Saturday, October 07, 2006

A book I don't like

I'm reading an epic fantasy book by a well respected name in the scifi/fantasy world. This is a book that got very good reviews, both on amazon and elsewhere, and I'm confused as to why.

While her world building is detailed and her concept original, ultimately, the story
is unsatisfying.

I might not have been able to say why before I began to write. Now having completed 2 novels and having critiqued the novels in progress of a solid critique group, I can articulate the reasons.

The first chapter front loads the novel full of back story, told through the device of a secret family tale that is repeated nightly in a ritualized fashion. The degree of scene description is overwhelming, with so many small details that the important elements are drowned out and the plot drags. The second protagonist is introduced to the reader with a self descriptive scene as she stares into a mirror.

As I read this story, I was always aware that it *was* someone's story when I wanted to be swept away in the narrative.

Don't get me wrong--there are some highly original and brilliant elements to this book, including a premise and a world that is morally complex.

I think there are several elements that need to be in place for a stellar read:

--a captivating premise
--believable/complete characters
--strong writing (I'm a sucker for beautiful, lyrical writing, but terse, tight writing also gets high marks)
--cohesive plot (includes appropriate pacing and resolution)

Excellent Reads
A book that excels in all 4 areas is a rare gem to be treasures and re-read. Two examples (IMHO) are "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger and "Summerland," by Michael Chabon.

Good Reads
Books that manage to squeak by with middling scores in at least 3 of these areas are books that I enjoy and recommend. I'm a reading omnivore, but fantasy, thrillers, and science fiction are a guilty pleasure. I've read nearly everything by Dean Koontz, for example. Most of his I term mediocre reads, but a few land in this second category: "Odd Thomas," "Lightning," and "Strangers." (Strangers may be in category 1 for me--I haven't read it in many years, however.)

Mediocre Reads
The book I am slogging through now would probably get high marks for captivating premise, average marks for character, low marks for writing and plot. Good enough marks to want to finish the book, but not to recommend it.

Poor Reads
And I usually don't even finish books that score low on most of these elements.

Now I realize this is a highly subjective rating system. How do you rate the books you read?


  1. When I write reviews, I rarely use anything like a rating system or a check list. It's just a gut feeling. Did I really really really really really enjoy it?

    You've got me curious as to the book you're reading, though.

  2. I had the same reaction as Julie - as I read your post, I was pulling out my hair trying to figure out which book you were reading!

  3. I struggled about whether or not to post the title/author and ultimately decided that this was less a review than a musing about what makes a good read.

    I think had I read this book a few years ago, I might have been less critical and enjoyed it more.

    Maybe I'll post an amazon review at a later time.