Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Portable Magic: Which writers get your free "I'll read anything by them" pass?

Hello you. Can we talk about our favourite authors? 

Or, if not strictly your 'favourites', then at least the ones that we return to with a sense of safety; ones we'll blindly trust to have written something decent when picking up their latest title.   

Let me explain what's got me thinking about this ...   

When I'm in the bathroom, (let's not dwell on what I'm doing in there), with the door open, (again, no need to give this more thought than it deserves ...), my eyes regularly glide up and down the spines of all the, as yet, unread books in the little white bookcase on the landing.

And, just as regularly, I tell myself that - That's it! I'm not borrowing any more library books until I've read the books I've actually paid for. Which creates its own problem in return.

Because taking back my current library books means going into the library. And - like some bookish take on Newton's Third Law of motion - the action of me going into the library with books ... always seems to lead to me also having books on me when going back out of the library too.

I can't help myself, they just leap up and cling to me on the way out. Like orphaned kittens. How can I resist?

And it's hard enough to leave empty-handed at the best of times but earlier this month when I spotted The Laughing Monsters (2014), the latest novel by Denis Johnson, on the shelf, I only needed to cast the briefest of glimpses over it to know that - despite having a dozen (at least) books already on the 'To Read' shelf ... this one was definitely coming home with me.  

Here's where my admiration for the author came in to the equation:

  • Until the moment my eyes landed on that particular title on the 'J' shelf, I didn't know this book existed;
  • I'd never heard of it or read a review;
  • And I didn't know what it was about before I slid it out, turned it in my hands, and read the back cover blurb.
But the thing is ... even when I did learn about its subject matter, and I realised it was so very far removed from anything I would normally turn to - I still held on to it.

An African-set tale of ex-soldiers who are spying and scheming with varying and unclear motives by almost any other author would not have made it off the shelf and into my bag.

(For evidence of my 'difficult' relationship with espionage-themed stories I just asked James for an example of the typical things I say while watching spy films/TV, to which he's offered up: "Who's that? What's he doing? I don't understand." So ... yeah ... spy stories are not really my strong suit.)

But this one was by Denis Johnson, the writer of one of my favourite ever passages, this from his 2012 novella Train Dreams

“I don’t get my gears turning smooth til it’s over a hundred. I worked on a peak outside Bisbee, Arizona, where we were only eleven or twelve miles from the sun. It was a hundred and sixteen degrees on the thermometer, and every degree was a foot long. And that was in the shade. And there wasn’t no shade.”

And it's that charismatic tone, the ability to instantly create atmosphere and his simply awe-inspiring word wrangling that meant I unquestioningly gave the book a chance. Whatever else the story was going to turn out to be, however else the plot might twist and turn and leave me standing, I knew the quality of the writing would see me through.

I flipped to the opening lines ... just to check ...
Yep. That'll do me. I'm in.

And the rest of the book didn't disappoint; it's scattered with sparkling little moments of description , and even the tiniest moments can thrill a word lover like me; such this where he describes the character's nose as 'brief':
'Brief'. Not small, not short: but brief. Delicious.

Word choice matters to me ... and Johnson chooses so very well. And that line about not being able to describe Michael's lips because "You'd have to follow him for days to get a look at his mouth in repose" is just a delight.

Even his renditions of scenes straight from hard-boiled noir central-casting had me smiling at their lightness of touch, like this exchange between the protagonist Nair and an interrogator:

Prior to this one I'd only read two of Johnson's other novels:
  • Train Dreams, as I've mentioned (which I actually started to read while on a train, because I'm that literal)
  • and 1991's Resusitation of a Hanged Man
... so it's not exactly that I've been an avid fan, champing at the bit for his new releases (although, I think I might now be leaning that way), but I knew, and enjoyed, enough about his previous works to know I was in safe hands with The Laughing Monsters.

And it's had me thinking about who else can I say that about?

As I tend to read a lot of library books, I find that more often than not I end up reading books I've never heard of, often by writers who are new to me. It's the luxury gifted to us by public libraries;  having books available for free, means there's no risk involved in choosing an unknown. 

However, there are several writers - alongside Denis Johnson - whose work I will give that additional chance. Currently, of the top of my head, that includes writers such as;
  • Ali Smith,
  • Andrew Miller,
  • Alan Hollinghurst,
  • Sarah Perry,
  • Jane Austen, ... although there are probably more.

But now I'd like to ask you the same question ... 

  • Who, in your reading world, gets a free pass?
  • Who are you likely to trust enough to give their next title, or indeed one from way back in their back-catalogue, a chance without question?
  • Whose style sits so easily in your head, or whose stories keep you so gripped, or whose characters come alive so vividly, that you don't need to know anything more about the book than they were the one who wrote it?
Do share your list in the comments ... it'll be interesting to see if any of the names crop up more than once among all our preferences!

Meanwhile I'll be ploughing my way through to get a few library books finished so I can take them back and make a start on clearing the To Be Read shelf. Maybe. Unless another library book clings on to my ankle on my way out ...

Don't forget to share your favourites!


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  1. Ever since I read "Ulverton" over twenty years ago now Adam Thorpe is my read anything author

  2. Definitely Jane Austen and, as a contrast, (but now I come to think about it, both about families and relationships) Anne Tyler. I am also reading the Agatha Christie 'Miss Marple' books and loving them too. Also Katherine Swift (Morville Hours) who hasn't written many books, but so far, they are gems.
    Best wishes

  3. I know what you mean about the library...I go there to return ONE book and I walk out with FIVE more...even though I still have a stack at home to get through! Those library books are just so irresistible! =) My current "free pass" author is Rick Riordan, who writes young adult fantasy (which I have a weakness for). I'm collecting his two most recent series, even though I haven't read them yet. =)

  4. I'm a mystery/thriller/espionage junkie. Two authors whose new books I will BUY, sight unseen are John Sandford and Michael Connelly. I started reading Sandford because his books are set where I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Not everybody's cup of tea, they are quite violent, but never dull. I don't remember how I got onto Connelly, but he's a very good writer with a good sense of the crime story. He was previously a crime reporter for several large dailies.

  5. That's why I use the drive-up book return....

  6. I haven't read the rest of it yet but this: "I can't help myself, they just leap up and cling to me on the way out." So me!!... I also have a pile of photos on my phone of books I left behind but hope to come back to. And my librarians call me by my first name and gave me my own pad of inter-library request forms. :-)

  7. My "go to" author is Bill Bryson. I know I can trust him not to sneak in bloodthirsty stuff and having seen him on TV I can actually hear his voice when I read his words. Bill Bryson is also re-readable for those times when you need the security of something familiar you can take any of his books off the shelf and read. Comfort reading. Another Is Deric Longden. My most favourite of his books is Lost For Words, about his mother and the first line is "I would have recognised that backside anywhere" How can you go wrong with an opening like that? The Cat Who Came in From The Cold is another one that is defitiely re-readable when all you want is to be cheered up.

  8. This was fun, again, Julie! I answered your question here on my blog (http://haallred.blogspot.com/2017/03/portable-magic-and-other-musings.html) but just for the record, John Grisham and A.M. Smith (in a totally different way) get my Free Pass anytime!

  9. timothy findley, thomas king, hilary mantel and david sedaris
    well and charles dickens, i am down to 3 novels unread. there are times when charles and i have a very uncomfortable relationship at bedtime but i will continue to turn to him in times of great stress. lol

    1. if i could be so bold as to direct you to my blog www.blackinkpaperie.com
      i just posted about my obsession with magazines. i'm interested to know which you enjoy. thanks, from your third biggest fan.

  10. I'm lucky enough to work in our local library, but as books stick to me as well, it means I usually have a tottering pile of 'to read' books on my side table! Among the authors who always get a thumbs up from me are John Boyne and Ben Elton. The overlap between these are two titles on my 'time travel etc' reading list: The Thief of Time (John Boyne) and Time and Time Again (Ben Elton). These novels both play with time in an interesting way, and were the first of each author's works that I read. I've now read more by each, and haven't yet found one I haven't enjoyed.

  11. Christopher Brookmyre; Jasper Fforde; Robyn Hobbs (although one series was a disappointment but she has returned to form); Melissa Scott are the ones that come to mind immediately - I'm sure there are more. Interesting question

  12. One of my favourite authors is Sebastian Faulks. I think I have read most of his novels. The other way I like to choose books is from the 'Richard and Judy' book club books at WHSmith. I have not been disappointed!


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