The Fiction Fox
Most Disappointing Books of 2021
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
My Year in Review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about the bad that existed next to the good, so here we are for my most disappointing reads of the year. I know how some dislike these lists on principle, feeling like they add to much negativity, or are in some way offensive towards readers or authors of the books that are mentioned. I personally love creating and consuming these lists and find them incredibly useful to myself and others. Not only is the bad a nice contrast to highlight all of the good, these lists also help me identify what I like and dislike in my reading. Therefore allowing me to make my next year even better than the one before. This year, I struggled a little with the formatting on this list. Although I didn’t have too many books I actively disliked, I did have far too many that were underwhelming to fit on this list. Many of them were on here for similar reasons though. I decided to format this years Most Disappointing Reads a little differently than I did previous years. Instead of a top 10, I have a bit of a hodgepodge of entries; some being single books, some being authors and some being entire “categories” of book I didn’t enjoy. Don’t worry; it’s going to be self-explanatory once we get started. Mandatory disclaimer: these lists are based of my subjective experiences, and none of these are meant to offend or discredit any author or reader.
Young Adult Horror/Supernatural Thrillers
First on the list: we have an entire genre. When I originally tried to create a top 10, I quickly found the majority of the list filled with Young Adult Fiction, over half of which fell within the same gerne, for the same reason. Instead of repeating myself 7 times, I decided to bundle these books into one entry. The books I’m talking about include: House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson, To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames, This Is Not a Ghost Story by Andrea Portes, Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Meyers Sain, Here There are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé, The River Has Teeth by Erica Waters and Horrid by Katrina Leno. (yes, there's a lot of them...) All of them are Young Adult Horror/Thrillers with a supernatural element, many of them are set in small towns and most of them try to incorporate some representation of mental-health within their story. Their main offence is how incredibly same-y, and utterly forgettable they are. So much so, that I couldn’t exactly tell you what synopsis belonged to what book, if I tried. None of them have particularly stand-out representation, tension or memorable protagonists, and all of them have a unique selling idea but go nowhere far with it. In general, I’m let down by this genre. I think horror for a Young Adult audience has great potential and appeal, but hasn’t quite found its footing yet. If I had to pick a favourite 2021-release within this gerne, I’d go with The Dead and The Dark by Courtney Gould for having memorable protagonists and its own unique feeling to it.
Alix E. Harrow
Moving on from my most disappointing genre, to the author I was most disappointed by… Alix E. Harrow has gotten quite a lot of hype with her first two novels The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and The Once and Future Witches, and many of my trusted reviewer-friends have enjoyed both these books a lot. 2021 was the year I picked up both these novels, and ended up with similar feelings of disappointment with both of them. Not only did I have 3 false-starts for both of them, where I picked up the book, couldn’t get into the story, and put it away to try again later, once I did finish them I felt none of the love that other people have described for it. Part of it is Alix E. Harrows writing style that doesn’t appeal to me, part of it is her tendency towards very slow stories with quite flat protagonists. I have a full review on The Once and Future Witches here, where I talk more in depth on this. Although I’m glad that so many readers have loved Harrows stories, I’ve decided that she isn’t the author for me, and won’t be picking up any more of her novels.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
It feels fitting to follow up Alix E. Harrow with Leigh Bardugo, as she too is an author I gave up on in 2021. I adored the Six of Crows Duology and carry a lot of nostalgia for that world, even though I didn’t like the original Grisha series. I have not enjoyed any of Leigh’s works since however, and get burned time and time again when I try to get into them. Ninth House is Bardugo’s first debut in Adult fiction, and is a dark-academia fantasy novel set in a fictional version of Yale that features secret societies, murder, ghosts and occult arcane knowledge. Despite all its potential, I had many problems with Ninth House. First and foremost: the story is all over the place and completely dull at the same time. It isn’t so much that nothing happens, but more that I just felt absolutely no investment towards any of the characters or the plotlines in general. Secondly, the entire thing felt so pretentious and elitist to me... From the writing style, to some of the messages about university-life and society, everything felt padded and snobbish and rubbed me the wrong way. Many readers have praised Bardugo for her extensive research into Yale’s actual history and architecture, that she puts on display throughout the book. To me personally, the whole thing came off as unnecessary and purely for the sake of the author “flexing” she went to Yale herself. Last but not least, there’s the use of trauma and (sexual) violence against women, in a way that I found to be insensitive. These are difficult, but deeply important topic to discuss in literature, and due to the deeply personal nature of experiencing trauma, I’m open to a variety of depictions of said experiences. There is after all no universally “correct” or accurate way. The only form of trauma-portrayal I objectively disagree with, is the use of it for sheer shock value, or to further the plot without fully addressing the extent of all the secondary consequences that come with an experience like this. Ninth House falls in this latter category, almost like the author misunderstood the objective of writing for an adult audience, as writing an R-rated story based off its content. The extend of trauma that Alex faces could work in a well written fantasy novel, but requires a well-rounded and mature exploration of character, that Alex’s flat persona lacks. As you might be able to tell: I won’t be continuing the Alex Stern series, nor will I be likely to pick up any other works by Bardugo anytime soon.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
My second most disappointing book happens to also be Dark-academia, only this time in a more “realistic” thriller setting. The Maidens was one of the most celebrated and discussed thrillers of the year, and even came in second on the Goodreads Choice Awards in the thriller-category. For me, it just didn’t work at all. I have a short review on my major gripes with the book, but my annoyance mostly came down to the level of stupidity on display by these protagonists. Don’t get me wrong: I can absolutely work with an illogical or even plain dumb protagonist, but not when the story, the author and the protagonist themselves keep hitting me over the head with the fact that they’re an “educated and people-smart psychologist”. No, just no. Full review can be found here.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Last is the book I feel worst over putting it on this list, as it was nominated for various awards and loved by the masses. Unfortunately, I had some huge gripes regarding the writing, the characters and its messaging overall that I couldn’t overlook. Bewilderment follows a Theo, an astrophysicist and single parent to his 9-year-old neurodivergent son after the death of their wife/mother. They bond over their shared love for eco-activism and fantasizing about alternate planets and life throughout the cosmos. While the set-up sounds ironclad, I hated the execution. Quasi-intellectualism, heavy-handed messaging and horrible characters that we’re supposed to root for. I also really didn’t like the portrayal of the neuro-divergent son, as he’s often used purely as a tool of emotional manipulation towards the audience to “get a cry out of them”. Not only do I dislike this kind of emotional manipulation in literature in general, it’s especially distasteful when it involves children or minorities. My full review can be found here.
The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells
On the topic of emotional manipulation: The End of Loneliness takes the cake. I’ve often talked about my dislike of this subgenre of “tragedy porn”, where the book has one goal only: to inflict as much misery possible on its protagonist to get a cry out of the reader. I think they’re distasteful and often do a disservice to the real-life tragedies that unfortunately happen all over the world every day. Famous within this “genre”, is A Little Life which I despised, and unfortunately The End of Loneliness joins that list. I noticed that this year, my tolerance towards these kind of books reached a new low. Starting as a junior doctor this year, the majority of which I’ve worked in urgent care (ICU and ER), during a pandemic has been the most rewarding and challenging experience. It also puts you very close to a lot of very real tragedy, which puts an emotional toll on every doctor, whether they admit to it or not. Feeling like those emotions are being manipulated in an inorganic way by a book isn’t something I appreciate. It’s not about “being sensitive” to these topics perse, as I do appreciate to read about them. I just like the author to trust me to feel what I’m feeling, and not hit me over the head with it multiple times.
To close off this list I have two (dis-)honourable mentions that didn’t quite belong on any list, but I still wanted to mention. Both these books were on my most anticipated reads of 2021, and while I enjoyed both, they didn’t live up to my (perhaps too high) expectations. I still recommend both of these books if you’re interested in them, but since I hoped them to be new favourites, I was still relatively disappointed when they weren’t.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Under the Whispering Door is a kind of “loose sequel” in the world of The House in the Cerulean Sea, and as that book was one of my favourites of 2020, I had astronomically high hopes for The Whispering Door. And to be honest: I liked The Whispering Door a lot, I just didn’t love it the way I wanted to. I’ve written a full review where I explain my reasons a bit more in depth, but it really came down to expectation vs reality. I would still highly recommend this book to anyone who loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, or anybody looking for a feel-good, whimsical fantasy story featuring themes of found-family and a M-M-romance. The only reason it’s here, is because I was 99% sure this would be on my favourites-list. And just didn’t make that cut…
The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance
In the same vein, we have another 2021-release that I was sure would make my favourite-lists. Not because of an author I was familiar with, but because of its synopsis and themes alone. I rarely have such high expectations for a debut novel, but with a phenomenal premise, raving early reviews and comparisons to The Astonishing Colour of After, I think I let my anticipation get the better of me. The Wide Starlight features the story of 16-year old Eli, grieving the loss of her mother, who went missing on a hike in the Fjords of Svalbard, Norway. When the northern lights under which her mother vanished become visible for a single night over Cape Cod, Eli is convinced it’s a sign that her mother must be returning home. The comparison to The Astonishing Colour of After made me think this was going to be a mostly contemporary story, with light magical realism elements, that would deal with Eli’s grief over losing her mother. Instead, this read a lot more like a fantasy-story, or an extended fairy-tale to be precise. As is common with fairy-tales, nonsensical yet convenient things can happen galore and character-depth and development is extremely limited. Had I known this to be the type of story that it is, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place, as it was that character development I was most interested in. I’ve been burned by publishers blurbs and comparisons to previously published books before, but this one stood out to me most this year.
I hope you're enjoyed this list, and I hope I've saved you some duds for your upcoming reading-year. I'll be back tomorrow with some more positivity, bringing you my most underrated novels of 2021.