I’m at the end of an extremely worthwhile week of vacation: saw my family, ate a lot better than I do when I cook for myself, and am currently waiting for Netflix to finish buffering Murder on the Orient Express, for about the fifty-first time: the wireless here is notoriously temperamental (“thanks”, Verizon), and I keep getting kicked out of the movie just as Poirot confronts one or another of the passengers. Not that I find that at all annoying.
I’ve also spent a fair amount of time reading. The local library, to which I’ve been going since I was…five? Something like that…has a really good selection: they get new books in regularly, but they also aren’t in the habit of throwing or giving away the old stuff, so they have many, many wonderful books with slightly tan paper and the hard geometric-pattern covers, which makes me happy on a weird level.
So I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking about what criteria I go for with books these days, particularly fiction. This isn’t an exclusive list of stuff I’ll read–anything from a friend’s recommendation to being stuck in a bus station can get me to go outside this particular box–nor is it at all an objective statement about what’s good or not. Hey, I eat circus peanuts: my taste is maybe not the best model to follow.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that I don’t do very well with giant one-story-over-six-books plot arcs that involve a million characters and places and subplots. I just…don’t. Picked up Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy: the characters were good, the setting was cool, the ideas were interesting, but everything is all over the place, the POV is constantly jumping from Person A on one planet to Person C on another, and I have no idea what’s going on. This is not to say Hamilton’s bad. I just can’t really get into him for, probably, the same reason I forget my keys once a month: holding details in my mind for any length of time is tough.
I do, however, really like Tolkien and King, both of whom write long series full of long books and a lot of POV characters, and I think there are a couple of factors contributing to that. First of all, both authors introduce a main character or group of characters first and let us have significant time with them before everyone gets split up, if they do. We get two books–or one really really long book–that’s ninety percent Frodo’s POV, which means we get to see the other people through his eyes and develop relationships accordingly. The first three books about Roland et al actually feature the group coming together, and nobody really goes off separately until book 6. Both these things cut way down on the amount of effort I have to put into remembering who this character is and why I should give a damn.
It also helps to have the major problem or goal of the series laid out right up front. LotR? Sauron’s a bad guy who does bad things; our heroes want to stop him. It’s simple and it works. Dark Tower? A little weirder, but Save the Keystone of Existence is, again, a pretty firm goal. It’s not vague, as you might say. Not that there isn’t room for complexity, but I like my heroes to have a pretty good idea of their ultimate goal fairly soon in the series, even if the actual steps to get there are a little fuzzy or the goal changes along the way.
I largely prefer a gradual introduction to the world, and a plot that’s pretty tightly focused on a character or a group of characters, even if what they do ends up changing the world, or saving it, or whatever. Not to say that those characters have to be the centers of the actual universe: I mentioned the Epic Epicness of DT and LotR, but I’m just as happy to read a slice-of-life novel about, I don’t know, being an ordinary army nurse during an alien invasion. (Cherry Ames and the Tentacular Horrors?) I just like knowing who I’m going to be riding along with, as it were, and roughly where we’re aiming to go.
I also prefer my plots…I don’t know if “simple” is the right word here, but I’m not a giant fan of plots centered around mysteries or conspiracies. I don’t mind those elements–q.v. Christie movie above, and I read ginormous amounts of Sherlock Holmes in my youth–but I find them hard to follow. Love Steven Brust for his setting and his language; will frequently finish up one of his books wondering just what happened there. I prefer adventure or slice-of-life, or political plots a la The West Wing, where intricate scheming takes a backseat to grappling with issues.
Much to the disappointment of both parents, by the way: Mom reads a jillion mysteries, and Dad’s a spy-novel man. Oh well. I never was good at math or Latin, either. 😉
It almost goes without saying that I go for strong heroines. That doesn’t necessarily mean kicking-ass-and-taking-names, though I do like that, but rather being good at what they do, having interests that aren’t a guy, and being able to function on their own under normal, not-being-attacked-by-mind-flayers circumstances. Having friends of their own helps a lot too, although that also depends on the situation. I want someone who might be scared of a situation, but who will at least try to deal with it anyhow; someone who won’t be a burden.
What else do I like? Oh. Sleep. I like sleep.