Books that made me unreasonably angry (or: books NOT to get your loved ones for Christmas)
Hello there. How are you doing? I’m doing alive. What do you mean that doesn’t make sense? I just have no idea how I’m doing, but for some reason, I’m still here. Despite, you know *gestures broadly at everything* all this. As much as I’d like to catch up with you guys, I have some things to say.
You probably know me from writing overly passionate, silly, little book reviews on YA literature. And yes, I have wanted to write a follow-up to my Pulitzer Prize winning column “Reviews He Wrote”, a not-so-clever reference to the hit TV-show “Murder She Wrote” starring Angela Lansbury. Despite giving it my all, I have not been able to do so. I have tried three times. Lately my brain feels like a sponge that’s constantly being electrocuted, which makes writing reviews, let alone liking whatever words I come up with, quite challenging. Therefore, I thought maybe, with the holidays coming up, I should recommend a few books that you may want to add to your wish list or gift to someone you cherish. However, I have also struggled to finish that article in a way that meets my unreasonably high expectations toward myself (the article may still be published after a lot of reworking). But that incredible failure got me thinking: what’s easier than praising books in a way that makes people interested in them? Right! Trashing books, so that people refrain from buying them. Plus, my standards for rants are way lower than my standards for praise. (Sort of in the way compliments do nothing for me, but even the slightest hint of criticism will destroy me entirely)
Consequently, I present to you a couple of books I have read within the last twelve months that made me incredibly (and sometimes irrationally) angry! Enjoy!
What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Up first is this collaborative work of pure shit by two of YA’s most successful writers: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera. Both of them have written more or less successful, and in most cases even good, books on their own. In 2018 the two of them then teamed up to write a novel. They’re long-time friends, published authors, diverse voices, so what could go wrong? Well, as it turned out, almost everything could.
The story follows Arthur and Ben. Ben, who’s recently been dumped, is sending off a package of his ex’s things and runs into Arthur at the post office. They talk and at least Arthur is smitten by him, but fate separates them without giving them the chance to exchange numbers. Arthur, who’s only in town for an internship, sees this as his one chance for a summer romance. The first 100 pages follow their attempts at finding each other again, in NYC of all places, but the universe brings them back together. Finally, they can go on a date. There’s no chemistry, so they have a “do-over”. And then another and then another and there’s still no spark. At one point, though, it seems to click and they start dating. Now, they’re both very different people when it comes to love. Arthur is a wide-eyed, naïve fool who’s never dated anyone before, so he tries very hard, and Ben has just gotten out of a relationship (I remember the break-up reasons being something stupid), so he doesn’t try as hard. There’s ups and downs, a dramatic break-up, something something losing virginity, and a weird compromise ending. I say compromise because usually, Silvera writes unhappy endings, whereas Albertalli writes almost too cheesy happy endings. This resulted in an “eeeh” ending. Experts might also use the word “meh!”.
Now, here are my problems with the book. Albertalli and Silvera write quite differently, so not only did the love interest’s view on life differ, so did the way they were written in. I usually don’t mind an “opposites attract” love story, however, I did feel like in this case the differences were too strong. In addition to that, Ben comes from a working-class family, whereas Arthur can be located in the upper middle-class, and those kind of “opposites” in love stories or even in “friendship” stories make me uneasy. Most love stories with characters coming from vastly different economic circumstances I’ve read came with a lot of imbalance of power in the relationship. Maybe not as strongly here, as they’re both teenagers, but I do remember some passages of Ben being insecure about having Arthur and his parents over at the tiny apartment his family lives in, or Ben being ashamed of not being able to afford tickets to see Hamilton with Arthur (and Arthur being a spoiled brat about it).
The one thing this novel succeeds at, to its own demise, is establishing that there’s no chemistry between the two characters. It really nails it on that one, which just made it quite hard to believe that there’s somehow a way they made it work. I remember reading this and thinking “there’s no flavour to this”. If the premise of your book is the weird “do-over first date” thing, I don’t think you should turn that into a 400-page novel. The open ending where they broke up but still are talking, was lazy, almost as if the authors knew that there was no chemistry there. But how could there be, if neither of the characters has a personality? Arthur is basically a low-budget version of Simon from Albertalli’s debut novel (his dynamic with his friends at home is literally the same as Simon’s), whereas Ben’s personality is, uh, not having good grades and a strange obsession with The Sims. He creates himself and everyone in his life (bit creepy, tbh). I have created myself once recently, and my Sim immediately caught fire while cooking. I’m still hoping that that was a prophecy lol.
On top of that, the novel really drives home the “I’m YA so I have to reference popular culture”. A huge chunk of Arthur’s POV is dominated by his obsession with the musical Hamilton. Not that there’s anything wrong with liking it (Editor’s Note: Oh you’re wrong there, bucko), it appears as if these references often are there to effortlessly make characters with no personality relatable to their target audience. Now, this book is two years old, I’ve only re-read it to happily remove it from my shelf, so why do I even bother mentioning it? Well, they announced the upcoming sequel in late November. Probably to rewrite the open ending of the first book and also to get that sweet, sweet queer reader money (the book will have “Becky Albertalli” and “Adam Silvera” on its cover, people will buy it). I can only advice you to neither buy the novel nor its sequel. Why the hell do they even need a sequel? To finally add some personality? As if! Just look further, you’ll find better queer books to spend your money on!
Infinity Son by Adam Silvera
Another book by Adam Silvera? And it sucks? *gasp* Well, here we go again. Infinity Son is Silvera’s fifth novel and his first book that fits into the Fantasy genre. Loosely. I had relatively high expectations for this book because Silvera had teased it intensely on his Instagram account to the point that it sounded like he’d written the next big YA-fantasy series. I bought the novel, which was released in January, on a fun, little trip to Edinburgh in March right before, you know, the end and made it one of the first novels I’ve read in quarantine. Back then I still had hope, so I hoped that this book would be good, or at least bad in an enjoyable way. But, oh boy, was I wrong!
The book takes place in a Urban-fantasy version of NYC. Magical beings and YouTube co-exist (which already marks this book’s downfall). Emil and Brighton are two brothers who have always been fascinated by the magical beings called Spellwalkers. Those are born with powers. Then there’s also the Specters who gain the powers through science and alchemy. Now, it turns out that not only is Emil a Spellwalker, he’s also a reincarnation of the last phoenix spellwalker (the chosen one, yada yada), and also adopted. He and his family have to find refuge with the Spellwalkers, who are outlawed by US politics or something. I don’t quite remember; the world building is just absolutely abysmal. Emil is a very shy, gay boy, whereas his brother is a heterosexual and also very adventurous. He wanted to be a spellwalker more than Emil, so now he’s jealous, but he also sees that as an opportunity to gain some YouTube fame. And, while doing so, he thinks he can become an activist for the spellwalkers.
There you have it, a nightmare of a summary. As I said before, the world building is shit and basically makes no sense whatsoever. Instead of going the Cassandra Clare route of being like “here’s a ridiculously silly explanation”, Silvera gives us nothing, while also making it seem like the world he created makes perfect sense. It doesn’t have to, but at least put in the slightest bit of effort maybe? The character constellation is kind of shit as well. Emil is bland and boring; his only character trait is being insecure.
For example, there’s a scene where his presumed love interest, Ness (son of the Senator of NYC/the Villain), has to tend to the wounds that were inflicted to Emil while being tortured by Ness himself a few hours before. First of all, what Star Wars-sequel-trilogy fanfiction did he rip this storyline off from? The novel has like 18 lame plot twists, few of them being: Ness switching sides all the time, torturing the main character, but then also being his love interest. That’s not only boring, but also very fucked up. The problem with having Ness tend to his wounds is NOT that he literally stabbed him on both sides of his chest, no. The problem is that, and hear me out on that one, Emil is too insecure to take off his shirt in front of a boy because he doesn’t have a sixpack. Now, I’m the first one to dislike the idea of taking off my shirt in front of anyone for that matter, but he’s about to bleed to death and he’s like “No I’m insecure!!” Now is not the time???
And then there’s Brighton, oh god how I hated him. Sadly, he’s the most fleshed-out and interesting character in the entire book, even if his whole stick is being YouTube famous in whatever way possible. Sadly, he’s very predictable, annoyingly self-centred, and whenever one of his “great” ideas turns out to have awful consequences, he avoids responsibility by doing the straight male thing and going “uwu I’m so terrible I’m a bad person uwu”. The cliffhanger at the end of the first novel being tied to this character makes exactly nothing better. Sadly, none of the side characters make up for anything, and neither does the weird plot. It’s not even entertaining or anything, just straight-up very bad. Don’t read it, there’s a lot of YA fantasy out there and most of it at least tries. Even the City of Adjective Noun-series is better. And that’s saying a lot!
Romanov by Nadine Brandes
Up next is this, uh, book. I guess. I can’t even really put it into any genre, because I have absolutely no idea where to put it. This novel is a retelling of the movie “Anastasia”, which focuses on the daughter of the last Russian Tsar. Anastasia, Grand Duchess of Something. But everyone just calls her Nastya. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Romanovs live in exile from the palace. That is until the Bolshevik bring the family to Siberia, so the White Army cannot get to them, to reinstate the Romanov dynasty to the throne, or be nice to them in their little Republic. I guess. There’s also a storyline about spells, and sorcery, that draws back to Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine. Nastya seems to be the last one who still knows how to do that. There’s a problem there, though: The magic ink used for the spells is running low (producing it is prohibited by the Bolshevik). Her brother Alexei relies on the magic, because he’s ill, frail and weak (Queen Victoria decided to give all of Europe’s royals haemophilia, and he is one of them). Once her family is assassinated by the Red Army she and her brother magically survive and escape. They have to escape from Russia and the Red Army. There to help them is a Bolshevik soldier, who’s only a Bolshevik because he had no other choice. They’re also in love, or whatever. So, every cliché combined with knowledge of the Russian Revolution gathered from maybe one lecture and the animated film Anastasia.
To get to the point: Not only was this book boring, it also was very weird. I’ve not seen the movie, but if it’s like this book I don’t want to. The novel has this strange obsession with painting the Romanovs as great leaders, who care about their people and what’s best for them. The bad, bad Bolshevik just can’t see that through all the rumours that surround the family and have used those for their own gain. What a terribly mean thing to do! The poor Tsar of Russia and his family have done nothing wrong in their life, ever! So what, if those peasants had no rights? Why would they need those if Tsar Nikolai was such a sweet and caring leader?! Huh? I’m just kidding. That’s one of the points (if not the only) this novel tries to make. Historically speaking, the Romanovs definitely did not care for the people and therefore this novel could count as Romanov propaganda. The weird hype surrounding monarchy often tends to forget that the monarchy was never really about serving the people, no matter how much shows like Victoria want to tell you that Queen Victoria cared about Irish people dying due to the potato famine. It was, and still is, about power and also about marrying your cousin.
To be quite honest, most retellings suck. Sure, there are ones that actually strive to divert from the source material or tell it from a different character’s POV and consequently work in freshening up an old story. But this feels like someone wrote down the plot of Anastasia and warmed it up in the microwave. I feel like more could have been done, especially since historical accuracy was disregarded altogether, so there’s not even that excuse. But honestly, if you’re writing a retelling of something, put in some effort. And don’t just tell a story again in the exact same way. Overall, this just read like one of those silly attempts at writing some historical-adjacent story by someone who maybe got their BA in history. And I wish people like that would just stop!
Meet Cute Club by Jack Harbon
At first I wanted to replace the text for this book with an audio file of me just screaming for 5 minutes, but if the pandemic has brought one good thing, it’s that people don’t have to hear my annoying voice. I’m still gonna try to make this as short as possible, because I absolutely hate this book. Luckily, I paid nothing for it (besides, you know, my sanity), as it was part of this weird kindle unlimited thing. I read it, because I’ve seen it recommended on many “LGBTQ+ novels you should read”-lists. Once I was done with it, I wondered why it ever made it on any of them. Stop making lists!
To summarise, the premise is that this guy Jordan has a book club, which slowly is losing members, and he feels like he should do something about it. He covers all the expenses for each weekly book and gets them from the local bookstore for everyone. He loves books, at least that’s what the reader is told many times throughout the novel. Now, the new worker at the bookstore insults his favourite novel series as “trashy”. The reader gets some excerpts of those overly sexual (in a weird way) novels and I can only agree with that guy. His name is Rex. For some reason he decides to join the book club so Jordan can prove him wrong. From there on out, the typical New Adult plot ensues. Badly written, toxic bickering, weird sex scenes (I had to read the words ‘throb of excitement’ with my own two eyes), badly written vulnerability, more weird sex scenes (never wanted to be Lea Michele so bad, ngl), fighting, break-up(s) and reunion(s). You know, nothing new, nothing’s changed, same old shit.
To sum it up quickly, because I really don’t want to get more into detail with this novel: it sucks! The main characters are barely even one-dimensional, side-characters are literally there for the plot and calling them “flat characters” would be a compliment, and the plot is recycled from a genre that is basically repetitive (bad!) fanfiction.
Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
Up next is the biggest betrayal I’ve experienced in 2019/2020 (and that’s saying a lot!). Call Down the Hawk is Maggie Stiefvater’s follow-up to her Raven Cycle-series, one of my favourite book series ever. Considering this, there might be light spoilers for that series ahead, so beware.
This novel is set a couple of months after the events of The Raven King and focuses on one of its protagonists: Ronan Lynch. Ronan is a so-called dreamer, which means that he can take objects from his dreams into reality. This often came in handy in the past, but also can’t be controlled. Ronan is the only one of his friend group to still live in their hometown because of the dangers connected to “dreaming”. He tries to move up to Harvard (I think) to live with his boyfriend Adam Parrish, who lives and studies there. But sadly, him being a dreamer makes it impossible. Sad for me, because I really wanted to read about them having their cute, little domestic love life together. Ronan, reluctantly, decides to stay home.
There’s a couple of more characters there, though. Another dreamer, Jordan Hennesy, who creates more and more copies of herself, which might lead to her death (dreaming is that dangerous all of a sudden). And some woman (Carmen Farooq-Lane) who works for the government and has to deal with children foreseeing the end of the world. At this point, I am confused. Maggie Stiefvater has lost me with this plot. How did we go from five weirdos trying to find the grave of a dead Welsh King to this entire conspiracy about dreamers and the end of the world? A huge portion of the book also is dedicated to Declan Lynch, Ronan’s older brother, and his dealings with the black market for art. I, personally, do not care for Declan at all, so I was really bored, especially since he ends up in a heterosexual relationship with one of Jordan Hennesy’s clones. Or Jordan herself, I don’t really remember.
What I do remember is that it took me a good while to get through this book, because there was barely anything to pull me in, to grip me. Now, don’t get me wrong, the four books in the Raven Cycle also haven’t quite been page-turners, but that was more due to the way Stiefvater writes. With Call Down the Hawk it’s more so the confusing plot, the unclear connections between all the characters that the book wants us to believe are there, and the fact that whenever things aren’t confusing, they’re just a bit boring. In addition, I felt like the character of Ronan didn’t really work outside the constellation with Gansey, Adam, Blue and Noah from the previous books. On his own, he was just miserable, which is rich coming from me, but it is true. The cliffhanger at the end of the novel also didn’t manage to make me excited for whatever is to come, so I think I’m going to sit the rest of the trilogy out. And you should probably do the same.
I just feel like me and the author wanted two different things as the follow-up for The Raven King. This one doesn’t quite make me angry; it’s just been a bit of a let-down. I might just have to stick to fanfiction on ao3 to get the wholesome “Ronan Lynch/Adam Parrish” content I crave instead of relying on so-called “published authors”. That’s for the best, since a seventeen-year-old who just failed their driver’s test might just be a better author anyways!
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
I only talk about this one, because I’m currently doing this fun thing where I’m watching the BBC TV-series Sherlock for the first time. Via Netflix-Party with my friends. I thought this novel would be quite topical. At least to me. As the title suggests, A Study in Charlotte is inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels with it being a direct reference to Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Just like the BBC show, this novel is set in modern time. The main characters are, however, not modern adaptations of Conan Doyle’s characters. In fact, this novel (and the series it is part of) kind of functions as a sequel. In this world both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson really existed. In the twenty-first century, Dr. Watson’s direct descendant Jamie transfers to a prestigious private school in Connecticut, and, big surprise, one of the students there is Charlotte Holmes, great-great-great-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes. Who, like her ancestor, is a born detective. They meet and don’t quite get a long, but when a murder happens on the campus grounds, a murder that has been done with methods taken from the Sherlock Holmes stories, they team up to investigate.
Charlotte Holmes is a lot like Sherlock from the BBC series but even worse. Jamie is just some boy. The twenty-first century aspect makes it quite interesting, in my opinion. However, their dynamic is rather predictable, as is the plot, and I felt that Charlotte and Jamie’s obsession with her did a lot of damage to the plot. The bitter aftertaste in this story is that creating a genderbent version of Sherlock Holmes is merely a device to allow Holmes and Watson to date, finally. Well, I will have you know that the hundreds of thousands of fanfictions to the BBC show did not need to do that. While the show’s queerbaiting, so far, is a bit obvious and painful, but also extremely funny, the heterosexual dynamic in this book is very boring, and I remember that it seemed very dysfunctional. Like, hasn’t the Holmes-Watson dynamic been lowkey homoromantic for almost 150 years now? How did the author manage to fuck that up? This, once more, proves that heterosexuality is a disease that ruins everything! Was the author sitting in their room, wondering “what if Sherlock was a she/her sociopath instead”?
Did I enjoy parts of this book? I sure did. But was it tedious to get through? Absolutely. If this was a stand-alone, I wouldn’t even tell people to not read it, but since it was conceptualised as a trilogy that has since been upgraded into a four-book-series, I don’t think it is healthy to get yourself into this mess. Unless you want to help me get rid of my copy of the book. I’ll even send it to you for free.
Anyways, that’s all the time we have for today! As you can see, I read a lot, but I also dislike a lot of the stuff I read. Now you might be thinking: Who does this twink think he is to talk about bad writing? Did he ever publish anything? And to that I can just say: These are just my opinions! Also, here’s a confession. I have been that seventeen-year-old who failed their driver’s test and who then types out 5000 words per chapter on ao3. I still am that person today (If you see me on ao3, no you didn’t!). Furthermore, I never said that I was a good writer or that I’ve mastered the art of writing round, dynamic characters. But I don’t think you need to be any of those things to criticise the shit that gets published these days.
If you disagree with anything I’ve written, that’s cool. Feel free to write a response article where you counter-argue or insult my huge nose and lack of self-esteem, whatever makes you happy. Either way, I hope my rambling on these books somehow helped or maybe validated your opinions on successful, published authors who’s books just fly off the shelves, but you just think they suck. I think, now that I’ve written this article, I’ve trapped myself into writing a helpful “Books to gift your loved ones (or yourself)”-article, where I recommend books that I have enjoyed within the last year. So keep your eyes open for an article like that. I hope you’re well! Bye! *does awkward zoom call wave while trying to click on ‘leave meeting’*
Robin was listening to Copycat Killer by Phoebe Bridgers while writing this article (He didn’t even try having serotonin!)