By Janice McCaffrey and Karen Wills
Montana Women Writers March meeting had an open discussion in an attempt to answer the question, what makes a book good . . . or not? Karen Wills started us off with her thoughts on components of a good story. She believes mystery, suspense, love & sex, doubt, and resolution should be included. Participants explained why they either liked or didn’t like certain books, both fiction and non-fiction. Following is the list of books and authors mentioned, with member comments: The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Stand, by Stephen King were favored for those who relish the dark side of mystery and murder. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller appealed to romantics because the reader could feel like she was there, and it had love and sex. Patti Smith’s The M Train caught the reader’s imagination with the explanation, “the mind train goes to any station it wants.” Bob Newhart’s I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! represented humor. As far as sci fi, Mirabile a collection of short stories by Janet Kagan has a connection among characters with clear voices, even when written in third person.
Refuge by Dot Jackson was a favorite because the author wrote human characters with flaws, poetic well-chosen detailed observations of nature, and the events and characters rang true. It also has all five of Karen’s good story components. Shadows of Home by Deborah Epperson and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing gained praise because they demonstrate excellent descriptions of location and characters’ dialects.
For readers who like stories with motivations and causes happening below the surface, The Dinner by Herman Koch would meet their criteria. It also has simple language, development and depth of characters, and backstories that explain why characters act as they do. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk has characters with dimension that made the reader curious about them and we liked that it had “weird” story and/or character arcs.
One participant said that the first time she read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, she couldn’t visualize the story, as it was written in epistolary form. But after seeing the movie and rereading the letters, she understood and appreciated the story.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is especially loved by several readers. Favorable comments included the author’s choice of poetic language, and readers were impressed with the main character’s reaction to his circumstances, especially the way he handled his constricted situation. The Count’s life motto “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” was meaningful to readers. Everyone who had read the book agreed that it incorporated all five of Karen’s good story components and that the imagery used by the author was excellent. The best comment sums it up, “Amor Towles writing of A Gentleman in Moscow was literary deliciousness.”
Participants also spoke of authors who they think write particularly well. These include Ursula K. Le Guin in the Sci fi genre; in non-fiction, John McFee because he explains nature in beautiful language and Robert Caro for well-told facts; Wally Lamb received kudos for getting a woman’s perspective correct; and Pat Conroy for flowery prose that makes the readers feel they’re in the space he creates.
On the Not-so-good side, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah was said to be well-written but has too much depressing hard times. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham was not engaging even though it’s written in first person, and Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley was found to be too extreme and dreary. And one unanimous thought was that Larry M. McMurtry has not written a satisfying sex scene from a woman’s perspective.
So helpful to this low-list contemporary West adventure and romantic suspense author, you all! I love how you spell out which book features draw or repel readers. Dreary situations in excess turn me off, too. Plus overwriting. I want realism in all its star-spangled manifestations. And Character. (Note capital “C”)