It has been my general policy since I started doing reviews and stuff to only review books that I've finished. Mostly, I made that decision based on the reading of one book many years ago. It was a horrible book (an author requested review), but the very end was just good enough to take it from a 1-star to a 2-star rating. Because of that, I figured I ought to see a book all the way through before reviewing it. So I've slogged through many terrible books, the L'Engle time quintet, for example.
However, for the most part, a book that is a struggle to read is not going to redeem itself at the end. I mean, a step up from a 1-star to a 2-star doesn't mean that I liked the book. It was still bad, and I would never recommend it to anyone. And, honestly, as a whole work, the book was probably still just a 1-star, but I was surprised enough that the author pulled his threads together at the end that I bumped the rating up to 2.
Anyway... All of that to say that I have read some bad books over the past several years. Really bad. When I start a book, almost always, I will finish it.
But there have been two books during this same time period that I have not finished. Yes, two books that weren't even as good as Many Waters, which stands out to me as the worst book I've read (all the way through) in years. Or maybe that was An Acceptable Time; they're both so bad it's hard to tell which is worse. At any rate, having made my way through both of those, I think it's significant when I say that there are books that I actually couldn't make myself read.
One of those, I will share with you.
Initially, I decided to pick up Where You Belong by Pat Dilloway because he said it was the very best of his books. He said he was inspired and that he would never write anything better than that novel. I think that's what he still says about it. I figured that sounded like a good place to start. I mean, if an author says about one of his books that it's the best thing he's capable of writing, you may as well start with that, right? Yeah, that's what I thought, too.
It didn't take me very long to realize that if this was the best that Dilloway had to offer, then I wouldn't be reading any of his books.
First, it's written in first person. I'm sure you all know by now how I feel about first person. But it's worse, because it's written in first person omniscient and, well, that's just not a thing. I mean, unless your protagonist is God (or, maybe, Charles Xavier), omniscient and first person do not go together. That's the whole reason for writing in first person, to have a limited view of what's going on. A view limited to only what the protagonist knows and observes. That's why first person works so well in detective fiction, because the whole point of that is the protagonist trying to work out what he doesn't know from his rather limited perspective. This issue of allowing the first person protagonist to know too much is very pervasive in first person stories, but I'd never seen full-on first person omniscient before. Yes, it set me against the book right from the start, because, again, first person omniscient is not a thing.
[Note: Dilloway has spoken on his blog and various other places that the book was originally written in third person and that he later went back and converted it. I think he must have done this through a simple replacement of pronouns, because he didn't do anything to adjust the viewpoint. I'm saying this based on my experience with my middle schoolers. There have been many times when I have given writing assignments to write from a particular perspective. It is not infrequent that I will get stories that were originally written from a different perspective so the student just went in and changed the pronouns. That's not enough when making a perspective shift and, anytime I have asked, for instance, "Did you originally write this in first person," the answer has always been "yes."
So that would explain the omniscience problem. He originally wrote it in third person omniscient but didn't narrow the viewpoint to first person when he converted it to a first person story. I'm just going to call it what it is: a middle school mistake.]
The next issue with the book is that it shifts back and forth from past to present tense, but not in a way that makes sense. For instance, it would make sense if part of the story was being told "now" and part of the story was being told "then." However, what we have are clearly places that are "then" that are being told in past tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but now in present tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but back in past tense. These are chronological events, so the shift in tense didn't work for me.
[Note: This is a thing I am extremely sensitive to, because it's an issue my middle schoolers struggle with a lot. The most common reason I hand a story back to a student is because of an issue with tense shifts. My comment is generally, "Pick one, past or present, and stick to it."]
Then there's the issue of the voice, and this, also, is probably related to the shift the author made from third to first person. When you write in third person, the voice can be whatever you want it to be, because it's the narrator's voice, not the character's. When you write in first person, though, the voice needs to be the character's voice and, thus, reflective of the character. The protagonist starts out at age three or four, but the voice is definitely that of an adult. That would be okay if it was clear that it was an adult reflecting back on his childhood, but the feel of the story is that it's being told by the kid, especially since some of it is in present tense, but not in a kid's voice. Now, I get that writing from a child's perspective can be difficult but, if you can't do it, don't choose to do it.
I put the book down. At the time, I decided it wasn't worth the effort to wade through it when there was no indication that it would get any better. Sure, the kid grows up to fit the voice, so to speak, but it was already messed up for me by that point, and none of the other problems were going to work themselves out. And I haven't even talked about the editing issues (and being years ago that I read this, I don't specifically remember what they were; I just remember being bothered by things). [Note: It should tell you something that these other things stood out to me so much that I still remember them now. I did not go back and re-read this so that I could do this review.]
Basically, if I want to read stuff with these kinds of... issues, I get plenty from my students, and they don't cry and go on a rampage when I tell them they have things that need to be fixed. They take the manuscripts back and, mostly, do the best they can to fix the problems. And, honestly, some of the stuff I get from my middle school students is of a much higher quality than I see from a lot of adults. Not much of it, granted, but I have had a handful of very gifted writers over the last few years. The point, though, is that if you can't handle criticism of your manuscript with at least the grace of a middle schooler, you have no business putting your manuscripts out for public consumption. And I have never had any student, to be blunt, lose his/her shit over me handing back a story and saying, "It needs work." Sure, the middle schoolers I teach aren't trying to make a living at writing, but some of them are very invested in their stories, and middle schoolers are emotional volcanoes, and, yet, all of them have taken criticism better than Dilloway does.
Now, Dilloway will probably take this as a "revenge review" for what transpired in this post but, really, it's not (which is not to say that I won't take some amount of satisfaction in posting it; I am only human). This is an example of "my medicine," a review reflecting my experience of a product with the actual reasons for the response that I had. The reasons have nothing to do with how I feel about Dilloway nor did my dislike of the book. For instance, from what I know of Orson Scott Card, I would not like him as a person, but Ender's Game is, at the very least, a very good book. On the other side of that, I like the person of John Scalzi quite a bit. I like the things he has to say and I follow his blog; however, I did not enjoy either of the books I read by him despite the fact that I really wanted to like them. The product is not the person and should be evaluated separately from any feelings having to do with that person. At the time I tried to read Where You Belong, I had no particular feelings of antipathy toward Dilloway. I did know that he was petty and disliked my notion of honest reviews, but I didn't, yet, know he was one to go around down-rating books out of some erroneous stance of righting the wrongs done to him, real or perceived. [Because, as in the case of Alex Cavanaugh, there was no wrong done to him other than that Alex is more successful and more liked than Dilloway.] I just knew that I did not want to fight my way through Dilloway's book, so I made the decision to not finish it.
Now, it's not that I think it's only authors who have maturity issues, because, actually, I think people in general tend to have maturity issues. Or maybe it's just Americans. I can't really speak for the rest of the world. However, the writing profession does seem to have more than its share of people who can't maintain a professional detachment from their work. Rather than go into it again, though, I'll just refer you back to part one of this series. If you feel offended at any part of it, you probably need to grow up.