I’m writing this now because I’m bored with tidying my room, and I need a break. I would be writing this with one of my ‘nice’ pens, but as one of them has broken, one has run out of ink, and the third has managed to escape from my clutches to what I can only assume is a life of discomfort, squalor and illegality, I am left writing on my ASUS EeePC. While chewing on a very tasty old-fashioned blackberry sweet thing. You know, like a pear drop, but blackberry-flavoured. So it’s really a blackberry drop. And very nice too, although I prefer the raspberry ones. You know, like blackberry drops, but raspberry flavored. You could call them raspberry drops if you liked, but I’d much rather get on with the point of this post. If I can remember what it was meant to be before I started waffling on about raspberry and blackberry drops.
I try to consider myself a bit of an expert on books. I’m not that good at writing them, and, if I’m honest, I haven’t read as many as I’d have liked, but I’m sure I’ll remedy this one day…
But in the meantime, I will still consider myself an expert. Books isn’t the same as Literature. Literature is old and boring, and rather pointless. It’s often written by people with too many ‘K’s, ‘V’s or ‘S’s in their names. It often has a point, or makes a commentary on socio-political ideals. I’ve no idea what one of those actually looks like, or if commentators on them are as funny as the commentator on Come Dine with Me, but I suspect, rather regretfully, that this isn’t the case.
I was wandering the streets of York recently (yes, the original York in England (original England) as opposed to the ‘New’ ones all over the bloomin’ place) and I realised that, although I am perfectly alright to stroll into a bookshop and find the perfect book for me, most people, sadly, may find this sort of thing a struggle. And then I realised that I was in a perfect place, what with me having a blog and all, to teach you people in the ways of buying good books.
The first thing you need to do when you pick up a book is look at the title. Obviously this guide applies only to prose – non-fiction works are *ahem* a closed book to me – although once you have studied this, there may be some other types of text that you may be able to attempt to put into this category.
So once you have your title, think long and hard about it. Are there any words that you have never heard of? Do you think this is because you don’t read dictionaries in your spare time, or because you don’t think there is a dictionary in the known universe that contains this word? If it is the latter, then you have probably picked up a Fantasy book. Refer to the notes on Fantasy later on in this guide. Alternatively, does the title contain words like ‘code’, ‘conspiracy’, and/or any letter of the Greek alphabet? By the sounds of it, you’ve found a Dan Brown Anti-Novel. Put it back where you found it and run and tell the nearest shop owner. Unless you’re in WHSmiths, in which case you deserve it.
Also, look for any heading/sub-heading combinations. For example, if, in yellow outlines at the top of the book, you find the words ‘STAR WARS’, then congratulations, you’ve probably found either a Book Of The Movie or Fanfic. Books Of The Movie are okay, and can be treated if the condition in brought to light soon enough. Fanfic, on the other hand, is extremely contagious and can also kill extremely quickly. I’d advise you buy the book, and then, for the good of humanity, hunt the author down and shoot him. Unless you want to make him/her suffer, in which case tie him/her to a chair and provide in-depth feedback on why the book is so bad, going through the book word by word. That will serve the author right. You may be lucky enough to find the author’s brain, although this doesn’t happen very often. In this case, eat it, and move in to the author’s house. With luck, no-one will notice any difference in the quality or style of the books.
Secondly, look at the cover. The two most important things to watch out for are men with bubbles over their heads and/or robots (Sci-fi) and dragons, swords or tunics (Fantasy). Sci-fi is okay. Just make sure you’ve quit before you start going to conventions. That’s the point where it starts to get unbearable. Fantasy is much the same. However, there are two main types of Fantasy. There is High Fantasy, which is intensely unoriginal and has all been done before. And there is Original Fantasy, which is intensely unoriginal and has all been done before but is more modern. If you are offered the choice, go for the former. Original Fantasy usually manifests itself as books for children – often girls – where the main characters do something exciting like meeting fairies – or maybe even faeries – and usually don’t even have to leave the comfort of their twenty-first century life. Beautiful. Also trite. Avoid like the plague.
Otherwise, look at what the cover picture actually is. A bright, cheerful cartoon? Usually children’s trash, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dark brooding photo of the author? Sounds like Literature to me. Hand in at the nearest tip. Competent drawing of a character? This is probably High Fantasy, although be wary if there are no actual dragons/swords on the spine or back of the book. Landscape drawing? This is probably a Competent Writer, so watch out for these. If there are any silhouettes, then grab it quick before someone else has a chance.
Thirdly, check the blurb. Anything about the book being told in an original way? Been done before. A thousand times. And it won’t be any better this time. There’s a reason why stories are told in the same way. A brief synopsis of the plot is what you’re looking for. Many blurbs are made up of two paragraphs, a synopsis and an appraisal of the author. If there is any mention of the author in the first paragraph, throw the book away. Quotes from the book can be a good thing, not least because it will usually be more fun skimming the book looking for the quote than actually reading the thing.
Fourthly, and I can’t believe I didn’t put this in earlier, although I can’t be bothered to change that, comes the author. If you have trouble distinguishing the author from the book title, then you’ve found either FanFic or High Fantasy. If you have heard of the author, ask yourself where. Was it on any kind of book of the week? You’ve probably found either a Dan Brown Anti-Novel, or a Danielle Brownetta Anti-Novel. The former is for men, the latter is for women. For both the answer is clear: Stop shopping in WHSmiths. If you think you heard the author do a short piece on Radio Four, then you might have got yourself a Competent Writer. Buy. Immediately.
Finally, check out the awards and reviews. Blue Peter award? Good work! It’s probably by Michael Morpurgo, in which case it is the very essence of a Competent Writer’s book, albeit probably for younger kids. Anything classy? This is probably Literature, which should usually be avoided. The third option is a recommendation from a book club. In which case it is some sort of Anti-Novel, and, as before, it is your own fault. Unless, I suppose, you’re in Waterstones, in which case I’ll forgive you as it can be confusing to some people. Just make sure you haven’t strayed to near to the police tape and/or cardboard cut-out of the author/book cover/main character. Reviews can come from lots of different people. As a general rule, named people are better than newspapers, although Sci-fi/Fantasy magazines are also quite good. Try things like ‘Orbit’ or ‘Fear’, or something that sounds overly archaic. The very worst thing to find is a set of stars. This is a big sign that you’ve found an Anti-Novel, although, to be honest, if you haven’t realised that it is an Anti-Novel by now, then you may need help. Either that or you’ve been using this guide backwards.
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