Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Unexpected Applause: The Crystal Bridge

I recently mentioned, here, about how disappointing it can be to read a book that you've been looking forward to reading and finding it doesn't quite live up to what you expected. Sometimes, this can make the experience worse than it would have been if you hadn't had expectations. The absolute best example of this phenomenon from pop culture is The Phantom Menace. In many ways, that movie was just doomed to fail in the eyes of the fans. I mean, give a group of people 20 years to dwell on something and build it up in their minds, and there's just no way you can win. But I digress...

I'm usually pretty good at avoiding this issue, of building something up and, then, being let down by it, but it may be part of what's going on with this book, The Crystal Bridge,
by Charlie Pulsipher. I honestly can't tell. I expected to enjoy this book, and it started out well enough, so I thought my expectation was going to be rewarded, but... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, let's talk about the technicals. As is pretty common with independently published works, Mr. Pulsipher could have greatly benefited from an editor. It's not the worst self-edited job I've seen, and, according to the author, he's made revisions as he's become aware of mistakes, but I can't actually speak to any corrections that have been made, especially since I have an older (physical) copy of the book. There are formatting issues, spelling issues, grammar issues, and, especially, comma issues. The comma issues include one that is becoming, possibly, my biggest comma peeve: starting a sentence with a conjunction, following it with a comma, and following that with an independent clause. For example: "But, he went home." [my example]
This is just wrong. The comma goes in front of the conjunction, so, if you're starting a sentence with one, you don't need a comma. It should be: "But he went home."
There are even more instances of what is probably my second biggest peeve: <independent clause> comma <conjunction> <dependent clause/sentence fragment>. For example: "He felt sick, and threw up." [my example]
Because "threw up" is a fragment, no comma is necessary. It should be: "He felt sick and threw up."

The other major technical issue that has to do with grammar and punctuation is kind of a borderline thing. It's a usage issue, but, in and of itself, it's not actually incorrect. He uses the word "then" over and over to signify a chain of events. However, when you are depicting action within a paragraph, the chain of events is implied so usage of "then" becomes redundant. Generally speaking, you should only use "then" if the action is dependent upon the previous action and, possibly, not even then. [heh] Basically, we have this:
Kaden did <action>.
Kaden then did <action>
The frequency of this increased as the book went on, sometimes occurring several times on the same page (sometimes within the same paragraph), and it became very distracting.

As the book stands, I'd give it a C on the technicals. The comma issues are pretty common, and most people probably won't notice them. The author is planning on a revised edition at some point with the help of a copy editor, so, if these are the kinds of things that will get in your way of enjoying a book, you should probably wait for the revised edition before looking into reading this book.

Normally, this is the point where I'd go into my reaction to the book, but there are some larger, structural issues with the story that I would place in a more objective category; although, some people might disagree with me. At any rate, I'm going to talk about some of these things before I get into what I felt about the story itself.

The author has a tendency to start paragraphs with the name of whatever character is doing something in that paragraph. There is no variety. For example, in the first section of the first chapter, there are 29 paragraphs which include 8 paragraphs that start with dialogue (or are entirely dialogue). Of the remaining 21 paragraphs, 9 start with "Aren," 5 start with "Tracy," and 2 start with "Steph." That leaves just 6 paragraphs that have some variation of language to start them off. The repetition is boring and, for me, slows down the reading.

This next one is debatable, I suppose, but the author breaks up narration by including the character's thoughts in italics. This seems very redundant to me. When you're writing from a character's perspective, you are experiencing the world through that character's eyes (this is true for both 1st and 3rd person), and this book, while written in 3rd, is always done from the perspective of the character rather than watching the character from the outside. When you are experiencing the action through the perception of the character, the thoughts of the character are implied in the narration. You don't need to say "he thought" because you're already seeing those thoughts. You also don't need to show those thoughts in italics. I found this incredibly annoying throughout the book, especially since we experienced the thoughts of every character ever introduced, even characters that were there for just one page. And every thought from every character had the same tone.

Which brings me to the next thing I'll mention: all the characters spoke in the exact same manner. There was nothing to differentiate the characters. There was nothing to distinguish any of the characters, including alien-type beings and computers, so it was really difficult to identify with any of them, since they all felt the same.

And a related thing, once any character knew anything, everyone knew it. During the middle of the book and the build up to the big battle, I found this extremely annoying, and, if I hadn't been planning to review the book, I actually would have quit reading it. So the bad guys begin their march and everyone knows. No one has a reason to know. There have been no indications, but, oh, yes, let's get ready for war. And that's not the only thing.

And related to that, the author had an issue with divulging author knowledge through the perception of the characters. Kaden is the best example, but this happens to some extent throughout the book with all sorts of things. With Kaden, though, he has the ability to create this thing he refers to as an egg. As the concept is being introduced, Kaden explains to us how it works. However, a couple of pages later, he reveals that he's only ever used his egg once, and he has no idea how it really works, but  the author wants the audience to know how it works, so he dumps the info to us through Kaden even though Kaden shouldn't have that knowledge. To make matters worse, in relation to explaining about the egg, Kaden "tells" us that he's had to move a dozen times in the last year; the implication is that it's because of the egg, but, then, he's only ever used the egg once, so that just doesn't fit together.

Which brings us to continuity in general. There are two time lines that we're following. The first is Kaden and Aren, two high school students with extra abilities. The second is James, a research scientist working at a secret facility. The author switches back-and-forth between these two groups which implies that the action is happening simultaneously. Granted, this is convention, and convention can be ignored, but the book is set up in a way that says it's following this convention. As you go along, though, you find that, on the teenagers' side, only a week or two has passed, and, on James' side, months and months have passed. Eventually, the two time lines come together, but that's late in the book, and the disjointed nature of the story up to that point makes it hard to piece the action together.

So... taking these issues as more objective measurements, I'd give this aspect of the book a D. These are pretty typical issues, I would think. Sort of average problems for newer writers. If there weren't so many of them, I'd say a C, but the issues just kept stacking on top of each other, and, all together, they bring the grade down.

But what it really comes down to is the story. Was the story worth the other issues? There was some amount of redemption at the very end. The author brings the story around in a circle that ties the ends together pretty well. But it wasn't quite enough for me. As I mentioned, if I hadn't been planning to review this book, I wouldn't have finished it. Too much of the middle of the story was standard fantasy fare to be interesting. It wanted to be interesting, but the author had so much in the book that he stopped short of really becoming interesting with any individual aspect of the story.

And that was really my biggest issue with the book: it just had too much stuff in it. Well over 1/3 of the way into it, we're still being introduced to new groups of characters and stories. Some of these characters were completely unimportant to the actual plot. Like Taggers. Now, this is a character I like, but we spend a lot of time with him, and he has no bearing on the actual story.

The worst offender in this is James. His story is interesting. The science in the science-fiction of his story is pretty well handled. If there was any character I wanted to spend more time with, it was James and what was going on at Omegaphil. But, in the end, even though a main character, he was a totally non-essential character. He didn't do anything other than just show up. That was his contribution to the plot. Showing up. To be fair, his story line is essential to the post-story, so his presence is necessary for the ending, but the author needed to give the character a greater purpose within the story itself.

In the end, I think the author had some great ideas, but he would have been better served to do one of two things:
1. Break the story in half so that he could spend the time giving one of the stories the actual depth it deserved.
2. Significantly lengthen the story so that he could take the time to develop his stories more fully and, possibly, present it in multiple books.
As it stands, I couldn't give the book better than a C, and, given the fact that I actively wanted to stop reading it at several points, I'd lean more towards a D. It's too bad, too, because he handled the ending well enough to make it almost worth reading to get to that. Almost.


  1. You analyze books even more than I analyze movies! I guess the technical aspects just don't stand out as much as storyline and characters do for me.
    Expectations can really kill sometimes, can't they?

  2. Glad you're not backing down from a less than stellar review after your previous Unexpected Applause... although you might what to think about changing the name. Maybe it can be Hammer Time. Only if it's a negative review though, I think Unexpected Applause is fine for a good one.

    Still, you do bring up points in this book that I have found very common in indie published books. There are enough issues that distract from the story that reading many of them feels like work, and certainly not something that we should be paying for. I'd say for every gem I've found, there has been at least half a dozen I thought shouldn't have been published... and that's after I've already carefully selected the ones I've started reading based on reviews or even checking out the sample.

  3. "I honestly can't tell. I expected to enjoy this book, and it started out well enough, so I thought my expectation was going to be rewarded, but..."

    That pretty much summed up my thoughts on House on the Corner too.

  4. The average reader is probably not as discriminating as you are, but your view is the kind that the author should heed most. If an author expects to be reviewed they also need to be prepared for the hard truth and learn from it.

    Hopefully Mr. Pulsipher has already addressed many of the editing issues. The types of problems you describe can become so distracting to the reader who notices them that eventually that is all the reader begins to see. I want to be drawn in by the story and not have my attention drawn to bad writing or poor editing.

    There is a lesson to be learned from your very astute review. Hopefully, the author is listening if he wants to continue publishing more books.

    Tossing It Out

  5. Alex: Generally speaking, I can get past any grammar issues. I notice them, but they don't actually get in the way of the story. Unfortunately, structural issues with the story do get in my way.

    Rusty: Well, I'm glad you're glad. I'm not sure I am. I got flamed pretty hard over this one on another forum.

    Lee: Yeah, I know the average reader is not as discriminating as me, but there are enough out there that are. Or people that will just not like a story but not be able to tell you why, but these are the kinds of things that give that unconscious dislike of something you're reading.

    Note: As I stated back when I announced my intent to do reviews, a bad review is better than no review. I believe that. Strongly. Mr. Pulsipher gained at least one sale as a direct result of my review, a sale he wouldn't have gotten if I'd given an oatmeal 3-star review in order to avoid being "mean."

  6. *SMH and LOL @ P.T.

    How's that for abbreviations?

  7. I'm almost a little afraid to go back and look at my own books now, for fear that I have all these problems.

    Some of what you say is a big deal, and some of it is only a big deal to a guy like you, who knows. I'm thinking mostly of the comma thing.

    When I watch a show like "Law & Order," I'm constantly saying things like "It's ridiculous to think that a judge and DA and defense attorney would argue a motion in a death penalty case while walking down a hall with no court reporter present," to which my wife says "Shut up" and points out that ordinary people who aren't lawyers don't notice or care about those things.

    So you know all these rules of grammar and the comma thing sticks out in your mind as a cardinal sin. I probably wouldn't notice. (I suspect that the writer uses But, to indicate a pause:

    "But... he went home.")

    As for the italics-thoughts thing, I do that, too, as a style device to set out when a character is thinking as opposed to when the narrator is speaking. It's kind of (in my mind) word balloons vs. thought balloons vs. text boxes, if you're into comic books.

    All of those things together add up to a huge amount of distractions, though -- I can see where you're coming from on that. More concerning are the characters being thrown in midway through and the guy who exists for no reason whatsoever. That kind of thing would bug me, a lot.

    I'm different than you, though: I'll stop reading a book if it's too much work.

  8. Thanks to those who think this is a little much and also those who agree with Andrew. I got all the ranting out yesterday, so now I can read this and laugh. Thank you P.T. for the extra laugh on top of it all. I haven't read Andrew's book yet. I'm doubting I will as I don't want this experience to color my reaction.

  9. I've been having an ongoing conversation with a book blogger I love recently about content vs language. She's incredibly astute and very funny about bad writing, and her Trashy Tuesday reviews are hilarious. so she recently put up a post about Philip K Dick and her favorite short story of all time, "The Trouble with Bubbles," and even went so far as to get me a copy. Well, I thought it was terribly written. The concept was engaging, but the intense clumsiness of the language just ruined it for me completely. I couldn't get past the fact that he uses nothing but unnecessary synonyms for "said," for example - everyone "grates" and "hisses" and "whispers" or whatever. The story did have a neat concept, but the writing was so hackneyed that the concept itself felt obvious and dull by the end. She pointed out that it had been written when this only editors were those working for two-bit (literally) pulp magazines, which is fair, but still not enough for me to think "aha! well! it IS the best story ever after all!"

    In my case, I feel that real grace and elegance of language can turn a less-than-amazing concept into a book or story that's a joy to read. But it doesn't work the other way for me at all. If the language is clumsy, no matter how awesome the story is, I'm going to cringe all the way through. But I do realize that not everyone feels this way. For some, clumsy language is irrelevant if the plot is enticing and the story and the characters are compelling. And I know some people will find even a beautifully-written book dull if the plot isn't fully realized. Unfortunately, this seems to fall into camps divided by genre: "literary fiction" is marked by quality of writing and generally enjoyed by those who find language important; genre fiction is often much more heavily story- and character-driven, and the language tends to be less important. Which is a shame, I think - I'd love to see a little more mixing on BOTH sides of the line. Which is why I love, for example, Ray Bradbury (RIP) SO MUCH - he was a master at mixing innovative genre writing with exquisitely beautiful language. I love sci-fi more because of him.

  10. Briane: Well, maybe you're forgetting that I've read some of your books and reviewed them; I would have pointed them out if you had those problems.

    Part of the difference for me is that occasional, accidental errors don't bother me so much. Everyone has some of those, and it's just really hard to catch them all, even for professional editors. It's the consistent, repetitive errors that bother me, like the comma after the conjunction. Those things become flashing lights on the page as I read. Or little thorns that poke me.

    The italics thing can be okay, especially in 3rd person external, but they bother me in 3rd person internal, because we're already in the character's head, so I don't need to have that reinforced. Your stuff tends to be external, so the italics become a limited look into the character's head instead of already being in there.

    Charlie: Ah, yes... the ranting. :P

    Jericha: I agree that the language is far more important than the story. I don't care how good your story is if I can't -find- it because it's written poorly. And, yes, a mediocre story can beccome great if it's well written.

    You still need to read The Sparrow. Just do it.