Advice to authors of series, and ships

I’ve just read "No Time to Die" by Hilary Bonner, which I’ve had a long time – probably since 2004 as that is when it was published. It didn’t start out too well, but got better as it progressed. Some crime/thriller books are very pacy at the start and hook you in (maybe to fade out later), others go for the slow-build approach. With the latter category you don’t really know if the pace is going to pick up or not until you’re about half way through, whereupon it seems churlish to stop reading the book if it still hasn’t got into its stride.

I had read a couple of books by HB previously, I think one of those 2-for-1 offers to fulfil a book-club commitment, and I suspect that the one I have just finished is a similar "complete an obligation" purchase, as it is from one of my "3 parallel book-clubs" phases (I am still coping OK with the cold turkey of not being in a book club and reading down the piles. Just so long as I don’t order any of the 120-plus items in my Amazon shopping basket I’ll be able to clear a bit of space. I nearly slipped last night, as I reviewed my list after reading all my rss feeds, still taking advantage of the party going on downstairs. I moved a few choice items up into the basket, but somehow managed to force myself to click on "save until later" at the last minute. )

Hilary Bonner’s book tapped right into my pet hate, which is the lack of a precis of previous books in the series at the start of a new installment. If one reads a novel in a series, it is likely to be at least a year since one read the previous book. In the interim, I will have read 50-70 books. How can I remember what happened in the last one when I start the next one? This was not a problem for me until the past 10 years or so, but although my memory is useless I am still compos mentis enough to read and assimilate a book.

My solution is for authors of series to write a one-page (or shorter) precis of each book. These would be published with each new book, clearly labelled as "aides memoire" for readers like me, and with "spoiler" alerts for readers who don’t want to see them. Most authors write their series so that a new reader can come into it at any point and pick up what is happening without needing to have read the previous books. Fine. But there are also committed readers like me, who read a book in a series and decide to continue to read it. But a year later, the book is either in the attic, in a charity shop or otherwise not well archived (have not got around to Superpatron’s suggestions yet and I certainly balk at the idea of implementing them retrospectively!)

So my solution is for authors to provide a short recap for readers like me. It is worth the investment of a few extra pages by the publisher, as regular readers are a captive audience by the book. What I do now (sometimes) is to read the blurb of the previous book, either on Amazon or on the author’s website, before I read the next one in the series. This is an unsatisfactory procedure becuase these blurbs are written precisely not to give too much away, so they rarely give you the "quick update" required. Of course, I think as I write this, authors can do this on their websites anyway, and refer to the url in each book – even cheaper for publishers. Otherwise what is the point of an author writing a series? The relationship between reader and series character is rather special. I love the slow development and interest in characters that one can develop over many books. But, darn it, I need refreshers! Give me a few cues of the salient points that happened last time, and I’m well away.

To get around to the book I’ve just finished. The plot involved suspicious deaths at a military camp, cover up by the authorities (of course), and attempts by an ex-journalist and a senior police officer to find out what is going on — relatively cliched but a few twists on the theme kept it interesting. Clearly in previous books there have been quite a few relevant events, mainly involving these characters’ relationships with other people and each other, but also plot-related events. The author alludes to more of these as the book continues, but only in a "heavy hint" way, rather than just coming out with it, very frustrating.

Judged on its own merits, the book is pretty readable on a "Sunday afternoon" level – goes down easily but doesn’t really stand up to retrospective scrutiny. There was one big plot flaw late-on, which occurred to me immediately, but which did not seem to have occurred to the author as it was not addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, an individual is sent to commit a murder although he lives some way away and is not directly involved with events, whereas a much more suitable murderer, who lives in the area and is already heavily implicated in events, is not selected or even alluded to. This is a pity, as the resultant plot development was an interesting angle despite the unlikely and contrived coincidence that led to the discovery of this person. Anyway, there were quite a few threads and themes to the book that made it readable enough, though more of a library read than one to shell out £5 for. I also did not like the ending, which tried to be a cliffhanger but actually was more like leaving the story in mid-air. I’m all the more irritated by this as, if I read HB’s next book, I’ll have forgotten the details of the ending by then, and so the whole thing will lose impact.

Incidentally, one other solution to the series/memory problem is to discover a series late and read all the books at once. It is lovely when you stumble across a really excellent series in this way. This is why, whenever I come across a new series, I try to get the first novel in it and read it from there (nowadays this is pretty easy thanks to Amazon marketplace). I’ve had great reading experiences this way, eg Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben are all authors whose books I’ve ploughed through one straight after the other (though formulas tend to become very obvious by this method — Crais and Connelly are not formulaic in this way, but Coben’s Myron Bolitar series is).

I tried this approach with Patrick O’Connor but he was not my cup of tea. Malcolm, however, loved "Master and Commander" and spent the next year reading all the rest of the series which is a long one! I think my love of sea stories began and ended with Hornblower. I loved those books when I was young but have not been tempted to read any other marine-themed series authors. Ships, like curate’s eggs, are in my view OK in parts in books — Peter Hoeg’s "Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow" was really, truly, brilliantly fantastic until the daft denoument (post-ship), and one of Martin Cruz Smith’s "Gorky Park" series took place on a ship, I remember no details (of course) apart from that Andrey the policeman (is that his name?) had been sent there to work in disgrace after the previous novel’s events, that it was a really bleak novel, and pretty good – maybe I should read it again but of course I’d have to start with the first in the series 😉 ….timing would be good as I believe MCS has just written another installment.