Recently I posted a collection of short hatchet jobs on books that I felt so strongly about I had to be bitter about them in public. This was one of the most popular reviews I’ve posted in the last 6 months, so you clearly like this stuff. I’ve found a few more. I haven’t included those books which everyone says are Great Novels, but which I didn’t, personally, much like. Nor have I included the books that I only feel ‘meh’ about, rather than ‘arrgh!’ Here I warn you off the ‘arrgh!’ books, because I think they’re bad.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) By the author of Dracula. This is dreadful. At first I wondered if the British place-names had been invented since they have no relation to real geography. The narrative is more like journalism than fiction, but also clumsy; and the characterisation is perfunctory and tedious, like symbols going through the motions. It’s a Victorian male quest romance with medieval adventures in magical woods infested by snakes, and still I gave up out of boredom. So much potential wasted.
Noel Langley, Cage me a Peacock (1935) Arch little number. This was Langley’s first novel (I reviewed his There’s a Porpoise on My Tail here) and has some spectacular imaginative leaps, related in the style that Richard Garnett invented in 1888 with Twilight of the Gods, in which tales from the classical period are told in modern colloquial conversation. (Naomi Mitchison did it too, cutting out the slang to make the modern historical novel.) It’s a retelling of the Rape of Lucrece from Suetonius as if by Noel Coward, and the result is more tasteless than witty. Tonally, the novel struggles to make the sexual mores of the classical period sound like a glamorous cocktail party, and the casual executions, suicides and rapes are really desperately unfunny. It’s the novel I dislike the least from this selection, because it can’t reconcile its subject and style, not because it’s particularly bad.
Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill (1949) Historical romance and sentimental sludge. Goudge can be a bit gushing, but this is the worst I’ve read. Its manner is affected, and the plot has nothing solid to grasp. She can do so much better: The Dean’s Watch (1960), for instance, has a hard and serious edge that redeems the gloop. This one is uncontrolled, woolly, besotted and tedious. The characters are largely copied from her much more famous The Little White Horse, published three years earlier, and the dragging coincidences and characters’ secrets are signalled so blatantly that Goudge must have expected her readers to need to know where they were going to be able to enjoy the journey. I didn’t.
T J Bass, The God Whale (1974) Science fiction. I did like the automated whale built to harvest and process at molecular levels, and I love the Trilobite bot that worships her with such cheerful eagerness. But the stories of the humans escaping dystopian body-harvesting madness through tunnels and chomping machinery are much less interesting. The idea of a future society pouring vast investment into keeping alive a half-man from the past that it has no value or use for, seems wildly improbable. So many good ideas that go nowhere, and shrivel up for want of some thought-through nurturing.
Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch (1977) Detective. One of the very last Roderick Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh, in which she seems to be wandering in time. It’s set in the early 1970s (flares, drugs, T-shirts, jeans) but Ricky Alleyn (in his very early 20s) smokes a pipe, and the alluring family with whom he gets friendly are straight out of the 1930s in behaviour and attitudes. Roderick Alleyn is stuck in his 1950s period, and in any case would be aged about 100 by this time. The slang feels wrong and unexpected. The scenes of excessive violence and torture are quite unlike anything Marsh had written before. It’s a jumble of elements that can’t and don’t work well together, like a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels.
Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984) Fantasy. Its 25th-anniversary reprinting and praise from writers I admire persuaded me to buy this, and I am SO DISAPPOINTED. What a noxious, incomplete load of tosh. How can it have won the WFA Best Novel award? Or spawned a series? The central idea of a mythago, archetypes brought into being through the characters’ minds and their proximity to leylines (or something like that) is interesting, but why did it have to be so violent, misogynistic and ultimately sterile? There were some great ideas, but the whole thing is a soggy, pointless, swampish mass of ideas, not a novel. I resented being asked to accept illogical origin stories and endless tedious journeys for no purpose. The RAF photography from the air was the novel’s saving grace: the application of modern technology to a fantasy plot makes a serious contribution to telling stories about impossibilities. But everything else was desperately unsatisfactory, and historically out of whack when it should have been precise.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) Historical sf. This novel was promoted as hilarious, and I believed the hype. It is classically farcical, but not often in a good way. It has a technically challenging time-travel plot from Willis’s Mr Dunworthy series of fictions, that fails because she uses time-travel as a casual means to an end, not as the life-threatening, risk-loaded business that her Doomsday Book, for instance, tackles with proper caution. The plot is crammed with babbling, caricatured characters on a tediously slow progression along the River Thames by rowing-boat with a dog and Oxford eccentrics as drawn by an American in awe of comedy moustaches. I think that’s part of the book’s problem for me: it’s dependent on American readers finding quaint English eccentricity funny. Adding farce to the terrifying implications of being able to travel in time, and trying to squeeze jeopardy out of that, is tonally jarring. It’s a self-indulgent homage to Three Men in a Boat, but I didn’t think that was funny either.
If I’ve dissed your favourite book, I’m sorry. We all have different tastes, and I’ve tried to be fair, or at least rational. That’s the lot for 2016: I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year, all round.
18 thoughts on “Seven duds for seven dustbins: More books to avoid”
Ha ha! I don’t think Gentian Hill is as bad as The Middle Window or The Valley of Song.
God, yes, The Middle Window is appalling. Thank you for reminding me.
Thanks for this. Agree “Last Ditch” is weird and pretty awful. Not sure about “Gentian Hill” being a repeat of TLWH though. It’s not a good book, but the plot doesn’t seem that similar to TLWH to me?
Its the characters that are heavily influenced by those in TLWH, not so much the plot.
Initial dismay when I saw Elizabeth Goudge among the authors listed was dispelled when I saw that you’ve singled out Gentian Hill! I remember it as the only one of her books that I struggled to get through and never read again. It was discovering The Dean’s Watch aged ten at boarding school that started me on years of admiration for her novels, flowery style and all; the ‘book’ which my best friend and I wrote together over the next three years was a queasy mixture of Elizabeth Goudge, Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild …
I remember thinking Cage Me a Peacock very sophisticated when I was 15, but I’m sure I’d agree with you now if I could ever bear to find it again. Elizabeth Goudge can be dire, though I loved her Damerosehay books (again as a teenager). But, outwith your list, the bummer of purest ray serene is undoubtedly Rex Stout’s Under the Andes. Don’t go to any trouble to find it, just take my word.
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Hahaha — god, I love To Say Nothing of the Dog, easily one of my favourite books of the last three or four years and probably the book I’ve recommended most in that time, but I can understand it not being to everyone’s taste; it was touch-and-go for a bit when I read it, and I nearly quit myself during the protracted trip down the river (only there to shoe-horn in that enitrely needless and, I couldn’t agree more, self-indulgent Jerome K. Jerome reference…) but I stuck it out and loved what came after — one of only three or four books I’ve ever read that needed to be about 1000 pages longer!
I shall take your description of the Ngaoi Marsh as “a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels” and use that from now on, though, as that explains all Marsh’s writing as far as I’m concerned. Here’s hoping 2017 is kinder to you — perhaps only Six Duds for Six Skips this time next year (though, let’s be honest, the odd dud can be quite an enjoyable thing when it allows one ot let off some steam…).
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Thank you for this post and also for the previous one. I think I read the Ngaio Marsh you’ve mentioned back when it first came out and thought it was a sad coda to a fairly excellent series (although I know she went on to write a couple of more books). I also appreciate your comment on The Waves, which I enjoyed because I read it in a course dedicated to Virginia Woolf but recalled thinking that without the guiding apercus of the professor I might not have made it to page two.
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Delightful stuff. The only one I’ve read is the Connie Willis and I have no impressive memories of it. I wrote about it back when I was pretty new to blogging and a little scared to let lose on books I didn’t like so was much kinder than I would be today. I remember it just being an incomprehensible, meandering mess.
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I was unimpressed by “To Say Nothing of the Dog” as well, even though I like “‘Three Men in a Boat”‘. I am not familiar with the others, but the Ngaio Marsh book sounds like she had the problem that most writers of long running book series run into, of trying to keep books up to date, and whether or not to let their characters age realistically.