Now, for some books, this phrase accurately describes a story where the events pull the reader in and the plot has very satisfying and well-timed twists and turns. For example, Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman and The Redbreast are books that are truly suspenseful. We don’t know what’s going to happen and each event moves the reader along through the story. There are other examples, too.
Too often, though, “Edge-of-your-seat suspense” really means “A series of car chases, gun battles and showdowns having little to do with an actual plot.” So when you read that phrase, be sure you’re getting what you think you’re paying to get. Otherwise, you could be so breathless by the end of the story that you aren’t aware there was no actual story.
“From the best-selling author of ____”
Writers such as Michael Connelly and Alexander McCall Smith have become world-famous and very successful. Their work is consistently of high quality, and readers know that the next instalment is probably going to be well-written. These are the sorts of authors whose work one pre-orders almost by reflex. I’m glad they’re out there, and I have my own list of authors whose work I’m willing to order almost before I know what the next novel is about.
Too often, though, “best-selling” means “commercially successful,” which is not the same as “well-written.” When you see a blurb phrase like this one, it could very well mean that the publisher’s banking (quite literally) on the fact that you recognise the author’s name and will buy for that reason. So before you slide your credit card or “click here,” be sure the author you’ve chosen is a best-seller for the best reason – because her or his work is well-written. Otherwise, you could end up with a book with no redeeming virtues except perhaps for the cover artwork – if that part of the book is even good.
“The next [name of wildly successful author]”
There are certainly some similarities among authors. Authors themselves will tell you they’ve been inspired by one or another author. For instance, Henning Mankell’s work has been inspired by the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If you read Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Marin Beck series, you can see some resemblances. I’ve been inspired quite a lot by Agatha Christie’s work. So if you are kind enough to read my work, you’ll see (well, at least I hope so!) that her work has influenced me.
But that’s the thing. My work is not the same as Christie’s. Oh, trust me on that one! We are different writers. All too often, “The next……” really means something like, “These two authors are from the same country,” or “These two authors both write thrillers,” or “____ is a very successful author and we want ____’s books to sell, too.” In reality, the two authors may not be very similar at all.
Even if two authors do write on similar themes, or write within the same sub-genre, or have another commonality, the truth is, each author has a distinct voice. That’s a good thing, too, because variety is part of what makes reading so enjoyable. So if you want to read that wildly successful author’s work, please do. But if you expect that less-well known author’s work to be exactly the same, you’ll be disappointed. It’s much better to let that new-to-you author surprise you with her or his own talent.
I will be the first to admit that there have been some truly fine, compelling novels that involve serial killers. Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, which introduces us to the now-famous brilliant-but-twisted psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter is one example. I’ve also enjoyed Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, which also features a serial killer. There are others, too, and I’m sure you could think of them.
The problem (and this is my opinion only, so feel free not to agree with me if you don’t) is that too often, “serial killer” has come to be shorthand for “brutal, gratuitous and unspeakable violence that’s depicted in every awful detail.” Violence is a part of just about every murder mystery. After all, murder is a violent and awful thing to happen. But you may want to be very careful if you get tempted by a novel with “serial killer” in the blurb; you could end up washing the proverbial gore off before you even realise that that was the only thing holding the novel together.
There’s a certain amount of background and detail that make a story “come alive.” A novel without enough detail and backstory can end up flat, with “cardboard characters” and a thin plot. So it often adds to a novel when there’s interesting information. For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels of Iceland include really interesting details about that country’s culture, lifestyle, history, mythology and more. Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear have included lots of fascinating background information about the history of ancient Native Americans in their novels. I’m sure you could think of other novels, too, that are long because of that fascinating information. In those cases, the length doesn’t prove wearisome because the story stays taut and the background is both important and interesting.
All too often, though, “Sweeping” means, simply, “long.” Sometimes “very, very… long.” The problem with this is not just that there’s too much detail. It’s that by the time you get to the end of the story, you’re so exhausted that you don’t even remember what the story was about, if there even was a plot. So be careful to choose longer books because they need that extra length to tell a good story. Unless you’ve found yourself in need of extra doorstops, that is ;-).
So there you have it. Just a few things to look out for as you read those blurbs and professional reviews. Don’t say you haven’t been warned ;-).
Do you have any phrases you’d like to share, for the good of us all?