Category Archives: Worst Books

Fierce Kingdom: So… Being a Mom Makes You a Better Human? What?

Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:

1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.

2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.

3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.

4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.

So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.

The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.

And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.

So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.

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Yiddish for Pirates: Not for me. Or for my book club people. (Or for anyone?)

I recently had a middle of the night worry that an author of a book I didn’t like might stumble across one of my I-didn’t-like-it reviews. Don’t worry. I fell quickly back to sleep. But the thought lingered. I like writing a good scathing review as much as the next blogger, but was I being fair to the novelist? Was I just having fun being a little too mean? Continue reading

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Funny, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner, Worst Books

The Hopefuls: On the Pain of Reading a Novel About Obama in 2017

No matter what year it would be painful to read Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls because the novel is bad, but it’s particularly tough to read a novel set during the Obama years and following the Obama White House staff when we are currently enduring… I’m not really sure what to call the catastrophe of American political and social life and national institutions.

So if we take as stipulated that my complaints about the novel are not generated from a nostalgia for the Obama years (though that is certainly present as you’re reading), but rather from the novel’s singular lack of imagination, character developement and troubled gendered politics. From the first person perspective of Beth – wife of Matt (and that’s how she’s regularly introduced: I think in the first instance we’re supposed to get the wink and the nod, like yeah, we know she’s her own person, ha ha, see how she gets introduced as ‘just’ the wife, or as belonging to Matt, but then as the novel progresses and Beth really is just the wife I started to wonder how knowing this introducing really was…). Anyway, from Beth’s perspective we follow her marriage to Matt as he navigates his political ambitions as a white house staffer and campagin manager. You’re probably thinking, but E., unless it’s The Marriage Plot, can a novel sustain itself for 400 pages by considering a marriage? And you’re right. It can’t. Particularly when the only complication is to add in another couple – Jimmy and Ash. And the book flap tells it all: Matt is jealous of Jimmy because Jimmy is good looking, effortlessly charismatic and seeminly destined for political success. So the plot in a nutshell: Matt is jealous of Jimmy. What effect does this jealousy have on the marriage? Likely in a more competent novel this question would yield nuanced answers. Here, it’s as predictable as you think: jealousy is not good. Or more appropriate to 2016-2017: jealousy is BAD!

The novel is at its best in the opening scenes which are wry takedowns of Obama staffers. (It comes as no surprise that our author lives in D.C. and has had ample opportunity to mine conversations; not to take away from her delivery – these scenes really are funny and evocative). And with that hook the reader is somehow committed for the full 400 pages, each page hoping to get back to that initial satire and whimsy. And just… failing. There are so many needless inclusions in plot and character and distracting details (why do we need to know the nail colour of Beth’s sister-in-law? or the colour of outfit of the baby? or who ordered a hamburger at the restaurant?) that this reader found herself alternately exasperated with another tired description, and in a sort of awe that no one suggested massive cuts to Close in revisions.

These pointless inclusions might be overlooked if the core of the novel was something interesting or substantial, but instead we’re left with what feels like one giant insider nod, a flimsy plot pulled from a hat in order to allow for the setting (Washington) and the atmosphere (hopeful). Close would have done much better to write an essay. If we take the plot and characters as given, these are likewise dissatisfying. Beth’s ostensible character motivation is to find her passion (to be some kind of writer), and we watch as she flounders, spending most of her time reading novels and watching TV. We hope that by the end of the story she’d have reached some kind of sense of self, or development, but the novel concludes with her continuing to devote her energies to supporting Matt in his political ambitions. Likewise throughout the novel we get glimpses of a complex character opportunity in Beth’s wrestling with whether and when she wants to have children. Rather than take this question on with any depth, we simply note that she has questions and then flash forward in time to when she has a kid. #wtf

So yes. The Hopefuls, like it’s title, was a hopeful read for me. I’m addicted to political news these days, and relished the idea of diving in to a novel set in a heady political moment. But no. Deeply disappointing. Sad.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, Worst Books

The Good Earth: How I Accidentally Stole from the Public Library 

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth is so bad I have almost nothing to say about it (and so will tell you about my accidental thieving – but first…). Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Prize Winner, Worst Books