I wasn’t originally planning to do one of these posts, but I’ve seen a few floating around and in the end I couldn’t resist. As with most other people who’ve compiled such a list, I want to stress that these aren’t necessarily the worst books I read this year (some of them were solid 3-star reads, in fact). Rather, they are books I expected to adore, but which ultimately left me feeling lukewarm, hence my presiding feelings of disappointment. So, in no particular order…
1. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
This non-fiction book aims to normalise the struggles of mental health in a warm and candid way. These are admirable intentions, no doubt, but the execution was bad. Really bad. The presence of painfully forced humour, erratic structuring, cultural insensitivity, and potentially problematic relationship dynamics made me cringe throughout. I know Lawson’s work has been popular with a lot of people, but her style is definitely not for me.
2. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The only time the old man ever stops talking about fishing is to talk about baseball, or to club a dolphin over the head. Not my jam. In all seriousness, I found this so dull, repetitive and lifeless that I didn’t even care enough to try and find any deeper allegorical meaning. At least I can now say I’ve tried Hemingway for myself, and know for sure that he and I aren’t going to be friends.
3. The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
This is one that feels particularly harsh to include here, because it’s a pretty good book overall and there are certainly things about it that I liked. BUT, on paper it sounds like my ideal read (historical fiction set partly in Iceland, with themes of female agency and the power of storytelling). Plus, it got glowing reviews from readers and critics alike. My high expectations simply couldn’t be met, with the uneven pacing stopping me from ever feeling fully invested.
4. The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Science fiction from a pioneer of the genre that explores themes of colonisation, war, environmental destruction, othering, and cultural erasure sounded so promising. Sadly, this ended up being a huge slog, especially for such a slim novel. The glut of invented terminology was so exaggerated – the effort to constantly contextualise every piece of information we were given so great – that I felt no investment whatsoever in the plot or characters. What initially held great promise became dry and frustrating; a particular shame given how much I hoped to love this author’s work.
5. The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza
I loved this book’s singular concept, and was excited by its claims of a gothic, mysterious tone, but if a novel requires notes from both the author and the translator for the reader to stand a chance of discerning any kind of narrative or thematic sense, I’d argue that the book hasn’t worked. Any interesting ideas about gender roles and suchlike were danced around so ambiguously that I was left feeling cold and perplexed; any fleeting moments of brilliance swallowed up by alienating tangents and nonsensical goings on.
6. Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan
This is another one I feel particularly sad to mention here, because I fully expected it to be making an appearance on my list of favourites. Logan is a writer I already love, and a collection of feminist horror stories is so in my wheelhouse it felt like this book had been tailormade for me to love it. Though I thoroughly enjoyed its overall tone, and many of the haunting images it presented, I found the collection bloated; too many of the 20 stories blending into one, and too many of them dipping into the weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird territory that I’m not a big fan of. It’s a shame, as when this book is good, it’s very, very good; it just wasn’t the new all-time favourite I so desperately wanted it to be.
7. Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang
Chang is another author I had wanted to try for years. This collection of short stories was described as ‘gripping’ and ‘intensely atmospheric’, which put me in completely the wrong frame of mind for what I actually got, which was perhaps the quietest, most understated slice-of-life stories I’ve ever read. I enjoyed the post-war setting, and the themes Chang touched on (like the role of women within Chinese society, class divides, national identity, and the shift from a traditional patriarchal society towards a more liberal, Westernised way of living), but the use of a different translator for every story led to a very uneven narrative voice that I found hugely jarring. I haven’t given up on Chang yet, but it seems I picked an unfortunate place to start with her work given how much I hoped to gel with her.
8. The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
I read and loved A Spell of Winter by the same author this year, and rushed out to pick up another of her novels. I was excited to find that she’d written a ghost story, described as a ‘haunting flesh-creeper’. In reality, this was a paranormal romance that lacked any of the evocative prose and arresting atmosphere that made A Spell of Winter so special. I will definitely give this author another try, but if these first two reads are anything to go by, it seems her stuff is going to be very hit or miss.
There we have it! What were some of your most disappointing reads of 2019?