When I read a novel, I have a kind of mental checklist of things to look for while I read. That list includes things like setting, characterisation, plot, narrative flow, prosody, themes – basically, all the things that I think are essential to a good story. Sometimes some parts are better than others: for instance, the setting might be beautifully built, but if the characters aren’t up to snuff, that lowers the quality of the book in my eyes. Or the plot may be perfectly paced and exciting to read about, but if the themes are not fully fleshed out or, worse, objectionable, then my opinion of the book goes down accordingly. Of course, these things tend to balance things out: great writing can sometimes make up for a poorly-built world, or fantastic characters can occasionally make a lacklustre plot more bearable.
But not all novels fit easily into this checklist. Sometimes a novel isn’t necessarily about telling a story, and is instead more concerned with experimenting with narrative, for example. Such novels can be hard to pick apart, and in such cases it becomes important to look for other parameters to use for measuring the novel’s quality.
It is a mildly terrifying thing when I read a book that is much-loved by a great many people, and come out the other side wondering why the book is so popular in the first place. I suppose I simply came to the hype much, much later than everyone else did; after all, the book of which I speak was first released, to much popular acclaim, some twelve years ago, and I am only reading it now, when the hype has long since quieted and the book likely lives in the warm, rosy glow of nostalgia for those who claim to love it. I, for my part, come to it with fresh eyes, with an awareness of its popularity and yet unaffected by it, since the hype is a part of my past and therefore does not affect my reading of the novel.
This blindness can be a boon, in its own way; it allows me to appreciate the book on its own strengths, its own merits, my judgment unclouded by hype. At the same time, however, I worry that those who read my thoughts regarding a book they love may turn into a metaphorical lynch mob. This may seem laughable to some, but this is the Internet: such things are possible.
I’ve been fascinated with ancient Egypt since I was in grade school. I attribute this fascination to my mother, who gave me a lovely set of lavishly-illustrated Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books when I was younger, and those books informed my current, adult fascination in history and science, as well as nudged me towards the kind of reading I most enjoy doing today. My mother would help me amass quite the collection of such books as I was growing up, but among the very first books she gave me was about ancient Egypt. Since then, I have been enamoured with the place and the time period, and once dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, digging through the shifting sands in search of lost Egyptian artefacts.
Because of this early interest in the subject, I’ve tried to keep up with whatever new books about ancient Egypt come out – something that was difficult before, but now made significantly easier thanks to the Internet. It has also become much easier to find books about specific parts of ancient Egyptian history, or about specific personages; oftentimes, I skim the Kirkus Review’s website for new books that might interest me. That was how I found out about The Woman Who Would Be King, Kara Cooney’s biography of Hatshepsut, which turned out to be one of my favourite reads of 2015, despite a few minor issues I had with it, which I mention in this review.
Several years ago, a close friend of mine talked about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and how she wanted to read it. Since this friend is one of the people whose taste in books I trust most, I decided that, if she was so enthused by the prospect of reading House of Leaves, it might be a good idea to give it a try as well.
That proved to be a very good decision indeed, as House of Leaves has stuck with me as one of the most terrifying horror stories I’ve ever read. It also reintroduced me to the horror genre (after many years without, having already outgrown the Goosebumps books by the time I was fourteen) by showing me that jump scares might not be my thing, but creeping psychological horror very definitely is. While admittedly Danielewski’s style can take some time to get used to, my previous experience reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges prepared me quite well for reading and appreciating Danielewski’s novel. (I do, however, rather agree with some of Danielewski’s critics, who claim that there are times when his style sometimes feels more like the author patting himself on the back for being so clever, instead of actually improving the narrative.)
When it comes to series, especially dense, long-running fantasy series, I am always worried that the next book will not live up to the ones that came before it. I call it “middle book syndrome”, from the notion that the middle (i.e. second) book in a trilogy is generally not as good as the first or the third. The best writers try to avoid this, of course, but they do sometimes fall victim to it – my most recent experience was with The Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy.
However, when a writer gets the pace just right, it is possible to avoid this issue in the second or even succeeding books (though I’ve yet to read a series wherein this does not happen at all). There have been more than a few authors who’ve managed to do this (including Jemisin: her book The Broken Kingdoms is the second in her Inheritance Trilogy and is my personal favourite in the entire series), and it always makes me happy when I encounter an author who can sustain the strength of their series into the second book, and hopefully into the succeeding books of their series.