What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!

I try to stay away from books that are being hyped and fussed over by publishers, reviewers, readers and most especially the media. Yet sometimes I succumb to fashion (turn to the left), fashion (turn to the right)… I nearly always end up a little underwhelmed, as I’ve been by four books in a row that I’ve read over the past two or three weeks. So I was wondering why that’s the case. I suppose it’s because my expectations are being piled up to skyscraper proportions, so it becomes impossible for any book to satisfy my hunger.

So, just to be perfectly clear, all of the books below are good books, just not great books. Like an overly demanding parent with a child who doesn’t quite achieve the stunning results they expect, I love them nevertheless, but can’t help feeling a little disappointed. And, of course, this is just my opinion, there are plenty of other readers who loved these books, etc. etc.

thefarmTom Rob Smith: The Farm

The premise is irresistible: the over-protected child (now grown up and trying to protect his parents from the truth about his sexuality) has to choose between his father’s and his mother’s account of events. Whom to believe? What is really going on? Marketed as a thriller, this feels to me more like a family saga, and makes excellent use of its remote Swedish farmhouse scenario. But I do wish there had been more uncertainty, more of the father’s side of the story and, even though I usually like a clear chronology and straightforward storytelling, in this case I would have liked more complexity, more conflicting perspectives. For a very different take on this, see the review on Crime Fiction Lover.

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

This is going to make me a lot of enemies, as nearly everyone I know who’s read it has loved this book. I did find it beautifully written, with a glossiness and thoughtfulness of language which is very appealing to the poet in me. But when I reached the end, I did feel a bit: ‘Ho-hum, is that it?’ It pains me to say this, as I saw the author in Lyon and loved everything she said.

There were some memorable scenes and a few intriguing characters, not necessarily the main protagonists (I preferred Miranda, Clark, Javeen). However, because of the constantly shifting points of view, I felt I didn’t quite come to grips with any of them. More could have been made of the Prophet, as well, and his troupe.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare references (more The Tempest than King Lear to my mind, but perhaps that just shows my own preconceptions), the sarcasm about Hollywood and fame, the description of life after the pandemic. I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and thankfully the book did not go too much into the horror mode of graphic descriptions of dying.

Ultimately, it’s a story about human relationships and the longing for connection and for the comfort of the past, set against the backdrop of a threatening, uncertain world. But it’s not as moving and tender as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a little too tame. If you want to see a writer who really goes out on a limb in an alternative world, try the much less hyped Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw. I did an interview with Ioanna for Crime Fiction Lover for New Talent November.

For much more enthusiastic appraisals of Station Eleven, see The Little Reader Library, Janet Emson and Naomi Frisby.

liarschairRebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

I’m rather a fan of so-called domestic noir, perhaps because of the ‘happy’ families I’ve known throughout my life. I do get fatigued by the inevitable comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’, as if that was the first of the domestic noir genre (Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Nicci French had been writing them way before the current batch). Furthermore, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a book, so I thought I would be fine with the deceits and lies of the toxic marriage depicted here. In fact, my current WIP falls broadly under this same category.

The atmosphere of menace was very well done, particularly in the first half of the book, but it was a little hard to sustain throughout. At some point it felt like the author was piling on nasty gestures by either one of the couple, for no other purpose than to up the ante. Perhaps that was necessary, because there was no great moment of ultimate danger or huge revelation: the outcomes were somewhat predictable.

However, this is a talented author, with a great turn of phrase, whose future novels will almost certainly become even more intense and suspenseful. For more reviews, see Cleopatra Loves Books and Susan White for Euro Crime.

loindesbrasMetin Arditi: Loin des bras (Far from human arms)

Far from the arms of others, who can provide comfort and love, this metaphorical title describes not just the schoolboys in this book, who’ve been sent away to an expensive Swiss boarding school by their wealthy and indifferent parents, but also the teachers at this school. Each character is flawed and vulnerable in a different way: we have gamblers, homosexuals, former Nazi sympathisers (the book is set in the 1950s), people who have lost countries, languages or loved ones. A bit of everything in short, all longing for some human connection, for a sense of community, which this school provides in some way, while heading for bankruptcy. It was an enjoyable read, with short chapters and a sense of world-weariness very fitting with the landscape and the omnipresent subtle changes of the lake’s surface. The storylines are somewhat predictable, and some of the characters feel a bit cliché, but what disappointed me most was the bare, unadorned style.

The reason for that is again false expectations on my part. Metin Arditi is an intriguing person in his own right: born in Turkey, he moved to Switzerland as a child, became a professor of physics at EPFL Lausanne, and is also a very active promoter of culture and especially music in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Given his background, I expected a more flowery language, perhaps something in the style of Orhan Pamuk, but he dissects instead with incisive, cold precision, much more like a scientist. If you want to try reading him in English, one of his books has been translated The Conductor of Illusions

Perhaps next time I’ll do a post on the hyped books which did not disappoint me – there are a few that lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them. How about you? Do you read or avoid the buzz books of the moment? And do you ever feel that ‘is that all’ sigh?





25 thoughts on “What Was I Expecting? Beep-beep, Fashion!”

  1. Oh, I couldn’t agree more, Marina Sofia! Some books just get so much hype that they couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations. I deliberately avoid them, because I don’t want to be influenced by that hype. But sometimes I do succumb. Rarely am I as swept away by a book as the hype says I will be, although I confess it has happened. And it’s probably not fair to those books, as I’m sure that, without the hype, I’d like them more. I suppose that’s why I’m not a ‘fashionista’ when it comes to my reading.

  2. I might buy them when they are on offer when they come out but generally don’t read them till the buzz quieted down. Although the buzz it did stays in my mind so my expectations are often greater and often as well a “is that all?”. But having said that there are some surprises from time to time and good ones!

  3. I felt exactly the same about Station Eleven. My expectations were high, but I think I’m an aware-enough reader to be able to balance those expectations and tamp them down to assess a book fairly. I found the narrative lacking in substance and follow-through, although, like you, I thought the writing was lovely.

    1. Thank you, Julie. Yes, I often find contemporary novels lack that strong narrative backbone – or am I just being old-fashioned? Having said that, I also like books that are experimental, different, poetic, have no narrative structure whatsoever, but this wasn’t like that either.

  4. The vast amount of hype surrounding some books is often counter productive for me which is not to say that I don’t succumb but sometimes it becomes a step too far and puts me off a perfectly good book completely. It also means that other titles are overlooked.

    1. That’s just it, Susan: it probably works for some readers, but it puts just as many off. I quite liked Gone Girl originally, but certainly did not want ‘another’ Gone Girl, so have avoided all those marketed as such…

  5. I likewise tend to avoid hyped books, and usually find myself reading them solely because, in my usual fog of ignorance, I haven’t known they’ve been hyped — as with Gone Girl (which I thought was an okay, somewhat formulaic thriller and was startled to discover was being lionized as the Great New Thing) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I’d probably have started hyping myself except I found others had beaten me to it!).

    1. Ah, yes, that’s happened to me too, where I’ve been so hopelessly out of the loop, I didn’t realise everyone was reading the same thing as myself.
      Oh, and by the way, that particular Arditi book wasn’t overhyped, but the author has become well-known here because of another book, Le Turquetto.

  6. Oh – love this post Marina – very interesting and really got me thinking about my recent reads. After 7 yrs of studying & restrictive ‘ordered’ books – which definitely cultivated new reading & writing tastes – I was like a rabbit out the trap last year jumping into the literary world, predominantly guided by Twitter posts & bookblogs.

    Thankfully the majority of what I’ve read has lived upto if not surpassed (think-Ferrante) expectations… but I think that’s down to the quality of the book reviews by bloggers & because I’ve made an effort to be lead by a focused interest ie the premise, curious characters or narrative technique rather than just because it’s a bestseller or majorly hyped.

    If anything I’m getting a tad frustrated, annoyed even, with the very tenuous & obvious ‘marketing-ploy’ links that are misleading, if not insulting.

    Saying that after loving The Ship I’ve added a few dystopian & utopian books to the TBR pile – genres I usually avoided – still chosen for reasons above but will be interesting if they are enough to overcome my old habitual – and I confess narrowminded – dislike of such reads.

  7. I often wonder what it is that makes some fairly average books get such a bandwagon going – I honestly think it’s some kind of mass hysteria effect, or people not trusting their own judgement when they’ve seen so much praise from other people. I got sucked into Station Eleven on the backs of some reviews that made it sound like the most profound, most beautifully written book ever published – and found it… OK. I also compared it adversely to The Road, not an unflawed book either, but a masterpiece of profundity in comparison to Station Eleven. I’m doing my best to stop getting sucked in, but it can be hard.

    1. Phew, so I’m not the only one…
      I have to admit it’s not so much the marketing that sucks me in, but hearing all the different opinions from bloggers like yourself and others, whose reviews I value and trust. It makes me want to make up my own mind about those books then…

  8. I agree with your comment about they hype and I often think I’m v.lucky to read some of these books before other (marketing) people’s thoughts and praise become overwhelming.

    I’m looking forward to re-reading Station Eleven if it makes the Bailey’s shadow panel shortlist – it will be interesting to see if I feel it stands up – there’s certainly been mixed thoughts about it between us. (Thanks for the link too.)

    I haven’t posted my review of The Liar’s Chair yet, although I read it a while ago. I’m intrigued by people’s reactions to the end though; I assumed we weren’t supposed to believe the narrator, there were loads of unanswered questions, weren’t there?

  9. I know just what you mean about The Farm, so I daresay I would agree with you on the others, too! I have got Station Eleven to read, but I’m holding it back for a while. I think I need to be in the right mood for it, and I couldn’t agree more than hype and high expectations can be death to a good reading experience. But I have read several novels this year (The Girl On The Train as a prime example) that have been sorely disappointing and yet splashed all over the place. You do have to wonder why certain books are chosen for the five star publicity treatment.

    1. The bits I liked about The Girl on the Train were the descriptions of descent into alcoholism, rather than the actual thriller element. So yes, I was surprised at its huge success! Clearly, marketing with ‘girl’ in the title does work!

  10. Oh Marina I do know where you’re coming from – it is so difficult to enjoy a book that has been praised to the skies but is average. This is partly why I like reading books before the hype reaches fever pitch because I don’t have expectations to be dashed Thank you for linking to my review of The Liar’s Chair which I note was distinctly average 😉

  11. I tend to avoid the books that get all the buzz but occasionally end up reading one–usually I am disappointed. I haven’t read any of the books mentioned above and haven’t been tempted by Station Eleven to be honest

    1. You’re very wise, Guy! I too try to steer clear of them at least until the buzz dies down, but I’m only human, after all, and occasionally fall into temptation. Occasionally, the buzz is well-deserved, but the disappointments tend to outweigh the pleasant surprises, it’s true.

  12. Loin des Bras does sound interesting I shall have a look for it when I am in town next week. As for the hype book, unless I hear otherwise from friends with very similar taste in books, I pass.

    “Advertising is a valuable economic factor because it is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless.” – Sinclair Lewis

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