It’s been an interesting reading year—not as many high highs and low lows as in years past, but surprisingly steady, given how terrible this year has been otherwise. So let’s go through and talk about some of my most disappointing* books of the year.
*word choice is deliberate. These are not necessarily worthy of making a ‘worst of year’ list, but these are all books that I had high expectations for, but which fell flat.
8. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
I tend to not love books that focus on mother/daughter relationships, so at the end of the day I accept that I just wasn’t the right reader for this book. But for some reason, perhaps because I’d heard so many times that this book was both dark and thematically rich, I still thought I might enjoy it. And I kind of did, at first—I just found this protagonist so deliberately antagonistic toward the reader that I just found myself shutting down, the more and more I read.
7. Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
I gave this 3 stars at the time, which in hindsight feels overly generous, because looking back, my feelings are overwhelmingly negative. With the exception of Brandon Taylor, Carmen Maria Machado, and Larissa Pham’s stories, this collection just never delivered on its promise to break new ground and explore a variety of kinks through a literary lens. Cue story after forgettable story about BDSM—it got stale fast. I was just hoping that it would explore a more diverse range of kinks and make me think differently about erotica, but most of these stories ended up feeling like dollar store versions of much better sexy literary novels I’ve read.
6. Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone
This book almost didn’t make this list because it was forgettable to such a degree that I can’t even bring myself to be angry or upset about it. Mirrorland who? But the fact of the matter was that I had been looking forward to this book for over a year and it sucked, so, here we are. Purported to be both a thriller about identical twins and a commentary on childhood trauma, Mirrorland succeeds at neither objective—it fails to thrill and it fails to go deeper than surface level in its examination of abuse.
5. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
I’m actually annoyed at the marketing on this book, because usually I can tell with one glance at the cover whether a thriller is going to be more psychological, or more of a silly domestic drama. I had pegged this book as the former (look at the UK cover!!! come on!!), but that assumption proved incorrect. The Hunting Party is about a group of friends on vacation at a remote hunting lodge in a snowstorm: one of them naturally turns up dead. Brilliant premise, abysmal execution. If you care deeply about which of these characters have had sexual fantasies about each other, and are concerned with whose marriage will survive this holiday from hell, by all means, go ahead and read this; otherwise skip. This was just a silly melodrama dressed up as a mystery.
4. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
The worst thing about this book is how much I liked it at first. I think Yoder is an accomplished, interesting writer on a stylistic level, and despite my antipathy toward ‘motherhood books,’ I actually found her commentary on the subject incisive enough that I was really on board to see where this was going to go. Unfortunately, the answer was pretty much ‘nowhere.’ This ended up recycling the same ideas over and over for several hundred pages, which annoyed me to no end as I thought this could have made for a brilliant short story.
3. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
It wouldn’t be a ‘most disappointing’ list without at least one Women’s Prize shortlister. I was actually really looking forward to this one, but nothing about it worked for me. I hated the writing style, I admired the potent social commentary but thought that the attempts to weave it into the narrative were clumsy at best; and it was so relentlessly bleak—without even the briefest moment of respite—that I never fully believed these characters or their stories, as they just felt like a vehicle for exploring trauma.
2. Emma by Jane Austen
I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Emma is a bad or unsuccessful novel; but my god, did I hate reading it. With nothing of more consequence than ‘will the poor little rich girl learn her lesson’ at stake, I just found this so tedious and unpleasant to spend time with. For me, this is solidly Austen’s least interesting work, and the one that I most struggle to find anything redemptive about.
1. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
It’s not always the case that a single book earns both the ‘worst’ and ‘most disappointing’ titles, but this year, Madam sure does. In fact, this is probably the worst book I’ve read in several years. Set in a fictional Scottish boarding school in the 1990s (written as though it were the 1890s), Madam is… an attempt at a subversive feminist campus novel thriller, and while I can only laud its aims, it satirizes the institution’s conservative ideology to such an extreme degree that the novel’s villains may as well be twirling their mustaches the entire time. Abuse is reduced to a cartoonish pantomime in this book. And beyond that—everything about this novel is clumsy, racist, amateurish, poorly written, and just laughably absurd. I was actually shocked by how objectively terrible this was on… every conceivable level.
Happy end of 2021! I’ll try to get my best books of the year post up tomorrow. In the meantime, what was the worst or most disappointing book you read this year?