In May I read two of the worst books I’ve ever read and two of my favorite books of all time. I also read one fairly disappointing book from a usually good author.
Last year I decided that I needed to read something other that my usual staple of science fiction and fantasy. I went to a yard sale and bought a stack of books by mystery writers, one from each author, picking randomly because I didn’t know any of them. The reason I settled on mystery is because I have always viewed mystery books as formulaic, silly, and poorly written (with the exception of Tony Hillerman). They are usually entertaining if you’ve got nothing else but… I realized that most people who have only experienced science fiction by what’s on TV or in the movies, or any of a long list of very terrible authors might think many of the same things about that genre of science fiction. Since I know that those people are simply ignorant of where to find good science fiction I thought maybe I’m just ignorant about where to find good mysteries.
Having no knowledge of any of the authors I picked up (I know this is the worst way to try to find good authors – if they were at a yard sale they probably weren’t any good) I decided to read them in alphabetical order by author.
David Baldacci’s The Simple Truth was the first one on the list. I have to say that, for a best-selling writer with such a huge library of books this writer is one of the worst I’ve ever read. The dialogue feels about as natural as if chimpanzees were reading Shakespeare (which might be quite amusing, if I wasn’t supposed to take it seriously – even more interesting would be an infinite number of chimpanzees reading… never mind) and the plot is so contrived that it barely makes any sense at all. It took over a hundred pages for the first murder to happen (in a murder mystery) and the rest of the book was filled with clunky exposition and just plain silly circumstances that I think were meant to be dramatic but sounded like something that I used to write in middle school English when I knew there should be more but I didn’t know what so I made up scenes of people talking about nothing in particular. The author further proved that he was inept at building any real tension by keeping vital information from the reader, even when the characters knew what was going on. He had to resort to conversations where “the dark voice” gave orders to the bad guys – we knew who all of them were – so that there could be one mysterious character. Instead of tension I just felt bored. After all how exactly does a voice sound ‘dark’? There aren’t even any clues in the story, the person who is being so ‘cleverly’ hidden is never described as having a ‘dark voice’ except when he is in bad guy mode. This is one of the things that frustrates me the most in mystery books. If you have to hide information from me in order to build tension then you have failed. As Daniel Abraham says, (and Stephen King) tension comes from knowing, otherwise it’s just cheap tricks. I can’t really recommend this book to anybody because I felt like it was so hopelessly stupid that it’s insulting to suggest that people might like it.
Pirate Sun by Karl Schroeder I was excited about. He wrote two brilliantly told and beautiful stories in the previous two books of this series and the world of Virga is definitely the most interesting world that I have ever read about in any genre. Somehow this book felt completely pointless. There are random characters doing things to the protagonist. Sometimes he does things in character, sometimes he makes up his mind to do something and then does the opposite, with no apparent explanation. The whole thing is just one action scene to the next until we finally get to the point of the book, which could have been in the second chapter for all the change that has taken place by the end. The truly sad part is that the ending hints at a very deep story that has been going on behind the scenes but we only see the results, from a distance. I understand that the idea behind these books is adventure and action but this book laid it on so thick that it lost all meaning.
Star Wars: Omen by Christie Golden is a grand piece of work. This series of Star Wars books just can’t get any better. In the first one by Aaron Allston Han and Leia go to a pilot’s reunion and fly around in some caves, Luke and Ben learn how to not get struck by lightning (seriously) and Jaina (now in her late thirties) sneaks out of her room to play dress-up with her boyfriend. If that sounds like too much excitement to you then stop there because Christie Golden turns it up another notch when Han and Leia go to a stock show, Luke and Ben wander around in caves touching things (seriously) and Jaina calls a press conference to tell the media that she is going on a date. I know you’re wondering how so much excitement can be packed into a single novel but it’s true. Don’t worry, there isn’t any more than that in case things get too complicated.
Note: The above review was intended to be delivered in a straight deadpan.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien was a breath of fresh air after that insanity. Perhaps the reason I had so much to say about it was because of the extreme contrast between it and the three books I read just before it. The Hobbit is still one of my favorite books – just after Lord of the Rings. Little can compare to Tolkien’s skill as a story teller.
The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan is another of my favorite books. Robert Jordan came as close as anybody has ever come to capturing the spirit and craft of Tolkien (he’s still a long ways off – he’s just closer than most). This book is one of the ‘good ones’ before the series lost all sense of focus.