The Ones that Got Away: 2021’s DNFs, Most Anticipated Reads & More

I’ve not been great about keeping track of my abandoned books this year, nor have I been consistent about writing justifications. I’m particularly wary about casting aspersions on books that I know others have loved (such as the latest novels by Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Groff and Elizabeth Strout). I don’t like to belabour the matter, but every time I list my DNFs I do find that the posts are absurdly popular, so if this is the permission you need to drop that book you’ve been struggling with for months, take it! If for any reason a book isn’t connecting with you, move onto something else; you can always try it again another time.

For most I’ve given the usual (horribly reductive and unfair) two-word summaries, with longer reactions then given to the DNFs that were on my “most anticipated” list. In rough chronological order:


The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally: Too dull.

A Fire in My Head: Poems for the Dawn by Ben Okri: Too unsubtle.

Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish: Too long.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar: Too amateurish.

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion: Too 1980s.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex: Too suspense-less.

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin: Too slow.

Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro: Too undistinctive.

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: Too Creative-Writing-MA-alum.

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy: Too overwrought.

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia: Too dispersed.

Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: Too Marlena-wannabe.

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz: Too early-2000s-Oprah’s-book-club.

Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker: Too Featherhood-lite.

The Union of Synchronised Swimmers by Cristina Sandu: Too vague.

The Cape Doctor by E. J. Levy: Too plodding.

Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs: Too dense.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen: Too wordy.

Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven: Too lyrical.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout: Too scatter-brained.

Dark Tourist: Essays by Hasanthika Sirisena: Too unfocused.

Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin: Too non-Darwin.

Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust by Eimear McBride: Too researched.

The Art of Reassembly by Peg Conway: Too homespun.

Coming Clean: A true story of love, addiction and recovery by Liz Fraser: Too soon.

Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang: Too child-POV.

Deadheading and Other Stories by Beth Gilstrap: Too drifting-to-nowhere.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Too soapy.

Philomath: Poems by Devon Walker-Figueroa: Too weird.

Taste: My Life through Food by Stanley Tucci: Too celebrity-rather-than-author.


Somewhere between 30 and 40 DNFs is not too bad for me, representing around 10% of the books I started this year, rather than my standard 15%.

In January, I highlighted the 20 releases that I was most looking forward to reading in 2021. Here’s how I did:


Read and loved: 7 (4 will be on my Best-of lists for the year)

Read and found disappointing (i.e., rated 3.5 stars or below): 4

Still have a review copy to read: 1

Haven’t managed to find yet: 3

DNFs: 5 (oh so poor! – is my “most anticipated” designation actually a kiss of death?)

These were:


Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge – I was a big fan of Greenidge’s debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, but this Reconstruction-era story of an African American doctor and her daughter/protégée bored me stiff. After two attempts I could barely get past page 30.


Matrix by Lauren Groff – It’s as if Groff set herself the challenge of applying the most modern style possible (present tense, no speech marks, pared-back prose, sexual frankness) to a medieval setting. The result is readable, which is more than I can say for most of what’s set in that time period, but I waited 75 pages for something to happen. All we’d had thus far was people commenting on how unsuitable ungainly six-foot Marie is to be an abbess and lots of detail about the privations of life at that time unless you have money as a cushion.


Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley – I read the first 110 pages and felt a bit puzzled by Mozley’s change in direction: This is the sort of state-of-the-nation (via London) novel that male authors were writing a decade ago, in the Dickensian mode of broad characterization and coincidental connection. The omniscient, present-tense narration does too much skating over the surface and not enough digging into characters’ individuality and motivation.


An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon – I read 25 pages or so. Adebayo/Adichie vibes but not the writing chops or the interesting story. Too bad, as I was interested in another intersex narrative to compare with Middlesex et al.


Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – I tried this twice and found it bloated and slow; such a disappointment. Perhaps I’ll find the right moment in the future. In the meantime, I look forward to reading Shipstead’s first short story collection next year instead. Here’s hoping that her short-form storytelling will work out better for me!


Not a great showing, then, but I can’t seem to resist getting my hopes up each year. (My Most Anticipated Books of 2022 post will be coming up early in January!)

I regret running out of time in 2021 to finish The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton or read my review copy of Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. The other 2021 releases I’m most keen to get hold of are Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed, The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel, Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow, The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish, What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller, On Freedom by Maggie Nelson, Names of the Women by Jeet Thayil and O Beautiful by Jung Yun.


What are some of the ‘ones that got away’ from you this year?

30 responses

  1. Thank you for critiquing the books you didn’t finish so we don’t have to be disappointed by them! Very succinct assessments (though I’m puzzling “Too 1980s” as a label…). However, though I too very soon stalled on the Naomi Ishiguro I’m determined to give her another chance at some time—even if I eventually join you in the ‘meh’ corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Mannion was a tough one to characterize. Most of my DNFs could be described as unengaging, so I had to get creative sometimes.

      I read and liked a few of the Ishiguro stories, but skipped the long fantasy ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your two-word summaries! I have two to read on your DNF list – Malibu Rising and Stanley Tucci (I just adore him, so can easily forgive a celeb rather than author book!), and one Hot Stew on the DNF Most Anticipated list. I only had 1 DNF this year, I still can’t let myself stop reading and hoping that those falling flat at the beginning aren’t like that all the way through – or maybe I’m just lucky with my choices. Ha Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It should be okay for a Tucci fan. I don’t know much of his work.

      One DNF is amazing!


  3. I agree about a lot of these! As you probably already know, I hated Hot Stew and was so disappointed. Also a DNF for me. I was also highly unimpressed by A Burning and The Art of Falling, although I finished both, and Escape Routes was also a DNF. Of your most anticipated, I did enjoy An Ordinary Wonder but I doubt it will stick with me – similarly, I liked Matrix but was not especially bowled over. Great Circle was far too long. It ends with a spectacular Antarctic sequence but so not worth the slog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might try again with Matrix and Great Circle one day because of my admiration of the authors.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great round up Rebecca! I loved two of these The Art of Falling and Oh William, but I fully understand your opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I’d liked those more!


  5. “Too early-2000s Oprah’s Book Club” made me chuckle! I thank you for affirming that it’s perfectly fine to abandon a book for whatever reason. After all, we all know that if you put down one book, ten more suddenly mushroom up right underneath it. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s true! And I’ve never regretted giving up on a book. If I’m meant to read it, it will happen some other time.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Winding back the anticipation for Stanley Tucci now but then Matrix ended up being one of my books of the year alongside Oh, William!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alas! I think you’ll like the Tucci, but just bear in mind he’s not a professional writer (a ghostwriter/co-author might have been useful).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – also didn’t work for me. I’m filled with admiration about your 2 word summaries! great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, thank you! I liked My Name Is Lucy Barton but couldn’t be bothered with the sequels.


  8. I am much better at DNF-ing books than I used to be. I chuckled at your comment of Malibu Rising. I would agree that it was pretty soapy. LOL I keep a reading journal and log all the books I read in it when I start them. So if I start a book and DNF it, I make a note in my journal on the page for that book that I DNF’ed it. However, I tend to forget to write down *why* I DNF’ed it. I probably should try to start writing down a couple of words like you’ve done as to why the book wasn’t for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will often write a few sentences about a DNF just so I remember my response and why it didn’t work for me at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My first inclination was to side with Calmgrove on questioning how something can be ‘too 1980s’, but I realise I’m really thinking of the music rather than attitudes. The 1980s was all glitz and glam, big shoulder pads, obnoxious yuppies and banking types drinking too much in wine bars and books about rags to riches, treading on people on the way up. I see your point! The only one of your DNFs I have read was Drowning Ruth, the ‘too early Oprah’ one. I really enjoyed it, just as a light read with no literary pretensions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d had a copy of Drowning Ruth for years and years and thought it couldn’t fail to be entertaining, as Oprah’s stuff is generally a very good bet. But I just couldn’t get anywhere with it after 60-80 pages.


  10. I love this! I haven’t read any of your disappointments, so I’m glad of that, I had a few disappointments myself this year, definitely the one about the Welsh response to Covid I eagerly bought from a small publisher then couldn’t bring myself to read! (I did give it away to someone who appreciated it). I’m not sure what my DNF rate was but my quickest one was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, which I had been looking forward to for about a year as it crept up the TBR then abandoned after three pages!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m currently attempting Chabon’s debut novel, but I don’t know if I’ll stay the course…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This year for the first time in a long time I haven’t DNF’d a book. A couple came close though…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s amazing!! Did you wish you’d abandoned some, though?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just the one book


  12. I think there were two books that I had planned to read, but didn’t, in the course of this year. At least, I seem to remember thinking “I should tell Rebecca I found one”, twice. I read the first few pages and the timing just wasn’t right and someone was waiting for my borrowed copy so it wasn’t an option to see if I felt differently another time. Heheh

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re a planner extraordinaire! My plans go by the wayside all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Love the two word summary of the reason each book failed to make the cut. We’ll have to agree to disagree about A Burning though, it’s one of my favourites from this year. We’ll agree though on Okri – I still have bad memories of trying to read his Booker winning The Famished Road.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t give A Burning much of a try, to be fair.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, then I understand your reaction. The beginning wasn’t great, but it gets significantly better as the characters become more fully developed

        Liked by 1 person

  14. “Too early-2000s-Oprah’s-book-club.” LOL
    Thanks for saving me time with the Great Circle

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know a few other bloggers who got fed up with Great Circle as well…


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