What makes a good book ‘good’?

booksWhat are the characteristics that you look for in a book? What makes the difference between a book you just ‘enjoyed’ and a book that, when finished, you immediately want to lend to everyone you know? Here are my top ten features of a good book… Of course, these are highly subjective, so please do comment and let me know what it is that you look for in a book. And I should add that this list really only works with fiction, and I reserve the right to change my mind!   

1 ) The Grip Factor

Basically, it’s that tired old cliché – you simply can’t put it down. If a book grips you, makes you late for everything, and after reading it you wish you’d read it more slowly, then that is, without doubt, a good book. It is useful, of course, if this kind of book comes with a pre-read warning in the blurb, so that you can clear your diary and stock up on food before opening the cover, but so many books are described as ‘gripping’ or ‘full of suspense’ that you never really know. This, for me, is the top characteristic of a good book.

2) A Plot that is Engaging

Book - The Girl In The Red CoatThe plot has to move. It can move forwards, backwards, skip around and through, but it has to move. It has to engage me as a reader, and make me interested to know what happens next, or what happened, or what might happen. It has to take me on a journey. I don’t want to be able to predict the entire plot from the outset, or (dare I say it) from reading the blurb. I want some drama, some surprises, something to keep me reading.

3) The Language Style

This is completely subjective, but for me it is also essential. A ‘badly-written’ book, no matter how fascinating the plot or engaging the characters, will not meet my criteria for a good book. However, this isn’t necessarily that I prefer one language style over another. I do enjoy short, concise sentences (e.g. in a thriller or crime novel) but can just as easily fall into the rhythm of a good Jane Austen novel, where the sentences can be ten times as long. It is more a matter of the writer, having chosen a language style that works for that particular narrative, sticking to it, and using it well.

Book - The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline Jacques4) Speech that isn’t Confusing

Don’t you just hate it when you get confused about which character is speaking? I’m not saying that all writers should stick to the conventional way of indicating speech. All I ask is that, whichever method they choose, it is clear enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the story.

5) Characters You Can See

This one varies hugely depending on the genre, but what I really look for is a cast of characters that I can clearly see in my own imagination. The author may not go into long detailed descriptions of what each character looks like, but they give you enough – a few key, well-chosen words that conjure them up as real flesh and blood. These descriptions should give you a sense of their character, as well as a physical description, and should be believable, not just the stereotypes.

6) A Satisfying Ending

Book - The Past by Tessa HadleyI don’t mean that it has to finish with everyone living happily ever after, the mystery completely solved or the long lost lovers reunited at last. What I do mean is that when I finally put the book down I want to feel a sense of having been on a journey and reached an ending point, a sense of completeness, a sense of ‘closure’.

7) Edited Thoroughly

This goes without saying really, and most books have gone through so much editing that it wouldn’t be a problem, but if I do see the odd typo or a sentence that looks like it has too many words in it, it does stick out, and the book will have to fight all the harder to make me love it.

8) Characters You Can Identify With

Book - Where my heart used to beat by Sebastian FaulksI do also believe that identifying with a character, particularly the main protagonist, is something which can turn an ordinary book into a good book. However, I also believe that there are numerous examples of great works of literature containing characters with which the reader will not identify. I think the essential thing here is that these characters really come to life. I want to care about them, to love them, or hate them or, at the very least, to understand their motives.

9) Meeting Expectations

It’s a bit like that old advert for Ronseal. Does it do what it says on the tin? If you get part way through the book and you wonder why the publisher classed it as a romance, or whether the front cover illustration actually bears any relation whatsoever to the story, then this takes away from the overall effect. Of course, the sign of a really good book is that it exceeds your expectations. You see the quotes from renowned writers, the prize nominations, the tasteful cover design, and you expect a certain something, and what you get is beyond anything you imagined. Now that is a good book.

10) The Approval of Jane Austen

jane austen bookYou’ll have to forgive me for this one but, in my opinion, a good book must be…

“some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

(an extract from Northanger Abbey)

So there you have it – my top ten highly subjective features of a good book. Please do comment and let me know if you agree, or disagree, or if you think there is something significant which I haven’t mentioned…

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