Friday, March 14, 2008

Reading an average book is not the end of the world

It’s tough to read a book in which all of the protagonists are atheists and all of the antagonists are theists and still not particularly enjoy it. It’s tough, because I really want to rave about such a book. The book is Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre, written in 1998, and the current reading selection for The Nonbelieving Literati (or NL, as some of us call it).

The problems that I had with the book will probably be considered petty by most. And, clearly, they are not the usual standards by which one should judge a book’s merits.

The first has to do with location. Nearly the entire book took place in sunny Southern California and, most specifically, in Santa Monica (with some scenes covering West Hollywood and Downtown L.A.). I generally love detective novels and, even more, those that take place in Los Angeles. For those who don’t know, I’m a lifelong California guy and was born in Santa Monica Hospital (now UCLA Santa Monica Hospital).

The problem here was that the book is written by Brookmyre the Brit, and his knowledge of the area is severely limited. I was continually distracted by streets that don’t exist, streets that intersect with others at points they shouldn’t and inaccurate building and scenery descriptions. The main policeman (and police force) was LAPD, even though they have no jurisdiction in the city of Santa Monica which has its own police force. The only time you will ever see LAPD there is when they are appearing in Santa Monica Superior Court on a case.

The second goes back to Brookmyre the Brit. I have nothing against British authors. There this guy named Darwin who wrote one of my favorite books of all time. In fiction, I have a high regard for guys like Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. But when you have a book set in Southern California I am, again, distracted by continuous use of British slang. Only one of the characters was supposedly from the United Kingdom, yet all characters were speaking and thinking in a British “accent”.

Finally (and more pertinent to whether it is a good book or not) I found the plot to be way over-the-top. While it’s fun having all of the evil folks in the book being Christians, this is not my experience. Generally I find them decent, simple folks who are a bit dense when it comes to issues of the supernatural. While I find the net result of religion to often be “evil”, it’s seldom the individual proponents of it who are. And, for those who are, this still was an implausible storyline.

The reader is presented with a fundamentalist pastor of a mega-church based loosely on Pat Robertson who goes off the deep end and contrives his own mini-apocalypse by purchasing nuclear weapons to detonate off the coast of California in the hopes of inducing a tidal wave of biblical proportions that will wash away the evils of the Hollywood culture, while simultaneously convincing America that this was an act of the vengeful god of the Old Testament and which said pastor has prophesied. Apparently, doing so will renew and revitalize our country’s love and respect for this “likeable” mythological character. I suppose that Brookemyre can see that this would be a bit of a stretch, even for a billionaire pastor, so he gives him the help of a far right wing militia group which helps him purchase the nuclear weapons and has assassinated 5 scientists who could have led the FBI on a hot trail back to Pastor Evil.

In the end he is foiled due to the fact that Brookemyre failed to hook him up with sidekicks Fat Pastor and Reverend Mini-Me. Well, sure, I can suspend disbelief for that one.



The Exterminator said...

So do you mean to say that not all Christians are evil? Is that your position?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I purposely didn't write a "book review" other than to say I liked it, because I too was off put by many of these things, Evo. I'm glad i don't know Santa Monica, because those incongruities all went over my head. But I did notice the Britishisms, and the over the top metaphors and descriptions constantly pulled me out of the book. It probably took me 150 pages before I could actually settle in with the plot.

OTOH, the plot didn't bother me until they got to the nuclear weapons. When it was just some mad bomber demanding the Whore of Babylon kill herself, I could actually see some religious nut case trying to do that. In fact, one of my initial thoughts for a post was to write on just how believable that aspect of the plot was. However, once I got further into the book, and saw how implausible the main plot devise was, I discarded that notion.

PhillyChief said...

Not knowing the geography of the area you're writing about doesn't necessarily make the book unsuccessful. Look at the book of Mark. ;)

Lifeguard said...

I'm pretty much with you on this Evo, although, like SI, I didn't get into it on my post.

When I first got the book I was excited, because I love this kind of novel, but I found the plot way over the top and agree with you on the Britishisms.

I struggled to find something to write about beyond "Christianity sucks."

John Evo said...

SI said: OTOH, the plot didn't bother me until they got to the nuclear weapons

Well, that brings up ANOTHER problem - for me.

I actually predicted very early in the book that this is where the plot was headed. So, not only was it ridiculous, but predictable!

Lifey- I also love this kind of novel. Though part of it may be that I just don't like fiction as much anymore. I guess if I'm going to spend my time on a novel, I'd like it to be great.

The Exterminator said...

I guess if I'm going to spend my time on a novel, I'd like it to be great.

I think you're overstating your point. It's not just that the Brookmyre book wasn't "great." It's that it didn't have anything new to say at all, nor did it say old things in a new and interesting way.

I'm with you on the surprise element. As soon as I heard of Luther St. John, I was certain that he'd be purchasing some ex-Soviet nukes to use in creating his tidal wave. I didn't know all the other details, but I also knew that Freeman, Maddy, Steff, Steel, and Maria were all going to come together as the A-Team at the end.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Southern California at all, so the geographical errors didn't even register with me. I can empathize with your frustration, however, because I'm keenly aware of how often movies make implausible errors about Washington, DC. True Lies and Enemy of the State come to mind immediately, notwithstanding the fact that I like both movies.

The plot and characters were disappointing, to say the least. I don't know whether I should give this book away or trash it. Waddya think?

John Evo said...

Ex, you know me. I struggle to find something good to say. Even when I shouldn't. You're right and I read a review at Amazon that really takes him to task.

Chappy, the movie problems don't bother me as much as in books. Though you can imagine that I'm constantly shaking my head during the MANY movies and TV shows that have used L.A. as the location.

A car chase racing west bound through the 3rd street tunnel in Downtown, coming out and turning north on Figueroa and suddenly the action is on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills!

Give the book away.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, dear.

My choice was a failure. (This is why I rarely give people books they haven't asked for unless I've known them for years; it's so hard to guess tastes.)

I sympathize with your geography-based problems; I have them when I know the area.

I think the book was meant to be over the top; Brookmyre is a comic thriller writer, after all. And like a Columbo movie, the book wasn't really about "what" but "how to stop".

Next time it's my turn, I'll pick something I know nothing about - then I won't feel guilty that everybody hated it.

PhillyChief said...

They don't get Philly right, either, In Trading Places Murphy and Akroid cross each other in cars going in opposite directions in front of Independence Hall. That's Chestnut st, and it's one way, and it always has been.

I'm sure I could find more faults if there were more movies shot in Philly that were acknowledging that they were in Philly.

The Exterminator said...

I'm 100% with Evo on the need for local details to be accurate. Because, really, why set a book, a movie, or a TV show someplace that's actually real, if you're not going to bother finding out some simple geographical facts about that place? Brookmyre should have invested a few pounds in a map.

As a native New Yorker, I'm happy to say that most books using my beloved city as a backdrop are written by people who have actually been there. I can't think of an egregious example to the contrary.

But I'm always pissed off when I see a movie that seems to imply the Empire State Building is a block or two from Central Park (it's not), or the Manhattan Courthouse is a thirty-second walk from from Times Square (nope), or the grandstand in Yankee Stadium is always filled with well-to-do businesspeople and/or folks with thick Brooklyn accents (the "noive").

Also, just for the record: Most of us native New Yorkers no longer say "dese," "dems," and "dose;" or "boid," "woid," and "hoit." (Also, FYI: That vowel was never pronounced as the "oy" in "boy." Here's how it sounded: uh-ee.) But we do continue to drop our final rs.

Sorry for dis digression, but I'll go no fuh-ee-thuh.

The Exterminator said...

I'm going to leave this comment on your blog, too, so I'm sure you'll see it.

Don't apologize for your book choice. First of all, no one ever expected an NL selection to be liked by everybody. That would make for a really dull book club.

Second, and even more important, there's a lot to be learned from being able to articulate why a book does or doesn't appeal to you. It's an exercise in critical thinking.

Third, as Lifey pointed out at chappy's post: Isn't it fascinating that we allegedly "militant" atheists have almost all found the mean-spirited and caricatured depiction of Christians to be offensive? That phenomenon alone was worth the read.

C. L. Hanson said...

I don't think failure at fact-checking is a trivial or petty concern if it distracts the reader and prevents you from getting into the story. I saw an interesting discussion of this point on another lit blog here.

John Evo said...

Hi CL. Thanks for the link. What he was talking about was a little different than my complaint. Actually, his was more legitimate. If I were reading a book that contained factual errors of the sort he referred to, I'd have a hard time with the book too.

And LDS Fiction? This is a category? Who knew? I guess I've been seperated from the non-sense for too long. :)

Anonymous said...

"I was continually distracted by streets that don’t exist, streets that intersect with others at points they shouldn’t and inaccurate building and scenery descriptions."

Perhaps the author is cleverly creating a metaphor for Biblical knowledge. You know, like a funhouse mirror of the world, twisting reality to meet the needs of irrationalists.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Just wondering: some authors explicitly state that they've altered a city for their own purposes. Does that mollify you at all, or are you still distracted and annoyed?

John Evo said...

@ Grumpy - so clever it went right past me!

@ Ridger - Stop feeling bad! Anyway, that piece of info MIGHT have helped prior to reading it. But, really, it wasn't the biggest of the three complaints I had. It's just a bit distracting.

When YOU read about the LAPD handling security detail at a hotel in Santa Monica, you think nothing of it. Meanwhile, I can't help but think that it wouldn't work that way.

It would be like you reading a book and the Capitol police were doing a stake-out in Baltimore.

Mercurious said...

Well, I think I'll avoid this one. Life's too short to waste on books with this many logical flaws.

I'm looking forward to following your blog. As you now know, my spiritual impulses aren't exactly your cup of tea, but I'm still looking forward to some interesting dialogue.

John Evo said...

Mercurious - Join the Nonbelieving Literati! (link near the top of my sidebar).

And I welcome any rational thinking here. Even when it disagrees with me.