I wanted to start the new year of blogging off on a more positive note by looking ahead to new releases I can’t wait to get my hands on and by looking back on the best theatre I saw in 2018. Now that we’re well into January though, it’s time to reflect on some of the books that not just fell short of the coveted three star or above rating on goodreads, but that were, for one reason or another, downright disappointing.
5. Clinch by Martin Holmén (translated by Henning Koch)
My rating: 2.5 stars
Admittedly it’s been more than a decade since I tackled a hard-boiled detective novel, but I remember really loving noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The problem with novels like these, published in the 1930s and featuring masculine detectives and femme fatales, is that too often they also reinforce homophobic stereotypes. So I had high hopes for Clinch, a novel published in 2016 but set in gritty 1930s Stockholm and starring Harry Kvist, a bisexual ex-boxer out to clear his name. Unfortunately while the concept is there, the execution is sadly lacking. The plot meanders and fails to grab, but more critically I never felt anything toward Harry Kvist beyond a certain detached pity for his situation. Holmén seems to be trying for a rough-and-ready antihero type, but what he ends up with is a man who isn’t very bright, solves literally every single problem he encounters with violence, and has only one redeeming quality – a soft spot for animals. The resulting novel is a muddy mystery that has little in the way of looking for clues or deducing leads and a whole lot of hitting random people in hopes of gaining information. It gets old fast. Yes it’s brutal, graphic, and, to a certain extent, atmospheric, but I just didn’t care. This has to be the first book I’ve read where the protagonist gets crabs though, so there’s that, I guess.
4. The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin (Translated by Anton Hur)
My rating: 2.5 stars
Another case of a terrific idea poorly executed. I hoped that this would be another great East Asian historical fiction read in the same vein as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, but The Court Dancer is written in a way that keeps the reader at arm’s length so we never connect with any of its characters. Set in the 1880/90s, when isolationist Korea began to open its doors to the west, the book is divided between French diplomat Victor’s time in Korea, where he falls for Yi Jin, a skilled dancer and favourite of the Queen’s, and their time as a couple in Belle Epoque Paris. Unfortunately this is one of the worst paced books I’ve ever read. Quite literally half of the book is spent on Victor trying to gain permission to marry Yi Jun, who is so reticent that the reader has no idea how she feels about any of this. Victor himself is less in love with Yi Jun than he is enraptured by her beauty and the fact that she speaks French, so it’s hard to care at all about them as a couple. I was much more interested in the relationship between Yi Jun and the Queen, so naturally scenes between them occur only in brief flashbacks later on. The Court Dancer is the rare book that manages to be both lethargic and melodramatic, with high drama happening to characters we care little for. As a result, what should be a crushing, soul destroying tragedy is instead merely bittersweet and forgettable. Full review here.
3. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 2 stars
I tried to foray more into Can-lit this year and the results were decidedly mixed. While I loved Our Homesick Songs, a magic realism novel about the decline of the fishing industry in Newfoundland, and liked Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, a dystopian love story about the immigrant experience, I barely made it through Ondaatje’s Warlight. The prose, I’ll admit, is eloquent; It’s elegant, poetic, and a little dreamy. But when the characters are dull and the plot non-existent, pretty writing alone is not enough. I never connected with any of the supposedly ‘eccentric’ major or minor characters and got the distinct impression that these were the sorts of character traits that only an author who reads exclusively literary fiction (and who has never picked up a sci-fi or fantasy novel in their life) would consider strange. Ondaatje is an illustrious enough Canadian author, and writes well enough, that I would consider reading more of his works in the future, but this one left me struggling to understand what the big deal is and desperate to cleanse the palate with a more exciting and cohesive read. Full review here.
2. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
My rating: 2 stars
A textbook case of take the comp titles with a grain of salt. I picked this up because it was being compared to The Night Circus, but tonally the two books couldn’t be more different. I didn’t walk away from The Lonely Hearts Hotel with any swell of emotion, appreciation for the imagery, or sense of magic. In fact, I was mostly just frustrated with this tale of two talented orphans in Depression-era Montreal. O’Neill’s over-stylized prose aims for whimsical charm, but sets a light and casual tone that doesn’t fit the dark and disturbing subject matter. The result is a book that seems to trivialize the very childhood sexual abuse, prostitution, abuse, and drug addiction it depicts. The tonal dissonance is so bad that it’s as if the entirety of Breaking Bad (not just a scene or two or a special one-off episode but the whole show) was told in the style of Pushing Daisies. I wasn’t won over by the romance either. How invested can you be in a ‘love story’ between a pair of characters who haven’t seen each other since they were 15 when all the male character can think about is how he can’t wait to penetrate her? There are some creative ideas here and a few lovely turns of phrase, but I didn’t find the emphasis on quirky descriptions of graphic sex, violence, and abuse nearly as charming as the author obviously does. Also, there are a lot of clowns. Your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about clowns.
1. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 2 stars
While one of the classics I read in 2018 (Jane Eyre) ended up on my Favourite Books of 2018 list, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island tops my Most Disappointing list. Why oh why do we as a society subject children to this deceptively slim volume of tedium masquerading as an adventure story?! It took me two whole weeks and the grim determination to not DNF to make it through these 187 pages. I can sort-of understand why Treasure Island would capture the imagination of readers in the nineteenth century, but this is one classic that the years have not treated kindly. The over-descriptive prose robs the narrative of any sense of tension or urgency, the characters are thinly written, and unless you’re fluent in 19th century nautical slang you’re bound to miss at least some of what’s going on. It’s particularly distressing that this book is recommended for pre-teen and teenage boys – often the most reluctant readers. I appreciate the impact that Treasure Island has had on pop culture, but my advice is to enjoy the media it’s inspired (especially the brilliant television series prequel Black Sails) and leave Treasure Island on the dusty shelf where it belongs. Full review here.
What were your most disappointing reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments!