- The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke
The Chymical Wedding starts off as a kind of poor man's Possession with hints of The French Lieutenant's Woman and, of course, alchemy, thrown in. For the first 150 pages, it is a reasonably well-written exploration of the lives of six people in two periods of time as they attempt to discover the secrets of alchemy and make sense of their own troubled hearts. Before long, however, the book begins to drag. The (never particularly interesting) characters devolve into nothing more than the author's mouthpieces, spouting dense and muddled proclamations about symbolism, truth and love. Pretty soon, every conversation starts with a character making some senseless declaration, then wandering off on a tangent without explaining themselves. For a book obsessed with the power of symbols and mysteries, The Chymical Wedding is surprisingly unsubtle--it's a treatise first and a novel second, and so it fails on both counts.
- A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park
Park's monumentally well-received fantasy got a resounding thumbs down from me. This underperforming, unconvincing novel gives us a protagonist we can't love, a villain we can't fear, secondary characters we don't notice and a plot that's barely there. A large part of the problem is that Princess is only the first part of the story (originally intended as two books but now apparently ballooning into a three- or four-part series), and very little happens in it, but I find it hard to believe that even working on a smaller canvas, the deficiencies of Park's writing wouldn't have damned his efforts. Princess never quite makes it to terrible, but its cumulative mediocrity marks it out as a particularly unworthy read.
- The Magus by John Fowles
The Magus is famously one of those books that you either love or hate and, having adored The French Lieutenant's Woman, I was certain I'd be in the former camp. Wrong! Fowles himself, in his introduction, calls it a journeyman work and wonders (although not in so many words) what the secret of its enduring popularity might be. The story of an English teacher on a tiny Greek island who is toyed with and manipulated by a secretive and highly intelligent old man offers an intriguing twist on the standard revenge fantasy by showing us the (possibly quite deserving) victim of the vengeance scheme as it is being played upon him, but Fowles never managed to make me care about his protagonist (or any of the other characters) or believe that he wouldn't, at some point, simply have walked away from the whole Byzantine game. The book drags, and it was only with a gargantuan effort that I managed to finish it at all.
- The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Seeing as Hollinghurst's novel edged out David Mitchell's stunning Cloud Atlas for last year's Booker, I could easily have disliked it on general principle, but Hollinghurst was considerate enough to justify my hatred. This poor man's Brideshead Revisited is cold and uninteresting. The characters are stiff, never achieving anything close to a second dimension, and Hollinghurst's political leanings inform and distort every line of the text. For all the praise heaped upon it, The Line of Beauty is nothing more than a shrill political screed, with homosexuals thrown in for a bit of novelty, and it is nothing short of terrifying that it should have been so well received by reviewers all over the world.
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
At last, we come to the motherlode, the book that answers the question: what would happen if someone with less than a fraction of Bram Stoker's literary talent tried to rewrite Dracula, and just for fun decided to expunge the story of anything resembling mystery, suspense, romance, and supernatural horror? The answer, unfortunately, is a $2M advance and several months on the NYT bestseller list, but there's a great deal more to my hatred of The Historian than just a kneejerk reaction to its popularity. While the book's length--over 650 pages--is a problem, The Historian's failures are systemic, not structural. Kostova writes well but with no emotion, and her descriptions read like travel brochures. She tells her story through the eyes of half a dozen characters, all of whom speak in the same voice, none of whom are even remotely interesting or convincing as human beings. The plot makes little sense and requires some stunning leaps of faith--which I was unwilling to make, as Kostova had given me so little reason to care about her story. The Historian's success is the triumph of blandness--and a canny publicity campaign--over merit, and I can think of no greater insult than to say that if forced to choose, I would prefer to reread The Da Vinci Code than to delve back into Kostova's stultifying tome.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
2005, A Year in Books: Worst Reads of the Year
For the life of me, I can't understand why more media venues don't list their least favorite books alongside their best of the year lists. There's only one way to compensate oneself for sitting through hundreds of pages of bad writing, unconvincing characters, boring plots and objectionable politics, and that's to rant and complain about the experience at the top of one's voice. Unlike my best books list, this list is most definitely ranked in order of quality, from the smallest turkey of the year to the biggest.