Tour’s Books Blog

April 17, 2009

Mulling Over the Plethora of Stunningly Mediocre Books

Filed under: Editorial,General,opinion — toursbooks @ 9:07 pm
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OK, I know I let loose on action thriller authors in Ruminations On Plots, Characters and Quality of Books back in late March, but now I need to vent about everything from romance and erotic romance authors, to another disappointing action mystery author, and one of my favorite humorous cozy mystery writers – maybe a few more.  No, this is not a case of PMS and no I don’t plan to whine and carp once a month as I binge on chocolate.   I’m so not suffering chocolate withdrawal.  Or I don’t think I am, but I have tearfully finished my last Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg.  It was very traumatic.  Maybe that pushed me over the edge.  The chocolate euphoria is over and I’m now crashing and these stupid books are a lousy safety net!

I am sick of reading forgettable books.  What the hell is happening?  I rave about the handful of books that actually manage to get me involved with the characters and plots. Jeeze, what does it say when the best book I’ve read in weeks is Beyond Heaving Bosoms?  It’s freaking non-fiction, no plot, just a funny literary review of the romance genre.  The only other book worth a mention is Revenge of the Spellmans, and even that wasn’t exactly so memorable I’m quoting my favorite parts.  It was really good – it wasn’t great.  Was it worth an A-?  Damn, given the competition it might be worth more.  I swear, I think I’ve started grading on a curve.

Things are so bad I actually bought a new copies of old books – Dead Ernest by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (writing as Alice Tilton), a screwball mystery written over 50 years ago and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  Then I dug out an old Loretta Chase (Bless that woman, she writes a good book.) book, Lord Perfect, just to remind myself what a really good romance book is like.  The only ‘new’ book now underway is John Maddox Robert’s Under Vesuvius, one of his SPQR Roman mysteries.  He may never knock them out of the park, but he is as reliable as John Sanford for a good, well written story.  I have over 200 books in my TBR pile and I’m re-reading old books.  I think I need primal scream therapy.

I simply cannot face another disappointment.  Maybe it really is a post Easter blood sugar dip, or the scent of spring in the air raising my hopes too high, or I just reading too much and I’ve gotten less tolerant of mediocre books.  But how many once loved authors can disappoint me before I do something radical – like stop buying books?  I just got the latest Harry Dresden book by Jim Butcher and I’m afraid to start it for fear he too will fail me.  It used to be I started an anticipated book about 60 seconds out of the box.  Now it just sits on a pile.  The same pile where I put Harlen Coben’s Long Lost and Randy Wayne White’s Dead Silence.  I got 100 pages into Long Lost and I knew how the plot would play out.  It gets worse.  I got to page 19 of Denise Swanson’s Death of a Royal Pain and I knew not only who did it BEFORE the murder was committed, but why they did it!  How sad is that.  (Yes, I peeked, and I was right.)  I was so looking forward to that damn book I’m pissed.  I need a break.  I need something worthy of my time!  Not to mention worthy of my money!  I could take a vacation on all the money I’ve wasted on mediocre books in the last 6 months.

What the hell is happening?  Has the whole publishing world moved to the dark side with the vamps and the werewolves?  Have the romance writers all taken the same paranormal cliché class?  It must be next door to the class where mystery writers take – “Reworking Old Plots” and down the hall from “Action Thrillers by the Numbers – When to Insert a Fight/Escape Scene” and upstairs from “The Romance Novel Rewrite for Quick Profit” class.  Are we really so easily satisfied that we continue to make these incredibly average books bestsellers?  Damn.  I hate lowering my standards.

When you’ve read as many books as I have over the years, you expect a certain level of skill in your authors.  Yes, all authors experiment with style changes, new characters, and different plot devices.  I can live with that.  It’s hard to keep fresh over a long writing career and all authors try and fail.  Fine.  I know the occasional ‘grand experiment’ fails, but they need to try.  Some very few even succeed.  John Maddox Roberts made his name in Science Fiction and now he’s far better known for his SPQR mysteries.  James Clavell was a screen writer and wrote King Rat, a WWII prison camp novel, long before he became rich and famous for Shōgun.  Other writers find it difficult to keep their standards.  Garry Jennings’ first two novels were brilliant, Aztec and The Journeyer.  After that, it was downhill.  But why do writers insist on pursuing a style or genre that they obviously have no real talent for?  A friend of my mother’s was a High School guidance counselor.  She’d have these students that had hopelessly unrealistic expectations come to her for advice.  She’d always tell them, “I wanted to be an opera diva.  Too bad I can’t sing.”  Do you want your dentist doing orthopedic surgery?  NO!  Why do so romance writers take on plot elements they haven’t got the knowledge or skill to carry off?  Amazingly, some of these books are LOVED by their readers!  I swear, I get mange just thinking about it.  Look!  My fur falling out in chunks.  I’m going to be a freaking bald groundhog!

What brought on this current crisis of mine?  Other than chocolate withdrawal.  Well, it was writing my review of Beyond Heaving Bosoms.  I gave it an A-, not because it was a really insightful and instructive book, but because it was entertaining.  Was it a great piece of literary analysis?  Well, no.  It was ………… ok, it was hilarious.  Did that color my perception of its real value?  You better believe it.  It was like a life preserver when you’re drowning.  In a chorus of average you suddenly you hear a special voice.  As shocking as Susan Boyle?  No, but it was a sweet surprise and a very welcome one.  Is it a book I’d reread?  Yup.  That doesn’t make it great, it just makes it a personal favorite.  There’s a HUGE difference.

At the end of my review I asked readers to list the ten books they’d take to an island with no electric.  That’s where I actually had to stop and think what books I’d take.  Boy, did that give me pause. I began reeling off books I loved – and realized one – that’s it ONE book, I’ve read for the first time in the last 5 years made the damn list.  (Hard Rain was the nearest contender but just missed the 5 year cut-off.)  Think about that for a moment.  In 5 years I’ve read upwards of a thousand books and ONE made my list.  That one book was Here Kitty, Kitty by Shelly Laurenston.  It was a three way battle – Loretta Chase with The Last Hellion and Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.  Laurenston won by a hair.  Since I read so many genres, mysteries competed with historical fiction and action/intrigue thrillers and romance, but it was an interesting exercise.  It said so much about how ordinary even the best books have gotten.

Maybe you don’t read as many genres as I do, or you don’t enjoy them all that much when you do.  I understand.  I also understand great books not making the list.  The best example of that for me is The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  Were I to review that book today it would get an A- and of its type it’s nothing short of brilliant.  Scary at a level that makes adults sleep with the lights on.  A tour de force of the suspense genre.  I read his Red Dragon before The Silence of the Lambs.  I appreciate just how good the book is, what an extraordinary piece of writing.  I would never reread it and it would never be a favorite.  Why?  It isn’t the kind of book I enjoy.  Appreciating a writer’s skill is quite separate from enjoying a book.

I freely admit my favorites are not literary classics or deathless prose.  Looking at the list of ten books I made, Tai Pan and Aztec would stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of historical fiction, but Aztec is by far the more brilliant book, it’s just harder on the reader with some scenes very disturbing to even remember.  That alone speaks volumes for the quality of the writing.  Would Lullaby Town ever make the top ten list of best PI mysteries ever written?  Not a chance.  Is it the best Crais done?  No.  But it is the one I love most.  What about Hard Rain?  Well that one would stand with the best of the assassin intrigue thriller genre and Barry Eisler is a terrific writer, his latest bit of drivel, Fault Line, notwithstanding.  Plum Island?  That’s a bit harder to explain.  DeMille is an excellent writer and an erratic plotter.  In Plum Island he brought his writing talent to a plot line that rang my bell on several levels and the book became an instant all time favorite.  Three Plums in One is a curiosity, a single volume with Janet Evanovich’s first three Stephanie Plum mysteries.  With these three books she created an original, started an entire genre and spawned an army of clones.  And they’re good fun to boot.  Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter has any number of historical errors with the Viet Nam war timeline, but that isn’t the core of his story.  It’s part mystery, part thriller, part shoot-’em-up kick-ass sniper novel, and part character study, but taken all together, it’s a hell of a story and once started I couldn’t put the damn book down.   I’ve reread it even knowing the twist at the end and it still made me turn pages like the first time.  Hunter overused the Bob Lee Swagger character, shamelessly cashing in Swagger’s popularity.  I might never forgive him for that.  He should have stopped at A Time to Hunt, another runner up on the top ten list.  The Killing Floor by Lee Child was a ‘favorite’ pick.  Child might have written both better and far worse, but this was his first the book and the one that started Jack Reacher down his road to fame.  It’s the reason I use ‘Reacher Fan’ as a name on several blogs and forums.  It is the reason I own every one of Child’s books, the good and the bad.  As for The Daughter of Time, well it is considered a classic mystery, for good reason.  Josephine Tey created Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant and I read every one of her books.  I cut my teeth on her, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Ellery Queen, and so many more ‘classic’ mystery authors.  They crafted puzzles and character studies that are unmatched today.  Even in that elite company two books ended in a dead heat for a spot on the list – Tey’s Daughter of Time and Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  What a tough choice that was.  The hardest decision I made.

After the mystery selection, this became my hardest decision.  I had only one spot left on the list and none of the four books was a strong enough contender to knock off an existing selection.    There was Shelly Laurenston’s Here Kitty, Kitty and her pseudonym G. A. Aiken’s About a Dragon.   Next was, The Last Hellion – a terrific historical by Loretta Chase – in my opinion one of the best romance writers ever.  Agnes and the Hitman by Cruise and Mayer was unique and off beat and rounded out the final group.  What did all four books have in common?  A sense of humor, strong, independent female leads, and men who respected them.  I would have been happy with any one them, I’ve reread all of them many times.  In the end it was Agnes vs. Angie and Angie won by a tiger’s whisker to take the last spot on the list. On a different day, Agnes might have won.  I sincerely liked both characters.

How could hundreds of romance novels be so forgettable that the only ones that were unique enough and entertaining enough that I would give up a beloved mystery or thriller for were two almost unknown books by a less than famous author, an old historical and a quirky collaboration?  What about all those bestsellers?  You know what, even the good ones were ……….. how can I say this, ordinary?  Mundane?  So freaking run of the mill they could be swapped around and I would never notice?  The print equivalent of a B movie?  Utterly, completely and totally forgettable?  OK, you get the picture.  I enjoy romance novels and there are a number of authors worthy of note.  Why are their books so freaking forgettable?

Part of that answer is me.  I am just not the typical romance reader, something I freely admit.  My tastes in romance are not with the masses most of the time.  I just don’t get the popularity of some books and some authors.  Maybe it’s because I do have a preference for strong and independent females and way too many romances rely on women looking to be taken care of, sometimes to the point of domination.  I find that annoying.  Perhaps that’s what made me like Beyond Heaving Bosoms.  They see this ‘boiler plate’ and poke fun at it, but it doesn’t stop them loving the genre.  Just as any mystery reader sees the ‘sameness’ in many mysteries.  And perhaps that’s the thing that distinguished the books on my top 10 list, they weren’t guilty of ‘sameness’.  Each was a first or unique.  Look at them:

The Killing Floor, Aztec, Three Plums in One, Point of Impact, Plum Island, Tai Pan are all first books or first in a series or both.  Hard Rain is only the second book in a series, Lullaby Town is a third book and Daughter of Time is unique in the Alan Grant series because he’s challenged to solve a historical mystery while in bed in the hospital.  But why Here, Kitty Kitty?  What is it about that book that made me choose it?  First it’s a shape shifter, but you can’t swing a dead cat in a romance aisle without hitting dozens if not hundreds of paranormal/urban fantasy books, so nothing unique there.  Nik Vorislav is a Siberian tiger, not a werewolf, nothing significant there.  Angelina Santiago is a Latina, while unusual, hardly unique.  I loved how she made him pay thru the nose for her kidnapping, but then turned around and gave him all the money back without telling him.  She was feisty, independent, but never stupid.  Nik was determined and never overbearing, comfortable in his own skin – human and tiger – and more than willing to bend to get Angie where he wanted her.  Hell, there are dozens of romances out there that would fit that pattern.  When I was done reading, Angie and Nik lived in my head.  Still, that’s been true of other books too.  So what was it?  For me, it was the ensemble cast.  It’s like MASH, the setting was unique, but it was the characters that made it work.  So much of what happened could have been easily translated to an office or extended family setting and still work.  The appeal transcended time and place.  It’s still funny today.  Here Kitty, Kitty is like that.  It’s a magic combination for me.  No, it’s not a new book, just new to me.   Why this one romance?  Like Plum Island, this book rang all my bells.  Agnes and the Hitman was so close I nearly kicked Lullaby Town off to make room.  The only new mystery/thriller that made it to the finals?  Charlie Huston’s 2005 book, Six Bad Things.  It lost to The Killing Floor.

That’s the real problem with romance these days.  I’m sitting here with Anne Stuart, Madelyn Hunter, Cherry Adair, Lorraine Heath, Tara Janzen, Barbara Pierce, Olivia Parker, Andrea Kane, Kristan Higgins, Eloise James, Lori Foster, Katie MacAlister. J. R. Ward, and Kerrelyn Sparks, among others, in my TBR pile.  Why with so many ‘big names’ waiting am I reading SPQR mysteries by a semi-famous author and a bunch of books I’ve already read?  Because they’re all sure things, good books.  And therein lies my biggest problem with romance today, it’s so damn mediocre and unpredictable in quality – and only ever so rarely memorable.  I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for the books.  I don’t want another average read.  Today I got my copy of In Milady’s Chamber.  It’s moving to the top of the TBR list.  At least it will be different and hopefully interesting.

(In a revealing bit of trivia, In Milady’s Chamber arrived with the dust jacket still wrapped in the clear library cover and Houston Public Library stamped on the top of the page edges.  It had not ever been opened or read as far as I can tell.  It is pristine.  A pristine, untouched library book.  Think about that and tell me that isn’t scary.)

So there’s my complaint about mediocre books.  Why was Charlie Huston the only new mystery author that even made it to consideration?  There are many excellent authors out there, especially in the mystery genre, but even they till well worn fields.  I try lots of new authors hoping to find another Barry Eisler or Tony Hillerman or Robert Crais.  I started reading ‘erotic romance’ looking for talent and had to wade through a pile of crap to find authors like Christine Warren, Lauren Dane, Anne Douglas, Jory Strong, Shelly Laurenston (G. A. Aiken), and Bianca D’Arc.  I cannot tell you how many ghastly books I’ve read.  Damn.  How does some of that tripe get published?  How can it sell so well?  Pathetic really.

I so want to vent on a book by Natalie Acres called Cowboy Boots and Untamed Hearts from Siren you have no idea.  I got so furious reading it I had to stop.  I would name Sam Kane as the man I’d most like to kill – slowly and very, very painfully followed immediately by Brock.  I am still seething.  How anyone would ever consider that book ‘romance’ is beyond me.   How any father would allow that to happen to his 18 year old daughter …………… deep breath, deep breath.

Sorry about that.  I promise I’ll stay calm now.  I assume because mystery is second only to romance in sales it’s the one that attracts so many new authors of equally limited ability.  On Amazon’s ‘community forums’ Romance is the largest genre specific forum followed closely by mystery.  Romance has several sub-forums dedicated to specific braches, like paranormal and erotic romance.  Suspense and thriller communities are much smaller.  Fewer choices.

In all cases I look at the list of recommended books when someone asks for suggestions and I remain amazed at how often the same books and authors are named again and again.  I can pick out the serious readers and the ones that just buy ‘what’s popular’ and rave away.  They’re the ones responsible for the high reviews of bad books – especially noticeable in the romance genre.  So much for the value of the community driven rating system.  I go and suggest older books, ones I know to be good, so much better than the vast majority of stuff out there.

Thousands of books to choose from, yet here I sit, re-reading old favorites because I’ve had enough disappointments for awhile.  That top ten list I wrote was a wake-up call.  Life is too short for a diet of mediocre books.  I deserve better, even if it means rereading old favorites.

Try your own top ten list.  Think about it long and hard.  All the books you’ve read over the years, what ones made a lasting impression?  One so strong that years later, you still remember it?  Would you read it again?  Maybe it wasn’t ‘best of breed’ but it was your best.

UPDATE: Ms. Tourmaline Groundhog has refused to comment about a copy of Donald Duck’s Halloween found at the bottom of her favorites pile.  Inside sources claim it’s nothing more than a childhood memento and wasn’t part of her list.  The rumor she reads it while wearing Dr Denton’s and drinking hot chocolate were called ‘scurrilous slurs on a mature and respected groundhog’.  This same source claims Tour, as she’s known to her friends, has a complete collection of Magnum, PI DVD’s.  We were unable to confirm of deny this claim.  A very large box labeled ‘Munson’s Chocolate’ was delivered while the press was there.  Is chocolate to blame for this outbusrt?  Will Tour name the mediocre books?  Be with us as we follow this ongoing story.

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