Monday, January 19, 2015

Ranting about books and reviews

I've done book reviews for at least twenty years for our local newspaper, and occasionally for a couple of small magazines as well. We're never paid for these reviews, except insofar as we get to keep the book we've reviewed. I could count the number of times I've been paid to review a book on the fingers of one hand...probably half of a hand.

Anyway, up until recently, when we got a new book editor, it was pretty much the norm that you got sent a book and you reviewed it. Rarely did you say to the book editor that you didn't like the book; you just got on and did the job. With our current book editor we not only get a choice as to what we review but if we decide after we've started the book that it's just not a good fit, then the book can go back and be replaced by another one. That's a great bonus.

All that by way of introduction. What I really want to say is that up until e-books really took off, I didn't tend to concern myself with the fact of how often a book was published that seemed to me to be tosh or rubbish. I assumed that the publishers thought that somehow or other they could make money out of it.

With the advent of e-books, however, I find it more and more amazing that books that are poorly structured, have weak characterizations, lose the plot, fail in the climax and much more that's really not good (and I'm talking in particular about fiction, of course) still get published. 

Last year I reviewed a good deal of fiction, and some of the writing was extraordinary: extraordinary in the sense that I still can't comprehend how it got past any sort of editor in a publishing house. I know that the editorial system is different to what it used to be and that there are perhaps less people working on the publication of a book than in the past, and that in the heady old days books could be sent to an editor, sent back for revision (often based on discussions between the editor and the author), revised, rehashed and eventually brought into a state fit for public consumption.

Plainly that doesn't happen much anymore. One book I read, supposedly a thriller, spent pages on the backstory of each character as they appeared, lost the reader by introducing new characters seemingly at random, and then, most amazing of all, in the middle of the climax, gave us more back story about the villain. (Even more amazing was the fact that the author was a former editor himself.)

Another story spent a long slow time building up to what should have been an exciting climax, with a forest fire in the mix, and then dribbled away after having basically under-written the finale. Not only that, the author 'forgot' to use the forest fire, which he'd mentioned umpteen times during the course of the story and which he appeared to be treating as a matter of some significance. The story was also told by two different characters, a father and a son, and you never quite knew which one was narrating when. (On the plus side there were some very good scenes in this book and a good sense of atmosphere.)

Another book took an immense long time building up the tension to the extent that you wondered if anything of consequence was ever going to happen. It did, but there was a considerable possibility that the reader would have abandoned the book long before he or she reached that point.

Another book, one that made me increasingly queasy as it went on, was merely a series of chapters that hung together because they were narrated by the same character. There was often little overall connection, and the ending was so peculiar that it invalidated anything that had gone before. The book was set in the period building up to the French Revolution, and certainly that horrific time did finally make an appearance in the story at least (unlike the forest fire above).  But in fact the Revolution had little to do with the overall story. It was about a gourmet who wanted to savour all sorts of weird tastes, and proceeded to tell us the various things he was cooking and eating, most of which were quite vile. I'm not giving anything away by saying that at the end it appears he finally decided to eat human flesh as the climax of his life. I only persevered with this story because the individual sections were very well written, and it seemed to be going somewhere. But the somewhere I was hoping it was going to was altogether different to what the author seemed to be offering.

I'm not going to tell you what these books are, because the surprising thing is that often other people will love a book I dislike intensely, As happened with one of Alexander McCall Smith's recent books that I read. I thought it was awful and said so in the review I sent to the editor. In the end the book editor decided to get a second opinion on it. The second reviewer enjoyed it more (though there was a bit of a sting in the tail of their review still), and was able to say so. I found it tedious and badly written. McCall Smith does have his off moments, but this was the most off of all. For me.

There was another book that I got about a quarter of the way through and couldn't take any more: it concerned a doctor who seemed to hate the human body and was continually telling the reader how vile it was. And then there was a murder he'd committed which he was going to make sure someone else was stitched up for it, and at the same time he'd seduced this other person's daughter. Such a horrible character. Yet another reviewer thought it worth reading.

I ploughed my way through a 500-page murder mystery last year. It was full of remarkable writing, but far too long, and in its length seemed to lose its way, trying to throw too many red herrings in the reader's path as well as not being quite sure about its characters. Furthermore it was improbable in the way the narrator of the book was supposed to have produced a first book that was a runaway bestseller (we never heard anything of what this book was about) and his mentor had also produced an extraordinary bestseller in his own youth, extracts of which were produced in the book and showed that in no way could it have become the "American classic" it supposedly was. Amazingly, this book itself has been a runaway bestseller.

And then there was the book about a girls' school - another murder mystery - which was mind-rendingly overlong and full of foul-mouthed characters. Another story in which the author tried to convince us of the unconvinceable.

This has been a bit of a blog of two halves - and a rant. Sorry about that. Promise to do better next time.

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