Better the devil you know?

I’ve heard a few times that the reading public usually goes for a book by an author they’ve already enjoyed, this is what they say you’re up against when your first novel is competing for attention on the bookshop shelves. I filed it away for future reference but didn’t really think too deeply about whether or not it was true, until today when I realised I seemed to be a slave to it.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve read a couple of novels by Tracy Chevalier; the first was Girl With a Pearl Earring, which my friend T gave me, and I enjoyed it on several levels. I’m interested in history, so historic settings often make me prick up my ears (or should that be ‘settle my glasses more firmly on my nose’?), and this was set in a time and place that don’t seem to be used that often in novels; the language was rich, the imagery vivid and I could practically smell the inside of the studio. Next, I read The Lady and the Unicorn, made more special by the fact that I’d seen the tapestries she’s writing about, a few years earlier. Again it wasn’t a tired setting, the story was engaging, the surroundings evoked superbly, and I loved it. When I saw Falling Angels in the library I thought ‘Great, I like Tracy Chevalier’, but I was vaguely disappointed – the story seemed slight, and the carefully researched history seemed to be trotted out rather than unobtrusively forming the background.

We all have our off days, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt, wondering also whether she needed the framework of an artwork to weave her novel around, which she didn’t have with Falling Angels. So I was still working on the ‘here’s an author I know I’ve enjoyed’ premise when I found The Virgin Blue in a charity shop. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to make it to the end of that one, it was almost how I imagine a Mills and Boon romance and if it had been written by an unknown (at least to me) author I probably would have tossed it aside within a few chapters. I liked the premise, the history was at least designed to be thrust at you, since the main character was researching it, but the writing was weak, at least in comparison to the standard I knew she could achieve (I do sometimes think it’s dangerous being well-known, established authors often put out work that wouldn’t pass muster if they weren’t a Name, I don’t know whether it’s because no-one dares to edit them rigorously any more, or because they’re now a product that has to keep being available to be marketed. Either way it lessens their value).

And yet, believe it or not I bought Burning Bright when I saw it in a charity shop a few months ago, and started reading it this morning (I’ve always got a massive pile of books to read, and I get side-tracked by libraries, or loans from Big Brother or my dad). I’m not that far through yet so I don’t want to pass judgement too early, but it’s not looking good (or rather, it’s not looking like the standard of those first two I read). That was when I realised I’d been seduced by branding, just as bad as if I kept on buying Heinz beans even though they changed the recipe to one I didn’t like as much. As an antidote, I called off at the library on the way home (ostensibly to return some books, but we all know what happens to me in libraries) and picked three books, more or less at random, by authors I knew nothing about. Of course it was the colour, font, size and wording on the spine that enticed me today, but that’s another problem entirely.

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