Most Disappointing Books of 2019

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Worst Books of 2017

Obviously I’ll also be compiling a list of my favorite books from 2017, but of the handful of books I’m reading now to finish out my year, I doubt any of them are going to make my worst of 2017 list, so I thought it was safe to go ahead and post this now.  I gave 1 star to exactly five books this year, so this list practically wrote itself.  Note: these are books that I read in 2017 – they were not necessarily published this year.

Disclaimer: these are just my opinions, you do not have to agree with me, I apologize in advance for any hurt feelings if I insult your favorite book.  If you are ready for my complaining, read on.

51o3rh1onbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_5. Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen.  This is arguably the worst book I’ve ever read from a purely objective level, but the reason it doesn’t get the #1 spot is that it was at times so (unintentionally) hilarious.  It’s a thriller about a woman whose boyfriend leaves her – literally vanishes without a trace – and she has no idea why he left.  Now, I love thrillers, but I don’t exactly go into them expecting the next Great American Novel.  I wasn’t expecting that of Gone Without a Trace.  (Not least of all because it’s British.)  But I had been expecting something fun, fast-paced, creepy, and addicting… it was none of those things.  It was 300-odd pages of the main character’s insufferable whining in prose that was at about a 14-year-old’s creative writing level, and it culminated in arguably the stupidest twist in thriller history.  The last 50 pages have just about everything you could ask for if you’re trying to write the silliest and most melodramatic book of all time: characters conveniently falling into comas, ‘shocking’ (aka not shocking at all) affairs revealed, a central plotline being rendered completely inconsequential, the main character withholding information from the reader until it becomes convenient to divulge it, even though it’s written in first-person… I don’t say this a lot, because even when I hate a book I can usually find some merit in it, but how did this get published?!  Full review HERE.

51c0y8b0dtl-_sy344_bo1204203200_4. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.  Oh boy, this is going to be a controversial one.  But I hated this book.  In Gay’s debut novel, Mireille, the daughter of one of the richest men in Haiti, is kidnapped, and repeatedly raped by her captors.  The novel is split into two halves – the first covers the kidnap in truly gruesome detail, and the second follows the aftermath.  Where do I even begin… the prose and dialogue in this book were straight out of a Lifetime movie, so corny and hackneyed it was hard to believe that they were actually in such a purportedly serious novel and not a cheesy YA romance.  Gay’s attempts to address racism, sexism, and classism, as well as relations between the U.S. and Haiti, were half-baked at best, and offered essentially no depth or nuance to an extremely complex subject.  The graphic depictions of Mireille’s sexual assault were virtually unreadable, not because they were so awful or chilling, but because they felt so voyeuristic.  I want to make this clear: I have so much respect for Roxane Gay as a woman and a feminist.  Though this is the only Roxane Gay book I’ve read, I don’t equate my dislike of it with how I view her as a person.  I just don’t think her fiction is for me.

51gy2mlxabl-_sx328_bo1204203200_3. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.  I don’t even know where to start with this book.  So, here’s the premise: this book is a romance between a grown man and a child – Kellen and Wavy.  Greenwood attempts to dig into grey areas (it’s okay because he’s a good guy, really!  it’s okay because she’s mature for her age!  it’s okay because he’s the only person she’s ever loved in her life!  it’s okay because he’s not actually a pedophile!  it’s okay because Wavy is WAVY, not some little girl!) (that last one is actually a quote from the book) and I just… I am all about digging into grey areas, exploring moral ambiguity – most of my favorite novels explore this theme in some way.  But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at a romantic relationship between a 20 year old man and an 8 year old girl – or 25 and 13, respectively, if we’re talking about their first sexual encounter.  Because of age and power dynamics, a child is unable to consent, ever, period, the end, I don’t care about the circumstances, I don’t care about the exceptions, the ‘what if’s, any of it.  We’re meant to see this novel as romantic, we’re meant to see Kellen as sympathetic, and we’re meant to malign the one character who constantly tries to get Wavy out of this situation, but all of it just made my skin crawl.  People also praise the writing in this book, but I was very underwhelmed by it.

325086372. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt.  This whole maddeningly insufferable book is written like this: “I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”  I can’t believe I actually made it through this whole thing.  It’s also the most viscerally disgusting book I’ve ever read – graphic descriptions of vomit and rotten mutton abound.  Sarah Schmidt takes one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history – the Borden murders of 1892 Massachusetts – and fictionalizes this story for… some reason that I fail to understand.  I truly do not get the point of this book.  It isn’t entertaining, it isn’t informative, it renders Lizzie as downright pathetic… I don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this book, but it was probably supposed to be something other than the frustration and nausea I was left with.  Full review HERE.

51mh8qgdc4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_1. White Fur by Jardine Libaire.  And finally, the book that I loathed above all others this year.  White Fur… where do I begin.  White Fur is a sort of gritty and sultry Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about Jamey, who’s rich, and Elise, who’s poor.  Congratulations, you have now read the book.  Because there is nothing else there.  Jamey’s personality is that he is rich.  Elise’s personality is that she is poor.  At some point in this book we’re told that they’re in love with each other, which sort of took me by surprise, because until then, all we’d seen was them having a lot of really badly written sex.  There is no character development in this novel, no nuanced approach to the subject of class differences, no plot (no, seriously, there is no plot), and literally, not a single thing to make slogging through this horrible book worth my time.  The dude also compares himself to an orangutan during a threesome, so, there’s also that.  I want every memory of this book to be scrubbed out of my brain.  Full review HERE.

What were your least favorite books from 2017?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Books You Felt Betrayed By

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

This week’s prompt: “Books You Felt Betrayed By.  Beware the Ides of March! What books (or characters) did you feel betrayed by, for whatever reason…big or small.”

It was hard to narrow this down!  I find myself often going into hyped up books with high expectations, but the ones I’ve ended up choosing really stand out to me, not only because I wasn’t crazy about them, but because they had so much potential to be better.

51nag-fefpl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: In a way this acclaimed novel is in itself a love letter to books, and for that reason alone I wanted to love it.  Throw in a mystery that goes back generations, and the premise has me hooked.  I also have plenty of friends who loved this book… but I just wasn’t able to.  First there’s the predictability: this is a book full of twists and turns and ‘shocking’ reveals, every single one of which I was able to see coming.  Here’s a handy guide to guessing the plot twists in The Shadow of the Wind: what seems like the most obvious thing that’s going to happen?  Yeah, that’s it.  And then there’s the misogyny: the treatment of female characters is downright deplorable, from the fact that all women are defined as their role of mother or love interest, to a particular instance of one woman ending up alone and miserable as some sort of narrative comeuppance for (perfectly reasonably) rejecting the advances of a male character earlier on.  I found this book deeply personally insulting on more than one occasion.  And it’s not a bad story at all, the writing and translation in particular are absolutely gorgeous and the atmosphere of Barcelona is captured beautifully, but I found it impossible to look past the sexism in my overall assessment of this novel.

51c0y8b0dtl-_sy344_bo1204203200_An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: I was excited to have the excuse to read this recently for a book club.  I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay, fiction or nonfiction, but have admired her for a while as a contemporary feminist icon.  But this book… was a mess.  From the awkward staccato prose to the melodramatic dialogue that seemed to spring right out of a Lifetime movie to the overly graphic, almost voyeuristic depiction of sexual assault…  This was an ambitious book: Gay tried to tackle issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but the result came across as an incredibly amateur, muddled mess.  There were certain things I liked – the depiction of PTSD in particular was excellent – but I mostly felt let down by the lack of nuance for a subject that deserved so much more.  I wonder if Roxane Gay is one of those writers who’s better suited to nonfiction.

28016509The Girl Before by JP Delaney: There’s nothing worse than starting a book and being sure that you’ll love it, only to realize that what you were sure was going to be a 5-star rating is gradually dropping with every page you turn.  The Girl Before started out as one of the creepiest thrillers I’ve read in a while with its unique premise: two women at two separate times agree to move into an experimental house designed by a famous minimalist architect, and in exchange for paying low rent, the house comes with a set of rules – no pets, no clothes left strewed on the floor, no clutter of any kind.  The chapters alternate between Then: Emma and Now: Jane, and as you see the two women fall into the same patterns of behavior, the parallels between their narratives make for a tense and terrifying read.  But then it all went downhill.  All of my complaints come down to the plot twists, so to avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific.  I’ll just say that I thought this was building up to be something really unique and spectacular, but a ridiculous and outlandish twist killed it.  (see my full, spoiler-filled review HERE)

cover-mischlingMischling by Affinity Konar: When I first learned about Josef Mengele in a high school World History class, I was both horrified and morbidly interested.  Mengele was a Nazi researcher who performed cruel and inhumane experiments on victims in Auschwitz, focusing on those with unique genetic makeups, such as identical twins.  Mischling is the fictional account of two of these twins, Pearl and Stasha, alternating between their perspectives, both during their time at Auschwitz and in the chaotic aftermath of its liberation.  While I was fascinated by the premise of this book, I could barely get through it.  It’s told in awkward, flowery prose, which rather than adding to the drama and emotion of the story, left me rather cold.  Rather than an authentic exploration of a horrific period of history, this felt like an excuse to showcase the author’s writing talent, and given the subject matter, I was just uncomfortable with the whole thing.  While I’m sure Konar’s writing will appeal to some, personally I didn’t think the Holocaust was a particularly appropriate subject for what was essentially an elaborate literary exercise.

17645The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Atwood and I have a complicated relationship.  I’m probably the only feminist in the world who can’t stand The Handmaid’s Tale (for reasons that have nothing to do with feminism – I just found it an unnecessarily frustrating read), though I did really enjoy The Blind Assassin.  But anyway, as a lover of Greek mythology I couldn’t wait to read The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective – from a renowned feminist writer, no less.  Unfortunately, feminist is the one thing this book was not.  You know those purportedly feminist narratives that are like, ‘Our special narrator isn’t like other girls… she reads BOOKS and is sexy because of her BRAIN!  Not like those awful girls who have a different boyfriend every week!’ – well, throw in some mythology and you’ve pretty much got The Penelopiad.  While Penelope’s character is well developed, it’s at the expense of pretty much every other female character in the story: Clytemnestra, Anticlea, Eurycleia, all treated with downright contempt by the narrative… and that’s not even to mention Helen: Helen who, in the original story, is taken against her will, who unfairly laments her role in the bloodshed in a war that really doesn’t have much to do with her, but here we can’t go five pages without some snide comment about Helen, the narcissistic whore.  It’s unnecessary, it’s distasteful.  The only other character who’s really afforded any depth here is Odysseus.  In drawing from a world already so thoroughly doused in misogyny, rather than being the feminist subversion I thought it was going to be, The Penelopiad is a continuation of demonizing fictional women – or exonerating one at the expense of all others.

What do you guys think?  What are some books that you felt betrayed by?

the best and worst of 2016

hey guys!  I’ve decided to kick off the new year (a few weeks late) by getting into the habit of book blogging.  this is a little belated, but I figured a good way to start would be to post a list of my best and worst reads of 2016.  note that these were not necessarily published in 2016, just books I read last year.  so without further ado:

THE TEN BEST:

1. everything i never told you by celeste ng.  an asian-american family crumbles in 1970s ohio after the death of their eldest daughter lydia.  (historical fiction/literary fiction/occasionally shelved as YA.)

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there’s something undeniably admirable about a book that can say so much in so few words.  though everything i never told you only adds up to about 200 pages, celeste ng leaves no stone unturned as she deftly examines the racism and sexism of 1970s america in this compelling and heartbreaking story.  i felt so thoroughly immersed in this world and this family that it was difficult to put the book down at the end, and although celeste ng said everything there was to say, i selfishly wanted more.  this is one of those books that i recommend to absolutely everyone – i think around 10 of my goodreads friends have read it and each one has given it 5 stars.  how often does that happen?  this book is really something special and i cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

2. a little life by hanya yanagihara.  a group of friends navigate post-grad life in new york city while they all deal with personal demons… the most depressing thing you will ever read.  (literary fiction.)

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on the other hand, you know how every once in a while you find a book that feels so intimately personal that you almost don’t want to share it with anyone?  that’s this book for me.  I mean, there are enough other reasons for not recommending a little life – massive trigger warnings for rape, childhood sexual assault, suicide, abuse, eating disorders, mental and physical illness… and on top of that, it’s just not for everyone!  even if you can stomach the difficult subject matter, this book really is only for a certain reader.  this is a story about extremes – there’s an almost surrealist fairytale-like quality to the pervasive darkness in this novel and you have to be willing to embrace that.  reading this book is legitimately one of the most intense experiences i went through this year and it ends up being one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ kind of things, so if you didn’t like it, that’s fine, but i loved it.  every second of it.  even while i was suffering.

3. burial rites by hannah kent.  a woman is accused of murder and sentenced to death in 1800s iceland.  based on the true story of agnes magnusdottir, the last woman to ever receive the death penalty in iceland.  (historical/literary fiction.)

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simultaneously bleak and beautiful, burial rites is a story about losing authority of your own narrative, struggling to endure when your life is out of your hands.  it’s some seriously impressive writing for a debut, and alternates between third person past tense and first person present, a tricky format to pull off, though hannah kent does so effortlessly.  it’s one of the most impressively atmospheric things i’ve ever read – the extreme isolation of rural iceland is almost palpable.  it’s a powerful and lyrical book.  haunting and memorable.

 

 

4. the bell jar by sylvia plath.  plath’s disturbing semi-autobiographical novel about a woman grappling with mental illness.  (classics/literary fiction)

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i know there’s nothing particularly original about being a young woman who identifies with the protagonist of the bell jar but here we are.  i’m just going to leave this quote here, because this passage hit me harder than arguably anything i have ever read:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

5. the vegetarian by han kang (trans. deborah smith).  a south korean woman stops eating meat as a reaction to a violent dream.  (literary fiction.)

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this isn’t a book that addresses the moral and ethical implications behind a vegetarian diet (which would have been fine with me – i’ve been a vegetarian for a decade).  instead, han kang takes a metaphorical route, and it’s hard to say what exactly this book is ‘about’.  there are a lot of layers to unravel: gender roles, sexual freedom, mental illness, the restriction of societal expectations, and the underlying question: can the violence inherent to the human experience ever be completely eradicated?  this tiny novel is comprised of three novellas which are told from three different POVs, which makes it easy to read it in one sitting, so while you may not spend too many hours with it, i think it’s impossible to come away from this book without thinking about it for weeks after the fact.  i’ve never read a book like this.  (massive trigger warnings for eating disorders, starvation, gore, violence… and it’s just one of those where you  have to be able to embrace the weirdness.  so it’s not for everyone, but it’s very rewarding for a certain type of reader.)

6. oedipus the king by sophocles (trans. robert fagles).  the king of thebes learns the truth behind a prophecy which proclaimed he would kill his father and marry his mother.  (classics/plays.)

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having already known the story of oedipus i’m not sure what i was expecting, but this play was more intense and devastating than i could have imagined.  i’ve read a lot of greek tragedies this year, and oedipus is the undisputed victor.  fast-paced and tense, this story is an incredibly compelling read, which isn’t even to mention thematic richness: fate vs free will, sight and blindness, conflict between the individual and the state, oedipus’ role as victim or tragic hero, and ultimately, how much of this story was inevitable…?   i was surprised at just how hard-hitting this was.

 

 

7. tender by belinda mckeon.  the story of two friends in 1990s dublin, whose relationship devolves into an unhealthy obsession.  (literary fiction.)

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fragmented dialogue representing a deteriorating mental state is such a hit or miss prose technique but i have never seen it done as well as it is here.  belinda mckeon is a skilled writer who makes you empathize with her characters even when you don’t want to, even when you’re hiding behind your hands cringing, because even when they do terrible things nothing is outside the realm of plausibility, and it’s nothing most people can condemn without being a bit of a hypocrite, because mckeon taps into the raw and ugly side of emotional vulnerability.  tense and frantic and brilliant.

 

8.  the song of achilles by madeline miller.  a modern retelling of the iliad, focusing on the relationship between achilles and patroclus.  (historical fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

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look, i understand why some iliad purists hate this book.  miller certainly takes a lot of liberties with characterizations, and achilles ends up fundamentally more likable than he was ever meant to be.  but despite this, i loved this book.  i can’t help it.  i thought miller’s prose was beautiful and the setting was brilliantly evocative.  this book was both wonderful and devastating escapism.  there’s a lot of hype surrounding this book, so i will just stress that you shouldn’t approach it thinking it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever read.  just enjoy it for what it is, which is a poignant and moving story.

 

9. in cold blood by truman capote.  in a small kansas town in 1959, four members of the clutter family are murdered.  this is capote’s account of the capture and execution of the killers.  (nonfiction/true crime.)

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books 1-8 on this list always had a definite spot, but i vacillated on these last two.  in cold blood nearly didn’t make the cut, but it didn’t feel right to exclude it, as this book probably had one of the biggest impacts on me of anything i’ve read this year.  this book is disturbing.  not in the same way as a story about monsters or zombies – disturbing in that it tells a side of this story that you probably would have been more comfortable not knowing.  while the vivid and occasionally sympathetic lens through which we view the murderers is deeply unsettling, it’s a fascinating psychological study behind what drove this brutal crime.  an absolute must-read for all lovers of classic american lit and true crime books.

 

10.  more happy than not by adam silvera.  eternal sunshine of the spotless mind + gay teenagers set in the bronx in the near future.  (YA.)

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it’s no secret that i tend to dislike YA, and here’s the reason: i find the optimism (for lack of a better word) of the genre frustratingly unrealistic – as the majority of this list should tell you, i tend to veer toward the dark and depressing, and i often find YA a bit too neat and clean.  but, without giving anything away, let me just say, more happy than not is not a happy book.  adam silvera gets his hands dirty with this one, and i ended up feeling more deeply affected than i think i ever have from a contemporary YA novel.

 

 

 

because this list turned out overwhelmingly depressing, shout out to some happier books that almost made the cut: girl waits with gun by amy stewart, the price of salt by patricia highsmith, daddy long legs by jean webster.

THE FIVE WORST:

1. red rising by pierce brown.  in a dystopian future where society is built on an elaborate caste system, katniss everde – i mean, darrow – must compete against tributes from other districts – sorry, must compete against teenagers of the noble elite – in order to ultimately overthrow the corrupt governing system of panem – wait, mars.  (YA sci fi/fantasy.)

51sz0tslgal-_sx330_bo1204203200_while hunger games rip offs are a dime a dozen, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest… if the particular competition we’re entering is ‘hunger games rip offs which are offensively terrible.’  i’ve practically written a novel on this already, so i’ll keep it brief.  women are raped, tortured, and killed on just about every other page in order to further the power struggles of the men.  humankind has literally colonized mars but for some reason i’m supposed to accept that gender politics haven’t matured since the 21st century?  i’m supposed to just accept that for a book published as recently as 2014, we can’t do better than this?  there are only about two female characters with speaking roles, one of whom is killed at the offset to fuel our insufferable protagonist’s manpain, and both of whom are obviously in love with the handsome, unfailingly talented darrow.  (when i say unfailingly talented, i mean, darrow is good at everything.)  and even if we gloss over how offensive this book is, it is terribly written.  it drones on for 400 pages in an insufferable staccato rhythm, all sense of tension obliterated by the author’s insistence on using a deus ex machina twist on about thirty five separate occasions.  bottom line: misogynistic, derivative garbage.  do yourselves a favor and ignore the hype, because i am here to tell you that this drivel would never have been published if the author weren’t a conventionally attractive white guy.

2. the mirror empire by kameron hurley.  um… parallel universes… some kind of blood magic… trees that eat people…???  yeah i’m out i have no idea what this book was about.  (fantasy.)

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listen guys, i tend to consider myself a decently intelligent person.  but i have no idea what in the everloving fuck was going on for the entire 500 pages that i spent with this book.  too many characters, too many locations which weren’t adequately described to the extent that i couldn’t picture anything, not a clear enough sense of which character was in which parallel universe at any given time… this was a super cool premise but the result was a mess.  throw in a brutal matriarchy where women rape their husbands for the hell of it and some of the most juvenile writing i’ve ever encountered, and this book was downright painful to get through.  for some real feminist fantasy, go for the fifth season by n.k. jemisin.

 

3. mischling by affinity konar.   konar puts a literary spin on a holocaust story.  the result is every bit as offensive as you would imagine.  (literary fiction)

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i was so excited to receive an ARC of this book.  i tend to enjoy wwii fiction and i’ve had a morbid interest in jozef mengele since studying him in high school.  but this book was………… a mess.  poorly written, pretentious garbage.  forgive me if i don’t think the holocaust is an appropriate subject for an elaborate mfa-creative-writing exercise.

 

 

 

4. fates and furies by lauren groff. there isn’t much of a plot but there are a truly extraordinary amount of awkward sex scenes and at one point a guy’s stomach is compared to the tautness of creme brûlée.  (literary fiction.)

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one of those books that probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it weren’t for the hype.  but actually… yeah it probably would have bothered me anyway.  i hated – hated – the prose, i found it gaudy and annoyingly overwritten; i hated the two protagonists; i didn’t care about their marriage, i didn’t care about their friends, i didn’t care about any of it.  i don’t DNF books, but if i did, i would have put this down after about ten pages.

 

 

5. the penelopiad by margaret atwood.  tl;dr: the odyssey from penelope’s point of view, and the most misogynistic ‘feminist’ retelling you will ever encounter.  (historical/literary fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

17645i’m a classics/greek lit lover who finds the sexist limitations of classical lit frustrating, so i was thrilled by the premise of this book.  although i may be the only feminist alive who couldn’t stand the handmaid’s tale, i was ready to be wowed by the penelopiad.  no such luck.  the insidious misogyny in this book is downright shocking.  atwood exonerates penelope for her modesty and in the same breath demonizes helen for her supposed narcissism (a character who’s already been wrongfully maligned for her role in the trojan war throughout the centuries – i’d just like to point out that she was taken against her will); atwood also vilifies anticlea, clytemnestra, eurycleia – she constantly tears down other women to absolve penelope, and it’s insulting and exhausting. for a modern adaptation of greek/roman mythology from a female character’s point of view, skip this one and try lavinia by ursula k. leguin or alcestis by katharine beutner.

so, what does everyone think?  agree, disagree?  what are some of your favorites from last year?  feel free to leave a comment and let me know!