I don’t get it: Books that baffled

I can’t bring myself to post a negative book review. I also have a cooking blog, and when I try a recipe and it comes out terribly, there are so many factors at play – it could have been my own carelessness, some fault in the quality of my equipment or ingredients, a matter of differing tastes, or it could truly be a poorly designed recipe, but, as one recipe out of a hundred in a cookbook, I wouldn’t be damning the author by saying, “What a terrible recipe!”

But it’s different with books. Books are someone’s baby, a year (or much more) of someone’s life. Books are dreams made reality. I’m not going to spend my time tearing down someone else’s dream, no matter how much it left me cold.

That said, I’ve spent a fair amount of my time trying to read books that just didn’t click for me. At least I don’t buy books – it’s not a great loss to send something back to the library half-read. But it is a strange experience to be out of sync with so many others in the YA community. Since I started reading YA blogs, much of my reading list comes from their recommendations. And it’s just odd sometimes to hear so much hype about a book and then try myself and all I can say is, “I don’t get it!”

Here are a few of the books I’ve read (or tried to read) since starting this blog that just didn’t click for me. I’ve linked each title to a glowing review, for alternate perspective. 🙂

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You – Peter Cameron I’m not generally that into: boy protagonists, whiners, sarcasm of the mean variety, people who think they’re smart but are really incredibly deluded/self-involved. This is a book that celebrates all of those things.
Carpe Diem – Patricia Cornwell One review I read said what they liked best about the book was the unlikable narrator. I guess that doesn’t really work for me. I loved the premise of this book (well, the travel/Southeast Asia/hot-mean-cowboy love interest part, not the bizarre, creepy grandmother-blackmails-her-children part) but despite trying over several weeks I simply couldn’t get through it.
The Explosionist – Jenny Davidson This book sounds to me like another Golden Compass (plucky parentless London heroine in an alternate-history version of reality must stop an evil plan to turn young people into mindless drones) which, considering how much I adored that book, could be a good thing or a bad thing. Reviews led me to believe it would be a very, very good thing. Reading it, not so much. It just never grabbed me.
Gingerbread – Rachel Cohn This is the kind of book I read by the truckload – off-beat, bratty-but-self-aware girl stomps through teenhood with combat boots and ink-stained fingertips, learning lessons about love and life. So why couldn’t I get through it?
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – MT Anderson I was so ready to be blown away by this book. The premise was fascinating, the character intriguing, the format just a little bit experimental. I still think, in my heart of hearts, that someday I will get to read the book I thought this was when I first picked it up. Maybe someday I will be the reader I need to be to get this book.
Ash – Malinda Lo Many of the books in my list here are award-winners or nominees for many different awards, as well as being adored by the book blog community. Ash is among those receiving high praise from all corners. And seriously, queer Cinderella? Could there be anything more awesome? I tried to read this book 5 times before sending it back to the library. I made it at least 2/3 through and I just never, ever started caring what happened in it.
An Abundance of Katherines – John Green Things I love: anagrams, child prodigies, road trips, boy protagonists (I know, I contradict myself, for I am large and contain multitudes), people who worry they aren’t self-aware enough but actually are so sweetly just where they need to be. Despite all these magical elements, I never made it past the first few chapters.
Enna Burning – Shannon Hale Goose Girl may be one of my favorite books of all time (somewhere in the 100s, but still…). This sequel left me entirely cold. If reading Goose Girl was like having a story rush through me, so I thought about it and dreamed about it all the time when I wasn’t reading it, reading Enna Burning was like watching a movie with no sound on someone else’s iPhone screen from halfway across the plane. (Wow, that was pretty harsh. But I want more Shannon Hale that makes me feel ALIVE!)
The Sea of Trolls & The Land of the Silver Apples – Nancy Farmer Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion is in my top 20 for favorite YA/children’s books of all time. After I devoured that one I read and enjoyed her other books set in Africa, and then waited eagerly for two years for a new book from her. What a disappointment. The style just doesn’t connect for me at all. I am comfortable with the fact that, despite my love of children’s lit, there will always be many books that are actually too young for me to enjoy. I just didn’t think Nancy Farmer would be writing them!
Fairy Tale – Cyn Balog The review I link to here praises this book for having a new approach and original elements, which is all true, but then why did I come away feeling like I had just read a totally typical story – typical within both the “high school heartache” genre and the “fairy tale retelling” genre?
Mister Monday – Garth Nix This one wasn’t a question of blog hype so much as author let-down (a bit like the Farmer books). Garth Nix authored the Abhorsen series, which are also on my top fantasy book list, probably in my top 10, even. I know this series, which begins with Mister Monday, is intended for younger readers, but Nix is a seriously talented wordsmith, and I would have expected to wholeheartedly love anything he wrote. The librarian and adult YA blogger community actually seems to be in agreement with me on this disappointment, but kids seem to be enjoying them, so that’s something!

So what about you? Any books that make you feel out of sync with the hype? Are any of the books on my list books you “just didn’t get?” Or maybe one of your favorites is on here and you can explain to me what I was missing!

(Baffled egg courtesy of Nina Matthews under CC license)


Read This: Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2005)

One sentence summary: A doctoral candidate undergoes an oral examination during which she recounts and interprets seminal events from the history of her Republic in this spare, electrifying story that is philosophical exploration and science-fiction story wrapped into one.

First off, I am not convinced this is actually a young adult book, rather than just a book featuring a protagonist who is a young adult. I am inclined to lean more towards “Adult book that certain young adults would enjoy,” rather than my usual category of reading, “Young adult book that certain adults would enjoy.” But I suppose it’s all just semantics, yes?

On to the book itself. What I am left with after reading all 150 pages of Genesis is a very particular, and wonderful, set of feelings. Have you read the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov? In those great works of classic science fiction (also fairly short by modern standards) the characters aren’t the important part, and neither, really, is the plot. These elements are in service to something greater, they are pieces in a grand design that aims to expose and examine the underpinnings of human nature itself. I am definitely no philosopher, but I am human. So for me, the best philosophy book doesn’t just try to engage with my mind, making its case in a bald, intellectual fashion that my own intellect will analyze and measure against my own life experiences. Books like Foundation and Genesis use their stories and their characters and their plots to actually evoke the feelings and experiences they wish us to think about. They take us through their case in a way that lets us live it ourselves.

Genesis is an engaging little story, as well. It moves along briskly and compellingly despite the unusual format (the book takes place entirely within the Socratic-style question and answer form of the student’s oral examination). It is very unlike the kind of books I usually read, but at such a brief length it was a pleasure to put aside teen angst and heroic fantasy for a while and let these subtle thoughts and emotions bloom within me through Beckett’s careful cultivation.

Read more about Genesis:
*If you have already decided you’d like to read the book, I think it’s best to jump in with as little information as possible. There are some really great elements to the book that it would be a shame to have spoiled. But if you aren’t convinced and want to know more, or don’t want to read the book at all but would like to know more about it, here are some other good reviews that at least don’t give away anything too big.*

Very interesting, short nearly spoiler-free review on The SF Site. (Spoiler reveals one relatively insignificant plot point.)

Review comparing Beckett to Philip K. Dick, another of the great sci-fi philosophers. Review contains thorough information about the history/backstory that takes a good 30 or 40 pages to be revealed in the book, so I consider this to be a significant spoiler, but it doesn’t give away much about the rest of the book.

Existential questions

I keep coming back to the same question – why do I have a book blog? Who will read it and will it be helpful to them? It’s much less ambiguous with my food blog, In My Box, which is about my CSA box and what I do with the produce I get every week. In My Box serves numerous purposes – as a place for me to keep records of recipes and kitchen adventures that I can look back on (we often cook with a laptop open to my blog on the kitchen table), as a place for people to learn about Bay Area CSAs and to get ideas and inspiration for what to make with their CSA produce, and as a collection of vegan, gluten-free recipes (a style of cooking that can be very intimidating!).

But there are so many amazing YA book blogs out there, written by people with much more time and patience than I have. And I don’t need a record of my books for myself the way I do with food – I have my own, very simple record. It’s a list, and each book gets either an asterisk, a 1/2 asterisk, or no asterisk. That’s my whole system! So why do I have a book blog? I know I have some things to say, maybe even some original thoughts to add to the worldwide YA conversation, it’s just a question of building momentum. I tried with my new format of book reviews, but they started to feel dull and not very juicy to me. So for a while I guess I’ll just be flailing around, trying various things. It might get pretty silly, it might get pretty dull, but hopefully eventually my voice will emerge. (Or I’ll scrap the blog entirely but hopefully it’ll be the former rather than the latter…)