Friday, June 17, 2016

Let's Grouse About Books!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Are you all cheering at the thought of reading another list of my complaints? Yes? Wonderful. I love doing these lists with you, dear Reader. It's kind of like we're sitting near the bar at Thrillerfest/Bouchercon/Malice after a few mojitos, kvetching.

The reason we're doing this at a literary conference bar is because I've been building up a head of steam about some things I've been seeing (and seeing, and seeing) in books. I've been trying to read more - not mysteries, because that's hard for me to do while writing - and I've had a difficult time getting a really satisfying read lately. Here are a few things I just don't want to see in print anymore:

1. Quaint little towns in Maine. Kaitlyn Dunnett gets a pass for Moosetookalook in her Liss McCrimmon mysteries because I like them and they're fun. The rest of you, stop it. Here's the thing: those beautiful coastal tourist towns aren't quaint, they're glossy and expensive. The real tiny quaint towns in Maine have at least one meth dealer and a gun and taxidermy shop just down the road from the Reny's. The artisanal chocolatier running a shoppe called "The Blueberry Bon-Bon" who falls in love or solves a mystery in your book? She's actually from New York City, loves Maine because she summered there every year, and is bankrolled by her father. Only the summer tourists buy from her, which is why she'll go out of business in two years. The locals will continue to buy their Hershey's from the Hanneford.

2. SF books where the young hero's goal is to become the best and toughest Space Marine ever. (The terminology for Space Marine varies, but you know what I mean.) Here and now, in our culture, around .04 percent of the population is active duty military. Out of those, eighty percent have non-combat jobs. Where are the exciting tales of Space Personnel Officers? Space HVAC specialists? Space cooks? Or closer to my own genre, the tales of Space Cops? (Actually that sounds like a Mel Brooks movie.

I want to read an SF novel where the young hero runs away to become an opera singer. That would be interesting.

3. Regency romances where everyone is titled. I realize this encompasses ninety-five percent of the genre, but has anyone ever stopped to add up all those dukes and earls and marquesses? If you read enough of these stories (and I confess, I love a good Regency romance) you're left with the impression that the British population between 1800 and 1820 consisted of 80,000 aristocrats, 700 veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and 25 farmers. When I consider the ur-Regency, Pride and Prejudice, has exactly one titled character, I have to wonder why modern versions snub their noses at anyone lower than a viscount. (This gives me a chance to plug one of my favorites, author Susanna Fraser, who writes period romances featuring, among others, a common sergeant, a black British soldier, and a gens du couleur heroine.)

4. Flashbacks that take up a whole section of the book. This was super popular back in the eighties, remember? You'd open with a scene in which the supermodel heroine was faced with the absolute ruination of her family's jewelry store empire, and then the tale would flash back to her great-grandmother in Tsarist Russia, and we wouldn't see the heroine again for 300 pages.

I'm fine with the framing device, "Let me tell you a story.." and I'm fine with telling the story out of order (David Ellis did this brilliantly in The Company of Liars, where the entire story is told from end to beginning.) But it makes me crazy when the momentum of the story stops cold while we wander back in time to find out about the heroine's mother's ill-fated college romance. If it's  so important that we have to know all the details, integrate it into the story. If not, we can probably do with a simple, "Elise's mother had fallen into an affair with a professor at Radcliffe. It all ended badly."

5. Dialogue with no quotation marks. I'm looking at you, Anita Shreve, and the whole cohort of affected literary practitioners behind you. It's a pointless contrivance that's done, essentially, to signal that the author isn't one of those sorts - the kind who put plot into their books. I don't care if you use "English" or <> or „Icelandic“, just give me something standardized. If Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald could properly indicate their dialogue, you can too, buster.

6. YA Dystopias. Especially ones that make NO sense. Dividing everyone in society into "Factions" based on their personalities? How does that actually work? What advantage does the Authoritarian Government have in match-making future mates based on unspecified standards? I mean, they may be trying to improve the herd, but even super fast evolution takes thousands and thousands of years.
No one's allowed to love? How about loving their jobs? Or the Authoritarian Government? Do you really think you're going to get innovation or high productivity from a population that's like...Meh?

7. Women's Fiction where the heroine is the family doormat. I really enjoy novels about women's relationships: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends. But there's a disturbing trend where the protagonist lets herself get railroaded by everyone. Yes, I understand that we're socialized to not make waves. And I understand families are complicated. I'm simply not interested in reading about a character who had a boiled noodle for a spine until the last chapter of the book. (Bonus negative points if she develops a backbone because she's been empowered by some guy.)

How about you, dear Readers? What are your literary pet peeves?


  1. Oh, grumbling about books . . . and here I thought I was the only one who muttered about such annoyances. While I must admit that a great deal of my teetering to-be-read pile is of the sort in which there’s a mystery to solve, I find myself nodding in agreement with your comments.

    Although I don’t find the quaint little towns quite so annoying, the young adult dystopian tales make my eyes roll [along with those in which the teenage girl did this awful thing but can’t remember it]. And don’t get me started on the plethora of spineless, whiny heroines or those equally annoying tales in which our dissatisfied heroine must “find herself” or the cop/detective-hero must struggle to stay sober because of some tragedy lurking in his backstory. And, please, I’ve had my fill of tales in which some horrible fate must befall the child/children in the story. Enough with killing off the kids, already.

    I’m good with a decent amount of angst and dangerous situations and piles of puzzling mysteries for the protagonist to wade through, but it does rankle when this tale reads like that book I just finished reading, only with nothing more than a change of names for the central characters . . . .

  2. I just read a 237 page cozy historical thriller about the German occupation of Paris, starring an enigmatic Resistance cell leader. It was a great summer read, with no graphic violence, a likeable protagonist, and from my perspective, correct historical details. It even had a shepherd dog, and would do quite nicely for a two hour flight.

  3. Can you name that book for us, Margaret? Sounds terrific.

  4. Julia, you've cornered most of my peeves--I'll add to this the woman who leaves her hometown because her man done her wrong--she becomes a mega-successful (fill-in-the-blank--surgeon, model, senator...) then comes home and there's her man--still hunky after 20 years, when you know he'd really have a wife, a potbelly, thinning hair, and a couple of those whiny kids.

  5. Alan Furst, A Hero of France.

    I highly recommend Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police series set in the Dordogne region.

  6. Thanks for the plug, Julia. The good folk in Moosetookalook, which is in the Western Maine mountains and nowhere near the coast, appreciate it. I have to agree, for the most part, about those quaint, Cabot-Cove-clone villages, but there are a couple of exceptions. Series by Lea Wait (Twisted Threads) and Barb Ross (Clammed Up) come to mind. There are no cutesy food or hobby storefronts involved in either of those, just good writing and excellent character-driven mystery plots in coastal Maine settings.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn (Dunnett)

  7. ANy dystopian novels which use the device of signaling who's bad by capitalizing their title. The Leader and The Sorter The Time Snip.

    ANd any novel where you think: WHY would they DO that? No one would do that!

    And I am so sorry, in any genre: if it has italics for more than one line, I skip it. I just cannot read pages of italics.

  8. Margeret, my partner Julie has read everything Furst ever wrote. And passed them on to me. Great tales in our opinion.

    And Martin Walker! I discovered him a few years ago, and last October we planned our semi-annual trip to France all around finding St. Denis and driving the Perigord. What an adventure, and yes, we did find St. Denis, or a close approximation. Best of all, we stopped a gendarme and asked for directions. Iam pretty sure it was Inspector Bruno.

    My current pet peeve, which occurs in almost every book I've read lately, is the measure of distance in blocks of 100 yards. As in "I hid my wheelchair a hundred yards from the murder scene and made my way carefully over the rocks and quicksand." Or "I spotted her coming, wearing that lovely print frock and teetering of very high ankle strap shoes, tiny diamond stud in her navel, a hundred yards down the beach." Please people. A hundred yards, or meters, is a long way, the length of a football field for instance. I can barely see anything a hundred yards away, much less sprint that distance carrying the body of my murder victim.

    Whew, felt good to get that rant off my chest. Now I am off to take my dogs on a many hundreds of yards walk around the block.

  9. Interesting post this morning. Since I am partial to historical mysteries, I do not mind flashbacks, as long as the author and editor makes it clear. For example, in Maisie Dobbs, before the first chapter starts, there is a page that says "Spring 1929", which takes up the entire page. Before Chapter Eight starts, there is an entire page titled "Spring 1910-Spring 1917".The last part of the book takes us to Summer 1929, which is also another page before Chapter 21.

    What are my literary pet peeves? When I know the author is a wonderful writer and I can see the editorial mistakes that the editor makes. And when a wonderful series that I love is discontinued and the new series by the same author is not as interesting as the old series.

    Though I am partial to historical fiction, there are a few contemporary cozy mysteries that I really like. I loved a chick lit series that was set in England in the earlier books. The last two books were set in Hollywood and Las Vegas. For some reason, when I tried to read the last two, they were not as interesting. Maybe I am partial to the location of the story? Or it was the writing?

    One major literary pet peeve is when I see "and...and....and" in one sentence. Good grief! Why cannot the editor have used semi comma or comma? Perfect example is in the comment above. The character hid her wheelchair and made her way carefully over the rocks and quicksand. Could the editor have used a comma or a semi comma? Get a copy of White and Strunk guide!

    1. Uh, it was a joke dear. However, there is nowhere in that sentence that requires a comma per Strunk and White. A more difficult thing to do is use an elipsis correctly.

  10. Oh my goodness you hit all my pet peeves, plus I never even consider anything about vampires.
    never read any passage in italics, it's always the perpetrator explaining his or her movements and actions and reasons, which I figure will be answered in the rest of the book. Refuse to read anything about a child harmed in anyway. And I'm at an age where I'm not interested in cluttering my brain with lots of gore,, nastiness and evil.

  11. Julia, I love you. No, I really do. Remind me to buy you a drink if you are at Bouchercon.

    My pet peeve - the successful woman who doubts her ability to be a good wife/mother and actually submarines her chances for success by holding herself back from any chance of BEING a good wife/mother. Sheesh. Professional women in my life are not nearly so insecure in their home lives. Urgh.

  12. All good examples, Julia, thank you.

    I categorically refuse to read another book with "fem jeop", or what I call the "tortured woman in the box with clock ticking". Puhlease. Criminals have enough bad ideas about how to harm women without giving them any more, thank you very much. There's enough cruelty in the world in real life; I can't imagine "entertaining" myself by reading about made-up cruelty, too. I get it about the need to put suspense into a book, but why does it always have to be a woman or a child in jeopardy?

    Ann, I agree with you about the 100 yards! It reminds me of the critique Mark Twain wrote of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" books, including "Last of the Mohawks". He made supreme fun of the hero's ability to even see the half-inch target on the tree 300 yards away, let alone hit it. Forget that he was supposed to have hit it three times! And naturally he could tell that he had from three football field lengths away, with his naked eye.

    If you are in the mood to laugh, Google "James Fenimore Cooper literary offenses".

  13. I have issues with protagonists who own four or five businesses, are actively involved in each one every single day, and still have time for hobbies and for working out AND for a social life. Most people I know who are self- employed are worn out by the end of the day! And they own only ONE business!


  14. Snort. You're right about the multitudes of dukes, earls, etc. And so many war veterans too. I enjoy a good Regency tale but feel I'm reading the same ones over and over again. Back in the sixties I started reading some of Mom's Victoria Holt books. After a few I asked her if she had any family secrets I needed to know about. Unknown relatives who are rich and childless. Family who didn't marry well and were cut off. She snorted.

  15. Oh, wow, this post made me laugh out loud. It also made me truly understand how idiosyncratic our reading tastes are. My latest pet peeve: turning the stories of real life women into fiction. I recently read a piece by a reader who was inspired to read "West with the Night" (Beryl Markham's autobiography) after reading the novel about her life, "Circling the Sun." The reader was disappointed with the autobiography because it did not contain this, that and the other thing. I wanted to call her up and say, "This, that and the other thing were fiction!"

  16. Those are some great pet peeves, Julia. I don't mind the YA Dystopians, so much, because I go in expecting that they will be a realistic. But then something like Patrick Ness Chaos Walking series comes along and everything actually makes sense (to me) and I realize that some authors are just lazy about thinking about the ramification of the society they create.

    For the mystery genre, if I read one more cozy where the heroine ends up alone, in a secluded location, with the killer, for no logical reason, I might scream.

    On a larger topic, I am annoyed by characters - and by extension authors - who think they are helping the diversity issue by having the token gay (almost always flamboyant) best friend, or by interacting with the African-American co-worker who offers sage advice. You know, the cop can be a gay man in a successful long-term relationship - it does happen. Or the CEO of the company where the dead body was found could be from Kenya.

  17. Another great post, Julia. Your complaining is always entertaining. Hahaha!

    I found #4 particularly interesting, as I just finished a book that brilliantly handled flashbacks. Len Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone integrates the flashbacks from current day to 1986 in a smoothly flowing, flawless manner. This book just happens to be nominated for an Anthony in the Best Original Paperback category, and I can't believe I waited until now to read it. But, I agree with you Julia, that the lengthy flashbacks that separate you from the main character are highly annoying.

    Kristopher, the token gay man or woman with the affections is bothersome to me, too. And, I'm sure you were referencing Sarah Hilary's Noah Jake in the Marnie Rome series as the successful way to integrate a gay couple into the story. I think the mark of success there or in any book is that I don't even think about Noah being gay as a great part of the series; I think about Noah being a great character.

    Oh, and Julia, I definitely agree with you about the YA Dystopias. I love YA, but I have grown so weary of the flood of dystopian stories that seem to be on an ever-repeating loop. I've pretty much had my fill, although if Kristopher recommends Patrick Ness' series, an excellent author, I may have to reconsider.


  18. the "and..and...and" for me is tedious and bland. I agree with the above about women as victims. I do not like to read books, which encourages stereotypes of "damsel in distress".

    I was surprised about the SF novels comment because I thought women in Sci Fi novels were supposed to be super strong like Wonder Woman?

    And I agree with the above comment about the token gay person. This reminds me of our creative writing teacher advising us to write what we know. Whenever I read something like the token whatever friend, I wonder if the novel is written to a formula,

    I get the Regency romance comments. When I read history books as a child, I read about royalty, etc. I wonder what commoners' lives were like at that time in history.

    One of the reasons I love Jane Austen is that she gives us a glimpse into lives of people who were not royal, though there are a few aristocrats.

  19. You hit all of my particular bells, but I must speak up on behalf of Maine. It's either that or I will NEVER write my cozy mystery set in the Crown of Maine. Not a cute shop in sight, nor many recipes, unless you want to make ployes.

    My pet peeve is not so much about where a book is set, but the cookie cutter town it's set in. Places in VA will fit seamlessly into CA, or ME, or MI, or WI. And yes, girl comes back to small town after big disaster in the big city. On return she uses her acumen learned in the big city to rescue her small town. Finds love along the way. Hows that for the ever elusive elevator pitch!

  20. Unrealistic circumstances, incorrect description of a known place, too many red herrings, too many subplots, introducing the killer in the next to last chapter.

  21. I just powered through about 20 summer reads and my pet peeve: books that feel as if the author took two too-short novels, overlapped their characters, and turned them into one too-long novel that weaves back and forth between their stories. Usually one story is stronger than the other and I find myself skipping over the weaker one. I'd say half the books I read had this going on in them.

  22. Great blog...I love Mel Brooks! Loved him and his cohorts since Your Show of Shows...

  23. May I just say I'm so happy I'm not the only grumpy reader out there!

  24. I am a retired lawyer. I very much enjoy mysteries. I try to willingly suspend disbelief and enjoy most fanciful aspects of plots. However, some plot devices miss the correct rules of basic law so completely I get annoyed. A pet peeve is when a suspect is presented as genuinely in line to inherit and, thus, motivated to kill competing heirs when there is no way this could happen under any US legal rules. These authors seem clearly confused and I wish they would consult a lawyer and alter their plots. (The claimant is not presented as being in error but as having a real claim if a few people are killed off.)

    Similar issues with rules of evidence, dying declarations etc

    Love this blog and am a fan of every one of the Jungle Reds.

  25. I'm with you, Julia! It seems the only time I get to read for fun is when I'm sick, so maybe I'm grumpier because of that, but books that make you feel as if you're re-reading the same book for the umpteenth time or where logical behavior is totally contravened are just too, too much.

  26. Oh, dear, Julia, I agree with most of your peeves, but my book-in-progress has flashbacks set in italics (as do many of my earlier books.) I've never been able to figure out another way to set the backstory off from the contemporary story without totally confusing the reader.

    I was too buried in my manuscript to comment on last week's post on unreliable narrators, but I will not read books where the main character turns out to be a serial killer, or to have murdered his or her spouse, etc., etc. It makes me feel cheated, and I do not want to waste my valuable reading time with characters that turn out to be despicable.

  27. I have quit reading authors who end a book with a cliffhanger. It's just wrong to cheat a reader of the climax/resolution we have every right to expect. It's okay to dangle a little thread to lead to the next book, but resolving the pressing issues is necessary to my peace of mind.
    I hadn't thought of italics as a problem. I have seen books change typeface for different points of view or times, so perhaps that's a better alternative.
    My high school juniors loved reading and acting out the section of _Deerslayer_ in our anthology, grabbing a thrown hatchet mid-air and returning it with deadly accuracy. They also enjoyed Twain's essay on JFC's literary offenses, especially the renaming of the series as "the Broken Stick" series, for the habit of stepping on a stick just at the moment silence was most necessary and beginning a wild chase scene.

  28. Detectives whose main identifier is that they are chronically depressed, troubled drunks, or recovering alcoholics and/or have to tell you about how much they love some particular form of music. Exceptions are made for books by really good writers. It's the "build your detective with one quirk from Column A and one from Column B" approach that gets me.

    Another peeve: a book in any genre other than romance that can immediately be identified as written by someone who usually writes romance.

  29. Oh, do I really get to kvetch? Such a deal! I have three gripes:
    1. I loathe books that have multiple endings. You know, you're reading along, 100 pages to the end, and All Is Revealed. You know who did it, and how. But then, somebody keeps digging, or thinking, and you get to ending #2. This is completely different, but equally plausible. In this ending, somebody else did it, for a different reason. But wait! You're still 50 pages from the end! This won't be all... more endings loom ahead. To be honest, this is where I quit reading. I was happy enough with Ending #1. I was satisfied. Ending #2 didn't make me happier. And the possibilities of yet more alternative endings -- showcasing the author's creativity (Dan Brown is the worst of these authors, I no longer even start his books) leaves me cold and frustrated. One ending per book, please. if you have more endings than that, write another book.

    2. Unlike most females, apparently, I don't like books that involve Old Women Telling Tales. As far as I'm concerned, Margaret Atwood did that just fine in The Blind Assassin. Everything that came after -- especially those by Tana French -- is subpar. And besides, invariably, the "tale" the old woman is recounting has something to do with Forbidden Love, or an Illicit Child, or something that in today's world is hardly even notable, let alone shocking. I don't buy these books.

    3. Books in which the author revels in his drug-enhanced life during the 1960's. Look: in the 1960's, I was a buttoned-up Young Republican with a law degree working in the California State Senate. I had no interest in drug use -- of any kind -- then, and I surely don't now. But some authors -- Scott Turow, Peter Robinson and Dennis Lehane come to mind -- seem to need to Tell Us How It Was, Back There in the 1960's. Feh. I don't care. I don't think those authors were clever back then, and tales of their drug-infused activities as an alleged '60's hippie don't thrill me. i don't buy those books either.

    Ah. i feel so much better, having gotten that off my chest for the first time ever. Many thanks!

  30. Hear, hear! I love a good kvetch. I agree with all of you, especially vampires, demons, and most of the Faerie, YA dystopia and also princess books, with the hilarious Meg Cabot exempted. The upsurge in unreliable narrators after Gone Girl is also been done to death. Who can a reader trust. I liked Gone Girl well enough but I hated all the characters. If I am going to spend the time reading, then I want to spend it with people I like. Eveytime I read a review comparing something to Gone Girl, I move on.
    That's another kvetch I have about irresponsible blurbing. I want to know about the book, not who it reads like!