Worst Books I Read in 2015 – Book List

I can’t complain about 2015. I only had 9 one-star ratings, and of those, only three or four were truly “so terrible I really wish I hadn’t read it” type deals. The rest were just bad.

Reviews

9. Horrorstör

by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstör cover image
ISBN:
9781594745263
Format:
Paperback, 248 pages
Published:
Quirk, 2014

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

So, this was bizarre.

Horrorstör is a wacky horror novel. It's set in an American knock-off of Ikea called Orsk. This particular Orsk store is haunted, however, and three employees stay overnight to get to the bottom of it. Grady Hendrix attempts to enhance the novel through a number of artistic gimmicks ranging from the chapter titles/descriptions to the entire design of the book.

As far as the design goes, it's a nifty idea. It would get annoying fast if every book did this, and to some extent I started ignoring it towards the end. Just give me the story, damn it! However, it creates some nostalgia for kids' books. At some point along the way, my novels stopped trying. When I was younger they were shiny and glittery and full of bonus games and pop-out cardboard figures and holographic covers. Then gradually, the sheen faded and the glitter receded, leaving only the most minimalist and "professional" of designs. It says something interesting about our society's aesthetics around reading and books that what Hendrix attempts here is somewhat unusual.

Of course a gimmick is usually a way to prop up a poor story. I don't think that's the case here. The story actually has everything it needs to be engaging: a diverse ensemble cast with clear motivations, a clearly-defined threat and conflict, and plenty of twists and turns to keep people guessing. Indeed, the characterization in particular impresses me. All the main characters get a fair amount of development. Amy, the protagonist, is not all that likable (but is still fairly sympathetic). And while Basil begins the story as your stereotypical "I drank the Kool-Aid" manager, we eventually see there are other sides to him.

Where Horrorstör begins to lose me is the attempt to blend different tones of humour in with the horror. As the novel opens, Hendrix wants to satirize the emptiness of working day-in/day-out for a massive furniture retailer. Elements of this satire persist throughout the story. Meanwhile, we also see parodies of everything from ghost-hunting reality TV shows to the subversion of the "kindly, quiet middle-aged woman" trope.

The book just puts so much on the shelf, to borrow an improv term, and it doesn't always come back for some pay-off. The ending in particular feels like a let-down (but then again, what ending to a horror story isn't?). After a lengthy, somewhat confusing, but definitely intense journey inside Orsk, the survivors emerge ... and then leave? And then some time passes before the novel implies a Horrorstör 2 is about to happen.

Smash-cut to artsy credits while a rock song popular in the early 2000s plays.

I would make this review longer (maybe), but I'm writing this in Windows and am seriously missing my Compose key for inserting these accented characters.

Horrorstör brings it. I don't know exactly what "it" is, but it's at least brought. I'm not sure there's a clear audience for this--is it for horror fans? Horror parody fans? Parody fans? Furniture store fans? I shrug. It doesn't really achieve top marks in any category, but I stayed engaged, and I enjoyed the ride.

8. Orphans of the Sky

by Robert A. Heinlein

Orphans of the Sky cover image
ISBN:
9780671318451
Format:
Paperback, 224 pages
Published:
Baen, 2001

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

Second Heinlein collection in this book (the first being The Man Who Sold the Moon ). Now we have two related 1940s novellae fixed-up into a single novel in the 1960s. Oh, science fiction publishing, you are so fun.

Orphans of the Sky is one of the ur–generation ship tales. Heinlein immediately seizes on the possibility that something could go so disastrously wrong during the voyage such that the entire crew forgets it is on a ship. For all intents and purposes, the Ship is now the universe. Anyone, like Hugh, who challenges this worldview is accused of heresy. (There’s a nice little shout-out to Galileo’s trials and tribulations with the Catholic Church.) This plot was executed most memorably for me in “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” an episode in the third season of the original Star Trek.

There’s something about generation ships that doesn’t really apply to me as a motif. I really didn’t like Journey into Space , and I wasn’t crazy about this book either. As far as the writing goes, it is pretty much what I expect from Heinlein now—a lot of conversation, a lot of scientific speculation and libertarianism disguised as the desire for open scientific inquiry.

The plot is mediocre. Lots of repetitive actions culminating in an all-too-predictable betrayal and a mad dash towards near-certain death. It goes through the motions, follows certain forms, and so it is minimally fulfilling in that barest of ways. While it is true that this is among the first (if not the first) story of its kind, I suspect that others who have since picked up on these themes have used them better, or in more interesting ways, or with better characters.

I also can’t forgive the level of misogyny in this book. Heinlein’s sexism in The Man Who Sold the Moon is problematic, sure, but mostly for its erasure of women—he does at least feature a single woman scientist, even if she is objectified. But in Orphans of the Sky, women play a far smaller and worse role. Women of the Ship, it seems, exist to be wives and breeders. Hugh “selects” two women, graciously “allowing” the first to keep her own name because she behaves. The other, however, is “wild as a mutie” and bites Hugh, so “he had slapped her, naturally, and that should have been an end to the matter” and then “had not got around to naming her.” Later on Heinlein talks about how she is better behaved after Hugh knocks out a tooth! Because there’s nothing like trivializing domestic abuse, amirite?

If you’re a diehard Heinlein completist (I’m not) or you have a particular fascination with the subgenre of generation ships (I don’t), you should probably read this. Otherwise, give it a miss.

7. Fall

by Colin McAdam

Fall cover image
ISBN:
9780670067206
Format:
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published:
, 2009

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

In Grade 11 English we read A Separate Peace , by John Knowles, as our Novel, and I hated it. Now, I know that hating the assigned reading is a time-honoured tradition in English class, but you have to understand that this was my first experience with such an emotion. I was the book-addicted, scholarly, high-achieving nerdy student who, in Grade 10, had gotten together with friends and their English teacher at lunch to read Shakespeare (and then after our school closed at the end of Grade 10, continued to meet up outside of school over the following year). I had never not enjoyed the assigned reading before; I, with all the plucky naivety of someone who looked up to teachers and already wanted to be one, assumed that if the teacher chose it, it must be good.

Oh, how much I had left to learn.

Now, full disclosure: the aforementioned school closure and move to a new school took its toll on me and my peers, and my way of coping with it was to be somewhat of a jerk to my Grade 11 English teacher. I took it into my head that I wasn’t being “challenged” enough and me sure she knew that I wasn’t happy that this year’s Shakespeare selection would be The Taming of the Shrew (even though it’s actually an all right play to study, and later that year I went to see a neat theatre-in-the-round version). This was one of the few times as a student that I was not-pleasant to a teacher, and I regret that.

So it’s hard to say how much my displeasure over being forced to discuss and analyze A Separate Peace was caused by the book and how much came from simply being resolved not to enjoy this English class. But ever since then, I’ve had a complicated relationship with books about private boarding schools. I file them away into a mental folder in which the “boarding” has been crossed out with “boring,” and only John Irving or Robertson Davies can usually manage to break out of the cabinet at night to haunt me with dreams of tattooed wrestlers, bears, and snowballs inducing labour.

Fall reminded me a lot of A Separate Peace—or, to be more accurate, since I don’t remember the book at all, it reminded me of my memory of an idea of A Separate Peace. Colin McAdam creates a fictional Canadian private school and follows two boys, roommates, eighteen years old and thus men, really, as they orbit the eponymous girl who is the object of their affections.

I cringe as I write that last clause—a subordinate clause, even—because I’m sad that a book about two dudes moping over a woman still managed to get shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2009. Have we not moved on from such pubescent writing? Apparently not. Fall is every bit an object in this book, denied both voice and agency, forced to exist simultaneously in the fantasies of these two young men as well as a character who serves only as a sexual mirror for one and a fixation for the other. And everything about this plot is so earnest. It’s as if McAdam thinks he’s on to something big, like no one else in the history of the Western world has thought to write about teenage boys discovering sex and love and obsession in this way before. There’s not even a hint of self-deprecating self-awareness here, just the pure and honest pain of it—and yes, it’s well done in that CanLit sort of way. But my point is that Fall takes itself way too seriously about two decades too late. If it had decided to subvert itself at any point, maybe it could have had a chance.

Instead we have Noel, called Wink because of his lazy eye in that painful way boys have of giving out cutting nicknames. Noel is withdrawn, introverted and intellectual and actually getting something out of this fancy education his diplomat father is paying for. Rooming with Julius, the most popular of the seniors at St. Ebury’s, Noel falls for Fall, Julius’ girlfriend. At first we’re supposed to see this as the kind of unrequited pining of someone for his friend’s girl, but soon McAdam shows that there is a darker undercurrent to Noel, one that culminates in tragedy for all involved.

If Noel is unplumbed depths, then Julius is tapped out shallows. I suppose the stream of consciousness narration of his chapters is supposed to emphasize this: Julius is all surface, no depth. I’ll be honest: the stream of consciousness didn’t do much for me; it’s an effective narrative device, but I don’t like it.

The fact that this is a Canadian private school is mildly interesting. Unless you go to one, or know someone who does, you probably don’t think much about private schools in Canada. They seem like a foreign thing. Indeed, St. Ebury’s and its real-life counterparts are the domain of the old moneyed types, Canadian or diplomatic as depicted here, who still cling to the boarding-and-starched-uniform visions, complete with “masters” and complicated disciplinary codes. It’s interesting to be reminded that this is still a thing.

McAdam points out the hypocrisy of those places, the tension between the cost of providing such an education and the way the straitjacket of rules infantilizes these adult boys. This is a legitimate criticism. But it’s also a little beside the point, given what Noel ends up doing.

The inevitability of Noel’s heel turn is fairly obvious quite early in the book. So it’s not so much a surprise as it is the fulfilment of a promise when it happens, and everything that follows is anticlimactic. There is a strange beauty to the plot as McAdam has structured it; Noel is at least semi-fascinating as a character study of a species of sociopath. We could have long, meandering conversations about unreliable narrators and suppressed memories.

But that doesn’t dispel my ultimate discomfort, which is that when you strip away all the decoration, what you have is a plot driven by a damsel in distress. Fall is not about Fall the woman but what these two men imagine Fall might be. And that is interesting psychologically, yes. But it’s been done before, and I don’t know that it’s all that necessary for us to keep retreading the issue from this privileged perspective of the poor damaged rich boys.

Where’s the story from Fall’s perspective? Why can’t we learn about who she is, rather than who Julius and Noel tell us she is? Why can’t we hear her thoughts on whether Julius is a bore (but great in bed) and how Noel is sweet but also a little creepy, and how she loves her mom but is afraid she’ll never get a streak of independence? Of all the poorly-sketched characters in this book, Fall definitely seems like the most lively, most interesting, deepest of them all. Shame we never meet her.

I’d love to see Fall make decisions. I’d love to see her fight back at the river instead of serving the role of prop to cement Noel’s downfall. McAdam has so many opportunities here to elevate the story rather than go through the motions.

I don’t question his skills as a writer, really. It’s a nice enough book, albeit one that is unquestionably shooting for that “literary” label. And therein lies the problem: Fall just takes itself too seriously. McAdam hopes to become great by following in the footsteps of those we consider great rather than stopping to critique the greats, to steal what works from them but question and tear down the things that don’t. The result is simply a reiteration of what has come before: there is nothing in Fall you haven’t seen elsewhere, and it’s the same ol’, same ol’ stories of men obsessing over women that male writers have been writing for a very long time.

6. Wit's End

by Karen Joy Fowler

Wit's End cover image
ISBN:
9780399154751
Format:
Hardcover, 324 pages
Published:
Putnam Adult, 2008

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

I like meta-books, books about books and writers and readers and how stories influence our lives. As someone who spends what, I admit, is probably an inordinate amount of time reading, reading about books is important and informative. Wit’s End is metafiction about mystery. Rima’s godmother, Addison Early, is a successful Agatha Christie—like mystery writer. Rima comes to stay with Addison at Wit’s End, Addison’s little refuge from the world in Santa Cruz. Cut off from the rest of the world by the loss of those closest to her, Rima is adrift. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, she latches on to stray elements from Addison’s past, determined to unearth some sort of mystery to solve.

This idea that the detectives in mystery novels have it easy because the author does the hard work of supplying the mystery is perhaps Karen Joy Fowler’s most sublime observation in the entire book. I had never thought of it that way before, but it’s true. Detectives get all the breaks: neat, orderly clues; clear-cut motivations; a nice timeline of events. Real life is much messier than that, and in many cases, as Rima discovers, the nature of the mystery is not clear.

Alas, little else about Wit’s End held my attention. Rima herself is a cipher of a character. We never really get close to her. Fowler shares morsels of backstory with a parsimony that I would envy in a science-fiction author. I got the sense that she was never really close to anyone except her late brother. With him they were a dyad; now she is a monad and unsure of how to live.

None of the other characters are all that intriguing either. Fowler tries. She alludes to Tilda’s checkered past of homelessness and alcoholism and the struggles reconnecting with her estranged adult son. Addison is supposed to be a kind of ageing grand dame, resplendent in her achievements but worried by the ticking clock on the mantle. Martin is supposed to be … I don’t know, what passes for a cad these days?

Yet all this amounts to is a series of set pieces, and static ones at that. None of the characters change much (not even Rima). I kept expecting Addison to get tetchy when Rima continued to prod Addison’s past and look into Holy City. I kept expecting a fight, or at least an argument—nothing. Aside from that very real, very rewarding moment between Rima and Martin, the emotions in this book are flat. Even when Rima winds out trapped in a house with her “stalker,” Fowler manages to puncture the tension building in the room and replace it with an underwhelming, albeit humourous, resolution.

In its attempts to be a character-driven story centred on Rima, Wit’s End fizzles out into a boring book where nothing happens. The promise that this book’s cover copy makes—that this would be about how Addison’s fans have taken over her characters and plotlines—never materializes. There are references to fanfic (especially slashfic) and Wikipedia pages and blog comments, but it’s all ancillary. That would have made for a more interesting story. Still, this is not merely a case of a book misrepresented by its description.

I enjoyed the way Fowler uses Addison to share one type of writer’s perspective on readers. But that’s about it. The characters in this book are dull; the plot is largely a collection of unrelated events; as a protagonist, Rima is about as interesting as paint that has very nearly dried. Fowler can do much better, and you, as a reader, can do much better.

5. You Suck

by Christopher Moore

You Suck  cover image
ISBN:
9780060590291
Format:
Hardcover, 328 pages
Published:
William Morrow & Company, 2007

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

Previously, on Ben’s reviews…

Jody and Thomas. I can’t even.

I find Jody’s characterization hugely problematic…. I just wish Moore hadn’t ruined what might have been a great thing by falling back on clichéd jokes, like, “I could stand to lose five pounds.” We get it: women are obsessed with their weight! Hah-hah, very funny. I’ll pencil in a laugh sometime next week.

I’m going to try the next book, because Moore has earned a lot of credit with me. But if Thomas pulls anything like that again, I’m out of here. I have better things to do with my time than watch an insecure guy try to stop his vampire ladyfriend from leaving her in progressively creepier and rapier ways.

And now, the continuation…

You Suck picks up almost literally where Bloodsucking Fiends left off: C. Thomas Flood is a vampire, having been bitten by his vampiric girlfriend Jody. Once her daylight minion, now they have to find a new minion for the both of them. But the heat is on in San Francisco, because they have savvy detectives, an Emperor, and a Safeway night shift crew breathing down their pale necks.

I have to say, this book starts off with much more promise than Bloodsucking Fiends. Tommy and Jody’s relationship dynamic has changed. I wouldn’t say they are on “equal” footing now, but they are both vampires, at least. Jody herself is definitely more confident here, and Moore explicitly shows how much she delights in flaunting her sexuality for herself, because she no longer fears walking alone at night. That’s all well and good.

Indeed, I’ll go ahead and say that the characterization of the two protagonists is much improved. The other characters? Not so much. Every remaining character falls back into one or more stereotypes in Moore’s attempt to wring as much clichéd humour from this book as possible. I started to tune out and skim when he introduced Blue, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (and blue skin), and almost entirely checked out when dead whores started showing up.

Right, Moore, look … I don’t care whether your book has a “strong female protagonist.” I don’t care if your book has two female protagonists who show interesting and different sides to living as a woman in San Francisco. (I love Abby’s gothy teenage geekiness!) Fridging women is not OK. Joking about fridging dead whores is also not OK. The former does not, will never, excuse the latter. Similarly, the fact that Blue comes back—out of the blue—as a vampire doesn’t make up for the tasteless jokes at her expense.

Any enjoyment I was getting from You Suck was sucked out of me—pun intended—by these missteps.

At least Bloodsucking Fiends had stakes. (No, I mean plot stakes, not wooden stakes—gah. Why is this happening?!) The elusive and mysterious Elijah was a credible antagonist in the first book. Now he’s just a nuisance, and most of the conflict comes from Tommy and Jody running around trying to train Abby and move. Yes, this entire book is a sitcom about moving to the apartment down the block.

Towards the very end, the book shifts more and more into Abby’s first-person diary perspective. Now, I love Abby, and I loved her diary entries when they were intermittent. The more frequently they appeared, the more they grated in tone, though. The sudden appearance of Steve as a vampire hunter/love interest for Abby at the eleventh hour is almost as unsatisfactory as the wimpiness of the new vampires on the block.

Sigh.

I didn’t even realize how worked up I was about this until I wrote this review, and now I just can’t even.

Do I read the third book? It’s on my shelf, checked out the same time I borrowed this one. They are quick—I read this at a ball game, so I could read book three in less than an afternoon. But is it worth it? The cover copy seems to promise that it foregrounds Abby and includes a vampire cat.

But is it worth it?

I have since read the third book. It was worth it. Kind of. Review forthcoming!

4. The Incrementalists

by Steven Brust

The Incrementalists cover image
ISBN:
9780765334237
Format:
Paperback, 368 pages
Published:
Tor Fantasy, 2014

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

These people are oddly obsessed with putting bathrobes on after showering. She used his bathrobe, so he had to settle for a towel—what, you don’t towel off and then put on a bathrobe?

I was hesitant to borrow this from the library—the description screamed “generic pseudo–science-fiction thriller.” Neverthless, I resolved to give it a chance. I swear I didn’t notice that John Scalzi had blurbed it until I started reading. And it makes sense that Scalzi would blurb this, because it’s in his wheelhouse—but neither Steven Brust nor Skyler White writes it the way Scalzi does. The Incrementalists is a bizarre mix of John Scalzi and Tim Powers (I like one and not the other, but it’s the worst of both, so don’t take this as a recommendation).

Now, I love me some Scalzi, but I’ll happily admit that there are things about his style I don’t like. He writes great, snappy dialogue—a lot of great, snappy dialogue. Too much, sometimes, to the point where all of his characters just feel so snappy and sarcastic and witty that they fade together. Scalzi is not a hugely descriptive writer. And that’s OK—not every writer needs to be descriptive or should be. And I get that thrillers, as a genre, tend to be lighter on description and heavier on dialogue and action. The fact that I only enjoy this occasionally, like I only occasionally enjoy a whipped topping dessert, is one reason I don’t read them that often.

Unfortunately, The Incrementalists seems to reside towards the lower end of the scale. It’s particularly nondescript, except when it gets way too descriptive. I just opened to a random page (303) and was confronted with this gem:

He was all that mattered. The taste of his mouth on mine, the solid unyieldingness of his body that my body wanted to wrap and mold and form itself around. Everything else felt irrelevant and trivial to me, and we almost shedded our clothes trying to get free of them fast enough to fill our hands and mouths with each other again. There was no fear, no pulling away or even holding back, nothing reserved or restrained or considered. His hands hurt me, and I wanted them to. His mouth took from me and I wanted nothing left behind.

This is only really a problem when it comes to the scenes in the Garden, where description is everything. I admit I’m not the best person to critique stuff like this, because I don’t visualize places as they are described when I read. But everything about this book just seems like a confusing mish-mash of same-same.

Even Ren and Phil feel very similar. The first-person perspective jumps between them within chapters. Now, I recently ran across an identical narrative device in Trouble. It worked fine there, because Pratt managed to differentiate between the two main characters. Here, I often forget whether Ren or Phil was the narrator, reminded only if the other character was in the scene and being referred to in the third person.

The basic premise of The Incrementalists is great. It’s like reincarnation lite—personality continuity suspended in a kind of symbiosis, with an agenda on top to “make the world better.” I liked it, and I genuinely liked how Brust and White handled the concept. Even the plot—Celeste, a recently deceased Incrementalist, is running a Xanatos gambit (TVTropes) that could destabilize the entire operation—is fantastic. By all rights, this should be a fun thriller.

Other than the stylistic and narrative issues, though, I just feel let down by the execution of that plot. The main characters spend far too much time sitting around talking about the Garden, explaining the Garden to Ren, “grazing” in the Garden, or mumbling pseudo-scientific stuff. It’s all very Roger Zelazny (or, as I mentioned, Tim Powers), in that it’s the magical realist equivalent of science fiction. But the most tense moment has to be when Celeste and Phil are at odds over a gun—that was exciting. The rest of the book is just work trying to follow the meandering, sometimes thorny explanations that Brust and White serve up to shore up an increasingly fractured “magic” (for lack of a better term) system.

Look, if you have a higher tolerance for this type of novel, you might enjoy this, just as I have a much higher tolerance for the pedantic hard SF technobabble of Alastair Reynolds than a lot of other people just as, if not more, intelligent as me. To each their own, right? But just because other people might enjoy this novel doesn’t mean it’s well-written or even all that good, in the same way that a serviceable cup of Tetley orange pekoe tea is nowhere near as good as loose-leaf. I drink the former pretty often when I’m too lazy to steep it properly—but I don’t pretend it’s amazing.

3. Year Zero

by Rob Reid

Year Zero cover image
ISBN:
9780345534415
Format:
Hardcover, 364 pages
Published:
Del Rey, 2012

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

Why not finish out 2015 by reading a book called Year Zero? I was ambivalent about this one, and I figured this for a win–win proposition. Either I love it, so my year ends with a bang; or I hate it, but if so, then there’s always next year! I was correct—and I’m coming down on the “hate it” side. So here’s to 2016: a brand new year for reading! But first, let’s sweep away this year with one last scathing review!

The warning signs for Year Zero start early. The prologue, Chapter Zero, is a neutron-star–dense cludge of exposition dropping us into this universe, where the universe’s civilizations are enthralled by humanity’s music but, because they are bound to respect our laws, are now guilty of copyright infringement and owe us ALL THE MONEY in statutory fines. It’s a stupid premise—and I’m OK with that. I appreciate that Rob Reid is trying to poke fun at a subject we normally consider dry and uninteresting, even though it’s super important. The cover copy of this book tries to liken it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is sacrilege and inaccurate. And it’s clear that Year Zero is trying to be a hip, zany-but-compelling critique of the music business and the absurdity of (American) copyright laws. Yet it is just so poorly written (and edited) that it falls short of even the most generous expectations I might set for it.

The prologue is short; I’ll give it that. If it were the only example of egregious exposition, then I might be able to move past it. But the infodumping really only gets worse from there. When Nick Carter, our hero, meets his first aliens, he naturally has lots of questions. And so most of the scenes are question-and-answer dialogues that lead us down increasingly convoluted rabbit-holes replete with pop culture references that might have been relevant and interesting in the nineties but just feel tired now. Nick periodically pauses to curse out Windows (and the last chapter is devoted, in a sad digression, almost entirely to that), and Reid alludes to Clippy, the Backstreet Boys, Brittney Spears … for a book from 2012, it feels dated almost instantly.

Meanwhile, between the constant, unwanted stream of information and the dated pop culture references, keeping track of the high-concept plot becomes an unwieldy proposition. There’s a reason why law shows focus on the drama among lawyers and their minions and courtroom scenes are unrealistically presented: real-life law can be boring. It’s tedious and dull. And the legal parts of Year Zero are exactly that. The moment Nick or someone else starts talking about the law, my eyes begin to glaze over. It doesn’t help that Reid belongs to the select group of people who think that footnotes are funny or somehow add something to a novel. (Full disclosure: I was briefly one of those people one summer in 2006, but I was also 16, so I feel like I have a bit of an excuse.) While they might have a claim to being more appropriate given the law motifs of the book, the footnotes are universally unfunny and forgettable; indeed, they are simply another excuse to shove more “facts” at us and more irrelevant names and dates.

I get the feeling that Reid is just trying so hard to be funny with every single page, as if the sheer volume of humour contained within the story might somehow make people care about copyright reform. Now, I already care about copyright reform, and I actually completely agree with some of Reid’s real-life positions on the absurd nature of these infringement laws. So maybe it’s a case of preaching to the choir, but this book neither made me laugh nor made me care about copyright.

There was one set of remarks I found both genuinely hilarious and thought-provoking. Reid has Nick comment on how the executives in the music industry seem to hate everyone who helps them make money:

And as for decisive, these people are clinically paralyzed by ignorance, arrogance, politics, bureaucracy and, above all else, fear — fear of doing the wrong thing. And it's not just fear of hurting themselves that has them hamstrung. No — what brings on the night sweats is their fear of doing something that might inadvertently benefit someone they hate. And this is a real risk, because the giant music execs seem to hate everyone their businesses touch. They hate each other, for one thing. And boy, do they hate the musicians (spoiled druggie narcissists!) They certainly hate the radio stations that basically advertise their music for free (too much power, the bastards!) And they loathe the online music industry (thieving geek bastards!) They hated the music retailers, back when they still existed (the bastards took too much margin!) They hate the Walmart folks, who account for most of what's left of physical CD sales (red state Nazi cheapskates!) They've always hated the concert industry (we should be getting that money!) And they all but despise the music-buying public (thieves! they're all a bunch of down-loading geek bastard thieving-ass thieves!)

He continues in this vein to point out how the industry’s hatred of Apple for revolutionizing digital music sales (and striking the biggest blow to piracy) with iTunes/iPods is irrational. This is a really great point, and this moment resonated for me. And then the book goes and makes another stupid joke about something else, and the moment is gone.

I’m sure a great deal of work went into this. And that’s where the editing needed to be better—burn it down and salt the earth help. Because the constant stream of “look at me and how clever and relevant I can be” jokes, however hard it might have been to come up with them, just feels like an attempt to cover up a lazy plot that meanders and goes almost nowhere, only to fizzle at the end. This also in the way Reid names things: Wrinkles, Perfuffinites, pluuhhs, and Guardians. It’s so half-baked and lazy that it almost feels contemptuous, as if Reid is intentionally writing bad science fiction in order to mock it—and, to be clear, I’m certain that isn’t the intent. But this is what happens when, in trying to be humourous, you make the mistake of not taking the genre itself seriously.

Further to the idea of laziness, Year Zero’s protagonist is a great example of one of the more common and troubling effects of white male privilege in literature. It’s kind of the corollary to the uproar over more diverse casts, or casting non-white, non-male actors as leads in “important” movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Basically, we white dudes are very good at believing that everyone likes to read stories where the hero is a white dude like us. Now, by itself, a story with a white dude as the hero is not a bad thing. But it gets really problematic when the white dude is almost certainly less competent and less interesting than other members of the cast.

Nick Carter is somewhat boring and not all that original—much as his boss initially pegs him. Indeed, Manda and Judy both seem far more suited to the task of dealing with aliens—and despite Nick’s eleventh hour inspiration to make him the hero once again, they pretty much shoulder the heavy lifting. And both Manda and Judy feel like far more interesting characters than Nick, to the extent that the entire book could have been written from one of their perspectives, without Nick at all, and been better for it.

But white male privilege often means authors have a huge blindspot here and labour under the assumption that a bland white guy with no particular redeeming talents or skills will, by default, be a more likable and sympathetic protagonist than competent women. While this is a problem for Year Zero, it’s not so much a critique of Reid in particular as an author but an example of a more systemic problem with our literature. We need to do better here, and one way to do it is to stop and think about who the main character of our books should really be.

Aside from that brief moment of lucidity I mentioned above, Year Zero almost manages to come together and feel coherent towards the end of the book. Nick and Manda are racing, almost out of time before the baddies’ plot comes to fruition. This crunch lends an urgency to the pacing that not even the constant infodumping can dispel. Unfortunately, Reid doesn’t sustain this suspense, and at what should have been a fretful climax, Nick miraculously saves the day in one of the most boring and tedious courtroom scenes I’ve read. And then there’s that last chapter about how Bill Gates and Windows are evil (amirite), and I just wanted to groan.

If Year Zero demonstrates anything, it isn’t the absurdity of copyright law. It’s that writing comedy is difficult. Not only does it take hard work, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that even good comedy writers end up discarding a lot of material just because it doesn’t work. Sometimes it can be salvaged, and sometimes it gets put to rest for good. But just because you have tried your best to be funny doesn’t mean you should put that best effort out there and expect a gold star.

I’m disappointed in this book not just because it’s terrible but because it’s terrible and it’s about a subject close to my heart. I’m really sympathetic to the ideas Reid portrays here; I wish I could love this book and hold it up as a great way to learn more about what bad copyright laws are doing to our society. It’s not meant to be.

So here’s to my last review of 2015!

2. Replay

by Ken Grimwood

Replay cover image
ISBN:
9781400190102
Format:
Audiobook, 12 pages
Published:
Tantor Media Inc, 2008

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

For the first time in a while, I actually regret sticking out this book instead of DNF-ing it. It was bad. Just as I was starting to lose all hope, there was a glimmer a couple of hours in that made me hang on a bit longer. And then I figured I might as well finish the whole thing just to learn why Jeff keeps replaying parts of his life. Because when you get right down to it, Replay has a sick and amazing premise, but Ken Grimwood's writing leaves much to be desired.

Grimwood's prose is so purple I'm surprised it's not gangrenous. I listened to the audio version (because that was the only version available from my library), mostly at 2.4x speed, and it still felt like too long. Grimwood feels it's necessary to describe every single thing in detail. It's not just a table; it's a luxurious oak table with a fine gold inlay that Jeff purchased with money he won or got from investments or whatever. She's not just a woman; she has pert yet simultaneously round breasts that rise just the right amount as she raises her long, slender arms above her head. Every time Jeff picks up a glass of wine or looks at an album label the narrator has to interject with some kind of commentary on the vintage or irrelevant facts about the career of that band.

It is, quite literally, a maddening experience.

I could almost forgive that, but Replay is also just creepily male gazey. At one point, pretty early on in the novel, Jeff literally calls a woman "a machine made for fucking."

NO.

You just don't say that, ever, with the possible exception of writing (bad) erotic fiction.

Oh, and then he gives that character a huge bag of money because he's breaking up with her, and she pity fucks him, because "for $250,000 you deserve it." What??

But this isn't just poor writing. Indeed, it should be a laudable thing when I inform you that, aside from Jeff, almost every other character of note in this book is a woman. That is, until you realize that's the case because they are all sex interests for Jeff. Grimwood spends an inordinate time focusing on Jeff's sex life. The bulk of Jeff's replays focus on which woman he decides to shack up with and how well she satisfies his physical and emotional man-baby needs. And with the exception of his mother (because ew), even if Jeff doesn't sleep with a woman, he still thinks about sleeping with her, and the narrator describes her entirely in terms of how fuckable she is.

This is pretty much the textbook example of male gaze. It's painful to listen to this for hours on end. Now I know what's like for women to watch or read most movies or books. So, yeah. Thanks, Replay, for helping me to build empathy with how women feel in our society by being so terribly creepy? I think?

It's just such a shame that this amazing premise gets squandered. Jeff, and then Jeff and Pamela when he meets her during his third replay, speculate a little as to the cause and reason behind their staggered, spiralling reincarnations. Yet there is no payoff. None. We never learn why or how they keep reliving their lives, just that they have learned some big lesson about making the most out of their futures. Except I'm pretty sure that Jeff is just going to continue evaluating women's worth as sex objects and being a terrible husband, because he is the worst.

Just don't read this book.

1. Damned

by Chuck Palahniuk

Damned  cover image
ISBN:
9780385671101
Format:
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published:
Doubleday Canada, 2011

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

I have to return this book to the library soon, because despite putting it on hold, it has another hold on it already. Already. This Chuck Palahniuk guy sure is popular. Yet I feel as if I should do my civic duty and put a sticky note inside this book that reads, “Don’t bother.” That’s pretty much my review of Damned, in two words.

Madison Spencer is a thirteen-year-old girl, the daughter of rich-but-eccentric parents who love her but are not close to her. She overdoses on marijuana on her thirteenth birthday, dies, and goes to Hell, which it turns out runs on candy and forces people to work, usually as telemarketers. (It is Hell, I guess, so that’s fair.)

Madison Spencer is really concerned with letting you know that she is well aware of who Judy Blume is and that she has a good vocabulary. That’s why she starts every chapter with a faux-naive address to the Prince of Lies himself: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” and why every time she uses a word that you might doubt a thirteen-year-old would know, she lampshades it by challenging you and reminding us of her bookish habits, because she feels alienated and angsty (unlike any other teen in the history of ever). When she isn’t sharing her thoughts on her own sexuality, she’s rubbing decaptitated heads into giant clitorises, telling living people that dying and going to Hell is a bucket o’ fun, and punching Hitler and ripping off his moustache as a trophy (because why not?).

Going to be honest: I kind of stopped paying attention after the punching Hitler part. But by that time I was too far in to quit, and I rather hoped that Palahniuk would somehow pull a redemptive ending out of his ass that would, if not make my time sunk into this worth it, at least give me something marginally positive to say in this review.

Alas.

Damned occurs entirely in the first-person voice of Maddy. And that’s where it falls flat for me: Chuck Palahniuk does not convince me that this is a thirteen-year-old girl, or at least, not any thirteen-year-old girl I want to sympathize with:

A crew of sinister Snarky Miss Snarky-pants girls at my old boarding school, the infamous three who taught me the French-kissing Game, they once professed toe ducate me about human reproduction. As they told it to me, the reason boys desire so desperately to kiss girls is because, with each kiss, the activity makes the boy’s wanger grow larger. The more girls a boy can kiss, the larger a wanger he’ll eventually possess, and the boys boasting the largest are awarded the best-paying, highest-status jobs. Really, it’s all very simple. All boys devote their lives to amassing the most elongated genitals, growing the nasty things so that when they eventually wedge them inside some unfortunate girl, the distant end of the enlarged wanger actually breaks off—yes, the wanger flesh becomes so hardened that it shatters—and the broken portion remains lodged within the girl’s hoo-hoo. This natural event is much like those lizards that live in arid deserts and can voluntarily detach their squirming tails. Any amount, from the pointed tip to almost the entire wiener, can literally snap off inside a girl, and she’s fully unable to remove it.

WTF, Chuck? The above language sounds like something I’d more likely find in Worst. Person. Ever. —and you wish you were as darkly hilarious as Coupland. Not only is that just crude, but it’s not even the type of crude that would actually slip out of a thirteen-year-old girl’s lips. Trust me, I asked a couple of people who were once thirteen-year-old girls. Did you?

It’s not even the “thirteen-year-old” or the “girl” parts that Palahniuk fails so badly at: Maddy just doesn’t seem like an actual person. She is a badly written character. And given the equally-bad twist at the end, maybe that’s intentional Palahniuk is just trying to be uber-meta and clever—but I’m just not charitable enough to cut him such a large length of slack. My slack is incredibly short supply these days, and I cannot dole it out to just anyone. You have to earn some of my slack, Chuck, and you don’t do that here.

Even if I cut you slack on Maddy—and I’m not—the rest of Damned is still a disaster. Let’s talk about Hell:

I explain the seemingly arbitrary rules of which people run afoul, how each living person is allowed to use the F-word a maximum of seven hundred times. Most living persons haven’t the slightest idea how easy it is to be damned, but should anyone say fuck for the 701st time, he or she is automatically doomed. Similar rules apply to personal hygiene; for example, the 855th time you fail to wash your hands after voiding your bowels or bladder, you’re doomed….

Such yawn. Much boredom.

And yes—I will say this explicitly, lest someone reads these criticisms and challenges me on the grounds that I did not “get it”—I get it: Palahniuk is trying to make Hell sound boring and drab and overly bureaucratic. The problem with that? It’s boring (and drab). Matthew Hughes does a far superior job depicting an overly-bureaucratic Hell. And he manages to do so while exploring some interesting moral and philosophical issues. Palahniuk just seems to be working out some prurient plotlines that don’t actually go anywhere.

One reason I got so far into the book before realizing I should bail is that I was waiting for something to happen (beyond the going to Hell part). Maddy spends the first hundred pages stuck in a cell or wandering aimlessly around Hell with her friends before we even get a glimmer of the wider structure of the place. Even then there seems to be little hope of an over-arching storyline. Maddy veers from one remembrance of her parents’ terrible parenting to another, and all the while she has conversations with living people over the phone. Oh, and then she goes off on some kind of sabbatical and ends up punching Hitler.

Because … why not?

Then there’s the twist at the end. Without spoiling it, all I can say is it puts Maddy in a Satan-killing mood, and that’s where the book ends. On a cliffhanger. After less than three hundred pages. Maybe if you had led with the twist, Chuck, and built an engrossing story around it, then I would have liked Damned. As it is, now I just feel like you spent an entire novel working up to the real story, in Doomed. The irony here is that the only reason I read Damned is because my Dad gave me a copy of Doomed many Christmases ago, and I thought it sounded very interesting but that I should read the first book in the series before I read it.

Past!me, you were so wrong, it is not even funny.

Damned is crazy, and not in a good crazy way. I’m guessing Palahniuk wants to be clever in a shocking-look-at-me-for-how-outrageous-this-is! kind of way. It all falls very flat, and the result is nearly three hundred pages of boredom topped only by my disbelief—in everything. It has been a long time since I’ve read a book, and finished it, and not had anything good to say about it. I’m less than 10 books into 2015, and already I think I have a solid candidate for worst book I’ve read this year.

My two words still stand: Don’t Bother. Read anything else. Read another Palahniuk book. Read a Twilight book. Read Twilight fanfic. But leave this one on the library shelf where it belongs. Don’t even think about putting it on hold.