Monday, January 9, 2012

Cranky Pants 2011

Looking back over the books I've read in the last year, it's impossible not to recognize that I come across as, um, slightly cranky. A part of me thinks, I should lighten up, and another part of me says, why should I apologize because another writer hasn't done their job.

There are so many books that I've read lately that needed another six months worth of thought. And this is the truly tragic fallout from the current publishing clime, the publication of books with excellent bones that don't realize their potential. These books need a stern editor, not a marketing director, and yet that seems to be what is driving the publishing industry these days.

I'm not saying that every book needs to be literature, but I am saying that within its own specific niche, most books should be a lot better than what is currently being published. Even a beach read, which is how I categorize my own meager output, should be a damn good beach read. It should fulfill its purpose. Most books aren't about making earth-shattering statements. They are about entertaining us.

I was talking to a co-worker today about Michael Connelly. He doesn't hit it out of the park every single time, but I would never accuse him of being lazy. His plot busts are minimum (there is one in one of his Lincoln lawyer books that made my eyes hit the wall, but generally speaking, he's top notch in the plot department). He also thinks about his characters. THERE he is never sloppy. And he does something in a series that I find rare. He moves his characters forward. Sometimes it's more of a lurch than an arc, but he's not phoning it in and he never writes cliche. This is why I was so dissatisfied with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Every single character was a cliche, with the exception of Lisbeth Salander. And then, damn and blast, Larsson trots out the cliche at the end with a cheesy romance angle.

All I am asking is for simple entertainment. I'm not looking for literature. I'm looking for plot that doesn't make me squint, characterizations that aren't cliche or improbable, and some spark that is all an author's own.

The best books I read this year were mostly non-fiction (another plug for Schiff's Cleopatra, yowzah, that was beautifully written), with a few notable exceptions. The exceptions don't mean that they were perfect. It just means that they were magical enough that the author had me, owned me, and whatever stumbles they made I was willing to forgive them.

I felt that way about two books this year. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson and The Weissmans of Westport by Catherine Schine. The ending in "Last Stand" was far too dramatic in what is essentially a very quiet book, and there is an absurd plot issue in "Westport" that took me to the brink. However, both books say so loudly, "I love this story. I care about these people. They have become part of me and I hope they become part of you." And when you have that passion on the page, then a reader can forgive a lot. That is why cliche is so damning in a novel. Cliche is the universal. It's the phrase that is so ubiquitous that it has no meaning. It's the ultimate in familiar. When a character is nothing more than a bunch of cliches (as I found the character Blomkvist in "Girl") there's no mystery in the character itself. I'm not reading to find out who this character is. I know who he is. I was not surprised by ANYTHING he did as a character in "Girl." That book relies solely on the mystery of who Lisbeth Salander is. THAT's why I kept reading. Larsson clearly loved her enough to give her an identity outside of the cliched characters that populate his novel.

That's what I'm looking for. Authors who care enough about their story so that as readers we can pick ourselves up off the ground when there are any stumbles. Because there's enough magic to ward off the bruises.

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