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 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!


Last semester, I was confused into thinking that I needed an elective to fulfil my course requirements. I chose Macroeconomics 101 because of two reasons: (1) The only other courses that fitted my schedule were Social Work and Chinese Religions, neither of which interested me in the least, and (2) Economics has a reputation as a subject any self-respecting intellectual must have some acquaintance with. And I wanted to be a self-respecting intellectual. Thankfully, towards the end of the add-drop period, I found out that I did not, in fact, need to take an elective and I could have my Thursday afternoons off instead.

But the desire to be a self-respecting intellectual continued to nag the edges of my consciousness. It grew especially loud whenever my debating partner essentially had to ironman1 economics motions, even though I was the extension speaker2. So I put Freakonomics on my to-read list, thinking its generally positive reception from laymen readers and the How to Fossilise Your Hamster-tone would make it a useful starting point.

However, contrary to my high expectations, I finished Freakonomics this afternoon with very mixed feelings. While I can understand why it has been lauded as ‘refreshing’ and ‘unconventional’, ‘groundbreaking’ is a bit excessive. On the book’s Goodreads page, the top question asks why the average rating could possibly be below four. The user goes on to call the book ‘pure genius’ and dismiss readers who gave it low ratings as ‘people [who] do not understand the basics of economics’. Needless to say, I disagree. In fact, I suspect the low raters to be more familiar with economics, or at least subjects requiring similar critical and analytical skills. Too often, I struggled to find the crucial intermediate steps between Levitt’s bold hypotheses and conclusions. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources (the outdated baby car seat study from Chapter 5 being a notable example). And the explanations were generally too simplistic to be convincing or evaluable.

In Chapter 1, the title question was overworked and misleading – akin to a sensationalist headline more suited to the Daily Mail. If the only commonality between the two entirely different professions is cheating, then really, a more appropriate question would have been: “what do most people have in common?” After all, even the authors themselves agree that it is something everyone does, to varying degrees and frequencies. And the title of Chapter 3 implies that poor drug dealers is somehow deeply shocking. Surely, the average informed reader knows that the vast majority of dealers earn barely enough to survive, let alone live among the top 1%? But I digress.

Levitt’s presumptuous tone is most apparent in the final two chapters; although he admitted that his data cannot conclusively answer how much parents matter, he was still unpalatably dismissive. In pointing out, say, museum visits by ‘obsessive’ parents as having no correlation to their children’s early test results (and hence no impact on the children’s dispositions – a ridiculous leap in their logic), the authors were missing the point. I doubt parents organise these supplementary cultural outings to boost their children’s arithmetic or reading comprehension. And an appreciation of the history and wonders of our world can hardly be quantified in an elementary school exam. Similarly, regular spanking may not have a discernible influence on early test scores, but that does not automatically negate the potential effects on the child’s emotional well-being and perspective on violence.

Or in Chapter 6, where Levitt happily determined that names carry no weight at all. Look, Loser is now a high-ranking detective! And Winner, his brother, is a convicted criminal. This proves my point! Would it have been too far-fetched to entertain the possibility that a name like ‘Loser’ could have instilled a defiant determination to succeed? Sure, giving a child a ‘high-end’ name will not catapult him into the educated and upper classes. But Levitt’s black-and-white claim was feebly supported, at best. Likewise, he argued that the most important factor in the sudden drop in crime was the legalisation of abortion. Yet he also recognised that at least three other factors were largely responsible too. How was he so sure that abortion was the biggest contributor? His deductions (beyond superficial appeals to intuitive logic) were never made clear. Besides, the abortion argument was based on many assumptions (for one, that most poor, uneducated pregnant women would always choose abortions), which were not identified or substantiated either. Levitt would have to do much more to give his argument a solid foundation.

Alas, it seems I am no closer to becoming a self-respecting intellectual. Nevertheless, I concede that Freakonomics was engaging and easy to grasp (hence my generous rating). I especially liked the epilogue, Two Paths to Harvard, which I think wrapped up the book in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I would, however, highly encourage reading it critically, and more as a stimulus than a thorough manual on how things work.

Rating: 3/5

1In Parliamentary debating, teams compete in pairs. Usually, each member speaks once. If a debater drops out, the remaining debater can make both speeches for the team. He/she is now an ironman. Of course, in the instances mentioned above, Ty (my partner) did not actually ironman. But since he came up with all our points and told me what to say, he essentially did.

2In each team, one person is usually the first/extension speaker and the other the second speaker/whip (unless something drastic happens and they switch roles). The first/extension speaker always gives the bulk of the case (the most important arguments).