books impossible to put down?

One can find copious writings on the aspects of books that define a reader’s preferences: writing style, characters, setting and so on. I’ve never felt that my taste fits easily into any one category. However, I am aware that I grow attached to characters. Perhaps sadly, they become like friends (not to be confused with the taxidermied animals in my safe room who are my best friends). In fact, at times I get depressed when a good book ends because I want to know what happens next to these people.

Apparently I am not alone in this trait. Whilst perusing Amazon one might notice that the number of series currently being written (as opposed to stand-alone novels) is HUGE. A series gives a reader the opportunity to find out what does happen next. (On a more cynical note, series are a great way for authors to make money!)

Current readsCurrently I’m reading three books: Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes, The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black and Born of Illusion by Teri J. Brown. All three titles are quite enjoyable, but only one is hard to put down, Vertigo 42. Is it a coincidence that this book is the 23rd Richard Jury mystery that I’ve read and that I’m in some kind of a relationship with Grimes’ cast of characters? While the plot is not the strongest of the series it’s still good, the writing is superb and most importantly, I want to know what happens next to the characters I’ve befriended over a period of two decades!

This sort of book does not come along very often for me. More common is the book that I enjoy but have no problem setting aside, The Black-Eyed Blonde being an excellent example. Although the star of the story, Philip Marlowe, appears in many books and other media, I’m not overly familiar with nor heavily invested in him. What I enjoy in this book is the pulp detective writing style, the time period and locale, the dirty underbelly of society in which Marlowe operates, a bit of hopelessness but also small victories. For whatever reason, I seem to enjoy this style in smaller doses and thus move back and forth happily between books while reading pulp.

Finally, Born of Illusion is one of the few books in recent times that I’ve given up on and later returned to. It’s a YA historical novel set in 1920s New York City featuring séances, spiritualism, (perhaps) real magic and Harry Houdini. Ever since reading Carter Beats the Devil I’ve been fascinated by early 20th century magic, the work and technology put into illusions, and this book taps into that fascination. I’m not sure why I gave up on it; probably I was simply more interested in some other titles at the time. But now that I’m back into it I’m thoroughly enjoying this novel.

So what’s the point here? I notice that my reading goes through cycles of too many exciting books to get through followed by nothing interesting enough to keep my attention. It would be nice to know myself well enough to figure out what book I need to escape the reading doldrums. This summer I’m going to delve deeper into some mystery series I’ve perused in the past and see how well this tactic holds my interest.

Perhaps today’s blog is more of a musing or rumination, providing no answers to the questions that fascinate my singular brain, but at the very least I’ve left you with three excellent book recommendations. Go. Read. Pay attention to why you find one book compelling and another not so much. Perhaps you’ll learn a little something about the peculiar substance that is you.

Re-resolution 2014

I don’t make resolutions because I don’t like to fail. And I can guarantee with a fair degree of certainty that I will fail at any given resolution. We don’t choose easy endeavors like, “I will pursue the perfect black lager.” Rather we choose tricky things that will be challenging, feats that might in fact not be doable.

So this year I foolishly made a resolution. In print. Well, in electrons. I publicly proclaimed my intention to read books that I either started but didn’t finish, or checked out but didn’t even begin reading in 2013. This might not sound difficult, but once I put a book down all interest in it vanishes, even if I thoroughly enjoyed the bits that I did read. I’m also extremely picky about what I read at any given moment and so wouldn’t even be tempted by the most fabulous tome ever penned unless struck by the right mood. So this task has actually been a bit formidable.

“And just how is that resolution going?” you might be asking at this point. Well, let me tell you in a word: Not so good. I’ve not read a single book on my list because new (and old) compelling reads keep tempting me. I am the anti-Carol.

Here are a few titles from my resolution list, and their status:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – Checked it out again without reading it. Again.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – Purchased it but have not recommenced reading.

The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine – Have thought very hard about reading it.

3 booksNot a spectacular showing on my part.

However, a new resolution has slowly emerged from the primordial ooze of my brain. In keeping with my mid-life nostalgia crisis, I began rereading Martha GrimesRichard Jury mysteries. The first volume appeared in 1981, my first encounter with Jury was somewhere around 1990 and since then I’ve read all 22 books in the series (with #23 coming out this month). It occurred to me that I’ve never read a lengthy series, in order, in a relatively short period of time, and I felt the siren’s call luring me into another, possibly ill-conceived, resolution.

This time, however, I feel confident that I can fulfill my contract. Grimes’ writing is fabulous, her characters are charming and memorable, and I have the added incentive of wanting to ascertain how the series has evolved.

So let’s meet the cast of characters, shall we?

Chief Inspector, later Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard is a morose character, forever colored by the death of his mother in a London bombing raid, somewhere in his forties, attractive to women but unlucky in love, intelligent, caring and determined to carry out justice.

Sergeant Wiggins is Jury’s constant companion on cases. He is an uncompromising hypochondriac but has a way with servants and ordinary folk, and often uncovers useful tidbits of information.

Melrose Plant is wealthy, brilliant and bored. Jury meets him in the series’ first book, The Man with a Load of Mischief, and thereafter looks for Plant’s keen insight to help solve cases.

Additionally, a cornucopia of quirky characters inhabits both Long Piddleton, the series’ initial crime scene, and the building where Jury lives.

This large cast rotates in different permutations throughout the books, and locales vary significantly from case to case, so Grimes is able to create ample variety in Jury’s world. While there is a bit of formula involved, Grimes’ writing is so wonderful and her characters so interesting that I don’t mind similarities from book to book. Of course, we’ll see how I feel after reading a dozen of them.

Cozy in feel yet dark and often gruesome, veddy British yet penned by an American, this series has hooked me like few others. If you enjoy the genre, check one out and prepare to be dazzled. And be sure to bring a fairy cake for Aunt Agatha.