The Fiction Fox
Most Disappointing books 2020
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
One of my favourite lists to watch other people make, and on of my own more dreaded ones is here: my most disappointing list of 2020. I always feel a bit bad criticizing a work that someone has poured their heart and soul into, but on the other hand I’m a big believer in everybody being allowed to speak their minds about art and media without the pressure of “having to be positive all the time”. I have 7 books to talk about this year, which is a good score considering I read 120 in total. Some of these were just disappointing to me, others I hated, but all these books probably have an audience out there that will love them. That audience just wasn’t me. Without further ado, let’s get into them:
7. Escape Routes – Naomi Ishiguro
This was almost certainly the publishers fault for overhyping a debut to the point where no author could compete with their own phantom-image created by the buzz. Naomi Ishiguro not only is the daughter of famous and celebrated Kazuo, her debut novel got showered in comparisons to literary greats like Angela Carter and David Mitchell. Escape Routes is a lyrically written short story collection that shows a lot of promise for the author. Unfortunately it is just a promise, as this collection on its own as just okay. Not good, not bad, just okay. It was fine while I was reading it, but it lacked cohesion and now (10 months later) I cannot remember a single story in it. Not a bad book in any sense, but just a disappointment to me. Putting this novel on the spot it’s at is more of a statement to the publisher to give debutants a fighting chance to stand on their own, and not create fertile soil for disappointment to take root before the book even came out.
6. Star Daughter - Shveta Thakrar
I debated whether I even should put this book on the list in the first place, as it’s clear that I shouldn’t have read it in the first place and I have no one to blame but myself. Star Daughter is a Hindu-mythology inspired YA fantasy about a 17-year old girl summoned by a magical into the night sky by a star-song, sung by her mother who (guess what?) is also a literal star… I’m clearly not the target audience here, but I wanted to read this to see if I could add it to my arsenal of recommendations, mostly for the Hindu representation. Clearly I won’t be doing that. My three major problems with this book are as follows: - the plot is honestly poorly constructed. Things just happen randomly to move it along, and none of it follows logically from the previous point. There are quite a few literal deus ex machina moments, and some of the left turns the author took made me actually put the book down to go: wtf is happening here?!? Is this some fever dream I’m having? - I think I hated every single character. Protagonist Sheetal is supposed to be a fierce young woman, but has the personality of a wet piece of cardboard. All of the characters act like 10-year olds, even though they’re supposed to be 17(!), and worst of all: even the adults act like 10-year olds. I love it when a YA book has a positive message about consulting adults in your life with your problems, as it’s often the right thing to do for a struggling teen, but in this book the adults were causing as much juvenile drama as the teens were. - The relationship between the main character and her boyfriend is honestly very obnoxious and unhealthy. She is obsessed with this boy, treating him like a popstar she has a crush on rather than her equal in a relationship. Please YA-authors: when are we going to teach our teens about healthy relationships?! Clearly that day wasn’t today…
5. The Girl and the Stars – Mark Lawrence
Here we have a straight up case of expectations -vs-reality. I really like Mark Lawrence, and have loved almost everything I’ve read by him. Therefore his newest series, set in the Arctic North of the same word in which the Book of the Ancestors series is set, was high on my most-anticipated list. It only goes to show: when anticipating something phenomenal, something just good can be a disappointment. The Girl and the Stars is a YA survival fantasy novel about a girl who sets out on a quest through an arctic underground cave system to find her younger brother. Anything more would be a spoiler, so I’m going to leave it a that. The story was engaging enough, and has many tropes that YA-readers would love, but unfortunately just didn’t do much for me. Even though it breaks my heart a bit, this is the first series by Mark Lawrence I don’t feel any inclination to continue.
4. The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
Yes, I know I’m going to get hate for this… Honestly, I recognise that The Midnight Library is an important book to many, that probably rightfully so won the popularity vote for the Goodreads Choice Awards this year in its category. I just wanted so much more from it than I got, which was frankly, not something I enjoyed. I have many many thought about this book, and the “subgenre” it’s in, and I have a full review which you can find here. My short summary is this: when writing about topics such as mental health, depression and suicide, your margin of error is incredibly small, especially when there’s a clear “self-help-ish” message in it. I feel this book missed the mark at times and for a book that is so well-loved, that deeply disappointed me. Other than that, it just wasn’t anything special to me: I’ve read and seen this story a hundred times in other media, and I just can’t say that Matt Haig’s interpretation added anything to the mix for me.
3. The Sisters Grimm – Menna van Praag
In the number one spot, we have the longest book (around 500 pages) that I forced myself to finish, without enjoying a single second passed the first 20%. I actively disliked this book almost the entire way through and only finished it to be able to form coherent enough thoughts for a review, only for it to take me months to actually write said review because I was just so done with this book. Now it’s unfortunately time to open up this can of worms again, as there’s no way this wouldn’t make in onto my most disappointing of the year list… The plot alone is quite ambitious, if not convoluted: we follow 4 girls, approaching their 18th birthday. Although they’ve never met in real life, they used to dream about meeting the others in a strange otherworld, every night when they were children. Within this dreamworld each of them has the magical ability to control an element (air, water, fire and earth). As their 18th birthday approaches, the dreams have stopped, but these powers have suddenly begun manifesting in real-life. They find out that their shared dreamworld is real, and it’s actually where they hail from. Their shared father is the demon Grimm, who has send his sons out to kill them (?!?) and the only way for them to survive is to find each other and work together. If that plot sounds like a weird mess to you: it is. I have a full review in which I explain all my issues with this book on Goodreads, but to summarize: here some of this novels worst crimes.
- a Frankenstein of a plot that was seemingly stitched together from any random idea that popped into the authors head, without regard for whether it fit the existing plot or not. - 4 of the most bland and indistinct characters I’ve read in a long time, that honestly made keeping track of the POV you’re reading from difficult. - A large part of the story dedicated to downright painful romances. And I mean painful. I can’t believe I have to explain these things, but authors please take note:
The trope of “let-me-seduce-this-person-so-I-can-kill-them-better” is just a bit weird.
brother-sister incestual relationships are NOT SEXY.
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: sexual predation (an almost 30-year old dude hitting on a 17-year old) and mistaking it for romance is NOT OKAY. Got all that? Good. Now please let’s move on before I lose my mind again over this atrocity.
2. A Deadly Education – Naomi Novik
Funnily enough, my top 2 most-disappointing books share a common theme: both are by highly celebrated authors, who’ve first ventured out into the YA genre. For Naomi Novik, this was with A Deadly Education, a fantasy story set in a magical school where there are only two possibilities: graduate or be killed along the way. What was being promoted as Harry Potter, meets The Magicians in a coat of even more dark academia, just ended up being a huge and jumbled mess. I didn’t even bother properly reviewing this book, as many people already have done a better job than I could. In short; this was an interesting world and set-up, even though we’ve seen similar before. Unfortunately, I think Novik forgot that most books are supposed have more than just that, e.g. interesting characters, a background, or heck: a plot. A Deadly Education has none of that. Instead it has edgy-snarky-I-don’t-care-about-my-looks-token heroine El, lots of info-dumping and a story that could have (and should have) been condensed down in a 15 page prologue for book two. I fought my way to the end, and despite the cliff-hanger at the end, I feel absolutely no inclination to read the sequel.
1. A Peculiar Peril – Jeff Vandermeer
My number 1 most disappointing read goes to a book that I honestly had very high expectations for, based on the author. Similar to my nr 2 entry, this was the authors first venture into the YA genre, and that switch just didn’t jell with me at all. In A Peculiar Peril we Jonathan Lambshead and his friends as they attempt to clear out the large mansion that Jonathan has inherited from his eccentric grandfather. When grandpa turns out to be a collector of rare and supernatural artifacts, they soon find they’re in for more than they bargained for. It’s no secret that Jeff Vandermeer writes weird books, that overall have a mixed reception to a greater audience. His particular brand of weird is one that usually focusses on the unsettling, personal trauma and the ungraspable, and it’s this signature that makes me love his work so much. Unfortunately his YA-work seem to take his weird in a completely different direction: weird and absurdist humour. Nothing in this book makes sense, mostly for the sake of absurdist comedy and I soon was not just annoyed, but completely lost as well. If this is the direction Jeff wants to go for his YA-work, than I applaud him. It’s an interesting niche-choice, and I have to say it does suit him and he seems to have a lot of fun with it. Unfortunately, unlike his adult works, this niche just isn’t for me, so I won’t be picking up any other YA-books of his.
That concludes my list of most disappointing books of 2020. Please check back tomorrow for some more positive vibes: my top 10 favourite reads the year.