It was the best of stories and the worst of stories

As I’m writing this, I have the fan on and the windows open and the heat off.  Washington, DC went from ice on the ground cold to spring temperatures!  (It’ll go back to 30 for Christmas).

I just got my Entertainment Weekly, which I’ve actually subscribed to since the first issue.  I’m an entertainment junkie — I just love reading about movies and television and actors.  At the end of the year, they always do a a Best of/Worst of list, which includes movies, television, and books.  The lists are always fun to look at to see if what I think and have heard matches up with what the critics say.
Sometimes it doesn’t.  Critics are probably the worst choices for these lists because they see so much of the same thing all the time that something different will stand out, even if it’s not that good.  That’s why you’ll see a critic highly praise a movie. and meanwhile, you’re wondering what he was smoking.
But bad is usually pretty consistent, once we start narrowing down movies or books to lists.  Then it starts to come down to what really made it the worst, and that’s usually story or characters.  Screw those up and nothing else will be able to compensate for it.
But it’s the Best of that’s more subjective.  For example, some readers will love a book because of the evocative writing, which is how the sentences and wording comes across.  Others will love the story or the characters.  As a reader, I need story and characters and would like a bit of the evocative writing.  I want the book to sound a little more special, but I don’t want one dimensional characters, nor do I want naval gazing.
That’s where the Best of lists become more subjective, and also one of the reasons why I don’t trust them — or 5 star reviews — to give me information as to why I should buy a book.  Twilight gets a lot of good and bad reviews, and all I can tell you is that I read two chapters and that was all I could tolerate.  I hated the main character.  On the other hand, I read The Da Vinci Code, also another book that was very controversial, and enjoyed it.
I think that’s one of the challenges of writing stories, because you have to be able to look into the head of the reader (even though you obviously can’t) and figure out what they’re thirsting for, what’s not out there now, or what hasn’t been done to death.  Sometimes it’s easy to want to write about something to exorcise the infamous “demons” and end up with a story no one wants to read.  I think this is where writers who want to explore a really dark area get into trouble, because readers want to escape, not be immersed in things that a little too real.
This was one of the problems I had following Desert Storm.  So many things happened, and I wanted to write about them all — and specifically them.  Yet, the writer in me knew that it wasn’t going to make a good story that other people want to buy.  Now, some 22 years later, I’m separated enough from those experiences that I can take small — very small — pieces and slip them into stories and they can become something readers want to read.
Best or worst, it really is still about the story.
Meanwhile, what’s on your holiday book giving list?