While I believe that I did a great job in The Spider, The Witch, And The Spaceship, Terror Of The Fun Sponge, and The Gorilla With Twenty-Four Heads, my still-unpublished Secrets Of The Springs seems to have a touch of this last problem. I had several themes I wanted to cover and I believed them closely related enough to do all at once without taking away from any of them. Instead, what came out seems to jump back and forth haphazardly without reaching a single, strong moment where the main character must finally choose between options I can lay out clearly. It is still very readable, with lovable characters and a detailed setting, I just wish the plot were stronger and I don’t know how to fix it. It is possible that only I notice the problem, since others might not pick up on all the themes I included, and readers still enjoy other books with problems worse than mine. False Memory by Dean Koontz and The Tommyknockers by Stephen King come to mind, so I suppose I’m in good company.
I also find that dialogue doesn’t always make sense. In St. Blair by Emily Skinner, there are several statements that end in question marks that the speaking character has no reason to ask as questions. In other books, I am lead to believe a character is weak minded only to have them suddenly acting very competent once the action begins. This was especially prominent in an unpublished novel I recently critiqued for another science fiction writer. Other times, the things characters say leaves me scratching my head trying to discern their motivations and what they know. In The Ties That Bleed by Jami Deise, it is established in the classroom that vampires cannot be killed by killing their creators. Later, a vampire directly tells the teacher the opposite of this and she never questions it – even internally. There is never very much of this and I never lose track of the overall story, but it still bothers me and makes me think I am missing things.
This brings me at last to my rating system. I’ve never ranked any book as a one or two because I’m pretty good at screening out books I dislike before I read them. I think the only way to get a one or two would be if I discovered pervasive grammatical errors, a massive, unexplained plot hole, or if the structure just didn’t work as a story (i.e. dominated by poetry, chronologically confusing). Those books that get three stars are usually those that contain a nugget of potential that keeps me from just throwing them away, but ended up disappointing me at the climax. I read books primarily for the new concepts they illustrate, not the writing, so a little creativity can make up for other failings, such as the inclusion of unnecessary romance or bigotry. Those books that get four stars are those that I enjoy and are technically proficient, but do not stand out from the crowd or “blow my socks off” in any way. Most books (at least half) are four-star books. To get five stars, one must be almost perfect.
Here are some fiction books I have read recently:
The Ties That Bleed – Jami Deise – 4 stars
Of course the vampire idea has been done to death (excuse the pun), but that’s no reason to neglect a perfectly good action/mystery just because it features a few vampires. The main character, FBI agent Diana, must navigate a web of vampire informants, family secrets, and a class of naïve trainees that bring her nothing but endless trouble. The author makes good use of foreshadowing so that some revelations didn’t come as a shock at all, but these were quickly followed by others that were completely unexpected.
Doctor Who: The Blood Cell – James Goss – 4 stars
Doctor Who is awesome. In fact, the other stories in the series are so good that this one seems boring by comparison.
The Race For God – Brian Hebert – 4 stars
There is a thin plot holding together a long philosophical debate in this novel exposing some of the silliness of religion. On top of this there is also an interesting form of faster-than-light travel involving the contact points between universes and this is somehow related to the act of remembering past lives (aided by a machine called mnemo). There are robots, devices to produce any chemical at command, and cognitive enhancements. The characters are quirky and interesting. One alternates between flirting and anger. Another cannot help but focus on the nervous tics of others. The biocomputer (I love Appy!) argues with the spacecraft, swears a lot, and laughs waaaaay too long. Finally, the travelers meet God and he is not at all what most of them expected. I thought this was going to be a grand plan of God’s to teach the people of Earth to get along – an act of pure love from a position of strength. I wanted to see God outsmart the humans yet again. Instead, it turns out God needed help from the human race and many on the ship never quite learn to accept those of other religions.
False Memory – Dean Koontz – 4 stars
What would you do if your brother was a drug addict, your friend believed in aliens, your wife suddenly went crazy, a man bit off the president’s nose, and you started having unaccounted gaps of time in your memory? Overall, the book was enjoyable with plenty of running and shooting. I also liked the discussion of the rival psychiatrists, which I’ve never trusted myself. When it came to the mystery-solving elements I became a little frustrated when I would repeatedly learn that the main character in fact hadn’t gone as far in his thinking as I thought he had. More than once it was as if he put 2 and 2 together and got 3.9999 while I saw all the way to 4 and thought he had as well. Some of the motivations of the antagonist seemed a bit ad hoc as well. I get the distinct impression that the book Dusty began reading (The Manchurian Candidate) was originally intended by Koontz to have been placed by someone else, but then had to scrap the idea and come up with a reason for the antagonist to have placed it. If he had been the one to have placed it all along, I would have written it differently.
Forever Free – Joe Haldeman – 4 stars
What would you do if you were speeding through interstellar space and suddenly there was a sticky spot on the floor? And the thermostats stopped working? And one oyster bed wouldn’t grow? And air started to leak from the CENTER of the ship? And then all the antimatter fuel disappeared? And you returned home in escape pods only to find that every person had completely vanished (leaving behind piles of clothing) at the same moment your antimatter vanished? Then it gets even weirder after that, touching on different aspects of philosophy, religion, and cosmology.
The God Engines – John Scalzi – 5 stars
Worshipped by humans all over the galaxy, multitudes of god-creatures fight one another for dominance. For many years one god has continually expanded its territory, enslaving the gods it defeats to power starships for the faithful. The Captain of one of these ships is sent on an important mission by the church to an uncharted planet. What he finds there causes him to question whether he is on the side of right, or merely the side of might. One surprise leads to another, each making perfect sense and building on the one before until it all ends with the most ironic (yet still very appropriate) line ever. Definitely five stars!
The Tommyknockers – Stephen King – 4 stars
I find that Stephen King crams just a little too much in side stories into his work in general, which bogs down the action and partly neutralizes the building of suspense. This is the only thing that prevents it from reaching five stars. Otherwise, he’s awesome. The Tommyknockers is no different. It is quintessentially King. I enjoy the mixture of terror and science fiction weirdness.
St. Blair: Children Of The Night – Emily Skinner – 3 stars
This book gets off to a great start and then starts to deteriorate. The main character, Sybille, is repeatedly visited by angels and saints, but they never get around to explaining what’s going on and what they need her for. When the action picks up and the plans of the antagonist are revealed, it becomes especially chaotic. The antagonist inexplicably fails to act on her plan and instead rambles on about old family letters that apparently mean something to her but left me baffled. In the meantime, an artifact in storage starts to glow, but is then revealed to the reader to have started glowing many days ago and the bureaucrats are slow to do anything about it. When they finally do something, it is to make an announcement, but only a few seconds into it, saints suddenly make themselves visible to the crowds and take over. I wonder if time runs at different rates in different parts of the city, since I was under the impression that weeks had passed since Sybille changed roommates after the first was injured (and she even reflected on how long it was taking to adjust and open up to her new roommate), yet in a later scene her old roommate is still waiting for surgery. The ending is an unresolved cliffhanger with people running all over. It is a complete failure of a book.
I should give it one or two stars, but the beginning has so much potential. It’s very sad to squander such a thing. I did enjoy it. The equality-obsessed police state of the future, the ancient diary addressed to Sybille before her grandparents were even born, and the backstory that almost leads her to suicide are too intriguing to ignore.
The book is the first in a series and future episodes may answer some of my questions, but that is an improper way to do a series. It is perfectly alright to leave hints of something more to entice people to buy the next book, but each episode must at least make sense as a complete story on its own. If the first episode is incomplete, what would make me want to buy another possibly incomplete story? I’m better off cutting my losses and moving on to read proper series such as Star Trek and Doctor Who.
Elegy For A Lost Star – Elizabeth Haydon – 4 stars
This is from the middle of a series and does not stand alone very well, lacking a decent beginning and end to the action. Numerous loose strings are unresolved. I got it from the library and did not realize it was part of a series at the time (most episodes of which the library does not seem to have copies of). It is also incredibly wordy in its description and takes forever to get to the point. At the same time, the description is so well done and the setting so interesting, that it still deserves four stars. Eventually I will find the rest of the series and read it in order as one superbook.
Non-fiction is much harder to rate and so I am much less sure of these numbers.
Why I Am An Atheist That Believes In God – Frank Schaeffer – 3 stars
If an agnostic is one that neither believes nor disbelieves in God, Frank is an antiagnostic. He both believes and disbelieves in God. Since even the most religious people will have doubts (or at least act like it), we are all part-time atheists. Frank simply embraces this. He has no room for God in his worldview but goes through all the religious motions for his own emotional health. At least, this is the best I could figure out what he was saying. Religious certainty is a disease and faith is the cure.
The Girl With No Name – Marina Chapman – 5 stars
Taken from her family at an extremely young age, Marina was raised first by monkeys, then by prostitutes, then lived on the streets with other kids, then lived with gangsters, escaped to a nunnery, escaped from the nunnery, and finally found a family in a different part of the country.
Bold Love – Dr. Dan B. Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman the 3rd – 3 stars
We give up too quickly on people. Many times we ignore bad behavior and withdraw in the name of turning the other cheek, but the authors argue that we and the perpetrator are both better served when we confront sin in love, putting our cheeks right into harm’s way. Those that hurt others cannot truly be happy and must need help. Reforming the sinner may involve direct statements. It may involve sanctions or isolation. It may involve showing them an example of proper behavior.
I had already been thinking myself that this is how love is supposed to work. One should not immediately give up on someone if first rejected. There does come a point when more harm is done than good and we end up driving people further away, but this should not happen after only one try. I don’t understand how people can just give up so quickly. Is this why the divorce rate is so high? Is this why liberals and conservatives avoid each other? Why we have so much racial strife? We must be bold as the prophets were, speaking even to those that might imprison, behead, crucify, or stone us, whether they want to hear from us or not.
Finding God Where You Least Expect Him – John Fischer – 4 stars
Rather than retreat into the world of Christian entertainment options, why don’t Christians engage the world’s culture – not only to point out the bad, but to celebrate the good? If God is the creator of the universe and the human psyche, his fingerprints should be everywhere. Let’s go look for them.
When Faith And Decisions Collide – Dan Schaeffer – 4 stars
I wish I had this book years ago. It covers all the usual rules of thumb that people use to discern God’s will including coincidences, whether it fits our gifts, if we are at peace about it, if the thought comes out of the blue, if others confirm it for us, etc. Ultimately, it cautions that there are always exceptions and more often than not we will not know God’s will until after it happens. Still, part of God’s will is for us to seek out his will, even when the only way for us to learn it is through trial and error.