The Fiction Fox
Year in Review: Most Disappointing Books of 2022
As great a reading-year as 2022 was, they can’t all be winners… In between the hits and hidden gems, I also encountered my fair-share of duds, and today is the time to talk about them. This year I have 8, plus a (dis)honourable mention which couldn’t quite make the full list as it hasn’t been officially released yet.
Household rules as always: only book read for the first time in 2022 were eligible for this list, and their order is roughly organised as a countdown from least- to most-disappointing. This means that the number one book isn’t necessarily the worst book on this list, but rather the one that let me down the most. You know the drill by now; let’s talk/complain about the most disappointing books I read this year.
8. The Oceanography of the Moon by Glendy Vanderah (2.5/5 stars)
Kicking off the list, I have a book that wasn’t truly bad, but based of the authors previous two novels, I was expecting great. Following an all-time favourite debut and a solid 4-star sophomore novel, this 2.5-start middle-of-the-road-read definitely deserved a spot amongst my most disappointing books. Oceanography of the Moon has the same building blocks as Vanderah’s previous novels: a melancholic yet hopeful story of family bonds and tragedy, carried by a cast of livid characters, and sprinkled with a little dash of mystery. The authors fascination with biology, nature, genetics, and themes of nature-vs-nurture that made me love her books so much, also make a reappearance here. What was lacking was the excellent character-work and deep connection I felt to her previous protagonists. Riley and Vaughn felt distant to me from beginning to end; their voices scripted, their interactions stilted and the plot lacking a sense of realism and depth. I also had quite some issues with the central relationship. I will try to keep it spoiler-free here, but you can read more about my thoughts in my review here. Biological age-gaps in relationships do not bother me, yet maturity-gaps do. This was very much the case for the dynamic between these two characters. There’s a clear inequality in the relationship from the start and it really bothered me. Overall, this wasn’t up to Vanderah-standard and I hope she will revanche herself in her next release.
7. In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power (1/5 stars)
As I started my full review of In a Garden Burning Gold, I reserve my one-star ratings for books that actively dislike, or feel like “shouldn’t exist”. This one was the latter in the most literal sense.
In A Garden Burning Gold is the start of a Greco-Romanian inspired fantasy duology centring twins with elemental magical powers, fighting for their freedom away from their fathers abusive iron thumb.
My problem with this story is that it shouldn’t have been a duology, rather it should’ve been drastically edited down into a single release. This first instalment is all build up, and no substance. After slogging through almost 500 pages, all I was left with was unoriginal worldbuilding (think any Greco-Romanian setting from recent YA-fantasy released in the last decade), an introduction to some immature and cringy protagonists and a deep feeling of disappointment over what happened to my favourite “strange-YA-horror-author”. I’m all for authors branching out, but in this case I hope Rory returns to her roots. Not necessarily YA-horror, but more so her shorter, tighter plotted works and willingness to go out there with unusual an original ideas.
6. Kaikeyi – Vaishnavi Patel (2/5 stars)
At number 6, we have a 5-star prediction that turned out a 2-star read, with a lot of mixed feelings attached to it. Kaikeyi is next in the long line of classic-mythology retellings that spurred from the success of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. In this case, the myth in question is the Hindu epic Ramayana, viewed from the perspective of the vilified queen.
My problem with this book is twofold. Firstly, it makes a lot of the same moves as all the retellings in recent years have already made, including some of the same mistakes. We have a heavy dose of modern-day feminism superimposed on characters that hailed from a completely different time and context. Hero’s spout strangely anachronistic and enlightened modern-day values and villains are harshly judged retro-actively against modern morals. There are ways to write relatable and progressive characters that remain true to their context, instead of completely overwriting them with values formed from our context. It creates dissonance between character and world, diminishes the original myth and frankly makes for lazy writing to me.
Secondly, the retelling of the Ramayana comes with a lot more baggage than for example ancient Greek mythology… Unlike the tales of Olympus, the Ramayana still has a lot of religious and cultural significant to modern-day Hindu’s, which makes these re-framings a bit more sensitive. I feel like that nuance often gets lost within the overwhelming amount of Western-European/American reviewers giving this book 5-stars without any context. As a non-Hindu myself, I cannot speak to this experience either, but seeing the disparity between Western reviewers praising it and many Hindu-reviewers being more sceptical, made me a little bit uncomfortable.
My full review can be found here. Especially for this book, I recommend you seek out some own-voice reviews as well and not rely solely on mine.
5. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (2/5 stars)
Fantasy-fans prepare: this one is going to hurt…
Senlin Ascends is the widely beloved indie-fantasy-darling that got picked up by traditional publishing a few years ago, and made into a full series. Unfortunately, I truly do not get the hype for this one. I gave it 2-stars for the originality of the worldbuilding, but it was very close to a 1-star experience for me.
The book follows Senlin, a scholarly man of words rather than action, who takes his wife on their dream honeymoon to the fabled Tower of Babel. Soon after their arrival, Senlin and his wife are separated, and in his quest to find his wife Senlin discovered the Tower is anything but what he imagined.
My biggest problem with this novel was its reliance on the classic girl-in-the-fridge-trope, as well as generally sexist undertones throughout the depiction of all of the female characters. For starters, the entire plot hinges on the search for his wife Marya, who’s had barely any character-development (or page time) for herself. Her sole role and purpose is to be an object for the male protagonist to chase; a vessel for the plot. I’m sick and tired of that trope and wish we’d left that in the 80’s SSF-fiction where it originated.
Granted; it’s not only Marya who’s underdeveloped. Basically every character apart from Senlin gives off high “NPC-energy”, having no substance and just “playing their part”. Senlin himself, as the only developed character, is insufferable and snobbish. His verbose narrative voice did nothing to engage me in the meandering plot and I often wanted to quit the book altogether.
Fans of this series will say that all of these things were intentional; Senlin is meant to be unlikable and sexist, the plot is meant to make little sense. Might well be, but it didn’t take away from the fact that I just didn’t feel like spending my time reading something I didn’t enjoy.
4. The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlyn Starling (1/5 stars)
We’re only at number four and yet we’ve arrived at my objectively worst book of the year. Where my top-three disappointments are arguably a matter of taste and dó have a distinct audience for them, I genuinely think The Death of Jane Lawrence is a poorly written book.
It’s a gothic-inspired horror-mystery with supernatural elements. Although it’s targeted at an adult audience it 100% reads like Young Adult fiction to mee, and not in a good way.
We follow a level-headed young woman who enters a marriage of with a mysterious and reclusive doctor. Of course, rained in in the remote and crumbling mansion, she discovers a dark side to her husband she didn’t anticipate. Romance and body-horror ensues.
I say “level-headed” but of course our protagonist is anything but. From the get-go, “rational” Jane falls desperately and immaturely in love with her fiancé, and begins to make all of the stupidest choices on hand. I was so excited to see a “brain-over-heart”, potentially even asexual female protagonist in a period-horror, but Jane flips like a leaf as soon as the “love-interest” enters the page. Deeply disappointing and a disservice to the character.
On top of that, this book tried to be too many things all at once; supernatural fantasy, ghost-story, body horror, period piece, romance, etc. In the end, it began mixing its metaphors and ended up a Frankensteinian patchwork of elements rather than the sum of its parts.
After The Luminious Dead (which I gave 2 stars), this is Caitlyn Starling second strike, and I’m getting the feeling that it’s time for me to give up on her writing for good.
You can find my full review of The Death of Jane Lawrence here, as well as The Luminous Dead here.
3. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (1/5 stars)
This one hurts again, as it’s my best friends favourite book of all time and I completely disliked it. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a widely beloved an well-known piece of Japanese magical realism centring a coffee shop that offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. Through 4 short-stories, we follow 4 visitors make a trip through time to revisit key moments in their lives they wish they’d approached differently. I had multiple dislikes for this book: the writing is clunky, the characters are flat and underdeveloped (especially the women!) and the whole thing dripped with sentimentality that quickly exceeded my admittedly low tolerance for that. I have a deep dislike for books that feel written with the sole intent to pluck your heartstrings and make you cry, and Before the Coffee Gets Cold is absolutely guilty of that. More importantly however, I cannot get behind many of the messages this book puts out. For starters, the author has very traditionalist views on relationships and gender roles that I don’t agree with. We have women realising their way to happiness is to give up their careers to support their husbands in various ways, and a view on motherhood in the final story that I find extremely problematic. You can find my full review here. Safe to say, despite its wide and international acclaim, I won’t be recommending it Before the Coffee Gets Cold to anyone. To my best friend: I’m so happy that you found something beautiful and meaningful here, but I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.
2. Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng (2/5 stars)
Our Missing Hearts was a book defined by everything it was not; memorable, impactful and insightful. Celeste Ng’s previous contemporary works hit all those beats for me, and I was excited to see it translated to the dystopian genre. The story centres a young boy’s quest to find his poet-mother who became a political fugitive after her work accidentally sparked an anti-government movement. Our Missing Hearts’s biggest offense was being incredibly mediocre. Offensively mediocre. Despite it’s serious and current themes it plays it safe every step of the way. There’s no life, no risk and nothing new to these pages, within a genre that’s already at risk of becoming oversaturated and stale. The whole book felt superficial, commercial and too easy for it. I have many thoughts about this novel and have written a long Good-Bad-Ugly style review in which I discuss all of them in more depth. I invite you to read it here to get a better feel for my thoughts.
1. The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd (2/5 stars)
My most disappointing book of 2022 goes to another author I had high expectations for. Unlike Glendy Vanderah and Celeste Ng however, Peng Shepherd didn’t just deliver mediocre, she delivered bad. The Cartographers is part fantasy treasure-hunt, part mystery-thriller built off the concept of papertowns; fictional places added to maps by their makers as a kind of “trade-mark” and to catch copyright-fraud. Our protagonist Nell Young has been passionate about map-making ever since she caught the bug from her father, who’s a legend in the field. When she receives the news that her father has been found dead in his office seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. What follows is a track through towns that don’t exist and a history of academic intrigue and family drama. The premise is fantastic, but unfortunately, the book falls apart quickly from there on. My biggest gripe was with the flat-as-a-doormat-characters who, despite being described as smart and rational scholars, were seemingly hellbent on making the dumbest decision in any given situation. On top of that the plot was a termite’s fever dream of holes. Every time the author explains a twists to us (which she does often!) it only hammered home the fact that the logic just wasn’t there. I gave this book 2 stars, mostly because I do think there’s an audience out there for it. If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code and are looking for a mystery with slight supernatural elements to switch your brain off to, this might be it. For me however, the gap between expectation/potential and reality, lands this firmly as my most disappointing read of the year. Full review can be found here.
Finally, as a short “dishonourable mention”, I need to mention The Luminaries by Susan Dennard. I cannot put it on this list as a full entry, as it’s technically not released yet, but the ARC I read recently left such a bad taste in my mouth that I kept thinking about it when writing this list. My full review can be found here. Perhaps this book makes a re-appearance in full on my Worst of 2023 list…
If after this list you're in for something more positive, be sure to check back in tomorrow for my favourites of the year. Until than, happy rest of your holidays, and happy reading.