Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Tests

How do you spot a good book? Is it possible to know before you spend your hard-earned money and time whether a book will be as good as its cover promises? That’s one purpose of best-seller lists, of course. Reviews and book club selections are helpful, too, and let’s not leave out Oprah. But sometimes it’s fun to choose our books for ourselves. 
In matters of biography, the author or subject of the book will sell it. You either want to know more about a person, or you don’t. Although I’ve read a few boring biographies and put down others that were poorly written, fascinating life stories don’t often disappoint. With fiction, it’s trickier.
I start with the summary, to see if I like the story. Mysteries are my usual choice, and some plots just don’t get old; for example, I love relentless chasing and villains who will stop at nothing. I don’t like stories about women whose exes are still hanging around waiting to fall back in love.
Next I read the blurbs, the quoted accolades on the cover and in the front of the book. No publisher is going to print negative comments, but blurbs from the right sources can signal a hit. I hesitate if the blurb is about the author and not the particular book, though, wondering why no one raved about the item I’m holding in my hands.
A known author is usually a good bet, although I’ve given up on two very famous ones. The first has taken on co-authors, some of whom are terrible. I’ll say it again: Terrible. The second ex-favorite just got on my nerves; in attempting to acquaint readers with her quirky fictitious family, she went overboard. All right, already! So the daughter is bright, but stubborn. We get it; move on.
A good new author is a treasure, and new could mean new to writing books or just new to the reader. I love to discover an author, and when I do it generally follows that I can read everything she’s written and expect a similar level of competence.
Maybe you read the first paragraph or two to determine the author’s writing skill and style, as I do, or to see if the story hooks you in. If you’re of a certain age, you might also be reading to see if it rings a bell. I’ve bought books twice, thanks to senior moments. Recently I purchased a paperback of The Lost Symbol, forgetting that I’d read the hardcover version from the library.
My mother used to carry around a list of her favorite authors because she couldn’t remember their names. Now I do it.
If I like the quotes and the summary on the flap or back cover, and if a book passes the author and/or “initial paragraph” test, I’ll buy it. All of that screening pays off most of the time, but once in a while flags will pop up later. The worst ones are those memory triggers—Wait! He carried her into the hospital? I’ve read this!
Winking and grinning are big red flags for me. If the characters start winking and grinning when they speak, they’re not going to stop. Instead of looking for the next instance—a most annoying distraction--I look for my next book.

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