Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Why I'm Not Buying Your Book

I've been looking the past few days for a new, interesting book to read, for after I finish Alice + Freda Forever, maybe, and I was thinking along the lines of science fiction or fantasy, because it has been a long time since I read a great scifi or fantasy novel (other than Nick Harkaway's books, which are phenomenal, of course.)

So when IO9 had a listing of the scifi and fantasy books you (meaning I) can't afford to miss in March, I figured I'd go check it out.  And then I figured I'd share why I pre-rejected or pre-accepted the books.  Most of what's below is IO9's original stuff, with my reasoning in red.


This book takes place in an underground, gaslit city where historians are incredibly important, because knowledge of the past is power. And when a major historian is murdered, Inspector Liesl Malone finds herself getting stonewalled by the government and threatened with death. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said, "The subtly fantastical story is resplendent with surprisingly deep villains, political corruption, and a gripping whodunit feel."

"Because knowledge of the past is power." I almost didn't get beyond 'underground, gaslit city. I don't like underground, gaslit cities.  Steampunk is a hard sell for me, and mysterious underground cities where people buy weird things from dimly-lit booths and everyone wears tophats (I assume) is an even harder one.  But the concept of knowledge somehow directly equating to power made me immediately move on.  Gimmick!  How would that work? "I know what happened 100 years ago and therefore am powerful."  "TELL ME!" "Ok, wait, no... nice try!"  Power/wealth/influence requires scarcity, and scarcity requires a thing that cannot be shared without diminishing it.  Plus this sounds too much like a 7th-grade history teacher got tired of kids saying "Why do we have to know about the Teapot Dome Scandal?"  I'm sure the sequel will be set on a series of floating cloud castles, where knowledge of addition and subtraction equals power.  The Primary School Trilogy.

The author of The Remains of the Day is back with a fantasy novel, full of ogres and dragons — an old couple set off on a quest to find their son, but we soon realize their real task is to defeat a dragon and dispel the mist that's destroying the land. Everybody is praising this book's fairytale weirdness, and Neil Gaiman calls it "an exceptional novel."

You had me at 'Kazuo Ishiguro.' Who should actually be referred to as the author of Never Let Me Go, which I assume was a better book because I read that one and not his other one.  But a great writer with dragons and ogres and a weird mist? I'm in.

Smith is one of the British space opera writers who hasn't caught on as much stateside, but this book sounds like a rollicking great time. This novel takes place partly in the present day, as a man with incredible powers hunts down a similarly powered serial killer — and they're both empowered by strange alien technology. But other storylines take place thousands of years ago, as demons attack Ancient Britain and the far future, as a ruthless power struggle unfolds in space, centuries after the destruction of Earth.

If you put the word "quantum" in it, I'll read it. (EXACTLY AS PREDICTED BY THE AMAZING AUTHOR WHO WROTE THAT SHORT STORY QUANTUM EVERYTHING! WOW!) But the story sounds good, too, and I am in the mood for a sprawling, time-bending epic.

Gilman's first Ben Jonson adventure was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award — now here's the second, in which Shakespeare's contemporary writes a play in which the Prince of Wales himself will play Oberon, the King of Faerie. Except that the zombie playwright Kit Marlowe gets involved, and everything goes rather badly.

Ugh. No "real" people in fake adventures. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen did that and it sucked and it's over.  

I couldn't possibly be more excited about this novel from the author of Something More Than Night. This takes place in an alternate universe where the Dutch empire has conquered everything, thanks to its clockwork soldiers, the Clakkers. But 200 years later, the Clakkers finally want to be set free. Publishers Weekly's starred review says, "Tregillis's complex setting is elegantly delivered, and the rich characters and gripping story really make this tale soar." Read an excerpt.

At first I skipped right over this because the cover looked like it was some sort of Nazi reference and I don't read alternate-WWII books.  Or actual WWII books. Or any book that mentions WWII.  But I also was put off by the "Alchemy War series, Book 1," despite my looking for an epic story.  The thing about a series is I don't know that it's going to be good all the way, or that it will ever finish.  Or that it's not going to be a billion pages long.  Battlestar Galactica, the new series, undid several years of good TV with one awful awful finale. George R.R. Martin is never going to finish Game Of Thrones (a series that doesn't interest me at all, for numerous reasons including that everyone else is going nuts over them), and when you're talking about a writer I've never heard of, that's a lot of trust to place in something going right.  Then, on reading the actual synopsis, I think it actually is an alternate World War in which the Dutch are the Nazis.  

Richards is one of the most prolific Doctor Who book authors and editors, but he joins Paul Cornell, Rebecca Levene and Ben Aaronovitch as the author of standalone fiction. In this book, the Nazis are winning World War II, the way they usually do in alternate histories — but this time, they're helped by strange beings from beyond. And Richards' deep knowledge of World War II history reportedly adds a lot to this tale. Says SFSite, "The Suicide Exhibition is the kind of book which transcends its well trod themes to provide something that is always familiar, but still capable of producing a surprise."

The actual IO9 article had prices and links to buy these books. I've cut those out of this post. But I want to say something about how outrageous the prices are.  Most of these books are $12, at least.  Some are twenty dollars.

Books should cost $9.99, for digital books, at least, and I'm a firm believer that all books should be digital.  I like walking through bookstores and libraries, a lot -- but I only buy hard copies of books now as collector's items (I'm going and rebuying used copies of the books I loved growing up, slowly.)  The reason books aren't $9.99 is because Steve Jobs and Apple got together to violate antitrust laws to break Amazon's grip on the book market, and in the end only consumers lost.  That's one of the many reasons I despise Steve Jobs.  That and his couch.  

Anyway, you can probably guess why I didn't bother reading the description of this book. NO MORE WORLD WAR II ALTERNATE ENDINGS. There are other wars and other plots. Why not at least do an alternate World War I? There are 15 different pop culture things featuring alternate WWI stories. I bet there are 33 billion alternate World War II stories.  I think one of the clearest ways to demonstrate that you are creatively bankrupt is to say your story is set in an alternate World War II.  You could only make it worse if you have historical figures caught up in a gimmick:

John Quincy Adams, Space President, couldn't believe his luck! Here was the United States' newly-elected dictator for life, Adolf Hitler, and it was obvious Hitler had ignored the requirement that everyone have their Seeing Cat with them...

GOD I felt a part of my brain die just writing that. I bet that'll be the next series from that author who wrote that stupid Divergent stuff.

The bestselling novelist takes us to 1890s Paris, where a woman fleeing her abusive husband finds herself possessed by a 16th century witch, La Lune. This ex-courtesan ghost opens up a secret world of darkness to the fugitive Sandrine. Kirkus calls this book, "Sensual, evocative, mysterious and haunting."

"Sandrine... that's a really pretty name for an industrial solvent."

Also, I started listening to an audiobook about some Paris king capturing a mermaid and the first 17,000 pages were a description of a parade or something.  Mention "Paris" in scifi or fantasy now and I assume that you are going to spend 98% of your book demonstrating to me how thorough your research was.  Maybe put some effort into moving the story along?

The only thing worse than trying to immerse me in a flood of period detail is the spotty, half-a**ed insertion of some lame attempt to demonstrate the era the story is set in.  Movies do this all the time, having a character make a pointed reference to his or her "Discman" to emphasize that it's 1997.  

Connolly's Twenty Palaces books were a refreshingly dark spin on urban fantasy tropes. And now he's following up his self-published Great Way trilogy with another self-published book — his heroine, Marley Jacobs, has given up hunting supernatural creatures and tried to turn Seattle into a peaceful place where humans and the undead can exist together in peace. Too bad someone isn't down with the program.

I love the title but then the more I thought about it the more I thought It's probably just a Sookie Stackhouse ripoff.  Plus I don't like when people say "urban fantasy." I don't know exactly what it means but I don't like it.

If you're a regular io9 reader, you've seen Valentine's recaps of Sleepy Hollow and other shows — but before that happened, you also saw us praise her captivating fantasy novel Mecanique. Now she's written a near-future thriller set in a future where the lines between celebrity and diplomacy have become blurred. Suyana is the Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, a target for paparazzi but also assassination attempts. Soon, though, she's forced to go on the run with a young paparazzo to unravel a conspiracy. Read an excerpt here.

In a future where celebrity and diplomacy have become blurred?

Also, this is probably a good time to expound on why I hate gimmick scifi and fantasy stories. A gimmick is anything that the story revolves around that is a tweak or twist on the normal world -- everything from Logan's Run and it's "we kill everyone over 25" plot to the moronic Hunger Games "teens fighting to feed sector 12" or whatever.  

You can tell a gimmick story because the gimmick is front-and-center: any description of the book/movie/TV show focuses on the gimmick.  Here's the actual description from the Amazon page for The Hunger Games:

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games,"

The plot, characters, etc., take a backseat to the gimmick.  This is something I first noticed in horror movies: many horror movies come up with something they think is scary, like the catacombs below Paris, and then figure "Eh, whatever we do in that setting will be scary," and the movie sucks because nobody gave any thought to how to actually make it interesting.  This is what happened with one of the worst ripoff horror movies ever, White Noise, a/k/a Here Is A Scary Sound.

Gimmick stories are even worse when the gimmick makes no sense.  How could a government like The Hunger Games survive? In Roman times, the people who fought to the death were not from the general populace. In modern times, dictators who starve their people don't offer them a secret way out for a select few, if only because offering people hope of moving up in the ranks is counterproductive for totalitarianism.

Great stories rarely revolve around a gimmick.  Star Wars.  The Lord Of The Rings.  His Dark Materials. The Hitchhikers' Trilogy... these are books that tell phenomenal stories, but the quirks of their society are secondary to the plot and characters.

If a gimmick gets mentioned too quickly or prominently in the description, I rarely read more.  

Even for Dan Simmons, this sounds like an odd sort of novel. Famous author Henry James and famed detective Sherlock Holmes team up ...

Nope. Not even reading the rest of this. If I was ever going to read Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, I'd want it to be the kind written by T. Rex of Dinosaur Comics.

You think you've had a bad breakup? You should see Henry. After his girlfriend Valerie leaves him, everything starts to fall apart — as in, reality itself begins to unravel. There's time travel, and other versions of Henry from the future, and everything is just whacked out. Henry's only hope to get his life back on track is to find his ex. Kirkus says, "An auspicious debut that blends a number of disparate-seeming tones into something surprisingly coherent—and moving."

I once wrote an essay about whether you had to call your novel "A Novel." (The entire thing is here.) In it, I posited that the reason people tack a novel onto the title of their book is to appeal to a certain kind of literary snob, and that the words a novel were a literary equivalent of the Prius Effect:

The "Prius Effect" is an actual thing: It refers to the oddly-shaped Prius car, and the fact that the Prius was oddly-shaped to emphasize that it was a hybrid, which, in turn, made people who wanted to buy hybrids more likely to buy a Prius, not because they were better cars but because they were immediately recognized as green: by buying a hybrid car, you are helping the environment, but by buying a Prius, you are helping the environment and telling everyone that you are helping the environment, the latter being very important to almost everyone who wants to buy a Prius.
Notwithstanding that, this book actually sounded kind of interesting, although I ultimately passed because I guessed it might be YA.

Polly sets fire to the family farm to escape from her abusive father, and winds up taking sanctuary with her brother at a Shaker community — but then it turns out that she's their new Visionist, who can see mystical realities. The New York Times calls this book "transfixing" and praises its "meditative consideration of the value of hardship and the transformative nature of ecstasy."

Just... nothing in this description sounded appealing at all.  But at least, thanks to the 'a novel,' you know it's a work of fiction!

This book sounds weird, in a really fun way — Tralane is a master of "archaeotechnology," the science of uncovering miracles from past ages. She lives in an age of magic, inside a "matriarchal imperium," and her life is devoted to peaceful scholarship. Until she gets pulled into a war, and has to go on the run with an alien peacekeeper.

This sounded awesome but for some reason you cannot buy it and you cannot wishlist it which means that I have no way of keeping track of it and ultimately I will probably never read it.  So in this case I will not buy your book, Justina Robson, because you don't seem to want to sell it to me or make it possible for me to remember to buy it once you do want to sell it to me. IT ONLY MAKES ME WANT YOU MORE.

What's it like investigating crimes in Hell? Not surprisingly, it's Hellish.

There's more but that is the exact moment I stopped reading and moved on. I found the concept of a detective in Hell immediately so irritating it was like being poked in the eye by a sockful of hornets. And the more I think about it the worse it gets.

This strange YA book takes place in an alternate 1930s Australia,

That was all I needed, there.

Consider: unless you are familiar with real 1930s Australia, how would you know this is an alternate?  Are the koalas Nazis who actually won World War II?

The author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves writes a weird tale where a man suddenly finds his cat talking to him — and the cat tells him all sorts of secrets, including stuff about his wife's death, and a conspiracy by sinister forces.

This sounds like cat fan fiction, now.  And it's by the author of a book about grammar.  This person is basically an alternate version of Andrew Leon.* One who probably won WWII.

Just the title alone was enough to stop me, though.  It just telegraphs how awful this book is going to be.  

*I do buy Andrew's books.  You should, too. He's got one involving a cat, if that's your thing.  And it's a good story! 

Roza gets kidnapped by a mysterious man, and the only witness is Finn, who can't remember anything about what that man looked like. The opening paragraph pretty much won me over: "THE PEOPLE OF BONE GAP CALLED FINN A LOT OF THINGS, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude." Read a big chunk of the book here.

Won me over, too.  This sounds incredible.

What if there was a party drug that contained distilled magic? That's the intriguing premise of this debut novel that the publisher is calling "Breaking Bad meets Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files." Unfortunately, if you snort the magical drug Flex, you get one hell of a crash afterwards, in which the universe takes back whatever you've gotten from it. A rules-obsessed "bureaumancer" is forced to try this dangerous drug in order to save his badly burned daughter.Read an excerpt!

What if you wrote a book that wasn't a gimmicky ripoff of a bunch of movies you streamed on Netflix last week? I also would have accepted "Trainspotting meets Limitless," or Requiem for a Dream meets Lucy," or "Less Than Zero meets ... I don't know, Rocky?" I bet that rules-obsessed bureaumancer learns that ... sometimes you've gotta break the rules *record scratch*

An award-winning poet has written what sounds like a pretty intriguing dystopia — 400 years after some kind of calamity, everyone is born in twins. One twin is the Alpha, perfect and strong, and the other twin is a mutated Omega, who gets banished into special settlements. Feeling Fictional calls it "a great start to the series and it left me desperate to find out what will happen next."

OH GOD ARE WE DONE WITH GIMMICKY DYSTOPIAS?  Also, as a society let's just agree to tell teenagers that they are not special and get over it, so we can quit killing trees for crap like this?  In my day, we didn't need to read a book to realize just how much nobody understood us! We listened to punk rock music for that!

The author of Afterparty 

Pretty sure that was not a book but was actually an album by that guy who briefly married Jessica Simpson's younger sister.

writes a dark fantasy in which the young Harrison is suppressing memories of some kind of encounter with Lovecraftian monsters in the depths of the ocean. He lost a leg, and now walks with a high-tech prosthetic, and he's afraid of the water. But then he goes to a new school, where he meets a ghost, learns a secret sign language, and gets a note from a half-fish, half-human member of the Dwellers, who live in the sea. Kirkus seemed to like it a lot.

... but actually this sounds pretty good.  Hopefully there's no twins living underground in a world where Hitler actually won the war.

The Booker Prize-shortlisted author writes a very pomo-sounding novel about a man named U. who is a "corporate anthropologist," studying the strange phenomena of our times for a giant corporation. He starts seeing weird connections between South Pacific cargo cults and an epidemic of dead parachutists. NPR says "the satiny glow of those passages gives a reader hope for some kind of fusion of meaning and feeling in a world that's too carefully restrained."Associated Press calls it "a dazzling array of sentences and paragraphs and snippets of memory and thought that aren't quite sure where they are. "

This sounded great until the reviews pointed out that it is going to be impossible to understand. It sounds like what you'd get if David Foster Wallace and James Joyce got really high and passed out on the keyboard one night. Of course, that's what all their books were like.

I can't imagine a worse review than someone saying that my writing is so good it gives the reader hope that eventually it will make some kind of sense.

Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with a pair of wings, but they were surgically removed when she was little, leaving nasty scars — and then she discovers that she comes from a family of winged women, back in Lithuania. She goes on a quest to find her ancestors and the meaning of the wings that only one other person can see. Read an excerpt here.

I swear to God the boy and I once came up with almost exactly this same storyline, only it didn't involve Lithuania.  So I couldn't read this because I'd be 100% sure the author had somehow read my mind, the way the NSA does.  Also, it says "ancestors." I don't want to read a book about 'ancestors.' I got the feeling this book would have tons of description of Lithuanian customs.

The title was so familiar that I couldn't focus on what the book was about at all until I went and googled where it comes from, and then I was even more put off.

This "contemporary noir" noir novel takes place in the hot, rainy summer of 2015. Twin sisters discover a strange mushroom growing out of their hall closet, and it's weirdly phosphorescent. The women, along with a fugitive au pair and an actress are forced to flee their row house when the infestation gets out of control — but soon the whole city is being overrun with these strange growths. Kirkus gives it a starred review and says, "This absorbing novel about a luminescent fungus affixes itself to your psyche like a spore and quickly spreads to your heart, setting everything in its wake aglow."

I wasn't sure what to make of this, because everything about it, from the 'contemporary noir' (?!?) to the mushroom gimmick seemed designed to turn me off, but it seemed compelling and ultimately I put it on the list to buy someday.

The crew of the "freetrader" ship Pelquin's Comet are a group of misfits, ex-soldiers and thieves, and they're always looking for the score that will make them rich. And maybe they've found it — a cache of secret alien technology that's worth a fortune. If only they can get to it before the government, various corporations, and just about everybody else.

No thanks I already saw Firefly, and obviously this writer did, too.

So a couple of books out of the list? That's not too bad, I suppose, although none of them sounded good enough for me to go buy now.  *sigh* I guess it's back to binge-watching Phineas & Ferb all weekend.

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