Friday, January 22, 2016

10 Worst Books: Fiction

As I noted in yesterday's post, I just past ten years of book reviewing on this blog.  So I thought I'd try to pick out what were the ten worst fiction books I've read during that time.
Lists of these kinds are a fun little exercise, even if they're doomed to failure.  It's easy for me to say that some books I liked, and some books I disliked.  But it's much more difficult to try and assign quantitative values to feelings.  All the more so since feelings are inherently unstable.  (Catch me at this time tomorrow, and I'll probably have changed my mind about all of these rankings, and come up with a new list.)
Nevertheless, I've done my best to rank these in the order I disliked them.  Number 1 is the absolute worst, and then it gets progressively less bad (but still pretty bad) from there.  (I'm following Vince Mancini's strategy of counting up, rather than counting down.  I start out with the books I'm absolutely sure about, and then move out into the more ambiguous territory from there.)

1. The Regime By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (original review here)

I know, I know--it's my own fault for reading this book, so I can't really complain about it.
That is what you were thinking, right?
Okay, point taken.  I should have been smart enough to avoid picking up this book in the first place.  But that doesn't change the fact that this is, by far and away, the worst book I've read over the past 10 years.  So I'm obliged to put it on this list even if picking out the faults in this book is all too easy.

Despite the fact that certain areas of the church have been doing a lot of modernizing in the past 50 years or so, books like this are a reminder that the old-timey fundamentalist religious thinking is still alive and well.
According to that old-fashioned view of religion, the primary problem in the world today is not war or poverty or ecological disaster. No, the biggest problem is that not everyone professes the correct confessional creed, and that not everyone is attending church regularly.
If that's what some people are primarily concerned about, fine, but you can't ask me to get involved in a novel in which the only dramatic stakes are whether or not certain characters are attending church on a frequent enough basis.
That, plus this book labours under all the limitations of a prequel--nothing exciting is allowed to happen, because the entire purpose of the book is to just get all the characters set up in the right positions before the series proper takes place.
I know, I know.  It's my fault for reading the blasted thing.  What was I thinking picking up a Left Behind Prequel!!!!  But if it's my fault for reading it, it's also their fault for writing it.  What were Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins thinking when they wrote a prequel series to Left Behind? (Oh yeah.  They were thinking of what an easy paycheck this whole thing would be.  Duh!)

2. Shanghai Baby by Zhou Wei Hui (original review here)

A book which is the semi-fictionalized story of the author.  Also known as: "Narcissism: The Book".  If you enjoy reading 300 pages of someone bragging about how attractive, stylish, and intelligent they are, then have at it.
Again, what can I say? It is my own fault for reading it.  I got hooked in by the publisher's blurb claiming that this was the Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller of China's new generation.  But of course the publishers are going to say that.  It costs them absolutely nothing to make those claims, and there's a sucker born every minute who's going to be stupid enough to believe them.  And like a sucker, I handed over my money for this book.

3. Catriona by Robert Louis Stevenson (original review here)

The whole plot revolves around our love interest, Catriona, throwing temper-tantrums, and our hero constantly having to win her back around again and again.  I would have gotten sick of the whole thing and just left her, and I wish the protagonist here would have done the same.

4. The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer (original review here)

Admittedly, books that fall into the category of "So Bad That They're Good" are kind of hard to classify.  On the one hand, you want to say, "I love this book.  It's so bad that's it's actually a parody of itself.  It's pure cheesy, pulpy enjoyment."
But on the other hand, you also want to say, "Yes, but the fact it's so bad it's good doesn't change the fact that it's bad."
Okay, I admit that I do have some fondness for the pure pulpiness of this story.  It also was a big influence on Ian Fleming, and a lot of today's other pulp hero classics.
But the vile racism that drips off of every page is hard to forgive.  What a sick, twisted, hateful little man Sax Rohmer must have been!
There should be a special place reserved in hell for people who write books aimed at children in which the primary purpose of these books is to get the children to start hating the right people at a young enough age.

5. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (original review here)

Another book whose purpose is to get children to start hating the right people from a young age.   But whereas The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu was at least kind of fun, this book is just so boring.  Nominally it's an adventure story, but it's an adventure story in which most of the adventuring happens off-screen, and is just recounted at ball-room parties.  The entire plot revolves around a mystery which is not all that interesting to begin with, and with which the modern reader already knows the answer to anyway.
(From a story-telling perspective, this book is worse than Sax Rohmer.  But because it lacks the racial hatred of Sax Rohmer, I'm placing it after Fu-Manchu).

6. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks (original review here)

In any just world, a barf bag would accompany the sale of this book. It's so sickly sweet you just want to throw up.  It's like a hallmark greeting card got extended to novel length.
(Lots of people actually liked this book and the movie, though, and some wrote into the comments to tell me so.  So chalk this one up to subjective tastes, I suppose.)

7. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (original review here)

A lot of people really liked this book, so I guess this is another case where subjective taste maybe comes into play.  But I thought it was pretty unimaginative and under-whelming, and didn't entirely make sense--for all the reasons that I detailed at considerable length in my original review.

8. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (original review here)

This isn't a novel.  It's a morality play that goes on for 800 pages.  Nobody who writes characters this badly has any business writing novels this long.
That, plus the author was a complete hypocrite.  She spent her entire life writing books like this which railed against the weak people who rely on handouts from society, but then eventually ended up claiming social security and medicare when she eventually got old and sick.

9. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (original review here)

It starts off strong, with an exciting action sequence that shows what a good science fiction writer Robert Heinlein can be when he wants to be.  But then unfortunately it just degenerates into several right-wing political rants and the story part of this book just gets completely dropped.

10. Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons (original reviews here and here)

I'm putting these together as one entry because they're essentially the same book spread out over two volumes.
I enjoyed these books well enough as I was reading them, but that was partly because I was willing to put up with the more ridiculous aspects of the story as long as I had faith that Dan Simmons knew what he was doing, and that it was all leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Only to finally get to the ending, and discover that Dan Simmons didn't have a clue what he was doing all along.  (Had this been a shorter story, I would have forgiven a lot more.  But it was really disappointing to wade through both of these huge books, and only then realize Dan Simmons didn't know how to tie all his plot threads together.)
That, plus all the mistakes he made with classical mythology, which neither he nor his proofreaders could be bothered to pick up on.

Dishonorable Mentions

Some of these books just barely escaped getting named in my top 10 worst.  (And perhaps, if you caught me in a different mood on a different day, they would be).  Others are books I didn't really hate, but that kind of left me feeling "Meh!"  In no particular order, here is my long list of all the dishonorable mentions.

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (review here).  An author trying way too hard to show how literary he is.

The Stand by Stephen King (review here).  All that build-up for such a disappointing end.  What was the point of all that?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (review here)  This was a hard book to get into, but I worked hard to get immersed in it because I thought maybe it was going somewhere interesting.  And then, what an anti-climatic ending!

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (review here).  A new author who's got a lot of potential, but this book isn't quite there yet.

U.S.! By Chris Bachelder (review here).  An ambitious satire which probably seemed quite funny when it was a new idea floating around in the author's head, but didn't end up being nearly as funny on the written page.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike (review here) Old Man John Updike writes a book complaining about how those young people won't get off his lawn.  And also how young teenage girls love to have sex with middle-aged men.

Magician by Raymond E. Feist (review here). I've got to admit this book has some impressive world building going on here.  But there are so many plotlines to keep track of, and then so little pay-off for any of them.  Plus such awful, awful dialogue.

Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein (review here) So admittedly Heinlein can write well.  He has engaging prose, and he's good at world building.  But then what to make of that ending?  It's like Heinlein suddenly forgot what themes and main characters he had been following this whole time.

Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles (review here) John Knowles completely forgets what made his original book A Separate Peace so wonderful, and tries to compensate with over the top characters and drama.  All the wonderful subtlety of the original is gone here.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (review here) I don't know.  Maybe I'm just a philistine.  But I thought the philosophizing in this book was all lazy and simplistic.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (review here) Well this book didn't make any sense.  At all.  Presumably if you read all the sequels, it will start to make more sense, but...I can not be bothered with all that.  I don't mind sequels for following on the characters to further adventures.  But I hate reading a book, and finding out that it's not a complete story in and of itself.

The Butterfly in Amber by Kate Forsyth (review here) As with The Gunslinger, I'm also going to complain here about the story not being self-contained.  Especially since this book is so short, there's no reason why it should have been split into 6 separate volumes, other then that the publishers got greedy.  That, plus the afterward at the end betrays the author's royalist biases.  She claims that Charles II  was better than Cromwell and worked well with Parliament, and completely omits the part where Charles II dissolved Parliament and ruled without them at the end of his reign.

The Man and the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas (review here) I loved the original Three Muskeeters, but by the last book in the series, I was beginning to lose my patience.  The plot should have been moving at a fast pace, and instead everything happened so slowly.

The Vampire Blood Trilogy by Darren Shan (review here)  As I wrote in my original review: What kills this book is the infantile style. Maybe it’s unfair to harp on a children’s book for stylistic concerns, but even when compared with other young adult books like “Harry Potter”, it really falls flat. The characters in “Vampire Blood Trilogy” talk like they’re in a book. Especially the children characters, all of whom have extremely flat dialogue. The principal characters often do stupid things apparently just for the point of creating conflict and advancing the plot.  
...But these books appear to be popular with their target audience of young adults (two of whom wrote into the comments to let me know how much they enjoy these books), so what do I know?

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes (review here) Some classic books are worth reading just so you can catch all the references people make to them--if you're the kind of person who cares about that.  And this is probably one of them.  I'm glad I read it just so I can catch all the references.  (This book is more well-known in Britain than in America, and I've discovered British people use this book title as a short-hand way to just reference all the old-style public school traditions.)  But as far as the story and literary quality go, I'm in absolute agreement with P.G. Wodehouse's critique of this book.

The Dragon and the George by Gordon Dickson (review here) A fantasy comedy book, in which the comedy wasn't funny, and the fantasy wasn't interesting.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (review here) I can't hate this book completely.  There was some charm to it.  But for the most part, the slow pace of the action bored me.  That, plus all the polemics against inter-racial marriage firmly push this book into my list of "dishonorable mentions".

1632 by Eric Flint (review here) Dramatic tension is usually created by having the heroes struggle against the odds.  But if you give the heroes overwhelming firepower superiority against the enemy, then where is the drama in the narrative?  There's nothing left but the schadenfreude of watching the enemy get blown away so easily. Which, admittedly, this book does deliver on.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (review here) Great for adolescents, but I do not recommend for adults.

Other Notes: Novels Based on Comic Book Superheroes
I mentioned in my previous post how embarrassed I am now to have read all those novels based on comic book superheroes:  (52: The NovelInfinite Crisis: The NovelCrisis on Infinite Earths: The NovelDC Universe: InheritanceJustice League of America: Superman--The Never-Ending BattleJustice League of America: ExterminatorsKingdom Come: The NovelChallengers of the Unknown.)  I suspect if I were to re-read any of these now, I would probably be constantly rolling my eyes.  And yet, I enjoyed them well enough at the time.  Even the ones I criticized for their literary shortcomings (like Inheritance), I still said I enjoyed.
So I guess it would be unfair to go back now and put them on my list of dishonorable mentions.  They all get a pass.

Historical Fiction
I have yet to come across a historical fiction book I didn't like.  Even when the prose is clunky, even when the characterization is bad, I still like the fun of learning history in the form of a novel.  That's why when I put together my list of favorite historical fiction books a couple years back, I just decided to include all of the historical fiction I've read.  They were all my favorites.

But that's not to say these books don't have their flaws:
I thought the hand of the narrator was too heavy in Imperium by Robert Harris  (review here).  He just described what all the characters were like, instead of letting the readers see these characteristics for themselves.    Granted I was much more generous to his follow-up book.

I enjoyed the history in To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams (review here) but I thought the characterizations were awful.

I was underwhelmed by the first two - books in Mary Renault's Alexander the Great Trilogy (even though I absolutely loved the third one.)

And I enjoyed learning the history from Valerio Massimo Manfredi's Alexander - the Great Trilogy, but I thought his prose was just appalling bad.

Well, that's all for today.  Tomorrow I'll do the 10 worst books in Non-Fiction.

Link of the Day
Why Marijuana is Illegal and Tobacco is Legal?


dpreimer said...

I'd forgotten you dislike Grossman's The Magicians. It's been sitting on my shelves for a while. Maybe I should pick it up, just to see if I agree with you. I certainly do in the case of Jonathan & Mr. Morrell. Couldn't stand that book.

Joel Swagman said...

yeah, I'd be curious as to your thoughts.
To be fair, I found The Magician readable enough as I was reading it. And it held my attention. It was only after I finished it that I felt very disappointed with the whole thing.
But I found it a quick little read--finished it off in a few days. I'd hate to recommend it but...I'd be curious on your thoughts.