You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


Filed under Antonio Hill, Bev Robitai, Carl Hiaasen, Cath Staincliffe, Christopher Brookmyre, Domingo Villar, Keigo Hagishino, Kishwar Desai, Lindy Cameron, Nelson Brunanski, Simon Brett, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana, Unity Dow, Virginia Duigan

30 responses to “You Picked a Real Bad Time*

  1. Lots of great suggestions there, Margot, and an interesting topic. I definitely find that it makes a difference what mood I am in when I read a book. Also, I like to switch back and forth between more intense books and lighter books. Although I don’t read many lighter books. And you are right, on a trip, it needs to be a book you can set down more frequently and still enjoy.

    • Tracy – Thanks. And you make a well-taken point about varying reading. After a darker or more difficult novel, it’s nice isn’t it to read something lighter. Too much intense reading (or too much light reading for the matter of that) isn’t a healthy ‘reading diet.’

  2. kathy d.

    Very good and thoughtful post. I agree that sometimes we need different types of reads. Sometimes we want a real tome, full of murders and subplots and nuances, the whole deal. That would fit several Nordic writers.Jo Nesbo comes to mind, Liza Marklund, Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason and more.
    Sometimes, we want a lighter read or what we feel is a comfort read. For me, that’s Donna Leon’s series or books by Kerry Greenwood, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller.
    Or we want a book we know will be good! That could include mysteries by Sara Paretsky, Angela Savage, Helene Turston, Fred Vargas, Denise Mina, Michael Connelly, Scott Turow, Sjowall and Wahloo, Or we want to run around vicariously and eat pasta and pesce with the brilliant curmudgeon, Salvo Montalbano, although be warned: the last two books have more violence than earlier ones (The Dance of the Seagull and Treasure Hunt).
    There are a lot more books I could name here, but the point is well made.
    I like to alternate moods often; after an intense read, find a lighter one or a comfort read. And, definitely, over the holidays, I want to read substantial books, but light on the violence. Since legal mysteries are a genre I easily fall back into, I plan to read Grisham’s new Sycamore Row, Turow’s Identical and Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt, while shutting off the phone and drinking a lot of tea.

    • Kathy – Thanks. I think you’re right that sometimes we do want ‘comfort reading.’ I know I do especially when I’ve just read something that’s challenging and deep. And then of course, after I’ve read something that’s disappointed me, I’m with you – I want something I can depend on to be good. You’re right by the way about both Dance… and Treasure Hunt. Both more violent than some of the previous Camilleris have been. I hope that eases up in the next instalment.
      Like you, I like to alternate the ‘mood’ of the books I read to o. Sometimes I like comic caper but then I follow it with something more serious. I do like lighter cosies from time to time but wouldn’t want a steady diet of them.

  3. I definitely try to plan my reading according to my mood, or my predicted mood. On holiday I like to take a lot of books, but I try to plan a variety – something serious, some non-fiction, and of course a range of crime books from light to dark. I do also like to find some books set at my destination… I was once staying in a hotel in Hereford, reading one of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins books, and the heroine parked her car right outside my hotel – I really expected to look out the window and see her!

    • Moira – Really? Right outside your hotel? How cool is that? That’s quite an example of reading about a place you’re going to visit. I’m with you too about variety in my reading. I do admit that I avoid the darkest of reading when I’m away from home. I save that for when I’m ready to handle the depths. But otherwise, I like a variety. And there’s nothing like reading about, say, the Italian Alps when that’s where you’re headed…

  4. I have a whole hoard of “comfort” reading … books I have read many times that I anticipate reading many more times … and those do tend to be the ones I reach for if I am feeling stressed or tired, OR if I’m going to be especially busy – even in a good way, such as when going on vacation.

    For several years I was in a No New Authors phase while drawing down my collections. Now that I’ve gotten closer to book/space equilibrium I am experimenting again. But the current trend of publishing does not seem to favor the types of things I particularly like … I’m not big into fantasy/supernatural, cozies do next-to-nothing for me, and nihilist/cynic viewpoints make me gloomy. I am searching for a new Dick Francis. When all else fails, I read one of his.

    • ChaCha1 – Oh, I have my ‘comfort reads’ too. They are so nice to have after a disappointing read, when something’s wrong or when I’m not feeling well. Interesting you stopped reading ‘new-to-you’ authors for a bit. That’s a good way to at least whittle down the TBR pile. And I’m with you about some of the new developments in crime fiction. Some I like, but certainly not all of them. It’s a shame that Francis is no longer with us to provide new reading. I feel that way about Reginald Hill too.

  5. I so agree with you Margot – mood, location, and what I have just finished reading affect my view of the next read. I do like to keep things fresh by “mixing it up” a little now and then. As I have already mentioned on my blog after reading something like The Sacrifical Man or Hades I needed a lighter read. Sometimes I need to be able to catch my breath and relax those neck/shoulder muscles before I start the next hard boiled read. 🙂

    • Carol – Oh, you’re so right about what one’s just finished reading. Like you, I like to ‘mix it up,’ and for me anyway that’s especially important if the book I’ve just finished is a really compelling, involving book, or is difficult to read. Then I need something lighter. At the same time, when I’ve just finished a bit of fun, I’m ready to ‘chew on something’ and want something perhaps a bit darker. I try to stagger my reading so’s not to make reading tiresome.

  6. Great post, Margot, and I have lots of different thoughts about it.

    1. Winter doesn’t make me seek out cozies (I haven’t read many, and all I can think of right now is a couple Flavia deLuce novels), but I do tend to read a lot as the days are short and the snow piles up.

    2. I definitely need to gird myself before reading something heavy, but I usually find that once I read such a book, I’m glad I did.

    3. Sometimes it’s not my mood that’s the determining factor about whether I like a book: sometimes I’m hypercritical of a book or two or three because I read something truly outstanding before those. I don’t want to name names 🙂

    • Rebecca – No need to name names. I know precisely and exactly what you mean. When a book makes you cranky for whatever reason, it’s very hard to go to the next one feeling perfectly ready to love it. That’s when I like to go for one of my ‘count on it’ favourite authors.
      I agree with you about ‘girding oneself’ too. I wait for certain times before reading a book that I know will challenge me or is otherwise going to be tough. As you say, nearly always worth it, but you do need to be ready.
      Interesting that you’ve not found that the weather makes you go for heavier or lighter reads. Of course, it’s all about personal taste too. If a cosy isn’t your taste, it’s not. I agree too that ‘stay inside’ weather is a natural time for reading. I do that too.

  7. Margot: I find my moods change too quickly to affect the reading of a book. About the only mood that directly affects my reading is that when I have been reading just fiction I will find myself longing for non-fiction to return to the truth (hopefully).

    • Bill – I think both fiction and non-fiction add a lot to a reading diet. So it makes sense that you’d miss one after having done a lot of the other. It’s what I like varying reading.

  8. That is very intriguing Margot – I tend to do the opposite in the sense that I plan to reead while travelling to a destination but necessarily once I get there! I used to fly a lot at one point so used to plan my airplane reading as I usually found it hard to sleep – now I find it hard not to sleep! 🙂

    • Sergio – I’m a great one for ‘flight reading’ too. I do sleep sometimes, but usually I find it hard to do. And that’s when I love having my Kindle because you can have a tome on the Kindle without it weighing down your luggage. I don’t get a lot of time for reading at my destination either, if it’s a conference. So yes, headphones and Kindle are a requirement for travel.

  9. Col

    It’s definitely important. I think I need to alter things a bit quite frequently. We once went to the coast for a weekend and I made the mistake of bringing Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road and Salinger’s Catcher with me…..halfway through the second, I was all for jumping in the sea and just swimming and swimming outwards! I should have had some Hiaasen and Westlake instead!

    • Col – LOL! Cather… is definitely not a fun ‘by the sea’ kind of read is it? That’s the time for some Westlake, Hiaasen or Chris Grabenstein. And you’re not alone about needing frequent changes of reading. A lot of people find that they all too easily get tired of one or another kind of book. That’s what I love about crime novels – there is such a variety.

  10. Very interesting points that you and your readers raise. I am prey to moods in my reading, so need to have a couple of books on the go at the same time, to match different moods I might be in (morning and evening, or on a rainy day and a sunny day, for instance).
    I have also embarked upon a novel at some point and was unable to read more than a few pages of it because I was simply in the wrong frame of mind. A few weeks or months later, I am fine reading it. However, having made the claim about Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity (and finding it quite a fun read on the 2nd outing), I then did abandon it after 200+ pages. There was simply no story developing there. Maybe I will return to it at some point, but not as a crime novel.

    • Marina Sofia – Well, there are those novels that we just stop reading because they don’t suit our tastes, or because they simply aren’t well-written books that we want to finish. And that has nothing to do with moods. I’ll be interested in your feeling about the De La Pava if you do get the chance to finish it.
      And as to mood, it’s interesting isn’t it how the weather affects our disposition and therefore what we want to read. I think it plays an important role. And of course so do other things that impact our moods. You have a good idea to have several books available so there’s always something good to read.

  11. I am definitely a mood reader. When I am down I don’t want to try a new author but like to go back to my tried and trusted old friends. I always have an unread Reginald Hill or an Andrea Camilleri available for those situations. Then there is the advantage of reading historical crime fiction, and realising that things looked a lot worse for your parents and grandparents in 1895 or 1936.
    As for legal mysteries I do like them, but with the British legal system it is sometimes the sentencing that is the mystery!

    • Norman – I have a set of ‘tried and true’ literary friends too, and it is nice to pick them up when it’s one of those bad times. Camilleri, Hill, Donna Leon, and even old favourites like Christie are balm at times like that. You’re right too about historical crime fiction. Sometimes it helps to be reminded that it’s all really not so bad (e.g. ‘If you think you’ve got a lot to deal with…). I like legal novels too, but for just the sort of reason you mention, I like them best when I am ready to handle novels where justice isn’t always done, if I can put it that way. There are other times when I want a straightforward ‘culprit commits a crime, gets caught and is punished.’

  12. I hadn’t thought about my reading habits in this way before, but you’re absolutely right, Margot. I’ve shifted from post apocalyptic and crime fiction to the lighter tone of the two new asphalt warrior (taxi driver) novels for the holidays.

  13. Margot – Great post! It also occurs to me that moods and reading tastes evolve over time, such as my current preference for the cozy over the hardboiled, my former favorite genre. (However, I doubt I’ll never lose my admiration for Hammett and Chandler).

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. I think you’re absolutely right too about the way reading tastes and ‘reading moods’ evolve. That makes perfect sense to me; we change and (hopefully) mature over time, so it makes sense that our reading preferences would change too. Of course as you say, there are some favourites that we never stop reading. I don’t think I’ll stop enjoying Agatha Christie’s work. And you’re right: Chandler and Hammett are great.

  14. kathy d.

    I want to add /the Precious Ramotse series to the comfort reads. It is not violent and is optimistic about people and the world,

  15. Now my time in Greece is a year in the past, I’m more interested in crime novels set there. I’ve got a few lined up to read next year and I’m looking forward to them.

    • Sarah – I think you’ll probably have a great perspective on novels set in Greece too, since you’ve lived that. I’ll be really interested in your reviews as you read them.

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