You know that proverbial, oozy grime at the far reaches of whatever receptacle you really don’t want to scrape the bottom of? Well, these books belong down there.
Luckily, I’ve only run into two books so far that fall under that description:
1) Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. I was on a historical-fiction kick. After reading about Scotland in the 11th Century (King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett; soon to be blogged about), Wales in the 12th Century seemed like a perfect sequel. Plus, Sharon Penman is known for a series recreating the Napoleonic Wars … PLUS DRAGONS! How awesome is that? Who wouldn’t want to go fighting the French ON A FUCKING DRAGON? However, Here Be Dragons is not said series, and has only symbolic dragons, and I was sorely disappointed. Reading Sharon Penman after reading Dorothy Dunnett is like reading Christopher Paolini after J.R.R. Tolkein; it’s like trading an ocean for a sandbox. The plot is ploddingly simple, but Penman tries to shake it up a bit by jumping from year to year, from narrator to narrator. All of the narrators sound the same, however: naïve and petty, no matter if it’s the King of England or a 6-year-old. Because each chapter takes place in a different year, we just have to assume each person gets older as the numbers turn, without seeing any evidence of character development in the writing. And the writing! Ye gods, the writing. Hear me, O Aspiring Historical Fiction Author: Just because this is Ye Olden Times does not mean you should throw in “mahap”s and “wroth”s whenever you feel like it. (They were speaking Middle English, Middle Welsh, and Old Norman, anyways, so your fancy words really are just stupidly extraneous.) Sentences such as the following will earn you a shunning: “I know not with whom my mother’ll be more wroth, me or my Uncle Gruffydd…” (p. 28). Seriously, seriously, that sentence deserves a sharp kick in the nuts. Here’s another passage that got my goat; in the following, one of the main characters is thinking of Eleanor of Aquitaine: “She knew she should only feel disapproval toward a wayward wife, a rebel Queen, but she was aware, instead, of a sharp, piercing regret, an ache for that wild spirit caged at last within Salisbury Tower” (p. 143). Wild spirit, indeed. And again, just because this is Ye Olden Times, you do not need to give narrators olden-ish Thoughts just to make sure we readers understand these characters Think Differently Because They Are Not Of This Millennium (“wayward wife”), and then suddenly undermine said Thoughts (“sharp, piercing regret”) to make the narrator Relatable And Believable for us modern-day, easily gullible readers.
2) El Paraíso en la otra esquina by Marío Vargas Llosa
Urrrrgh… I bought this brick of a book in Powell’s (Portland, Oregon, in 2007), then brought it to Ecuador (2008), then to Norway and Germany (2009), then to Wyoming, back to Oregon, then to Spain (2010), and before I started grad school (2011) I forced myself to actually finish the damn thing. In general, it’s a good commentary on the futile quest for paradise that could have been written in 50 words (count ‘em): One woman in France is pushing for a futurist, communist utopia, and one man in Tahiti is pushing for a primitive, sexual utopia; paradise is therefore juxtaposed. Salvation in communal sharing or individual freedom? in abstinence or wild abandon? in a stark, atheist future or exotic, ancient rituals? Etc., etc. … and on it goes. 50 words later, you have the gist of the book. Unfortunately, it goes on for 500 more pages.