We have finally waved goodbye to 2020. After filling in 366 pages, a fresh set of 365 days has been given to us. With the conclusion of a year is the commencement of a new one. 2020 has been eventful and filled with uncertainty. The future is also filled with uncertainty but hope still springs eternal. Staying true to what has become my annual tradition, I am kicking off the new year by looking back to the previous year, its hits, and of course, its mishits. It is also an opportunity to take a glimpse on how the coming year is going to shape up.
This book wrap up is a part of a mini-series which will feature the following:
- 2020 Top Ten Not-So Favorite Reads
- 2020 Top Ten Favorite Books
- 2020 Book Wrap Up
- 2020 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part I)
- 2020 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part II)
- 2020 New Favorite Authors
- 2021 Books I Look Forward To List
- 2021 Top 20 Reading List
Because of the pandemic, 2020 is my best year in terms of reading. I managed to complete 93 books, the third time I ended a reading year with at least 90 books (or maybe second, LOL). It was also one of my most diverse as I have read the works of various nationalities, from Japanese, Korean, Russian, Nigerian, Egyptian, Turkish to a couple more. In fact, nearly 30 of the books I have read are translations. Another thing that characterized 2020 is the number of “new books” I have read. As you might already know, I am the backlist type of reader but I ended 2020 with 26 “new books”, a personal best. It was, to say the least, a groundbreaking year on many fronts.
Of these 93 books, it was inevitable to encounter books that fell below my expectations. In the second part of this mini-series, I am listing my Top 10 not-so favorite reads in 2020.
The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel
Ironically, I listed Emily St. John Mandel’s latest work, The Glass Hotel as one of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To. I was quite excited because I have never read any of Mandel’s works before. The Glass Hotel was shrouded in a veil of suspense and mystery that I was really looking forward to it. However, the novel just confused me. It started strongly but when it got to the middle part, it was simply discombobulated. The story diverged and I lost the story. I wanted to be moved by the stories of the victims of the 2008 economic crash but I didn’t find the novel moving enough. It does deal with a heavy topic but I found the execution a little lacking.
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
I admit, I am in the minority group here. I was quite ambivalent about immersing into Morgenstern’s latest work. I wasn’t a fan of her debut novel, Night Circus for many reasons. It was these reasons that also kept me from looking forward to her latest work. But still, I was curious about what it has in store and I guess I wanted to her narrative another chance. Maybe I really shouldn’t have. Again, I had the same issues I had with Night Circus. Morgenstern takes her time building a grand narrative, slowly reeling in the readers. In fairness to Morgenstern, her prose was lyrical, a beauty, a homage to literature to itself. However, what gets lost in this beautiful prose is the plot. I was simply lost and confused. I only found fragments of the story, and again, the romance that became the central point of the story was rushed, and underexplored. For a reader who relies on plots, Morgenstern novels just ain’t for me.
All My Mother’s Lovers, Ilana Masad
Just like Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, I listed Ilana Masad’s debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers as one of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To. The book’s title was the first thing that intrigued me about the book. I was also rooting for Masad in her literary debut (even though I have never heard of her before). The novel actually started strongly – a estranged daughter coming back home after her mother’s untimely demise only to uncover a box of secret letters. The premise was promising and even its main theme, which was discussed in the closing parts of the book, was interesting. Unlike the start and the conclusion, the middle part of the novel was unappetizing. The storytelling was dry and the “adventure” just dragged.
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
Speaking of promising premise, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black also ranks highly on the list. I encountered it because of the encomiums it has received; it was even shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It was also included by the New York Times in its Top 10 Books of the Year. Needless to say, my expectations of the book were pretty high. However, just like All My Mother’s Lovers, it failed to deliver. After a great start that exhilaratingly mixes history, murder, science, and adventure, the novel started to fall apart one-thirds into the story. Even though Edugyan’s writing was evocative and powerful, the story was all over the place.
American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins
Controversy and scandals easily pique my interest. When I learned that Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt was wrapped up in some kind of controversy, I immediately grabbed a copy of the book. Ironically, I didn’t have an iota on what the main issue surrounding the novel but I didn’t hesitate in diving into the narrative. At first, I couldn’t find anything wrong with the book, and it even opened with a powerful and pulsating sequence of events. However, the more I read into it, the more I realize that Cummins failed to fully address the subjects it has explored. There was a superficial quality to the story that quite dampened my appreciation of the story.
Journey Under the Midnight Sun, Keigo Higashino
Keigo Higashino’s Journey Under the Midnight Sun is one of my longest reads this year. It was second novel from the Japanese suspense/mystery writer. I bought the book during the first edition of the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale in Manila last 2018. Since it has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, I decided it was finally time to read it. Just like most novels in this list, it had quite a sterling start. However, as the novel moves forward, the more that it started to drag. More characters were introduced, and the story diverged to many directions. I did like the details of Japan’s rise to economic prominence astutely drawn in the background but the story and its length zapped my energy.
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides gained a fan in me with Middlesex; the story of Cal was absorbing and Eugenides’ storytelling even more so. It was for this very same reason that I looked forward to reading all of his works and luckily enough, I managed to avail a copy of The Marriage Plot. Just like his other works, it was listed as one of 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. To his credit, I loved Eugenides’ exploration of campus life and especially the discourses on literature. What I lament, however, is that the novel’s various themes and subjects never seem to converge. It was actually neither bad nor good – it was just right there.
Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi
After Omani writer Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was declared as the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, I was up on my toes, scoping for sellers who have a copy of the book. Luckily, I managed to snag one this year and after the book was delivered to me, I immediately immersed in the Omani tale ahead of the heaps of books waiting to gain my attention. I was really looking forward to reading the novel to uncover what it has in store. Unfortunately, I ended up having issues with the structure. Whilst it was innovative, it ended up confusing. Alharthi created one too many strands that the readers have to follow.
Silence, Shūsaku Endō
Japanese literature, as a whole, has been one of my favorite go-to when it comes to reading. It is like a genre within a genre as I continuously discover a new facet with every book I read. In Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, I got to learn more about Japan and its history but not in the typical sense. Endō belonged to a rare group of Japanese writers who explored the Catholic legacy in Japan. Silence is also a novel that I have been looking forward to for the longest time. Unfortunately, it just fell flat for me. The symbolisms were quite heavy handed and the story was a little disjointed.
The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk
The Red-Haired Woman was my second venture into the works of Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Orhan Pamuk’s works; my first was Snow which I have read four years ago. Compared to Snow, The Red-Haired Woman was more compact, one I have read is uncharacteristic of the usually elaborate Pamuk prose. Despite its brevity, the book has some rich details. However, I wasn’t too keen on The Red-Haired Woman. The father-son trope is a familiar theme but I felt like the novel’s exploration was lacking, the novel simply too bland. It didn’t create much of an impression on me. I enjoyed some details but I found its overall impact a little ephemeral.
How about you fellow readers, what books fell below your expectations? Or just disappointed you? Do share in the comment box.