Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Regrettable Reads of 2016

As we come to the close of another year, my thoughts turn to reflections of the year that was. The words I’ve written and books I’ve read dominate my thoughts. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll reveal my lists of best and worst books I read in 2016. Today the focus is on the worst books I read.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: A first contact sci-fi novel from China, it started off okay opening with the events of the China’s Cultural Revolution before fast forwarding to the present. A selection for the book club I’m in, I was excited to read a novel written by a non-American and the novel is well-regarded. But as the book went along and more characters and layers were added, I found myself having a lot of difficulty finishing it. If I wasn’t reading it for book club I would have honestly stopped reading it because it started putting me to sleep.

There are many reasons why I didn’t like The Three-Body Problem. The story is told view several characters’ point of view, but none of these characters are fully developed. It was as if Liu was too focused on making sure the physics and engineering worked that he didn’t have the opportunity to develop the characters. None of them change and are incredibly wooden and one-dimensional.

While the plot itself is intriguing, the way it’s executed is dull. Heavily loaded with a lot of engineering and physics, the author himself is an engineer, much of the book reads more like a textbook rather than a novel. I appreciate Liu’s attention to such details and wanting to put the science into science fiction, but it’s that failure of the fiction component which lost me. Perhaps in the book’s original language the story grabs the reader and some of the magic of was lost in translation. Or perhaps for a liberal arts major this isn’t the book for me.

Data Bank by Tonya Sharp Hyche: Since I’ve previous reviewed this book I’ll not reiterate my reasons why I disliked the book.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: *INSERT LINKS* Another pick by my book club, this book was one of several post-apocalyptic dystopian novels we read this year. This book, along with the others we read convinced me the post-apocalyptic genre is one I cannot get into at all.

Set approximately 150 to 200 years after an illness and subsequent war wipes out most of the American population, the story primarily follows two characters named after Lewis and Clark. In fact Percy uses Lewis and Clark’s expedition to move our Lewis and Clark from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest to meet with Aaron Burr (the character’s actual name) in the hopes of reuniting the country. The Lewis and Clarke influence is seen not only in the main two character’s names, but also in a Sacajawea type character who is the catalyst for the journey.

But besides clunky puns on famous names and sorta following the famous route, The Dead Lands is as depressing as you can get. The biggest reason why I disliked this book was just how much Percy reminds the reader of how bad everything is. While his prose is strong, the constant reminders become very grating. A little goes a long way. He spends so much time on the physical setting of the world it significantly detracts from the story itself. It takes forever for the Lewis and Clark led group to get to their destination. Once they do, the last quarter of the book is a nonsensical rush job which introduces new characters and a new setting giving the impression the story we’ve been reading for several hundred pages isn’t what this world is about.

The characters, with the exception of a protégé of Lewis and a mechanical owl (don’t ask), are annoying and difficult to like. While I’m the first to admit I’m a giant pessimist, even I had a hard time believing that every single person in the book can be so jaded and hard. Nothing good or positive in this world and all the characters were too cutthroat or weak for my tastes.

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway: Another book I reviewed this year so instead of re-posting what I’ve said, here’s the link to the review.

 

Out of the fifty plus books I read this year, having a list of four books I couldn’t stand isn’t a bad percentage. The theme I noticed looking over this list for the biggest reason why I didn’t like a book came down to the characters. Again, for me if the characters aren’t interesting then it’s difficult for me to get involved in the story. As a reader I need some kind of emotional attachment to at least one character to make the novel worthwhile.

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Book Reviews, Front Page

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway is an historical fiction novel set in New York City’s Gilded Age. It’s Callaway’s debut novel and is told through the eyes of Virginia Loftin better known as Ginny. Her family is highly artistic with each of her sisters, except one who’s a teacher, and her brother engaged in some sort of artistic pursuit. Ginny is a writer, one sister is a pianist, one sister is a milliner to New York’s high society, and her brother is a painter but works as a salesman. Over the course of two years the reader follows Ginny as she not pursues her dream of being a professional writer and becoming involved with a group of other artists but also the two men she loves: one her lifelong best friend Charlie, an illustrator, and John Hopper, the leader of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society.

What drew me to pick up the book was the title. Thinking the book would be about the artists society led me to believe it would primarily be Ginny exploring the beauty and pain of creativity and the high probability of drama a group of fellow creative types is bound to bring. That and the fact the main character was a writer although I tend to stay away from books where the main character is a writer. In my opinion it’s a little too convenient when a writer writes about a writer. But I gave this one a chance because of the artists society aspect.

Unfortunately the book wasn’t about the artists society or art. Instead it’s a rather poorly constructed love triangle with two underdeveloped love interests and a grating main character. Her first love Charlie literally shows up at convenient plot points and exits just as quick serving only to moan on and on about how he made a mistake. I have no idea why she loves him other than they grew up together. Ginny’s other love interest, John, is slightly more developed, however, his characterization is inconsistent and her wishy washy feelings toward him gets old very fast. For someone who supposedly wants a husband who will be supportive of her writing career she seems to not care when John demonstrates genuine support. She waffles between independent-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man to wanting nothing more than to be married. While I’m not opposed to romance or a book focusing on it, something not completely uncommon in historical fiction, why it bugged me in The Fifth Avenue Artists Society was how much Ginny and her sisters vacillate. Also, the way all the romances were developed felt forced and inorganic.

Actually pretty much everything in this book was forced and inorganic. The plot was forced and I had a giant problem with a plot twist thrown in toward the last third of the book. It didn’t make sense at all and comes out of left field. Yes, there are a few subtle hints to suggest something is afoot, but it doesn’t come across as natural. Also it throws off the tone of the book. It goes from a fluff, Little Women-esque piece to dark and serious which it fails at. Perhaps it fails because one of the people involved in the plot twist is a character who is in the background in one scene very early in the book.Or because the book is told through Ginny’s eyes she wasn’t there for the event which prompts the twist.

As I alluded to above, I had problems with the characters, in particular Ginny. Like so much of this book, her decisions and actions felt forced. I found her even more irritating after the plot twist. Without spoiling anything, I was incredibly angry with her as she couldn’t understand why her family was justifiably angry with a member of their family involved with the twist. She was mad at them for not understanding the possible other side of things yet she refused to see things from their point of view. All of the supporting characters are one dimensional and are shoehorned into the novel. There are a lot of them as Ginny comes from a large family and with virtually everyone paired off it adds more players to the mix. I don’t know if there was some restriction put onto Callaway by her editor or publisher, but there needed to be more room in the novel to develop the characters.

Since this is historical fiction, I’ll touch about the feeling of accuracy I got from the book. While Callaway certainly did her research, she mentions in her acknowledgements a bulk of the book is based upon her ancestors and includes some documents from her family’s history, the language used and attitudes of the characters comes across as period inappropriate. They didn’t feel modern, just not 1890s middle class and not from people whom frequently hobnob with the upper crust of New York society. Oddly enough it felt more like the 1920s in how people spoke and acted. I guess Callaway decided since all the characters are artists they aren’t going to act in line with societal norms. That’s fine. Believe me I don’t want or need cookie cutter and get tired of seeing characters fall into supposed norms in historical, it was just…off. But the way the characters dressed, the architecture of the time period, and other setting details felt very authentic. Callaway also references a lot of plays, pieces of music, popular authors and books, literary magazines, publishers, and historical figures the Loftin family would possibly have interacted with, and painters popular at the time.

Overall, though, I found The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway to be disappointing. The characters weren’t compelling or consistent and the plot was boring and nonsensical at the end. On a scale of one to five pencils I’m giving it one and half pencils.