Let’s get one thing straight up front: These are not BAD books. They’re actually wildly popular for the most part, and objectively well-executed, I just happened to hate them. Personal taste does not have to be rooted in reality or logic. We like what we like. For instance, I will put most books and movies down that feature a love triangle because they make my skin crawl. Below, I listed several best-selling books I was led to believe I would enjoy, but did not, and what I would recommend reading instead.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2018) by Hank Green
Why I hated it: So, so, so many reasons. This is one of the only books I’ve ever rage-quit and had it been a physical and not audio copy I may have hurled the book into a different room so it would no longer offend my eyes. Based on this title alone, Hank Green cannot write female characters. The protagonist is a bisexual 20-something Asian woman. Cool, diversity is cool, but Green used this character’s sexuality like a cheat code for objectifying the other female characters in the story. Also, this book features giant robots mysteriously appearing around the world. How awesome, right? IT IS NOT the robots didn’t do SHIT. And the book ends on a cliffhanger, which I only know about because I looked up the ending online after rage quitting. Finally, the use of modern youth vernacular will NOT age well in this novel. I was wincing when I read it and the ink had hardly dried.
A Master of Djinn (2021) by P. Djeli Clark
Why it’s great: Where Green totally biffed writing women characters, Clark excels. Most characters of consequence in this book are women. It blows my mind that in the year of our lord 2022 I am feeling grateful to encounter a whole book full of multidimensional female characters that don’t focus on their looks or a man to make their way in the world. Read this book for access to a mostly female cast of vibrant and memorable characters, gorgeous world building, and incomprehensible eldritch beings trying to cross into nice, semi-horror filled early 20th century Cairo. Did I mention Cairo is a world superpower because someone figured out how to let djinn and other spirits back into the world? And that’s not even a spoiler.
Nobody’s Fool (1993) by Richard Russo
Why I hated it: Sully, the titular character, is a perennial loveable loser who squandered his life being moored down by family trauma and a can’t-do attitude. Russo seems to be in love with his own prose as well as protagonist Sully, and I just don’t get it. Indeed, the writing itself cannot be beat, it was the ideas within however, which I took umbrage. For instance, a horrid racial epithet is casually bandied about at one point to describe the nature of work Sully engages in, and the level of male wish fulfillment appearing throughout was kinda gross. Every book its reader, and I am not the one. I made it about half way through the almost 600 page doorstop before I put it down. Save yourself some time and watch the 1994 screen adaptation of Nobody’s Fool starring the ever-wonderful Paul Newman instead of trying to slog through this brick.
Empire Falls (2001) by Richard Russo
Why it’s great: This is Russo’s Great American Novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction over a Jonathan Franzen book, thank god, because it deserved the honor. Now, I don’t normally stan boomer-age whiteguy authors, as they tend to write books for other men (see above for criticism of Russo’s earlier work), but this book shines with an undeniable light that we can all bask in. Empire Falls was adapted into a very passable miniseries for HBO starring Ed Harris. Watch the series for sure, but be sure to read the book too, so as not to miss out on an evil cat giving protagonist Miles a run for his money, amongst other things.
The Spellman Files (2007) by Lisa Lutz
Why I hated it: Lutz published six Spellman books in the 2010ishes and all I could think about while reading the freshman installation was how badly this was not working for me so how could they possibly be popular enough to demand so many installations. Spellman strives to assemble a quirky and interesting family of private detectives whose dysfunction is more a feature and less a bug, but they come across as a watery Royal Tannenbaum situation with more severe antisocial disorders. And not in a fun way! While the protagonist was meant to be a daring and independent young woman, all I could see was somebody who would benefit from therapy, a reinforcing of boundaries, and maybe a damn hug.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011) by Sara Gran
Why it’s great: I love a hot mess protagonist and where The Spellman Files falls short, Clare DeWitt succeeds in spades. DeWitt is the self-described world’s best PI who is obsessed with the work of obscure French detective Jacques Silette. In the City of the Dead, she has found herself in a recently post-Katrina New Orleans which DeWitt fled years earlier when her mentor was unceremoniously murdered. She is back to track down a missing DA as well as try to untangle her violent past. While none of that sounds earth-shattering, there is something about DeWitt and her unflinching self-destruction and devotion to Silette’s teachings that I found completely compelling. So far, Gran has graced us with three Claire DeWitt novels, and they get successively better. Read them in order for the best experience. If you’re a Mead card holder, all three are available in ebook and audio format on Hoopla, so no wait time for you.
Lock Every Door (2019) by Riley Sager
Why I hated it: Some authors never resonate. This is the case for Sager. He is massively popular and has several titles that on paper seem like they’ll be right up my alley but in execution I can’t get into it. Lock Every Door initially appealed because it takes place in an early 20th century construction of a fabulous spooky Manhattan apartment building. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby vibe happening, but no Satanists, and buddy I got to tell you that was one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever had in my leisure reading life. The solution to this “mystery” was pretty irritating and I wish I had the time back that I used to read this. I also read Lock Every Door which has a supernatural switcheroo as well, so maybe it’s a theme in Sager’s work. I dunno. It doesn’t do it for me.
There’s Someone Inside Your House (2017) by Stephanie Perkins
Why it’s great: First and foremost, before you read any further, take a moment to say the title of this book out loud. No wait, don’t just say it, SCREECH it. Try it, you’ll like it. Besides the very fun-to-yell title, this YA thriller has a brisk pace, interesting character arcs and juicy secret pasts to unfold. The creep-factor is high and the central mystery has a satisfying and hard to predict solution. Most who enjoy thrillers or mysteries would enjoy this highly consumable and appealingly candy-colored book.
Would I say my taste in books is highly individualistic and not based on any objective literary criticism? Yes, yes I would. That’s the beauty of leisure reading. We get to pursue what we like without justifying the reasons. Some people only read Amish romance. Some people only read nonfiction accounts of Arctic expeditions. Some people only read graphic novels and manga. Guess what, they are all valid in their reading pursuits because there’s no wrong way to leisurely read.
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