TRR Forum:
What's Good? What's Bad?
I Know It When I Read It

by Lesley Dunlap
Recently, TRR's Lesley Dunlap was part of a panel discussion on fiction at the Delaware Library Association. Following is the speech she gave.

Iíve attended enough librariansí conventions to know that thereís nothing librarians like more than handoutsóexcept for chocolate, of course. Iíve brought some printouts of three reviews. One is a five-star review of a mystery; another is a one-heart romance review. The third I threw in just for fun. Itís a review of a recent Linda Howard romance. When I read the book, I knew that I had to write an airhead review. To my dismay, getting in touch with my inner airhead turned out to be a lot easier than Iíd ever guessed, but it was a blast to write. My daughter who reviews as Terry Lawrence insists that she could have helped me with itóthat thereís far too much substance to be genuine airhead. Oh, well.

If you look these over and think, ďGee, I can do this!Ē please get in touch with me because weíre always looking for new reviewers and no one knows books like librarians!

Iíve also brought bookmarks for both websites. Please take them back to your libraries and spread them around. Use them yourselves.

Kay asked that I give my criteria for a good book. I am probably not going to say anything that most of you donít already know. My criteria donít differ much from what we all learned in school. A work of fiction needs a plot, characters, a setting, a tone; itís a plus if it has a theme.

At The Romance Reader and The Mystery Reader websites we rate books on a scale of one to five--hearts for romance, stars for mysteries. We describe a five-heart or five-star book as being a ďkeeperĒóthat is, a book we wonít be turning over to a Friends of the Library book sale or to a used book store. In my case that means it will be spending the rest of its natural life on a bookcase shelf or in an underbed storage box. Since youíre all librarians and by definition bookaholics, I expect you know what I mean!

In order to get a rating of five, a book has to have everythingóa gripping plot, strong credible characters, a setting that doesnít hang around like wallpaper but adds to the impact of the story.

The plot has to go somewhereóand I donít mean just plopping the characters in a Conestoga wagon and heading west. One of the duller romances Iíve read in the past year or so followed the characters in a 1930ís truck caravan from Missouri to California. A good plot needs more than figuring out where to stop next and dwelling on the absence of restrooms. The truck caravan covered miles; the plot pretty much went nowhere.

A plot has to be believable. Yes, I know Iím holding a book and the reality is black print on white paper, but if my mind doesnít believe the greater reality is Iím running for my life as the barbarians sack Rome or challenging a shady witness at trial or flying to the stars in a spaceship then it just isnít going to work. A good book has to toss my willing suspension of disbelief into mental space. If it crash lands, thatís a good indication of a book at the low end of the scale.

I want vivid charactersócharacters so boldly drawn I could recognize them on the street. This is a true story. One of my earliest contacts with what I now recognize as the romance genre was with The Bride of the MacHugh written by Jan Cox Speas. Years after I read it I was in the Talleyville branch Post Office, and wow! there was Alexander MacHugh in person. Okay, he was wearing a polo shirt and khakis instead of a kilt, but so what? After all the swashbuckling adventures weíd shared, a wardrobe malfunction wasnít going to keep me from recognizing him. Unfortunately, Iíve read Ö and reviewed Ö too many books where after I finished the last page I couldnít recall the charactersí names much less recognize them at the Post Office.

When I started thinking about what Iíd say today, I asked my fellow reviewers to weigh in on the topic. One reviewer, Judy McKee, agreed that we need strong, believable characters. She added that what makes a good book stand out is a synthesis of plot and character that bring the story alive. Many examples come to mind. Could there be anyone else for Elizabeth Bennet except Mr. Darcy? Could a Sherlock Holmes mystery feature Pippi Longstocking as the detective? What would Star Wars be without Darth Vader?

Setting is something we often donít consciously think about when deciding whether a book is good or bad, but setting can be critical in a book. If the heroine is attending a London ball, is the ballroom just a vague entity or do the silk-paneled walls glisten in the candlelight? How loud is the crowd noise at the fictional Kentucky Derby race? How strong are the mint juleps? When the hero fords a river on his trusty steed during a cattle drive, is there a strong image of the surrounding landscape? Can I hear the rush of water? The bellowing of the cattle? A good book wraps the setting around the action and enhances it. I believe Iím there because I can see it, hear it, even smell it. Setting is more than mere description; itís sensory.

Sometimes the setting can go a long way towards ruining an otherwise innocuous plot. One of my least favorite things about some books are factual and historical errors. Every time a bowl of potatoes appears on a medieval banquet table, I cringe. Or the aristocratic titles are wrong, or the clothing is from another era, or the flora and fauna are not native to the region. My all-time ďfavoriteĒ gaffeóand Iím putting that in quotesóis the scene where the hero and heroine are watching the sun rise over the Pacific from a bed in Oregon. Yes, Iím sure the earth moved the night before, but a full 180 degrees?

Occasionally Iíll pick up a book that wonky geographical positioning is the least of its problemsóit has bad grammar, bad diction, punctuation that defies all the rules. Characters inexplicably change names. A journey of a thousand miles is accomplished in a couple of hours. Donít these authors have access to books and libraries? Donít these books have editors? Unless character dialogue calls for substandard English, I want to read literate prose. I want to see evidence that universal public education means something. I want to believe that Iím not the last person on earth who knows the difference between lie and lay.

One of my fellow reviewers, Jean Mason, refers to the pick-up/put-down test. I could pick it up, read a few pages, and put it down again without any regret. My life wonít be a misery if I never finish that book. I trudge on through boring page after boring page, but Iíd never finish it if I werenít going to be writing a review. Thatís a pretty good indication Iíve got a one- or two-star book.

But when itís good then I donít want to put it down. Sandra Brown wrote a romantic suspense novel titled The Alibi. I wrote a mostly negative review but gave it four hearts. Why? Because I put it down to go to bed at 10:00 but was back up at 2:00 a.m. to finish it. I have to recommend a book that wonít let me sleep until I finish it.

Of course, the very best books are the ones I like so much I donít want them to end, and some day Iíll be picking one up and reading it again. Thatís a keeper.

So thatís what makes a good book: everything. All those elements of fiction working together to create an experience that leaves me glad I spent those hours with those characters and hoping to have the same rewarding experience the next time.

But that's my opinion. What's yours?

Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.

May 29, 2005

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