I’m uncomfortable writing book reviews. They seem so judgmental.
Yes, I want people to review my books (hint, hint), but I don’t like giving reviews myself. Is that inconsistent? Lopsided? Self-centered? Probably all of the above. But that’s the way it is.
In this post, I’ll discuss three books I’ve read recently, but I won’t review them. My intention is merely to share my thoughts/feelings/opinions about them as a reader.
(Umm… isn’t that what a review is? Yes, but don’t confuse me with unwanted observations.)
I tend to collect recommendations of books without noting who recommended a particular title or why. If someone mentions it as being good for a specific reason, I’ll write it down. Then, if I run across it somewhere cheap or free (’cause I’m always cheap), I’ll pick it up on Kindle or print and read it when I have a chance and/or am in the mood.
Not long ago, after finishing a stint as judge in a contest for unpublished writers, I felt the need to cleanse my mind of amateur writing and ingest something crafted with a bit more skill. So I picked a book off my shelf by an author who was recommended as being among the best in the speculative genre. I don’t recall if it was the book itself that was recommended, or merely the author. But at some point, I had acquired The Knight by Gene Wolfe and set it aside for a time when I craved a good fantasy.
The book presented an immediate appeal for two reasons (three, if you count the recommendation): the attractive cover, and author Neil Gaiman’s endorsement: “Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. This book [is] important and wonderful.”
I’d read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (another one of those that was recommended by I-forget-who), and I thought it was very well done. Figuring his opinion was worth something, I found the endorsement rather intriguing. Dangerous writing? Important and wonderful? It made me wonder what, in fact, was within that lovely cover.
Take note that Gaiman also said Wolfe is subtle. And he certainly must be–so much so that I failed to get anything “important” or “wonderful” about his writing. And where that “dangerous” comes from, I confess, is way over my head. Apparently I’m as dense as osmium.
However, I do agree that the author knows his craft. The book is a top-notch Faerie story, complete with knights and sword fights, ogres, a dragon, a princess, elves, and intelligent animals. Yeah, it’s pretty much got it all insofar as the genre is concerned. And the writing is stellar. What I thought it lacked was purpose.
I felt no connection with the protagonist and didn’t give a whit what happened to him. I could discern no overarching theme, no illustration of fundamental truths, no believable danger to make my heart rate quicken. Yes, the protagonist was often in peril, but the outcome was never in doubt. And I had no curiosity as to how the story would end. Despite Wolfe’s writing skill, I simply didn’t care about any of it.
I cared so little, in fact, that although it’s actually a story in two parts (the whole thing is called The Wizard and the Knight, and it’s told in two volumes. The Knight is the first, and the story in concludes with The Wizard), I could hardly wait to finish the first just to be done with it. I have no interest in ever reading the second.
By the time I reached the end, I yearned to read something truly enjoyable.
A year ago or so, I thought about an old book I’d read as a kid that I loved to pieces. What I most recalled were the emotions it had aroused within the young me–an “unbearable lightness of being,” a delight that was almost painful in its intensity.
I didn’t figure I’d respond to the book the same way now, as an oldster, but I was curious to read it again to see how it did affect me. So I found it as a free download on Kindle and added it to my to-be-read shelf, where it languished for several months. Now, after finding little to please me in my recent fiction-reading adventures, I deemed it time to dust off the old friend and explore the world of the Limberlost once again.
The book is Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything else by the author. I do know I’ll never do it again willingly. And all the warm fuzzies I carried in my heart for this book have been scraped off with the coarse sandpaper of maturity.
How was this book disappointing? Let me count the ways.
One example: the protagonist was orphaned as a baby and raised in an orphanage in Chicago. That’s in Illinois, which, in case you’re not aware (which the author apparently wasn’t), is approximately 3500 miles from Ireland. The reason I mention this is because the character spoke with a thick Irish brogue. Thick as in difficult to read. Which I could forgive, if he’d been raised in Ireland–or raised by Irish parents who never let him out of the house–or had some other excuse to talk that way. How am I supposed to believe he spoke that way because his parents did, when he never knew his parents?
That’s just one of the many glaring impossibilities in the book. Apparently those things didn’t bother readers when the author wrote it in 1904. And they certainly didn’t bother me when I read it as a child in the 1960s. But now, I can’t get past them to enjoy whatever might be worthwhile in the story. If there is anything worthwhile in the story. To my mind, it was implausible from start to finish, riddled with inconsistencies and told in an unappealing style.
So, having gotten that book out of my system once and for all, I turned to a novel that came recommended by two sources. Funny that I don’t remember who the first one was, but the most recent person to recommend it is the friend I’m working with on a nonfiction project. I’d purchased it recently at her suggestion and decided to give it a try without allowing it to sit on the shelf for months or years as I usually do.
You know how, when you’ve been on your feet a long time and are weary and aching and yearning to sit down? or you’re wilting in the brutal sun and desperately need to get out of the heat? and you’re finally able to go in and rest in a cool, comfortable place, and you lean back and say, “Ahhhh….”? Well, that was my reaction to reading The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge.
The language is beautiful, and I often smiled in appreciation of the skill of it. The story is engaging and sweet without being cloying. Characters are multi-dimensional and lifelike, situations are wholly realistic, and it’s all rich with truth and purpose. My only disappointment was that it ended too soon.
That is to say, it’s everything a good novel should be. Everything I want my books to be.
And here’s the funny thing. When I went to put it on my shelf, I found I already had a copy. Apparently someone else had recommended it earlier, and I’d bought it, shelved it, and forgotten about it. Well, whoever was the first to suggest it has excellent taste.
I realize not everyone will agree with my assessment of these three books, and that’s okay. I know what I like, and can’t speak for anyone else. But if you have good taste like I do, I recommend that you grab yourself a copy of The Scent of Water and drink it in!