Friday, August 31, 2012

Hitting 300: They Can't All Be Winners

I was going to do this "good, bad, and ugly"-style, but decided to get the "ugly" out of the way first.

Book #300 was, luckily, a pretty good one. Most of the previous 299 were pretty good too. I'm not saying that they're all amazing works of art, but I'm not really interested in that. I'm interested in being entertained. I'm looking for an escape.

Unfortunately, there've been some not so great books along the way. It's bound to happen, especially the more I try to branch out of my literary comfort zone (which, for the record, is not all that "literary"). So, here are some of my more bitter disappointments:

Seven Deadly Wonders, by Matthew Reilly
(published 2005, read in April 2009)

Once upon a time, if I started a book, I had to finish it. Since then, I've given myself permission to give up on a book if I'm really not feeling it, though I'm still fine-tuning the process. If I don't set it aside, I feel like I'm being too patient. If I do set it aside, I worry that I didn't give the book a fair chance. But I'm getting better. After all, there are far too many that I'm interested in to waste time on one that I'm not.

Back in 2009, I still was stuck in my "finish what you start" phase. This book really tested that philosophy, and is a prime example of one that I should have just given up on. I was forewarned by several less-than-favorable reviews, but it sounded like an interesting idea, so I gave it a chance.

A hundred pages in, as we were finally wrapping up the opening adventure sequence, I knew those reviewers had it right. This very nearly became the first book I ever gave up on. I should have stopped reading right then. "But maybe it'll get better," I thought to myself, always the agonizing argument against giving up on a book. It didn't.

And yet, on Goodreads this book has an average rating of 4.01*. So, it's hard for me to say, "Stay away from this book," because obviously there are a lot of people out there who loved it.

But . . . seriously, stay away from this book. There are so many authors out there who do the action-adventure thing so much better, and I have to believe that a good chunk of the people who loved this one just haven't seen it done right.

(*All average ratings are obviously fluid, but these are the numbers as of the time of this posting.)

Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens
(published 2010, read in May 2011)

Most of the time, rating a book with 1 star is a decisive act. It may not be clear all the way through the book, but typically after reading the last page, I'm left with a pretty clear impression. Sometimes it's a flat out, "Well that sucked." Sometimes there's more a feeling of disappointment, like when a good idea is handled badly, or a story starts off strong but then loses me at a critical moment.

With this book, though, I really struggled. Because my gut reaction was, "I didn't like it." But it wasn't actually a bad book. It wasn't poorly written. It wasn't lacking in substance. It didn't fit the profile of my usual 1-star books. But still . . . I didn't like it.

Mainly, I found it extremely disturbing. It was pretty clear from the publisher blurb that it would be, but I have a pretty high tolerance for what I can read about, much higher than for what I can watch. This book pushes those boundaries. But the way that people were raving about this "astonishing debut novel," I kept waiting for something phenomenal to happen. But nothing ever did. It wasn't a bad novel by any means. It just wasn't as exceptional as I'd been lead to believe.

The GR average rating is 3.97*, but in this case the high rating doesn't surprise me. While I personally didn't like it and therefore stand by my rating, I could at least appreciate the talent behind it, and can definitely see why so many people liked it. I would still give the caveat that this is not the book for you if you're highly sensitive, which is still funny to me, because typically I'm not. Not when it comes to my reading material, anyway. I just didn't get enough out of the book to justify getting through it.

Good Things I Wish You, by A. Manette Ansay
(published 2009, read in March 2012)

This is my most recent 1-star novel. On the one hand, I had very high expectations going in, so I may have sabatoged myself there. If nothing else, my investment in the novel prevented me from putting it down when I should have.

This book is about the relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, two Romantic-era musicians and composers. The historical information is alternated with a present-day story about another relationship. It was supposed to be "a whirlwind emotional journey" about "the timeless nature of love and friendship between women and men." And it could have been . . . if the author wasn't so attached to her story that she couldn't give it the objectivity it needed.

While I was reading this, it reminded me of the stories I used to write. They were so personal, just reimaginings of things going on in my own life, or things I wanted to happen in my own life, and they were just terrible. No one but me would ever want to read them. So, on a hunch, I visted the author's website. Sure enough, the story of the modern day woman was a not-so-thinly-veiled retelling of recent events in her own life, more a therapeutic exercise than a novel.

As for the history portions of the story, they were extremely dry, not compelling at all. And, since I'm already familiar with these historical figures, there was no new information to keep me interested.

The average GR rating is 3.08*. The distribution of ratings is pretty much a bell curve, while the previous two were very top heavy, with myself in the minority (1-star ratings make up only 1% of ratings for the Stevens, and only 2% for the Reilly). So, the general consensus here seems to be, it was okay, even good, but not great. Personally, I thought it was awful, and I'm pretty mad at myself for the misguided optimism that kept me from giving up on it. But, since reading this, I have had a higher than usual "I give up" rate, so perhaps the silver lining here is that it reinforced the lesson I've been trying to teach myself.

I won't go into so much detail on the rest, but in the interest of full disclosure, these are the other books that I deemed not worth the time I spent reading them:

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben
(published 2001, read in April 2009, avg rating 4.05*)
This one could have been okay. There were a lot of little things that bugged me, but I still probably wouldn't have set it aside, even if I read it now instead of back then. But, the twist ending was the nail in the coffin for me. This is another one, though, that I seem to be in the minority. The percentage of 1-star ratings is actually listed as 0%, there are so few of us who didn't like this book. Chances are, if you read it, you won't hate it as much as I did . . . but I still can't recommend it.

Next, by Michael Crichton
(published 2006, read in August 2009, avg rating 3.36*)
This is the only real surprise in the bunch. Crichton is usually hit or miss for me, but even the "misses" are at least "okay" (ie, worth 2 stars). This is the only one of his that I truly did not like. It reads like a set of short stories that tries to be a novel but fails. It's thought provoking -- maybe that's all he was going for -- but not entertaining or satisfying to me.

Illuminated, by Matt Bronleewe
(published 2007, read in December 2009, avg rating 3.41*)
Simple explanation for this one: it had an exciting premise that was told in the most boring way possible. By a different author, this had the potential to be a 3-star, at least.

The Rapture, by Liz Jensen
(published 2009, read in May 2010, avg rating 3.31*)
This was another that, like Tell No One, wasn't really bad, and spent most of the novel as a likely 2-star candidate, but the ending pushed me over the edge.

The Atlantis Revelation, by Thomas Greanias
(published 2009, read in May 2010, avg rating 3.50*)
This is the third book in a mediocre series, so my expectations were already pretty low, and yet it still managed to disappoint. That's fairly impressive . . . if you want to call it that.

The Omega Point, by Whitley Strieber
(published 2010, read in July 2010, avg rating 3.05*)
This book and the next are, I think, the ones that finally convinced me that if I'm not interested in a book in the beginning, chances are I won't be interested in it by the end. With this one, I honestly couldn't figure out the point of what I was reading. It was just one strange idea after another, with only the barest hints of a story to hold the whole thing together.

The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl
(published 2008, read in August 2010, avg rating 3.04*)
There were a few interesting tidbits here and there, but not enough to hold my interest through the more boring parts of the novel. I don't know if the collaboration between the two writers has anything to do with it, but the end result wasn't entertaining or satisfying in the least.

Everything Matters!, by Ron Currie
(published 2009, read in January 2012, avg rating 3.95*)
Similar to The Rapture and Tell No One in that, even though I wasn't totally into it, it might have ended up as a 2-star. By this time I'd started setting aside novels I wasn't interested in, so it at least held my interest enough to keep reading, mostly because it was an intriguing concept and I fell victim to my classic downfall: I wanted to see if it got any better. In the end, this is another book that I fully acknowledge isn't actually "bad," it just isn't for me.

To some extent, of course, that's true of any book. It's just that with some, my opinion is more in line with the general consensus. Sometimes it's very much not. (Looking at it from the other perspective, the lowest average rated book on my list is Lost, by Gregory Maguire, with a 2.70*. I gave it 4 stars.)

Though the phrase "there's no accounting for taste" is usually used in a derogatory way, it really is true. For every book out there, there's someone who liked it. The only real way to know if you're going to like it, love it, or hate it, is to give it a chance. Luckily, I'm slowly learning that "giving it a chance" doesn't have to mean reading the entire book.

Still, even before I fully learned this lesson, I only read eleven 1-star books out of 300. Less than 4% that I honestly did not like. In an ideal world, of course, I wouldn't read any books that I didn't like, but such is the price of trying new authors, of exploring new genres, of taking a chance on an idea.

Tomorrow I'll share those books that left me with a much more favorable impression.


Read the rest of my "Hitting 300" blog series:
Part 1: A Look Back
Part 2: Let the Devil Sleep
Part 3: They Can't All Be Winners
Part 4: Saving the Best for Last

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