Ten authors and their tenth book

My bookgroup celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. The topic for this month was 10. So I decided to look at my favourite ten fiction authors and their first and tenth fiction books. Five of the authors were amongst my favourite authors in 2001 and the other 5 are amongst my favourites in 2011. My aim was to see if each author improved with every book, whether they were they consistently good and whether or not they managed to sustain my interest. I am listing the authors in alphabetical order not in order of preference.

Isabelle Allende

1st title: The House of Spirits (loved it)  10th title: City of Beasts (I have not read this title)

I remember falling in love with the intricate lives that Allende wrote about. Her books were like a perfume that I could sense when I would sit and read but by the time Paula (let alone City of Beasts) was released I was no longer interested in reading more of Allende’s books.

Suzanne Brockmann

1st title: Future Perfect 10th title: The Kissing Game (I haven’t read either of these titles)

The first Brockmann book I recall reading was Prince Joe (her 8th book) and she quickly became an autobuy author. I discovered her Tall, Dark & Dangerous series (Silhouette) and then became completely taken by her Troubleshooters series which are full of action, shooting, nefarious terrorist plots and lurve. It’s like watching/reading Team America sans the crass humour. However, as much as I enjoy her books I have not felt compelled to buy any books since Into the Fire and I am now happy to wait to borrow a library copy.

Douglas Coupland

1st title: Generation X (loved it) 10th title: Eleanor Rigby (I have not read this title)

I read Generation X within months of its release and it was like a revelation. It was modern, it was disinterested, it was wry and I was in love with Coupland. Life After God, for years, was a favourite book yet my interest waned rapidly after reading Polaroids from the Dead (non-fiction) and I have not been tempted to read Eleanor Rigby.

Jennifer Crusie

1st title: Manhunting (I have not read this book) 10th title: Crazy for You (A great read)

I enjoyed this book, stalker, Quinn, Nick and all. The first Crusie title I read was Charlie All Night which I reread every few years (and still enjoy). Crusie’s sharp, biting dialogue is fun and her characters’ relationships and friendships make me want to be friends with them. My personal favourites are Welcome to Temptation (11th title), Bet Me (14th title) and Agnes and the Hitman – co-written with Bob Mayer (15th title). I feel that these 3 titles set the contemporary romance literature benchmark.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1st title: In Evil Hour (I have not read this book) 10th title: there is no 10th novel (I could cheat and count his novellas but I won’t)

I have a shameful secret. I know that in the early 90’s I read (and re-read) both 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. I recall waxing lyrical about them to a guy I was interested in and I saw it as a “sign” that he then read them and we went out and, over dinner, spent a night discussing them both. Both my copies are dog-eared and marked. Now here is the shameful part. I cannot for the life of me recall anything whatsoever about the books (except that I loved them at the time). I could have chosen a different fave author to include, one whose works I did remember. But I chose to include Marquez because I don’t think his books resonated with me the way I initially thought they had.

Rachel Gibson

1st title: Simply Irresistible (enjoyed it) 10th title: I’m in No Mood for Love (loved it)

I read I’m in No Mood for Love before Simply Irresistible. Having read, and loved, several of Gibson’s titles I tracked down her backlist and read through them all. I thoroughly enjoyed them. I’m in No Mood for Love also stands out for me because it was a rare romance that I recommended for my husband to read and he too enjoyed it. Simply Irresistible was good and fun but I didn’t recommend it to my husband….(which is telling in itself).

John Irving

1st title: Setting Free the Bears 10th title: The Fourth Hand (I have not read either of these books)

I remember watching the movie of The World According to Garp and my sister and I pooling our money together to buy the book. And we both loved it. We continued to read as many of Irving’s books as we could find. And I particularly recall thinking that A Prayer for Owen Meany was a powerful tale. However, by the time A Son of the Circus was released, once again, my interest had waned.

Milan Kundera

1st novel: The Joke (a great read) 10th title: there is no 10th novel (though there are a number of short stories)

This is another author adoration that I had due to needing to read the book of a movie that I loved. And as wonderful as The Unbearable Lightness of Being was on film, the book far surpasses it. Yet, it is The Farewell Party remains my favourite of all Kundera’s books.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

1st title: The Copeland Bride (I have not read this book) 10th title: Nobody’s Baby But Mine (An enjoyable read)

I love that Susan Elizabeth Phillips (SEP) creates unlikeable characters whose actions are awful and yet by the end of the book you want them to have a happy outcome. This is particularly true in Nobody’s Baby but Mine in which the heroine tricks the (sports) hero into impregnating her for she decides that she wants to have a child that is not bright. Her stereotypes and deception grate yet I love the complex relationships SEP builds and reconciles. I feel that she is another benchmark romance author. I look at her list of published titles and though her earlier books were good, her Chicago Bears series are outstanding and it is her 17th title, Match Me If You Can, that is my favourite of all her books.

Julia Quinn

1st title: Splendid (I have not read this book) 10th title: An Offer from a Gentleman (A lovely, sad Cinderella story)

Up until a year ago, I had no interest in reading historical romances. I didn’t mind historical fiction or fiction that was contemporary when it was published but now is historical (ie, Jane Austen) but, I’ll admit, books where women swooned over dukes, earls, or barons left me cold. I decided to overcome my biases and started with a very early Julia Quinn novel that did not grab me at all. I then read When He Was Wicked and fell in love. By the time I read An Offer from a Gentleman I was hooked and just as I was tiring of the 8 book Bridgerton series, the last book On the Way to the Wedding had me on the edge of my seat anticipating how the relationship issues were going to be resolved. And this book was 5 after her 10th title! Simply gold!

The thing that stands out more than anything else is that my reading tastes have changed markedly over the last 20 years. 20 years ago I was reading predominately literary fiction or non-fiction smattered with some category romances and the occasional romance. I devoured classic literature and loved to read conceptual modern fiction too. By the late 1990’s I felt exhausted by the constant search for the meaning of life and (for the most part) stopped reading literary fiction. Time has yet to test whether I’ll feel the same way about my current favourites (though to be fair Jennifer Crusie and Suzanne Brockmann have been faves for over a decade already). But what I do find interesting is that most literary authors’ strongest novels are at the beginning of their writing life whereas it seems that the inverse is true for the romance authors I have listed above. Where I may have enjoyed their first few books, it is their subsequent publications that have drawn me in and hooked me as an avid fangirl.

Obviously, I am biased. I love reading romance novels so it is impossible for me to be objective. However, I was a fan of literary fiction for a lot longer and much earlier in my youth. And why do I think my reading preferences changed? I think I might leave that question for another blog post.

The Rule of Five

1. Choose a book based on its author/title/cover design

2. Read the blurb

3. Read the last pages #afairydies (optional)

4. Read the first five pages

5. If you don’t feel compelled to read page six – move on to another book. If you have looked up and it’s page 36 – this one’s a reader!

Everyone has different approaches for how they will read a book.  Some people insist on reading everything they choose from cover to cover regardless of whether they like the book or not. Others will use Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50 of which I am a major fan – how can I not be a fan. I was fortunate enough to meet Nancy Pearl a few years ago and while we were chatting discovered that we both wanted to be Miranda Melendy in The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright when we were kids (I digress). But I have lately found that I can’t even apply this rule. I have found that I am now applying my very own Rule of Five in which you judge a book by its cover, get hooked by its blurb, discover the outcome and let those first five pages lead you to a more permanent reading decision.

Of course, there is always an exception to the rule: if you have been told that a particular book is set reading for school/university/work – suck it up and read the bloody thing.

Now for all the bookgroups out there chanting “Exempt me! Exempt me!” – bookgroups are not exceptions to the rule. Life is too short even for bookgroup members. If page six is unbearable download the cribnotes, even if the book had been your choice. If your bookgroup members disparage your choice to not continue reading I would suggest that you find another bookgroup.

So what has led me to this Rule of Five? Late in February, I decided to read Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Kiss. Many people I know have praised her books to me. They love her and adore her writing but, as I am not a big fan of paranormal romance (I have previously read MaryJanice Davidson, JR Ward and Sherrilyn Kenyon), I have not pursued reading much in this sub-genre. In March, however, I was attending the NSW Readers Advisory Seminar on Fantasy and though I had read several fantasy titles in preparation I thought it would be best that I attempt a title that crossed over with my favourite genre – romance. I was quite enthusiastic in reading this book as I looked forward to discussing it with friends. It starts in a train station, there was some sort of gadget involved in the capture of an errant (was it) angel, there was narrative comparing her capturing tactics with her friend’s tactics etc etc. And then I vagued out and I can’t remember anything beyond that. I was on page five when I gave up and moved on to read a fab kids fantasy book called Urgum the Axeman by Kjartan Poskitt.

Once I gave up reading this book I tweeted the following:

Only one person objected. The other five who answered all agreed and felt that it was fine to give up and move on…and in one case, seemed to suggest that five pages were admirable.

A week later, I was struck again by the importance of a book engaging the reader in those first pages while I was listening to Brent Weeks at the NSW RA Seminar answering an audience question on how to make books appealing to reluctant readers. He spoke about how he consciously has action in the very first page of his books as he knows that this is a hook for many readers, himself included.

This led me to think of my favourite books and there isn’t a single one that I would say I struggled past the first pages. I remember reading Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi in a single inhalation and I did the same with Jennifer Crusie’s Charlie All Night, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, Matthew Rubinstein’s Solstice, Rachel Gibson’s See Jane Score, and the list goes on and on. I was not distracted after opening these books. I did not feel the need to put my book down and call a friend just to have a break and, in some reading cases, I wholly forgot to feed my children.

Another point I’d like to make is the attention given by the literary world to the first line of highly regarded books. There are books published on first lines, there are websites dedicated to them and there are infinite trivia quizzes on that all important first line. That first line is the hook and those first five pages are the bait that should draw you into the rest of the book.

I then think about the books that I have picked up, I have liked their covers, I have liked their premise based on a good blurb yet for some elusive reason, be it the writing style, unlikeable characters, too much violence or some vague intangible element, I have decided to move on to a greener reading pasture.

Giving up on a book in its opening pages does not mean that the book is not good. It may have some wonderful qualities and you may decide to revisit the book, or some other book by that author, at some later stage, as I plan to do eventually with Nalini Singh’s books. It just wasn’t the right book for you at this point of your life.

So I beseech you all to not slog through a whole book; don’t labour the first 50 pages. Let your senses take over and make a snap judgement on whether to read on in those introductory five pages.

The BookGroup you’re having when you’re not having a bookgroup

or Why pubs make great venues for bookgroups

On the 2nd Wednesday of every month I walk down to my local pub to talk with other readers about thingys we have read. And yes, these get togethers are as vague as that first sentence. But let me start at the beginning.

Nearly 10 years ago, my local barista/friend/reading pal asked if I was interested in starting a bookgroup with her at the coffee shop she owned. She found that she was constantly chatting with her customers about books and this was affecting queues for coffee. The inaugural meeting was held with many of her customers, both male and female, turning up.

On that day there were several things that everyone agreed upon:

1. No-one wanted to feel like they were in a classroom. They did not want book notes, study notes, analysis or anything that might remind them of their school years. [My kind of people!]

2. The idea of 1 book that everyone had to read was distasteful. Choosing a single title that would appeal to the broad group would be too hard. Everyone agreed that a themed bookgroup was best. [Internal cheers]

3. Everyone had an equal voice. There was to be no scoffing, no derision, all reading and all choices were valid. [Yay! I could take romances with the knowledge that I didn’t have to roll my eyes and sneer at literary snobbery]

We eventually came to have a Number 4:

4. Cheers for most tenuous link between the subject and the reading choice. [This has become a highlight in our monthly meetings with the best ever tenuous link being someone who read a biography on Fidel Castro for the topic Infidelity and my own win with Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Heaven, Texas for the topic of Church and State]

At first, we met up at Muse Cafe in Summer Hill. Once our friend, who owned the cafe,  sold up we chose to also move and after various unsuccessful venue choices we decided upon Summer Hill pub. I must point out that the then owners of Cafe Decolata (another of Summer Hill’s many cafes) were fabulously accommodating! Despite the fact they closed at 5pm they gave the group the keys to the cafe and we met there after hours for as long as we liked which we did for several sessions. But the eating & drinking options weren’t available to us so we had to move on.  The Pub provided us with a relaxed environment where no-one felt obliged to purchase a meal or a drink yet we had the ability to stay for as long as we liked. We have had the occasional clash with a rowdy football game but shouting across a table as to why you loved the latest romance or murder mystery you have read can be surprisingly cathartic.

Over the years, our themes have ranged from the sea, 3, music, blue, elections, feminism, blokes, beer, Russia, design and the list goes on. We also have had a variety of formats. Our reading extends beyond fiction and includes non-fiction, poetry, song lyrics (which on one occassion were sung and accompanied by guitar), plays, picture books, Hansard, essays, films and television scripts. Our members are a varied lot of people. With a good mix of males and females, we’ve had some very interesting people come and go. From teachers, baristas, ministers (well only 1 really but he was with us for a long time & we wish he hadn’t been transferred to Newcastle), librarians [moi!], academics, illustrators, marketers, teens, parents and even the occasional appearance from some of our kids presenting the book that they have read. Some of us have formed friendships over the years yet, for the most part, our strongest connection is meeting at the local to talk about our topic once a month.

In 2006, I saw the first write up of this type of book group in Library Journal as to the value [and in my opinion, a much more welcome model] of thematic book clubs. I was impressed. This article articulated the organic way our group operated. It also highlighted that by opening up to a theme based approach reading choices allowed diverse choices, less structure and suited to people who are not similar in their reading habits but just want an opportunity to share their reading experiences with others.


Do I think a library would be a better venue? No! Libraries close too early and they don’t serve beer.

How can you too have a group like the one I belong too? I don’t know. How does one meet an open-minded, reading friendly publican/coffee shop owner willing to provide the space and spread the word to their customers?

Does this type of bookgroup suit everyone? Not at all. We have had many people turn up for one meeting only to leave exasperated at our lack of focusing on one book and our tangential conversations.

And how does a laissez-faire group of people with no leader manage to keep meeting for 10 years? I’d say common courtesy and a desperation to share their reading experiences with anyone other than their immediate families who may or may not be readers.

Now, I must clarify, that the rest of the group are not Shallow Readers. They have depth……. and they will all happily acknowledged that I am the shallow one.