Tag Archives: worst books

The Casual Vacancy: Just because you wrote Harry Potter doesn’t mean you should get to publish nonsense


I know I’m a few years behind the tide on hating J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, so forgive the belated review: it’s a boring book and you shouldn’t read it.

Set it Pagford, a quaint British town (think the Vicar of Dibley), the story follows a ragtag cast of characters after the death of town councillor Barry somebody-I-don’t-remember-because-I-don’t-care. The book tries to make itself relevant and interesting by including cyber bullying, drug use, domestic abuse and racism. It succeeds only in being interesting by virtue of how terrible it is. And how difficult it is to remember who any of the characters are because they are all so boring and yawn.

I suspect the editor of the first draft wanted to put the whole thing in a fire, but felt compelled by the sheer force of the Rowling name to let it see the public eye. I jest (only a little). It’s not punishing to read, but it certainly belies the substance of the book to call this a ‘compelling’ read (as do some reviews) or a (ha!) page-turner. With nary a plot detail to compel, nor a character developed enough to be of the slightest interest (Rowling is surely the master of characters defined by a single character trait and stubbornly resistant to any change through circumstance or reflection) it’s a book you read out of a sense of inertia and a quiet fascination with how someone who wrote Harry Potter could also write this terrible thing.

What, if anything, could I say this book is about? Small town politics? Teenage relationships and the lack of parental engagement with youth? Hardly. I do think it’s trying to be about the social mores of our contemporary moment, but reads as an afterschool special that forgot that in order to make a reader care about an issue you first have to provide a compelling… something.

I have to admit I’m pleased it was so bad. Coming off the glory of A Little Life I was pretty sure whatever I read was going to pale in comparison. The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint in this respect. With my palate cleansed I feel ready for another terrific read: suggestions?


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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Worst Books

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: This Book is Wildly Overrated


The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?

Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.

On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening.  You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence  that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.

Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Birdman: Gross


I watch crime procedurals to be soothed by the familiarity of the introduction, the red herring, the twist, the conclusion. I read mystery novels knowing that (the good ones) are intentionally playing with the genre, the expectations, the mode and pattern of discovery and twist. So on the recommendation of A. I started reading Mo Hayder’s *Birdman* with the expectation of formal/genre play. On that count the book delivered – much to my chagrin (and secret pleasure) I didn’t see the plot twists coming. 

So what’s my problem? I suppose I wasn’t expecting the graphic violence, the victimization of women (both literally and metaphorically), the pleasure the narrative derives in long passages of brutality. My patience for this sort of normalized violence against women is wearing thin. Throughout this book I felt escalating frustration with the heroic rescue of women in distress, the small and large indignities visited on women’s bodies and identities and the supposed pleasure the reader is meant to take from encountering such descriptions. I did finish the book, but I’ll be taking a long break from Mo Hayder. And suggesting you only read this if you’re looking for examples of the ways in which representations of violence against women are made simultaneously normal and glamorous.  Examples that you can then declare gross and reprehensible. And never read again.

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Filed under Mystery, Worst Books

The Lovely Bones: So. bad.


I feel like this one might an “emperor’s new clothes” kind of case. I mean, it can’t be that so many reviewers out there got it so. wrong. It must be instead that someone wrote a glowing review (maybe as a joke? maybe for cash money?) and then rather than admit that they couldn’t see that there was nothing but a terrible, awful, no good, very bad book, everyone sort of shrugged and said, yeah, well, okay, it’s worth a read. No, no it’s not.

I’m feeling so scathing I think it might be time for another itemized list of the bad (I know, you’ve been waiting and hoping):

1. Little white girls: The book opens with an preface/acknowledgement (sort of) that girls of all colours get kidnapped and killed. And then begins a (very) uncomfortable foray into the fetishization of little white girls. Cue the “daughter-daddy” creepiness of Purity Balls.

2. Characterization: I do not care for characters because I know what kind of shampoo they use, or what drink they like after dinner. The novel reads like an endless exercise in character sketches with characters routinely brushing hair from their eyes and holding ceramic mugs of tea. I care for characters when I’m privy – through thought or action – to their motivations, not simply their thoughts or actions. “I felt sad,” is not character development.

3. Similes. With the (only) exception of Tom Robbins, authors who write purposefully vague or unusual similes (like the chestnut sun, like the tired watermelon) should have a firm and persuasive editor remind them that no reader wants to read those similes, and especially not for pages and pages on end.

4. A cliche conclusion to a trite and cliche novel is alas, cliche. I just have to say it: an icicle?! Are you kidding?! An icicle?!

5. “Buckley” is not an endearing name for a little boy. I kept confusing him with the dog. Maybe because he and the dog had the same level of character development?

6. I’ve had a glass of wine and feel like I may be being unfair. And then I think again about the icicle, and realize I’m not.

But I do think I’ll stop there. I’m not out of reasons I don’t like the book, but I am out of patience for thinking about it. For once I’m pleased I have a terrible memory, here’s hoping this one disappears quickly.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Worst Books