My goal for this year was to read 80 books. I didn’t have a list of which ones; I learned my lesson a couple of years ago: I don’t stick to lists. I’m too ADD. I hear of a book that sounds interesting and I immediately get it out of the library, just so I have it at hand. I currently have approximately 75 books out of the two libraries I go to. (My husband works at one of them, so I can get out as many as I want on his card.)
I’m actually three ahead of where I need to be to finish 80 books by the end of the year. I’ve read 65 and those are just the ones that I actually finished. There are at least a dozen more that I got halfway through before I decided that they weren’t worth my time to finish them. They weren’t necessarily bad books; I just didn’t care for them or couldn’t get into them for some reason. And of course there’s always another book or more that’s tantalizing me from my bookshelf.
Recently I’ve been on a Scandinavian kick. Ever since I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Scandinavian novel. There’s something about their atmosphere that draws me to them. And then of course there was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who… series which I finally read this year. From there I jumped to Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo and just the other day I got two books by an Icelandic author named Arnaldur Indridason that are supposed to be good. (Jar City and Silence of the Grave.)
I also continued my love affair with Philip Kerr‘s novels, particularly the Bernard Gunther detective series (which are set in Germany) and started a new one with Val McDermid. Kerr and McDermid both happen to be Scottish. Another Scottish writer I like is Ian Rankin. All of the above are mystery writers.
I have a theory about the mystery genre. Some people consider any genre writing to be commercial or even junk. While that may be true of some of it (James Patterson’s later novels come to mind), it is a gross misrepresentation of the better examples. I get a lot of flack for being a devourer of mysteries. Reading mysteries is considered to be like eating popcorn or penny candy, while literary fiction is likened to a gourmet meal.
I don’t buy that. I see literary novels as an acquired taste, like eating caviar. You’re not sure what you’ve gotten into and you may never be sure if it was worth the bother (and the cost, in time). But with genre fiction, you know what to expect. The worst examples are the ones that are so formulaic all you have to do is insert new names and settings and you’ve got a new book. But the best … oh, the best are the ones that surprise you. You start out thinking that you’re going to read a mystery and you end up feeling like you’ve been given so much more.
Val McDermid does it with the character Tony Hill, a neurotic psychologist who aids the police in their investigations. Ian Rankin does it with the gritty pictures he draws of life in Edinburgh. Philip Kerr does it with his “inside look” at Germany before, during and after the Second World War. And the Scandinavian authors do it with a sense of place that lends itself to a particular life philosophy.
Mysteries provide us with a view of human nature at its worst and its best. The criminals might be bad, but sometimes the heroes aren’t much better. And, like puzzles, they stimulate our intellect. Mystery readers are not typically passive readers. They become involved. Mysteries bring out the participant in us. In that sense, they are like movies of the mind. It’s no accident that mystery novels are made into movies more than any other kind of literary genre.
Every novel should have suspense in it, because that’s the way we live life. We never know what’s going to happen next. That’s why I like writing with surprises. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, or even fiction. Some of the nonfiction books I read this year earn high marks for bringing new insights and information into my life. I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Midnight Disease, for instance.