Monday, December 31, 2007

2007, A Year in Reading: Worst Books of the Year

And now, finally, something that I really think more bloggers and newspapers should do: the year's least worthy reads. To be honest, this year's list is paltry, both in its length and in the awfulness of its members. With the exception of the year's biggest turkey, none of these books approach the awfulness of some of stinkers I've read in recent years. Perhaps I'm developing a better radar for awfulness.

Unlike the previous two lists, this list is presented in ascending order of suckitude:
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley

    I'm not entirely convinced that this book is objectively bad so much as that I am the absolutely worst possible reader for it. Parts of it are not much more than a thinly disguised travel narrative, in which the narrator, his aunt, and an eccentric priest, tromp around Turkey in the fifties--but I don't like travel writing. Those parts of it that have more than a thin dusting of plot are concerned with one of three issues: the narrator's religious crisis and his aunt's attempts to bring Christianity to the heathens; the position of women in Islamic countries and the narrator's aunt's attempts to better it through missionary work; the narrator's crisis of conscience, brought on by an adulterous (and, as it turns out only a few pages before the novel's end, homosexual) relationship. All of these plotlines assume that the readers have a certain perspective--Christian, colonial, homophobic--that I simply can't sympathize with, and Macauley does absolutely nothing to persuade us that these are the correct opinions to hold (in fact, on occasion her unthinking condescension was almost enough to dissuade me from opinions I do hold--I do agree that the misogyny she describes in Turkey is worse than the Western kind, but her arrogant, wholesale dismissal of Turkish culture made it impossible for me to sympathize with her characters on this point). This may have been an enjoyable book for its time and place, but for me it was nothing more than an unpleasant glimpse of a mindset that I want nothing to do with.

  • The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

    Or, what happens when someone with barely a fraction of his talent tries to emulate China MiƩville. So, yes, elaborately detailed fantasy world ruled over by a morally ambiguous aristocracy, with lots of gore and gruesomeness thrown in and a main character who is refreshingly irreverent (refreshing, that is, if you haven't read any fantasy over the last five years). But: the writing is barely serviceable. But: the characters are mostly cardboard cutouts, except for the main character and a few of his friends, who are annoying. But: there are maybe 200 pages of plot in a 400 page novel, and that not particularly interesting. But: the worldbuilding here is almost nonexistent, veering wildly between unthinking acceptance of medieval fantasy tropes and supposedly revisionist innovations on same which clash horribly with one another, so that we end up, for example, with a society in which women can rule, own property, and go to battle, but in which it is still a terrible thing to have an illegitimate child. As far as I can tell, there's nothing here but some inventive creation of alien races and situations, and for the life of me I can't understand why this novel and its sequels have been praised so highly.

  • Till Human Voices Wake Us by Mark Budz

    I have a review of this dull, poorly written, incoherent novel forthcoming and I don't want to step on it too much, so I'll just sum it up with the SMS I sent Strange Horizons reviews editor Niall Harrison several weeks ago: "I just got off a plane to New York. I had to choose between finishing the Budz novel and watching Evan Almighty. It was a tough call."

  • Streaking by Brian Stableford

    I'm not entirely comfortable with awarding Stableford the year's biggest turkey spot. On the one hand, clearly I did not read a worse novel than Streaking in 2007. This story about a supposedly preternaturally lucky Yorkshire earl whose luck will turn if he doesn't father a child gets everything wrong. The characters are nonexistent, most of them are stupid, and the minor ones are so thoroughly enslaved to the demands of the plot that they might as well be aliens for all that their actions make any sense as examples of human behavior. The dialogue is atrocious, but only slightly better than the narrative voice, and about halfway through the whole story grinds to halt for the sake of interminable discussions of the genetic component of the protagonist's lucky streak. Not, that is, that the plot was worth paying attention to in the first place--for a novel that clearly seeks to emulate the jet-setting hi-jinks of Fleming and his ilk, it is singularly lacking in tension, and most of the protagonist's problems resolve themselves quite neatly without forcing him to lift a finger.

    All that said, some novels are so bad that they go through bad and out the other side into delightful camp. Streaking is almost a parody of itself and of the kind of male wish-fulfillment fantasy it so obviously is. After all, how can you hate a novel that gives us such lines as "his former way of life was coming to an irrevocable end, within a maelstrom of possibilities and impossibilities that was dragging him inexorably along into an unanticipatable future," or "The food for thought she had fed him had given him terrible mental indigestion"? This is bad writing brought to the level of an artform.
Dishonorable mentions:


Anonymous said...

I thought Year of Our War was interesting despite ultimately being unsatisfying. I think the reason for the praise (and certainly for my interest) is that it doesn't just adopt a time period from our history and add's sad but as far as I can tell this is all it takes to make a fantasy novel trendy.

I thought the whole circle of immortals thing was a really, really nifty idea. Trouble was I hated the main character, felt the society was poorly thought out, and found the plot quite unsatisfying.

I figured that future books in the same setting might turn out better, but in fact the opposite was true, as the sequel introduces a utopian society that makes even less sense than the original.

Anonymous said...

I agree about The Year of our War -- I thought myself a lonely voice of dissent based on my SF Site review.

I think you capture its faults well -- one thing that surprised me was the pedestrian (and sometimes worse than that) prose.

Rich Horton

Anonymous said...

Excellent. More people who thought that The Year Of Our War was rubbish.

Unfortunately, it seems that I own both books on your dishonorable mentions list (but obviously unread). Were they really that bad?


Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, not that bad, obviously, since they're just dishonorable mentions, but I wouldn't encourage anyone to read them.

Freedom & Necessity starts out very strong, and for a while is a hell of a fun read. It's undone, however, by the decision to bring the simmering romance between the two leads to fruition about halfway through, at which point the whole thing devolves into a turgid melodrama.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook is funny and well-written, but I came away from it feeling badgered by the author's attempts to make me like his thoroughly unlikable main character. It's also, ultimately, a rather mean-spirited book, its humor derived mostly from laughing, sometimes quite cruelly, at its characters.

(I've gone on at greater length about Freedom & Necessity here and The Russian Debutante's Handbook here.)

That said, these are very much minority opinions, so you may end up enjoying these books after all.

Foxessa said...

I really wanted to like F&N, but despite my own deep Victorian era backgound, I couldn't keep focussed on it for anything. Ultimately it seemed just too silly, and I don't think I ever finished it.

Love, C.

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