What Makes a Memorable Book?

img_6613I read a lot of books every year.  Some are new, and some are re-reads.  I don’t re-read them because I’ve forgotten them.  I re-read because it’s like visiting an old friend.  If I’m re-reading a book, it’s most often because I remember it, and remembered how much I loved it.

So, what exactly makes for a memorable book?

It has something different.  I went through a time when I read a ton of romance novels, and many of them were the same.  Romance novels, in general, have a pretty predictable structure.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, or just have sparks, insurmountable obstacle happens, obstacle is surmounted against all odds, happily ever after.  A romance novel doesn’t have to deviate from that recipe in order to be good.  But it does have to bring a more interesting conflict than the normal one.  Sign of Seven trilogy, by Nora Roberts comes to mind.  It’s romance mixed with paranormal happenings.  If you haven’t read it, but you like romance and big evil bad guys, check it out.

Characters have unique traits.  I love characters with unique traits.  In The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the main character is antisocial and communicates through flowers.  In Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts, Novalee is superstitious about 7s.  The thing about unique traits, though, is that they can’t be for no reason and have no impact on the story.  Character traits have to mean something, or else they fade into nothingness in my memory.  Not to mention, meaningless quirks can irritate me into abandoning the book.

The characters make me care about them.  Not all characters have to be likable, and not everyone has to be a hero, but I have to be drawn into the story and care what happens, otherwise I’m indifferent.  When I’m indifferent to a character and story, I end up putting the book back down.  Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye is an example, as are Amy and Nick Dunne from Gone Girl.  Sure, they start off as likable, but I quickly came to hate them both.  It didn’t stop me from reading.  I wanted to know what happened!

It gets an emotional reaction.  This one is related to the last one, but if a book makes me laugh or cry, I’ll remember it.  I cry every single time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.  I’ve reread that book so many times over the last 20 (or so) years, but it gets me every time, just like it did the first time.  At least I know to have tissues.

But my emotions aren’t manipulated, and they don’t come cheap.  If I’m going to invest in a character, I want the sense that the author is invested in the character too.  If bad things are going to happen to a character, I want to know who the character is, if you expect me to care.  In The Martian, by Andy Weir, I was really rooting for Mark Watney to get off Mars.  My heart raced every time something bad happened to him, and I was genuinely excited when he was finally rescued.  I wouldn’t have been so invested if Mark had just rolled over and died, or passively waited to be rescued.  He worked for the victory, so I happily cheered him on.

The title makes sense.  This one isn’t a deal breaker, but I remember a book so much better if the title actually relates to the book in a meaningful/ memorable way.  The Night Circus is clearly and unambiguously related to the plot.  Bonus points because it’s title that would make me want to read the book.

What makes a book memorable to you?  Do you re-read?

 

What I’ve Been Reading

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky:  I’m not sure why I’ve never read this book before.  This is one of those books that I’m pretty sure everyone has read except me.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The narrator has an interesting and unique voice.  He’s writing letters to an unknown person, and at first I thought that would annoy me, but it was done well enough that I liked it.  The characters were quirky and memorable, and I found the teenage drama believable.  I definitely recommend.

The Face by Dean Koontz:  This is one of my favorite Dean Koontz books.  An anarchist has a plot to mess up the life of the world’s biggest movie star.  The head of security is a nice guy who has to match wits with him.  Add in some paranormal stuff, like the head of security’s recently deceased ex-best friend, who might not be so dead after all, and it’s a book I can’t put down.

Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks:  If you’re a fiction writer, you have to read this book.  A friend recommended it, and I figured it would be like every other writing book ever made; chock full of good writing advice, but lacking any concrete tips.  Wrong!  This book is so useful, and has made me love writing even more than I did.  It’s gotten me excited about storytelling because it tells me where all my ideas should go in the narrative.  I’ve tried outlining a million times, which has never quite worked for me.  This one has.

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls:  I’ve been wanting to reread this one for awhile.  It’s technically young adult, though it was published when that genre didn’t exist.  If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t read it, it’s a coming of age book about a young boy who works to get hunting dogs, and their bond and adventures together.  It makes me laugh and cry, no matter how many times I read it.  There are always certain parts I hope will magically change, so that when I read the book this time, I don’t have to be sad.  I read it anyway because there’s magic in the pages.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell:  This is one of my favorite new books.  (Okay, it’s not new, but it’s new to me.)  Neither Eleanor nor Park quite fit in, and they don’t like one another either.  Until they do.  They’re wonderful characters, with a sweet, believable romance.  I didn’t realize that I’d read until 3 a.m. until I finished the book and realized I was half asleep.  It was that good.

Have you read any of these?  What’d you think?

S is for Stories

So many books!  They're everywhere.

So many books! They’re everywhere.

For me, it’s all about the story.

I don’t care what you’re talking about: books, movies, people.  I love a good story.

I’m more liberal than most people about what makes a good story.  I don’t really care if there are plot holes or if the story has been done before.  I just care about how well the story is told.  Ordinary can be interesting in the same way that extraordinary can be boring.

A lot of people complained that Avatar was a cliched story, but I loved it.  Even if it’s a story I’ve heard before, I liked the way it was told, and it had enough new and interesting elements to keep it fresh.  People complained that Twilight had poor writing, but if it did, I didn’t notice when I read it.  I was too drawn in my the story to worry about the fact that Bella and Edward have an unhealthy relationship dynamic.  The story was interesting and fun.

I like literature.  I like reading about psychological theories.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy things at the other end of the spectrum, and everything in between.  As long as there’s an interesting story, I don’t mind if it’s cliche.  I enjoy stories I’ve read before, and I enjoy reading them in different forms, from different perspectives.  But then, I’m also the person who can read the same book over and over again and still have emotional reactions to it as if I were reading it for the first time.  (Where the Red Fern Grows makes me sob every. single. time.)

Stories connect me to the past.  Growing up, I loved Cinderella and Snow White, and remembering those stories gives me warm memories of my parents and grandparents.  I love sharing stories (discussing books and movie plots) with other people.  We all see the same story in different ways, and it’s interesting to hear other people’s perspectives on a story.

I know people who love sitcoms and comedy memoirs, but it can be hard for me to get into those things because I feel like too often, they focus on the punchline rather than the story.  There are always exceptions, of course, but my favorite stories are the ones that make me feel deeply, that make me cry or touch my heart.  I love characters who feel so real to me that they become part of my life even after I’ve closed the book.  Harry Potter, The Fault In Our Stars, Watership Down, Me Before You, and Watchers are just a few of the books that made me feel this way.

What’s your favorite type of story?  Do you have a book whose characters feel like part of your life?

Where The Red Fern Grows- A Review

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On my version of Throwback Thursdays, I review a book that’s been around for awhile and tell you why you should read (or reread) it.

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, was published in 1961, and introduced me to a world I had no idea existed.

I grew up in a fairly rural area in Pennsylvania.  My home was an old farmhouse without any kind of central heating system.  My bedroom had an electric light, but no electrical outlets.  We had a large yard that butted up to a forest.  I had heard that someone owned the land the forest sat on, but no one seemed to know who it was, so I spent my childhood roaming that woods.  I went to a regular school and had to walk a block to the bus stop in an area without sidewalks; I pretty much walked on the road to get there.

Where the Red Fern Grows is set in the Ozark Mountains, and Billy is a young boy who wants a pair of Redbone hunting hounds more than anything else in the world.  Billy and I had some similarities growing up; we both roamed the woods and spent much of our time barefoot.  However, while I went barefoot because I liked it, Billy did it because he had no shoes.  He doesn’t go to school, and when he happens to see a school “in town,” his mother gets weepy eyed because it’s her dream to send her children to a real school.

Billy’s world enthralled me as a child, and I’ve re-read this story countless times.  Although this is ultimately a sad story, it’s also life-affirming.  Billy wanted those dogs more than anything else, so he worked and saved to get them.  He lived a lifetime with those dogs, doing things he hadn’t dreamed of doing before.  It’s a story about ultimate friendship and sacrifice, about love and loss.

If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  I suppose it’s meant to be a kids’ book; after all, the main character is 10-12.  I don’t care how old you are though; this book will touch something deep inside you.  If you have read it, it may be time to read it again, or share it with a child.  Even though it’s set in a time and place many of us aren’t familiar with, there’s something timeless about the book.  I believe this is a book that should be placed proudly on your bookshelf and re-read every few years.  Pick a rainy day, curl up on your couch with a mug of tea and a box of tissues, and get reacquainted with this wonderful book.

My 10 Favorite Books

UnknownIt’s no secret that I love to read, and in fact, I’m a re-reader.  I know that not everyone does that, but for me, it’s like visiting an old friend.  I have a shelf of books that I read at least once (or twice) a year.  Some of these books I’ve read upwards of 50 times.

10.  Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen- I read this one the first time because it was a classic, and I was trying to read more of the classics, but I absolutely adored it, and I even have pages post-it noted with my favorite parts, so that if I don’t feel like reading the whole thing, I can read a page here and a page there.

9.  Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte- I really have no idea what possessed me to read this book.  I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a school thing.  I read it the first time somewhere in my teenage years.  When I re-read it, I usually skip over the parts with young Jane at the school and go straight to her time at Thornfield Hall

8.  Beautiful Disaster, by Jamie McGuire- This is a fairly recent addition to the favorites list. It’s a romance novel with all the turmoil and drama of young love, with two dysfunctional characters who don’t pretend to be anything but who they are. Travis and Abby are friends first, then lovers, then friends again before they get it right.

7.  Watership Down, by Richard Adams- Yes, it’s a book about rabbits. No, I’ve never seen the movie, so I have no idea how it compares. While the main characters are rabbits, it’s not a kids’ book. Fiver has a premonition that their home is about to be destroyed, and with the help of his brother, Hazel, they and a small group of rabbits set off to find a new home. On their way, they encounter deceit, a megalomaniac, superstition, and fear, and must learn to trust themselves and one another.

6.  Where The Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls- I cry every time I read this book, and I’ve been reading it once or twice a year (or more) since I was in elementary school. Twelve year old Billy wants hunting dogs more than anything, so he saves money for two years to buy the dogs. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, family, and enduring love.

5.  Lightning, by Dean Koontz- On the night Laura Shane is born, a stranger shows up at the doctor’s home, preventing him from leaving and forcing another doctor to attend the birth. The stranger continues to show up at critical points in her life as she ages, matures, and lives her life. As with all Dean Koontz books, there’s action, adventure, romance, and paranormal overtones.

4.  Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling- It’s a series, so it counts as one book. This is one of the best series ever, no matter what age. The series is about good and evil, friendship, family, and growing up. I love re-reading them from start to finish.

3.  Pollyanna, by Eleanor M. Porter- Pollyanna is an orphan who goes to live with her cranky Aunt Polly. No matter what, Pollyanna always finds a reason to be glad, and she teaches others to look at the bright side with her sunny disposition and show that of you look for the best in people, they’ll eventually prove you right.

2.  The Circle Trilogy, by Nora Roberts- Six people have been chosen to make a stand against evil. They discover that each one of them is stronger than they imagined, and that together, they’re stronger than any one of them is separately.

1.  Watchers, by Dean Koontz- This has been my favorite book since I read it in 1988.  Einstein is a genetically engineered, super-intelligent dog.  He meets Travis, a good man without any real reason to live.  Travis dedicates himself to keeping Einstein free, and along the way, finds the meaning that was missing, and a family.

While it was difficult to come up with only 10 books for the list, I did it by asking myself what books I’d want if I were stranded on a desert island and could only have these 10 for the rest of my life. Luckily, that’s not the case. 🙂

What’s your favorite book or books?