The Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.

Snippet Reviews: June 2020

It’s time for more snippet reviews.

The Kingdom of the Seven

There are two things you need to know about The Kingdom of the Seven. 1: It is one of the tamer Blaine McCracken books. 2: It features an evil televangelist building an underground city in an old salt mine.

Sword of the Prophet

The final entry in the Cody’s Army series, Sword of the Prophet is a merely middling book. Though not the worst men’s adventure novel ever, it’s not hard to see why this was the last in the series.

If Tomorrow Comes

A Sidney Sheldon novel about a female con artist, If Tomorrow Comes stands out for its ridiculous character arc. The protagonist goes from being a naive fool to a super-genius very quickly.

Snippet Reviews: April 2020

So, it’s time for a few more snippet reviews.

Bloodline

After reading only a few Sidney Sheldon books, I found that Bloodline matches his formula very closely. This is not a bad thing. While it doesn’t exceed the excess of Master of the Game, it comes fairly close, and his story of elite “intrigue” is everything you’d expect.

False Flag

A disappointing second entry in the Jason Trapp series, False Flag keeps the semi-serious tone while turning the plot up to full Roger Moore Bond ridiculousness. It doesn’t work well compared to its predecessor.

Extraordinary Retribution

Erec Stebbins’ second INTEL 1 novel, Extraordinary Retribution, is kind of an in-name-only endeavor. Not only are the politics even more blatant and hamfisted, but the main characters of The Ragnarok Conspiracy only appear at the end as a final deus ex machina. Otherwise, it’s a completely separate story. And not the best-written one.

Adding A Tank Manufacturer

So this thought came to me from a throwaway line in Sidney Sheldon’s Master Of The Game about how the main character’s conglomerate started manufacturing tanks in World War I (along with other war material). How hard is it to slip a tank company into an alternate history?

There’s two boring solutions. One is that it’s easy if the story calls for it, with a focus on armored vehicle economics not usually being beneficial to a book (especially a Sidney Sheldon one). Another is that they can, especially during the World Wars, be just a contractor that built tanks designed by someone else (see a lot of railroad locomotive plants in World War II). A third is that they end up as the main winner for a gigantic wartime or Cold War contract and just become what General Dynamics Land Systems (to give one example) is in real life. A fourth is if severe politics (read-no reliable import partners) are involved.

But privately designed tanks for private sales? That’s tricky. There’s really only a few windows, the interwar and middle Cold War periods. Otherwise, you just have a glut of WWII surplus/early Cold War military aid or an equally huge one of advanced technology/later Cold War surplus.

And even then, for every success like the Vickers MBT, you have failures like the AMX-40 and Osorio, to say nothing of one-customer wonders like the Stingray. Both political power and economies of scale are tough to overcome. Yet there’s always the chance of getting an export order and then having the exported tanks do well enough to trigger more interested customers. It still isn’t going to come close to the T-55 or Patton, but it can work.

Review: Master Of The Game

Master Of The Game

mastergamecover

Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game is, on paper, the story of Kate Blackwell, an heiress to a South African diamond fortune-turned international conglomerate. In practice, Kate herself is only a supporting character.

First is a pulp-historical thriller as Kate’s ancestor makes his diamond fortune. Then it’s Kate herself and her son. Finally, and taking up most of the book, is the saga of Kate’s granddaughters, Eve and Alexandria. The feud can be described as the vicious, wicked, and evil Eve constantly attempting to kill the stupid and clueless Alexandria so that she can take all the family fortune for herself.

Like a lot of Sheldon’s other books, this throws in Big Historical Events (the Boer and World Wars) almost as an afterthought to make it look slightly “sophisticated”. The rise of Kate herself, which was the biggest reason I got the book, is too simple and too rushed. This is another one of Sheldon’s gimmicks-dress the book up in the trappings of a legal/business/political struggle but use that as the backdrop for a lurid soap opera.

Fortunately, it has the ridiculously melodramatic saga of the twin sisters, starting with Eve’s “Agent 47 meets Pinky and the Brain” assassination attempts and ending with a climax where one twin poses as the other (gee, I didn’t expect that).

This book is obviously trash, but I can’t help but like it. For a start, it’s not the product of ineptitude-this is from the hands of a skilled showbiz writer who knew how to play to the popular crowd. Second, it gets so cliche and so lurid, it actually becomes fun in a “really?” kind of way.

Review: Rage of Angels

Rage of Angels

rageofangelscover

Sidney Sheldon’s parade of “gilded cheap thrillers” continues in Rage of Angels. This is the tale of lawyer Jennifer Parker and her twists and turns as she tangles with (and beds) powerful politicians and more powerful mobsters.

Now, it’s still a sleazy sow of a cheap thriller that smothers its face in just enough designer cosmetics to appear slightly respectable for those bookshelves. But for all its cliches, it’s considerably less sleazy and considerably more genuine than The Other Side of Midnight ever was.

This helps it a lot, as there’s more focus on the actual substance and less on forced pretentiousness. What this leads to is a virtuous cycle. Being able to dial back on some of the pseudo-splendor means the characters are more interesting, which in turn means that there’s less need for “look at this wonderful exotic place” filler…

The opening act is Fuldapocalypse’s first dip into that lucrative genre-the legal thriller. I know very little about law, but even I know that the cases move way too fast and that certain ones that I’m 99.999999999999999999999999999999% sure would result in a settlement end up in front of a jury so that Parker can win. Yes, I’m utterly and horribly shocked that a book reviewed on Fuldapocalypse is unrealistic. And I’m even more shocked that a lot of the later plot turns out to be contrived.

The later parts, although told in the faux-flowery style I’d come to know from Sheldon’s previous book, actually work better. The ending is rushed, but it’s actually less so than some of the outright pulp I’ve read. Sheldon knew his audience and knew his style, and by those standards, Rage of Angels works.

 

Review: The Other Side Of Midnight

The Other Side Of Midnight

midnightcover

The time has come for Fuldapocalypse to broaden its horizons once more. Now reviewed is Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side Of Midnight. This is in the kind of fiction genre best described, for lack of a better word, as the “romantic epic”, or maybe “romantic suspense.” How do I even begin to unpack this tale of scheming women, world war (well, technically), and romantic drama?

Well, the plot itself focuses on the romantic entanglements and schemes of four people throughout decades. Noelle Page, a French beauty who schemes. Catherine Alexander, an innocent midwestern American. Larry Douglas, a boorish but handsome pilot. And tycoon Aristotle Onassis  Constantin Demeris.

See, this book is very much a cheap thriller at heart, but it’s what I call a “gilded cheap thriller”. Most of the other stuff from the period I’d have reviewed on this blog is obvious, open, blatant, unashamed, sleaze-pulp. This is that in substance, but it’s wrapped in a tiny fig leaf of “sophistication” and “grandeur”.

It has the trappings of a literary epic that travels across time and place. There are descriptions of places, chapters marked by the passing of time, and narrative statements. All of which serve to bookend one scene of sleazy romance novel cliches (really, even someone like me could instantly spot almost all of them) after another.

The question that went through my mind after I finished was “was this intentional”? Was it a case of Sheldon’s pretensions exceeding his literary skill? Or was it knowingly making something that deliberately sleazy yet slightly, visually “respectable” enough for people to buy it without guilt? My very strong feeling is the latter, given that the author was already experienced in show business long before he wrote novels.

Well, whatever it was, it worked at selling lots and lots of books, especially this one.