The Spite List

Or, the worst books I read in 2019

I didn’t do a proper spite list last year, but I had to do one this time if only for 3 and 5 on this list. Do not fear, my favourite books of the year (both published this year and not) will be following soon to get past the negativity, but for those who prefer spite, here it is. The books I didn’t get on with, in order of when this year I read them:

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland – I used to be really into 90s American fiction, and I currently read a fair bit about tech companies, so I thought this would be up my street. Instead, it turned out to just be boring. Microsoft employees…get fed up of working for Microsoft. Some of it could’ve been amusing with hindsight if I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t care about any of it.

Miracle Workers by Simon Rich – The premise – two angels need to stop God closing down Earth – sounded, again, like something I might like. The execution, again, was boring, and possibly too amused by its own concept.

Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson – Here begins the real spite part of my list. I wrote a review of why I didn’t like this one, but basically, it is far too long, the second half is almost unreadable, and the ideas could have been just as interesting in a fraction of the space. Also I would argue it doesn’t deserve the title at all (but maybe that’s because the title is what made me interested in it). Apparently I shouldn’t have trusted books about any kind of afterlife this year.

The Club by Takis Wurger – I picked this up due to my inability to not read books that promise to be about shady things at Oxbridge (or other elite universities). The few reviews of it should’ve warned me, but it was both not a very interesting example of that not-really-a-genre and used a handful of outdated slurs and ‘no homo’ moments for seemingly no reason (other than presumably avoiding the inherent homoeroticism of all ‘shady things at elite university’ novels).

Find Me by André Aciman – I also wrote a proper review of why I didn’t like this one, but the tl;dr version is: what was the point of this other than trying to cash in on the popularity of Call Me By Your Name and failing? The narratives just feel aimless and I wasn’t sure why I was meant to care.

Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin

Foul is Fair is a gripping teenage revenge thriller based on Macbeth set in an elite LA world. Jade Khanjara and her three best friends Mads, Summer, and Jenny are powerful and dazzling, rich and always there for each other. When Jade’s drink is spiked at a party and she is attacked by a group of boys from a different school, the four know that these boys will face no consequences unless they take matters into their own hands, and they scheme a plot to bring them down. Jade has to disguise herself, go into their school, and rip them apart from within, using their muddled conscience Mack to enact the violence.

This is a vicious and dark book, combining the danger of teenage horror and thriller books with the revenge violence of Kill Bill, and taking the control back from fate into the hands of teenage girls who know how to do damage. Jade and her best friends are the heart of the book, ruthless and clever, though the story is about what they do rather than focusing on who they are. The narrative is clearly Macbeth in many ways, but also Capin takes it in different directions, playing around with Jade’s role in particular, and there’s a lot of potential for people who study and love Macbeth to look at how Foul is Fair plays with the original. On the other hand, you don’t necessarily need to know Shakespeare’s play to get into the novel, which has been compared to a range of TV series based variously around revenge, violence, assault, and teenagers.

The writing style is unusual, giving Jade a specific voice and combining elements from different genres, and the use of character feels quite cinematic, where certain shorthands or details are shown to build character rather than more in-depth depictions. The pace of the narrative and events match the sense of time in the play, and bring a sense of unreality which suits the novel as a revenge fantasy. Foul is Fair could easily be adapted into a TV series or film (TV series would allow the space to give Jade’s friends space for their characters too, and it would be good to see more of Mads, Summer, and Jenny and their privileged yet complex lives).

Foul is Fair is gleefully dark and vicious as it depicts teenage girls having the power to enact bloody revenge. Take heed of content warnings and be aware that some people are going to find the violence too much or too unrealistic, but this is a book worth picking up if you’re interested in Macbeth meets Heathers with a scheming, diverse quartet enacting vengeance.

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

Oligarchy is a sharp, dark novel about rich teenagers, eating disorders, and the secrets of a boarding school. Tash is the daughter of a Russian oligarch and has suddenly been sent to an English boarding school. The wifi use is restricted, the hierarchies are strange, and everyone is obsessed with looks and eating even though they can barely get on Instagram without surreptitious means. She ends up part of the group of troublemakers, all willing to go further than the rest, but when one of them, Bianca, vanishes and the school seems weirdly inept at dealing with the eating disorder epidemic, it seems there could be more at play.

The first things to know about this novel are that it is very much focused around disordered eating in various ways, and that it is a kind of twisted adult novel rather than the YA title some people might assume from a very brief summary. Coming into the book with the right expectations seems important, as then its blend of fantastical and deeply cutting will be making points and exploring darkness rather than seeming in strange taste. The third person narration is mostly around Tash’s perspective, with a side plot of Russian-backwater-to-riches and a shady aunt who lives in London that you almost want more of. In general, the book is more focused on small details and dark, witty moments than the overall pace of narrative, and these are what creates its tone, taking both teenage peer pressure and power abuse in boarding schools to particular heights for effect.

Oligarchy is an in-your-face novel that won’t be for everyone, a dark look at body image and how the internet can exacerbate mental states around things like eating disorders that also manages to be witty and strange.

Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World by Christopher Wylie

Mindf*ck is the story of Cambridge Analytica as told by Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who helped to break the story of what happened when data was used to manipulate people with targeted Facebook pages in the name of election and referendum campaigns. The scandal around Cambridge Analytica is something most people are aware of at some level, but the book details the sheer worldwide scale of the work the company was involved in and the key players involved in getting and using people’s data. It starts with how Wylie ended up involved in working with data for political ends, and concludes with the realities of being a whistleblower and his manifesto for better tech companies and use of data.

There are a lot of books about technology and politics around at the moment—unsurprisingly—but this one stands out as being direct from someone deeply involved in it, covering a lot of content without delving too far into technological points or jargon, and also being a kind of memoir of how someone who is more of an outsider could be helping Steve Bannon reach the minds of Americans. It is fascinating in its content, but also in how Wylie presents himself, and the people he knows and knew. Wylie’s concluding manifesto about ethical design and regulation for tech companies serves as a useful introduction to the more positive side of the current technological moment: the potential for doing better in the future and finding ways to break the current potential for things like the use of data by Cambridge Analytica.

For people already interested in books about tech companies, politics, and the future of the two, Mindf*ck gives a specific insight and a chance to think about how everything with Cambridge Analytica unfolded. For those who are newer to the topic, it is engaging and written in a style that doesn’t need tech knowledge, but only an interest in what Wylie might have to say, good or bad. The memoir aspects look at whistleblowing on a personal level and in general it is a fascinating, at times horrifying read.

Royals by Emma Forrest

Royals is a novel about a fast, unlikely friendship, about finding someone who believes in what you can create, and about the tragedy of living too fast. Steven is eighteen, Jewish, probably gay, into fashion, and lives in the East End of London. When he is beaten by his father on the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding, he ends up in hospital, where he meets Jasmine, an heiress who tried to kill herself. Drawn together by their interest in fashion and faded Hollywood stars, they begin an intense friendship, becoming inseparable despite their differences. But lurking behind Jasmine’s quirkiness and frivolity lies more, and maybe her and Steven’s schemes and plans aren’t meant to be.

The early 80s setting of the novel is vividly depicted (though the odd Americanism does distract a little) with a distinctive style, drawing somewhat from Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty but more obsessively focused on the two central characters. It took until the end to realise that it was carefully crafted to present a very short space of time with what seems to be a meandering narrative until you see where it was going. The novel has a lot of focus on identity—on defining or not defining things, on how different identities interact—which makes it feel more like it is doing something fresh and exciting, not just another story about someone working class meeting someone very rich.

This is the kind of book where you want to immerse yourself in its aesthetic for a moment, but also remember that the point is that it isn’t all as rosy as dreaming of living like that might make it seem. It feels aimed at both the millennials who enjoy the 80s vibe without having experienced it, and those who remember the names dropped throughout. Royals is a stylistic jump into a fictional summer filled with real detail.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is a funny, fresh, and touching novel about a teenager growing up and wanting to know more about herself, whilst her mother learns how to share with her daughter the past she’s been trying to ignore. Nnenna Maloney is nearly seventeen and lives in Manchester, where people are always wondering about Nnenna and her white mother Joanie. Nnenna wants to connect with her Nigerian heritage, but Joanie doesn’t want to talk about the father Nnenna has never known, or deal with the fact that linguist Nnenna might want to study in Paris. And people around them are also probing their own identities, amidst the backdrop of Manchester and everyday life.

This is a novel brimming with sparkle, but also delving deep into questions of race, family, identity, sexuality, and class in a witty and tender way. Nnenna is a great teenage protagonist, torn between her love for her mother and her desire to go against what her mother wants to become her own person, and her and Joanie’s relationship is carefully crafted to capture their closeness but also the ways in which Joanie can’t quite understand what Nnenna faces due to race and also how her anxiety relates to this. The supporting characters are memorable, from the mental health and dating struggles of a gay black man to the hints of a burgeoning relationship on the edges of Nnenna’s friendship group, and the characters are tied together nicely as the plot moves forward.

Heartwarming and hard-hitting, this is a novel you can really get invested in, that looks at how people’s identity changes at formative times in their life. It is refreshing to have a novel set in Manchester that looks at how real people live and captures the ups and downs of growing up.

Tuesday Mooney Wore Black by Kate Racculia

Tuesday Mooney Wore Black is a novel about what happens an eccentric billionaire creates a game for people to try and win his fortune after his death. Tuesday Mooney is weird, a woman who wears black and works investigating donors for a hospital. She’s closed off even from her closest friend Dex, who works in finance but really loves karaoke and performing. When Tuesday finds out about the game, she can’t help but be drawn into the puzzle, but as well as the game, there’s the mysterious eldest son of a wealthy Boston family who had a strange connection to the dead man to investigate, but who also seems to have teamed up with Tuesday to try and solve it all. Surely everyone can’t find what they’re looking for in the game?

The novel was a surprise, something that was a lot more fun and gripping to read than it seemed it might be. Tuesday is a notable protagonist, but it was the supporting characters—Dex, Archie, Dorry—who felt most interesting, and it was good to get insights into their lives and thoughts as the novel unfolded. The narrative follows the playing of the game, but beneath the quirky surface of the unraveling secrets and weird characters, there’s an undercurrent of emotion, looking at grief, coping methods, and finding and being yourself. The writing style is light and readable, and it’s the kind of book that allows you to escape into the story and characters.

Full of revelations and a literary reference game around Boston, this is a book that makes a good light read, with an enjoyable plot and characters. In some ways, it feels like it takes some of the elements of a YA novel, like character and detail, and transport them into an adult novel where the characters are still a bit lost, but just no longer as teenagers. Its quirkiness might feel a bit forced to some, but it’s a good testament to people being who they want to be. 

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Akin is a novel about unlikely travel companions looking for answers and for similarities and compromises that will get them through the present. Noah is a retired professor in New York, about to take a trip to Nice—where he was born—for his eightieth birthday. Just before he leaves, he gets a phone call that will change everything: his eleven year old great-nephew who he’s never met needs a temporary guardian, and Noah is the closest kin to Michael who is available. Suddenly Noah and Michael find themselves together in France, clashing over everything, but Noah ends up on a quest to work out the mysteries behind some old photos taken by his mother and Michael might be able to help point him in the right directions.

Donoghue takes a short space of time—the trip to Nice—and fills it with the present and past in a way that works well, as Noah thinks about family across generations and the history of Nice during the Second World War but the narrative stays firmly in the present day. There are a lot of details that make it thoroughly modern—from the realities of what children see on the internet to how technology can help solve old mysteries—but it also has a sense of the past and how people are shaped by it. The mirroring of this not only through Noah’s family history but through Michael’s—with his mother in prison and questions around his dead father—shows that family and history can be varying categories, but still with similar connections and dangers. The writing style makes the novel very easy to get into and it is more gripping than expected as the trip unfurls.

Akin is often very much about the personal—about specific relatives and about two people trying to compromise being forced together—but also tries to keep an eye on larger issues at stake. There perhaps could have been more made of the class issues that are important undercurrents to the novel, but as it is through Noah’s perspective, it seems purposeful at times that he often doesn’t realise how different his and Michael’s lives are not from an age perspective, but a class one. It is a book that ultimately tries to be uplifting and to show that people can have more in common or find more ways to relate than might be expected, and one that you could imagine being made into a film.

The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession is a novel about a woman looking for answers about her mother, and discovering not only secrets but ways for her own life to move forward. Rose Simmons is looking for her mother who disappeared not long after Rose’s birthday. A gift from her father points her towards Constance Holden, a reclusive novelist who needs an assistant, for answers so Rose hatches a plan to escape her own life and find out about her mother. And three decades previously in 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden on Hampstead Heath and they fall in love, but when they end up in Hollywood where Constance’s book is being adapted, things start to fall apart.

Burton uses a classic trope of telling both stories at once to unravel the stories of Rose, Elise, and Constance, drawing comparisons between characters and building up the emotional stakes. Unusually for this style of novel, both plot lines are engrossing in different ways, and feel a lot more focused on the emotions and characters involved than any revelations that are offered to either the reader or the characters. Particularly notable is the dynamic between Rose and Constance, which though built on Rose’s initial lies becomes something that allows Rose to finally find a mother figure right when she needs some guidance. Elise feels less realised, but it starts to become apparent that this is part of the storytelling, in a book that is partly about an author writing or not writing elements of her life, and how people tell themselves stories to get through life.

The Confession is a surprising book that does more than expected, looking at being a mother, finding yourself, and how you tell the story of yours and others’ lives.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone China is another atmospheric historical gothic novel by Laura Purcell, suffused in superstition and illness. Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House in Cornwall to take up a lady’s maid position with secrets surrounding her flight from London. What she finds there isn’t an escape, however, but a strange situation: Miss Pinecroft, sitting in a freezing room full of china, unwell and looking older than her years. An old servant obsessed with fairies and a mysterious ward add to the weirdness. And forty years previously, Louise Pinecroft and her father move after consumption ravages their family, hoping that the sea air will provide the answer to her father’s experiments on ill convicts, but the new maid tells her tales of fairies and the dangers they pose.

It is exciting to have a historical gothic novel that focuses on contemporary medicine that is set during the Regency and before rather than the usual Victorian setting. The tension between scientific ideas, passed down knowledge, and otherworldly magic provides a good backdrop for a novel also about the power structure of servants and those above them and the different things that keep people locked up, whether literally or not. These concepts of power and imprisonment fit well with actual gothic novels of the period in which the book is set, and the genre is used well to start to explore these (though it would’ve been interesting to see Hester’s reliance on alcohol and laudanum developed further). There are some threads that don’t feel fully explored in the novel, but this does allow it more ambiguity and gives space for mystery.

Fans of Purcell’s other novels will likely enjoy this one, which uses similar gothic tropes but also engages with the period of the earlier gothic novels (with references to Wordsworth, Byron, and the Prince Regent serving as reminders to this). It combines medicine and superstition in interesting ways and offers a morally complex point of view character who proves that the gothic isn’t just a genre centred around helpless, innocent women.