What makes a book a page-turner? When I'm in the office, I have lots to do: read PC Gamer, Harper's Magazine, Science, Nature, or even the random professional journal; surf blogs; catch up on my bottomless chart basket; feed the frogs. And I see patients, too. That's why it's always remarkable when I find a book that demands I keep reading it no matter what. I'll squeeze in a half hour of reading time before the patients roll in, five or ten minutes between patients, and my lunch break, all to finish the damned book. This is uncommon enough that I can count these books on one hand.1. Harvest, by Tess Gerritsen (1997) My thanks go to Paperback Writer for pointing me towards doctor-turned-author Tess Gerritsen. Ms. Gerritsen's blog piqued my interest, so I sniffed around locally for her books and found her first novel, Harvest, in our local library. I finished Harvest today. At last I can get back to PBW's Afterburn, Lilith's book, and my next assignment for Tangent. What it's about: Abby DiMatteo has it all. Though only a second year surgical resident at Boston's Bayview Hospital, her career seems set. Her boyfriend, transplant surgeon Mark Hodell, has put a good word in for her with 'the team' (think The Firm, and you'll be on the right track). Provided Abby continues to be a model resident, she's a shoe-in for a cardiothoracic fellowship and eventual inclusion in Bayview's transplant team. Too bad these bastards are EVIL. Why it's a page-turner: Despite a few first novel warts, Harvest zips along. I'd figured out every angle on the mystery long before Abby, but I didn't care. I had to see the bad guys get punished. The only thing that cheeses me more than an immoral, unethical doctor is a whole bunch of immoral, unethical doctors. I also wanted to know how low Gerritsen would bring her protagonist. (Answer: pretty damned low.) By the end, you'll be gritting your teeth and wetting your pants cuz you forgot to go potty. What have I learned from this? Sympathetic protagonist + nasty-assed despicable villains = compulsive reading experience 2. The Constant Gardner by John le Carre (2001) Le Carre novels rarely have traditional villains, and The Constant Gardner is no exception. Here, le Carre takes aim at 'Big Pharma', the major multinational pharmaceutical industries who put profit before patients. What it's about: Midlevel British diplomat Justin Quayle tends to his garden and seems content to drift through life. When his beautiful young wife Tessa is found naked, raped, and dead near Kenya's Lake Turkana, Quayle wakes up. More than that -- he's on fire. He slips the grasp of Britain's home office and begins a one-man crusade to discover the truth behind Tessa's death and achieve some degree of justice (vengeance?) for her. Why it's a page-turner: No one nails characterization like le Carre. His characters live for me like no other author's. In Justin Quayle, le Carre gives us a lost man desperately searching for meaning in his life. Even if you're put off by the author's left-leaning bias against Big Pharma, you should still appreciate Justin's inner journey. What have I learned from this? Character, character, character. Justin is a living, breathing human who needs to know the truth the way the rest of us need oxygen. Le Carre is so good at his craft that we feel Justin's compulsion, too. 3. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961) I learned about Wake in Fright from the Rara Avis list, "a mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled and noir writing." And oh boy are they ever -- devoted, that is. You'll see occasional discussions of film adaptations, but 99% of the discussion concerns HB/N novels and authors. Wake in Fright is one of those stories that starts slow, but never stops gaining momentum. By the end, you'll feel sledgehammered. One of the Amazon reviewers calls it "the Australian Heart of Darkness." This is a little hyperbolic, but only a little. Deliverance would be another apt comparison. What it's about: John Grant teaches in a one-room schoolhouse in a tiny outback village that makes "boonies" look like metropolises. He's saved enough money to take a six week vacation, and wants more than anything to visit his girl in Sydney. First stop on his journey is Bundanyabba -- "the Yabba" to locals. It's very nearly his last stop. Before long, he's lost his money and his soul. Why it's a page-turner: All this poor bastard wants is to get to Sydney. Cook dishes out setback after setback in the form of beer, gambling, an incredible kangaroo hunt, and more beer. Throughout, the desolation and loneliness of the outback are palpable and terrifying. The Yabba's natives are desperate, creepy. Like Grant, you'll want to flee these people and their land. You'll want to claw your way back to civilization. What have I learned from this? Just like it says in the how-to books. Start with a likable protagonist, make him want something badly, then throw obstacle after obstacle in his path. It helps to have a killer setting and memorable supporting characters. Finally, when your protag is busy eating dust, kick him in the nuts and drive him lower still. Lest you blokes think I only go apeshit over protag-against-all-odds stories, here are two ensemble stories to round things out. 4. Legend, by David Gemmell (1994) I don't read much fantasy. How Legend ended up in my fat hairy paws I can't recall, but if ever there was a story that could make me want to write fantasy, it was this one. Well, The Black Company (see below) made me feel that way, too. What it's about: Geography has made the fortress of Dros Delnoch a bottleneck protecting the Drenai from the aggressive northern tribe, the Nadir. But manpower is wanting at Dros Delnoch, the leadership is even worse, and the Nadir are on the march. The Drenai's only hope is the legendary Druss, a warrior who has never lost a battle. Problem is, he's old. Really old. Why it's a page-turner: Gemmell takes a host of likable characters and puts them in a conflict they can't possibly win. This creates a mounting tension as the Nadir approach, lay siege, and vanquish one retaining wall after another. The siege warfare in this novel is so well drawn that I felt disappointed by the siege in The Two Towers. I recall kvetching to Karen, "They call that a siege?" What have I learned from this? I think Sol Stein may have come up with (or at least popularized) the idea of the crucible: an inescapable, conflict-riddled environment the hero willing enters and cannot leave until he resolves the story's main conflict. See this post on Eternity Road for a great discussion on the crucible. Legend derives its power, its glorious page-turnability, from Gemmell's masterful application of this dramatic principle. 5. The Black Company, by Glen Cook (1984) One day, the Rara Avis crowd had a chat on hardboiled SF novels. That led to a discussion of hardboiled fantasy, and The Black Company came up. The raves were ravy enough that I bought a copy forthwith. This is not a perfect novel. Cook does something unforgivable: he kills off one of his best characters. I'm still scratching my head over that. Nevertheless, I love this book. When I think narrative drive, The Black Company is the first thing that comes to mind. What it's about: For hundreds of years, the Black Company has sold its services to the highest bidder. They're mercenaries, and their only ethical code has been to serve the guy who writes the check . . . until now. Their current employer, the Syndic of Beryl, is bound to fall to the rebellious Blues. If the Company stands by the Syndic, they will all die. A mysterious, powerful wizard from the north offers them alternative employment, and the Company jumps at the offer. But who -- or what -- are they serving now? Why it's a page-turner: Forget the 800-page, Tolkienesque, richly textured world so cherished by most fantasists. Cook sacrifices depth for the sake of momentum. The Black Company has no shortage of action, plot twists, or fascinating characters -- male and female, bad and not-so-bad. Which reminds me: forget good vs. evil. In The Black Company, we have bad vs. evil. Moral ambiguity prevails here. And another thing. Cook starts out with hardboiled characters whom you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. Their main redeeming features are their humor and their devotion to one another. Before you've had much chance to be jaded by their toughness, they're frightened silly by a monstrous threat which nearly destroys them. Next, we meet the one person who can master that threat. Next, we meet the supernatural being who gives that person his commands. It's called upping the ante . . . but you knew that, right? I've mentioned the nonstop rapid-fire action, but I haven't even touched on the Fourth of July-style magic battles, the unique villains, or the seriously weird love affair. What have I learned from this? Keep your story moving. Build each character, each scene with the smallest number of details necessary to provide substance. Give your readers credit: they have imaginations. You don't have to paint every last stroke. Up the ante. Keep the mind candy flowing; if your reader encounters a steady stream of action, humor, and snappy dialog, he'll keep turning the page because he knows there's more to come.
***I hope I've given you folks a few things to think about. Now, since I feel like I'm crawling with cat fleas, I think I'll take a shower ;o) D.