So far I’ve discussed 13 of my favorite books from 2011, as well as 4 good books I’ve read since the beginning of 2012. But, as I’ve already proved with a rant about a fashion-obsessed YA vampire series, this blog is not going to be pure cupcakes and sunshine. There are some books that I read in the past year that I just did not like. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t talk about them as well as the books I did like. I’ve chosen 5 books and ranked them from mildly bad to actually offensive to painfully terrible.
The thing that I noticed when picking out books I did not enjoy is that I have a low tolerance for boring prose. I have high expectations for sentence-level writing, and when these expectations are not met at least part of the time, I lose patience with the book. Boring characters also made a couple books less than engaging and earned them their spots on this list. My most mild criticisms come from a simple mismatch between me and a certain book. I feel like there are some times where a book can be ok, but if you’re not the audience that it is looking for, then you’re not going to like it, and that’s all there is to it. Oh, and also, I don’t like misogyny.
#5: Queen of Broken Hearts by Cassandra King
This was a selection from the book club I attend very sporadically. The club consists of young women from the Young Adults group from the church I used to attend when I lived across town. For about a year I exerted significant influence over the book club’s choices. Alas, those days are gone.
My criticisms of this book are not quite as cutting as the others in my “worst 5 list.” This book seemed above all to be about middle-aged lady wish fulfillment. The protagonist’s life is perfect. Her counseling business is expanding and she’s got at least 2 suitors, but you know immediately which one she’ll end up with. The idyllic little Southern town where she lives is complete with “characters” and folksy, semi-mystical traditions. It all just seemed bland and happy. The only people in the book with real problems were her daughter and best friend, whose marriages were in big trouble, but for pretty banal reasons that didn’t really interest me. The protagonist’s anxiety and concern about their problems made her seem like a judgmental busybody, actually. The themes had to do with overcoming the past and choosing to be happy in the present despite past losses and pain, which despite their universality, weren’t communicated to me in a way that made me care about them, perhaps because they weren’t especially relevant or resonant in my short, relatively easy life. It seemed like the protagonist should have been able to just get over it already, to mourn her loss and move on, especially since she was a counselor telling others to do the same thing. I just could not believe that it was as hard as she pretended it was. I think that was what kept me from relating. The climax/solution was overly obvious: What, the ritual you created to help other women find closure would be useful for you too? Whoda thunk! My conclusion: this book was not written for me.
It’s ok if a book just was not written for me. I’m not worse off for having read it. This book and I can go our separate ways, and I might even recommend it to a divorced woman of my parents’ generation who enjoys easy, shallow, sentimental reads, like Nicolas Sparks or James Patterson. I do not wish that this book had never been written; I think that no one who loves books can wish a book out of existence unless it’s just spewing virulent hatred, like a publication of the KKK or something. Today’s literary marketplace is so fragmented and specialized that niche markets have developed, and some books just do not appeal to audiences outside of their tiny niche. That’s ok. Every reader does not have to love every book.
However, truly great books appeal to all audiences. When a book has a very narrow intended audience, and cannot attract and sell itself to a sympathetic reader who does not fit the profile, a reader who honestly wants to enjoy the book and has pretty broad aesthetic criteria, like strong use of language, compelling characters and interesting plot, then that points to a problem with the book. I flatter myself that I am that kind of reader. I very rarely dislike books. I open every book hoping to be astonished. I give a book the benefit of the doubt, and keep reading after that benefit has expired (I did finish all five of these books I rate as my least favorites). When a book makes itself so narrow that someone like me can’t find a way to sympathize with it, then that shows that the book is not great. It might be decent for its intended market, which is perhaps overly narrow, but it’s not great.