Most Disappointing Books of 2018

Some of these books I hated, some of them just disappointed me.  Some I went into with high expectations, some managed to slide under my already low bar.  But, whatever the reason, here is a list of books that I wanted so much more from.  These are books that I read in 2018 but were not necessarily published this year.  Here we go:

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10. The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin.  The fact that a neo-Victorian lesbian thriller was able to be this perfunctory and devoid of passion is just tragic.  This sounded like it could have been wonderfully gothic and haunting and sensual, but instead it’s riddled with melodrama and convenient plot devices and utterly inane characters.  The protagonist Hester waxes eloquent about her love interest Rebekah for 300 pages straight, and in none of those 300 pages does Rebekah display even one (1) personality trait.  Full review here.

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9. Snap by Belinda Bauer.  If you haven’t read Snap, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the sheer amount of vitriol for this novel and its Man Booker nomination may stem from snobbery and a bias against genre fiction.  If you have read Snap, you will know that that is not at all the case.  This novel is filled with plot holes wider than the Grand Canyon.  I don’t even know what the worst part was: the running commentary on how pregnant women are essentially moronic (apparently ‘baby brain’ doesn’t mean ‘where did I leave my car keys,’ it means ‘my house was broken into and the burglar left a death threat on my pillow, but I won’t tell my husband, I don’t want to worry him!’), the fact that the police literally used a teenage child to help them with an investigation by having him break into someone’s house, or the fact that the killer’s motive was so contrived and contradictory that the entire premise of the novel falls apart once the whodunnit is confirmed.  (*Spoiler: the murderer killed Jack’s mom because they ‘snapped’ in a moment of madness, but the murder itself involved kidnapping this woman and driving her to another location, bringing her out into a field, and stabbing her, all of which took some sort of premeditation and lasted something like half an hour…?  Can a ‘moment of madness’ last half an hour?!)  Full review here.

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8. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.  I am so TIRED of this kind of novel.  The kind that’s lauded by critics as some kind of literary masterpiece simply because the whole thing is an elaborate experiment that hinges on a gimmick which (imo) was predictable in the first place.  Maybe I’d have gotten more out of this if I had any feelings toward Philip Roth other than apathy, I don’t know.  I just thought this was so badly written and just a complete waste of time.  Mini review here.

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7. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  This is one of the most bizarrely structured thrillers I’ve ever read.  Locked door mysteries are some of my favorites, but there were so many guests and staff on that damn boat that the locked door element felt like it never really came into play since I couldn’t even begin to keep all of the potential suspects straight in my head.  And once we find out the killer, rather than the genre-typical final showdown that lasts a chapter before the book ends, we’re only about 60% into the book and we spend the rest watching the protagonist trying to get to safety… which we’re sure she’s going to, because, you know, it’s a thriller, and that’s how thrillers end.  This book was like listening to someone telling in a really rambling story that started out interesting but quickly became tedious and you’re too polite to tell the person talking that they should just quit while they’re ahead, so you’re just awkwardly trying to inch away while they go on and on and on and you just want to shout OK I GET IT.  But the final nail in the coffin for this book was its frankly glib treatment of mental illness:

Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup – not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.”

Right, because painting on my face every morning because I’ve been socialized to accept that I’m not desirable to men unless I do that is EMPOWERING, and definitely equivalent to needing to take meds to function.  I have never been closer to flinging a book across the room than when I read this.  Full review here.

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6. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.  I feel like the phrase ‘torture porn’ gets thrown around a bit too readily where depressing literary fiction is concerned.  I don’t think a book automatically falls under this category just because sad things happen.  Do these sad things serve a narrative or thematic purpose?  If so, I do think there’s value in telling these stories.  But Girls Burn Brighter took this to a frankly ridiculous extreme.  The two girls at the center of this story are raped, drugged, mutilated, starved, and otherwise abused for hundreds of pages after the author makes her point (which wasn’t all that revolutionary to begin with – that there is a certain female-specific resilience to compensate for the kind of injustices that women are forced to endure).  I mean, one of the characters who has suffered horrifically throughout the entire story is raped yet again about 20 pages from the end of the book, which has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative at that point, because why the hell not!  Plus, the entire book is building toward a payoff that the author then deprives the reader of, and I also didn’t care for the writing style which just seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘pretty’.  Full review here.

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5. The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza.  To be fair to this book it did give me 2 of my favorite sentences that I read all year.  First, we’re treated to the most questionable description of an escalating argument in literary history:

‘I said, I’m now in control of this crime scene and I’m ordering you to step aside!’ shouted Sparks, losing it.”

Yes, ‘losing it,’ you did read that correctly.

And then we get to witness the villain’s eloquent and emotionally wrought confession:

“‘You think you can analyze me. Rationalize what I did, why I killed? I did it because I CAN.’”

Bryndza ALSO introduced ‘the figure’ as a gender-neutral term and kept going with that throughout the whole damn book.

So.  That was fun.  Full review here.

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4. The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison. I loved The Butterfly Garden but the next two installments of this series were… not good.  All of The Butterfly Garden‘s maturity kind of evaporated and we were left with two books that were almost painfully juvenile.  What could have been an intense and harrowing read ended up being hard to take seriously as we were treated to hundreds of pages of FBI agents having sleepovers and reminding each other that it’s ok to not be ok and other similarly obnoxious moments of transparent fan-service.  And the extent to which Hutchison is obsessed with her own characters is more than a little embarrassing to read – we have to endure paragraph after paragraph of the protagonist being praised by the narrative for her competence and it’s just so tiresome.  Full review here.

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3. How To Be Safe by Tom McAlister.  I understand what this pro-gun-control satire was attempting but my god was it obnoxious.  McAlister seemed so proud of himself for writing this book in the first place he didn’t extend any effort toward plot or character development, and it resulted in something as tedious as it was poorly written.  Also the audiobook was terrible.  Full review here.

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2. The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld.  It’s a bit strange that the sappiest book I’ve ever read is a thriller of all things, but here we are.  Here we have another case of ‘author obsessed with their own protagonist’ – Naomi Cottle can do no wrong and my god is this woman attractive (I know this because every man she comes into contact with wants to have sex with her immediately).  I could go on and on about how this whole book is trite and overwritten and saccharine, but I will just leave you with a quote that speaks for itself:

“I loved you then. I loved you, no matter where you came from. No, scratch that.” His voice floated up to her. “I loved you because you came from wherever it was. It must have been a magic place to produce you.”

Naomi felt something deeper than crying, a flush in her womb. “Are you trying to talk your way into my bed?” she asked, her voice thick with emotion.

“No.” His voice sounded warm. “I’m trying to talk my way into your heart.”

Full review here.

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1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.  I’m giving this book the coveted #1 spot because the rest of this list didn’t give me the same crushing disappointment that this one did.  On paper, this should be everything I love in a book: it’s Irish, it’s literary, it’s sad, it’s historical, it’s about a queer relationship, it’s blurbed by Kazuo Ishiguro.  What I hadn’t counted on is that it is also just painfully boring and written in almost impenetrable dialect.  If you click with the bizarre narrative voice that fuses dialect with lyricism in a way that I found stilted and arbitrary, you probably won’t have any problems with this book, but if you struggle on page 1 you will struggle all the way through, which I found out the hard way.  Full review here.

What were some of your most disappointing reads of 2018?  Comment and let me know!