I’ve been reading 14, by Peter Clines, in audio and really really enjoying it. It’s got so many of the ingredients that make me pick up a book in the first place, and it’s now carrying out its initial promise of having the right ingredients.
It’s also been making me think about certain “ingredients” in a book that will almost always send me into anticipatory bookish bliss.
Of course, I need the book to be well-written and the author has to have the skill to make the characters come alive. That’s a given, for any book that I read. But there are certain things that really have the “wow factor” for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean a book with some or even all of these elements will be a great read, but these are all things that will make me pick up the book in the first place and read it:
- A team. I really really like it when there’s a good supporting team for the protagonist. I tend to stay away from most “lone wolf” books, because the dynamics of working within a team – with all the drama that can go with it, too – help make a story come alive for me. I think the only “lone wolf” books I’ve enjoyed are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and that’s mostly because Reacher is more or less invincible and there are times when I really need an invincible hero. And Reacher doesn’t always lone wolf it – my favourite Reacher book is Bad Luck and Trouble, and of course it’s because in this one, Reacher has a team of sorts.
- Cinderella/underdog. I am a sucker for the Cinderella or underdog story. This particular taste of mine extends to movies as well. There is nothing I like better than cheering on someone who’s not supposed to be able to do it, someone everyone else says doesn’t have quite the chops for doing what needs to be done.
- A mystery. By this I don’t mean the book has to be a mystery, although I do enjoy reading mysteries. But I like there to be an unknown that is slowly revealed to the reader (and the protagonist) as the story moves along. I’m not really a big fan of romances where the romance is the main plot, for example, but throw in a good mystery of some sort and suddenly the book becomes more palatable to me.
- Diverse characters. I don’t read nearly enough books which feature non-white characters in larger roles. For me, a novel that’s populated by a more diverse cast of characters feels more real. It better reflects the multicultural world in which I live. And by diverse, I mean more than just bit parts like the Korean storekeeper who gets robbed or the elderly black woman who lives down the hall. Unless, of course, the storekeeper or the elderly woman are a lot more involved in the plot then their stereotypes tend to be.
- Strange and unusual maps. I don’t know what it is about maps, but they seem very magical to me. I love books where maps play a central role (although I can’t think of any right now, but I know I’ve read them). When I’m reading a book blurb and there’s clearly a strange and unusual map involved, chances are good the book’s going on my to-read list.
- An ancient book. This is much like my fascination with maps. I really like it when an ancient book shows up in the plot. I just have this feeling, yes, this is going to be a good read, because there’s an ancient book involved. Even more so if it’s a grimoire. Of course, it’s not always (or even usually!) the case that the story will be good, but I forever live in the hope that an ancient book signals a great read.
- Numbers. Numbers are another thing that feel magical to me. Numbers in fiction can pop up in a number of guises, and I like them all. Codes, coding, patterns, math, chess, numbers with hidden meanings, equations – I love them all. Remember the TV show Numb3rs? One of my absolute favourite shows of all time.
I’m loving 14 and guess what? It’s got numbers 1, 3, 4 and 7 in it. Not to mention all the Scooby Doo references. (Which, now that I think about it, should probably be on my list too.)
On the flip side, there are certain things which have the power to turn me off a book instantly.
- Weak female main characters. Unfortunately, this usually can’t be determined anymore just by reading a book’s synopsis. You can have a female character who’s, oh, I don’t know, battled malaria in impoverished countries, or graduated with a Ph.D in biology from Harvard, but it’s only as you’re reading that you discover these are only trappings with which the author is dressing the character, and have absolutely no impact on how the character acts. When I encounter this while I’m reading, it makes it really easy for me to put down the book and never remember to get back to it. The Toronto Star recently published this article about a business school assignment which featured a ditzy female business student who needs her fiancé’s help to determine which compensation package she should accept. The scenario featured in the assignment is almost laughably absurd but sadly, stuff like this doesn’t just appear in the occasional business school assignment, it continues to show up in novels as well.
- Main character is framed. And must clear his or her name. While on the run. From both the cops and the bad guys. I don’t know what it is with me and this scenario, but I really don’t like it. I guess it was well-done in The Fugitive, but whenever I see this type of plot, I put the book down. (I won’t even watch it if it turns up in a favourite television series – I’ll just skip that episode.) I’m not saying I’d never read a book like this, but it would have to have a really original idea driving it first. I know there’ve been lots of great reads centering around this particular story line, but for some reason, I just don’t like it.
- Main character, who works on the side of professional law enforcement, always ends up personally targeted by the bad guy. I’m fine with an occasional helping of this – I mean, it does make for more thrills and excitement – but there are some mystery and suspense series out there where this happens almost all the time. So every single time the protagonist gets a case, blink and before you know what hit you, she’s opening her front door and there’s a dead skunk in a box with a “you are next” message waiting on her front doorstep (and I’m saying “she” and “her” because – have you noticed? – this kind of thing tends to happen more often to female main characters). The problem with this kind of situation, used constantly and injudiciously, is that it really pulls me out of the story. I start thinking, boy, if this happens all the time to real-life female professionals involved in law enforcement, they really need increased danger pay. The ones that manage to survive, that is.
So there you go. These are the kinds of things that will either make me grab a book, or drop it. What about you? Are there any particular story ingredients you really love, or really hate, to see in a book?