When Just OK Is Just Right

September is traditionally a time when publishers roll out the Big Books, like they’re signalling us it’s time to put down the Beach Reads and go Back to School with Important Literary Fiction. I want to read some of this fall’s biggies (I’m a Zadie Smith fan, for instance, and my husband likes Michael Chabon, so I might try that too). But it didn’t happen in September. It never does, for me, since I go back to school for real and I find getting back into that routine exhausting. When I’m mentally and emotionally drained, I like books that aren’t too demanding. I don’t want an emotional punch in the gut or a mental workout. I want something soothing. Here’s what I’ve been turning to: books that weren’t great, but just OK, because just OK was exactly what I needed.

Jayne Castle, The Lost Night (read by Joyce Bean). I know I’ve talked a lot about how Quick/Krentz/Castle books are comfort audio for me. Her futuristic Harmony books–this is one–really do work a kind of formula, and you can see variations of it in a lot of her contemporaries and historicals, too: a dash of paranormal (lots of auras, energy, and crystals); a couple with complementary talents who work together to solve a mystery of some kind. In this one, the formula felt pretty tired in the beginning, but the parts set in the mysterious Preserve were inventive and the story picked up quite a bit in the end. The romance was pretty underdeveloped, though.

This book made me think about pancakes. You know how the first batch is never that good, but by the second you’ve got the pan just the right temperature and they’re golden and round and perfect? I usually burn the last batch because I’ve sat down to eat myself and forget to flip them. Krentz’s last few books have strayed towards burned territory for me, but the benefit of the formula is that they are mostly tasty golden pancakes. Not especially exciting (she’d have to break totally new ground to write another great book, I think) but comforting and well-made. Perfect bedtime listening, partly because the familiarity of the formula allowed me to keep up without using my whole brain.

Cynthia Thomason, Silver Dreams. I picked up this Western historical, originally published by Zebra in 1999, when it was free on Amazon (it’s now $2.99). It’s blurbed by Judith Ivory, but nothing like the one Ivory I’ve read so far. Thomason’s prose is straightforward and competent (there are some errors, but it’s pretty clean). The story is a quest for a lost mine (the comparison to Romancing the Stone is pretty apt, with maybe a dash of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) with a cast of quirky supporting characters and a friendly-rivals-to-lovers romance. I thought Thomason really pulled her emotional punches. There are some serious issues of betrayal, self-discovery, and learning whom to trust here, but they’re treated fairly superficially. While that kept the book from being great, in my mind, it did mean it was just what I was looking for: a lively romp, with a plot, setting and tropes really different from anything I’d been reading. I’m not sure it would feel so fresh and fun to someone who has read a lot of Westerns.

While Thomason’s dialogue often seemed far too modern for her 1890s characters (she made me look up “OK” in the OED, which was fascinating, but though it’s much older than I thought, her use is anachronistic). But some things are clearly well-researched, like Central City, Colorado. I Googled it and saw photos of some of the very buildings described in the story. I liked the evocation of the New York newspaper world, too, though I’m not sure how accurate it was. I’d love to read more books set in the US around this time. Oh, and if you’re thinking of trying it, be warned: the e-book uses Courier. Courier! That took a while to get used to.

Arthur Goldschmidt Jr and Lawrence Davidson, A Concise History of the Middle East, 9th ed (read by Tom Weiner). Because sometimes I like to learn something from my audiobooks. I’ve found that narrative-style history works pretty well for me on audio (I’ve enjoyed Tony Judt’s Postwar and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, among others). I picked this up cheap in an Audible sale. It’s a textbook, and since the low-starred Goodreads reviews were all disgruntled college students and evangelicals who thought it was too pro-Islam I figured it would be okay for me. I am pretty sure it is a solid introductory textbook, but it was a little too basic and textbook-didactic in tone for my purposes. Weiner’s narration is good, but in a kind of 70s school filmstrip way that signals my brain to zone out and just pay enough heed to fill out the stupid worksheet. In short, this became bedtime listening because it helped me doze off.

Really, it’s not bad, but I think I would have been happier with something aimed at a general audience, with a livelier style. One thing I got out of it: I wondered about the textbooks I choose and if they read this way to my students. I’m going to pay more attention to avoiding a preachy-didactic tone from now on. I thought it was a pretty even-handed introduction that covered a lot of ground (though the chapters on recent events have a clear and overtly-stated anti-Neocon slant). I might actually listen to parts again and try to absorb more. I’m not sorry I spent $5 on it. I did learn something. If only to avoid textbooks as my audio choices.

My latest audiobook is shaping up to be really good, as is the book I’m reading. I think the just OK books gave me the break I needed. So really, they were perfect.

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2 Responses to When Just OK Is Just Right

  1. Alex says:

    I always thought that when I retired I would have time for those ‘big books’ bit somehow life just got busier than ever and install have to negotiate with myself to find the space to give them the time they deserve. I’ve got my eye on both the Chabon and the Smith, now I have to find the push to picks them up.

  2. sonomalass says:

    I am still working on Silver Dreams; so far, I agree with your assessment.

    Jo Goodman has some good books in this period. Her Reidsville, Colorado, books (Never Love a Lawman and Marry Me) are favorites of mine, as are her older Dennehy sisters books, which have both East and West Coast settings. I recommend them.

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