I’m going for the ‘most disappointing’ angle rather than ‘worst’. My ratings for these books range from 1 to 3 stars. Otherwise I think this speaks for itself. Here we go!
10. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
I discovered Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018 and devoured her two novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, so it was with excitement that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World, but my god this did not work for me. I find that her novels succeed because of, or in spite of, her fantastically unlikable protagonists, because over the course of a full-length novel she has the space to adequately explore her protagonists’ psyches. Not so in short stories, where characters seem to be awful for the sake of provoking the reader into thinking ‘oh, how awful’; there never felt like there was much depth beyond that and it started grating before too long. All that said, the final story in this collection was a standout. If you’re going to read one, make it that one.
9. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
This was a case where the disappointment arose from the fact that this book seemed so tailor-made for me; I can rarely go wrong with Irish feminist essay collections, and this one has been SO critically acclaimed that I was confident of its brilliance before even starting. It just fell flat for me. I felt like Emilie Pine never managed to say anything new or novel in any of these essays. Some worked for me more than others, but a few weeks after finishing not a single one stands out to me.
8. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden
A perfectly adequate book that I had to watch spontaneously self-combust before my eyes with an ending that effectively destroyed everything that came before it. Full, spoiler-filled thoughts here. But basically, this should win an award for the worst ending of all time. No exaggeration.
7. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
I’m not a big fantasy reader, as you may have gleaned, but a childhood love of Harry Potter left me with a lifelong desire to find another fantasy series that, if it doesn’t have that same impact on me, as least comes close. That’s why I was so thrilled to find The Poppy War, an engaging, propulsive, original-yet-comfortingly-familiar, darker-than-dark fantasy debut that blends Chinese military history with Chinese mythology. I unreservedly loved every minute of it and eagerly started an ARC of The Dragon Republic months before it was due to come out. I didn’t even bother finishing it by its publication date, because reading this book ended up being like pulling teeth. The stakes felt low, the repetition grew wearisome, and the least interesting characters and conflicts were pulled to the forefront. I’ll still be reading the third and final book in the trilogy when it’s published, and I still adore The Poppy War, but The Dragon Republic was a massive, massive disappointment.
6. The Cassandra by Sharma Shields
In my review of this book I cited that my issues with it were: the characters, the plot, the themes, and its failure as an adaptation. So, in short, I didn’t like a single thing about it. This was an incredibly shallow, ill-conceived Greek mythology adaptation that placed the Cassandra figure in Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. Everything was one-dimensional to the extreme; the plot constantly drove the characters and not the other way around, which is something that I especially hate.
5. The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power, my least favorite Women’s Prize winner that I’ve read, is set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips. It follows a group of characters, not one of whom has a distinct personality, across several years, meandering through their lives in a way that managed to side-step any real plot or action, instead focusing on extremely tedious details that managed to kill any momentum that Alderman was trying to achieve with the novel’s framing. I hated this so much I was skimming it by the end.
4. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
This fictionalization of Valerie Solanas’s life bored me to tears. I didn’t get on with Stridsberg’s writing and I just didn’t care enough to try to engage with… whatever she was attempting to achieve with this book. It read like a series of ideas without any semblance of a narrative to ground them; I found myself wondering why this was bothering to be a novel and not a long-form essay.
3. On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl
I haven’t even written a review of this yet, but I’m thrilled I was able to finish it in time to include it here. I hated this. It follows two characters in the postwar US, Muriel and Julius, both vaguely discontent with their lives. The dust jacket tells you more than that, but I’m not going to, because it turns out it’s one of those cases where the dust jacket narrates the entire plot to you. Nothing happens in this book; the characters are indistinct (I could not think of a single adjective to describe Julius aside from gay – that’s still the only thing I know about him); the writing is dreadful (it is trying so hard to sound Deep and Literary that it manages to say nothing of real importance for 300 pages); this ultimately reads like a very, very, very unpolished first draft of something that has potential buried somewhere very deep inside it.
2. The Club by Takis Würger
translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
A German orphan infiltrates one of Cambridge’s elite dining clubs in this bizarrely terrible… I don’t even know what this was trying to be. Thriller? Character study? Potent social commentary? It managed to be none of the above, with writing so laughable these are actual lines from the book (tw for sexual assault):
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how wounded she had seemed when she told me about being raped. I wondered what it meant for us.”
“Basically, I was living proof that money, a place at Cambridge, and a big dick don’t make you happy. Fuck.”
“Charlotte fell asleep on my elbow. After my parents’ death I’d thought I could never love again, because the fear of losing someone was too great. I had grown cold inside. Now here was this woman, lying on my arm.”
“‘I’m not going to play this game much longer,’ I said.
I got up to leave, but she grabbed my hand. I could feel her strength. She was so strong I didn’t dare move. I knew I would do everything Alex asked of me.“
“The girl would be raped, I would testify against Josh in court, and he would receive his punishment. I would have to allow this crime to take place, otherwise the Butterflies would just keep doing it to other women. Perhaps that was why old people walked with a stoop, bowed down by the weight of decisions which may have been right but still felt wrong.“
So SUFFICE IT TO SAY this is hands down the worst book I have read in my life. The only reason it isn’t #1 here is because the conceit of this list is ‘most disappointing’ rather than ‘worst’, and frankly I didn’t have any particular expectations going into this. But it was still so bad that it had to get the #2 spot.
1. When All Is Said by Anne Griffin
An elderly working class Irish man looks back on his life and toasts the five people who had the biggest impact on him in When All Is Said. This gets the coveted #1 spot, because of all the books on this list, this is the one that seemed like it would be the most up my alley. It’s sad, it’s dark, it’s Irish. But this really did not work for me; it’s told in the first person and I never believed Maurice’s narrative voice (much too polished and articulate for an older working class man) and because of that, I never really believed any of the rest of it. It was too articulate, too on the nose, and too emotionally hollow of a reading experience for something that promised to break my heart. I don’t think I experienced a single emotion while reading this aside from vague annoyance.
So there we have it, my worst/least favorite/most disappointing books of 2019. What are yours?