Monday, February 25, 2008

Favourites and Not

Vicki here, back on Monday.

I had fun last week making those five Canadian book recommendations for Charles. It’s always quite challenging to try and pick favourites from all the hundreds of books I’ve read over my many years.

Speaking of favourites, I have breakfast every Wednesday morning with a group of friends in a café attached to a second hand bookstore. Last Wednesday on my way to the washroom at the back, my eye happened to light upon a stack of Flashmans. I scooped them up and have been happily reading my way through all week.

Speaking of non-favourites, I received a copy of James Patterson’s latest, Double Cross, for Christmas. It was the first Patterson I read and it will almost certainly be the last. Why this guy is a mega best seller, I can not imagine. The books are extremely short – nothing wrong with a book being short if that’s what’s needed to tell the story, but they’re packaged in hardcover as if they’re mighty tomes. The font is huge, the spacing vast, and every chapter is about two pages long which means that there is an enormous amount of white space. In a 389 page book there are 126 chapters plus prologue and epilogue.

A psychologist friend of mine described The Da Vinci Code as a book for adults with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) which is why the chapters are so short. I’d say the same goes for Patterson.

The plot was the same old dreary serial killer stuff. Except that in this book there are TWO serial killers. The serial killers have their own POV so we, the reader, get to enjoy all the spectacular, grisly murder they commit. And did you know that we need to kill these sort of people, because they are so clever and intelligent that they escape from maximum security prison and take revenge on everyone who put them away? Never seen that plot in a book before.

Both killers, of course, are extremely brilliant people (oh, and both serial killers have equally brilliant, well-educated helpers). Which is another thing that bothers me: I am not very good at suspending disbelief. I require that my reading resemble reality. Criminals are not all that smart – that’s why most of them get caught so easily. And serial killers really are quite rare. Thank goodness.

You might laugh and ask what’s so realistic about Flashman? Of course the plots are outlandish, but people in the Flashman books act like people do. Coincidences happen, but they’re not unbelievable either. The plots are intricate and carefully worked out. And the history is pretty much perfect.

Back to Double Cross – I know this is the latest in a long series, so the book wasn’t written for a newcomer like me, but I found the main characters' backgrounds as blank as a never used whiteboard. And as for the plot – you could drive a giant truck through the holes.

I read in the Globe and Mail recently that James Patterson doesn’t even write most of his own books. He comes up with the idea, does an outline, and someone else writes the first draft. Patterson then makes changes. At least he’s completely honest about it – and the co-writer gets equal billing. The Alex Cross series appears to have been written by Patterson alone, but Double Cross still had that formula feel to it. One spectacular, grisley, murder every x number of pages, a car chase scene around the middle, the sex scene shortly after the car chase. About every 20 pages the diabolical serial killer (one of them) thinks about how smart they are and Alex Cross isn’t smart enough to catch them. Blah, blah, blah

Perhaps I shouldn’t spend my precious blogging time grumbling about another writers’ work, but it did make me think about what makes a good book vs. what makes a blockbuster book.


Charles benoit said...

I write short chapters as well (well, maybe not James P. short). They have the potato chip effect on readers - they are small enough to look harmless and therefore they'll have 'just one more'. Next thing you know, the book's done and their hands are all greasy and they feel slightly guilty. Or something like that.

Donis Casey said...

I like short chapters when I'm the reader. I like the option of going on or stopping, depending on my mood. However, when I'm the writer, I tend to write rather long chapters. Don't mean to, just works out that way. My last book has no chapters at all, just lots of breaks and turns in the action. I like Charles' thinking. Must plan chapter breaks. I also tend to like shorter mysteries. Mysteries begin to feel contrived if they go on too long, I feel. I love 800 page historicals, though.