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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Year in Review: Worst & Most Disappointing books of 2023

I was surprised and a little shocked with how easily this list filled up this year. Subjectively speaking, 2023 didn’t feel like a bad reading-year with a lot of duds, but once I sat down to list them here, I found there were sadly a lot more than I thought. 15 to be exact… I’ve debated doing two separate lists this year; most differentiating between Most Disappointing and Worst. To keep the burden of negativity to a minimum, I’ve combined them both into the same post. The important distinction between the two is my level of dislike. The disappointing ones are mostly 2-star reads, that definitely have an audience. I just wasn’t part of it.The worst books are all one star, and I would actively recommend against reading these. Without further ado, let’s work our way down the list, starting with the “okay” ones, and descending to the worst of the worst. As always: links to full reviews and Goodreads pages are provided.

Most Disappointing books:

Rating: 2/5 stars

Starting off the list, we have a book I was hesitant on picking up because of its mixed reviews. For the first 80% or so, I couldn’t understand why people would dislike this. It’s a tight and almost claustrophobic narrative about a young black woman who returns to her county-hometown to attend her friend’s wedding. At the party however, the brides young daughter goes missing, and old patterns of racial prejudice and mistrust reemerge. It’s atmosphere and commentary had it on track to be a 4-to-5-star read, right up until the ending which completely botched it. It’s one of the most extreme examples of an ending completely ruining everything that came before for me.

Rating: 1/5 stars

To be fair, I have no one but myself to blame on this one, as I should’ve looked into the reasons this was rated so low, and adjusted my expectations. A Black and Endless Sky follows a brother and sister on a roadtrip cross-country to their hometown of Albuquerque. When Nell is caught up in a strange accident on an abandoned industrial in the Nevada desert, she begins to experience creepy and haunting symptoms. Based off the synopsis I was expecting a more psychological, supernatural (possession?) horror featuring sibling relationships. Possibly some unknowable Eldridge Horror lurking underground and hitching a ride up to the surface through our protagonists...? In other words: I was hoping for suspenseful, cosmic and psychological. What I got instead was a book about exclusively detestable characters beating each other up in increasingly violent ways… Instead of psychological, this book takes the route of violence and gore for its source of horror, and we all know how that tends to work out for me…

Rating: 2/5 stars

Oh God, The Sun Goes escapes a place higher on this list because I already went in knowing this would be a bit of a gamble. Experimental fiction that describes itself as “hallucinatory” or “dreamlike” is hit or miss for most readers. This one was a big miss for me. Extremely overwritten and finding itself far more profound than it actually was, I was annoyed throughout most of my reading experience. There’s a single metaphor that this book hinges on (the sun vanishing, and a man traveling in search of it), and it’s far from subtle or impactful. Either more subtlety or development, ór more self-awareness of how on-the-nose it was, would’ve been required to make this work.

Rating: 1/5 stars

At number 8, we have the one book on this list I DNF-ed, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Flight is sold to be a cerebral novel with a central theme of travel, movement and flux, referencing mythology, science, and body along the way. It’s my type of book on paper, but the execution just didn’t work for me at all. With its structure of separate short-stories/essays and chapters that don’t form a cohesive narrative, this was one of the most disjointed things I’ve ever read. There was a lot of potential regarding the underlying ideas, but it all got lost in translation due to the chaotic form and writing style.

  Rating: 2/5 stars

My most recent read of the bunch wasn’t a bad book by any means; it just had the potential to be great and missed that mark by a long shot. Mikki Brammers debut follows a young woman with a tragic past, who works as a Death Doula (the equivalent of a midwife for the terminally ill). The concept intrigued me, as someone who’s done a lot of work in oncology and palliative care, and I was really hoping to see it done in a balanced way. Unfortunately, I disliked how sugarcoated this was. I love the idea of showing palliative care in a positive light, and emphasizing the joys and beauty this work can have. I don’t like the way this book pushes the same over-romanticized depiction of death and terminal illness we often see in media.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Max Porters incredibly distinct writingstyle has given me some favourites like Grief is the Ging With Feathers and Lanny, so I had high expectations going into this one. Unfortunately, this almost felt like it was written by another author. To be exact, it read someone doing an impression of Porters writing, without grasping what truly made it great in his other books. Porter does his “Porter-gimmicks”, but doesn’t hit the same emotional beats he did in his first two books. Shy follows a teenage boy over the cause of one night as he walks the streets of an English city with a backpack filled with rocks. It starts off with an almost foreboding tone and narrows in on the boys inner monologue. My problem was that it overall felt off tonally, and therefore failed to drag me into the mind of our troubled teenage protagonists. Instead of investment in his character, I felt annoyance at the author for trying to push “edgy-teen-speak” into a semi-poetic format. I will continue to follow the authors work, and hope that this is a one-off, rather than a change in tone of his overall writing.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Similar to the number 6 entry, Ascension isn’t a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It simply made this list because it had the potential to be amazing, but got stuck at mediocre. Ascension is a sci-fi-horror novel about a group of scientist how explore a natural formation that seemingly defies the rules of physics and reality; a mountain that rose from the sea in a single night, with a summit obscured from view by thick clouds. This books main problem was a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it emulates a very cerebral and existential narrative, reminiscent of Solaris or Annihilation. On the other hand it has passages that feel like a B-horror-creature feature. Either way would’ve worked for the story at hand, but because the novel doesn’t commit to one or the other, and incorporates both of them, the whole feels unbalanced and jarring.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

There was bound to be at least one sequel on this list, yet it still saddens me that it had to be this one. Assassin of Reality is sequel to one of my favourite novels of all time that I’ve been anticipating for years. Unfortunately, none of the magic, uniqueness or mystery present in Vita Nostra translated into Assassin of Reality. I can’t go into too much depth without spoiling the first novel, but in many ways, the sequel tries to do the same things again and again, but without the mystery and ambiguity of the first book. For me, that took away some of its biggest strengths. Let alone that this book redcons some of its earlier events in a way that actually felt like a kick in the teeth to readers of Vita Nostra.

It's important to mention that I still recommend Vita Nostra, even as a standalone. I personally wish I would’ve left it at that.

Rating: 3/5 stars

This is the point where we reach true unpopular opinion territory… With Legends and Lattes, I feel like I fell complete victim to the hype, and it immediately came to bite me in the ass. 2023 felt like the year of cozy-fantasy, Travis Baldree’s Indie Darling had a big hand in launching this genre into popularity. Described as “high fantasy, low stakes”, we follow an orc warrior, who has had enough of a life of questing and adventuring, and decides to settle down and open a coffee-bar in her fantasy-hometown. My main critique of this book was that it wasn’t just “low stakes”; it was low effort. Cozy isn’t the same as shallow or boring, but Legends and Lattes constantly edged on the latter. I like that it popularized a niche subgenre, but the book itself fell far short of the astronomical hype.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Speaking of astronomical hype: I finally read everybody’s favourite book of 2022… and kind of hated it. This book let me down in two distinct ways. It had some great potential, but the John-Green-feeling writing style and fairly overused clichés it employed just didn’t work for my personal tastes. What really let me down however, was the disability representation and the use of an extremely tragic event in a throw-away manner that didn’t sit well with me. I have a full (long!) review in which I explain my thoughts in more depth. For the longest time, I felt I was alone in my opinion, but in recent months I’m finally seeing more and more people recognize the same issues I had, which makes me feel a little less alone.

Worst books:

In the number 5 spot we have a YA horror novel that was not only written poorly, but also fell into the same trap that many of its counterparts did this year (yes, I’m looking at you What Stalks Among Us…). Once more for the people in the back: girl-power-feminism does not equal hating on all men… Also, using sexual assault as a plot point to drive home the point that all men are trash, is cheap. Had the rest of the story been good, these elements would’ve been enough to land it in the disappointing-pile. Unfortunately, combined with cringy writing, plot- and worldbuilding-holes galore and a shallow unlikable cast of characters, there was no saving this one…

A book about ghosts, dogs and the soul connection between said dog and his owner, should theoretically be something I might love. Not Secret Life of Souls however… This is a one-star, not necessarily because of harmful content, but simply because I hated every second I spent reading this book. I list multiple reasons why in my full review, but most glaringly: every single character was irredeemably evil, and there’s plenty of abuse (physical and emotional) against children and animals on page that I really just wish I hadn’t subjected myself to.  

Not just one book, but an entire authors backlist comes into the number 3 spot. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is one of the Netherlands most prolific horror-authors that actually made it big oversees. He also happens to hail from the same hometown as myself and I’ve quite liked his latest two releases. For that reason, I was excited to pick up his backlist books; the ones that launched him into popularity in the first place. And boy, was I disappointed. If there was an award to be given for “Most Improved Author”, Olde Heuvelt deserves a nomination, because compared to his recent work, these books were abysmal. Linked below are full reviews of Hex and Echo that explain my dislike in more depth, but in short: a lot of misogyny and strange obsession with boobs/chests, plot holes galore, and a constant tendency to mistake raw humor for being an jerkish edge lord…

My worst two novels of 2023 share an uncomfortable reality; I read both as ARCs, from the perspective of a disability/illness reviewer. I gave both 1-star ratings and reviews, before they were even released, despite how awful that always makes me feel. Both these books had content that I felt was insulting/harmful, and so there was no other rating that felt appropriate. Lump only got saved from being my number one for the fact that it’s at least a little self-aware about it. Lump is the story of a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer, but mostly told from the points of view of multiple side character in her life. From the very first page it reminded me of one of my most hated books of all time Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter, and unfortunately, everything I hated in that book was present here too. What is framed as a woman’s journey with cancer, is mainly the story of the man by her side cracking jokes at her expense. There’s a difference between writing a satirical novel about cancer, and making the actual victim the bud of the joke. Lump didn’t get that memo.

What would grind my personal gears more than a book with harmful portrayal of cancer…? That’s right, a book with harmful portrayal of disability/illness aimed at children. A Little Heart is a middle-grade novel about a young girl with a life-threatening heart condition, who’s enrolled in a magical school ala Hogwarts, where we follow her life and developing friendship with a boy in her class. This book without a doubt has some of the worst and most vile depictions of chronic illness I’ve ever seen, and the worst part is that it’s written by a medical doctor who’s clearly deeply unaware that his way of viewing his disabled child-protagonist is harmful. For more details, I refer to my full review, but I cannot stress how much I recommend against reading this book. The reason it made my number one, apart from its target audience being children, is how much it reflects some of my frustrations towards fellow medical professionals, as an MD with a disability myself. The misunderstanding between these worlds, and the sheer ignorance from either side towards the other, is a frustration I have in day-to-day-life. So to see it in my reading as well, made it have an extra impact on me personally.

Tomorrow, we will leave my bookish complaints behind for the penultimate part of my Year in Review, discussing my favourite reads of 2023. Feel free to check back in for those.


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