I have to read that!








In a discussion recently, someone asked, “What story element gets you to open the book every time you see it?”

My first response was, “Only one?”

It’s almost easier to say what won’t get me to open any book (basically the three H’s, horror, humiliation, and hectoring), but it’s kind of fun to think up various tropes that have lured me in.

Humor is first. From my earliest age I have had the least amount of resistance to the prospect of laughter. I love putting down a book in a good mood. My shelves are full of books by writers who’ve made me laugh over the years–P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick Dennis, Donald Westlake, Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, Georgette Heyer, Patricia Wrede, to pick at random names from a variety of times and genres.

Agency would probably come next. Under that heading is an even bigger variety than humorists: swashbuckling, disguises, spies, unlikely alliances, secret histories, magical powers.

Intrigue. Agency is the ability for the protags to do something about whatever conflict they find themselves in, and if they do it with humor and style, then I am absolutely hooked, but another addiction is situations in which what the characters know, what the author knows, and what the reader knows are all different, and revelations are cleverly worked out so that I can’t predict who will know what when, why, and how.

So what am I reading now? Sword and Chant by Blair MacGregor, which straddles the boundary between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery in interesting ways. Told in a vivid, sometimes whisperingly passionate, sometimes coldly ironic omni voice, it has culture clash, irruption of the strange into a world full ofbloody  conflict, and interesting and complicated women as well as interesting and complicated men. It’s rare, after reading fantasy for more than fifty years, that I can’t predict where a story is going, but this is one.

What’s your favorite story hook, and what are you reading now?




I have to read that! — 31 Comments

  1. There’s just one name on that list of funny writers that I didn’t immediately recognize — Patrick Dennis. That’s as in Auntie Mame? I did read, and love, that book, but strangely didn’t seek out his other books. I shall rectify that!

    …what the characters know, what the author knows, and what the reader knows are all different… This can make me tear my hair out, but in a good way. I love an unreliable narrator, which is also one way to do humor. When Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody blithely explains what’s going on around her, oh my!

  2. Your list is identical to mine, except I am put off by vulgar language as well.
    JanetL, I am another fan of Amelia!

  3. Oh and as to what I just read? Anyone want to hear about that cool bio of John Quincy Adams? Anyone?
    Ok. I thought not.

  4. Got it at the library. Author is Harlow Giles Under and the cover is a portrait of JQA as a very handsome young man–in contrast to the usual dour image of him in older age.
    Crummy president but great man.

    • His grandson, Henry Adams, concurs JQA was a presidential failure*. One gets the impression that HA didn’t care for him much as a human being either. But then, that comes out of his Education which is more than misleading about very many matters. Not all, but many. For instance the reader will never learn that HA was married, much less that his wife committed suicide.

      Love, C.

      * Though as a Representative in the House post his term as POTUS, he seems to have come into his own, as an abolitionist who was more than a gadfly for Andrew Jackson and those southern slavery ilks, not that HA speaks to that either in the Education. Andrew Jackson came to referring to JQA as “that archfiend of hell,” which always provokes my delighted laughter.

        • He also wrote a novel about ministers and congregations, seekers and artists, that isn’t outdated either. Though as novels, neither of them are very good, particularly by our contemporary literary conventions.

          Henry Adams’s brilliance is as an historian — not that medieval balderdash of Monte-St-Michele and Chartres. His work with his father in England during the Civil War found its greatest expression in his invaluable histories of Jefferson and Madison’s administrations.

          He was Gore Vidal’s model for much in his Chronicles of Empire. But as Vidal was a novelist and not a historian, he blindly went along with certain prejudices and personal family vendettas of HA without checking out the foundations, which made him do some ugly, lying things about figures like Grant in his novel — doing the same thing that HA did with Grant in his — which spoiled those novels of Vidal’s considerably.

          Love, C.

  5. Huh — I can’t think of any one thing that will draw me in, guaranteed. But most of the things that turn me off aren’t immediately obvious from the start.

  6. Oooh, I loved Sword and Chant. Great story and wonderful characters.

    I don’t know if there’s one particular story hook that draws me in. I do love exquisite world-building and well-developed characters. Sweeping epic landscapes and intricate magic systems.

    I also love books that are “different”. So many books sound alike now. But, I found several over the past year that were different to anything else I’d read and I was a very happy reader.

    Right now, I’m reading Martha Wells’ The Siren Depths. It’s the third in a series and definitely contains some of the hooks I love.

  7. I think mine come down to three words: Wit, World, and Wonder.

    Wit isn’t necessarily humorous, but some sort of self-awareness, either of the writer/narrator or the character, has to come through. The characters need to have some sense of the absurd, or some sense of awareness of themselves, often an awareness that they are severely lacking in some areas, and opinions on what to do about it. But I can’t stand stupid characters who are deliberately and maliciously unaware of their effects on everyone else.

    World is important to me; the world needs to be a rich place to live, and I’ll put up with a heck of a lot of bad prose and present tense verbage if the world and the characters within have a passion that goes beyond the normal.

    Wonder is a two pronged attribute. The first, the wonder what’s going to happen next, is actually the lesser of the two meanings. I do need to wonder what’s going on, who is manipulating whom, etc., but that’s plot-based wonder. The real wonder is that awe, that amazement that a writer created this amazing story, with amazing characters, and amazing world, and all the other amazing things that go on in that story. Dazzle me at some level, and I’ll read, even if everything else is train-wreck material.

    • I agree with almost everything you say here. Though perhaps I have more of my sixth-grade sense of humor that I have never grown out of, which is why I sub-category wit under humor. I like to laugh, but if wit or humor is too cruel–depends on humiliation–then I lose interest, no matter how clever it is.

      Also, my dazzle and train-wreck ration is not always trustworthy. Really fine writing is not enough to keep me inside a claustrophobic, pessimistic story whose paradigm reduces aspects of the world that the narrative voice doesn’t like to easily dismissible distortions. I’ve seen it too often. I guess there’s no wonder, then. Right.

  8. I will have to look for SWORD AND CHANT. I recently fell into the just-published CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE, by Lois Bujold, the way one would fall into a manhole. Am now looking forward to deriving great benefit from Jo Walton’s TOOTH AND CLAW.

  9. Hm. Just learned something about myself a couple of days ago, after going through a “best books of 2012” list compiled by The Guardian: if I can’t jump feet first into a scene or world or situation after the first couple of pages of a book, I won’t read any further. Thus, I rejected most of the books on the list but was entranced immediately by Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast, which sort of cracked me over the head with the 17th century British culinary thing. Now I have to read it.

    Same thing happened recently with The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (although I’m having trouble with some typos – including the dreaded “breath” for “breathe” – which persist in my paperback version), which has a great weird mashed-up “Spain-North Africa-South-American-jungle” setting. Not as good as Megan Whalen Turner’s superb re-imagining of the Byzantine Empire in the Queen’s Thief books, but still satisfying. And the heroine in Carson’s books is chubby!

    Of course, sometimes my hook[s] will fake me out and I’ll read too far into a book which ultimately does nothing for me (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and The Name of the Wind spring immediately to mind), but that doesn’t happen too often.

  10. I’m not sure I could generalize about what hooks me into a story, but I’ve started reading China Miéville’s Railsea, and the very strange world–all covered over with tracks, and strange salvage ciphering up the landscape–definitely is appealing, as is the unusual narrative voice.

    I can tell you one thing that puts me off–and will put me off this, if it rears its head in too obvious a way: too clearcut a moral issue (slavery is bad, the upper classes abuse the poor, women are not second-class citizens). I agree with all the parenthetical statements I’ve put in there, and I’m willing to read a story that addresses slavery or class or sexism, but not just if it’s just OMG this bad thing is bad!!!

  11. I’m reading Grave Mercy. Assassin nuns was enough to get me to check it out. The opening page sucked me in like a Kirby.

    Openings that grab me by the throat–whether because they are funny or scary or intense or any other thing–are guaranteed to get me to buy the book.

    Also voice. I love a distinctive voice.

  12. Characters draw me in to a story, but it takes plot to keep me there. Just finished reading Banner of the Damned and am wondering if others think it as brilliant as I think it is: incredible socio-political view of our world through a fantasy world with recognizable bits (to this history major) and pieces while being a great story with incredible tension as the climax builds invisibly but inexorably. And the ending still surprised me a bit.

    Personally, I think this book may last like one of Dickens’ classics, but that assumes it gets the readership now that it deserves.

    (Can’t stop thinking about it. Want to know what happens to the (mumble mumble), too.)

  13. Pingback: Nice Words About Sword and Chant « Blair MacGregor

  14. Off topic: I saw on John Scalzi’s blog that on 4 december, self-published and e-book authors can promote their books for sale in the comments on his blog. If I understand today’s post correctly 3 december is for authors promoting/linking to store-buyable books published by traditional publishers etc., and on 6 december fans are allowed to place links to places where people can buy stuff they’re enthousiastic about.
    See http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/11/28/the-whatever-holiday-shopping-guide-returns-next-monday/

    You could place a link to your books in the Book View Cafe bookstore yourselves, on 4 december. His blog gets a lot of traffic (50.000 hits some days), so linking to BVC on it might be a good way to get some new customers here.

    And maybe one of the commenters here could place a link on the 6th, if someone here wants to write a short but inviting promotional post.

  15. Books with an architect or civil/structural engineer as a main character (or as any character, really, such characters seem to be a rarity) are a big draw, since I have a structural engineering background. Bujold’s Falling Free, which was my introduction to her writing, is probably the best example of a book catching my attention in that way.

    Books set in a city I love, such as San Francisco, Seattle, or Venice are another reliable hook. One of my favorite mystery series is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti books. I discovered an early volume shortly after returning from our honeymoon in Italy, which included a few days in Venice. 20+ books later…

    A futuristic city of any sort on a cover will often get me to peruse at least the first chapter.

  16. Pingback: Among Others: A Book Lover's Stroll in the Dark Woods at the Edge of Town