Monday, September 20, 2010

Has this ever happened to you?

The press is on fire about a new book. Your friends are falling all over themselves telling you that it’s a “must read.” So you dutifully pick up a copy and no matter how hard you try, you just don’t get it. You can barely get past the first ten pages, let alone finish the masterpiece. Then the second book in the series comes out, and the praise grows even louder. Year after year, the prolific author grinds out another story and somehow you can’t figure out what the buzz is all about.

I’ve got a pile of those mysteries on my nightstand. The ones that have captured the public’s affection – and left me scratching my head wondering how the author captured lightning in a bottle – and frustrated trying to figure out how I could do it too?

Now here’s the twist on that syndrome.

Sometimes, ten years after the initial tidal wave of public adoration has settled down, I’ll pick up a book by that same author whose prose left me snoring, and discover that actually I kind of like him, in fact, he’s pretty darn good. That’s what happened to me this weekend with Alexander McCall Smith.

I was wandering through the discount heaven, Home Goods, and found a copy of his tenth book, marked down to $2. Since it retails for $14 – I mean what could I do but buy it?

I liked it….I really liked it. And I immediately read the most recent book in the series and really liked it too. So now I’m starting the series from the beginning.

So what happened?

Did he become a better writer? Sure, to some extent, the more you write, the better your skills. But I don’t think that’s the answer.

Did I become a more sophisticated reader? I sure hope so, but that’s probably not the answer either.

OR, did watching the six-part series of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency make the characters leap off the page when I finally started reading the books? Did I need the visual landscape to enjoy the virtual one?

Most mystery writers I know play the casting game. They fantasize about the actors who would be perfect as their lead character. Rhonda and I agree that James Garner, circa The Rockford Files of 35 years ago, would be the ideal Mac Sullivan. We can’t agree on who would be best to play Rachel Brenner. Bravo to the casting agent who found Jill Scott to play Precious Ramotswe in the mini-series of Mr. McCall Smith’s books. Here’s an article by the director, the late Anthony Minghella, on the process of finding the right Precious, and the filming of the mini-series.

Years ago, my husband and I consulted an educational psychologist about one of our son’s reading habits – or lack thereof. He was about to enter high school and rarely, if ever, read for pleasure, and frankly, was barely reading the assigned school books. She recommended patience and permitting him to “preview” a book through a movie, if one were available. I thought it was “cheating” to watch the movie instead of the book, but her point was he should do both. It might make it easier for him to get into a book if he had some visual cues to the story. Long story short, pun intended, the psychologist was absolutely right. First, he matured which helped immensely. But through time, movies, and his own curiosity, he discovered the magic of books. I think that’s what happened to me and Mr. McCall Smith’s Botswana books. The beauty of the miniseries allowed me to understand and enjoy the beauty of the author’s words.

So I ask, Stiletto Faithful, have you ever discovered a literary gem, one you had previously discarded? What made the difference?

Marian aka the Northern half of Evelyn David

Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David
Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Drops the Ball by Evelyn David, Spring 2011


  1. Marian, I do that all the time! I put off reading lots of NYT bestsellers because I think, "Well, if everyone likes it then I'm sure I'll hate it." I did that with THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by Garth Stein. Kept seeing it everywhere, read fabulous reviews all over the place, and still I refused to pick it up. Until I was in NYC and met my publicist, who also handles, yes, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. She said, "You haven't read this? You should," and gave me a copy. I read it, dang it, and I loved it to pieces! Oh, boy. I had no interest in reading the Stieg Larsson books until I saw the first two movies. Now I want to read them like crazy just to compare, because the films were so good. I still haven't read Dan Brown, and I saw THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS AND DEMONS. Maybe I'll dive into those books, too, someday when I've exhausted all the other books I want to read. 'Til then, I'm holding out.

  2. I had sort of that experience with "The Last Emperor." I was assured by several friends that I would really get into this book. It was "just my type" of story. I could hardly stay awake. It got me wondering about my friends, too. :-) And then the movie came out and it won the Oscar and I thought, okay, maybe the movie will do it for me. Nope. It also put me to sleep. ::sigh::

  3. Thanks Susan and Zita. It's good to know I'm not alone in this phenomenon.

    And I know what you mean Zita. Sometimes, even after I've tried again to "like" a popular book -- sometimes it's just not meant to be!


  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I just can't get into it!

    I had the same experience with the #1 detective agency. Maybe I'll give it another go.

  5. I liked the "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. Well maybe "liked" is the wrong word. They were hard work to read, but I found them interesting in many different ways. They are books I'm always going to remember.

    Sometimes, at least for me, there are memorable books and then there are the ones I fall in love with. Often they're not the same.

    I read "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" and found it memorable but not lovable.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  6. For me, it tends to work the other way. I find a book/author I love and as series progress, I find they're not as compelling. There's a feel that the authors are phoning them in because they're making their money no matter what they crank out.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. I have often been disappointed by a book after hearing too much hype. Sometimes anything would disappoint after an over-the-top build-up.

    I so much prefer to discover a wonderful book on my own.

    And I'm with Terry. If somebody recommends a series writer, I try to read #1 or #2, because the books so often deteriorate later in the series as the writer churns out books because of contract obligations, not creative fire.

  8. Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you