Thursday, June 13, 2013

Restless Reading: Two Disappointments

At heart I am always this little girl always wanting  to be astonished, always wanting to love what I'm reading. But...

For those of you - like me - who keep track of this sort of thing, it probably doesn't seem as if I'm reading a lot of books this year but the bitter truth is that lots of what I'm reading, I'm not finishing. If I don't finish a book I can't list it as read - right? So round and round I go.

Either I'm getting more particular or the books I'm picking up and tossing aside after a few pages are becoming more the norm. I'd hate to think that's the case.

Maybe this restlessness is the reason I've been doing a lot of re-reading lately. You can hardly go wrong re-visiting old tried and true friends.

Books tend to come and go around here at a very rapid pace, some I review, most I don't - even if I enjoyed what I read. No rhyme or reason. But the truth is that a lot of books don't make it past the initial 50 page criteria. Those are usually set aside with a sneer and roll of the eyes, occasionally with a sad shake of the head. I can be merciless.

You know I rarely dis books on this blog, it's not my thing. Generally if I dislike a book I just quietly swallow my disappointment, return it to the library and move on. But sometimes the disappointment lingers longer than usual and I feel the need to vent.

Two books that really rankled this year were recommended on various sites and I suppose that led me astray. Hey, I didn't say I was perfect.

One: MR. PENUMBRA'S 24 HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan seemed to hold a lot of promise. I guess I expected a kind of magical/realism thing, a 'genre' I'm always willing to love and indulge just a bit. I suppose that's why Sloan's book is the most disappointing (he is the better writer). It reads as if it couldn't quite make up its mind what it wanted to be.

The first half of MR PENUMBRA is brilliant and inventive and intriguing and everything I hoped it would be. The characters are likable, even the quirky girl who works for Google. But the second half (except for the idea of the collapsible 'cardboard scanner) fails to deliver.

You can see it coming and yet you hope against hope that maybe... But in general, I had the feeling that the author couldn't figure out how to connect the dots. However, the book doesn't qualify as unread since I did finish it (okay, skipping a few pages here and there), despite my natural inclination. Sloan is a terrific writer, I could tell that from the first, but I think this just got away from him. Foolishly, I kept hoping for something wonderful even up until the last couple of pages.

Don't you hate when that happens?

(I notice that both books I'm venting about were written by a person named Robin. Just a coincidence, folks.)

The second book, JANE The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell did sound as if it would be a lot of fun. Haven't you Tarzan aficionados (of which I am an utterly devoted one) ever wondered about the Tarzan story from Jane's point of view? I mean, it's a great idea.

Even so, at first I resisted, since everything wonderful about Tarzan is ingrained in my psyche from the Johnny Weissmuller films I watched over and over when I was a kid. (Heck, I still watch.) And I know that the 'real' Tarzan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books was a totally different sort of chap from the film's incarnation. Yet somehow I've managed to reconcile two improbables into one heroic, loin-clothed ideal. Ideals are hard to live up to and maybe that's my problem. Maybe I expected too much.

Robin Maxwell's book features Edgar Rice Burroughs as himself - a writer looking for a good story to write. A very nice shtick. It passed the first fifty pages test (though the somewhat stolid writing troubled me a bit) and I kept on reading just to see if Jane's side of it would add something new and interesting to the mix.

But here's the problem in a nutshell: as fashioned by Robin Maxwell, Jane just isn't very likable. In fact, she seems rather ghoulish, especially when we come across her calmly dissecting a dead body alongside her father the professor. She has a lot to prove. Being the only woman in a room full of male students doesn't dampen her spirits one single bit.

Jane is a born heroine, a gal meant for great adventures. She is undaunted in her drive to prove herself in a world of male domination, a budding scientist who, with her father, will travel into the heart of deepest Africa to search for Darwin's 'missing link'.

Okay. But couldn't we like her just a little bit in the meantime?

What bothered me most about all this is that not one of the characters we meet along the way, not even Tarzan, has any living, breathing warmth. Tarzan seems more like a phantom than a real human being (not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but here it doesn't work).

Tarzan comes equipped with all his Edgar Rice Burroughs created idiosyncrasies (which is just as it should be), so in a way, this hamstrings the author. But I also thought affection for the character would have inspired some wonderful riffs. But alas, it was not to be.

Maxwell does mention Tarzan and Jane's sexual urges (something I'm not sure Burroughs ever did) - will they or won't they? did he or didn't he? - are questions answered soon enough. I suppose that's part of the problem in this version of the story: some things are better left to the imagination.

Tarzan is a living myth. I don't really want to know about his bodily functions. Or Jane's, for that matter. I don't care if Jane has a anthropologist's eye for this sort of detail. Too much information!

There is one long, boring and rather silly sequence (accompanied by drums) set among a tribe of African natives which serves no real purpose except to let us see that Jane and Tarzan have the hots for each other. (In case we didn't know.) This leads to a mundane sexual confrontation inside a native hut. Ho-hum.

Oh, and one more thing: the villain (packing a Gatling gun on a scientific expedition - sometimes you just have to shake your head) is a guy straight from Bad-Guys-Are-Us. He reminded me of Bluto from the Popeye stories. I can't help it. That's who sprang to mind. And even this I wouldn't have minded if only the book had a sense of humor.

I finally gave up.

Don't you hate when that happens?

I know I do.

Okay I promise, no more negativity for awhile.


  1. You're still the only person I know who can lament about the books being disappointing and still keep me glued to your response. Love getting a peek inside your head -- you're so smart and articulate!

  2. Yvette: I actually like to see when fellow bloggers don't like a book (rather than swallowing their disappointment silently)--especially bloggers whose reading taste I trust. It's good to know when you or John or Les or Ryan any of the bloggers I follow regularly...have been less than thrilled. Especially if it's a book I'm on the fence with.

    From my side--I try to write a review about every book finished or not, spectacular or not so that if my aging brain forgets that I read something (and this happened more often than it should have before I started writing up my thoughts on what I read) I'll have a record and won't get sucked in by a lovely book blurb and start rereading one I abandoned or didn't care for five years ago. There's too many books out there to reread "blah" books. :-)

  3. I totally sympathize. I hate it when I get a book others have liked and I just don't.

    I try to get bookss the 50-page test, but if they're truly banal and boring, I can't get past five pages. (I'm not naming names but it happens with authors loved by other readers.)

    I am tempted to read books I liked years ago but then I won't have time to read new books -- and there are so many out there which I want to try.

    A mystery reading friend who had read all of Donna Leon's books bought all of them at thrift shops or used book stores -- and reread them all. And the same with Inspector Maigret's books.

    But I want to try so many -- and I have TBR piles all over the place so I must try.

  4. Yvette, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I hate putting down a book I have started reading and I'll go all the way even if I know, at the outset, that it is not a good read. However, there is always a redeeming feature in every book. These days I'm careful with the books I'm reading.

  5. Yvette, same thing happening to me lately! Enjoyable post!

  6. Thank you so much, Joanne. I'm so glad you enjoyed the peek inside my head. Lots going on in there. Not all of it fit for public consumption. :)

    I hope you're going to be joining in my Georgette Heyer Blogathon coming up!!

  7. But Bev, that's exactly my point for not posting negative reviews. I don't want to dissuade anyone from reading something that they just might like. I mean, who am I to say what's good and what's bad.

    It just makes me uneasy is all.

    If the book is listed as read on sideboard, then you know I recommend it.

  8. I hope to get back to reading Donna Leon soon, Kathy. I got off track what with one thing and another and so much other stuff to read, but I hope to return to Venice soon. :)

    Re-reading is taking time away from the newer books (or older ones) I haven't read, but I try not to be too much on deadline about things. This is not supposed to be work. :)

  9. I agree, Prashant, that you have to be careful. But as I like to say: Life's too short to read a bad book. :)

  10. Thanks, Peggy Ann. Maybe it's just the 'blah' season for books. :)

  11. I'm glad to see I'm not alone in the Slump of Unfinished Books. So disheartening when it happens so many times in a row, isn't it? Last year I made a list of all the books I read and those I never finished. This year in the month of April I made a notation in my reading log that I attempted to read then abandoned five books in succession! But I didn't write down the titles and now I don't remember them at all. I think it's better that way. I'm willing to write reviews of books that fall into the "mixed bag" category, but I won't waste any time or effort of completley dissing a bad book.

    I like your 50 page rule. My rule is something like the first three chapters regardless of page length. If I'm not interested then it's shut and I move on.

  12. Totally agree. It's heart-breaking when the books turn out to be disappointments. There are certain books that were going great and then the ending came and spoiled it all.

  13. I try for the 50-page goal but sometimes a book is just too banal. If I feel like it's barely past a Dick and Jane reader-level or an author is basically saying Ms. X went to the store and bought milk and bread and then went home and made lunch, etc. And it continues like that I won't read it.

    The author has to have something to say that I want to know about.

  14. I echo your sentiments, Yvette, both about not finishing disappointing books and about not writing about them because I don't want to dissuade people who might enjoy a book that I didn't like. There are so many good ones out there that I feel perfectly justified in writing about the ones I think are the best - and simply ignoring the other ones.

    That's particularly true, for me, in newer mysteries. I don't want to give bad reviews to newer authors, especially the ones who are trying to write a more traditional mystery (and many cozy authors fit in that group!), but I also can't recommend a new author whose characters may grate or whose plots are weaker than I like.

    It's not easy striking that balance - something I think you do all the time! Keep it up!

  15. I'm with you John - 'move on' is the catch phrase. Life's too short. :)

    I generally do forget the books I've attempted to read then set aside. Although occasionally some rankle more than others.

    I'm more disappointed when I know that the author is a good writer.

  16. Oh I hate when that happens, Neer. If the ending is badly handled - ugh. But if I just disagree with the ending, then that's a different story. :)

  17. Kathy, yes. Sometimes I don't get past the first paragraph. But let's not mention those books. Too disheartening.

  18. Les, for me the term 'new cozy' always fills me with jitters. I have read so FEW modern cozies that I can actually recommend. Particularly when the author is obviously trying to toe the line - as it were.

    It takes real talent to write a good cozy. Something a lot of 'writers' obviously do not know.

  19. I never heard of the first book,and never had a desire to read the second. I do hate when a book I was looking forward to, just doesn't do it for me. I'm the same way with movies too.

    Right now I'm trying to get through a book now, one I agreed to review, and I'm just afraid I'm not going to be able to do it. The writing is good, it's just boring me.

  20. I very rarely take specific books for review. TOO MUCH PRESSURE. Sometimes I get talked into it, but it's something I'm not comfortable doing.

    Recently I tried to watch a movie that everyone said was GREAT and it did get nominated for everything so I was expecting Big Things. It was ZERO DARK THIRTY and I could barely get through the first half hour. I finally gave up. I hate to say this but I was bored silly.


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