Enjoyment of books is a very personal thing. It’s also difficult to define. Am I appreciating the mental exercise of reading? Is my entertainment dependent on the story, or the characters, or the writing style? How much does my enjoyment of a particular book rely on external matters that have nothing to do with the story or the writing?
I think it’s a combination of all these factors and more.
I was pondering this recently while reading Neal Asher’s Jack Four. This is only the second of Asher’s books I’ve read. The first was Gridlinked, and that book impressed me. But I struggled with Jack Four. It started strong, and the first chapter was full of promise, but as I continued I found it hard to focus. As much as I wanted to enjoy the book, there were times when I’d reach the end of a page (screen) and have no recollection of what I’d just read.
Why? I started to analyse.
The first thing I noticed was the ebook formatting. I like my ebooks to look like print books, with justified text (straight lines to either side), but Jack Four had been formatted left-justified (left side straight, right side ragged), and playing with my Kindle settings didn’t change that. For some reason, ragged-right doesn’t feel like a ‘proper’ book.
But I’ve read and enjoyed other left-justified texts. If the writing grabs me, I can ignore formatting. So there had to be something else going on with Jack Four.
It wasn’t pace. Jack Four is filled with action—almost too much. As soon as the main character (the titular Jack Four) has overcome one obstacle he’s faced with another. There’s also mystery tied up in the story, with Jack Four trying to figure out what’s happening. If anything, a let-up in the pace would’ve been appreciated.
For much of the time, Jack Four is on his own, and for the first half of the book, there’s very little dialogue. Is the constant prose an issue?
Possibly. But I’ve enjoyed other books with a character on their own. The first that springs to mind is Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I can’t recall struggling through that book. Far from it—Weir’s book was a fast read, and constantly kept me engaged.
But in Weir’s book, his main character (Mark Watney) is relating his struggles in a very personable way, as if he’s talking directly to the reader. It could be argued that the whole book is dialogue (or maybe monologue). And Watney’s a fun character. Even the technical problems are described in a conversational tone, with humour never far from the surface.
Jack Four’s style is different. Action is described with precise language, in long paragraphs. There isn’t much character in the writing.
This fits the main character. Jack Four is a clone, only just ‘born’. He might have knowledge he shouldn’t have, but he has no direct memories, and is very much a blank slate. He’s not emotional. As Asher is writing in first-person, from Jack Four’s point of view, of course, the descriptions are going to be analytical and unemotional.
And this, I believe, is where my issues with the book rest.
The more I read (and the more I write), the more I’m drawn into the characters of a story. I can appreciate well-written action, but there has to be an impact on the characters for the story to engage me. I want to be with them on their journey, even if their internal growth is only implied by the words on the page. And I enjoy reading dialogue, especially fast back-and-forth.
This carries into the prose, too. The books I enjoy are ones where the writing is in the character’s voice, where I feel as if I’m experiencing the world through them rather than watching events unfold from on high.
So when I read a book like Jack Four, told through a blank-slate character, it’s no wonder I struggle.
Does this make Jack Four a poor book? Of course not. It simply didn’t resonate with me as a reader. And it did pick up for me in the last half, as Jack Four interacts with others.
Will I read more books by Neal Asher? If Jack Four was the first of his books I’d read, I might be reticent about trying another. But I enjoyed Gridlinked, and that’s enough to show me that he’s a decent writer. I might steer clear of the next Jack Four book for a while, but I’ve already got another one on my (always growing) TRB list.
It’ll be interesting to see how I engage with that one.