Can I expect more from undemanding books?

I have recently finished two books about which the most polite thing I can think of to say is that they were undemanding. I baulked for a while at putting this in writing because it sounds like the very definition of damning with faint praise. But if I am honest that’s not far off how I feel about these particular books, though not how I feel about all books I consider undemanding.

The first book in question is Sue Grafton’s 24th novel to feature Santa Barbara Teresa private detective Kinsey Millhone. In the first of many ‘meh’ moments the book is called X. Not, as in the pattern followed by all 23 previous installments of the series, X is for something. Just X. There are characters whose names begin with X and lots of exes in the plot and several not-so-oblique references to the role ‘x’ plays in popular culture (such as marking the spot) but I still think the title is a bit of a cop out.

XSueGraftonAudioThe book itself is not exactly disappointing but it’s not going to set the world alight either. There is precious little character development: series stalwarts will learn nothing new about anyone they’ve met before, while someone new to the series could would have no trouble getting up to speed with what makes Kinsey Kinsey, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for this series. So the whole thing hinges on the plot, again as usual, which has some good elements but, as has been the case with other recent books in the series, there’s too much detail. For the second book in a row Kinsey is working on cases that don’t bring in any money as she is tricked into locating a newly released prisoner for someone, and at the same time is prompted to complete a mysterious investigation that a fellow PI was looking into before he died (in events  depicted in this novel’s predecessor). There is a lot of meandering before we get to the fairly obvious resolutions in both cases and we waste a good deal more time faffing about for no good reason with the Californian drought and its impending water restrictions. Note to authors: plumbing is not interesting. And while I’m doling out advice may I add that making a 20-minute long scene revolve around the discovery of a paper clip does not for suspense make. As someone who has been reading this series for 30 odd years and is determined to finish (assuming Grafton does) I was happy enough to pass the time listening to this as I did my housework or tried to block out the loud talkers on public transport but it’s hard to recommend it beyond that.

BuriedAdler-OlsenAudioThe other book I’ve been thinking about along similar lines is BURIED by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Also known as THE MARCO EFFECT it is the fifth installment of the series featuring Copenhagen’s increasingly quirky cold-case review team, otherwise known as the basement dwellers who make up Department Q. Clocking in at 17 and a half hours of listening this book is preposterously long, especially as the only real mystery within it is whether or not a young boy will survive until the end. There is a murder but readers know long before investigators who did it and why, and the focus on whether the young Gypsy boy (who isn’t really a Gypsy) will survive lost its allure for me after the fourth near-death experience from which plucky Marco barely escapes. Another half-dozen or so such incidents followed and I nearly gave up all together when one such escapade involved Marco being rescued by frightened but warm-hearted prostitutes. One modern cliché too many? Books in which readers know more than investigators can work well but here it removed much-needed drama. I’ve realised the only reason I keep reading (or listening) to this series is that I don’t have to think much at all while doing so and I do vaguely enjoy the soap-opera nature of the personal lives of the investigative team.

While they are my preferred reading I’m not a stickler for all my crime fiction having deep meaning and/or a social conscience. I still love reading Dick Francis novels for example and no one could class them as demanding. But I think what I do look for in this type of reading is a noticeable absence of plodding and neither of these books passed that particular benchmark.

Am I being too demanding of my undemanding reading? Is it reasonable to expect a book which sets out purely to entertain to follow through on all fronts? As always, your thoughts welcome.

 

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23 Responses to Can I expect more from undemanding books?

  1. I don’t think you’re being too demanding, Bernadette. Part of being entertaining is that a book should draw you in, keep you engaged and make you care about the plot. Paper clips don’t do that. Plumbing doesn’t have that effect. It sounds as though in both cases, there wasn’t much there to really get you interested. And I think you had the right to expect to be drawn in. Or perhaps that’s just me…

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  2. Patti Abbott says:

    I feel exactly the same way. It doesn’t have to be a big cause book but I need some real character and plot development to make it stand out. I think many writers write too fast. I know there is a demand for both of these writers to turn out the next book but it is often a mistake.

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    • I hadn’t thought about that Patti – I’m sure there is much pressure on the part of publishers to keep up the pace – I can imagine all other authors being harangued with lines like “look at James Patterson – he can do a book a week, why can’t you?”

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  3. icewineanne says:

    I gave up on Sue Grafton a long time ago. Her books were just empty calories for me. Too much time spent on trivialities is just a waste of reading time that could be spent on better plotted, well written books 😊

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    • I should have given up too…I gave up buying them…now I wait until they’re available at the library (or I get an Audible gift as in this case)…and am only finishing the series because I am stubborn…I really don’t follow any other series, certainly not one that is so long running. But your phrase empty calories hits the nail right on the head for these and other books

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  4. Rebecca says:

    I think Patti is on to something: the book a year or so, especially in a series, can make for a weak story. I loved the Millhone series through maybe K (I think I’ve read through T or so), but I haven’t caught up. I like familiar characters, but I need a good story as well. As for the Department Q novels, I think I’ve liked 2 and been bored by 2: I’m not sure what’s up with that series.

    In the meantime, go enjoy some Dick Francis!

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  5. FictionFan says:

    I feel much the same about the Department Q books and decided not to get the latest one. I agree about the book a year issue, and also feel that a lot of modern crime novels are simply too long for their content, and as a result full of padding. I don’t know why that’s become a thing – perhaps thick books sell better – but I’d rather read a couple of hundred pages of a tightly-plotted and well-told story than 500 pages that lose momentum in the middle. Of course, the ideal would be 500 pages of brilliant writing and great plot… 🙂

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    • Can I have your list of 500 page novels that are brilliantly written from beginning to end? 🙂 I suspect the trend for unnecessarily lengthy books is something to do with a reduction in willingness to spend on editors in publishing these days – and in some ways I guess I can understand it – the fans (and the libraries which are a significant factor for these well-known authors) are going to buy the latest Sue Grafton regardless of its length so why waste money on making it better? Or perhaps I am being too cynical

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  6. Sue says:

    No you are not too demanding. I just listened to an audio book which, though competent, was full of clichés and off the peg interchangeable characters – the earnest lawyer, the irascible cop, the crooked attorney, the dysfunctional family … I lasted one disc.

    I loved A for alibi and still do, but like most readers dropped out at G or thereabouts. I wonder if the frozen in time aspect of Kinsey is a problem? Because after a while the plots take on such a sameness and Kinsey doesn’t change at all.

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    • Good point Sue – the books are basically historical fiction now whereas the first few were contemporary novels…I did wonder with this one whether Grafton was trying to prove some point about being able to still have lots of “current” detail even though we’re nearly 30 years from the date of the story so she included way too much information about the drought

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  7. kathy d. says:

    No. You are not too demanding. To expect an interesting plot and mystery with some good character development is not demanding at all. It’s what crime fiction fans want.
    I stopped reading that alphabet series after a book a few years ago annoyed me in several ways. So, gone.
    And after reading Mercy which I liked, I read another Department Q book about a child killer and that ended that series for me. I did not want to be in that guy’s mind.
    I have read several good books lately, one by Liza Marklund in the Annika Bengtzon series, two by Eva Dolan, one by Kjell Eriksson (although he really doesn’t understand contemporary women) and two by Harry Bingham about Fiona Griffiths.
    Others, too.
    I’m determined now not to waste time with books I don’t enjoy and my “Do not Finish” numbers are increasing.

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  8. Oooooh thanks for reminding me Kathy – there are two Marklund books that I have missed out on – adding both to my wishlist right now

    I’ve increased my DNFs too – though I am a bit more forgiving with audio books as both of these were – but you’re right that life is too short.

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  9. Deborah says:

    I notice a lot of US bloggers talking about ‘cozy’ reads and wondered if some of the books I like (which you mention and are undemanding reads) are in fact cozy reads.

    I often say that I’d rate some series (like Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, JD Robb’s In Death etc) a ‘4’ but their individual books would probably only get a ‘3’. It’s the consistency I appreciate.

    But then again I’m also happy with standalone books which entertain me for the 3hrs or so I’m reading them but don’t necessarily stay with me.

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  10. kathy d. says:

    A friend told me that as we get older, we should get rid of bad books quickly and move on to better ones so we use our time well. She suggested deducting one’s age from 100 and then reading only the number of pages left before tossing the book, i.e., if one is 50, give it 50 pages; if one is 60, give is 40 pages.

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  11. Oh I groaned with recognition here. I am a couple of books behind with Grafton, but the last one I read was Undertow – and I complained about a long description of harbour drainage systems, and bite-by-bite irrelevant meals. And I have given up on the Department Q books. But these were both series that I was delighted to find and longed to enjoy….

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  12. Bernadette, I always look for a redeeming feature in books I’m disappointed with, and I usually find them, in the characters, setting, sub-plots etc.

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