Books & Reading · Story & Characters

To DNF or Not to DNF

[I got the idea for this post from a fellow blogger, and you can view her original post here.]

reading in bed kind of bored book meh
I think all readers, even with the best of intentions, have failed to finish a book (which is what DNF stands for – it’s short for “did not finish”). While some readers display a higher tolerance for a book that falls short of their expectations, others will lay a book down fairly quickly if it fails to deliver. To pinpoint an exact reason as to why some readers don’t finish a book while others do is impossible as everyone has different criteria for what they consider a likable, or even a tolerable, read.

I keep a running list of DNF’d books on my GoodReads page; but out of my 1,500+ books shelved with 1,420+ titles marked as Read, only around 200 are labeled DNF, so that’s not too many if you consider the whole. Yet there tends to be common issues for me when it comes to sitting down a book, never to disturb its pages again. So for this post, I’d like to share why I will DNF a book along with some books I’ve DNF’d and why.

Before I begin, I want to say that these observations are – in no way, shape, or form – meant to attack a particular book or author. These are just elements that, as a rule, don’t appeal to me as a reader, but everyone has different tastes and tolerance levels. It doesn’t mean any of the books listed below are bad or of poor quality – they just weren’t for me and, hence, failed to make a good impression.

So with that out of the way, let’s get started!

Seven Reasons Why I Will DNF a Book:

Bored meh
. Lost interest
There are simply books that, for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with me, and many times I can’t explain why. Maybe the writing was dry, the characters were flat, the tone was depressing, or it was a mixture of these or other issues. Whatever it was, I just couldn’t make myself finish the book.

Gain book coverExample: Gain by Richard Powers
No offense against readers who like corporate shaming novels, but I’m not in your company (pun kind of intended). This novel, which I was assigned to read for an American Lit class back in college, is a duel narrative: the first thread is from the perspective of the family who started an American soap and candle company, and the second narrative is that of a woman who is diagnosed with cancer and suspects said company (which has now ballooned into a pharmaceuticals-pesticides giant) is to blame for her health issues. I knew this wasn’t the sort of novel I would have picked for myself, but I was willing to give it a chance. But, goodness, was it boring! For instance, the entire second chapter was all about how the original little company made soap. I think watching soap get made would have been more interesting! Though Gain did earn itself this “honor” – it was the very first book that literally put me to sleep and it has yet to find a contender.

Facepalm meh bored
2. Huh?/Wow, that was Bad
If a book leaves me scratching my head, rolling my eyes, or wanting to bang my head into the nearest load-bearing wall, then there’s a problem. Overall, I will tend to DNF a book if it has a story that just doesn’t make sense, is kitschy without a good context or reason for being so, tries too hard to be unique, or is just outright terrible.

Strange Sweet Song coverHuh? Strange Sweet Song by Adi Rule
This is a school-day’s novel about a young girl named Sing (guess what her talent is; here’s a hint – it’s not bowling) who attends an exclusive, mysterious arts conservatory set in a forest of secrets. Upfront, that doesn’t sound so bad. But when you get past all of the typical YA drama and tropes, you get to meet a wish-granting space cat! You read that correctly – one of the characters is a wish-granting space cat. (Maybe like Nyan Cat?) And his role is to…your guess is as good as mine. This was one of those genuinely strange books that, unfortunately, got a little too out there and didn’t seem to have a solid set of rules for how its own world operated. Sing seems like a normal girl and the cover and blurb imply that this novel will be some sort of beautiful mystery. But what does a wish-granting space cat have to do with anything? Of course, having a vocally talented main character named Sing should have been a tip-off to me to not expect much from this book.

Antigua coverWow, that was Bad – Antigua: The Land of Fairies and Wizards (Part 1) by Larry/Denise Ellis
I did a random Internet search for “worst books” and this title ranked as number one on Lit Reactor’s “Bottom of the Barrel” reads. I was able to peruse a portion of this book for free on Google Books just to see how bad it was. I got about 30% in when Google Books wouldn’t let me read any further, but I had seen enough. To be frank, this book is painful to read. The author claims she wrote this to be a “childrens book for 9-13 year olds” (her words, not mine). I’m not going to condemn how a book gets marketed, but it seems safe to say that most nine to thirteen-year-olds would find this novel insulting. Likewise, the author admits this was written using a five-year old’s voice. But why would a book for pre-teens/young teens be written in a child’s voice? That would be like Charles Dickens penning Great Expectations, a novel intended for grown-ups, using the diction and voice of a little kid. (“It was a good time! It was a bad time! It was a time for being smart! It was a time for being silly!” You get the idea, and I’ll stop now out of respect for Mr. Dickens.)

Not to mention the overuse of exclamation points here, which reminded me of the “Seinfeld” episode (“The Sniffing Accountant”) where Elaine decides to add more oomph to her writing by adding excessive exclamation points.

Only on “Seinfeld” it was funny. Here, it’s not. In short, this gives indie writers a bad name as I trust that many of us do our best to produce quality work, proofread our material, and properly market our books. So please don’t judge all self-published books by the bad apples. Exclamation point.

making cake cooking bake
3. “Box mix” Stories

While box mixes work for cakes, they’re not a good idea for books. For me, a “box mix” story is one with a plot, characters, and overall moral/theme that are, essentially, a packaged formula. Story formulas can, and often do, work as long as the author tries to put a different spin on it (after all, even The Lord of the Rings, my favorite book of all time, is a quest story, but there’s more to it than just Frodo moving from Point A to Point Z). Books I DNF because of this usually have plots I can figure out early on that offer little to no surprises and are typically populated with trope characters that serve only as ingredients to the plot and lack originality or any sense of intrigue.

The Selection coverExample: The Selection by Kiera Cass
Not only is the dystopian kingdom plot here uninspired but the characters are cookie cutters. Plus the lead character is named America Singer (again, can you guess what her talent is?). This novel essentially follows the teen dystopian “box mix” to the letter complete with a vast, post-American landscape; a tyrannical government; odd rules that try to keep the general population in check; a female as the principle heroine; a love interest; war and rebellion; quirky side characters; a cliffhanging ending, etc., etc. Again, there is nothing wrong with this formula or any of these elements in general provided you do something different with them, but simply making the landscape a royal kingdom and introducing a play on reality television doesn’t work. Essentially, this is a Hunger Games ripoff if The Hunger Games spent most of its time focusing on the Capitol makeover and interview scenes and less on character development or high stakes.

Oh gosh geesh critic scared shocked
4. Content Issues

I take no immediate issue with profanity, violence, or mild sexual content provided said content is essential to the story and avoids being too graphic. For instance, if a character likes to swear worse than a sailor but that’s a part of who that character is, I can overlook the profanity. If violence is necessary for the story or essential to the story’s world, then so be it as long as bloodletting for the sake of bloodletting isn’t the sole focus. But if I start paying more attention to the content and less on the story, then the book has failed me. Thus, unnecessary/graphic sexual content; excessive violence; rape; incest; questionable sexual politics; LGBQT-etc. characters or situations (I’m straight, so I can’t relate nor am I interested in reading such stories); or an abundance of vulgarities without cause are sure fire ways for a book to get DNF’d by me.

Lord Foul's BaneExample: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
It wasn’t the recycled plot, predicable storyline, or insipid characters that made me hate this book. It was the “hero,” Thomas Covenant, himself. Aside from his pathetic attempts to get you to feel sorry for him, Thomas commits a crime that is inexcusable. While in the Land (that’s what the fantasy realm is called in this story), Thomas is cured of his leprosy by Lena, a healer girl. Immediately afterwards, he is so overcome with emotion and the fact he is no longer impotent that he rapes her. Main characters shouldn’t be perfect but there is a line to be drawn, and Thomas’ actions are utterly out of bounds. When Thomas confesses his crime, he is forgiven by Lena’s community without open retribution. Even though one character seeks revenge, the victim’s own mother encourages him not to because Thomas is the prophesied savior of the Land, killing is wrong (but somehow rape isn’t?), etc., etc. Granted, Thomas feels guilty but that’s all. And I should point out that Lena is described as looking no older than 16, which only adds to the disgusting nature of the crime. Also worth noting is that, in later volumes in this trilogy/series, Lena grows to love Thomas to the point of idolizing him; thus, she hero worships her own rapist. This is just mind-boggling beyond words – is there any wonder why I quit reading this?

Basic meme
5. Basic Writing and/or Characters

Unless you’re penning (or reading) a children’s book, there needs to be some sort of mental challenge in terms of the actual prose and characters involved. This isn’t synonymous with using flowery or obscure language or having really out-there characters, but there’s something to be said for using a vocabulary level and writing style that fits your target audience but also challenges them to think, as well as offering characters who present genuinely tough moral dilemmas so the choices they make aren’t easy. If a book sounds monotone while you’re reading it, that’s usually a clue the writing lacks a good rhythm and sentence variation. In the same way, characters populating a story need to possess something memorable about them. A good character has unique talents, skills, opinions, and perceptions of the world; but a weak character is just there to take up space and doesn’t develop beyond a basic scope. Hence, books that just don’t seem to possess much meat to their literary bones will typically be laid aside by me.

bree-tanner-_twilight__oPtExample: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer
I’m neutral when it comes to the Twilight series, meaning I don’t hate it but I don’t love it. Though I was interested enough to check out this novella, I ended up disliking it even more than the books in its principle series. None of the characters here are memorable, the writing reads woodenly, and there really is no central plot. Bree, the lead character, is boring and seems like your standard YA teen girl character without any unique attributes other than she’s a newborn vampire. Bree’s comrades are faceless and I couldn’t name a single one as I didn’t remember them. Lastly, the final 30% or so of the novella essentially repeats the same Bree scene from Eclipse only it’s related from Bree’s point of view. Overall, this novella seemed very non-essential and didn’t alter my already apathetic attitude towards this series.

Pretentious meme
6. Pretentious and/or Preachy

I have an Master’s in English, so I have read my share of books and scholarly articles that were nothing short of academic pandering as well as books that are less than subtle when it comes to their overall message or moral (and, no, children’s books don’t count). While I have nothing against scholarly writing or books that wear specific messages on their sleeves, there is, as in all things, a right way and a less-than-right way to execute it. Concerning works of an academic or educational nature, I shy away from anything that sounds like the writer is just trying to impress me with vocabulary and/or obscure knowledge rather than being genuinely interested in sharing his or her insights. Being pretentious is unbecoming, both in a person and a book, and if I detect a pretentious tone in anything I’m reading, I’ll sit it aside for good. Likewise, books that are a little too obvious about their message; tout “diverse” characters purely for the sake of being politically correct; and/or openly preach a social justice message get a thumbs down from me as they sacrifice story for sermonizing.

Rhetorics of FantasyPretentious – Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn
The premise of this work sounded interesting enough as this was purported to be a study of fantasy literature as a rhetorical device by breaking down conventional plot structures (i.e. portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, and liminal). If the book would have stuck to this and examined a combination of well-known fantasy works alongside lesser-known stories, it would have held my interest and I probably would have liked it. But the chapters, which didn’t seem to follow a clear argumentative structure, referenced so many textual examples (most of which were uber-obscure) that there was no real sense of cohesiveness. In the end, I just couldn’t finish this book. It takes a topic that should be fun to explore and turns it into what sounds like a dry doctoral thesis. Just because something is scholarly doesn’t automatically mean it’s interesting, has cohesive arguments, or possesses good writing. While I appreciate an author taking a serious look at the fantasy genre, this book was ultimately too dry and too inconclusive.

Subtle KnifeAmber SpyglassPreachy – The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
While The Golden Compass gets a pass from me because I love its setting and it is a fun adventure story (its flaws and occasional religion bashing notwithstanding), the other two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy didn’t work for me as the story becomes less of an adventure/fantasy/sci-fi tale and more of an exposition against the “evils” of a belief in sin, God, the Bible, and Christianity. Eventually, the story gets forgotten in exchange for sermonizing. Yes, religious discussions have their place in fiction; but books for younger readers aren’t exactly the best medium to start unabashedly Bible and church-bashing, in my opinion. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say Pullman hates Christians, he definitely has a beef against the Church (or organized religion in general), especially the Catholic church judging by the way he depicts his antagonist figures. Again, I’m not against raising sincere questions or starting a dialogue about faith and God, but is the age group originally intended for these books really the best place to start, especially when they’re so impressionable and the books in question present a rather one-sided look at religion in general? I’m just sayin’.

bored reading meh spongebob
7. Blurb was Better
This was a case where the book’s premise (i.e. its blurb) implied the story would be one kind of tale but the story itself was vastly different, at least from my point of view. In this case, this isn’t an internal flaw like weak writing/characters or formulaic plots. It’s an external “flaw” where the premise didn’t mesh with the story’s events as how I imagined them to be prior to reading the book. For example, to me an adventure story should possess certain elements, such as a quick pace, action, intrigue, and fun characters and settings. But perhaps the blurb’s writer (usually not the book’s author, by the way) had other ideas in mind for what constitutes an adventure. Likewise, a tiny pet peeve of mine is when a blurb compares a book in question to a similar book, television show, or movie as usually I find the book to be nothing like what it’s being compared to, though I know this is done for marketing purposes as a classic “if-you-like-that, then-you’ll-like-this” technique. I get the science and the art behind book blurbs, but sometimes my initial perceptions and the story itself just don’t mesh.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingExample: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
For the sake of reference, here is this book’s blurb: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

I think this book could compete with Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood as a long-winded title! 😀   I really wanted to adore this book because the premise sounded like the sort of story I would enjoy – an ordinary protagonist (with an awesome name, by the way!) living an ordinary life is whisked away into a fun, magical adventure. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, there were too many elements and characters being introduced around every corner and not enough time to savor the elements and characters that had been introduced earlier. It also seemed like the novel was trying too hard to be whimsical. I love whimsical stories but there has to be a balance, a passing of time or pages between whimsical elements rather than being introduced to whimsy after whimsy after whimsy. Also, at times this novel was a bit too much like a hybrid of The Wizard of OZ, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Neverending Story, often a little too obviously. I hated to shelve this one but, after about five chapters in, it all became too much.

So those were my reasons for DNF’ing books. What reasons do you have for giving up on a book? Share them in the comments below!


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