Sunday, February 7, 2010

Grumbling, Disagreeable, possibly-Entertaining critics

I was book reading reviews today, and I cracked up after the fourth Booklist review contradicted all the others (Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, even Kirkus Review).  All four of these Booklist reviews said, "Sniff.  Well, I suppose the young, unsophisticated people like that sort of low-brown, pedestrian thing, but we found it frankly tiresome and boring and didn't like it at ALL.  Sniff."

Usually they were more specific and pointed out that they specifically hated the things the other reviews liked.  If Publisher's Weekly loved the outstanding character development, Booklist thought the book suffered because it was populated with undeveloped, stock character types.  If Library Journal loved the sophisticated, twisty plot, Booklist thought the whole thing was terribly predictable and didn't have a moment of REAL suspense.  Sigh.

It's not like I don't understand being contrary as a way to seem smart, and it's not like I don't understand how everyone liking something can make one not like it JUST BECAUSE, but if I were a reviewer, and I knew I was having that kind of petulant, immature, biased reaction, I would hope I had the professionalism to deal with it maturely or else pass the review on to someone who could.  For Pete's sake.

At least I got a laugh out of it.

Have you ever felt that way about a book everyone seemed to praise to the skies?  (What book?)  Did you read it?  Did reading it change your mind?


  1. oh, oh... I just finally got my hands on First Lord's Fury and read it, and I really don't know what to make of the Publisher's Weekly blurb that shows up on Amazon's listing for it (and my library's catalog, too). They call it derivative, uncreative, unconvincing, with no character or story development. I'm not really sure how derivative it is- didn't know what it was supposed to be imitating. There's no elves or dwarves, at least. [rant]AND they complain that "new readers are tossed into a complex plot without any explanation of the considerable backstory." It's the sixth book in a SERIES. Series? Get it? You start at the beginning when you're a new reader? The plot builds? I mean, come on, folks. You're supposed to understand how books work. [/rant]

    Anyway, as far as plot recaps go, I think First Lord's Fury would have suffered for anything major, because the only really successful kind of recap I've encountered (in terms of it feeling natural) is when you introduce a brand new character and have to fill them in. (there's the before-the-battle-my-life-flashes-before-my-eyes kind of thing, I suppose, or else you get a narrator boring you with several pages of backstory.) What do you think about recapping in fantasy novels?

  2. If it's done well, it works. Bujold is kind of brilliant at it. You don't know every little detail, but you can pick up enough to get a good picture (that makes you want to go out and read the other books because of what they will add to the world), and you aren't missing anything you need to keep reading and enjoying the story. This is one reason why her books have great re-read value.

    Some books in William Kent Krueger's series are fine starting points, and a few aren't. It's the nature of a series.

    Sometimes, Butcher is great at subtly recapping things, too. Some of his Dresden Files books other than the first few can serve as good entry points. (I try to start a lot of people on Dead Beat because it's much better than the first several, and it makes you want to go back and read them, and it sets you up with what you need to read the future books, but you don't have to have read the earlier books to understand what's going on.)

    The way to make it work seems to be quickly establishing the characters from their dialogue with each other, actions, familiarity, body language, etc., to show their relationships and personalities instead of telling about them. It's basic good writing, and it's really, really hard to do.

    My impression is that when Butcher started writing the Codex Alera Series, it was not designed to be episodic in the way the (earlier) Dresden Files books are. The last two Alera books, in particular, are really, for all intents and purposes, one book. You don't seriously expect anyone to read the last book first, so why waste time trying to recap so many characters and situations?

    To be fair, I would have liked a summary chapter first, because I forgot everything in the year between the books, and that made me frustrated, so I kind of understood where PW was coming from.

    I understand PW wanting to warn people that this isn't a good place to start, but they didn't have to hate on that aspect quite so much. I feel like their disgruntlement made them unnecessarily harsh on the rest of the book.

    The other professional review I read was pretty much the opposite. I think it was from Booklist, and they loved it as a last volume to a series. Go figure.