Worst Books I Read in 2008 – Book List

This list originally appeared as a blog post.


10. Lavinia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia cover image
Hardcover, 288 pages
Harcourt, 2008

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

I respect Ursula K. Le Guin greatly, for although she tackles many difficult and controversial topics, she never beats you over the head with her opinions. Works like her The Left Hand of Darkness allow you to read an intriguing story while at the same time, if you want, open yourself to new ideas.

Le Guin brings a feminist voice to the eponymous Lavinia, a character from Vergil's Aeneid. She tells Lavinia's story from her point of view, wrapping it within the meta story of Lavinia encountering the poet Vergil through a series of dream sequences. I found that a bit hard to follow, but it didn't really ruin my enjoyment of the book.

It isn't just Lavinia's story, though, which is truly what makes the book work. Le Guin uses Lavinia to bring us a glimpse of a period of history often overlooked in contemporary literature. Many authors write about ancient Rome and Greece, but until now I've never encountered a book set just prior to the founding of Rome. Le Guin shows us what life might have been like for those Latin villagers, what a noblewoman like Lavinia could have expected in terms of being married off, the rituals and beliefs in their pre-Olympian, pre-Christian cultures. I found it fascinating.

So why only two stars? Well, frankly, it is not as good as most of Le Guin's work. "Okay" is not good enough—I expect better! Plus, in places the narrative was somewhat dry, so while the setting and characters were interesting, the story was not always so. Some people might not like the narrative style either--there is very little dialogue, except in Lavinia's conversations with Vergil. Instead, it is told in an almost stream-of-consciousness perspective, with Lavinia relaying back her interpretation of the other characters' thoughts and actions.

If you don't read this book, you're not missing out on anything big and impressive. If you like Le Guin, Lavinia, or pre-Roman Italy, you'll probably enjoy this.

9. The Sword of Truth series

by Terry Goodkind

The Sword of Truth series cover image
Hardcover, None pages

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

My coworker lent each of these consecutively to me during the summer; it was sort of a “summer reading project.” Goodkind, a fantasist who insists he’s not a fantasist, crafted an 11-book series in an alternative world concerning the ultimate battle of good versus evil. Oh, and there’s lots of rape.

So I'm naming the entire series as a worst book of 2008! You can see all of my reviews here.

8. Beginner's Greek

by James Collins

Beginner's Greek cover image
Hardcover, 416 pages
Little Brown and Company, 2008

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

This is one of those books I would only read because I randomly picked it up off the "New Books" shelf of my library. When I lack specific books I want to get on a trip to the library, I try to keep an open mind and stretch my comfort level when it comes to the type of book I might enjoy. This one looked like a "maybe." I'm not into the whole romance thing, so I was hoping it would be pretty funny. And I was right.

To me, it reads like a romantic comedy movie more than a book. I could see each scene happening in my head, and it had the same sort of pacing that a movie has--if it isn't a movie yet, then I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes one soon.

As with most plots of this nature, I found it utterly predictable. Certain aspects were surprising, of course—I didn't see the best friend dying by a lightning strike on Peter's wedding day, of course. But it was clear that Peter and Holly would end up together, somehow, and that everyone would live happily ever after. If you're looking for a fresh new plot with compelling characters, you won't get it here. Oh, the characters are interesting, and you'll end up hating most of them by the end. But you have to be able to stomach the smugness that the book exudes as all the threads come together and the loose ends get tied up.

It was OK. Enjoyable light reading, and it fulfilled my need to yell at the book when characters are being stupid and cheer when good things happen.

7. The Uses of Enchantment

by Heidi Judavits

The Uses of Enchantment cover image
Hardcover, 368 pages
Doubleday, 2006

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

This book began with a great deal of promise, but as I got to knew the characters, I liked it less and less.

Heidi Julavits demonstrates how one can avoid using quotation marks to indicate dialogue without confusing the reader, a lesson Ali Smith could stand to learn. The Uses of Enchantment is far superior to The Accidental in use of language and style to create a particular atmosphere and introduce the character. I enjoy how Julavits varies the chapters among "what might have happened," the notes of Mary's therapist, flashbacks, and present day events. Unlike Master of the Delta, the periods in time are clearly separated, not confusing, and not annoying. Indeed, this book seems to employ two narrative devices used in other books I recently read and didn't much like, yet it does it so much better than those books.

Style aside, however, I didn't like this book as much as I thought I would. I empathize with Mary, who was either abducted and never properly counselled about it or engineered a fake abduction and never adjusted properly to society. But she spends most of the books complaining about how manipulative and narcissistic her mother was, and how she never got a chance to reconcile with her mother prior to her mother's death from cancer. Although the story spends a lot of time discussing therapy and Mary's experience with it, Mary never seems to have to exert much effort in her life or deal with any consequences (beyond her obvious estrangement from her family). She crashes a car, revisits the ghosts from her past, but at the end of the book, has she really changed from who she was at the beginning? No. And that was a disappointment.

6. Blasphemy

by Douglas Preston

Blasphemy cover image
Hardcover, 368 pages
Forge, 2008

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

Fairly predictable as a mystery, Blasphemy is an interesting hypothetical progression of hysteria surrounding a fictitious particle accelerator that is suspiciously similar to the Large Hadron Collider. Preston combines a lively mix of physics, religion, and espionage to generate an exciting page-turner.


My favourite characters were mostly antagonists. Their outrage at the ISABELLA project was wonderfully telegraphed through both dialogue and actions; sadly, these sorts of people do exist in real life.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the story and its outcome. It seemed like a bit of a letdown. I could have done with a more satisfying mystery.

5. Overture

by Yael Goldstein

Overture cover image
Hardcover, 304 pages
Doubleday, 2007

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

I went through alternating appraisals of Overture. At first I thought it was boring, then sweet, then sickeningly romantic (if I ever hear the words "torrid but virginal liaison" again, I will snap, I swear), and finally, musical.

I can't say I like the main character. She is one of those people who feels a constant, almost pathological, need to sabotage her own happiness. And I just can't accept that philosophy--even in the name of art. I couldn't help but yell at Tasha throughout the entire book, telling her what a fool she was being.

It wasn't a waste of time, though. As someone who enjoys classical music, I liked hearing Goldstein's descriptions of it through Tasha and her emotions. Some of those passages in which Tash explains how playing the music makes her feel ... those are the best parts of the book, the most real. I don't play an instrument (I took piano lessons, but lack the technical skill to ever be really good). But I appreciate music, and I enjoyed being able to understand music from the point of view of a musician.

As a novel, Overture isn't that good. As a character study, it is slightly better, if you can avoid the urge to hunt down this "Tasha Darsky" and try to talk some sense into her. But if you plan to read this, you must first have a stomach for plot-twisting romance and, of course, music.

4. What I Was

by Meg Rosoff

What I Was cover image
Hardcover, 240 pages
Viking, 2008

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

Not my cup of tea.

I like books like this, but I didn't enjoy this particular one as much as I had hoped. I just could not commit myself to empathizing with the narrator, so the entire story left me hollow. I felt like I was a passenger.

The first part of the book was quite intriguing. The narrator is a noncomformist boy who's been expelled twice; this is literally the boarding school of last resort. Then he discovers a friend in the form of a boy living alone in a house on an island near the school, and the two form a tentative relationship laced with overtones of homosexuality--which is just what Rosoff wants before she pulls THE TWIST that changes everything.

Unfortunately, after THE TWIST, the book isn't the same. It rapidly becomes a "hindsight is 20/20" sermon in which the main character regrets that he has no regrets and ultimately has not made much of his life. We are left with no resolution. It's quite postmodernist.

Much of the book consists of lyrical, florid prose. The descriptions are lengthy and evocative. The writing is quite good; don't get me wrong. I'll try more of Rosoff in the future. But this book didn't strike a chord for me.

3. The Last Theorem

by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

The Last Theorem cover image
Hardcover, 256 pages
Del Rey, 2008

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

Overall, the word I'd use to describe this book is "shallow." Clarke and Pohl, two big names in SF, have managed to take two interesting concepts (Fermat's Last Theorem and alien sterilization of Earth) and turn them into a boring book. It's as if they said one day, "Well, we've succeeded at everything else in literature; now we have to succeed at writing a bad book!"

My major problem with the book is the lack of any consequences, or really, any conflict at all. At points the story threatens to inject a conflict—such as when Ranjit becomes an unwitting accomplice to pirates and subsequently spends two years being tortured in prison. For a moment, I thought that might produce some genuine unhappiness that could mar this otherwise oppressively upbeat book. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Even toward the end, tragedy loomed on at least three separate occasions, yet somehow everything turned out all right. It's not that I have a problem with happy endings; I loves me a good happy ending. But happiness without struggle against adversity is hollow. I've read much better science fiction than this—this book feels like it was written for a fourteen-year-old as a "My first science fiction novel"—it's patronizing.

Our "protagonist", if indeed we can call him that, Ranjit, stumbles through his life without ever having to make any important decisions. Everything just sort of falls serendipitously into place. Oh, and along the way he discovers a miraculously short proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. Meanwhile, alien overlords have sent alien minions to sterilize Earth of dangerous humanity. But it's OK, because the overlords change their minds and then the minions befriend humanity.

As with the possibilities of tragedy I mentioned above, the book tempts us with the prospect of a meaningful theme when it touches upon the dangerous nature of an EMP-like weapon controlled by "the Big Three"—Russia, China, and the United States. Will this lead to an Orwellian future in which these Big Three control the only military forces on the planet? And will first contact with an alien species ironically lead to all-out planetary war even as the countries of humanity approach global peace?

Nah. It's much easier to just tell us in an epilogue that everything worked out fine, and thirteen thousand years everything was still going fine.

I'd have to say that even The Da Vinci Code better integrated an esoteric academic subject than this book. I understand that not everyone loves math as much as me, so I tolerate the explanations of Fermat's Last Theorem. But it wasn't even interesting. It had no relevance to the plot, because there was no plot. And since this book had Arthur C. Clarke's name on the cover, this has been the cause of severe disappointment for me!

2. The Abstinence Teacher

by Tom Perrotta

The Abstinence Teacher cover image
Hardcover, 368 pages
Random House, 2007

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

While the theme might be interesting, this book did not live up to my expectations. The changes the main characters underwent seemed rough and somewhat arbitrary, as if they were changing because the author wanted them to change for the purposes of the plot rather than through their own internal motivation. Tom Perrotta's writing style does nothing to rescue me from this plot-driven drivel. Don't get me wrong: this book has its moments; they are just few and far between.

The Abstinence Teacher begins by introducing us to Ruth, a divorced mom who's the sexual education teacher at the high school in this small, conservative town. She's under siege at school for wanting to teach safe sex instead of just abstinence. Meanwhile, she picks fights with her younger daughter's soccer coach, a born-again evangelical Christian, for leading the team in a prayer after a game. And she neglects her older daughter, which drives that daughter to seek meaning through—you guessed it—Christianity. Oh, and she wants to find a man. And she's friends with a gay couple.

I'm not making this up.

See, that's my problem with this novel: it's too contrived. I say too contrived because I realize that most novels, especially ones with overt thematic agendas like this one, need to be contrived to an extent. Perrotta has gone further than that, however, because he weaves sexuality into every aspect of the book and uses stereotypes like "the gay couple" to advance his theme. Others may not have a problem with this, but I found it awkward and artificial.

After getting to know Ruth, suddenly the book switches cameras to follow her daughter's soccer coach, Tim. Tim has problems: a former drug addict and reformed alcoholic, he credits Jesus with his salvation. Good so far—pretty believable. But he just can't shake Ruth from his mind, and eventually temptation rears its ugly head (heads?), forcing him to take advice from the spirited evangelical pastor of their local uber-conservative church.

Pastor Dennis is a great character, actually. Perrotta makes it clear that Dennis has a radical agenda on his mind and isn't above using radical means to advance it. It also helps set Pastor Dennis up as the real antagonist, thus allowing us to sympathize with Tim and his struggle to discern some sort of "truth" from the mess of life.

We experience a major portion, if not the majority of the book, following Tim's perspective before jumping back to Ruth, and then ultimately interspersing Ruth- and Tim-centric chapters. This works well, allowing us to see how each perceives the other and how each interprets shared experiences.

Unfortunately, Perrotta has certain other idiosyncrasies that made it hard for me to enjoy his writing. He has a tendency to introduce every single minor character with an appositive that sums them up in a trite little stereotype. I started noticing this about halfway through, and then it annoyed me for the rest of the book. Sometimes minor characters are just minor characters, Tom. We don't need to know about their favourite sexual positions….

Alas, it's an interesting concept, and one that is apparently relevant in contemporary American society. Yet I just could not enjoy it. I suspect, however, that others may like the book for the very reason I disliked it, so your mileage may vary.

1. The Art Thief

by Noah Charney

The Art Thief cover image
Hardcover, 304 pages
Atria Books, 2007

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

Noah Charney knows a lot about art. His writing, however, leaves much to be desired.

The book improved much throughout the course of the story. It started out as an uninteresting, rather dull story with disparate characters. Charney employs some rather unusual metaphors and descriptive phrases. At the very end of the story, when all is revealed and the mystery solved, one can look back and say, "Oh yes, this all comes together, how interesting."

Unfortunately, in order to get to that point, the reader must first slog through several chapters' worth of art history and Da Vinci-code-style puzzle pieces. Now, don't get me wrong. I like art, and I like art history. Charney clearly knows what he's talking about, but that's the problem--he is so passionate about his subject that he lectures, through his characters, far too much. While I normally enjoy learning fun facts from fiction, in this case, it breaks up the pacing of the story.

And what was with the random French and Italian sprinkled among the conversations? Yes, it is very nice that you know French and Italian (or know people who can help you translate it). But I already feel like you're bludgeoning me with a pretentious headstone of knowledge. This multilingual dialogue is just too much.

The Art Thief is a satisfactory mystery if you can stomach the ultra-intellectual cruft packed around the nugget of story goodness. If you are more into mysteries--or even art--than I am, you may enjoy it more. I wouldn't rush out to buy it though.