This week, we got together to chat about a fundamental aspect of reading – what makes a good book? Why is it we totally go gaga over one novel, then loathe another?
It was a question that certainly made us ponder hard. Here are the results of our chat!
Lucy: So, we’re talking about what makes a good book. Which seems like quite a difficult question to answer, wouldn’t you say?
Karen: I’m not sure. I’ve got some quite firm ideas about what I love about books, and there are definite characteristics that I look for when I’m seeking out the next novel to read.
Nick: Yeah, I know what you mean. I usually have a strong idea of what I like to read, and I’m not sure how often I step outside that box. Also, I’m a terrible one for judging a book by its cover.
Karen: Totally! It’s the shop window really, isn’t it? The lure that pulls you in, and if it’s not appealing, it won’t inspire me to read it. In fact, that’s why I don’t enjoy reading on a Kindle as much as I do flicking through a hard copy – it doesn’t have that lovely, satisfying cover to hold onto!
Lucy: That’s interesting that you say that. I love it when a cover is artistic and beautiful, and it would make me more likely to take interest. However, I would still read a book if it had a stinking cover, if the description sounded promising. I can think of quite a few awful book covers, concealing wonderful literature inside!
Nick: Ha, you can’t make us sound all shallow like that! Judging a book by its cover is a very normal thing, and I think, by and large, a good cover shows that similar love and attention has been devoted to the contents inside. I loved the front cover to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology so much, I ended up buying several different versions of it.
Lucy: You’re a real purist when it comes to stuff like that. Your collection of signed copies fills me with awe!
Karen: Of course, I would still read a book if the cover was bad, if someone had recommended it to me. But it’d probably have to be recommended.
Nick: What about genres, then? Because let’s be honest; I bet we’ve all got a favourite genre, and we’re far more likely to think a book is ‘good’ if it fits into it.
Karen: I don’t know; I’m one of those people who will try anything. Though I don’t love sci-fi or fantasy so much.
Nick: So, you could equally love a romance book, and a gritty crime novel? One wouldn’t appeal to you more than the other?
Karen: No. I prize a good plot-line and good writing above genre, personally.
Lucy: I’m with you, Karen. Among my favourite books are dystopian literary fiction, sci-fi, teen horror and comedy – as long as it engages me and makes me think about it long after, that’s the main thing!
Nick: Ah, I’m a bit of a creature of habit when it comes to genres. I love fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism and post-modernism. We’re polar opposites in our reading tastes, Karen.
Karen: Which is why it’s great that we’re both reviewers on here – we’re covering all bases!
Nick: Having said that, I am happy to try new stuff. I never say never. Not sure you could convince me to dive into a romantic chick-lit story though.
Lucy: I think we should give you one, to test it out. You might end up loving it.
Nick: Ha, I might. You never know!
Lucy: So, what makes a perfect book, in your opinion?
Karen: The million-dollar question! I love developing characters – where they start in one place and finish somewhere unexpected. That’s so exciting to read. I think ‘human’ characters are wonderful too – characters that you can relate to, that have their own quirks and habits. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is a great example; he’s so eccentric and his brain works in such a unique way, that it’s a pleasure to read.
Lucy: Characters are definitely a big part of it. Karen, we were talking about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine recently – that’s a fabulous example of a relatable, layered, unique character, don’t you think?
Karen: That book was fantastic. I also loved the way it turned what could have been a tragic story right on its head.
Nick: Everyone keeps going on about that book, I’ll have to read it. I like strong, engaging characters, male or female. I can’t do wishy-washy – I prefer characters that drive the action along, that are big, bold and endlessly fascinating.
Lucy: Neil Gaiman’s a master at writing characters like that.
Nick: Isn’t he just? I like a good baddie too. Not your stereotyped boring baddie, someone who is a rounded character with their own back-story. But also someone who is a real, believable threat.
Karen: I don’t think there’s ever anything wrong with a bit of darkness in a book; it provides a nice balance. Like Jane Eyre, one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a romantic story, but actually, there’s a lot of darkness in it.
Nick: I love Jane Eyre, and you’re so right about the dark factor. Reading something that is a bit uncomfortable or unsettling, I think that can be fun too. I bet you think so, don’t you Lucy, knowing what your taste in books is like?
Lucy: Definitely! I don’t like to read stuff that’s distasteful or unpleasant for the sake of creating ‘shock value’ but I love books that dare to explore eerie or unsettling subject matter. It’s always obvious when an author has taken a step out of their comfort zone and I respect them for that.
Karen: It goes without saying that a strong plot is usually a good thing.
Nick: Yep. I love books that drag me along with them, kicking and screaming. For me, a good pace is everything. I can’t get along with stodgy, slow writing.
Lucy: Though sometimes it’s good to have a slower pace, so you can reflect on the book a bit more?
Nick: Nah, I like a rip-roaring read!
Lucy: So, favourite books of all time. What are yours, Karen?
Karen: Well, Jane Eyre is right up there, as is Murder on the Orient Express. Anything by Sarah Waters too; particularly Fingersmith. Ooh, and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I don’t know, there are so many to choose from! I could list about fifty straight off, I think.
Nick: Favourite authors is a bit easier, I think. I adore Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Kurt Vonnegut, Brett Easton Ellis and C Robert Cargill. You introduced me to that last one, Lucy.
Lucy: And you introduced me to Murakami – so I suppose that makes us even! I love Margaret Atwood, especially The Blind Assassin and Oryx & Crake. I also love Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell. Ooh, and I have a huge obsession with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is definitely one of the best books ever written.
Karen: Ah, I could talk about books all day!
Nick: I think we all could. Do you think we’ve got an addiction? Is there a cure for book addiction?
Lucy: We’re all incurable, Nick… there’s no saving us!