Saturday, July 23, 2016

What Makes a Novel Memorable?

Everyone has their own criteria for what makes a novel memorable, and the NY Bestsellers list isn't a good guide. Stories that live in my mind have touched me in a special way, and it seems the reasons are wide and varied.  I'm most likely to be hooked by the author, but not always. I loved Mary Stewart's mystery-romance novels, also Georgette Heyer's Georgian and Regency historical romances, Sergeanne Golon's Angelique series, some Jude Deveraux and Roberta Gellis books, and in science fiction/fantasy I've enjoyed F.M. Busby's Demo Trilogy, C.J. Cherryh's books, Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern, Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, among others. These worlds are very memorable and reinforced by the number of books in each one, but I seldom remember the specific characters and plot lines of each book.

I remember many single books, too. For instance, I remember the first book I read by myself start to finish, and I remember very well some of the youth-oriented books I read as a child (or in turn read to my children). Dr. Seuss was kid-friendly. Currently, I read about 55 fiction books a year and non-fiction books as needed. Of all those fiction stories, only a few stand out. One was How to Bake a Perfect Life. It was about a women character I really identified with. She was a baker and used sourdough. So do I. She had family problems. I tend to find family situations with attendant misunderstandings or characters who have been abandoned most alluring.  However, of all those classics I was forced to read in high school, the only one I remember is Pride and Prejudice. (Me and a million other women—and, ahem, I have all those aforementioned books in a Harvard Classics collection on my bookshelf.) The funny thing about this Pride and Prejudice story was it is now a historical romance, but when written was a contemporary romance. Go figure.

Most non-fiction books I read, though, are not start-to-finish but more pick-and-choose what I want to read about. Currently, I'm reading a book that goes through all the days of December 1941. While I'm reading this book for background for a story, I have another interest as my Dad was at Hickam Field on December 7th, so Pearl Harbor is always a very interesting topic to me. The things I'm learning about what happened during that first month of the war in the U.S. are astounding. For instance, a woman went to prison for a year for contributing to the delinquency of minors and her two sons became wards of the court because her boys didn't salute the flag in their classroom. Another man had a $200 fine for disorderly conduct for booing President Roosevelt in a movie theater. Two hundred dollars was a lot of money then. Strange doings on the home front. And...women were told not to put too many lipstick prints on the mail being sent to their husbands and boyfriends in service. Those lip prints could be taken for secret enemy code! This type of information demonstrates that no matter how strange some fiction seems, reality can trump it. So I'll remember this book for a long time.

While I read just about anything except horror or vampires, historical novels and historical romance novels are my favorite genres, but because I know a lot about history, any discrepancies with historical facts make the story stand out as memorably bad. My favorite historical is Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles because the series was so historically accurate, along with having great characters, fantastic storylines, great descriptions, and other overall qualities. It was a hard series to get into because the hero starts out an antihero and goes through phases between being a heroic and stellar man and an unscrupulous, nefarious malefactor. I never thought I get through the first novel, but then absolutely had to read the next five. Understandable, as it was the 15th Century after all, so set in one of my favorite historical eras. 

I also love scifi/fantasy, but the plots have to be based on some sort of science or some other believable setting that has been well set up. When those are done right, the stories are hard to forget.

As always, check the following links for more views on this topic:

Judith Copek
Beverley Bateman
Skye Taylor
Dr. Bob Rich
Victoria Chatham
Helena Fairfax 
Marci Baun 
Rachael Kosinski
Connie Vines


  1. Rhobin, You always pick such great topics for these blog discussions, and it's fascinating to see the various writers'takes on each topic. So true that the book's (mostly) on the best seller list are not always memorable, although the ones on the list for a year or longer deserve our interest.
    It is also true that some books, even renowned books,resonate more with some readers than others, and we all have individual favorites. I still remember a book I read in junior high. It was the first "young adult" book I'd ever run across, and I must have read it three or four times. It was called "Pink Magic" and I can' find it anywhere.

  2. Thanks, Judy! It becomes harder to come up with topics that are not repetitious, but in all honesty this was Dr. Bob's topic. I'm always open to suggested topics. :)
    It is is the "Pink Magic" by Donna Jo Napoli, a used copy is available on Amazon.

  3. Rhobin--it always startles me when reality is so odd that, if we put it into a book, no one would ever print it on account of the ridiculousness of it. I love how you mentioned that the NY Bestseller list is not a good guide, that books should be rated by your own criteria. It's why I take book reviews with a heavy pinch of salt. Okay, so you didn't like the book--but I'm not you. I also just painstakingly worked through a novel the NY bestseller raved about, and I despised it. So who's to decide for you what's a good book or not? We also have loads of Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey at my house in the downstairs bookshelves. My mom loves them. :) I always enjoy your posts!

  4. Rhobin, Bob picked an interesting topic and the various approaches made it even more interesting.
    Thanks for a well thought out post. It was interesting and mentioned a few more books I'm not aware of.

  5. Rhobin, an intelligent and interesting post as usual.
    I have a rule about the judgment of the Experts. If the authorities like a book or movie, then almost certainly I'll hate it. :)

  6. Hi Rhobin, as you know, I couldn't do a post this month, but I'm visiting. Love yours. I also love P&P, but maybe my favourite book is Wind in the Willows. It was a set text in S1 and so very unexpected, who couldn't fall in love with it? Anne Stenhouse

  7. Very good point about NY bestsellers Rhobin. I've often been disappointed with a book on the list as it has not lived up to my expectations. On the flipside, there have been books that have made me wonder how did that make the list? That's a bit like movies panned by the critics that moviegoers in turn love. I read The Dragons of Pern years ago and thoroughly enjoyed them. I also read somewhere recently that the series is being adapted for the movies.

  8. I enjoyed this month's topic, Rhobin, and loved your post. I so agree about the bestsellers' list. I'm a big fan of Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer, too. I recently read a book called The Death Of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof, by E.A. Dineley. It's not a bestseller and only has a handful of reviews, but it's a wonderful book and really stuck in my mind. If you love Heyer, I can highly recommend it.

  9. Robin, I probably shouldn't confess but I seldom glance at NY bestsellers list. As always, great topic and great post!