Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Great Reads and God Books

Following up on Monday's post about God Authors, today I'm going to talk about my God Books, and what constitutes a great read for me. Before I launch into that, though, I want to make it really, really super clear that I have read a lot of fantastic books in my lifetime. I have favourites, and comfort reads, and books I've read repeatedly, and series that I absolutely need to have in their entirety. This post is not intended to discredit any of them, and in fact all my faves include at least some of my "great read" criteria.

Great Read Criteria
books must do at least one of the following to qualify

  • Create a world in my head. This goes beyond standard world building, which elicits "Oh, this is cool, this makes sense, I can see this happening, I like what they've done with this idea". A great read's world will come to life in my mind. I'll see it, feel it, smell it. The scenes will be acted out on my mental stage. I'll get these whizzing sparks of "How would they deal with [problem not mentioned in book]? Oh, well, obviously like this." And I'll continue to experience the world after I've put the book down.
  • Consume my life. This kind of follows from the above. I will not want to put the book down. When I do, the characters and story will replay themselves for me. If I've stopped on a tension point, which is likely because most books are a series of large and small tension points, then I'll be itching to find out what happens, and I'll be buzzing with possible outcomes. For most books I read, I do still want to know what happens next, but there's no buzz and I'm able to walk away from the book, work for eight hours, and come back none the worse for wear.
  • Make me pick sides. A great read is going to have characterization and story that has me gunning for (usually the) protagonists within about 20 pages, if not less. A lot of books, I read them and feel, "Yeah, Mary's got problems, I feel for her, and I want to know how she deals with what's coming down the pipe, but really, I'm not upset enough to get into battle mode with her." With a great read, the feeling's more like, "Mary, c'mon, c'mon, you can do it, everyone's out to get you, but you're so awesome you can beat them, and you'd better beat them because I want to see you come out of this all right, and maybe with some medals too."
  • Make me hate the antagonist(s). This is a fantastic way to get me to choose sides. When I want to see an antagonist die, not lose but actually die, I'm going to root for the protagonist in the hopes that they'll do the killing for me. Notable antagonists that have elicited this reaction? Becky Sharp, Dolores Umbridge, the man with the thistledown hair, Iago, Goneril. Yes, it can be argued that Becky Sharp is actually the protagonist, but since I was rooting for Amelia the whole time and Becky was the cause of most of Amelia's problems….
  • Thrill me. You know that "sense of wonder" all science fiction (and fantasy) is supposed to have? I don't feel it very often. Yes, the worlds and concepts and gadgets and magic system are cool. Yes, playing with the above in my head is fun and often enlightening. But it takes a really, really good book to give me a sense of "whee!" or "wow!". (This ties into the "create a world" criterium, because usually those exclamations come from seeing something in my head.)
  • Have an abrupt ending. Not a "ended before it should have" ending, but a "what, I'm at the end already?!" ending. I both love and hate those, because I could've stayed in the world forever and usually means I've lost track of time.
  • Teach me. When I put the book down a better person, or more aware, or more knowledgeable, then it's a great read. This is more a non-fiction criterium than a fiction one, but I've met 'educational' fiction too. When I put a book down and say, "That was a really important book. Everyone interested in [topic] needs to read that book. That book taught me so much.", then it's a great read.
  • Make me remember it years later. It's been nearly seven years since I read Vanity Fair. About ten since my last read-through of The Hobbit. Just over a year since Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I can tell you the plots of those books in detail. Can I tell you everything that happened in some of the books I read last year? Nope, and I've got a good memory for plots as a general rule.
  • Make me gush about it to others. I don't recommend good reads to people unless I'm absolutely certain they'll be interested (or I'm working). When I do recommend them, I use phrases like "You might like this" and "This sounds like it could be up your alley." Hesitant, hedging kind of words. For a great read, I'll push it on as many people as I can, and I'll use phrases like "you have to read this" or "what do you mean, you haven't read this?" I get genuinely excited talking about great reads.

For me, a God Book, like a God Author or God Composer, is a perfect whole. It does everything I've just listed. There's magic in the reading of it. It changes me. I probably have more God Books than what I'm about to list, but I'm too lazy to wrack my memory and have-read lists to find them all. So today, you're just getting these.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The Regency world! The altered history on account of the magic! The magic itself! The fairies! The quests to use magic to change the world! The way everything, even the magical and surreal bits, is absolutely, entirely real the whole time!
  • Vanity Fair. The Regency world! The history! The grit of daily life! The tenacity of the characters! The twists of the knife! The satire! 
  • King Lear. The madness and storm! The tragedy! The heath! The castles! Goneril and Regan! The dukes! The politics! The pathos! The way Lear's life becomes a train wreck you can't stop watching!

What are your criteria for great reads? And what are your God Books?


Hannah said...

This is a hard question. I think for me it comes down to three main things:
1. Worldbuilding. JS&Mr.N is one of my absolute favorites, too, because it's just so...amazing. Complete.
2. Plot twists. I love good narrative development. Twists, whether I'm half-expecting them or not, are the things I remember. Jasper Fforde is good for this.
3. Characters. In the end, it all comes down to characters. Bujold is great for this; so is Katherine Kurtz. So are many others, for that matter, but I have too many favorite books to list them all. But those are the features I come back to most.

And I guess it's more authors than books for me: interesting, in light of Monday's post. :-)

Diandra said...

Great reads, for me, are books that make me go *WOW* - they are special and fresh and tell something (even a story I may know already, after all there are not that many different kinds of story) in a way I have never heard it before. Usually it's the language that does it for me, more than anything else. These are, in addition, usually the books I will go to again and again, and find something new every time.

Ruth said...

The Vorkosigan saga is doing that to me right now. I'm on my third book this week.

Anassa said...

Thanks for weighing in, everyone!

Hannah - I love plot twists too! Not enough for them to qualify as great read criteria, but when something happens that I don't see coming… LOVE that!

I checked back at your Monday comment. Looks like you said about the same thing there, that you've got lots of God Authors.

Diandra - I absolutely agree! I love when books are fresh even if they're telling a familiar story. That's one thing I'm trying to do with my own writing, actually. And yes again to finding new things on every reread. All my favourite authors are like that for me. :)

Ruth - Oh yes, Bujold's wonderful! Glad you're enjoying her.