Is it just me? Ali Bacon reveals her cheat’s stratagem for when a good read stops delivering

Reading - for pleasure, obvs!
I’ve reached that point when life (or what’s left of it, let’s not talk numbers!) is too short to carry on reading a book I’m not enjoying. So on my list of unfinished books are novels judged ‘great’ by the rest of the world. Cloud Atlas springs to mind – I think I started it twice but never got beyond the opening chapter as well as other more  random things which have rolled up on my book pile – I didn’t dislike Colm Toibins Norah Webster but wasn’t moved to carry on with it so eventually sent it on its way to a charity shop. With these and other masterpieces I’m happy to apply the 50 page rule*. If it’s not working for me by then, I might as well give up.

But then there’s the book that does appeal straight away and has you hooked for quite a while.  Until you start to lose interest. At first you blame yourself: lack of concentration, lack of intelligence! You’re clearly just missing something. But as the evenings pass you’re still not seeing it. It starts to feel like a slog. But surely you can’t stop now – the end is practically in sight! The trouble is, you’re no longer sure that you care.

Great billing!
Last week this happened to me with Priti Taneja’s We that Are Young. I have no guilt in mentioning this as it’s already a prize-winning novel with many admirers. Anyway it was on offer at a bargain price and despite its doorstopper dimensions (I’m more a lover of the slim volume these days) I splashed out and happily dived in. What’s more, I really enjoyed the opening chapters in the voice of John/Jivan returning to his native India and the tangled web of family relationships in a huge business empire. When we took up the story of his cousin Garji, I was initially disappointed but got into her character too, similarly the spoiled and petulant Radha. (No prizes for seeing the King Lear references by the way). Over everything lies the mystery of what has happened to the third and favoured sister Sita and troubled wheeler-dealer half brother Jeet.  
But it wasn’t the easiest read.
  In particular there are passages of dialogue in Hindi which as far as I could see weren’t always explained by what followed. This led me to start skimming over some sections and once you start skimming it’s hard to focus back in. There were also occasional passages of violence which turned me off. When the character voice switched to Jeet I became a bit lost in his (geographical) world and his language. Picking this book up was feeling more like a duty than a pleasure. But by now I was at least 2/3 of the way through!  

How far can you go?
Time to play the joker and look up the reviews. Not the broadsheet reviews which if they existed were sure to be favourable and remind me of what a worthy book this is, but those posted by the (generally) faceless masses of Amazon or Goodreads. 

You mean I’m going to rely on other people’s judgement? Well actually yes! Not so much to see how many are for or against, but just to find out what, if anything, has turned people off. In other words, to find out if it’s just me.   

I’ve done this before in moments of laziness or desperation and once again I found it really useful.
In this case I gleaned two things in particular: that the Hindi dialogue was a minus for many readers. (This in itself wouldn’t have stopped me reading but it was good to know I wasn’t the only numpty!) 

More crucially, I turned up the fact that the ending was going to be particularly violent.  Without providing an actual spoiler this flagged up for me that no feel-good factor – which I suppose I was subconsciously looking for – was in sight and that sealed my decision.

Of course you could say that I was looking for an excuse, but I have used this cheat’s stratagem before and if I’d found opinions of the ‘carry on you won’t be disappointed’ variety, I might have done so. (And I remember this did happen with another book mentioned here.)

I dare say there will be those of you out there who happily lay down a book at any point – or always persevere There is of course a final option employed by a friend of mine who just skips to the end then decides if it’s worth filling in the blanks.  Well in theory that’s fine. But somehow for me that really is cheating!

* An interesting exception to the giving up rule is with an audio book. I’ve recently persevered with two books in the car I don’t think I would have finished on paper. Was it worth it? In one case yes, in the other not so sure. But if you’re stuck in a traffic jam what do you have to lose? Clearly an audio book is a more passive read than turning the page. 

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction.
Her latest novel, In the Blink of an Eye appeared on the ASLS Best SCottish Boks of 2018

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I do seem to give up on books more often than I used to, but that might be because there are now so many books and authors, it's increasingly difficult to know beforehand which will be my kind of read. But I don't have a rule for giving up... I've flung a book at the wall after only 5 pages (this is rare), and also given up only 10 pages from the end of one, because I knew by that time it wasn't going to deliver and preferred my own imaginary ending. You're right, amazon and Goodreads reviews are generally more useful than those published in the press - and besides, by the time I 'discover' a good book, it's usually about 20 years after first publication!
Umberto Tosi said…
I leave half-eaten books all around the house myself. Sometimes I go back to them, but seldom to they engage me like those I finished on first pass. Excellent tips. One does want to know the gist of what happened even if one hasn't ploughed to the finish. As for audiobook - a good enough reader can make silk purses of sow's prose any day.
Griselda Heppel said…
This is music to my ears. I used to feel I should always finish a book I’ve started but decided years ago that as you say, life is too short. If the book is boring or making you miserable, why put yourself through it? I gave up The Kitchen God’s Wife because the heroine was having such a rotten time I didn’t want to go through it with her (pathetic, I know) and got THREE QUARTERS of the way through Master and Commander before deciding all that rigging was more than I could stand. Good idea to check reviews on Amazon to see if something is worth persisting with.

Incidentally, the first two sections very nearly made me give up on Cloud Atlas but I battled on and it suddenly became gripping. Very strange book though.
AliB said…
Thanks all for chipping in. Griselda I loved The Kitchen God's Wife which does go to show! And yes, when it comes to audio, the reader is all or nearly all.
Ann Turnbull said…
I too have developed a preference for shorter novels now (so many books, so little time left!) I've lost my ability to remember names. This occurred recently in quite a short space of time, and has made reading novels much more difficult. Have decided to try writing down each name as I come to it, in the hope that this will help - but knowing me I'll lose my list... I don't often give up on a book, but there was one recent 'women's' trendy bestseller (it shall be nameless) that I not only gave up on after about 30 pages but actually took straight to the second-hand book table run by our local Tesco. Hope it's new owner loves it... On the other hand I recently read Ishiguro's Never Let me Go on my new Kindle and had no problem whatsoever with the names.
AliB said…
that's interesting Ann. I think there were to many similar names in the above book. I am also put off by a 'list of characters' at the start. Even though it's meant to help (and publisher wanted one in In the Blink of an Eye, though that doesn't really have many).A. x

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