Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Year in Review: Worst Reading Moments of 2012

Last year, when I posted my Worst Reading Moments of 2011 list, I was criticised for including good books that were ruined by, say, spoiling the solution on the cover or terrible editing, with people pointing out that that was no reason for condemning the book or author in question. I absolutely agree, and that was why I made a list of the worst reading moments. This year, I am doing the same. Not all of these books are terrible (though most of them just aren’t good), but this is a list of my own personal worst reading moments. I decided to start with this list because it will purge some poison from my system, and then I can go on to talk about the stuff I actually liked. So without further ado, below are the worst reading moments of 2012 in order of severity:

11. How to Cynically Rake in Money… or, Ask a Policeman by The Detection Club
As much as I like this book, it was nearly ruined for me by HarperCollins. This is the most cynically produced Kindle book I think I’ve read this year. The editing is absolutely atrocious and just plain lazy—the worst being how the calibre of a bullet is consistently printed as ?22 instead of .22!!! But what really gets my blood boiling is how, even though she contributed nothing to the book, Agatha Christie gets top billing because an essay of hers with no connection to the book is used as an introduction!!! As much as I recommend Ask a Policeman, I also advise staying away from the HarperCollins edition.

10. Huh? or, The Devil’sSteps by Arthur W. Upfield
I’m afraid I still have no idea what The Devil’s Steps was trying to accomplish. As I covered in my review, for reasons covered by the book a fair-play mystery is out of the question, and yet the revelation seems to be trying to say something along those lines. So was it a thriller? But if it was a thriller, its purpose remains just as mysterious. It’s a very unfocused book with a very unfocused plot that somehow just doesn’t cut it. Although the scene where a drunk man thinks that a house is a very large tree is loads of fun.

9. Talking Fast Makes Everything More Exciting! or, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch 
Rivers of London is a decent book, but the audiobook is shoddily put together. The reader is under the impression that the faster he talks, the more exciting the book will be, but the result was the opposite: I began wondering whether I was keeping him from something important! Things get particularly bad near the climax, where the reader blazes through the events so quickly that they never had an opportunity to sink into my head, leaving me somewhat puzzled as to what the ending was all about.

8. Literary Analysis Gone Wrong… or, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I don’t like The Big Sleep. I think it’s overrated, poorly written, and highly inconsistent, with characters behaving like two completely different people depending on which half of the book we’re in. It’s got some terrific ideas, but it doesn’t do anything with them, and Raymond Chandler ended up doing some far more interesting stuff in other books. But critics love it, for some reason, and insist it’s one of the best mysteries ever written despite a terrible plot that makes little sense. I’m not saying this novel is one of the worst of all-time, but academics have a love affair with it because it was written by Chandler and Therefore It Must Be Perfect! They have read far too deeply into it, coming up with fantastic theories about the novel’s literary aspirations that make a Harry Stephen Keeler plot look plausible by comparison. It’s just a bad book—let’s just get over it already and move on to better books by Chandler instead of desperately reading meaning into this one. (The image of the knight in the stained glass window is brilliant, though.)

7. To solve murder, roll dice and point out Obvious Killer… or, Still Life by Louise Penny
It seems that everyone is praising Still Life as an excellent mystery. It really isn’t. It’s a terribly manipulated mystery that has a very unsatisfying motive and yet an obvious culprit, who even tries to do some sort of Hannibal Lecter impression at the ending. (I’m not even kidding, he almost directly quotes the film-version Lecter, memorably played by Anthony Hopkins, at one point.) To put it bluntly, the third act is terrible, especially in comparison to the first two acts, which were quite good, and the story dies a long, slow, and painful death.

6. Just Chillin’, You Know? or, Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
This book is just embarrassing. Despite a promising start to the proceedings, for a long time absolutely nothing happens. You know that character X is obviously dead, but Marsh takes her sweet little time before revealing (to the surprise of absolutely nobody) that X is dead, and then unmasking a completely random culprit. But by that time, I didn’t care, and I was absolutely cringing at the dialogue for a young person, full of such hip (kids still say hip, right?) slang, like, you know? There’s being surreal, and then there’s blatantly lazy plotting. You get only one guess as to which group I feel this book belongs to.

5. “The Murderer is—ooh, look at the kitty” or, They Love Not Poison by Sara Woods
This book has a really promising plot which sounds like a remake of The Burning Court: a mysterious poisoning takes place, and it seems that the reincarnation of a 300-year-old witch is responsible. Only Sara Woods cannot focus on one story. This book is all over the place, and only every once in a while does it remember that it is supposed to be a mystery. It commits three of the worst sins a mystery can commit. It’s poorly plotted. It’s uninspired. And, the worst sin of all: it’s dull—excruciatingly, unforgivably dull.

4. How the actions of one idiot can turn a short story into a novel… or, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
I am not a Patricia Highsmith fan. Her misanthropy is very off-putting, and it fills every page of Strangers on a Train. To put my complaints briefly: the entire novel is an avoidable situation. The story is well known: Guy Haines meets Charles Anthony Bruno on a train, where Bruno finds out they both want someone in their lives dead. So the psychopathic Bruno takes it upon himself to murder Guy’s wife and then demands that Guy do the same with Bruno’s father. Here is the problem, one I spent an entire review complaining about: Guy is a moron. He gets evidence pretty much proving Bruno is guilty of the murder, and what does he do? He destroys the evidence, of course, and then whines about the guilt that haunts him! Honestly, I couldn’t care less if I tried. I have no sympathies for characters who bring about their own downfalls through sheer stupidity. This is what happens in this novel, which should have been a short story or novella at most, and Highsmith’s disdain for all of humanity makes this a highly unpleasant novel. I really wanted to find Guy Haines and kick him by the end of the book.

3. Porn, porn, porn, porn, porn, porn, porn, porn, pornity-porn, wonderful porn!!! or, Nevermore by William Hjorstberg
Start with a serial killer in 1920s New York, murdering people with methods inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Now throw in Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, teaming up to investigate the murder. Now, throw in the ghost of Poe himself, working with Conan Doyle to solve the crimes! What do you get? Well, if you’re William Hjortsberg, you get a perfect opportunity to write porn. But I don't see how - quick, another sex scene, before a passing reader uses two brain cells! And the scenes derail the entire book, as each one gets more graphic, with one being particularly painful to read. And hey, guess what? They have no relevance to the story! Hooray! I asked Roland Lacourbe, who has written a book on Houdini, what he thought of Houdini having an extramarital affair. His reply was that portraying Houdini like that was nonsense. And Hjortsberg seems to realize that, because the way he writes Houdini, he’d never have such an affair, but for some stupid reason I just can’t fathom, he has one anyways. But hey, we’d miss out on some classic porn if not for such an artistic decision! It quickly becomes clear that Hjortsberg has no interest in tying up his story, and the ending is frankly indecipherable. And finally, this book wins the Most Awkward Sentence Ever Written Award: “Houdini had never before in his life had a blow job.” For a good chunk of the year, it seemed like this would be the worst novel I’d read in 2012… and then I came across:

2. “Gloria Penny, et Gamache, et Spiritui Absurdum” or, The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
Unreadable. Overwritten and absurd. Louise Penny decides to talk to readers about religion. And hoo boy, she reveals her ignorance of it in bucketloads. Much of the commentary on religion is degrading and insulting to someone who has practiced Catholicism for his entire life. The monastery in this novel must be from the same universe as My Little Pony, because in all my life I’ve never come across monks like this. Their reasons for joining a monastery? To run away from the world, because to hell with it, there’s no way someone could possibly believe in this religion nonsense—it must mean that they are running away from reality! But then, some disgusting suggestions about child molestations are casually thrown around and never again brought up, the entire plot turns around the vow of silence (which does NOT work like Penny describes—at all!!!), and the most insultingly stupid plot point is saved for late in the book. The monastery in question is a Catholic one… yet it is hiding from the Vatican, which until now has had no idea where it is!!! How could that even work??? My mind boggles that fans have not only swallowed that particular piece of stupidity, but they praise this book as one of Penny’s finest! I’ve come to the conclusion that if an author is not a practicing member of a religion, they had better stay away from it, because all it reveals is what they think the religion is like. There’s one scene late in the novel that encapsulated the experience for me. Armand Gamache stands in front of a door, and hesitates over whether to open it. For a few pages, he goes over all the symbolic implications that opening this door would entail… until finally, someone else opens the door! I have no idea if Louise Penny was engaging in self-parody or if she was taking herself seriously, but if I had a hardcover copy of the book in my hands at the time, I would have thrown it through my window in sheer fury. But how could I know better than Penny? I've only been a Catholic all my life and regularly go on retreats and count many religious people as personal friends. Louise Penny spent a few nights in a monastery. Clearly she's the expert.

1. The Literariness of Literary Literature… or, City of Glass by Paul Auster
I hesitated over whether to put this novel at #1 or #2 (although for all intents and purposes, #1 and #2 this year might as well share the #1 spot, hence the reason there are 11 books this year instead of 10 like last time). I settled on placing this at #1 because this is really a unique book. It’s a detective story that fails as a detective story and as a commentary on detective stories, but because it’s postmodern, that’s the entire point and gosh darn it all, isn’t it brilliant? No. No, it isn’t brilliant. It isn’t even good. It’s badly written, inconsistent, unfocused, and written with a disdain (if not hatred) for “mere” detective fiction. If you like detective fiction and you’re in this book, you will either go insane or be portrayed as a gum-chewing nitwit. My review of the book parodies the way academics take it so seriously, and honestly, I can’t add much to it. This is unreadable garbage, but the kind of garbage academia goes nuts for. My pet theory is this: Paul Auster is not trying to say ANYTHING in this novel, but English Lit profs have found deep messages in it, including what he was trying to say, what he obviously intended to say, what he should have intended to say, and what was better left unsaid. So all is well with the world in the end... unfortunately. I reject the postmodern viewpoint of life, but when it comes packaged with such hatred for a genre I love, I want to throw the Literati out of the sandbox until they learn how to play nicely with the other genres instead of trying to reduce every other genre to the plotless, hopeless mess that is today’s “literary” fiction.

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Well, wasn’t that fun? I hope this negativity wasn’t too off-putting, and hopefully you can all join me for a few more lists before the year ends, as next time I will review all the new books that I read in 2012 – meaning any book that I read in 2012 which was published in 2012.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent reviews. I like to know when astute readers like you find novels severely disappointing and why you do so. This is a real service to the reading public. Thank you.

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    1. I'm glad you like this. It's only the second time I've started doing these lists, and I think I'll keep it up as long as the blog is running. It's fun to take one final crack at these books and it does help to get rid of whatever poison is still left behind in your system.

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  2. You know on my blog I just reviewed Edith Howie's 1941 mystery Murder for Christmas, which I think may have influenced Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (also death and the Dancing Footman). I'm guessing Patrick won't be reading that one! Ngaio can by pretty far on charm, but I agree that one is pretty weak.

    And two by Louise Penny! I guess she won't be offering you anything for your thoughts any time soon! ;)

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  3. “Houdini had never before in his life had a blow job.”

    I hate to imagine what the author did with straitjackets.

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  4. Agree about Sara Woods, I've read a few by her that were muddles.

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  5. Ouchie! Well, I figured Auster might get the top (low) spot on your list - and fair enough and at least you put all that loathing to good critical use!

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  6. I love you. NO one else is brave enough to do reviews that say anything remotely critical/honest about other books. At least AUTHORS are not "allowed" to do so out in public. I had much the same thought about BIG SLEEP and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (although I did like the Hitchcock film of the same title, mostly because Farley Granger was my mom's teenhood crush and it was so amusing to hear her swooning over him as we rewatched the film on TCM). I totally agreed about Louise Penny, although the DL mailing list adores her and you'd better not say bad stuff. It's like criticizing Twilight or Harry Potter--the fans will KILL you out of some misguided belief that it hurts the authors for nobodies like us to say we thought it could be improved.

    However, I may have to read the PORN one if only to see the context in which Houdini's lack of, um, head experience (hmm) is referenced. I wish I could put a line like that in one of my books, just to see what would happen.

    I also wish you would review one or more of my books. I know you would be honest, and I could learn from what you say (or maybe you'd like the book, and that would make my day.) I can take it. If you're interested, I have some freebies going on Kindle. (I am not an indie at the moment; I'm with Oak Tree Press and Muse Harbor Press.) See me at shalanna.livejournal.com about my Denise Weeks books (mysteries) if you are intrigued.

    At any rate--thanks for your honesty. I'm going to read your other lists now. Oh, and I adore the background map here!

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    1. Shalanna, I'm glad you enjoyed this list. Some of my reviews are... controversial, shall we say? I *love* mysteries and my biggest principle for reviewing them is always to be honest. It may not always make me the most popular person on board -- I still get hate mail over my review of THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, including one person who claimed to be the Messiah (I think) -- but I like to think that this honesty makes my reviews count for something instead of every book getting the same homogeneous praise depending on its sub-genre. And so when I say that I enjoyed a book, you know that I meant it.

      I hope you enjoy my other lists as well. I'll take a look at your website when I get back home this evening.

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