I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but a few years ago I stopped reading a book if I was no longer enjoying it. Taking this approach felt like both a luxury and a violation at the same time. Up to then, I was the good reader doobie who finished anything he started. But, maybe around the time you hit forty, and you start to see the end of the life’s road approaching, you put a premium on your time. Bad books don’t cut it.
Whoa (said Keanu), just went a little existential there…but it’s true nonetheless.
I can’t think of a time when it has happened for two books in a row, but it did recently, and I thought I’d post about why. Usually, I pick up a book because it’s been recommended somewhere, by either a friend or on another blog written by someone I respect or in a writing book. I’m no longer a willy-nilly, “hey, this cover looks nifty, maybe I’ll give it a try,” kind of joe. So, I’ve become choosier about what I even pick up, AND become much more judgmental about what I’m reading as I’m reading it.
I think the basic rule is: if I’m not completely lost in the story within the first fifty pages, the book isn’t for me. But for it to happen twice? Maybe I’m crossing the line into being too harsh…
The first book this happened with was The Walking by Bentley Little. I was craving some good horror fiction, and this author popped up on a few lists as excellent, and he wasn’t someone I’d heard of before. His recommended titles were The Store and The Mailman, but my local library had neither. So, I went with The Walking because the premise looked like an interesting twist on the zombie story. It has a strong opening prologue. An old man in a remote desert town has died and is circling his home while his sons and grandson look on, confused and distressed, unable to stop him. Eventually, he disappears in a nearby lake, only to be found years later by his grandson, who has now been trained in scuba diving. He’s still at the bottom of the lake. Still walking.
So far, so scary, right? But problems arose for me when I got into the book proper, and I found myself disconnected from and not liking the main characters I need to connect with and care about. The first is the divorced detective caring for his elderly father who is nearing death. A sad sack wimp, he pines after various women in his life, and Little even has him masturbating sadly after an evening of frustrated contemplation. Now, I don’t need a hero to jump some nice lady’s bones within the first fifty pages, but I could just tell that this guy was one of those characters who would miraculously step up to the plate and do things to service the plot later in the book. But before that, he’s a limp, unfulfilled, melancholic who can barely muster the cajones to do his job. Meh, I wasn’t feeling him.
But things really went awry when Little introduces the magician character. In this character’s set up, which happens in the Old West past, the magician is a man almost always on the move, until he settled in his current town. He’s been there a few years. He’s content, but now he has to make a choice. He provides some help to a young woman in trouble, which basically means he gives a teenage girl a magic (and wonderfully painless) abortion. He knows this is going to piss the townspeople off, and presto, it does. He melts the girl’s father for being pissed about the situation and showing up with a posse to harass him, and rides off into the night LIKE A BOSS.
Hmm. You’re already risking half your audience by making one of your main characters I’m supposed to empathize with a “benevolent” abortionist. But add on to that, the magician’s actions, when you consider them outside of his point of view, come off as callous to both the girl and the townspeople. Little wants me to feel like the magician is a persecuted outsider, but he didn’t convince me. Just like the abortionist in The Cider House Rules (played by Michael Caine in the movie), I’m supposed to view the guy as noble. Characters automatically get the reader’s sympathy when the story is told from their point of view, but the actions taken by this character rubbed me too wrong to recover.
Let’s go to the scorecard: Solid opening that had me hooked – check. Main character who was sad sack but would be unbelievably heroic later in the book – uh oh. Magician who seems to be kind, but uses his abundant powers to abort babies – welp, I’m done then.
So, I put that aside and picked up a book by Dan Simmons, author of the astonishing science fiction novel, Hyperion. The book is Children of the Night, and it looked like “Chad bait,” from its description. Yes, Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, is back, and nearing the end of his reign as lord of the vampires. He’s become an American billionaire, but has traveled back to Romania after the 90s revolution where the country shrugged off communist rule. Human life is cheap in the country, and an American volunteer doctor, Kate Neumann, is in the country to save sick neglected orphans and stridently condemn all who don’t meet her standards of morality.
That’s a lot of people.
You see where I’m going here. We, unfortunately, quickly leave the point of view of the pointy-toothed one, and are instead stuck with Kate, who moralizes like a puritan with a toothache. She adopts a child who has a strange illness and carts him back to America to study his blood and organs, all while feeling the first pangs of being a working mother. 50 pages in, and I’m wondering if something more interesting is going to happen, but in violation of my general rule, I soldiered on. 100 pages in and I’m sure nothing interesting is going to happen. We’re at the CDC site in Colorado, and she’s doing tests, and things are so very weird! We get a lot, and I mean a lot, of technical medical jargon about blood and organs.
Children of the Night was bogged down (again) by an off-putting character, but the lack of interesting incidents in the beginning was what really left me cold. If you’re going to write genre fiction, particularly with a vampiric twist, I’m going to need something more than the, at-times brilliant, descriptions of a very decrepit and dank post-revolution Romania and vistas of Colorado mountains to sustain me.
The book was imminently well-researched, but I wasn’t there for a research paper. So, after 100 pages, I’m giving it a pass. I’ve moved on to an epic fantasy, again a recommendation from a list. I will report back!