Random ramblings: What makes a book a must read?

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I spend quite a bit of time on Twitter. That’s probably not a shock to those of you who are subjected to all of my tweets and subsequent postings of those tweets on Facebook, but I do.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter because it’s one of the quickest ways to find out about new books and get reading suggestions. Failing that, I trawl other peoples blogs looking for their top tips on books and seeing if I can find a hidden gem that I might otherwise have looked over while skipping to my favourite author instead. I’ve found a number of gems this way. I’ve also grown by TBR to a size where I’d need a year long career break if I ever expected to make a proper dent in it. Hey ho. Us bookish types are all the same and I’m sure my piles are still smaller than some.

One thing that does strike me as I peruse, is the sheer number of books billed as ‘this year’s top read’ or the ‘must read book of 2017’. Now I know a lot of this is marketing hype and much like the ‘film of the year’ accolades handed out to the first movie to be released in January, these claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. And yet they persist. This and the ‘for fans of’ marketing strategy. I hate that, I really do. What if I didn’t really didn’t like the book they are referring to?  Do I pass this book up too or do I take a punt and risk disappointment. Life is short, non work time is precious and with so many books to read why would I take this kind of risk?

How many times are we promised a killer hook, a twisted ending, amongst all of the marketing hype only to be left feeling a bit meh at the end of it all? I can name dozens of books which I have seen people rave about and I’ve been felt kind of indifferent about if, indeed, I even managed to finish them. I can perhaps see the merit of the plot, the strength of the writing but they just leave me cold. Now you’ll probably never know which books these are as I’ll never publish a review of them, but they’ve been some pretty popular, heavily hyped books believe me. And yet with one of those authors, I loved every single other book in the series apart from that one and I let that put me off reading another book for a while. That was a damned shame as when I finally read another of their books I absolutely loved it.

So they tell us don’t judge a book by the cover, but maybe it should be don’t judge a book by its hype. I try my hardest to keep an open mind but there is something, the devil in me perhaps, which makes me want to run for the hills when anyone tells me something is must read or must watch, and I know that I’m a hypocrite as I have often told people that myself on Twitter and in my reviews. But I like making my own mind up, like not being swayed by the masses. Don’t get me wrong. When something is really popular in the blogging community I will listen as I trust my fellow bloggers. I know that they have impeccable taste and I know who like the same things as me. If they say something is good, I will generally listen.

So what is it that gives a book that must read status? The real one, not the fake, marketing department derived one. For me it is all about character and plot. The twisted, often surprising and occasionally heart warming ending. About that je ne sais quoi, the thing you can’t quite quantify or explain but you know the minute you are reading it. The books that intrigue, astonish, engage, amuse. I don’t know how they do it or why they do it but they do.

So what is it that draws you in to a book? What gives it that killer hook for you? Do you think it is even possible to quantify a must read and is this a dated marketing ploy or a sure fire money spinner? Is word of mouth more important than a tagline or sound-bite?Do you find that all the ‘big reads’ these days are turning into polarising Marmite books – you’re either going to love them or hate them? I’m not sure we’ll ever truly define what a must read is, and I know I don’t have the answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Happy weekend reading all

JL

23 thoughts on “Random ramblings: What makes a book a must read?

  1. A really interesting post as I’ve been reading a couple of those hyped books – especially as bloggers we are of course, part of the hype. I featured one book where another blogger said they didn’t think it was that great but sadly their review a couple of months back didn’t give that impression… I am fed up with the ‘greatest twist’ comments too but many readers pick a handful rather than a pile of books to read each year so it is shorthand for publicity purposes.

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    1. I’m not sure that some of the tag lines don’t actually put people off. It is harder to judge for me when reading 3-4 books per week for sure as I’m never certain with books that feel okay if it is actually the book or reading fatigue

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      1. You said what I was trying to say so much better than my morning brain fug – I think it does make a huge difference between those of us who pick up so many of these and someone browsing for the only book they’ll buy for a couple of months…

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    2. Interesting comment about book bloggers being part of the hype…after all, publishers give us books to review for a reason and it isn’t charity. So do we in fact have an obligation to publish critical reviews where we believe a book does not justify the ‘marketing hype’? Otherwise aren’t we part of it?

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  2. I think character and plot are important but, for me, it’s the quality of the writing that makes the difference because the greatest characters need to be brought to life in words and the most inventive plot can be made dull by lacklustre writing. I want it to be like eating the most luxurious Belgian chocolate not just a KitKat (although don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a KitKat for everyday). A must read book is an author at the height of their powers. Not asking much am I? Alternatively, I think a must read book could be something really inventive, not necessarily challenging literature, just a book that looks at something in a new and different way.

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  3. Karen

    Interesting post Jen, I’ve read several of these ‘much hyped’ books and found them lacking. There are reviewers who I trust implicitly to give an honest opinion and who I know have the same taste as me so that’s a guide for me. I’m sure we all have different opinions on what constitutes a ‘must read’ but for me its a book that excites me and that makes me want to keep going back to it whenever I can. As are others, I’m totally fed up with the taglines that publishers keep using …”with a twist you won’t see coming”..etc but I suppose it probably pay off in terms of marketing. Perhaps as we read so much, we’re become immune to it?

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  4. Great post. I have to like the writing, the plot has to make sense and I like a twist if it fits in with the story. I don’t like it when I feel it doesn’t work. I hate the blurb on a book that says for fans of such and such a book. I reveiewed one this week that a blogger said she wouldn’t read because it was likened to Before I Go To Sleep. Some authors will publish more than one series, I might hate one but love the other. When a book is hyped up a lot I tend to get put off it before I even pick it up. One recently that I received at Harrogate left me cold but everybody else has been raving about how great it was. I won’t review it, or name publicaly. And I tend to trust bloggers rather than publicity hype.

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  5. What an interesting blog, Jen, many thanks. Like Steph, I tend to trust bloggers but it takes time to find those whose taste is similar to mine (I do note what Jen says about a book). Generally, I prefer a brief summary of the book to a lot of gushing. Good writing is important, as are interesting characters. I think some plotlines are overused – I’ll never, ever want to open another book about a missing child. And could you, fellow readers, please, tell me why women in thrillers are expected to be emotional wrecks?

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  6. This is such a great post! I’ve had this discussion about the marketing ploy of “for fans of Girl on the Train and Gone Girl” with a reviewer friend of mine and he seems to think the publishers will ride that train until another mega hit comes down the pike. For me personally, my instinct has been to avoid any book marketed that way because the few times I’ve tried some of those marketed books I’ve always been disappointed. I prefer word of mouth recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers. As far as what makes a book a must read for me, I usually always have to connect with at least one character, even if they’re bad. I usually get a very distinct ‘can’t describe it feeling’ in the beginning of a book when the author’s writing draws me in and I just know the book is a keeper.

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  7. Interesting post! I think my bugbear is the obsession with billing so many books as a psychological thriller, even when the book is more of a noir or a crime thriller. It just leaves me disappointed with a book that I may well have loved if it had been sold to me as what it actually was. I also get annoyed by books marketed as having a twist you’ll never see coming as it just spoils part of the surprise element of the book, and also disappoints when you saw the twist coming mile off.

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  8. My Poor TBR

    Interesting post for a discussion, because I couldn’t come up with a straight answer right away. So, I put some thought into this to see if I could define or quantify a must read and I realized that I have two standards – one for books I must read and one for books I implore others to read. Since my bar is set a lot lower and at times a ‘must read’ turns into a ‘should’ve passed on’, I decided to take a different approach.

    I looked at the books I enjoyed the most last year, and can recommend without hesitation, and wanted to see if I could come up with common threads among them.

    What I found was that all of the books shared at least 1 of the following:

    Characters I cared about: the complexity or simplicity of the plot didn’t matter, if I cared enough, I usually enjoyed the story. The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay, Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris, Run by Ann Patchett.

    Unique Story: if the story was unique or at the very least, unique to me, I was usually hooked. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. I didn’t see anything coming in these books.

    Different perspective: if the perspective of the story differed from all the other stories in the genre, you had me. Wool by Hugh Howey and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel come to mind.

    What sucks is that sometimes the blurb promises me one of these things and then doesn’t deliver. So I rely heavily on booktubers, bookbloggers and goodreads when it comes to adding to my TBR.

    NB If you tell me that there is a twist I will not see coming, I’ll be looking for it and that messes with my reading experience, so please stop 🙂

    Apologies for the long comment Jen, but you started it 😉

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    1. Hey, I love a good discussion. I think book love is such a subjective thing and books that are must read more and more often these days seem to drive a marmite reaction amongst readers – love and hate. It just interests me that particularly these very hyped books can have such a polarising effect amongst readers. Is it actually the book or the expectation set by the marketing. I know what you mean about the ‘twist’ angle though from blurbs. I’ve always tried to ignore tag lines and often find that after a cursory glance of the blurb once to see if I might like the book, I don’t read it again so I have no expectations until I start reading the book itself. Some blurbs run like poor film trailers – all the best bits are there and there is no room left for surprise. Either that or there is so little about the story I don’t know what I’m expecting to read.

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  9. My Poor TBR

    Jen, I haven’t done this much thinking and introspection on a Saturday in a long time (thank you); I’m beginning to think I love a good discussion too 🙂

    I believe there are 2 causes for the polarizing effects you speak of. One is the expectation of the marketing of the book. I get it, there are probably 100s of 1000s of new titles every day/week/month and you need to rise above the heap. Tricking or outright lying to us will only work for so long.

    The second cause isn’t the book, but the readers. We forget a very important point you bring up: book love is very subjective. We may like a lot of the same books, but we won’t like all of them. And yes, this means that I may not like your all-time-favorite. I understand that your mother read it to you as a child and you now read it to your kids – still not liking it.

    We also forget that it’s okay. It’s okay if I don’t like the book featured on your blog and it’s okay if you don’t love Of Mice and Men. What is not okay is hating marmite. What is wrong with you people?

    I usually do the same; if I am intrigued enough to request a book from the library or to buy it, I will refrain from reading the blurb again. I would appreciate a blurb closer to ‘boy meets girl…’ NOT ‘wait until you see the twists we put in here, you will be surprised, this will have you turning the pages until the very last one where there is another surprise!’ I may be prone to bouts of exaggeration 🙂

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      1. My Poor TBR

        No worries. I’ve never tried it – just trying to start a fight 🙂 If I make it to the UK later this year, I’ll give it a try and see where I stand. If I hate it, we can sit and have a cup of tea whilst we make fun of all those that swear it’s better than peanut butter.

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  12. For me, a ‘must read’ or a ‘must see’ has to do so much more than entertain. It has to change my thinking in some way. It has to make me a better, or at least a changed, person. ‘The Book Thief’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ did this for me. But that doesn’t mean they will do it for others. So I suppose it’s reasonably safe for one to tell a friend with similar views ‘You must see this.’ I’m not sure how we do that for an audience we don’t know personally. Great question.

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