Almost without exception, if I do not finish a book it’s because I WAS BORED AND COULDN’T BE BOTHERED. But that’s obviously not an acceptable review, even if it is the truth, so I always push myself to say a little more. What didn’t work for me? Why couldn’t I connect? I try not to go on too much about the books I don’t finish, since I feel a touch guilty about them and it doesn’t particularly serve anyone to list my failures. However, these occasional posts on abandoned books are very popular, I think because readers want permission to give up on books they’re not enjoying. (You have my express permission!) But also, if you enjoyed some of the below and think I should give them another try, do say. I apologize in advance for not getting on with a book you loved.
These are all the DNFs since late June, not mentioning again any that I described in my monthly Library Checkout posts. No tags, cover images, links or full reviews here – though I might write that little bit more if I got the book from the publisher. In total this year I abandoned about 50 books, equating to roughly 14% of the ones that I started. They are in chronological order of my attempted reads, with the pages or percentages read in brackets.
A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship by Annie Tremmel Wilcox: I bought this from The Open Book (Airbnb) shop in Wigtown. Of course I love books as physical objects, and repairing damaged books was my favorite task when I worked in a university library, so I thought I’d enjoy learning about the traditional bookbinding techniques the author learned from Bill Anthony at the University of Iowa. Yet this was somehow disappointingly tedious with technical detail. [57 pages]
Nevermore by Andrew McNeillie (poetry): I enjoyed the short bird portraits that form “Plato’s Aviary,” and “Elegy,” about the advancing dearth of common songbirds. None of what followed, especially the long ones, drew me in. [61 pages]
Kinship Theory by Hester Kaplan: “Maggie Crown was pregnant with her daughter’s baby,” the first line tells us, acting as a surrogate to fulfill Dale’s overpowering desire to become a mother. It’s a great setup, and I warmed to 48-year-old Maggie with her “burden of maternal guilt” she hopes to ease through this sacrificial act, but not to Dale (the odd, male-sounding name doesn’t help). I think this could have been a good short story, but I don’t have the patience to follow such a slow and quiet plot through nearly 300 pages. [24 pages]
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher: This sequel to Dear Committee Members was only mildly amusing. Jason Fitger is now Payne’s chair of English, a shabby and underfunded department that always seems to get passed over while Economics receives special treatment. His hapless floundering – wasp stings, dental treatment, accidentally getting high on pills before a party – induced a few cringes but no real laughs. The supporting characters are well drawn, but overall I had zero qualms about setting this aside. [44%]
The Librarian by Salley Vickers: The vintage cover design is adorable, and probably drew me in against my better judgment. An idealistic young woman takes up the post of Children’s Librarian in a small town populated by good-hearted busybodies and urchins. On the twee side of pleasant. Promises to be a predictable love story. An excuse for the author to list off her favorite books from childhood? I’m not sure I’d try anything else by Vickers. [48 pages]
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: This feels SO similar to Pachinko that I was unable to evaluate it on its own merit. [11%]
Spectra by Ashley Toliver (poetry): I couldn’t make much literal or metaphorical sense out of these poems at all. I highlighted one passage I kind of liked – a play on the two meanings of ‘bulb’? – on my Kindle: “Away from the glow, a dumb bulb freezes in its wintery malaise, covering the rest of the light.” [37%]
Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper: I should have known from my experience with Etta and Otto that Hooper’s style is too twee for me, but I was lured in by the accordion on the cover! I did like the existence of the library boat and Cora redecorating the rooms of a derelict house to match the latest travel book she’s read. [14%]
When Rap Spoke Straight to God: A Poem by Erica Dawson: Not for me at all; I should have figured that out before even opening my Edelweiss download. [14%]
Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin: I read the first long chapter (almost like a standalone novella) called “Hole.” Mona, a 23-year-old art school dropout turned cleaner, was raised by a cousin after her addict parents’ death. Like Beagin, who cleaned houses for five years to support her art, Mona collects vacuum cleaners and considers vacuuming her primary hobby. She enjoys the repetition and inadvertent intimacy of her job – it gives her glimpses into other people’s inner lives. In her spare time she volunteers for a needle exchange program and thus falls in with “Mr. Disgusting,” the nickname she gives to a thief and Dumpster diver 21 years her senior. It’s all super-quirky and unnecessarily crass. The closest comparison I can make is with Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. Throughout I kept thinking to myself, this should really be written in the first person. This is a strong character who can describe things for herself. The style is readable; I could have forced myself through the last two-thirds. But with so many other books waiting for me, I decided I didn’t want or need to keep going. [65 pages] My apologies and thanks to Oneworld for the review copy.
Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens: This felt very college literary magazine. Perfectly competent writing, but with so much thrown in: details, descriptions, profanity and sassy slang in the dialogue. After skimming the first couple of chapters I’d warmed to none of the characters and had no clear idea of where this was going. I wonder if the opposite to the previous book is true: third person would have been a better choice. Each chapter opens with a Korean propaganda image and an epigraph from a famous adopted person. [5 pages]
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey: Set in the English village of Oakham in 1491, this is narrated by local priest John Reve, who learns more than he might prefer to know about his neighbors through the confession box. The writing and the period detail are strong, but there’s little narrative drive despite Harvey’s unusual strategy of proceeding backwards and this ostensibly being a (murder) mystery. Reve writes of the “endless watermill of days,” and though the action takes place over just four days it still has that repetitive quality: a cycle of confessions, meals, and village rituals that doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. [60 pages]
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Full of glitzy atmosphere contrasted with washed-up torpor. I have no doubt the author’s picture of Truman Capote is accurate, and there are great glimpses into the private lives of his catty circle. I always enjoy first person plural narration, too. However, I quickly realized that I don’t have sufficient interest in the figures or the time period to sustain me through nearly 500 pages. [18 pages]
Middle England by Jonathan Coe: In 2015 I very much enjoyed Number 11, Coe’s state-of-the-nation novel about wealth, celebrity and suspicion in contemporary England. Middle England uses roughly the same format, of multiple linked characters and story lines, and seems to make many of the same points, too. However, by embedding his book so completely in 2011–18 history, he limits its fictional possibilities. I often wonder how the history books will look back on recent events (Brexit, Trump), but revisiting them in fiction feels depressing and pointless – I was there, I remember all this stuff, I don’t need reminding of how we got here. The book is far too long and there were no characters I immediately latched onto. [22 pages] My apologies and thanks to Viking for the review copy.
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos: I’m interested in trying more literary/crossover crime novels and liked the synopsis of this one, but didn’t enjoy the hardboiled style. [20 pages]
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler: “Alva did not need to love William Vanderbilt; she needed only to marry him.” I was a huge fan of Fowler’s Z and jumped at the chance to read this, but found the first couple of chapters dull. Alva is one of four sisters and has an invalid father. She’s desperate not to become a spinster or a caregiver, so she goes along with her best friend Consuelo’s plan to set her up with W.K. Vanderbilt, even if they share lingering snobbism about his nouveau riche background. There’s always a danger of historical fiction devolving into a biography-lite information dump about social history (manners, fashion, etc.), and unfortunately that felt like the case here. I might have been able to stomach Alva as part of a group biography, but she wasn’t promising as the focus of a novel. [25 pages] My apologies and thanks to Two Roads for the review copy.
Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe: Lots of names and dates of Chinese dynasties; not a lot of story. Started for a potential Novellas in November review. [7 pages]
The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: I couldn’t get into the sassy Spanglish voice. Doesn’t feel like a book for me, which is a real shame as I won a signed copy in a Oneworld Twitter competition. [5 pages]
Winter by Ali Smith: I’ve read six of her books before, but it’s looking unlikely that I’ll try another at this point (though I might make an exception for How to be both). I knew what to expect style-wise: no speech marks; a fairly repetitive stream-of-consciousness studded with subtle jokes and wordplay. I was enjoying the mock-Dickensian opening and Sophia’s run-in with British bureaucracy (a bank this time, as opposed to the post office in Autumn) on Christmas Eve. But by the time Art came along, I was done. [47 pages]
Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen [translated from the Greenlandic by Anna Halagar]: I was keen to try this because Greenland has been one of my surprise reading themes this year in both travel books and novels, but this was definitely not for me. I didn’t get far enough into the story to comment on it, but what I did read was drenched in sex talk, with f***ing appearing in pretty much every sentence. One line I liked: “Dry kisses stiffening like desiccated fish.” [7%]
Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin: I picked up a free copy at the Faber Spring Party. It’s perfectly serviceably written in a contemporary Western style and I’m convinced by the setting, but I have no sense of the characters, especially the main character, and no desire to accompany him for another 250+ pages. I’ve seen the movie of Lean on Pete, so I know the sort of emotional tenor to expect. Sorry, Willy. Maybe I’ll try The Free instead. [30 pages]
The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida: Also from the Faber Spring Party. Nice writing, nice details. Italian woman fearing spinsterhood: “She must keep the wedding sheet clean and white, like her soul, like her body, immaculate and new. But she is old. Twenty-five years old and untouched by a husband. Her fingers are without thimbles. She has hands that can wring an animal’s neck. Arms to stir a pot of boiling polenta. She’s a good investment for any man, if only he can overlook her age.” I never built up momentum. [20 pages]
House of Glass by Susan Fletcher: I liked the Jane Eyre vibe of this novel about a young woman with osteogenesis imperfecta who travels from London to a rundown Gloucestershire manor house to create a collection of Kew Gardens’ plants. Clara seems feisty and there’s a neat connection between her brittle bones and the glasshouse she’s to set up. But there’s not enough suspense to this slow build, and based on the other Fletcher novel I read the payout won’t be sufficient. [87 pages]