Worst Books I Read in 2009 – Book List

In 2009, I read 156 books. This gives me more selection when it comes to choosing my worst books of the year—and there are some bad ones! As always, this list originally appeared as a blog post.

Reviews

10. The King's Grace

by Anne Easter Smith

The King's Grace cover image
ISBN:
9781416550457
Format:
Trade Paperback, 584 pages
Published:
Touchstone, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book was like reading white paint. Yeah, I didn't think that was possible either, until I read The King's Grace. Although this book spans two decades and covers the rise of Tudor England, I felt throughout like nothing happens, and twenty years became one bad week for me.

I started this book with high hopes—don't ask me why, except perhaps that I love British historical fiction and for some reason this book intrigued me. Yet for nearly six hundred pages, the book failed to catch my interest. I probably should have abandoned it, except I paid for it, and I really wanted to see how Smith interpreted the events depicted herein. So instead of moving on to other books I know I'll enjoy, I sacrificed a week slogging through it.

The King's Grace is bland. Now, Smith uses a protagonist who wouldn't be near the major battles or indeed the English court for most of the book: Grace Plantagenet is a bastard daughter of Edward IV and develops from a mousy, unassuming girl into a stalwart, kind woman. Grace was good, sure, but she wasn't very interesting. Her motives were always extremely simplistic, and she never seemed to struggle with any of the moral dilemmas that faced her. For example, her first love is her cousin John of Gloucester, whom Henry Tudor subsequently executes. Grace then marries a childhood friend, Tom Gower, who loves her with the same ardour with which she pines for John. She spends about a hundred pages agonizing over her inability to love her husband, but then she decides the really awesome sex means she can move on from John and focus on loving Tom. For that matter, I think the sex scenes are probably the most interesting part of the book; at least Smith gets creative in her descriptions and avoids using the word "certes" in every paragraph—I applaud her use of archaic syntax to give the book a "period" feel, but for some reason that word grated on my nerves.

Wrestling with my mixed feeling toward this book, I've ultimately decided that the problem is the writing more than the story itself. The story should be interesting: rather than the battles and machinations per se of final chapter to the Wars of the Roses, we get to see the relationships among the sisters of York as Tudor secures a definitive Lancastrian victory, only to have to put down an upstart impostor to the Yorkish crown. Every so often I'd see a glimpse of depth and drama—such as Grace's observations about Elizabeth Woodville's treatment of her daughters vis-à-vis Woodville's treatment of Grace. Then the book would shy away and sink back into turgid mediocrity.

The low point of The King's Grace comes when Grace realizes that Perkin Warbeck is incontrovertibly not her half-brother, Richard of York. How does she reach this conclusion?

Her thoughts returned to the young couple dancing for Henry and how Perkin had defied the king by talking to Katherine behind his pomander, whispering words of love as he inhaled the spicy scent of cloves…

"Cloves!" Grace suddenly cried out to a crow cawing overhead. Sweat Jesu, why did I not remember then? Elizabeth told me her son Richard loathed the smell of cloves.

She felt the blood drain from her face as the sad realization sank in. She had recently suspected Perkin was not her brother, but she had always hoped that he was. And now she felt betrayed not only by him but by Aunt Margaret as well. She lifted her eyes to Heaven and whispered: "How foolish I have been all this time!"

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: Detective Grace bases her decision on the fact that Richard, as a boy, hated the smell of cloves, and "Richard" as a man likes them. And I knew this would happen when Elizabeth divulged this suspiciously detailed piece of information, but I vainly hoped I was wrong. Smith apparently discards the possibilities that Elizabeth was wrong (she was rather confused and incontinent in her final days, after all) or that "Richard's" tastes could have changed as he matured in a foreign land. As a result, I'm forced into one of two conclusions: either Smith is doing this intentionally to depict Grace as far more credulous than I'd like her to be, or Smith is very bad at writing mysteries. Although Grace is politically naive throughout the book, she proves herself quite capable of puzzling out the complicated motivations behind actions of Henry Tudor, Queen Bess, and her Aunt Margaret. It astonishes me that Smith would think a like or dislike of cloves is admissible evidence even by Grace's standards.

This inconsistent characterization pervades The King's Grace. While I often describe characters who lack dimension as "cardboard cutouts," never have I read a book for which that phrase is apt. I speak particularly of Grace's half-sister Bess (who becomes Henry's Queen, for those not keeping score at home). Bess seems completely in Henry's camp, no matter what she says to the contrary—and that's fine, except that I never really get a sense that she struggled with it, even when her relationship with Henry becomes cold and distant. Grace's husband, Tom Gower, vacillates between being angry at Grace—whether it's over her love for John or her desire to support Yorkist plot against Henry—and being amused and aroused by her naive intrigue and her hotness, respectively. Largely for this reason, reading The King's Grace was like being adrift in an ocean of talking heads with English and Welsh accents.

Clearly, Smith had a good notion of what story she wanted to tell but not how to tell it. I have no problems with the fact that Smith chose to embellish the life of a king's bastard who, so far, only has a single line in history (Grace is mentioned as accompanying Elizabeth Woodville's funeral procession, identified by her name and lineage). And somewhere along the way, The King's Grace does manage to touch on the powerlessness of noblewomen in 15th century England, particularly those of royal blood—chattel is a term that comes up once and a while. Grace especially, owing to her status as a bastard, lives the quixotic life of a privileged servant: accorded with rank, but doomed to always go hither and thither at the command of her half-sisters and their mother. It's a nice glimpse at a society alien to those of us lucky enough to grow up in a place where social mobility is far more flexible. Unfortunately, the quality of Smith's writing lends little support for these themes, and the ultimately fall by the wayside.

I doubt I'll be recommending The King's Grace any time soon. Judging from other reviews, this isn't one of those books that it is overwhelmingly bad—and again, I didn't find it bad so much as bland. Your mileage may vary; for my two cents, I'm more interested in reading some Bernard Cornwell or another Fiona Buckley mystery.

9. Drood

by Dan Simmons

Drood cover image
ISBN:
9780316007023
Format:
Hardcover, 775 pages
Published:
Little, Brown and Company, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Maybe I'm just not cut out for Dan Simmons' particular brand of mysticism. I didn't like the supernatural bent of The Terror and didn't like the supernatural bent of this book. What appears to be a suspenseful Dickensian supernatural mystery is actually, beneath the surface, an incredibly long and dull tour of Victorian London and opium dreams.

The jacket copy of this edition misconstrues the book's nature, at least in my opinion. When I borrowed this book, I thought I was getting a supernatural mystery told from the point of view of Charles Dickens (or perhaps following him from a limited third-person perspective). Instead, the actual narrator of the book is Dickens' friend and protégé, Wilkie Collins. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the book isn't about Dickens at all. It's more about Wilkie Collins, and Dickens is only involved because the majority of the public will have never heard of Collins but would love, like me, to read a book about Dickens. Now this is all well and good—I didn't mind reading a book about Wilkie Collins. I just wish I had known that going into the book.

Similarly, I shouldn't be upset about supernatural elements in a book that is supposed to be supernatural, right? Except that the entire "Drood" mystery is conflated by the prospect of it all being an opium- or mesmerism-induced fantasy. Perhaps I just dislike it when the supernatural elements aren't blatantly real but merely just suggested.

Almost everyone mentions the unnecessary length of Drood, and it's a valid point. There's no reason for this novel to be nearly 800 pages. Simmons does a wonderful job describing Victorian London, and I liked being immersed in that world. But he could have … summarized certain episodes. The first two hundred or so pages are enjoyable, and then the book's supernatural aspect goes into overdrive, and it becomes tiresome.

This is just a book worth skipping, period. It doesn't matter how much you love Victorian London, Charles Dickens, or Wilkie Collins. There's no reason to subject yourself to Drood. The payoff isn't worth it. Go read an Anne Perry mystery instead.

8. The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund

by Jill Kargman

The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund cover image
ISBN:
9780525950981
Format:
Hardcover, 290 pages
Published:
Dutton, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I began this book fairly sceptical and remained ambivalent throughout. Chick lit isn't a genre I read too often, so I'm not sure what made me pick this book up off the library shelf—perhaps a combination of the title and the promise of a glimpse into the world of New York high society.

This book made me extremely aware of how young I am. Growing up, all the books I read talked about technology commonplace to my parents' world: television, radio, cars, and computers. Hence, it's become noticeable when I read a newer book that treats more recent technological developments like they're commonplace: in The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, it's iPods, iMacs, mobile phones, DVD-player-equipped cars, and Google. I got the sense that the book, through its narrator, was trying awfully hard to impress me by dropping brand names and using abbreviations I couldn't even understand. And I can't help but wonder how dated this book will seem ten years from now.

As modern as this novel is, its story is the same one they've been telling for ten thousand years now:

  • Girl Meets Boy
  • Girl Marries Boy
  • Boy Cheats on Girl
  • Girl Divorces Boy and Takes His Apartment
  • Girl Falls for Jerk Who Can't Take No for an Answer
  • Girl Falls for Boy(Redux)
  • Girl Forgives Boy When He Screws Up Big
  • Girl Marries Boy

While I'm aware that no story is ever original, The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund doesn't even try to avert the standard romantic comedy tropes. The moment Holly met her eventual second husband, I knew he was Mr. Right (Redux) and that the other guy she was contemplating dating would turn out to be a loser. Because, you know, in Real Life, you never have to choose between two decent guys; one will always turn out to be a jerk. Uh-huh.

There's far too much exposition. Holly should spend more time doing something instead of stopping to explain, with graphs and "math", the intricacies of her little world. I don't particularly care about the secret formula used to name hedge funds. I don't particularly care about the "scale of blondness." And no, I don't care about how your charity functions work and which guests get what table assignment. How about you try some character development instead? No?

Few of the characters in The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund ever attempt to come out of their one-dimensional shells and show us a good time. I shouldn't blame them, however; it's not their fault that they have stilted dialogue and regularly SHRIEK IN CAPITAL LETTERS because it's TOTALLY going to make you sound more hip and enthusiastic. I think my favourite character was the evil mother-in-law (you knew that was coming), simply because she's an unapologetic frigid bitch. My least favourite character was the kid, because he seems to have been imported from Stepford: not one temper tantrum in the entire book. Not one. This is the most balanced, grounded, mature, well-behaved fictitious six-year-old I have ever encountered. He is perfectly understanding of Mommy and Daddy's divorce, doesn't blame them, and doesn't mind that Daddy is sleeping with a different blonde and Mommy's seeing another guy.

Oh, it's not all bad. Once in a while, the book seems to remember that Kargman probably wants to say something pithy about how fake and stifling all this high society is. So it puts on the brakes and allows Holly to observe the hollow lives of her former fellow hedge-fund wives compared to Holly's new life of blissful freedom and single motherhood. There are moments when the tour bus stops and Kargman emphasizes the double standard: "Boys. Will. Be. Boys. You didn't have to go and call him out on it.... Women have been looking the other way for millennia." That's actually kind of what I wanted when I started reading this book, and occasionally that's what I got. For instance, I laughed out loud when Holly's nonconformist best friend challenges a rich couple because their horse has a massage therapist. So if Kargman is playing her characters over the top to mock New York high society, I can forgive her for that. Except that then I wonder why the rest of the book is so shallow and predictable.

And that is ultimately the fatal flaw of The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund; it can't decide what type of chick lit it wants to be. By refusing to choose between a serious satire of hedge-fund-wife society and a silly romantic summer read, Kargman undermines her own story, transforming it from something with great potential into just another mediocre romantic comedy. Pandering to everyone just won't work. Good literature has to take risks, even if they don't pay off, and even if they alienate one audience in favour of another. The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund has a couple of moments of shining glory tarnished by the absence of any element of risk.

7. The Forgery of Venus

by Michael Gruber

The Forgery of Venus cover image
ISBN:
9780060874483
Format:
Audiobook, 336 pages
Published:
William Morrow, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Although it contains a promising theme, The Forgery of Venus lacks a compelling story. Its characters are largely shallow and uninteresting; its plot is overly-complicated; the pacing suffers from an overabundance of exposition. While I'm sure Gruber had the best of intentions, his poor technical execution leaves much to be desired. Ultimately, I found The Forgery of Venus unsatisfactory.

For reasons that later become clear (unreliable narrator), Gruber chooses to wrap the story in a frame narrative told from the point of view of the protagonist's former college buddy. The scenario goes as follows: the protagonist, Chaz Wilmot, has recorded his narrative on a CD, which he then hands to the frame narrator at a party celebrating the sale of a 17th century painting that Wilmot may or may not have painted. For the first few chapters, Gruber dazzles us with exposition, in which our cardboard characters get shellacked with various traumas and emotional baggage—daddy issues, mommy issues, commitment issues, etc.—and the structure works! But then the story proper begins, and suddenly it doesn't sound like Chaz is dictating his story anymore. However, the "suspension of disbelief" sign has turned on, and I've fastened my seat belt, so apparently I'm going along for the ride.

And this is an important point: why is it necessary to justify a story told from the first-person perspective? If it isn't a frame narrative, it's a weak Call-Me-Ishmael chapter. In the specific case of The Forgery of Venus, I have the misfortune in that the only character I dislike more than Chaz Wilmot is the frame narrator. While Gruber can justify Chaz's painful expository chapters as consistent with the structure of the narrative, the frame narrator has no such crutch upon which to lean: the exposition in the introduction is anaemic and unnecessary. Just to set the record straight, most Canadians don't say "eh" at the end of their sentences; while I'm sure there are some who do, the very idea that you mentioned the stereotype offended me. The frame narrator's explanation of why Chaz is talking to him is weak at best: he suddenly switched his major from acting to pre-law because of a painting Chaz did while he was in costume? And somewhere along the way he picked up enough art history to appreciate the significance of Chaz's adventure from a scholarly perspective?

The unbelievable plot, in addition to the unbelievable, paper-thin characters, is what ruined this book for me. The themes that Gruber attempts to evince are worthy. The book improves toward the end, so I'm glad I persevered, and I understand Gruber's message about the mutability of our reality. Unfortunately, any redeeming aspects of The Forgery of Venus are crushed by its poor plotting and weak writing. It's, in some ways, an anti-[book:The Da Vinci Code|968]—Dan Brown's research was weak, but as a writer he managed to create a compelling story. Conversely, Gruber's research and themes are strong, but the story lacks life and substance. The number of acceptable scenarios in which one can say, "Dad had a little problem" are few. I think that's the point where I gave up on the book's quality and resolved merely to finish it so I could give it a complete (notice I didn't say "fair") review.

I eked very little enjoyment from The Forgery of Venus. As romantic and attractive as the art forgery scene may seem, Gruber manages to quash that feeling in his drug-induced insanity plot. Had I any sympathy for the protagonist after the first few chapters (which I didn't), in which he whines about how unfortunate his life has been, it would have slowly bled out of me while I watched Chaz firmly refuse to take any responsibility for his own life. He's a passive protagonist.

The Forgery of Venus is a dead-on-arrival story burdened by its author's prose. I feel sorry for it, but not for its characters. I look forward to cleansing my reading palate with something more tasty next.

6. Elsewhere

by Gabrielle Zevin

Elsewhere cover image
ISBN:
9780374320911
Format:
Hardcover, 277 pages
Published:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Is it just me, or are books about dead characters living in an afterlife increasingly common? There must be something innately fascinating about making one's protagonist already dead. Fortunately, the eponymous afterlife known as "Elsewhere" is a pleasant, non-threatening environment where dead people age backward and then are born again as babies.

If I had a choice, reincarnation would not be my first choice of afterlife. The concept hinges on the idea that everyone has, ultimately, some form of "immortal soul" that remains constant across lifetimes. Because who we are is determined by our memories, and if we're reborn without our memories, we aren't us anymore. Elsewhere ducks the question of souls and religion in general, giving us a throwaway line that "God's there in the same way He, She, or It was before to you. Nothing has changed."

Very little about Elsewhere is actually explained beyond what affects the protagonist Liz Hall. Rather than a fascinating depiction of a potential afterlife, this bare-bones description of Elsewhere does little to disguise it as the allegorical environment it really is. Not that I have a problem with allegory—it's entirely appropriate to the story. But there's nothing wrong with dressing it up once and a while either. As a place, Elsewhere doesn't seem very interesting. On Earth, it would be called Suburbia, which I suspect would make it closer to Hell than Heaven. Everyone lives in a nice house, has a nice job, and is nice to people. Yet if Elsewhere itself is an allegory for growing up and leaving behind adolescence, what does that say about life in general? This is jarringly inconsistent with adolescence, adulthood, or any other period of life. The moral of Elsewhere seems to be that a life without conflict can be rewarding, and I don't see how that can be the case.

As far as the characters and story go, Elsewhere is predictable. This may not be the case for younger readers. Liz goes through the five stages of grief, then gets on with her "life", falls in love, and experiences a few more tribulations. For the most part, I enjoyed the characterization and dialogue in Elsewhere; Zevin has a knack for quickly turning minor characters into fully fleshed-out people. Unfortunately, few of this people are interesting or remarkable. I did not like Liz's love interest, who is shallow, insecure, and spineless. My opinion of Liz vacillates between "spoiled teen" and "poor girl", but again, I'm no longer a young adult, and I suspect that a teenage girl reading this book will empathize with Liz somewhat more than I could. Nevertheless, Zevin's characters are attractive on the surface, but few have any depth.

After the predictable resolution to the predictable climax, the plot seems nicely tied up, and I was ready for the book to end. Only it continued. For some time. The denouement became a lengthy postscript showcasing the rest of Liz's life up until her rebirth; suddenly the focus of the book had shifted from Liz's attempts to acclimate to how interesting ageing backward must be.

Yet in the course of the entire story, Elsewhere never manages to answer the most pressing question in my mind: why do people even age backward? Why don't they get reborn immediately after dying? What's the point to having a secular cosmic waiting-room where everyone goes on living, in reverse, until they are born again? Why is death exactly like life, and if we get to live after death, what's the point to life anyway?

Mildly amusing, Elsewhere will entertain young adults, but doesn't have much to offer older readers. The entire concept of Elsewhere is interesting, yet its full potential is never properly explored, and I'm not convinced that Elsewhere as an allegory has much to offer to anyone, regardless of age.

Skip this and read The Five People You Meet in Heaven instead. I say this fully aware that Elsewhere isn't intended to be the same as The Five People You Meet in Heaven, yet even young adults can read and will benefit more from the latter than from this book.

5. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

by Gabrielle Zevin

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac cover image
ISBN:
9780374349462
Format:
Hardcover, 271 pages
Published:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

After not enjoying Elsewhere, I was hesitant to read this book, but decided to go through with it anyway. I'm not sure that was the right decision. While Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac isn't a terrible book, I finished it with a profound feeling of "So what?"

The premise is interesting: Naomi Porter is a teenage yearbook editor who hits her head when she falls down the steps at her school, causing her to forget the last four years of her life. Well, sort of. Zevin uses a good deal of creative license when it comes to Naomi's amnesia—which she's allowed to do, both because it's her book and we still don't precisely understand the workings of the brain anyway. So Naomi begins the book not-quite-tabula-rasa, and you expect her to grow and change as she becomes a brand new person, right? Not so much.

If anything, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac remind me of why I'm glad my years as a teenager are coming to an end: way too much drama. And not the funny-yet-vicious sort of drama I enjoyed watching in Tina Fey's Mean Girls; no, this is the pointless-yet-ubiquitous drama created as a byproduct of our own struggle to discover who we are. Unfortunately, Zevin seems to focus on this byproduct while ignoring the end goal—the whole self-discovery thing.

Naomi eventually regains her memories. Up until that point, we've gotten hints that she wasn't exactly the nicest girl at school but was apparently nice enough to be best friends with a genuinely "nice guy", Will Landsman. With the return of Old Naomi, this plot point gets lost in the shuffle, as Naomi now has to deal with the memory of Will kissing her even as she addresses her feelings for the school's "troubled kid", James. James has every stereotypical condition that would cause a teenager to be labelled as troubled—depression, antisocial behaviour, obsession—you name it, he's got it. The fact that Naomi had the gall to first fall in love with him and then practically devote herself to him made me lose what little respect I still had for her.

The book shifts gears for a third (and last) time toward the very end. Will suffers a spontaneous plot-induced case of hospitalizing pneumonia; predictably, Naomi must return to the yearbook staff to take over his position as editor at this crucial time of the year. As the book ends, she and Will (now recuperated) leave the yearbook office, reminiscing about the day Naomi left the yearbook office and lost her memories in the process. They're apparently friends again, and as far as I can tell, the sexual tension is never fully resolved.

So, in essence, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac begins and ends at the same place. It's a zero-sum book, because its main character never really changes. She loses some of herself and regains it, but for what? Zevin uses too many characters and has too many different plot points to effectively orchestrate a coherent theme about life in high school. Perhaps ironically, there's little about this book that's memorable. Go read something by Douglas Coupland instead.

4. Sex and the High Command

by Jim Boyd

Sex and the High Command cover image
ISBN:
9780553065510
Format:
Paperback, 212 pages
Published:
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1970

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Practically an historical artifact to me, Sex and the High Command was educational even though it was not entertaining. It reminded me that there's a sharp difference between books set in the Cold War written during the Cold War and books set in the Cold War written after the fact. Reading it while discussing The Left Hand of Darkness in English class, I was struck by the similarities in the two novels: both are about gender issues, and both are a product of the 1960s. But that's where the similarity ends.

Sex and the High Command definitely reads like the sort of pulp sci-fi novel that made it difficult for the mainstream audience to take science fiction seriously, the sort of novel against which Ursula K. Le Guin was campaigning, both thematically and structurally, when she came out with The Left Hand of Darkness. Now, I haven't read much pulp sci-fi. That was part of the reason I elected to read this awful book; I also saw it featured in an io9 triviagasm about parthenogenesis and decided to check it out. I'm aware there's probably much better pulp sci-fi, stressing that "better" is an incredibly relative term….

The description is very sparse, so I'll deviate from my normal reviewer schema and give a brief plot summary. It's contemporary 1970s America. Captain Ben Hansen of the United States Navy is just returning home from an eighteen-month tour of duty off Antarctica. While he's been away, a scientist by the name of Dr. Henrietta Carey has perfected an orgasm-inducing parthenogenesis drug marketed under the name "Vita-Lerp" and colloquially called a "V-bomb." As a result, America's women are flocking to the FEM—Freedom, Equality, and Motherhood—party to support Carey as a presidential candidate and literally eliminate men as superfluous quantities. Hansen falls in with several high-ranking military officers and key cabinet members to plot how to take the United States back from these crazy manslaughtering women.

Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

Let me set the thematic elements aside for the moment and solely focus on how badly written the book is. To be fair, I have read worse. John Boyd actually has a very good command of the English language, both in vocabulary and syntax. It's clear he loves describing naval operations in detail; he doesn't just say "the ship docked" but spends entire pages showing us the operation. Those more interested in reading naval fiction might get more out of this book than I did.

As a story, however, Sex and the High Command severely lacks anything resembling a sensible plot or realistic character development. Again, my context is a little vague here. What resources I could turn up seem to indicate that this isn't satire, but it belongs to a school of sci-fi that's tongue-in-cheek in its approach, bordering on absurdism but not quite philosophically adept enough to earn that label. It reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch that's 212 pages long and has also ingested steroids.

To be clear, I'm not ragging on absurdist-flavoured fiction. I'm a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; while I couldn't quite get through Catch-22 the first time (I was only in grade 6, so I figure I have an excuse), I'm going to try again soon. But even absurdist literature might have a point—this book does not. Both its characters and its plot are utterly superfluous; excise both from the book and the same story, minus the fanciful names, remains in its questionable glory.

Most of Sex and the High Command is dialogue, and most of that dialogue makes no sense whatsoever. I spent all my time as bewildered as the main character, Captain Hansen, who also has no idea what is going on. Normally, this shared bewilderment creates a sense of empathy between reader and protagonist. To some extent, that's true here—Hansen's probably the least worst character in the book—but any hope of identifying with Hansen is scuttled in the very first chapter by the way he arrives home after his tour of duty, waltzing into his house and expecting his wife and daughter to be waiting for him, full of analogies about how he runs his home like a boat. Right. I'm aware that this is probably just the novel showing its age combined with my inability to put myself in a 1970s male mindset, but I was prejudiced against Hansen from the start.

The trouble is, Boyd's straw men feminists (pun intended) are so flimsy that it's impossible to identify with them either. The reader is left watching insane protagonists—the de facto leader of whom is intent on nuking the continental United States—and even more insane antagonists. The method by which the women gain power, forcing the incumbent government to flee to Greenland, is specious at best. I'm not even going to talk about how the incumbent government was planning to stay in power by conspiring to get a redneck elected president in return for finding him a virgin redneck girl to marry. Only the FBI agent sent to find said girl beds her before bringing her back, and then the redneck and his new bride die when their yacht sinks while they have sex. Oh, and a grammarian literally dies of a heart attack from hearing the redneck put four prepositions at the end of a sentence.

Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

Since the dialogue is so confusing and the actions that dialogue seems to precipitate make no sense, I spent the majority of the book turning the pages and remarking, "This book is FUBAR." Ordinarily, that's not a good thing, and Sex and the High Command is not one of those rare it's-so-crazy-it's-brilliant exceptions. It is FUBAR.

Thematically, this book is a mess. I will ignore the fact of its anti-feminism—declaiming that would be futile—and focus only on the unrealistic portrayal of its feminist antagonists. Yet another one of those pesky relativistic qualifications: the feminist movement as we know it today was very young in that era, and it's not like Boyd could go online and do a couple hours' research on the subject (the non-existence of the Internet was also probably an obstacle to such an endeavour). And the movement was scary to those in power, as change always is. Still, Boyd grievously misrepresents the feminist platform.

The most striking example comes toward the end of the book, after the women have assumed power and are making it ever harder for men to be men and small green furry creatures from Alpha Centauri to be small green furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. Boyd has the women, led by the "Mother Presiding" Dr. Carey, hyper-feminize America. And in so doing, those same women are behaving like non-feminist women who just happen to have homicidal urges any time they see a man who isn't blindly docile to the New Logic of women. Whereas feminism now focuses on gender equality and eliminating difference, Boyd's feminists exhibit traits that modern feminism claims exist primarily because of male dominance in society—ergo, in a female-dominated or gender-equal society, those traits would be minimized or non-existent. As a result, while Sex and the High Command probably stands as an interesting example of how reactionaries viewed the fledgling feminist movement of the 1960s, it's hardly a valid critique of that movement.

So, Sex and the High Command is neither an intellectually-stimulating polemic nor a rousing adventure novel. It has no interesting characters, very little clever or even cogent dialogue, and a distinct absence of plot or true resolution. So already, this book has managed to alienate the two largest (non-disjoint) sets of SF readers: those who seek profound themes and those who just want to relax and read a good story. Only those interested in historical artifacts or people like me, who will read something that they suspect is awful just for that suspicion, will find this book appealing. But that may be optimism on my part.

Because repetition is key: yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

3. The Algebraist

by Iain M. Banks

The Algebraist cover image
ISBN:
9781841492391
Format:
Paperback, 534 pages
Published:
Orbit, 2004

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Warning: This review contains spoilers about the review. Continue reading only if you have already read this review or if you are unconcerned about ruining the ending of this review.

Open with a joke about the size and weight of this book making it good for a number of non-reading-related purposes. Go on to comment on the excessive amounts of esoteric terminology.

That's probably how most reviews of this book begin, and they're probably right in doing so. Of course, plenty of books are justified in their length (or at least, we tell them they're justified for fear that they'll sneak off our shelves and kill us in our sleep if we say otherwise). And I see plenty of reviews that go on to say that they like Banks' no-holds-barred use of terminology, counting it as a sign of good worldbuilding. I'm not as convinced that The Algebraist is satisfactory in either regard, but let's give it the benefit of a doubt. Let's assume that Banks is justified in both these respects and go on to address the next question: if a reader can get past these two hurdles, does he or she find a worthwhile story?

(Review spoiler alert: the answer is "No.")

The heart of this space opera is Fassin Taak's search for a mathematical Transform that will unscramble a list of coordinates of secret wormholes that connect almost every inhabited system in the galaxy. The Mercatoria, ostensibly the good guys, would kill for this sort of information, since wormholes are the only viable method of faster-than-light travel and connecting two systems by wormhole is an arduous process. Come to think of it, anyone would kill to get the information, or keep it hidden, which makes Fassin's search quite difficult.

Banks spends the majority of this book (and that is a lot of book right there) keeping coy about whether or not any such secret wormhole network exists. In the end, the revelation is somewhat disappointing, and even a little predictable to those well-versed in this sort of science fiction story. (Gas-dwelling alien species think a like.) And it turns out not to have much bearing on the other major plot in the book, the invasion of Fassin's home system, Ulubis, even though Fassin's in such a hurry to find the Transform so he can get help before the invasion fleet arrives. So the two main plots become disconnected, and neither are very satisfying on their own.

(Review spoiler alert: I'm trying to do this review without any actual plot spoilers, so forgive my ambiguity.)

To discuss the Dweller List and its Transform, one must discuss the Dwellers themselves. I have to confess to having a soft spot for absurdist, relaxed aliens who have a society based on the accumulation of "kudos" but happen to be lying on a cache of hyper-advanced weaponry should a threat come calling. Pretty much all of the Awesome in The Algebraist is a result, directly or indirectly of action or utterance of a Dweller or Dwellers. My favourite example would probably be where Archmandrite Luseferous begins shooting live humans out into space unless the Dwellers produce Fassin:

Luseferous pointed furiously at the line of bodies heading slowly towards the planet. "Don't you fuckwits understand? That doesn't stop until I get what I want!"

The three Dwellers twisted to look as one. "Hmm," Peripule said thoughtfully. "I do hope you have enough people."

I'll save talking about how this pushes Luseferous from deliciously evil to laughably stereotypical for later. I just want to revel in how wonderfully apathetic the Dwellers are. Not that I condone apathy toward humans. But the Dwellers' attitude is very alien, and as the above example demonstrates, they really have no reason to care about human lives.

(Review spoiler alert: The following is about the only praise I have for The Algebraist, so lap it up while the lapping is good.)

Unfortunately, our glimpse at Dweller society is brief compared to the time Fassin spends traipsing about the rest of the galaxy meeting a couple of other random species. We learn that the Dwellers don't really fight in factions anymore so much as have "Formal Wars" over somewhat trivial issues. Nevertheless, Dweller society isn't very cohesive—many Dwellers are completely ignorant of matters like military capability and whether or not they have a secret wormhole network. There's just so much potential in this single species. Despite the fact that a good chunk of the book happens in Dweller gas giants and Fassin spends most of his time with Dwellers, there's so much more we could have learned.

(Review spoiler alert: And now we resume our regularly-scheduled criticism.)

Compared to the intriguing Dwellers, the actual object of Fassin's quest is far less interesting. Banks makes a big deal over the fact that Fassin needs to find "the Transform," which turns out to be an equation written in "alien algebra" (hence the title, The Algebraist). Supposedly this list and its Transform are so important because they'd give the Mercatoria (or its enemies) access to a pre-existing network of wormholes. If this network exists, the Dwellers so far haven't offered to share it with the Quick species. No one seems to mention why finding proof of this network would motivate the Dwellers to change this position. And if the Mercatoria has the means to find the wormholes, what do they intend to do? Take the wormhole portals by arms? Because we've already established that the Dwellers, while never openly hostile, don't permit that sort of tactic and tend to respond with overwhelming force.

The actual quest is a mundane journey that consists of following various Dwellers who may have information Fassin needs. Along the way, he gets into a series of scrapes. At first, there's pressure to find the Transform as soon as possible, so that the Mercatoria can summon reinforcements before Luseferous' invasion fleet arrives in Ulubis. Gradually, however, this becomes less of an issue, and in the end Fassin's search doesn't have any effect on the outcome of the invasion. Not that it matters, since the invasion itself turns out to be a minor problem anyway.

The invasion's mastermind, Archmandrite Luseferous, also begins the book as a credible threat. He's intelligent, ruthless, and sadistic. Also, Banks goes out of his way to make it clear the Luseferous isn't a delusional megalomaniac who ignores his advisers and compromises his plans out of ego or pride. This credibility erodes gradually as Luseferous' fleet travels to Ulubis, culminating in Luseferous' humiliation and defeat because he antagonizes a couple of Dwellers in search for this mythical Transform. And there's no real reason for this sudden change in characterization, other than the fact that Banks needs Luseferous' invasion to fail, of course. That the invasion failure is a result of miscalculations and bad characterization should be enough to set off alarms in the cautious reader's head.

Sandwiched in between, among, and pretty much everywhere these two plots aren't, are various sub-plots, revenge plots, and miscellaneous exposition about the types of species that inhabit the galaxy. The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn't a bad thing). The fact that artificial intelligences are anathema forms an important point in the structure of the Mercatoria, which is fine. But then Banks includes an entire subplot involving hidden artificial intelligences, and Fassin's Head Gardener turns out to be an artificial intelligence, and all the while I'm just wondering . . . why?

There's a lot going on in The Algebraist. And a lot of it goes wrong. But it all goes wrong for the same reason: after a strong opening, the book presents a weak resolution with every possible threat declawed before it could be defeated. It's as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patient evaporated. Judging from the praise that others have heaped upon this book, this is a situation where your mileage will vary. However, I urge you to think twice. There is a story somewhere in the depths of The Algebraist, but extracting and parsing it is not for the faint of heart … and I question whether the end result worth the effort.

2. History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe

by Rodney Bolt

History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe cover image
ISBN:
9781596910201
Format:
Hardcover, 388 pages
Published:
Bloomsbury, 2004

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Few books have managed to disappoint me as much as this one has. The captivating premise of History Play—that Marlowe faked his death and wrote all the plays attributed to Shakespeare—belies its overly-pedantic treatment of Marlovian theory (an actual literary theory supported by several leading Elizabethan scholars).

The most interesting part of the book is its foreword, which wasn't even written by Bolt, but instead by Mark Twain! It lists the facts we know definitively about the life of William Shakespeare, emphasizing how little we actually know about one considered the greatest playwright of English literature. Academics who favour the mainstream view say this is to be expected; Shakespeare was a commoner, after all, so his life isn't documented as well as the nobility of Elizabethan England. Others take this as a sign that the William Shakespeare of Stratford couldn't have written all those plays we know as his—and that's where Bolt takes up the narrative and presents a fictitious biography of Christopher Marlowe.

I have to admit I was skimming by the time I reached the halfway point of History Play. Its stultifying writing made me want to put it down, but the rational part of me wanted to see how it ended. It probably wasn't worth it, in retrospect. Bolt spends too much time mentioning how he acquired this information ("this was in a letter…") and uses far too many quotations from Marlowe's plays (both those indisputably attributed to him and those we attribute to Shakespeare). His tone is dry, academic, and bored.

If this were a paper in a scholarly journal, I can see how that might work. However, biographies need to be somewhat exciting. I'm not asking Bolt to fictionalize his scenes (any more than they already are…), but as it is History Play is lifeless, limp prose. I was hoping to recommend this book to a couple of other people I know who would enjoy seeing this premise explored, but now I shall forbear—I don't want to inflict this on them!

It's my own fault for having such high hopes, of course, so I won't blame History Play for disappointing me. Unfortunately, I cannot really give it praise.

1. The Expected One

by Kathleen McGowan

The Expected One cover image
ISBN:
9780743299428
Format:
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published:
Touchstone, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I never thought this day would come. Ladies and gentlemen, I have found a book that rivals The Art Thief for the title of "Worst Book I Have Ever Read [and Finished]." What begins as innocuous conspiracy-orientated historical fiction ends up becoming a delusional and boring dissertation on the "truth" behind Mary Magdalene.

Conspiracy theories attract us because they appeal to our innate need for order and relationships; they draw connections among disparate elements of society and history. It's no wonder, then, that the historical fiction market is flooded with novels expounding every possible permutation of every possible conspiracy theory. Being a popular religion, Christianity draws more than its fair share of those theories. And nothing is more popular than an account of what "really" happened two thousand years ago at the dawn of Christianity.

The Expected One actually isn't that bad at first. Maureen Paschal begins experiencing visions of Mary Magdalene and investigates them with her journalistic abilities. Soon she's in the middle of one of the oldest conspiracies, the focal point of a conflict between two rival secret societies, the heir to Mary Magdalene. It all sounds intriguing, which is part of the reason the book is so disappointing. It sets the bar high and then fails to meet expectations.

As with many conspiracy novels, The Expected One falls victim to the temptation to make every character a part of the conspiracy. In fact, I don't think we meet one "innocent" person in this entire book; even Maureen's best friend and closest confidante are both "in the know" before Maureen herself becomes involved! When everyone has an angle, it's hard for the protagonist to assert herself. As a character and a heroine, Maureen suffers as a result—she's used by the various parties involved in this conspiracy. I never felt like Maureen had any input or any control over what was happening.

Once she uncovers Mary Magdalene's lost gospel, McGowan begins including chapters told from the perspective of Magdalene, specifically regarding her marriage to John the Baptist and then Christ's crucifixion. At least The Betrayal established the dual time period setting from the beginning. While I realize there's a reason for the sudden new narrator in the narrative itself, it is still a bit jarring.

Beyond the revelation of Magdalene's gospel, however, there's very little in The Expected One. The best thing I can say about it is that Maureen definitely changed, so she's dynamic; I'll give McGowan that. Otherwise, nothing in the modern day world seems to change with the discovery of Mary Magdalene's own perspective on Christ. While I realize that this is just "book one" of what will obviously be a series (next up: finding the gospel of Jesus himself!), the lack of any meaningful consequences in this book left me unfulfilled.

I finished the book nonetheless and then, as always, read the author's afterword. This usually consists of notes regarding the historicity of the events in the book—what's real and what isn't. Warning sirens went off when I read this:

I began to experience a series of haunting, recurring dreams that centered on the events and characters of the Passion. Unexplainable occurrences, like those that Maureen experiences…. I would come to understand that most of my life had been lived in preparation for this specific journey of discovery…. The ultimate shock came with the revelation that my own birth date was the subject of a prophecy related to Mary Magdalene and her descendants … many of my protagonist's adventures and virtually all of her supernatural encounters are based in my own life experiences.

That's right: this novel is semi-autobiographical, which makes Maureen a Canon Mary Sue. It gets worse:

I must be circumspect about the primary source of the new information presented here for reasons of security, but I will say this: The content of the gospel of Mary Magdalene as I interpret it here is taken from previously undisclosed source material. It has never been released to the public before.

In my need to protect the sacred nature of this information and those who hold it, I had no choice but to write this, and the subsequent books in this series, as fiction.

Reading this just made me shudder, because it feels so self-righteous and … earnest. I'd much rather have an author just tell me, "Well, most of this is made up," or, "This is historically accurate, according to these non-mainstream sources: [list here]." But no, McGowan feels the need to extrude the conspiracy in her book into real life, and it all gets way too meta for me….

Lest you think I'm panning this book solely because I'm leery of its author's proclamations, let me finish my review by returning to criticism of the book itself. If The Expected One were truly fascinating, if it presented McGowan's … "experiences" in a suitably satisfying story, then I'd be OK with it. Instead, The Expected One is empty; the story, its inspiration aside, is poorly written. A good book should appeal to the reader even if he or she disagrees with its themes. The reader should be entertained by the quality of its writing and its story. When a book becomes limited to an audience of approval, there's something wrong.

I need to begin listening to my library instincts more. When I picked this book up off the New Books shelf, a little tingle warned me I should put it back. I ignored it, and look at what happened. The unfortunate drawback to my goal of being less picky about what books I read is that occasionally bad books get past my defences.