This tag was created by Elise @thebookishactress, and I was tagged by her (thank you!)
This is about all the books that were great… in theory; the result, not so much. And since negativity is fun sometimes, why not?
a book that tried but failed to tackle an issue?
I can’t think of any issue books I’ve read that I can honestly say failed, and I can only think of books in which the “issue” was an afterthought at most (but in that case, I can’t even really say books like The Selection really tried with social commentary, you know?) so I’m going to talk about something that is slightly different: books that tried to subvert a harmful trope and played it straight instead. One of the most well-known examples being:
I’ve never seen a meme describe a group of standalone books so well. I’m talking about the “connect two dots” meme:
These books: I’ve subverted the tropes!
Everyone else: you didn’t subvert shit
Let’s talk about Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, that are, supposedly, a “subversion of the manic pixie dream girl trope“, and why these books are a perfect example of why, when a trope is known to be problematic, the group affected by it should be the one subverting it in fiction (outsiders don’t Get It).
The mpdg trope is an energetic and quirky woman whose only purpose in the story is to teach the male main character lessons about himself, or the world, or life. She’s not a character, she’s an exciting, attractive plot device with a message tied. The problem is that, especially in Paper Towns – which I also remember better than Looking for Alaska – the girl who the main character discovers is not going to change his life and be “his miracle”… only exists to teach him that lesson (and has no other character traits other than “rebellious, quirky and a little troubled”). Oh, maybe girls don’t exist to develop men! They have their own inner lives! Which we never see in the book, and Margo still exists to develop a man.
The Fault In Our Stars is a slightly different example – a story that tried to show that there’s nothing romantic about illness, and that tragic cancer romances are bullshit… but the reason people like it is still that it’s a tragic cancer romance that made them cry? That kind of defeats the purpose.
an intriguing series that didn’t pay off?
I don’t often talk about this series on this blog because I don’t like hyping up series that go this downhill, but the first book was good! The Queen of Blood is an interesting fantasy story about a girl training at a magical school built on trees, and I loved the worldbuilding. Except… the more I went on with the series, the more I realized I was reading about a matriarchy in which somehow all women were heterosexual, and then the second book turned out to be one of the most boring things I had ever read – in it, the main character needed a hundred pages to even decide to start training. Nothing happened. I skimmed most of it, because it was 2017 and I didn’t believe in DNFing books yet. I’m glad that has changed.
a great beginning with a mediocre ending?
Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno started out so well. It’s set on an atmospheric island, it follows two twin sisters who don’t easily get along, and during the first half, there’s a really cute f/f romance developing with a tourist girl.
Then the second half happened. The book really felt that it needed to take a darker turn, and we barely see the love interest again. Since that wasn’t enough, the book also decided to ruin the aromantic representation by making the aromantic character obsessed with animal corpses (if you want to know why that’s a problem, I wrote more about that in my review). And then it becomes a story about a something that happened halfway through the book, something that didn’t even involve the main character, making the first half feel completely aimless. The protagonist’s development is rushed and feels weirdly disconnected from the plot – she felt like a guest in her own story.
Other spoiler-y thing I felt iffy about (TW: rape)
The main character’s sister is raped halfway through the book, which… the more I think about it, if you want to write a story about rape, you really shouldn’t insert it in the story halfway through as a surprise – I know this book tries to go out of its way to not be triggering, and it is never graphic, but you still risk triggering the people you want to reach? Everything about this looked like a cute summer romance for the entire first half, and it’s not, in a way that is misleading.
a last-minute twist that ruined it all?
Wilder Girls by Rory Power. This plot twist was just as out of place as the “a god fixed it” twist would be in hard sci-fi books. It suddenly tries to talk about science in something that had nothing scientific in it, and failed horribly, with a topic you really shouldn’t throw around for shock value.
What happened, and why it was bad (spoiler-y)
This book: and it was… GLOBAL WARMING
Me: oh really
This book: because… you hear it… resurrected PARASITES
Me: do you really want to go there
This book: that infected EVERYTHING
Me: this is not how any of this works
And yes, there are ways to incorporate climate change in a book as a metaphor, but this book failed. In Annihilation, for example, you can see that at least parts of it are inspired by climate anxiety; it doesn’t need to tell you, this is about global warming, because in-universe, that’s not the cause of the horror, no one knows the cause – but you, as a reader, know why we’re talking about an environment that is suddenly terrifying and twisted. It is, in a way, a metaphor.
Another way would have been to take a mixed approach to the question from the beginning: a book that does it really well, that talks about a paranormal creature from scientific lens, is Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. All Wilder Girls needed to do was not to throw in the science in the last 10% after never, not once, mentioning anything ecology-related for the whole book. And the magic wasn’t inspired by anything ecology-related either; if it wanted to be a metaphor for increased selective pressure, well, it was a really bad one? The body horror made the girls’ bodies less adapted to their own environment (for example, blinding them from one eye), so that made no sense at all.
Also: if a parasite is going to be able to be a mammal’s endoparasite, it’s never going to be able to also be a plant’s endoparasite. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s this.
And the thing is, there would have been so many better ways to make a body-and-environmental horror book about this topic, and the author would have known that too, had she picked up an ecology textbook once. I’m not an ecologist, I’m a first year student, and even I can see that there are so many interesting ecology-related concepts that can be adapted into horror. This was such a mess of wasted potential.
a great plot with some boring characters?
The opposite – interesting characters, weak plot – is far more common, so it took me a while to find the answer, but: The Interdependency by John Scalzi. This is a series that uses a natural disaster in space as a metaphor for climate change and our attitudes towards climate change really well! It’s just that the characters… eh. I’ve never seen such flat characters in an award-winning novel. The romances are so flat that they feel nonsensical, even the f/f one in the second book; one of the three PoV’s characters’ main trait is – I’m not joking – swearing a lot, and anything about this story is embarrassingly surface-level. Which is sad, because it is fast-paced and fun, and the potential is all there, but it gets boring really quickly.
a character death that ruined a book?
I thought of many books that had the bury your gays trope, but not one of those was in any way good even before that trope came around. So, let’s talk about Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab, and why this was my last Schwab novel.
I am not going to tell you who dies, but if there’s one thing I noticed about Victoria Schwab’s novel, is that for someone who talks on twitter about fridging a lot, she sure tends to kill off most of her relevant female characters. There was one side character’s death in here that I hated, because like the chaos eater plotline around it, it came completely out of nowhere and served very little purpose apart from making the reader and the male main character sad. This whole book was at the same time beautifully written on a sentence-to-sentence level and a complete mess on a structure level.
a romance that ruined a book for you?
The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson: I was loving this book. It was gorgeous and weird and queer, and then… the romance. I never understood why Elena liked Freddie. Freddie was a manipulative girl who constantly threw tantrums because she could, and Elena just… let her. She never seemed to have a problem with that – she got upset and then always forgave Freddie. And the book just acts like Freddie’s is the normal behavior of a person with depression.
A big part of why I had such a strong response to parts of this book was absolutely personal baggage. Let’s say that books dealing with depression set in the US were likely to get that reaction out of me back then, and this got that in many places – for the way it talked about suicidal ideation, for example, I hated those parts, and I remember thinking something like this too about the whole Elena-Freddie dynamic:
This book: but see, Freddie acts this way because she’s struggling! She is depressed and goes to therapy twice a week!
Me, a teenage girl who back then had no access to therapy: shut the fuck up
I probably wouldn’t take it as personally if I read it today, but this and the author’s tweets (only straight girls complain about Freddie’s behavior in The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza according to him) have kind of ruined the book in my memory.
a romance you wanted to happen?
Clara/Rose from The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo. I love this contemporary book, but it’s just the objective truth that it would have been so much better if it had been an f/f hate-to-love romance instead of a story about a hate-to-friendships between two girls in which the main character gets a (cute, but bland) male love interest. The boy could have just become Clara and Rose’s friend! That would have been a more interesting story.
a scene you have a petty beef with?
At first I didn’t know how to answer, then I saw this part of Elise’s post that said:
(I can’t be the only one who sometimes just gets so so mad about this one specific choice made that I straight up can’t like the book anymore. Anyway.)
And I immediately realized that yes, that has happened to me as well.
Welcome to the Main Reason Acqua hated The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and that main reason is one of the first scenes.
So, in said scene at the beginning, one of the major characters – Sissix, who ends up being the love interest – steals another character’s sci-fi toothbrush. Said character, who is characterized as a “complete asshole” and a snob and a whiny bigot, starts complaining because the other versions of toothbrushes hurt him.
And this is just seen as him being oversensitive. It’s just a toothbrush! No wonder no one can stand you, Corbin!
I have sensory issues which, especially from late elementary school to early high school, made it really difficult for me to brush my teeth with normal toothbrushes. If you don’t know, and I hope you don’t, not brushing your teeth for a while makes trying again even more painful, and that… I think you can guess what that leads to, and what I thought when I saw this scene.
I went into this angry. I never really stopped, because this books continued to try and convince me that Sissix was so good to disabled people, actually (in one scene, a disabled alien is introduced just to show you that Sissix Is A Good, which, no thank you – if Corbin can get called out for saying a specieist slur, she can get called out for stealing assistive devices from a disabled person), so it never ended up being anything like a heartwarming read for me, just boring.
I’m not tagging anyone, but if you like these questions, don’t let that stop you