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.
Tom 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.
Emily 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.
Rebecca 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.
Metin 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?