I like to think that I’m a pretty well-read guy. I’ve got bookshelves full of stories from a wide range of genres and authors.
Some are for adults, some are Young Adult, some are fiction, some are not, some are novels, and some are comics. Fantasy. Sci-fi. Mystery. Horror. Thriller. Biographies. I’ve sampled them all. That sometimes means exposing myself to a mobile jackpot casino worth of shlock and garbage.
Now, I don’t consider myself a very harsh critic. I easily “buy into” the premises for a lot of books, and shlock can be really fun and entertaining if it’s fun. So for me to thumbs down a book, it has to be truly awful. Either it’s a slog to get through, boring, poorly written, or makes me feel gross after putting it down.
So here are five terrible books I’ve encountered and read and wished I hadn’t.
#5 A Midsummer’s Night Dream
I know this one’s considered a classic, but come on. Shakespeare has gotta be the most overrated author you were ever forced to read in English class. Maybe I just have an ax to grind, but I have yet to meet a single person that read (or even watched) a Shakespeare play and could tell me what the hell was going on without consulting some cliff notes.
If you weren’t told it, would you have realized that Romeo starts his play by pining over a completely different girl, before chasing after Juliet as his rebound?
Meanwhile, A Midsummer’s Night Dream is like Shakespeare on acid. Magic fairies, people turned into animals, curses that make characters fall in love with animals as payback- it’s all very surreal and weird and I had no clue what the hell was happening until it was explained to me. Yes, I know the fairies and fantasy elements are taken from Celtic mythology.
I also know that other authors have created far more entertaining stories doing the same thing, and don’t give me headaches when I read them (Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson”, for instance).
It’s also very impressive how Shakespeare composes his plays outs of sonnets and poems using only X syllables per line, Y lines per paragraph (or whatever the correct terminology is), etcetera. It’s less impressive when you acknowledge the fact that Shakespeare also made up half his vocabulary in order to do that.
In other words, he cheated, and if I tried to do that in English class, I would have flunked out.
#4 The Namesake
This was one I was forced to read in school. You’ve probably never heard of it unless you were forced to read it in school too. “The Namesake” is an American novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri that’s supposed to explore the experience of growing up as an Indian Immigrant, in America. And if this book is anything to go by, it’s a pretty lame experience.
Our protagonist is Gogol, named by his father after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, which is meaningful to the dad but not to Gogol (the protagonist). Gogol eventually changes his name to Nikhil, because he is inexplicably resentful about the name.
The summary on the back (and it’s Wikipedia page) makes a big deal about the clashing cultural conflict between Gogol’s Bengali parents and Gogol’s American lifestyle, but… that’s really overselling it.
Although Gogol distances himself with his parents, it doesn’t seem all that different but just getting more distant because of age. Gogol just kind of resents his name for no describable reason. The “worst” parts of the clash include having to visit India occasionally, attending traditional Bengali dinners with neighbors and friends, and having a traditional Bengali marriage. Quelle Horreur.
Gogol attends parties, dates American girls, smokes marijuana, drinks, etcetera etcetera, but it all comes off as rather tame considering. He grows out of it, and he never actually breaks contact with his parents at any point or even gets mad at them all that much.
What I’m trying to say is that Gogol is a boring person. His life isn’t worth reading about. Anything potentially dramatic that could happen just kind of fizzles out. His wife cheats on him, and they just sort of separate. His father finally explains the significance of Gogol’s name, and… that’s it. No twist. No melodrama. No conflict really (except for Gogol’s uneventful relationships).
Suffice it to say, I think that this book captures the experience of an Indian immigrant quite well. It’s not really something to make a fuss about. Which is why I think this is a terrible book. It’s too realistic and, more importantly, it’s booorrrriiiing.
#3 Star Trek: The Original Series: Crucible: McCoy: Provenance of Shadows
You know you’re in for a doozy if the title has not one, not two, but four colons in it.
It’s one thing for a book to just be written poorly. It’s another to take an established and beloved thing and do something terrible to it. That is the case for the Provenance of Shadows, which I will refer to as such for the remainder of this list to save my sanity.
The provenance of Shadows is essentially a continuation of an Original Series Star Trek episode, called, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. In it, the characters discovered a strange device that takes someone anywhere in time or space (and of course the first thing that happens is accidentally causing Nazi Germany to win WW2).
The story follows Doctor McCoy, the character that accidentally caused the timeline change, in an alternate timeline where he never gets rescued by his friends from the past. Or rather, he was somehow “doubled” so that one version of McCoy stays in the past, and one is rescued.
The rescued McCoy returns to the future and lives out his life as depicted in the show, and the other is explored in this story- although the book kept flopping back and forth between them. The two versions never meet, and their stories are rather disconnected from one another.
Besides, you would think that a time traveler from the future living out his life in the 1940s and 50s would be pretty interesting, but no. He decides to live in the country, moves to a small town, marry a girl, and then gets stabbed by a German pilot that crashed in a field nearby and dies.
The premise is stupid. The execution is contrived. The result is uninspiring and lame and an insult to the original character.
#2 Harry Potter and The Cursed Child
Man oh man, where do I start with this one? Take everything I said about the Star Trek book, and multiply that by a hundred. “The Cursed Child” is a screenplay for what someone thought would make a great eighth addition to the Harry Potter series, and slapped JK Rowling’s name onto the front of it.
The story follows Albus Potter, Harry Potters’s son who we meet briefly at the end of “The Deathly Hallows”. We’re told that Albus is distant with Harry because of Harry’s fame, and their relationship is strained because Albus feels the need to live up to his father.
He befriends Scorpio, Draco Malfoy’s child who’s actually really nice, and gets sorted into Slytherin against his own wishes (directly contradicting something that had been established in the original franchise. Don’t worry, this will only happen on every other page of this screenplay).
To cut it really short, Albus gets his hands on a time-turner in the most contrived way possible, travels back in time, completely alters the timeline so that Voldemort actually won, travel back and fix it, etc.
Albus and Scorpio eventually meet the villain, who’s posing as an elderly Mr. Weasly’s caretaker, and the woman eventually reveals herself to be Voldemort and Bellatrix’s child.
She goes back in time, to the moment right before Voldemort shows up at Harry’s house when he was a baby to prevent him from doing the thing that made him lose all his powers.
The writing is awful. The characters are morons. The plot doesn’t make by itself- and it breaks firmly established rules set up by the original seven books for any of its plot to happen.
Time Travel, for instance, is established to be a single timeline where everything you do in the past already happened, and traveling back in time just allows you to do what you’ve already done. In “The Cursed Child”, it behaves like in “Back to the Future”, where changing something can change all of history.
It’s clear that this book was written to make money, by people that only knew the franchise superficially, and never cared about the characters. They then somehow got JK Rowling’s name put on the front, and tried to sell this terrible fan-fiction as a canon addition to the beloved franchise.
#1 Exiles at the Well of Souls
I had excised this book from my memory until I googled it to write this article. While I’m disgusted by this book, I have to admit that it’s written competently enough to make me consider dropping it to ‘only’ second on this list… but I thought it over, and no, it absolutely deserves this spot.
Jack L. Chalker’s “Exiles at the Well of Souls” is a science fiction novel that first caught my attention because of its cover, which features a blue Minotaur, wielding a sword, riding a green Pegasus. As far as the science-fiction part goes, the story spends it’s first half exploring a far-future society that has spread onto multiple planets, each dedicated to different ideologies and genetically modified humans, and left on their own to… just see what happens.
A scientist creates a device that can rewrite reality itself, to the point that other characters don’t even know that reality was ever changed. As one can imagine the horrific possibilities for such a device, the villain immediately kidnaps the lead scientist’s daughter and blackmails the guy to build a planet-sized version.
Our protagonist is Mavra, a super-awesome-special-kickass gun for hire that’s assigned to rescue the scientist’s daughter so that he can’t be forced into finishing the device. As part of her disguise, Mavra visits the villains planet-sized-reality-changer-2000… and immediately gets transfigured to have a ponytail. A literal, pony’s tail. I’ll get back to that.
Eventually, she finds the scientists daughter, escapes with the help of a guard, but in the process, the entire station and device get transported in orbit of ‘The Well World’. It’s a planet covered in hundreds of hexagonal-shaped biomes with independent species living in each one.
Everyone crashes down onto the planet, and this is where the story turns from Sci-fi to just Fantasy. Anthropomorphic species rule each hex, and the spaceship Mavra crashed in (and Mavra’s skills as a pilot) immediately paint them as targets as they flee for their lives to one of the safer hexes.
Now, what really made me disgusted with this book is just how fetishistic everything is. The villain is a hermaphrodite. Mavra gets a ponytail, and then eventually turned into a piece of body horror.
The guard that helps them escape is so hormonally imbalanced he has breasts. The daughter Mavra rescues tricked into taking drugs, and thinking she was going to die, asks to have sex with the guard to know what it’s like.
The girl is fourteen, and no one ever questions this. Meanwhile, other characters get transformed into anthropomorphic animals and the author goes into explicit detail the mating rituals and, um, body parts, relevant for each one.
What’s worst is that if the Jack Chalker didn’t include all this fetish stuff, the plot and premise are intriguing and well written enough to be a good story. It adds literally nothing to the plot and just made me feel gross.
This could have been a good book. It’s just a shame about all the bestiality and pedophilia.