Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prequels and Sequels

Among the books I read but don't always review are prequels and sequels to books I've previously enjoyed. Often I think well, I should have known better. Rarely am I disappointed enough to feel the need to complain in writing.

Recently, though, I've had a spell of disappointment in my reading diet. I read a prequel to a book I loved and found it was nowhere near as good. I read a self-published first novel by an author who had a good story to tell but needed a good editor. And then I read a sequel to a book I thought had explored some interesting and even important points of view on American politics, to find that the sequel presents only one biased, limited, and--to me at least, disturbing--point of view.

Orson Scott Card's novel Empire was both thought-provoking and a good story, so I could hardly wait to read Hidden Empire when it came out. But I should have waited... forever. Nothing can completely spoil Card's amazing ability to tell a story, but it's hard for me to enjoy a story when I don't like any of the characters. By the end of Hidden Empire I absolutely hated one of the main characters, a man I had liked and admired in Empire. He shoots down all of his former friends on a flimsy ideological pretext and then stands around shaking hands with himself and being held up by the author as a person to admire. Bullshit, Card.

I have always been willing to love Card's fiction (no matter how much of a wacko I think he is in real life), but now he's gone too far trying to turn his fiction into a sermon. I can be patient with that, like when Barbara Kingsolver did it in Prodigal Summer and next turned to writing non-fiction to produce the much better Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But the sermon Card is trying to preach isn't even a good sermon. It's a parody of the Sermon on the Mount: "blessed are the self-righteous, for they will see their way clear to blowing all their enemies to Kingdom Come." If there's a non-fiction follow-up to that one, count me out.

Stotan! by Chris Crutcher, is a prequel of sorts to Whale Talk, which I think is a terrific book. And the main character in it is a boy named Walker. Seriously, how could I not like this book? And yet I didn't, much. I don't really understand the need to train for a sport until--much less past the point that--it hurts, which is what the "stotans," a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan, do. The parts of the novel about why people are prejudiced and what's the best way to respond to tragedy or treat people of the opposite sex were done better in Whale Talk, as if it is the culmination of Crutcher's ability to work through those issues with some of these same characters.

So why am I complaining about my reading disappointments? I think every once in a while people who talk about books should talk about the books we didn't like much. We all want to talk about the books that make us glad we've read them, but if we never contrast the ones that make us feel we've wasted our time, then we sound like people who are constantly enthusiastic--maybe over stuff that others might find mediocre. So I decided to complain today, as part of my continuing effort to be a fox in the henhouse.

Have you read anything lately that turned out to be a disappointment?

23 comments:

lemming said...

The latest issue of The New Yorker had a short story about an ant nest. Gerald Durrell could have made it great. This was dull.

FreshHell said...

I've read a number of disappointing books. The most recent Woody Allen book was awful. The Green Man by Kingsley Amis made me want to smack him and his arrogant maleness. Robbie Benson (tv actor) wrote a novel that should have not sucked but it did very much suck. I don't know why a) tv people think the rest of us care about the business and b) why I thought I'd want to read it.

Amanda said...

I have this thing about Card. I knew him as a real life person before I ever heard of his fiction and now I can't separate the two. I will never read his fiction because I hate him with a passion.

kittiesx3 said...

I liked Card's early works, and read several of the Ender books along with Treason and another one whose name entirely escapes me (although I liked it). I've picked through a bit of the first Ender book on Google, just to see if I wanted to reread it. I think I'll pass. I'm not the same person and I won't see the books in the same favorable light.

Now so far Dan Simmons continues to be someone I'll read anything by, also Iain Banks (guessing Jeanne might pass on his non sci-fi fiction now).

Oh and I read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and really truly hope the next one is as good.

Nymeth said...

Ugh...I think I'll avoid that Card book as well :\

Only a few mild disappointments for me so far this year, but I'm sure there are more to come :P

Amanda said...

**Okay I just want to note since I've had several people emailing me that no, I've not met Card in person. I meant that I read his essays and heard the things he said before I ever knew he was an author. That's all. Sorry for the confusion.

Teena said...

Thanks for the warning about Card. I was a little iffy on Empire, I think that I will use my extremely limited reading time on things other than Hidden Empire.

I haven't read anything I didn't like lately, because I only have time to read things I like :)

Jenny said...

I've stopped reading Card's new books - he just aggravates me so much in real life, and like you say, his books are getting preachier these days. I still read his earlier books.

Harriet said...

I can't think of a one, although I know I've read some. I think there's not enough room in my head for all the books I like, let alone those that were disappointing.

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Avid Reader said...

I love the Ender series and I recently picked up Card's "Treasure Box" in the hopes that it would be even half as good. It was horrible! It was one of the worst books I've ever read. I would recommend his earlier books, but I won't be picking up anything new from him.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for the warnings! I think many of us agree with Teena; we don't read books we don't like. But sometimes I'm surprised, as I was with the two here, and sometimes people have differing tastes (like the ongoing discussion of John Irving novels Teena and I have been having for almost a decade now).

farmlanebooks said...

Sorry to see that you've read so many disappointing books. I have Enders Game in the TBR pile, but hadn't heard of Empire, so I'll make sure I add it to the list.

I hope you find some fantastic books soon!

Jodie said...

I think the last really bad book I read by an author I'd liked before was 'Too Close to Home' by Linwood Barclay.

Anonymous said...
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Jeanne said...

something about this post is very spam-attractive

J.T. Oldfield said...

I think that posting about stuff we didn't like is good and healthy, both for ourselves and the book blogging community in general.

I've never read Card, because of what a prejudiced wacko he is.

I love the Wheel of Time series, but I've been putting of reading the most recent one that Sanderson wrote after Robert Jordan's death. My husband, who originally introduced me to the series, read it and thought it was good, but I'm still sort of nervous to read it.

Jeanne said...

J.T., it's rare that a sequel written by another author can measure up (another example: the Dune continuations after the author's death). My husband says this is true of the new Eoin Colfer follow-up to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, entitled And Another Thing...

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I was really disappointed by the third book in the Eragon series. I thought the first two were well done, good length, and really interesting. The third just felt like 700+ pages of filler before we can get to the real action in the fourth book. I'm really glad I didn't buy it, just borrowed from my brother.

Marie said...

We all have our ups and downs with reading. What can you do? :-)

Jeanne said...

Kim, my daughter completely concurs about that second Eragon book. I only read the first one.

Sherck said...

Hi Jeanne! I wandered over from your Facebook profile by way of your comment on Karen's status update, and it looks like I have another blog I need to start following. :)

I know your post probably wasn't meant to turn into a sound-off on Orson Scott Card, but it's a hard temptation to resist! I started with Ender's Game, loved it, loved Speaker for the Dead even more... and each subsequent volume in that series a bit less (so it goes). Overall, I've found Card to be really hit-or-miss, with a general tendency for his early work to be better than his later work (though not completely true on either end of his career!). When he's exploring the moral issues at the heart of the human condition, he's at his best, even when his characters reach conclusions that I don't accept. When it feels like he's preaching, he comes across as patronizingly obnoxious. Likewise, one of Card's strengths--his insight into the human condition--can become a source of annoyance when he's too heavy-handed with it. At times, not just in the this novel, but much of his later work, I get the feeling that Card is showing off: he's drawn to characters who have a deep, penetrating intelligence and insight into the people around them, and this choice allows him to take a certain tendency to extremes, to the point where it feels like Card--or his focal characters, as it often seems to amount to the same thing--is basically saying "Look at me and how smart I am and how well I understand people and societies and cultures."

Okay, moving on.

I haven't really had any reading disappointments lately, but I am looking forward to a sort of sequel that's coming out in about a month. One of my virtual friends, Paula Reed, a teacher and writer, has a sequel to The Scarlet Letter coming out from St. Martin's (it's called Hester). I can't specifically recommend the novel, since I haven't read it yet, but she's an intelligent, interesting, sensitive human being, and I'm hoping that will translate into a good novel.

Jeanne said...

Sherck, I think you're right about Card showing off. In the immortal words of P.D.Q. Bach's character Mozart, "I was a child prodigy, but now I'm just a grown-up guy." The genius thing is less impressive as one ages. Sometimes we all get a bit self-satisfied; probably the smarter you are, the worse the temptation.