Should I read on?

Some people judge a book not by its cover but by the opening lines, or perhaps the first page or two. It is wonderful when a brilliant beginning is followed by an equally sparkling book but often the momentum slows. At other times, the opening of a story is serviceable but the storytelling strengthens with each page. And then there are the books where reading on begins to feel like an unwanted duty.

I used to believe that I had to finish every book I started but as I got older I realized that the reading years I had left were not enough to allow time to be wasted on books that were a plod. So now I give a book 50 pages – if it has not drawn me into its world by then, I move on to something more enjoyable.

Here are a few of the books I have enjoyed that by page 50 have lived up to their promising beginnings.

The Burning Girls by CJ Tudor

Beginning
What kind of man am I?
It was a question he had asked himself a lot lately.
I am a man of God. I am his servant. I do his will.
Around page 50
Yet her face, when she turns, is blank. No smile or expression of pleasure. The sight is slightly disconcerting.

A Plague on Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

Beginning
Bess Bagwell clung to the seat as a wash of freezing river water sluiced over the side of the wherry. She had to shift fast, to avoid a drenching. And the river was full of the usual detritus: a bloated dead rat, and the scum from the tallow factory upstream.
Around page 50
‘Whist. You look fine. Just tell him how you were in charge of the whole yard at Stepney, and stand your ground.’
‘But I wasn’t. I was just the joiner.’
‘Good as. Tilford was so drunk half the time, the men looked to you, you know they did.’ He acknowledged this was true by a tilt of his head. ‘I’ll come up with you, and I’ll be waiting outside his office.’

Grace by Paul Lynch

Beginning
This flood October. And in the early light her mother goes for her, rips her from sleep, takes her from a dream of the world. She finds herself arm-hauled across the room, panic shot loose to the blood.
Around page 50
She watches the people around her, the same clatty children and some woman who is beyond old and talking spittle, a hand on her shawl, the other pulling at the reader’s sleeve, trying to pull him towards her cocked ear. Speak up, man, speak up.
If this were another time she thinks, you would be asked the who and what of you. You would be offered straw and put before a fire.

Beginning
‘Look o’er yonder, master prophet! There it is!’
Above the clamour of screeching gulls, ropes clacking against masts and ship carpenters hammering and banging at timbers, Robert Stewart’s strident voice rang out. Knox raised his head and squinted upwards.
Around page 50
‘Marjory, fetch Doctor Mordue.’ 
Even Marjory shuddered at this. While she was her father’s pet, she took her mother’s side when it came to Dr Mordue. Swathed in a miasma of pungent smells – bergamot oil, Stinking Gladdens, orris root – and bearing a medicine chest full of amulets of dried blood, crushed toad, and venomous spider, he seemed more like a magician than a physician.

Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M Wolfe

Beginning
“God’s bollocks, girl! I’m freezing my tits off!”
Lady Cecily Carew murmured an apology while she fumbled with the last of the bodice hooks. Finally, the bodice came undone, and she stepped back, her head lowered so the Queen could not see her expression. She had only been a lady-in-waiting a few weeks, but she despaired of ever getting used to the Queen’s way of speaking.
Around page 50
Nick laid out the objects he had found in the chapel: the note, handkerchief, and the stone discovered by Robin.
The Queen took the note, read it quickly, then handed it back. “He must have known her,” she said after a short silence. “This would not have worked on one of the older girls. It’s too brief, for one thing, and the tone is all wrong. Not a declaration of love so much as a command.”

Beware the Lizard Lurking by Vivienne Brereton

Beginning
Snow-laden clouds hung low in the evening sky, threatening to release their heavy burden at any moment. On Ludgate Hill, six chimes rang out from Old Saint Paul’s, sending the gossips within scuttling back to their homes with the latest tidings from Henry Tudor’s court.
Around page 50
As soon as I entered the chapel blazing with candles, I knew there was something wrong with the scene in front of me; it looked the same as when we’d decorated it yesterday…but it also looked completely different. The air was fragrant with the scent of beeswax, as well as the sweet aroma of plants and flowers, with not a single one out of place.

8 thoughts on “Should I read on?

  1. Even though I also know that life’s too short to read something that I’m not enjoying, I still do it sometimes. Usually it’s a classic that I think will be good for me and sometimes it’s something that has come so highly recommended that I think the fault is with me if I don’t like it. There are plenty of books on my TBR pile, though, so I should be stricter and just stop reading.

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    • Finishing what you start is pretty ingrained so it was liberating to realize that I didn’t have to read books I didn’t like.
      Sometimes I find it is my mood that decides whether I can get into a book. It took three tries to get into And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov. The first couple of times I couldn’t get past page three. It was a favourite of my father’s so I persisted and it was well worth it.
      I rarely read classics these days but think I should make more of an effort. I couple of years ago I started carrying Paradise Lost in my handbag because, to my shame, I have never read it. I intended reading it on public transport but I haven’t been on a tram or train in over a year, so I am only a third through. I’ll need to start at the beginning when I pick it up again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read Paradise Lost either. I think I started it once, but put it down. I’m not even sure that I have a copy. I once started a book three times, in the days when I always finished books that I started. I think it was the first book that I didn’t finish. These days I’m quite angry with my younger self for giving it three goes, as it wasn’t a good book, whatever the reviews said.

        I’ve been surprised by the classics that I’ve put off reading over the years only to discover recently that they’re excellent. Trollope was the revelation of last year and next year I might tackle Thackeray.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am slowly rereading Jame Joyce’s Ulysses which I did read 25 years ago and can remember very little about. Perhaps I should aim to finish that and Paradise Lost by the end of the year. I think I have become a bit lazy reading so much modern fiction that you can just race through. Older fiction requires a more thoughtful approach.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I worked in an indy bookshop for 20 years and had quite the reputation for not finishing books, though I have started many. I’m suspicious when a book starts strong, wondering if they can keep up the momentum. Often they can’t. Writing is hard. Great writing is rare.

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    • Yes, great writing is rare.
      I suspect many stories start well because writers put so much work into the first few chapters. It’s probably the most revised part of any story. If, after those first few chapters, the reader cares enough about the characters to keep reading, the beginning has done its job even if it is no longer great writing.
      While the writing is important to me, for many others the story is more important. When I was working as a librarian, I had people tell me how well written Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code were. There was something in the stories that captured their imaginations and, as with The Da Vinci Code, with short chapters and a hook at the end of every chapter they just have to keep reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I learned a lot from the customers about how to steer others to a book they might like. I sure didn’t read much Dan Brown! If they are reading that’s good. Doesn’t have to be literature.

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