No, I don’t mean the stacks of books forlornly piled on tables at charity books sales. Nor do I mean the (usually) small neighbourhood Book Exchange housed in somebody’s dusty garage, shelves filled with tattered, much read copies of obscure Science Fiction novellas, manky-paged bodice rippers. Or – heaven forbid! – books tossed into airport trashcans, or left absent-mindedly on the seats of public transport. No. I am referring to books which I have set out to read, and then abandoned as futile endeavours.
Often I start out with high hopes, having read a bright review that tells me this particular book is not to be missed; it is essential reading. Take, for instance, Small Island by Andrea Levy. It deals with the lives of Caribbean emigrants to Britain during and just after World War II. Apart from coping with the difficult speech patterns of the immigrants (I dislike books that rely heavily on patois or dialect), I was appalled at the hostile reception the Brits gave these immigrants. Britain appears to have been xenophobic in the early 50’s. Understandable, perhaps, given the recent world war. In similar vein there was Monica Ali’s much acclaimed novel Brick Lane, again dealing with immigrant life in Britain – this time Indian immigrants – and despite two attempts at different times, I just couldn’t get into the book. Page after page of harrowing misery just doesn’t do it for me.
Lest it be suspected that I’m on an anti-Brit rant, this is not so. I’ve had equal trouble with American writers. Take the acclaimed Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen. I laboured on until page 180, and that was a grinding, long-winded process, looking at his self-centred characters; I flipped to the end, at page 582, and decided I did not have sufficient interest in the characters to slog through to the end of the story.
Another big disappointment was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and elevated to glory by Oprah’s Book Club. Our Book Club bought the novel on the strength of the wide popularity the book gained, but only one of our members enjoyed the book, and that was because she was a big dog fan. The rest of us had varying reactions, none of them favourable. I abandoned the book very early – only a couple of pages in. The pace was deadly slow, and the story uninteresting. So I closed it with a firm snap! and started another, more interesting book. Mind you, I should have know that ES was not for me because the books recommended by the Oprah Book Club in the past never appealed to me. My taste and Oprah’s never coincided. And that’s okay. We all have our individual preferences, whatever they may be.
This brings me to another point. I recently started a novel by Valerie Martin The Confessions of Edward Day, filled with happy expectation based on the strength of her previous novel Italian Fever, an unusual and complex novel. But Edward Day focussed on a rather precious actor, and nothing much was happening, plot-wise, so I put the book down. Perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood, having just finished Margaret Atwood’s brilliant new novel After the Flood. I have to admit it is possible that any novel whatsoever would have been an anti-climax after the Atwood novel. Over the years I have learnt that timing, and the reader’s mood, are vital factors when it comes to the reading and enjoyment of books. In the case of Edward Day, I suspect my timing was off. Although it has to be said that not every author delivers a cracking good novel every time, let’s face it. I think that 3-book contracts and the like have a lot to do with the sometimes indifferent offerings of well established authors. And then there’s the famous bugbear of the dreaded Second Novel, after the Debut Novel has hit the charts. I think if I’m ever in this fortunate position to be launching my second novel (I’m still struggling with the first one!) I’ll take the chicken run and launch it under a pseudonym ….