I Can’t Be the Only One

There are contemporary books so lauded or so popular, they are cultural pillars in our collective consciousness (at least, my generation’s): Harry Potter, Twilight, and to lesser extents, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson. And because these series have transcended into such phenomena, there is luxurious room for justified disappointment, apathy and even loathing.

There are also books, though not Herculean triumphs like the aforementioned, that are popular enough to have seemingly achieved omnipresence across social media platforms and in prime window displays in bricks-and-mortar stores (yes, those still exist). Many of these are adored enough to have scored an average 4.0+ on Goodreads. To the uninitiated bibliophile, that may not sound impressive, but with a community numbering more than 55 million members and books often receiving more than 100,000 ratings each, such a high average is actually no easy feat. For the typical book, it would mean almost 50,000 deeming it perfect enough to merit the elusive five stars. From my personal experience, the rating system really is quite reliable, and I do agree with the vast majority of the 4.0+ ratings for the books I have read.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is, I have been increasingly frequently boggled by certain books, which either received rave reviews or were otherwise simply commercially successful enough to have sold-out sequels etc. Here is a list of those books, and why I did not enjoy them.

1. Freakonomics (averaging 3.9 stars)

I wrote a full review for this ‘groundbreaking’ introduction to economics a little while back. Steven D. Levitt certainly thinks of himself as some ‘woke’ academic with (gasp) controversial answers to some big questions. But too often, the crucial intermediate steps between his bold hypotheses and conclusions were missing. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources. His deductions were no more than superficial appeals to intuitive logic. And the black-and-white explanations were too simplistic to be convincing or even evaluable.

The titles for most chapters were overworked and sensationalist. His tone was unpalatably dismissive, stamped with an all-too-familiar oh look at you less educated souls, how cute! strain of superiority. Yes, I was uncharacteristically generous when I gave this three stars. But be assured that it was for wholly unrelated reasons to the educational value of this book. If you want to learn some economics, look somewhere else instead.

2. Heartless (4.1 stars)

Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles was deserving of praise. The retellings stood on inventive premises that worked, had compelling and complicated characterisations both familiar and fresh, and were different enough from previous reworkings to make them feel like completely new stories. Heartless (a ‘prequel’ to Alice in Wonderland) was not this.

The protagonist, Cath, was insufferable – the archetypal fortunate-in-all respects girl blessed with wealth, a good family, attractiveness, and purported ‘intelligence’, who was woefully stuck in an oh-so-original ‘unfortunate’ circumstance (catching the eye of the king). If the problem were just the premise, I would have been willing to set it aside. But she could not seem to do anything but whine. Whine and precipitate the very disaster she was warned about repeatedly throughout the novel. Oh, and inexplicably turn mad and start chopping heads off left, right and centre.

I mean, I get it. [Highlight to show spoiler] Her lover died. (Her fault.) But it was all so sudden. The final few chapters felt like Meyer was desperately rushing to turn Cath into the villain we all know so well from the original stories, knowing that she was already running out of steam. Not to mention how clichéd it all was. True, clichés are clichés for a reason – they can still be powerful when spun well. This was not spun well.

3. The Wrath and the Dawn (4.2 stars)

I also wrote a full review for this duology, the first four paragraphs of which discuss the sheer ludicrousness of the plot and characterisations (or lack thereof). But if you cannot be bothered to scan a few more hundred words, the gaping flaws were as follows:

  • Girl’s best friend is murdered by the caliph.
  • Said girl has few charms to recommend her (at least, none uniquely able to catch the caliph’s attention when 70+ just as beautiful and much more talented girls have failed) but decides to seduce and murder the caliph.
  • Girl thinks she’s all that but it’s a Hong Kong summer-ful of hot air. 90% of her qualities are tell-not-show.
  • Caliph is seduced. Don’t ask me.
  • On day two, girl becomes all butterflies and lust for her best friend’s murderer because he’s frickin’ hot.
  • Some corny lines.
  • More corny lines.
  • She finally finds out why he has been murdering a girl every dawn and stuff actually goes down but it’s already the last few chapters.

I really have no clue why the two books were considered to be amongst the best fantasy novels published in their respective years. Nor why readers swooned from the ridiculous patchwork of clichés that was the central ‘romance’. I did end up giving the second book four stars, precisely for the same reasons most readers enjoyed it less – the eye-rolling romance became less important, towns were razed, a war declared, basically some actual action happened.

4. The Sword of Summer (4.3 stars)

I know, I know, this is a Middle Grade book, so I was not the intended audience. While I staunchly believe books written for younger audiences should never automatically be held to lower critical standards (read The Little Prince, Harry Potter, even picture books like The Giving Tree and The Paper Bag Princess), another spin-off series is just one too many. There are only so many times you can rehash the exact same concept, and for Riordan, third time was sadly not the charm.

With The Sword of Summer, you can tell he was trying too hard. His wit was a little thinner, his characters flatter, his twists more formulaic. Magnus Chase might as well have been Percy Jackson 2.0 – take Percy Jackson’s voice and personality traits, truss them up into a younger blond, and you have our latest demigod hero. I was so uninterested I gave up after the first quarter. Maybe it’s time to get back to some actual creativity.

5. Deathless (4.1 stars)

Valente’s lemony prose first captivated me in her Fairyland series (reviews here, here and here), with its sumptuous verbal illustrations weaving allusive treasure troves for literature lovers and seasoned readers. Deathless boasts the same meandering descriptions, but in this case, the leaden-footed build-up was an unfortunate detriment instead. The narration was too verbose, bordering on pretentiously philosophical, and I was constantly tempted to skip entire chapters.

It suited Fairyland, where there was a deliberate absence of urgency or any overarching tasks, so the reader was able to feel like she had all the time in the world to be enamoured by the wondrous, witty marvels of Valente’s unique, well, fairyland. I am sure her extensive knowledge of Russian folklore was incredibly impressive. I am sure she transformed well-loved stories (as she did with Fairyland) into a poignant, heart-wrenching, witty, intricate mural of war and love – if you ever manage to slog through it first. But no amount of genius or incandescent language can make up for the total lack of direction. If this novel were 100 pages shorter, perhaps I would have been able to finish it.

So?

So there you have it, why I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, why these books receive such inflated hype. Are there any popular books that you just could not enjoy? Comment them below, I would love to hear!

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

The final addition to one of my most beloved series, The Girl Who Raced packed in all of the Dramatis Personae we have come to know and love, and laced them together in a delicate orange bow. And the ending, what a marvellous conclusion to the wondrous adventures that were the preceding novels! I applaud Valente for dreaming up such a splendid finale. I would wax nostalgic about it and risk unravelling Fairyland’s heart, but where would the fun be in that? Read the book yourselves! (If you had already, you might have noticed the clever allusion in my rhetorical question, of which I am particularly proud.)

Ah, I notice that Valente’s lemony prose is seeping into my own. It had first captivated me as I was flipping through what was to become one of my favourites of all time. But I have to admit, her bubbling streams of ‘ands’ and tangents made mesmerising narrations in the first three novels, but they became somewhat tiresome in The Girl Who Raced. Perhaps it is because, for the first time, there was a tangible sense of urgency – Race is in the title, after all. Whereas in the preceding books, the reader drifted over and under and through yet more unexplored terrain, with all the time in the world to be filled with adolescent awe. But thankfully, her prose only began to lose colour towards the end, and then picked right up again. And her unrivalled verbal illustrations continued to weave magic during the first half.

I will admit, I still had not finished The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, finding the abrupt departure from September and Saturday and A-Through-L a bit too disconcerting. And the plot lacked the same enchantment that had brought the first three books to life. I did, however, skim enough of it to understand the chaos that was in the first chapter of this one, so I had no trouble navigating at all. Nonetheless, to my more patient readers, please do try harder than I did, if only to write me a detailed summary afterwards! And on the topic of September and Saturday and A-Through-L, the original revolutionary trio, it took a while to remember that September was no longer the Heartless 12-year-old with ungainly feet, or that Saturday was once too timid to raise his voice above phantom whispers. I had not realised how much I had missed them until I finally gave in and purchased the Kindle edition (being too impatient to order a physical copy and have to wait for it to arrive).

I am certainly sad to let go of the Winds and Imogen and Iago and even the Marquess (just in case you were not aware, there is actually a prequel available for free online, which narrates her first rise to power). Though, with such a perfect ending, the sentiment is more sweet than bitter, not unlike looking up to unexpectedly find an endless indigo sky strewn with shooting stars and knowing that dawn is near.

Rating: 4/5

For my review on The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, the third book, please click here.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

I realise that this review should have been written a long time ago, since the fifth and final book of the series came out earlier this month. But since so many of my friends still had not heard of these books until I kept waxing lyrical about them, I like to think that there is still a point to publishing this post. (To be perfectly truthful, the main reason for the delay is that I had only read the book two days ago.)

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The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland is the third book in Catherynne M. Valente’s latest series. It possesses all the characteristics of her works, complete with a subversive narrator, profound prose and an eclectic mix of characters and creatures. If you found the lush narrative of The Night Circus intoxicating, then this series will prove to be an immense delight. In fact, Valente’s detailed descriptions are even denser. In this particular book, her naming conventions are as witty as ever, with new locations such as the Stationery Circus (a play on the archetypal ‘travelling’ circus), where the performers are made entirely from love letters and birthday invitations. By now, I have begun to actively look for double entendres, literary allusions and satirical jokes beneath every name and statement.

Some of my favourite examples are in the first book; the protagonist hears about other children Stumbling into Fairyland through armoires (Narnia) and tornadoes (The Wizard of Oz), and dreams about having buttered cogs for tea (in Alice in Wonderland, the movement of the Hatter’s watch is buttered). The stories are allusive treasure troves for adults and seasoned readers, but younger audiences will also be enchanted by the bizarre, thought-provoking world and storylines. However, I did occasionally find the plot of The Girl Who Soared rather slow because of the heavy, meticulous descriptions, but if exquisite accounts of Valente’s unique Fairyland appeal to you, then you would not necessarily consider this a negative trait.

This instalment focuses on the universal concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘growing up’, and Valente demonstrates an incredible talent for exploring these timeworn ideas in a refreshing and eloquent manner. After glimpsing a shocking character at the end of the first book, the protagonist is still confused and unsure of how to approach her future. If she has a fate, can she also have free will? Can she choose anything? Was she ever able to choose? Her frustrations are complicated by her friend, an ocean djinni, for whom time is more akin to a circle than a straight line, and who often encounters his past and future selves. In his case, it seems that his future is already set in stone. But if he had to make decisions to reach that future, then do those decisions count as choices?

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two is another deceptively complex, whirlwind adventure and will not disappoint fans of the first two books.

Favourite quote: “The whole point of growing up is to get big enough to hold the world you want inside you. But it takes a long time, and you really must eat your vegetables, and most often you have to make the world you want out of yourself.”
Rating: 4/5

To buy the book, click here. This post was not sponsored.
All illustrations courtesy of Ana Juan.