Thursday, May 22, 2008

Warm up book reviews

I have only one beef about most book reviewers: they either LOVE everything, or else nothing is ever good enough for them. When I see someone’s list of book reviews, and every one of them gets high praise, I just don’t know what to do with it. What does a bad book look like? How can I tell if your idea of a good book is the same as mine?

This has been more important to me than usual since I didn’t end up finishing two of the books I most recently read, and both of them from previously trusted and enjoyed authors. In both cases (Margaret Weis’ The Soulforge and Dafyd ab Hugh’s Balance of Power) there was just too much sensuality for my comfort level. When Weis and Hickman had written other Dragonlance books, there had been some romantic (and not so romantic) scenes, but they generally drew a respectful curtain over the more intimate parts and I loved the Dragonlance series, so have been eager to eat up anything they produced, even when some of the recent stuff was fairly challenging to my worldview or too dark. Weis writing alone apparently did not feel the same compulsion anymore, and that was very disappointing. I’ve tried rewriting and rephrasing my beef about ab Hugh’s recurring references that objectified women, but haven’t really found one I like (because of course, if I detail what they wrote, then I’m writing it too and bringing to your mind something I didn’t want in mine in the first place, and that just seems wrong – a bit worse than saying, “Wow! This smells nasty! Take a whiff” and thrusting the hairy leftovers under some unsuspecting victim’s nose.) I’ll leave it at that and move on.

So I was very disgruntled this month after stopping two books in a row before halftime. I don’t give myself much time for pleasure reading these days (I’d spend whole summers reading as a teen). Putting down a book and walking away is a very difficult thing for me to do generally, but I made up my mind as a teen that I wasn’t going to read books by authors who felt compelled to put a little lust into every book. You can have perfectly wonderful romances without treating women as objects. (On that note, Joy and I just finished Emma and are working on The Scarlet Pimpernel. Good stuff!)

Thankfully, the book I most recently finished, Federation, did not have that problem. It was a fairly well written book covering three main characters: Zefram Cochrane (inventor of the warp engine which allows faster than light travel, for those of you with only moderate knowledge of the Trek universe), James T. Kirk with his Enterprise crew, and Jean Luc Picard with his. Their adventures overlap and merge and mingle in a manner that is at times breathtaking, but at times trite and overdone. I should perhaps mention after my earlier tirade that Cochrane manages two romances based on love and mutual respect. The ending cheese was spread on just a little bit thick for my taste, but it overall left me feeling very invigorated, with a grander vision of purpose and dignity. It even made me feel like my dissertation had a place in the cosmic whole, and during a week when I was occasionally hating my work that was quite the accomplishment.

Federation was an incredibly well-researched book, referring to many of the events in the Trek universe and weaving them together in a tight storyline. The authors, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, had an accurate and generally inspired vision of who each of the characters are in their respective series (another Trek book I read had Worf doing and saying things no Klingon would. And yes, I’ve been on a small Trek kick recently.) The primary drawback it had was that it had the misfortune to be written in between Generations and First Contact, the first two Next Generation movies. In First Contact we meet a very different Cochrane than the intellectual, philosophical, utopian dreamer who just wants to be left alone, and it was difficult trying to reconcile the two.

Just to try out one more, before these three I read another fairly good book, Dead Man's Ransom, #9 in the Cadfael mystery series by Ellis Peters. Peters always writes an engaging story, and Cadfael himself – a former crusader turned monk who solves the murders that happen around his abbey during an English civil war without modern forensics, fingerprints, or any of the advantages enjoyed by any criminologist from Holmes to Grisham – is generally intriguing. The problem is … Peters has a rut. It’s the same guy who’s guilty every time! I won’t tell you who it is in case you decide to read them, but before the character even made his entrance, I knew whodunit. That’s disappointing. Now, the story around that rut is always different and engaging, so I’ll keep on enjoying them. But one does almost long for a mysterious Mister X whose existence is only revealed in the last 5 pages, or that maybe someone who looks guilty would actually be guilty for once. Ah well.

The real purpose of this exercise was a warm up. I’m in the middle of reading a book I’ve been asked to review, and the fact is … I’m hooked on it. I’m so thoroughly addicted I could hardly concentrate on my work today because the characters kept popping into my head! So I wanted to get some complaints out there on some other books so I can demonstrate 1) that I am a discriminating reviewer and willing to call books on their errors, 2) get it out of my system, and 3) just practice writing that style a bit so I can do a better job of it when I do the real thing.

Sorry for the lack of Hyrum pictures. I’ll try to do better next time.

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