Car Crash or Culmination?

A few neat things before we get behind the wheel and speed off to this week’s Wandering.

Truck Crash!

Truck Crash!

First, I’ve donated a hard cover first edition to an on-line raffle to promote a new re-release of Walter Jon William’s novel Hardwired.  I’m a big fan of this story.  I hope  a bunch of you will take the chance to get it and discover how smart cyberpunk can be.

Second, last Friday Baen Free Radio released the first of two parts of an audio interview featuring me, David Weber, and Toni Weisskopf discussing the release of Treecat Wars.  This Friday will see the second part.  You can download both podcasts in a variety of formats.

Now, let’s Wander!

A while back, I asked a few friends what they’d like to see me discuss in future Wanderings.  My friend, Tori, asked if I’d explain more about why I frequently say that I can’t tell whether a book or anime is “good” until I reach the end.   I had to think about why for a while, but I finally came up with a way to explain this fairly complicated thought process.

(As an aside, I should note that I have different criteria for novels and visual media.  Anime in particular often has a long story to tell, but does so in small chunks.  Therefore, while I will look at novels as individual volumes, even if they are part of a larger series, I look at anime and some television as if each episode is a chapter in a longer work.)

I’m going to start by clarifying the question.  What Tori was asking about were those stories that I enjoy enough to get involved with.  So, this leaves out those stories that failed to hook me at the start or lost me early on.  It only includes those that I’m enthusiastic enough  about that I plan to finish.  This means the stories already have the basics down (good characters, interesting plot elements, a well-defined setting).  It also means that the subject matter suits my taste.  I’m the first person to admit that there are plenty of really fine stories out there that simply don’t work for me personally.

A great example of a book that I started feeling inclined to read and ended up feeling enthusiastic about is Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengeance.  I’m a fan of the Kinsey Millhone novels.   I usually listen to them as audio books, so I only recently got to “V.”  (I haven’t gotten to “W,” yet, so no spoilers, please!  <grin>)

V is for Vengeance begins with a long prologue about which I had serious doubts.  However, one of the reasons I’ve stayed with this series is that Grafton often shifts her storytelling format, something that has kept the series from becoming formulaic.  So, long prologue or not, I kept with it.  At the end of the prologue, an event happened about which I felt strong doubts.  To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that it had to do with the death of the young man who was central to the prologue.  It wasn’t so much that he died that troubled me, it was why he died.  It didn’t make sense.

Was Grafton slipping?  Had her editors lost their minds?  I’ll admit, if this hadn’t been the only audio book I had available at that time, I might have quit.  But, I’ve listened to all the other books in the series and I wanted to see what happened when Kinsey got on-stage.

Well, initially, I didn’t feel a lot of hope.  Kinsey’s case involved a professional shoplifting ring.  Eventually, there was a connection between the prologue and this plotline, but it seemed pretty thin – certainly not enough to justify that long, long prologue.  Eventually, I put the prologue out of my head and concentrated on the story at hand.  It had strong “grey” characters with complex motivations.  There was lots of really cool information about how shoplifting, of all things, has become Big Business.

I can’t say much more about the novel without providing too many spoilers but, as the book moved toward its final third, the prologue began to matter.  By the book’s conclusion I was bouncing up and down.  Not only did the prologue matter, better and better, the elements that I had thought were weak fit it.  They weren’t mistakes!  They weren’t sloppy writing!  I was incredulously happy.

So, whereas when I started the book I would have said, “Pretty good, but I think Grafton’s losing her touch or has become one of those writers who editors don’t feel they can edit,” now I would say: “Good novel.  Clever.  Interesting and surprisingly complex.  I highly recommend.”

I had a similar reaction to The Black Prism by Brent Weeks.  Initially, I wanted to read it because Brent had been one of the Guests of Honor at this year’s Bubonicon and I had been intrigued by many of his comments during the Guest of Honor presentation.  The Black Prism was a Very Fat Fantasy novel, however, and my reading time is very thin.  I even considered looking for the book in audio, but some of Brent’s (very funny) comments had been about the uneven quality of his audio book readers.  I couldn’t remember if this had been a book he had liked as presented in audio or not.

However,  enough of the book interested me to keep me going.  By the end, I could honestly say “I liked it.  Interesting layered political problems.  Complex characters .  Gritty but not self-indulgently so.  Creative magical system, well used and well intertwined into the plot.”  Will I read the next one?  Yes.  However, I’ll probably wait until I can give it the time it deserves.  This would be a perfect book for a long plane flight.  Airport waiting time and flight time would seem a pleasure, not a burden.

Sadly, this is not always the case.  I hate mentioning books that didn’t work for me, but in this case  I fear I must.  One example is John Scalzi’s popular novel, Old Man’s War.  I acquired it when it was a new release, so was unbiased by any press.  I had met John Scalzi at a book fair and found him an intelligent person, so I was inclined to view the book with favor.  I might even have started it on the plane on my way home.

Initially, I was very enthusiastic about  Old Man’s War.  It had a good conceit, some interesting world-building, and characters I was interested in.  I remember expressing my enthusiasm over the phone to my friend, Yvonne, ending, as I so often do, with “But I won’t really know until I finish.”  Sadly, by the time I finished, my enthusiasm had dimmed.  The compelling question of  how can society best use the wisdom and experience of older people whose bodies won’t necessarily let them function at full capacity had vanished into action adventure heavily indebted to novels like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  (A novel which, by the by, I like.)  The main character’s difficult choices and ethical decisions were eliminated  or diluted by a wealth of unlikely wish fulfillment.

Unlike, say, Terry England’s excellent novel Rewind, which deals with similar questions without losing sight of them, even when the action becomes intense and the characters are in serious jeopardy, I felt that Old Man’s War had the start of an excellent novel, and a car wreck of a conclusion.

I felt the same about the fan favorite TV series, Firefly.  When Yvonne initially loaned me her set, thus allowing us to avoid the common excuse as to why the series failed (“They broadcast it erratically and out of order”), I was very enthusiastic.  Good characters, complicated, intertwining plots, interesting setting.   Strong individual episodes. Some time in, though, I realized I was losing interest.  Several of the plots were, as Jim put it, “They meet someone from the past who they’re happy to see but turns out to be not the  type of person they thought.”  The character development was wildly uneven, especially in the case of secondary characters.  I began to see serious glitches in the world-building.  I went from a potential fan to a “Well, I have no trouble seeing  why this one didn’t work.”

So that’s why  I am likely to reserve my judgment as to whether or not a book or series works until I’m to the end.  I might say “I’m enjoying reading this or watching this.”  But it will be followed by “I’ll let you know how I feel when I’m done.”

There are some novels or series that I like even though they are in some way weak or disappointed me at some point.  However, these aren’t the ones I recommend or, if I do, I’m usually pretty realistic about admitting they have flaws but that – despite the flaws – there’s something there I like.

At what point do you start recommending a book?   Am I alone in needing to get to the end before doing so?


8 Responses to “Car Crash or Culmination?”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Sometimes I’ll recommend early. Usually with the caveat “So far!” attached. OTOH, there’s one rather dense volume I’m still working my way through that I push with “The Introduction is worth the price of the book by itself”. Which I certainly have found to be true, although I will learn a lot more still by the time I’m done.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I read until the end, and then I recommend only if I think it might be interesting to the other person for some reason or other. One example is (thank you) Old Man’s War. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but I also agree with every point you made above. For me, it’s a book where you put your mind in neutral and coast through, because if you think about it very much, that universe falls apart. Still, there were times I needed to coast, and it was the equivalent of aloe vera on a work-burned brain. It’s a book I recommend to others looking for light reading.

    Incidentally OMW’s soothing qualities raise it far above the majority of SF/F, where I start reading for entertainment, start being asked to invest gobs on time and emotional energy, then skip to the end to see if I give a rat’s patoot about where the story ends up after a long slog through the middle march. If I don’t care about the end, the book goes away. After all, if I want to get some proper science-y entertainment, I can catch a Mythbusters or Alton Brown rerun and get entertained in a well-built world without having my time wasted and emotions yanked around for no good purpose. I’m pointing to these two simply as well-known examples of how artists can sneak a huge amount of good science (aka world building) into what looks like a goof fest.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Not at all. A bad ending can undo the whole work. A prime example is the game “Mass Effect”. Has to be the first game with a story told so well I felt like I was playing a movie. I wanted to meet the characters, explore the races, heck I even wanted to date one of the characters (you know, if she were real). Then #3 came along, and the ending was absolutely awful. Questions went unanswered, new ones were raised, and they really didn’t resolve the conflict. I saw the writing on the wall halfway through #3, but the rest had been done so well I was hoping I was wrong. I haven’t touched the game since. That bad ending, one I consider the worst I’ve ever seen, has ruined what otherwise was my favorite game.

    So no, waiting till the end makes perfect sense to me. It’s the point at which, in theory, everything comes together, conflicts end one way or another, plots reach their final stop, questions are answered, and while the world may live on without us (as your wolf books do), we’re happy with where we’ve left it.

  4. Paul Says:

    The late writer Nelson Bond once told me that, just because you start a book, you don’t have to finish it. Until he articulated that, I always thought I was somehow obligated to finish them all to give them a fair shake. A friend of mine uses the 50-page test (if she hasn’t gotten hooked by then, she discards the book). But as for recommending something, yep, I have to finish it first.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I really liked the variety of responses here — and the recognition that “story” comes in many forms. Nicholas isn’t the only person I’ve heard talk about “Mass Effect” as a story, not a game…

    He also brings up a really important point — a bad or weak concluding book or books to a series can ruin the whole series, a good or surprising one can make it!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Not just the concluding books – a lot of people will let you off on 1 weak book in the middle of the sequence, but drop the ball twice in a row and you’re done, as far as they’re concerned. [some, of course, won’t forgive even one] You may never get to publish that crackerjack final book, because the readers have lost confidence. Which means they stop buying, which means the stores stop buying, and all of a sudden your name is mud.

  6. Hilary Says:

    With books I always wait until I finish the book in question before I recommend. I might talk about it excitedly before I’m done if it’s a good book and I haven’t (for some reason) finished it all in one go, but I don’t tell people to read it at that point. If it’s the first book in a series where I haven’t read the rest I say “the first book of such and such series is great. Haven’t read the rest yet.”
    With tv shows (or anime) it’s harder because they’re usually going on for awhile unless I’ve encountered them after they’ve finished. I often recommend the show “How I Met Your Mother” to people still, even though it’s still going on, because it’s had 8 seasons and overall I’m in love with it as a show even though it’s had its weak points. At this point I trust the writers to do a good job in tying it all together in this season (the ninth) because they’ve done really well so far in my opinion, so I recommend it to people. Also I want all of my friends to watch it with me. Haha. With anime I’m more strict, maybe because American shows like HIMYM don’t usually attract my attention in the first place (or if they do it’s a nice past time but not something I’m excited about, whereas anime is something that can suck me in right away but lose me later on). I tend to recommend anime only if I’ve seen an entire season at least or the whole series completely.

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