Great Expectations

Sometimes expectations are a hard thing. You root for a sports team that’s supposed to be terrible and a .500 season feels great. If that same .500 team was supposed to vie for a championship, the season was a disaster, right?

The same might be said for certain books. Unknown authors can knock your socks off with unexpectedly great novels, while highly praised books and authors can leave you thinking, “What was all the fuss about?” – and yes, I’m looking at you, Jonathan Franzen and your novel Freedom.

I was thinking about this aspect as I was perusing my “to-review” list and thought that it made a pretty interesting collection and might be a fun exercise to see how they matched up to the hype.

Among Others by Jo Walton

Great Expectation: 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Winning both those awards is pretty high praise for a science fiction or fantasy novel, and so even though I’d never heard of it, I was interested to give it a read. Among Others tells the coming-of-age story of Morwenna Phelps, a 15-year-old Welsh girl, who is sent to boarding school after her sister dies (and she is terribly injured) in a car accident. This doesn’t sound very “fantasy” except that Morwenna can see faeries, do magic, and must protect herself from her (literally) evil witch of a mother. I liked Walton’s subtle magical world, but this is much more coming of age (solace in books, making friends, dealing with family, getting a boyfriend) than it is fantasy. The story takes place in the aftermath of the events that killed her sister and so there is very little of what you’d refer to as “action”. The conclusion felt rushed and somewhat anticlimactic.

Expectations Met?  No. Not by a long shot. I find that I usually like or at least appreciate award-winning books, but boy, did this one miss the mark with me. Two stars.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Great Expectation: ALL NERDS LOVED IT!

When I started high school, my family got an Atari 2600 game console and the game I played the most was one called Adventure, in which you (as a square-dot) navigated a world (about 20 screens) of swords and castles and dragons. By today’s standards, it was stupefyingly simple, but back then? It was the bomb. So, there was a lot of joy for me when it was featured in the first chapter. Ready Player One has one foot in the not-too-distant 2044 and one foot solidly in 1980s nostalgia. The story follows Wade Watts both in the real world and the online world of the OASIS – an immersive alternate reality to which much of the world is addicted, because the real world sort of blows. Wade is a “gunter” – a searcher for a secret “Easter Egg” within the OASIS, the finder of which will receive untold riches. Wade and his compatriot gunters are racing an evil corporation (of course) for the Egg and the freedom of the OASIS is at stake. The clues to finding the egg are all embedded in 1980s pop culture trivia (movies, music, video games, comics, television…) because that was the original programmer’s fascination.

Expectations Met? Absolutely. This book was a ton of fun, though I think you have to have been born between 1960 and 1980 to really enjoy it. At times silly and at times surprisingly tense, I enjoyed this romp through both the past and the future. Four stars.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Great Expectation: This was the IT book this summer.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy disappears from their Missouri home. From that premise, Gone Girl goes in two directions. In the current timeframe, we see the unhappily married Nick become the prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance, though he claims his innocence. But in a clever twist, Flynn intersperses Nick’s chapters with diary entries from Amy starting from with loving ones when they met to wary ones near the day she disappeared. Did Nick do it? Were there other factors? Flynn keeps you guessing through a rocking and suspenseful first half of the book, which was as good as any mystery that I’ve read in a long time. Unfortunately, at that point she lets the cat out of the bag and the plot machinations got a little hard for my suspension of disbelief to bear.

Expectations Met? No. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger disparity between the set-up and conclusion of a mystery/thriller. That averages out to okay, but it left me wishing the end was as good as the beginning. Three stars.

Catching Fire & Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Great Expectation: O MY GOD. THE. BEST. BOOKS. EVER.

I’d read The Hunger Games more than a year ago – and I liked it well enough, but not so much that I felt like I just HAD to get to the next installments right away. So over the last couple of months, I decided to download the final two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. In them, Katniss Everdeen is pitted against the totalitarian Capitol and its leader President Snow. If the first book was one of survival, these two were broader and almost became “dystopian political thrillers”. I liked Mockingjay more than Catching Fire, which seemed to be making time during its first half before its too-predictable climax. In all the books, there was a little too much “which boy loves me? Which boy do I love?” angst, but I appreciated the grayness in the final arc, which gave Katniss and company more depth than they’d had before.

Expectations Met? Sure. Despite the series’ rabid fans, my expectations for this trilogy were pretty mild. I liked each book in this series, probably in the order of: The Hunger GamesMockingjay, and Catching Fire.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Great Expectation: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

This novel – though in some ways it could be considered a collection of connected short stories – is probably one of the ballsiest books I’ve read in a long time. The story follows different perspectives of a group of characters that mostly orbit Bennie Salazar, an aging music executive and his onetime assistant, Sasha, with the theme of how we are affected by the imperceptible passage of time weaving through each of the stories: “Time’s a goon,” one character remarks. The narratives go back and forth in time from the 1980s into the near future, and each character gets the center perspective only once. Because of that, it always takes a bit to figure out “who” is the focus and “when” they are. I recall one chapter being second person and one was done as a PowerPoint presentation. If this all sounds somewhat “gimmicky”, I suppose it might be, and in a lesser author’s hands I imagine it would be a train wreck.

Expectations Met? Yes, and then some. I had no idea about what this book was about when I started it, only a few nonspecific recommendations from friends. I can see why it was hard to describe. Four stars.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Great Expectation: 2011Man Booker Prize

I’d heard a lot of buzz in literary circles about Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. This short novel is a contemplation by a retired man, Tony, about his life and the friends that he had as a schoolboy. The novel is broken into two parts: Tony reflecting on his school years and Tony in the present. In the school years, Tony is essentially a nerd with nerdy friends; the alpha-nerd (and most arrogant) is Adrian, whom all the friends want to impress. Tony does, though, get his first girlfriend, a “free spirit” named Veronica, who he eventually loses to Adrian. In the present, Tony is brought back into contact with Veronica after decades of separation, which precipitates his recollections and reconsideration of past events.

Expectations Met? No. This book was fine, but seemed to be trying to be meaningful than, you know, actually being meaningful. I kept waiting for something to hit me, to move me and it never came. In the end, it seemed the needless navel-gazing of a selfish boy who became a selfish man.

So, how about you? How do you deal with expectations? Can you remain neutral to them?

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17 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Expectations are nearly impossible to avoid in today’s hyper-social world, and as you deftly pointed out, this may detract from (or add to) our enjoyment of a book. It’s hard to remain neutral when exposed to a lot of buzz. I’ve read several of the books you reviewed; for the most part, I agree with your assessments.

    • RP — I am definitely curmudgeonly enough to judge a book that gets a lot of popular buzz to a pretty high bar, though I find myself more open-minded when it’s been recommended by friends.

  2. Gone Girl was just about the most boring book I read this year. I only read a few chapters then skimmed through the rest. Bla bla bla. The Mockingjay series I enjoyed but then my favourite genre of books is YA dystopia and I think you have to critique it remembering that it is a YA book and it’s easy for adults to read these books with the so called wisdom of hindsight. I know what you mean as I had a few eye rolling moments myself but I also had two teenage daughters at the time and so I can see that the story is intended for them really and not me, a woman in her forties. The thing I think that draws me to YA dystopia is that the authors don’t see the need or relevance of a happy ending, they don’t feel they need to protect their readers. Ready player one is waiting on my kindle.

    • Jane — you’re right about The Hunger Games and the somewhat different expectations for YA books. I was pretty surprised how grim the finale turned, which as a reader I was glad for, but I wonder if some of that was tough on young teens.

  3. I sort of avoid “it” books, especially when they’re recommended by church friends. It takes some strong-arming, (or a box from Kelly) to actually read some of them. Sometimes things have really surprised me, but most make me sigh.
    Honestly though, popular buzz is less important to me than if people I know and respect love something. If they do and I’m more meh about it I always feel bad, as if there is a deficiency in me that makes me not like this book that so-and-so thought was amazing. Or if I can’t get someone to like something that rocked my world I feel the same way.

    • Gingersister — yes, I’m much more interested in the recommendations of my friends than that of the “masses”, because really, the masses have pretty crappy taste (imo). I, too, am always sad when a friend doesn’t like a book that I’ve recommended, as if in some way I’ve let them down by suggesting something they don’t like.

  4. We had a book club discussion last night about Among Others and I was surprised by how many people never questioned if what was happening in the story was really happening or if they were just delusions of the narrator. People openly gasped when I suggested that there wasn’t even a twin and that her going to the woods to see her sister and what not was her contemplating suicide. Then I read that the author had never meant it to be ambiguous and that it was all real and that takes the book from intriguing to absolutely horrible for me.

    Ready Player One was good but a bit heavy handed in spots. I had some problems with it, but enjoyed it for the most part, but it came with such high expectations that I was disappointed, but not by much.

    I thought the Hunger Games books dropped in quality as they went on. I loved the first book, liked the second book until the end, and didn’t really care for the third book. You should read Takami’s Battle Royal.

    Haven’t read the other books yet.

    Hope you plan on taking part in the Scare Me Blogfest on halloween.

    • Budd — you make a GREAT point about Among Others and whether Morwenna’s recollections were real or fabricated. I wondered the same thing — and actually thought that’s where the story was heading — right up until the boyfriend was able to see the faeries. I think that would have been an interesting twist to leave that ambiguous.

      I thought the Hunger Games owed equal parts to Battle Royal and King’s The Long Walk and The Running Man.

      I will definitely do Scare Me — great idea!

  5. When people make a fuss about something I want to read or see, I wait a LONG TIME in hopes of letting some of my expectations go. Case in point: The Avengers (not TV show I grew up sitting next to Brother watching but the comics). LOVED THE AVENGERS OH MY GOD! Just watched it like a month ago :)

    People made a huge fuss about Skyline before it came out (before is the important thing here). I saw it opening night and it was awful. I don’t think my expectations made it worse due to reviews…but I expected “something more.” What I got was shite.

    • MT — I’m sort of the same way. Hyperbole “This was the GREATEST -Movie, Book, whatever- Ever” will almost always make me push something down the list, while an enthusiastic “I liked it” will get me more interested. Don’t oversell.

  6. I don’t read reviews of books unless they are on your blog, so generally I don’t have any expectations for any book that I read, and I forget the reviews very quickly. That being said, how I pick books to read otherwise is a bit of a mystery to everybody, including me. Maybe I should try that new-fanangled GoodReads thing someday.

    • AK — I like Goodreads for keeping track of my books and seeing what friends of mine (who post) are reading. It’s been a very good source of recommendations. Of course, you could always just keep listening to me… :)

  7. I just requested “a visit from the goon squad” from the library. That sounds really interesting! I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done. :) thanks for the review!

  8. Nice reviews, Steve! ‘Ready Player One’ makes me remember the movies ‘Tron’ and ‘eXistenZ’. I think I will like this book. I will add it to my wishlist. I read mixed reviews about ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’. Glad to know that you liked it. Your description of the book makes me think of Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ which I liked very much. Have you read this book? Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘The Sense of an Ending’. Your comment on it being a navel-gazing of a selfish boy / man made me smile :) Your comment on Jonathan Franzen also made me smile. I haven’t read both of his books and so I don’t have any right to talk about his works, but I feel that he is a one of the overrated writers today.

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