Lately, it seems that I put down unread more books than I actually finish. Since I get the vast majority of my reading material from the public library, I have a tendency to check out whatever catches my eye. Without the financial commitment of having paid $10 or $20 for a book, I can focus on whether the time and effort invested in reading it is proportionate to the enjoyment I get out of it.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I had given up on Libba Bray’s The Diviners after only twenty pages. I made it through Kiki Hoffman’s The Faerie Ring for almost a hundred pages, while Gretchen McNeil’s Possess lasted less than fifty. That’s just in the last week. Life is short, and there are so many books out there. Why waste time on the one’s that simply aren’t my cup of tea? Of course, you could argue that it’s important to give a book time to develop. Some books get better the closer they get to the end. I remember several people telling me, after I’d given up on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that it picks up after the first hundred pages. I’m a very fast reader, but even so, that’s a lot of dull, poorly written (or perhaps just poorly translated) pages to get through.
As a writer, I try to learn from everything I read. If a book doesn’t pull me in, I try to at least understand why. There are two main reasons I put down a book without finishing it: it’s boring, or it’s badly written. Sometimes, it’s both. But those are such vague, subjective judgments that they don’t really tell me anything about why I didn’t like it. Let’s take a look at the two most recent books I gave up on:
1. The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hoffman
* Right off the bat, I’m turned off because the main character, a girl living in Victorian London, is named “Tiki.” I get that it’s a nickname, but it doesn’t suit the time period, and it rhymes with the author’s name. To me, that’s a red flag for the character being a Mary Sue. Sure enough, she’s haunted by a Terrible Past but still has A Heart of Gold and is also The Best Thief Ever.
*I’m not in love with the mawkish treatment of Tiki and her adopted family of street urchins. They’re like a Dickensian version of The Boxcar Children. Maybe I’m a cynic, but the littlest, lisping urchin who loves Tiki and dispenses wisdom beyond her years is annoying.
*The metaphor that I return to again and again for writing a novel is a Rube Goldberg machine. You lay out all of these disparate elements and do you best to hold them together with timing and logic, but in the end, the only way to see if it all hangs together is to let it play. That’s the value of beta readers; they test the machine for you and make sure that it doesn’t get stuck somewhere in the middle. Anyway, Hoffman built a machine that doesn’t play. The internal logic of her story requires far too many coincidences.
*The dialogue is dreadful. Lots of info dumping. The two princes sound like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins while the street thieves talk like classics professors.
*Tiki is dressed like a girl, and then suddenly she’s dressed like a boy? Either I missed something, or else that was a continuity error. Aaaand I’m done.
* * *
Possess by Gretchen McNeil
*Almost the first thing that the first-person narrator does is make a nasty, fat-shaming comment about one of her friends. She and I are not going to get along, are we?
*Bridget is half Chinese, and yet she has blue eyes, curly hair, and freckles. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but it strikes me as an attempt to make a whitebread character more exotic. McNeil seems to be praising Bridget for being able to “pass” as white. Not cool.
* The book is not only culturally tone-deaf, but it’s boring, too. It reads like a mediocre episode of Supernatural or The Exorcist-lite. Pass.
* * *
I know that my criticism seems harsh. I do feel bad–guilty, even–in being less than enthusiastic about another writer’s work. I wouldn’t like it if someone told me that Grey Magic was boring and poorly written. (Frankly, I do think the first 1/4-1/3 is kind of slow.) However, Hoffman and McNeil are grown-ass women, and they put their work out there as professional authors. It’s fair game. If, by some chance, either of them stumble across this post, I’d encourage them to remember that I am just one reader who didn’t enjoy their work among many who legitimately liked it.
* * *
P.S. In case you’re curious, I do actually like things sometimes. I enjoyed Sarah Zettel’s Dust Girl, and I drop-dead loved Franny Billingsley’s Chime. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, despite its faults, was a good read. I am also savoring the stories in Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link the way one might enjoy fine chocolates one nibble at a time.