When I reviewed theatre on a regular basis, I had very simple criteria by which I assessed the quality of a show. They boiled down to five questions. Did I believe in the characters? Did it make me laugh? Did it make me cry? Did it make me think? Did it entertain me? On reflection, I suppose those same questions just about sum up real life, though maybe phrased a little differently. Are these people I’m commingling (or observing) with really who they want me to think they are? Is what I’m doing engaging my emotions? Is my brain getting enough exercise? And am I enjoying it, whatever it is?
And since books form a large part of my life, it’s not too much of a stretch – not a stretch at all, in fact – to apply the same criteria there. Especially the first. Any book I pick up has to pass the fifty-page test, and it’s the characters who carry me beyond that point – or don’t, as the case may be. Usually, I have to say, they do; I don’t often give up on a book. After that I either stop analysing and just let the story carry me along, or I pause every now and then and think, yeah, that’s how the author made that work.
So – how has my recent reading matter measured up to the five key points?
Take two books set in an environment which lies way outside my experience: What Remains of Me by A L Gaylin, and The Alibi by Jaime Raven. The location of the first was the Hollywood movie world: its darker side as well as the glamorous façade. And I choose the word façade deliberately: no one in this well-crafted psychological thriller is quite what they seem. Given that this is a staple of this kind of fiction, and my only first-hand experience of the world those characters inhabited was a bus trip around the stars’ mansions nearly thirty years ago, you’d think the author would need to work pretty hard to convince me. Suffice to say she didn’t. The fifty-page test became irrelevant at about page 20: I was hooked.
This wasn’t the first of A L – aka Alison – Gaylin’s books I’d read. She is one of those midlist authors who leave you wondering what she’s doing there in the midlist; when will she break through into the big time?
Jaime Raven had to work a little harder. A little, but not much. Her location was London’s gangland, seen mainly through the eyes of a tabloid journalist. After the huge amount of exposure the sleazier side of tabloid journalism got here in the UK a couple of years ago – phone hacking was the least of their underhand methods of getting to the story before their rivals – I was ready to believe anything about the main protagonist; though she did turn out to be unexpectedly likeable, which was partly what kept me reading. The other leading players, a gangland boss and a corrupt detective, were so far outside my purview that after a while I just accepted that people like that probably exist. A description of fiction in general, and crime fiction in particular, that rather appeals to me is life with the heat turned up. In this case to boiling point.
OK, so in those cases I believed in the characters, my credulity probably helped along by wanting to believe. Let’s look at Mistletoe and Murder, the fourth (or sixth if you count two e-shorts) in Robin Stevens’s delicious YA series featuring two fourteen-year-old boarding-school-girls in the 1930s. The two girls are writ large, with huge amounts of intentional humour, and I’m not sure we’re meant to take them seriously as people. The book made me laugh. A lot. Having read the other three, I knew it would. That was why I read it. The author has a deft and witty hand with background, and it’s easy to warm to both girls.
So with three books down, I believed, and I laughed. The Perk, one of Mark Gimenez’s excellent page-turning legal thrillers, made me cry. I won’t tell you how or why; there’s more to be said about this book in a different context, because more than anything else I read last month, it also made me think. A lot. Watch this space.
Last question: was I entertained? Yes, yes, yes and yes. (That’s yes to all four books I’ve mentioned.) All four afforded me a few hours of escapist pleasure. And we all need a little of that.