Monday, December 13, 2004

The Biggest Reading Disappointments Of The Year

There were a surprising number of books this year that were looked forward to, and turned out to be below par, in one way or another. This can possibly be attributed to increased quality output from new and rising authors. It is also sometimes a sign of burn-out, particularly in well-established authors. Of course, sometimes burn-out is just what an author needs to get revitalized and churn out more excellent works.

Without further ado, the year's biggest reading disappointments:

1. The Dark Tower VII: Stephen King caps his seven-volume, generation-spanning opus with a work that relies too much on deus ex machina as a plot device, besides turning the final conflict at the Tower into a slinging match. At the same time, this work brought many tears to the reader's eye a few times. The concepts of the multi-verse and the wheel of Ka are fully fleshed out, and some notable characters introduced. Possibly over-inflated expectations and a sense of reading meta-fiction deflated this book.

2. Ken Follett's Whiteout: Possibly one of the worst novels of the year, this book would likely be rejected by Harlequin Romance were it submitted them. Unsure whether it wants to be a romance or a techno-thriller, it fails at both. The science is weak, and the romantic scenes insipid. The predictable plot could have been written by a grade school student and the product placement is nauseating. A poor delivery by the author of masterful works like "The Pillars Of The Earth" and "The Eye Of The Needle".

3. Days Of Infamy: Harry Turtledove slips with what is likely the first in a new series in his reinterpretation of Japanese-American military relations circa 1941. This could be because he was focused on his other series in progress, Settling Accounts. This book, however, had more than the usual flaws, While most characters are still cut from cardboard, except perhaps Jiro, the Japanese fisherman, the serious flaw in this book is the lack of detail on reactions in Japan and the US to a Japanese invasion of Hawaii. There is also no backstory to the invasion itself.

4. On Paradise Drive: David Brooks' disquisition on exurbia is more about why materialism works and how it fulfils the American soul than about the dark core within the American dream - debts, disaffections et al. He discredits American, and thereby modern values through painting them as unimportant distractions in the larger perspective of Home Depot happiness. He describes shopping as the creative impulse of the American consumer, rather than the pretentious wish-fulfilment it is for most. He calls this an 'impulse to Utopia', ignoring the pathological aspects of materalism as a source of joy. Excuse me while I get myself a latte and hop over to Ethan Allen for a look-see at their new catalog.

5. The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: This was not so much of a disappointment as expectations were not too high in the first place. This fine review by the Duke says it better than I possibly could.

6. The Know-It-All: One man's journey to discover everything worth knowing tells us that there is little worth knowing after all. A J Jacobs read through all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and shares his findings, including the discovery that Lincoln was the second speaker at Gettysburg. Shallow insights and lame one-liners are all too common. Innaccuracies and typos abound.

7. Call to Treason: Tom Clancy's ghost-writers have some work to do if they truly wish to channel their master's writing spirit. Weak writing, a poor plot and a strained attempt at grounding the theme in current realities make this the worst of the Op Center series.

8. Transmission: Hari Kunzru's superlative "The Impressionist" is followed up by this weak pseudo-cyberpunk book featuring Indian hackers who plant worms unnoticed in smart people's software, and then escape to Mexico. The subplot featuring an Indian film being shot in Scotland is pointless and distracting. A number of loose ends are left dangling, leaving one to hope for a better novel next time by an excellent author

9. Trump: How To Get Rich: The king of braggadocio delivers a slim volume that touches on topics of interest only to the author himself. There is little insight here, and even less good writing.

Some of these books, particularly 1, 3 and 4 were good and necessary reads, despite their inclusion in the list above.

Note: My list of the 10 best books of 2004

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader