And The Worst…

I get cold feet before writing negative reviews. Just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. There are so many variable influences on reading – mood, expectations, the hangover from the last book you’ve just read, and all the little personal niggles, foibles and phobias that no writer could ever guess. Reading is extremely subjective and falls victim to all sorts of irrationalities. I’ll try to explain my own as we go along.

 

god is an astronautGod Is An Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Well this was the one I hated most from the entire year and I even got to the end of it. Jess Frobisher is a professor of botany at a Michigan university, unhappily married to Liam, who runs Spaceco, the first travel firm to send their clients up in rockets. When the novel opens, Spaceco have had a tragic disaster and they are besieged by the media. In an attempt to cheer herself up, Jess starts building a greenhouse. The story is told through the emails she writes to her former colleague and ex-lover, Arthur. Why she bothered with emails, I have no idea as it’s just a novel chopped up in bits, with some excuse to say ‘Arthur’ at the end of each paragraph, so we don’t forget. Jess is miserable and takes it out on both Arthur and Liam, for whom I developed misplaced sympathy, as the novel ends with Jess stitching up his firm completely. I will never understand the people at Goodreads. They moan about sympathetic characters, but Jess, who was quite the least likeable character I encountered this year, is apparently an enjoyable source of ‘snark’. So, to be clear, if characters take their negativity out on themselves, this is self-pity and unpleasant, whereas if they take it out on others, this is snark and enjoyable? I didn’t like When God Was a Rabbit, either, so I’ll steer clear of such titles in future.

 

tom's midnight gardenTom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce

Oh I am so sorry, really truly sorry to all of you who commented in droves about how much you loved this book. It is indeed charming and nostalgic, and the premise of a magic garden is lovely. I just… put it down and didn’t manage to pick it up again. I think perhaps I only like children’s books when I’m reading them to a child. I wish it were different!

 

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh

Ah, continuation novels, how tricky they are. Jill Paton Walsh has Peter Wimsey pitch perfect, and Harriet Vane isn’t bad either. But the plot bothered me. The murders are all supposedly drawn from books Harriet has written (which are in turn drawn from the cases her husband has solved) and I can see that might be considered a lovely trip down memory lane for Dorothy L. Sayers fans. But it was a rotten excuse for a murderer who piled up bodies hither and thither. The thing is, Sayers was a clever plotter, and I didn’t believe she would ever have used such a clunky device.

 

blackoutBlackout by Lisa Unger and That Night by Chevy Stevens

Two thrillers with the same issue for me – excessive and unreasonable peril for their female protagonists. Both books began slowly with a lot of back story, in which it seemed no author would be satisfied unless the woman in question had been abused as a child, bullied, incarcerated, stalked and raped and living in constant theat and still managing to keep a smile on her face ‘cos she’s a ‘fighter’. Are women so unsympathetic to other women that this is what a heroine must endure? I’ve recently read one of Ann Cleeves’ novels, one featuring detective Vera Stanhope, in which a woman with a past was ostracized in the community by an uptight head-of-committee type, and it was very well done because only one scene was needed for me to feel outraged. There was space for my imagination to do all the necessary work and it was far more effective than ladling on the strife.

 

the visionistThe Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

This one wasn’t the book’s fault. Although the female protagonist was sexually abused by a drunkard father to whom she set light so that she and her mother and brother could run away (see above for excessive peril). But then she ends up in a Shaker community (sorry should have said – starts in the 1840s in America), supposedly for safety. This was as far as I got. I could see it was a very well-written book and well-researched and cleverly told. Somehow the historical period didn’t click with me and the style of writing (nothing wrong with it) isn’t one I’m drawn to. Just the wrong book for me.

 

balancing actBalancing Act by Joanna Trollope

I’m usually a Joanna Trollope fan. I think she has the capacity to be profoundly realistic, and present the reader with exactly the sort of cares and concerns that families do have nowadays. I really like books that seem real. This one didn’t come together for me. It’s based on a family who run a pottery firm – the matriarch, Suzy, set it up and now her three adult daughters are working for her. The problem is, some of those daughters think it’s time to move the firm on in more modern ways but their controlling mother wants to keep it all the same, and remain true to her own vision. It’s also a book about women who work and men who look after the kids, with Trollope ultimately saying that mothers count for more than fathers on the domestic scene. What bothered me was the motivations for the characters’ actions, which seemed weak (something Trollope normally does very well). And there are way too many scenes that take place in people’s heads as they approach a confrontation of some sort, in order to end on a cliffhanger. Later, we hear some of what happened. So for me, I felt that Trollope just didn’t get into her characters the way she normally does, and ducking out of those vital interactions was the result. The book lacked the vibrancy and energy she is capable of producing.

 

breakfast-with-the-borgiasBreakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre

One of the new series of Hammer Horror books. I was intrigued to read DBC Pierre, well, for the first fifteen minutes or so. He had his main character’s plane land in fog at Stansted airport, but somehow the driver of the taxi he was in couldn’t seem to locate him a hotel until he reached the coast beyond Ipswich. ‘This must be the last room in the country,’ he says, which is quite a notion, since by my reckoning they’ve been driving for about an hour and a half through a densely populated area. What does DBC Pierre think East Anglia is like? Then his character descends to the hotel bar where he meets a more unruly version of the Addams family, and my credulity was stretched to the point where it snapped entirely and I put the book down. Sometimes it is best not to read books about areas where you have lived all your life written by people who may only have whistled through once on a book tour.

 

the visitorsThe Visitors by Patrick O’Keefe

This was perhaps a victim of literary burnout. It came at the end of a longish stretch of literary novels and the sameness of the voice was wearing me down. That distanced but melancholic tone, those shapely, direct sentences with their carefully chosen words. A general impression of each scene having been laminated. The novel began in America, and that part was okay. But when we went back to the old country, to Ireland, and the protagonist’s dysfunctional family I just lost the will to live. I felt I’d read it too many times. Which might have been true in the moment, but was not necessarily fair to this book at all.

And that’s it! A bunch of books that you may absolutely ADORE under different circumstances. I give you full permission to do so.

 

 

 

51 thoughts on “And The Worst…

  1. I loved you opening disclaimer, so diplomatic!🙂 I’m all for magic gardens but I have a hard time reading children’s books for myself too. They must be just so and full of whimsy and wisdom like the Pooh stories. I never tire of Pooh. Love the cover of The Visitors. Too bad the book wasn’t as good.

    • Well it might have been a great book – I didn’t get that far into it! You should definitely try it if you like the idea of it (and the cover!). And I remember reading Pooh to my son and enjoying it. I like the bit where Piglet falls on the balloon and wonders if the world has exploded. Heh.

  2. I love your diplomatic opening too. I have The Visionist and God is an Astronaut on my piles – I will try them, and maybe they’ll work for me – I read such good things about the God one too. Ironically, although I know it sounds absolutely preposterous, I like the sound of the DBC Pierre!

  3. Love, love this post. Firstly agree with you re Tom’s middle of the night garden (never told anyone else that) although daughters refused to have it read for a second night. Thought When God was a rabbit a novel of 2 halves (and the second half wasn’t a novel in any real sense). Wouldn’t read Black Out ‘cos of the cover (what does that say about me?). J.Trollope – hmmmm. I struggle with birds on covers. Ditto butterflies.

    Just FYI – I refuse to read anything that has daughter/mother/son/daughter/daughter/daughter in the title – yawn.

    Merry Christmas.

    • Merry Christmas, Mrs C! You do make me laugh so! I should have seen what was coming with that cover of Black Out, shouldn’t I? I still feel bad about Tom’s Midnight Garden, though not about When God Was A Rabbit, which sadly was so not my book. And I promise never to make you read a novel with a stream of family relations as its title.🙂

  4. Not any of them books I would have enjoyed – but then I love classics and quirky stuff and Russians!🙂 Don’t feel bad about not liking them – though I don’t like giving bad reviews either, as I read to enjoy books!🙂

    • And I really must read more Russian lit! A book about Turgenev is as far as I’ve made it into Slav territory (it was a good book, admittedly). You see what I mean about the bad reviews – I read to enjoy, too.

  5. Very entertaining post, and I thought very interesting to hear all your reasons why the books didn’t work for you. Some of them sounded like very convincing problems to me.

    • I am all about the structure, often (though some books have been a mess in that way and still worked, so I can’t make it a hard and fast rule). So, hmm, maybe it’s best to say I think of books like main courses and if the recipe is wrong then it bothers me. I sit there thinking, what is there too much/not enough of? Or at least, I do when I’m not sufficiently distracted by the story!🙂

  6. Oh so good to see well written negative reviews. For balance you really need some similar (inverted of course) opening disclaimer about books that really turn you on too! I read Tom’s MG for the first time fairlyrecently (I think it was a CBG choice) and had mixed feelings about it. There are only a few children’s books that I really still like as an adult (I mean reading to myself as opposed to another child) and Tove Jansson rules that part of my re-reading life.

    • You’re quite right, I should. I think that expectations are the biggest influence on reading, and nothing can ruin the experience as much as expectations set too high. There’s no such thing as an objective book review! I have the Moomins still to reread and it will be interesting to see how I fare with that. After Christmas, I’ll give Jansson another go.

  7. >> It came at the end of a longish stretch of literary novels and the sameness of the voice was wearing me down. That distanced but melancholic tone, those shapely, direct sentences with their carefully chosen words. A general impression of each scene having been laminated.

    I love how you put that; it completely captured how I feel about some of the ‘literary genre,’ some of the time.

    I too become impatient with too much piling in of bad things to a heroine. And honestly, based on that cover and the subtitle, I wouldn’t have even given the Shaker book I chance, so I’m impressed you got several pages into it.🙂

    I used to write negative reviews, but now I blog less frequently, and I’d rather spend my energy talking about books I love & think more people should read, simply because it’s more fun. But I think negative reviews are quite valuable & should definitely be written; I appreciate the bloggers who take the time to do so.

    • Eva, I don’t blog as much as I used to and I feel exactly like you – that my energy is best served writing about books I’ve loved, as far as possible. But when I read other people’s reviews, I never mind whether they are positive, negative or mixed, so I should concern myself less about that, I guess! And I’m so glad you dislike that excess peril thing – I see it happen more and more regularly and for me it takes any plausibility away.

  8. Thank you so much for making me laugh tonight! I’m not laughing because the books are bad (that is always sad), but your reactions and thoughts are priceless and hilarious. That’s what books do to us, good and bad, isn’t it? Make us react to them, whether with delight, joy, awe, sorrow, or anger, or that moment when we realize it’s just a book and not for us. And no two readers ever read the same book….so this is why talking about books, good and bad, is so important and so fun. Thanks for sharing this with us!
    Susan – You Can Never Have Too Many Books Blog

    • You are so right – no two readers are ever really alike, even when they agree in principle about a book! I do love reading everyone else’s reviews whether they are good or bad or indifferent; it’s just getting behind another person’s pair of eyes that’s so intriguing. And I am delighted to have given you a laugh!🙂

  9. I’ve rarely read criticism I have liked more! The way you present your critiques, leaving room for your own biases without being ashamed to hang them out on the line for us to read, is so lovely.

    My favorite line from your post touches on a struggle I’m having as a reader: “But when we went back to the old country, to Ireland, and the protagonist’s dysfunctional family I just lost the will to live.”

    I’ve been desperately trying to like literary novels, because everyone else seems to love them and I feel like I’m missing out on something good and important. I do love me some Henry James, but I risk embarrassment to say that he’s the only official literary novelist to keep my interest.

    I often love the opening sentences and feel my spirit rising up to meet the art and beauty of it all, and–perhaps I’m disclosing too much of my own ignorance here, but I really want to figure this out so I’ll say it–I love the movies made from literary novels. But when it comes to reading them, I just can’t get through more than the first chapter.

    Have you ever noticed how the artistry of the sentences draws you in, but then after reading three extravagant sentences in a row it’s like eating fudge–one can only stand so much goodness at one time?

    I’ve certainly been known to eat 5 pieces of fudge. Perhaps I could glut myself on the greats and really, truly enjoy myself, thereby opening myself to a whole world I feel completely cut off from.

    It sounds like you have at other times enjoyed literary fiction immensely. Would you have any tips you can share with me to understand and connect with the great novelists?

    • Angela, what a lovely comment, thank you! I do know exactly what you mean. For me, I struggle with 19th century novels in particular. I often enjoy them if I can get far enough into them, but the wordiness really puts me off. I’ve found that listening to them on audiobook helps me no end (and I love a good dramatic adaptation too).

      The fudge metaphor is a great one – there is a richness to the language of some literature that’s impossible to take in large quantities. Sometimes it helps me to accept that I’m only going to read a chapter at a sitting, and then move onto something else, juggling several books at once. It’s got to be the right story for that, though, as too many names or complicated plot arrangements can be too easily forgotten!

      But you know, whatever other strategies you try or experiment with, I still think the most important thing is to enjoy your reading, and it doesn’t matter too much WHAT you read exactly. So long as it gives you pleasure!

  10. I love Tom’s Midnight Garden but I do love children’s books as long as they have a fantastical element.
    But I’m preytt sure I would like none of the other boos either. I’ve seen them all at book shops but they never tempted me.
    Joanna Trollope is an author I’d like to try. I’ve got Second Honeymoon.

    • I’m trying to recall if I read that Joanna Trollope – I think I did and enjoyed it. I do find her an emotionally intelligent author and I’d be interested to know what you make of her!

  11. Very amusing post, beautifully expressed as ever. I admire your peristence particularly with all that Shiny New Books reading to be done – I gave up three on your list and so am pleased that I didn’t continue but sorry that you felt my pain for me!

    • Oh I’m so glad to know you gave up on three! I feel validated.🙂 I have to say that so far for Shiny, I’ve been pretty lucky and the vast majority of books I’ve read have been wonderful. I’ll have to hit a bad patch at some point, but so far so good!🙂

  12. I love your very diplomatic opening too. It’s hard to write a negative review, but you’ve articulated why these books didn’t work for your comments are very balanced. I haven’t read any of these books, and doubt whether I will. (I’m another reader that didn’t get very far with Vernon God Little…)

    • I am certainly thinking I won’t try Vernon God Little any time soon! Thank you for your lovely comment. There’s a certain kind of negative review that’s very fashionable which sounds to me like the reviewer is taking advantage of a book to make themselves look smart and superior and it makes me wince. It’s not the sort of bid for authority I’d ever want to make!

  13. Thanks for sharing your top dislikes of 2014 – I enjoyed reading and it raised a smile. I think we do need to write negative reviews to lend credibility to the positive ones although, like you, mine do make me anxious – that I’ll be perceived as, or actually be, unfairly harsh. I am always relieved when I flag up a novel I haven’t enjoyed and someone comments that they fancy reading it, as has happened here for you, which I interpret as evidence we’re not being TOO mean.

    • Oh I completely agree – it’s a relief when someone else says they are intrigued nevertheless. And it’s also a bit of a relief if someone else says they’ve loved it. I over-identify with the suffering of the author! It’s a very good point that you make, though, that our negative reviews lend credibility to the positive ones. I like that.

  14. Beautifully written, honest and brave. It is a difficult thing to write negative reviews because – just as you say – reading (and writing for that matter) is/are such (a) subjective thing(s). But, as others have commented, it’s necessary, for balance as a reviewer, but most of all for honesty, I feel. (And now for a seriously terrible admission: I rushed through to see if one of mine was listed … and was disproportionately delighted to find neither was. Oh dear, oh dear!)

    • Ha, Angela you did give me a smile. I cannot imagine you ever writing a novel I’d put on a worst-of list! I have still to get to Dance of Love (blame the amount of books that arrive for SNB!) but I’m looking forward to it enormously. I completely agree about the subjectivity of reading, writing and reviewing. If we lose sight of how personal and subjective it all is, we start building our parts up (and our egos up!) to a dangerous degree, I think. Whereas if we seem them as one perspective among thousands, then it starts to get really interesting.

  15. It is so disappointing to pick up a book you’ve looked forward to reading and it fizzles like a deflated baloon. Pfffft. Worse yet when it’s a book you’ve actually purchased. Bad enough if it’s a library book that finally comes to you in the queue. All that anticipation. I think I might like The Visionist, though. I might see if the library has that one. Good post, Litlove. Negative reviews are just as valuable to your readers as the positive ones.

    • I find it really heartening when negative reviews still make other readers interested. That’s so good to know! And I’d love to hear how you got on with any of the above. I do agree, though, if you’ve looked forward to a book keenly and it disappoints, it is not a pleasant experience.

  16. The title alone of When God was an Astronaut would be a turnoff for me and then the discovery that this firm is the subject of a media campaign would seal it. Unless they’ve actually worked in the media, authors can never seem to portray journalists realistically.

    • Oho, you make a good point. There’s a roving journalist who keeps turning up in When God Was an Astronaut and I don’t think she’d pass your credibility test at all!

  17. I’m with you on writing bad reviews. If nothing else, i often feel bad for the authors, because i know what an effort it is to write and publish. Still, there are those books that make me wonder, “Why on earth did some editor choose this? Especially if he/she was going to do nothing to fix it.”

    Meanwhile, I approached this post of yours thinking, “Oh good, books she didn’t like. No adding to my TBR tome.” Alas! That didn’t happen. You’ve piqued my curiosity about every single one of these, none of which I’ve read. Sigh!

    • Emily, you are such a sweetie. That’s so lovely that you are curious about them all – and I’d love to know what you think of any of the above! I feel exactly the same way you do about authors – I over-identify with their pain! And yes, I do wonder too why some things didn’t get fixed that looked perfectly fixable… But then, I expect there much have been reasons that looked very good at the time!

  18. I also read about how much many bloggers love Tom’s Midnight Garden, so I read it and thought it was just okay. There’s only been one children’s book I’ve read since I had children to read them to that I really loved and that was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I may have merely been in the mood for it.

    • This is it – it might just be a question of mood. If I’d been in a different place, I might have found the book soothing, or more enchanting. I’m going to try again with a Moomins novel and see how I get on with that. Not this week, though! And Elizabeth Goudge is a strangely familiar name. I will have to find out why it rings a bell!

  19. I never read any historical fiction set in America, with a very few exceptions, so I’m with you on that. As far as Tom’s Midnight Garden goes, I have tried so many times to read it, and I always end up putting it down. I swear one of these days I will make it all the way through.

    • Oh I feel so much better thinking that you and Jeanne also struggled with this one, as you two are my role models for books with fantastic dimensions! But I also look forward enormously to the post once you’ve made your way through it.🙂

  20. Thanks so much for your brave post, litlove, the worst is as important to know, if not more, than the best, since time is of the essence. Nobody wants to waste time esp. when so many are on one’s TBR list. Most helpful reviews here.🙂

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