Reading Fail: The Remainder of the 2019 DNFs

Yipes, 97 DNFs this year – that’s roughly 22% of the books I started. Higher than my usual 15% average, suggesting that I’ve had trouble getting on with books that appealed for their subject matter or hype but didn’t live up to my expectations. (In the latter category, I’m thinking of It books of the year like The Man Who Saw Everything, The Starless Sea, Three Women, Trick Mirror and On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.)

Following on from June’s post on the books I’d abandoned so far in 2019, here’s a list of the other DNFs I haven’t already written about, perhaps in a monthly Library Checkout post. No cover images, tags, links or full reviews here; just a text dump. Titles are in chronological order; the number of pages or percentage I read is generally given in brackets at the end.

Note: I encourage readers to give up on books they are not enjoying – at any time, but as early on as possible. You owe it to yourself to devote your limited, precious time to the books you’ll love and find worthwhile.


Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival by Ricky Monahan Brown: Brown, a Scot in New York City, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke at age 38. I’m pretty oversaturated with medical memoirs; despite the breezy style and accessible details, this one doesn’t stand out. (104 pp.)


How to Catch a Mole: And Find Yourself in Nature by Marc Hamer: Hamer is a gardener and former molecatcher. This is a gentle natural history of the mole, as well as a meditation on our connections with a nature and a memoir of a life lived largely outdoors. But is it about atonement or not? (103 pp.)


The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned. (32 pp.)


What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)


The Music Room by William Fiennes: Time to accept that I just don’t get on with Fiennes’s writing, even when the subjects seem tailor-made for me. (10 pp.)


Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read a blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages. (6 pp.)


The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante: Alas, I do not appreciate Elena Ferrante’s work; this is a third try. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, but had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out. (25 pp.)


Breaking and Mending: A Junior Doctor’s Stories of Compassion and Burnout by Joanna Cannon: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs now, and this one doesn’t really cut the mustard: the writing is undistinguished and the tone as sentimental as I’ve come to expect from her fiction. (30 pp.)


Dunedin by Shena Mackay: After loving The Orchard on Fire, I thought I’d try another Mackay novel, and I was intrigued by the dual timeline of 1909 New Zealand and 1989 London. I kept thinking we were going to get links back to the historical chapter; I got bored of waiting. (189 pp.)


Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker: I thought it would be fascinating to read about flying from the perspective of a British Airways pilot. But this is more of an academic and philosophical study of flight and the modern condition of dislocation than a memoir of what it’s like to train to fly planes. (28 pp.)


Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: At first these ageing Irish gangsters seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. I loved the voices and if this was a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling. (76 pp.)


The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson: I read “Angels in the Snow” (last Christmas) and “Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada.” Both were fine but not memorable; a glance at the rest suggests they’ll all be about baseball and hunting. If I want to read stories about dudes hunting I’ll turn to Hemingway or David Vann.


The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: There’s a lot of repetition and random details that seem deliberately placed to be clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms, there is not a lot of plot or character to latch onto. (35 pp.)


Inland by Téa Obreht: I made two attempts to get into this Western, but found it excruciatingly slow and couldn’t warm to any of the characters or convince myself of the accuracy of the period speech. This was disappointing as it was one of my most anticipated titles of the second half of the year and I loved The Tiger’s Wife. (37 pp.)


Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late?, by Mark Cocker: I simply didn’t need this level of detail on the history of nature conservation in Britain. The personal writing about his patch of Norfolk engaged me a bit more. (60 pp.)


Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days by Andrea Wilson Woods: When Woods’s 13-years-younger sister Adrienne was diagnosed with liver cancer, it hit her hard. This didn’t pull me in, despite strong recreated dialogue and an extraordinary memory for events. I think it’s a combination of it being far too long and detailed, and feeling dated. (12%)


The Grassling: A Geological Memoir by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett: Burnett’s roots are in Ide, Devon and in Kenya. She has previously published poetry and is going for extreme lyricism in her nature writing, which at times makes it feel overwritten, especially in the prologue. (55 pp.)


The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes: I completely misjudged this: I thought it would be historical fiction, but it’s actually narrative nonfiction about an obscure historical figure. I found it dull and impenetrable. A shame, as Barnes is a favorite author of mine. (9 pp.)


Loop by Brenda Lozano: The narrator, waiting for her boyfriend to come back from Spain, is explicitly likened to Penelope. She lets her mind wander at random, which leads to unrelated paragraphs about dwarves, David Bowie songs, her choice of notebooks, tiny things that happened to her, and so on. Not enough narrative to keep me interested. (35 pp.)


The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West: I’m not sure I even made it past the second page. It’s even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him.


Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison: Larison has done a good job of approximating the voice of an unlettered young woman in the 1880s, but I found this quite slow and feel like I’ve read too many Westerns in the last few years. (50 pp.)


Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run by Shena Mackay: Argh, another Mackay DNF! She wrote these two novellas when she was SEVENTEEN. I only managed a few pages of Dust, but got 40 pages into Toddler. It has an amusing premise but was only okay.


The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: I couldn’t even tell you the basics of what happened. Some posh English people on a boat to South America? I could see that there were keen psychological insights, but no plot to speak of. (Did you know Mrs Dalloway is a character?!) Perhaps I’ll try this again someday, but it will require a concerted effort. (110 pp.)


Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: Reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant: readable but blah. (40%)


The Complete Stories of Saki by Hector Hugh Munro: This was a follow-up bibliotherapy prescription for reading aloud. My husband and I read “Tobermory,” “Sredni Vashtar,” “The Easter Egg,” “Laura,” and “Tea.” The stories are very short and quite witty, but the language so advanced/old-fashioned that I found them rather like tongue-twisters.


The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: Like most of the rest of the world, I was enraptured with The Night Circus. This, however, felt like a knockoff of A Discovery of Witches and The Thirteenth Tale, with added geek and queer stylings. Passages from the book within a book failed to draw me in. (44 pp.)


The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea: I don’t know if it’s the time period and setting (17th-century Iceland), or the writing style, but I couldn’t get through Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift either. The challenging names add to a feeling of foreignness that’s more bewildering than entrancing. (8 pp.)


Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott: The idea of a ghostwriter being almost literally haunted by her subject is appealing, and I did find the writing atmospheric. However, the Isaac Newton and animal rights activism plots didn’t capture my attention. (126 pp.)


Three Flames by Alan Lightman: I’d enjoyed several Lightman books before, fiction and non-, but despite his nonprofit work with women in Southeast Asia, he doesn’t seem like the person to write this novel about women’s lives in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. (50 pp.)


Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: Quirk for quirk’s sake. Characters are found alive in a cemetery, killed by a flow of molasses, or expire by spontaneous combustion. What is supposed to unite this 19th-century community – a bowling alley – never comes to life. Another disappointment from my most anticipated titles of the year list. (153 pp.)


Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: I read part of “Ecstasy,” her essay on belonging to a Texas megachurch in her high school years. The other topics, and the writing in general, didn’t interest me enough.


Idiot Wind by Peter Kaldheim: I requested this purely on the basis of an enthusiastic NPR review from an acquaintance. While there’s a lot of energy to this memoir of the author’s time as a New York City drug dealer/addict taking off on a cross-country road trip in the late 1980s, I should have known it wouldn’t be for me. (14 pp.)

16 responses

  1. Oh dear, Joanna Cannon is so sentimental. Totally agree re The Man Who Saw Everything, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Trick Mirror (which had one fantastic essay about female protagonists, but otherwise was very meh for me).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a spare proof of the Cannon, but now I know not to pass it on to you 😉

      I still have Trick Mirror on my Kindle, so maybe I’ll go back and find that essay.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not a Cannon fan! Thanks for thinking of me though 🙂


    2. I gave my other copy to Annabel. I’ll offer this one round my book club 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved Skyfaring!
    Completely agree about giving up on a book – if I put the book down and then only reluctantly pick it up that usually means it is about to get the old heave ho!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve kept our copy and may give it a try another time. I can’t decide if it would help my hubby (a very nervous flyer) or not!

      There’s the old Nancy Pearl guidelines of giving any book 50 pages (or 100 less your age, if you’re over 50), but honestly, I’d say give up as soon as possible — considering that many people only manage to read 5-10 pages a day, perhaps before bed, this would waste 5-10 reading days for them when they could move on to something more engaging.


  3. I do love your DNF posts! According to my reading journal I haven’t DNF’d ANY books this year – it’s usually around 4. I think I’ve DNS’d a few that I’ve picked up and just thought “Nah” immediately, though …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If I’ve read fewer than 10 pages I tend to mark a book as “decided against,” a shelf I created on Goodreads for that very purpose. That’s if the style or whatever puts me off immediately. I wish I’d been quicker to DNF a lot of these — reading over 100 pages only for it not to count!?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha Ha! I loved the Levy – it clicked. I nearly gave up on Joanna Cannon after you gave it to me, but it was a short book so I carried on. I had Skyfaring, and literally flicked through and thought why did I buy this, so to the charity shop it went unread. I still find it hard to DNF a book, but have done it a few more times this year than normal – to be posted about later!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved reading about your DNFs! I’m reading The Tiger’s Wife now, and have Inland in the pile. One of my favorite novels is Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. It’s a historical western so beautifully written. I loved On Earth we are Briefly Gorgeous. I will scroll around your pages to see why you didn’t enjoy it. I read it twice. But. i confess my favorite novels are what some may think of as plotless. I would love to make comments ts on your Goodreads posts. If you can accept me, I would like that. I love your reviews.


    1. I have yet to read Stegner but do intend to. I have that one and Crossing to Safety, which I’ve meant to read for ages.

      With the Vuong I thought the writing was beautiful, of course, and the first chapter was an excellent stand-alone story. But I could imagine the novel quickly getting repetitive without any plot. I worried it would be like “eating a three-course meal made up entirely of toffee – just too much.”

      I think I need you to send another friend request through…


  6. I’m so glad to see how many DNFs you have! It makes me feel less crotchety. My number of DNFs rises every year. It would take about 70 years to read all the books that are on my TBR list today and I add more just about every day. Since I’m 65, I need to seriously weed out the list, and if something doesn’t grab me right away, I toss it. Thanks again for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I clearly need to be even pickier! I wish I’d given up on most of these books earlier, rather than devoting (in some cases) 100 pages or more to a failed prospect.


  7. I recently abandoned Deborah Levy, and now feel justified. I’m more and more inclined to abandon books I’m not enjoying, but occasionally am rewarded by persisting against the odds. Aaagh. Can’t think of an example just now. On the whole though, life is too short.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hah! You’ve DNFed so many more books than most people even think of trying to read. And I do agree that one’s reading time should be used with care and contemplation. Here’s hoping you find more matches in the new year though – even these few pages you’ve experimented with – across nearly 100 books – would add up to many reading hours! LOL


    1. It’s true: this represents a lot of wasted reading time. It is part of why this year I plan to avoid hyped books and review copies that I feel obligated to continue with even if I’m not enjoying. I should also do more strategic sampling, perhaps even before borrowing a book from the library.


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