The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Disappointing Reads

Sunday, December 26, 2010

2010 in Review: Disappointing Reads

In previous years, I had eschewed doing a "Worst" or "Disappointing" category in my year-end summaries because I would have to devote energy thinking about books that were either utterly forgettable or were (in rare cases) truly heinous; neither would add to the overall theme.  However, I changed my mind for this year, since these year-end reflective essays are meant to give a more representative sample of what I've read and experienced this year.  Hopefully, there will be some value in reading this (if only to provoke visceral reactions), because I found it surprisingly difficult to muster the energy needed to write about works that, in the majority of cases, deserves to rot unread on shelves or to be pulped.

Back in March, just after I had been laid off, I decided to read some of the backlog of review copies that had been sent to me.  Two of those books were Blake Charlton's Spellwright, which I found to be decent, albeit derivative, non-offensive fare, and the translation of Russian writer Alexey Pehov's Shadow Prowler.  Even taking into account my occasional antipathy toward hack-and-slash derivative "epic" fantasy knockoffs, Pehov's book truly was my first horrendous read, one that disappointed even the very low expectations I had for it.  Here's an excerpt from my review of it:

Magical items, talismans, wielders of magic who may be distant and mysterious for no other reason than to appear to be practitioners of arcane arts.  This book is chock full of them.  None of it resonated with me.  It just felt as though I had read this before somewhere in the past.  Nothing really new.  No real depth to any of the characters presented.  This was disconcerting, considering that a large percentage of the novel was told in first-person PoV from the perspective of thief Harold.  His character just felt stilted and contained little narrative tension.

Perhaps "lifeless" is the most apt description of this novel.  It apes the mannerisms and characterizations of older epic fantasy novels, especially those of a "high magic" nature.  Yet there is nothing really exciting about it; it is merely the repeating of well-worn epic staples without really adding anything to the mix.  Without this sense that Pehov had anything different to offer, my mind switched to auto-pilot.  I was not engaged as I had hoped to be engaged.  This novel was not for me, simple as that. 
 Moving into April, I see after reading through my annual reading log that I read the first two volumes of a series by Australian writer Joel Shepherd, Sasha and Petrodor.  I declined to write a review at the time because I found the entire construction, from the prose to the plot to the done-to-death plucky, feisty heroine character, to be dull, uninspired, and lacking in any quality that might encourage me to give it any consideration at all.  The third volume I have declined to read because my disinterest is that high after my disappointment after struggling to care (and ultimately failing) while reading the first two volumes. 

Skimming through my reading log, it seems I rarely read any 2010 releases between April and July.  However, within the span of a single week, I read two works that disappointed me in different fashions:  Amelia Beamer's debut novel, The Loving Dead and China Miéville's Kraken.  I chose not to review either one of them at the time because I had such lukewarm reactions, reactions that have steadily cooled upon further reflection.  With Beamer's novel, I believe much of the disappointment comes as much from false expectations that I had as anything to do with the actual novel.  I am not a fan of zombie fiction and I thought perhaps that it would be more "subversive" in a fashion other than it being a commentary on sexual politics.  That certainly dampened my enthusiasm, plus the story itself was only solidly told, with little in the way of distinguishing wit or narrative flair.  Yet others might enjoy this first novel on its own terms, rather than experiencing the disappointment that I felt reading a novel whose themes and presentation were not all that palatable for me.

Miéville has long been a writer who frustrates me.  Much as I have appreciated his first four novels, particularly the Bas-Lag novels, in each of them there were always elements that seemed to be underdeveloped or just ill-executed.  His latter two novels, The City & The City and Kraken, did not endear themselves to me as much as they did to others.  With the former, I found the execution of the narrative conceit to be clunky and not as gracile as it perhaps should have been in order for the full impact of its thematic and plot elements to be felt.  With Kraken, however, the entire ordeal was devoid of anything truly interesting, minus the mysterious squirrel (hey, sometimes even squirrels can't carry an uneven novel).  The humor was a bit forced in places, the "fun" element just didn't click in, likely due to a very weak narrative structure.  Sure, Kraken might be a sometimes-amusing play on conspiracy theories and Lovecraftian elements, but its execution just fell flat.  Certainly the most disappointing Miéville novel that I have read.

In August, I read Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, another debut novel.  As is the case with several of the novels mentioned here, I did not find it to be complete and utter dreck, but rather a disappointing novel which lacked a certain "life" that would have made it something special.  As it is, this play on an Austenesque Regency novel with Magic! was a rather lifeless affair.  Try as she might, Kowal just did not display the narrative wit and humor that makes Austen's novels memorable.  While her characters and situations were decently drawn and developed, the prose just felt flat and devoid of that je ne sais quoi quality that distinguishes the competently-written from the superbly-constructed novels.  This is not to say that I will not read more stories by her, as I do believe that with more time and experience, those tiny little qualities that distinguish the great from the merely acceptable stories might be developed sufficiently.  However, Kowal's first novel simply lacks those qualities and it is this perceived lack that makes this debut such a disappointing read for me.

Not to bang the drum too much, but a common thread in this discussion of Disappointing 2010 Releases seems to be difficulties that debut authors have in nailing down certain narrative aspects that would make their stories stand out more.  In September, I read Sam Sykes' debut novel, Tome of the Undergates.  This was a very underwhelming novel for me, even when I had been forewarned about some of the difficulties that other readers had had with this epic fantasy opening volume.  Some readers are going to enjoy long, drawn-out, extended battle scenes; I am not one of those readers.  Yet a full third of this novel concerns itself with such a prolonged scene, peppered throughout with characters forced to work together who would rather gut and decapitate his or her so-called "companion."  I found the situation and the characterizations to be rather trite and lacking in interest, although again this might be due to my difficulty in enjoying epic fantasies of any stripe these days.  Regardless, this novel was a dull, plodding affair, one that did not leave me desirous of re-reading it in the near future.

There was only one truly disappointing 2010 release read in October, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight.  Here is a snippet from my review:

I am not by nature someone who trusts wholeheartedly my first impressions; too often they change with time and further reflection.  I have found this to be the case with this now-thirteen-volume epic fantasy series.  When I reviewed the twelfth volume (and the first where Brandon Sanderson wrote most of the material in place of the deceased Robert Jordan), The Gathering Storm, in October 2009, I perhaps was a bit too forgiving of that book's shortcomings because I reviewed the book after not having read most of the other volumes since 2000.  Certainly my memory did not jibe too well with my experiences re-reading the first eleven volumes this past spring and writing commentaries on my impressions.   In short, it was a slog re-reading this series.  Not merely because of the myriad subplots nor because there were repetitive and yet shallow social commentaries, but also due to the creaky, non-graceful prose and uneven characterizations that often left me feeling cold.  Despite the change in authors and the plot developments that one might expect in the penultimate volume of such a ponderous multi-volume series, Towers of Midnight, after some reflection, is a flawed volume in a very flawed series.

Truly one of the most disappointing reads of this year.

Finally, there was one final disappointing 2010 release read this year.  It was of a book that I just finished earlier today.  Yet another debut novel, Anthony Huso's The Last Page does not merit the comparisons that I've read elsewhere to China Miéville or to any other writer who has a distinguishable writing style.  This was an absolute trainwreck of a story to read.  Huso's prose is simply execrable.  He attempts to ape the mannerisms of more proficient stylists, only to fall far short of his goals.  He lacks the ability to write compelling descriptive prose.  Below are examples of how maladroit he so often is:

Once, the Dunatis Sea had filled all of Stonehold, a prehistoric saline slab that crushed the hills under gradients of darkness many fathoms deep.  Back then, the Duchy had been a black icy waste of glacia sediment and mollusks and mud.  Sloshing against Kjnardag's feet, licking at the mountains' boots, the great sea had retreated slowly, pulled into the Duchy's pit over epochs like a slavering beast on chains. (p. 288)
His use of simile is atrocious.  Several times throughout this novel he creates bewildering, baffling comparisons that are nothing like the sun, nor anything resembling flowing prose.  The below example might be one of the more confusing and off-putting similes I have read this side of a Robert Stanek self-published work:

Outside she could smell summer blooms like tender-loin girls:  pink-petaled skirts ruffling in the wind. (p. 132)

What.  The.  Fuck?  These asinine similes, coupled with choppy sentences that did not suit the narrative nor the plot of the story, ruined for me a story that could have been intriguing if it had been competently told.  The Last Page is just simply a clusterfuck of a novel, one of the singularly disappointing novels that I have read in 2010.  Perhaps I have saved the worst (minus reading pre-2010 releases from Terry Goodkind and Stanek) for last?

Hrmm...nearly 10 disappointments out of roughly 80 books released in 2010.  I suppose that's not too bad of a percentage.  Would add one more, Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, but after a handful of chapters, I stopped reading it in March, as I was totally disinterested in what appeared to be one of his weakest novels since Free Live Free.  But since I didn't complete it and since Wolfe often improves on a re-read, I'll just add this as a coda to this discussion of Books That Sucked in 2010.  Now that this is out of the way, time to start planning what will be covered in the next few essays.


The Spirit of Creative Writing said...

"Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House ... one of his weakest novels since Free Live Free..."

Worse than An Evil Guest? Good grief.

Larry Nolen said...

I had tried to forget that novel existed. Thanks for reminding me? :( OK, on par with An Evil Guest in the disappointment. Better? :P

Jason said...

Interesting about Sorcerer's House. I think that can easily happen with Wolfe.

I generally love him, but BoTNS, which I read this summer, was the single biggest literary disappointment of my life. (Granted, it had been built up beyond reasonable expectation.) And yet... I have the sense that, when I come back to it, things might be different.

Larry Nolen said...

It can, although my relative ambivalence to his Long Sun novels didn't change with a re-read years later.

Kristen said...

Thank goodness, I thought I was the only one who wasn't crazy about The Last Page. I started it way back in August and after 3 weeks of struggling to read it and not getting very far very quickly due to just not finding it at all compelling, I moved on to other books. I've tried to go back to it a couple of times since then, and it's been sitting on my nightstand ever since then since I keep trying to finish it, but I'm not so sure I'm going to at this point.

Larry Nolen said...

I had read the cover blurb and didn't think much of it, so I put it aside. Then I saw all the glowing reviews and I paused on my way to trade in the book a month or so ago, thinking that if I had the time, I would read it toward the end of the year. Should have gone with my first inclination.

Amy said...

I LOVE worst of lists so I'm really glad to made this one! I haven't read (or actually even heard of) most of these, apparently I should feel lucky about that!

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

I haven't actually read "The Last Page" but I just have to ask why that last simile seemed confusing. A tenderloin girl is a prostitute, yes?

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, it is that, but I meant "confusing" in the sense of being baffled why Huso would combine the smell imagery of summer blooms with that of prostitutes. It just didn't fit the passage, which describes the smells carried by the wind as one of the main characters is walking. It was just one of several misplaced similes and metaphors that was jarring for me.

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Ah, I see. Thank you for explaining. Without the context of the passage itself, the simile seemed completely sensible since flowers dress up and put on perfume, so to speak, in order to entice bees to have sex with them.

I've had the book on my to-read pile for awhile so I'll have to read it so see how it fares in context.

Felix Gilman said...

"Flowers are essentially tarts; prostitutes for the bees."

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