My Contemporary Reading Adventure

Back in June, I asked Why do I not read contemporary fiction? and invited you, dear readers, to recommend some books you thought I might enjoy. You came through with a plethora of suggestions, and I managed to read a good number of them over the summer. I didn’t love all of them, but some were fantastic, and they all helped me to widen my reading horizons.

I’m motivated now to seek out more stories from our own times, and I’ve been thinking about what features I do and don’t appreciate, so that I’ll have a better idea of what I want to look for.

What I don’t like:

Unnecessarily abundant references to pop culture

Some authors seem to think that for their book to feel contemporary, it must frequently allude to pop artists, songs, movies, and whatnot. In The One That Got Away, within the space of a few pages the characters set the stage by identifying what music is playing (Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan), bond by comparing themselves to actors from The Breakfast Club, and end up deciding they’d rather think of themselves as Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett than as Romeo and Juliet. Maybe some people do actually talk or think this way, but not in my world, and I find it annoying. It seems like a lazy way to locate a book in time and place.

Locations with no identity

When the setting of a book is so generic it could be anywhere, I get bored. Such was the case with The Time of My Life, which I only figured out was set in Dublin late in the story. I thought maybe it was London or New York, or it could have been Seattle or Cincinnati for all I knew. Give me some local color!

Plus, in general I’m getting tired of books set in contemporary NYC. It’s been done so often it starts to feel like a caricature of itself, unless there’s some interesting angle. (Please, tell me if you know of any of these.) I liked The Assistants not because it was yet another tale of young women trying to make it in New York, but in spite of that fact; it was still fast-paced and funny enough to keep me engaged, though rather forgettable due to the generic setting.

Overly gimmicky plots

Since there’s not the exotic appeal of fantasy or historical fiction in a contemporary novel, some contemporary writers rely too much on a heavily contrived plot device. Sometimes I like other aspects of the book enough to overlook this — as with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which had a great main character who helped me forgive the overly obvious twist at the end. But if I don’t warm to the characters or setting or voice, toying around with some aspect of reality is not going to do it for me.

A book that is too preachy also will not appeal. Though its intention to explore racism in America was laudable, I found Small Great Things too heavy-handed; it would have been preferable for the author to write an essay incorporating her research rather than trying to inflate it into puppet-like characters.


What I do like:

Writing with a distinctive voice

A strong sense of place

Characters who are both convincingly realized, and interesting enough for me to want to spend time with them

The books I really enjoyed hit it out of the park with all three of the above: Americanah is a stellar example (no wonder four people recommended it to me). And if one or more of these aspects is really strong, it can outweigh some drawbacks; I found the time-switching format of The Shore a bit befuddling at times, and am not generally a fan of near-future dystopias, but the picture of this area of the Chesapeake Bay and its people was compelling enough to keep me going.

An unusual voice or point of view always intrigues me, as with An Unnecessary Woman, whose lonely, isolated narrator drew me in with her passion for books. If I hadn’t felt a connection to her, her rambling, philosophical discourse about life in Beirut past and present would have lost my interest quickly.

Thank you to Sarah, Susie, Wendy, Helen, Jenny, and Katie, for recommending some of the books I’ve read so far, and to all who commented on my original post. You really helped to give me a boost out of my reading rut.

What’s next in my adventure? Well, here are some of the books on my TBR list. Have you read any of these? Based on my criteria above, do you think they’re good choices for me? Or what else would you recommend?

  • The Nest
  • Big Little Lies
  • The Hate U Give
  • Hag-Seed
  • On Beauty
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

36 thoughts on “My Contemporary Reading Adventure

  1. Glad you loved The Shore! I agree that the time-switching format was unnecessarily confusing, but the writing was gorgeous and that setting. She really wrote the Eastern Shore well.
    I don’t think you’d like Big Little Lies…I think you’d find the plot contrived. Same with The Nest. Nickolas Butler writes the Midwest like its a character – Shotgun Lovesongs is his novel I loved and Beneath the Bonfire is a short story collection, also loved and I don’t normally love short stories.


  2. I agree with you, I look for good qualities that make up for great literature, that is why I don’t read that much contemporary fiction either. I have only read The Unnecessary Woman from your list, and though I liked it for the same reasons you mention here, I still find it weaker in comparison to the tried and tested books that I read. Time is the best sifter. I only read forgettable books if my book club buddies propose them, because the book club experience deserves it.
    The Shore, though, looks interesting.


    1. I wasn’t sure I was going to like The Shore at first, but then I got into it. One benefit of switching back and forth between different characters and time periods is that if you don’t enjoy one scenario, the next one might be better.


  3. Love reading about your exploration of contemporary reading and am happy to see that some of the books worked for you. I loved Eleanor, but definitely see your points on it being a little gimmicky. I also so agree with you on Small Great Things. I felt like she went too far with the ending.

    Of the books you listed to try next I can’t recommend highly enough Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Taking place in the 80’s it’s really historical fiction now and both the writing and story are brilliant. I don’t think you’ll like Big, Little Lies…too chic lit. I just read/reviewed The Hearts Invisible Furies and it was wonderful. Since you liked The Shore, you might want to try Sara Taylor’s new book, The Lauras. It is completely different, a little slow to get going, but then a wonderful mother/child story that also tackles the tough subject of gender identity.


    1. It will be interesting to see if Gail Honeyman can follow up Eleanor with something even stronger. Glad to have another voice in favor of Wolves, I’ll definitely look into that one.


  4. I loved Hag-Seed, and it fits all three of your preferences.
    Although The Hate U Give is a book young adults may like, I thought it was a bit like those Jodi Picoult books where she picks a current event and fictionalizes a version of it.
    And I wasn’t a fan of Aristotle and Dante, maybe for the same reason–the characters are “young” in a way I don’t recognize.


    1. Margaret Atwood is a pretty reliable author, at least in terms of not giving into lazy writing and gimmicks.

      Hm, if The Hate U Give is like Jodi Picoult it may not be for me. I think I”ll still give it a try though.


  5. Excellent commentary about contemporary novels and where they go wrong. I totally agree references to movie actors saying for example that someone looks like a young George Clooney is lazy writing and decades from now if someone picks up the book may not ring a bell. I value your judgement and so putting An Unecessary Woman on my list.


  6. I think you are well on your way to reading more contemporary fiction! What a good plan to figure out what you like and don’t like by these first few. I have not read any of your proposed titles, but I will pay attention to what you think about them.

    I have stuck a toe or two into contemporary fiction this summer as well and really enjoyed History of Wolves. I think it would be classified as YA. It’s a little dark and haunting, but the main character is worth going through the journey with.


    1. Funny, I find it easier to say what I don’t like — which is why I usually try to be positive here. But sometimes it’s cathartic to get to identify my pet peeves.


  7. It is really good to get out of one’s zone and read some different. In my case I also could stand to read more contemporary books. I am looking forward to your thoughts on the Hag – Seed as I may also read that soon.

    I also generally dislike pop culture references in fiction. They tend to narrow a book’s focus and cause it to be dated very quickly.


  8. The Literary Wives book club read On Beauty not too long ago, and it was one of the few contemporary books I’ve read in a while. I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed, although Zadie Smith certainly comes highly recommended. From your list, Tell the Wolves I’m Home tempts me the most.


  9. I struggle with contemporary fiction for all the same reasons you listed. Another of my peeves is when the writer seems to be trying too hard. That’s so hard to explain… but with many contemporary fiction novels, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot. And that’s no good! 🙂


    1. I know what you mean — it’s like you can see them “making it up” instead of letting the characters and story live and speak for themselves. That’s a total turn-off for me.


  10. I love this post and how you were able to provide a reasoned argument for or against a particular thing with a specific example.

    Of the books you listed, I have only read The Nest. I thought it was OK, but I was hoping for hard hitting satire when it is really a feel-good story about upper-middle class dysfunctional families.

    While I haven’t read Big Little Lies, I have read The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty and I didn’t care for it at all.

    I do really want to read Hag Seed (because of Jane’s review ( which is why I recently read The Tempest. I generally like Margaret Atwood a lot.


  11. Pop culture references are hit or miss for me. Sometimes they feel contrived to me, but other times I think they make a story feel more convincingly real. I’ve not yet figured out what makes them work for me or not though. I share your other likes and dislikes, but I think I feel less strongly about wanting a book with a good sense of place. I prefer it, but I’m not sure it would make a list of qualities I most enjoy in contemporary fiction.


    1. I’m not against pop culture references when they illuminate something about the setting or characters, but I don’t think they should be relied on so very heavily. What if someone doesn’t know that particular movie or singer? The description becomes meaningless.

      Maybe the sense of place stood out for me because in this batch of books the ones I liked best definitely had it. Even if it’s not highlighted so strongly, I do prefer books in which the setting has some character and is not just generic “city” or “small town.”


  12. Another amusing thing about pop culture references is when the author’s taste or knowledge is clearly evidenced instead of the main character – for example, the character is described as loving her parents’ eccentric taste in oldies – which gets the author off the hook for not knowing modern music (now I can’t recall where I noticed this, of course).

    I have not read all the books you mention about but could not get into the Nest, so returned it unread to the library; enjoyed Big Little Lies as carefree reading but don’t recommend if that is not your thing; was slow to pick up The Hate U Give but once I started read without pausing and thought it was extremely well done and I do recommend. Dante and Aristotle – get the audio so you can listen to Lin. The book is beautifully done and well worth reading.
    I missed your contemporary fiction post. Did you mean adult contemporary adult fiction? As I look at my recent reads, I realize that my reading in that area tends to be light women’s fiction or, less often, literary fiction which I often dislike. An author who I do not consider to be chick lit (not that there is anything wrong with that but some people want to read something that is not as light) I recommend is Elinor Lipman – my favorites are The Inn at Lake Devine and Then She Found Me. Have you read Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos? There’s a lot of pop culture but it’s very charming. My mother and sisters liked it as much as I did.
    I realize when I look at my recent reads by genre that most of the “plain” fiction I have read in the last year are rereads of D.E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell. Not that there is anything wrong with that but given the piles of books waiting to be read (and house in need of cleaning)…


    1. I just realized that I was not really reading anything written within the past 10 years or so about roughly contemporary times (within my lifetime). I tend to read a lot of historical fiction — I still am in denial about the 80s being historical — and older classic books. So a lot of the books other people were blogging about were total unknowns to me. Now I have a slightly better sense of what’s out there, and I’m glad of that.

      I appreciate good “light” fiction, and I think it’s actually harder to write well than the “heavy” stuff. I do like Elinor Lipman — starting from when I was a student teacher at Smith College, and my mentor gave me a copy of Then She Found Me as a goodbye present. Love Walked In sounds like fun, too, thanks!


  13. I love your take on these! I agree about about ‘non-location’ in novels. I don’t need every detail, but don’t be coy and not tell me where the story is taking place!

    The Shore is a tough one, so glad you liked it.

    I loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home so will be interested to see what you think.


    1. No matter how compelling the story or characters, I still would like to have a feeling for where they are. People are shaped by where they live.

      Looking forward to Wolves!


  14. I know I recommended it in the first place (probably?), but I truly think that Tell the Wolves I’m Home fulfills all of your criteria. Maybe also The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer? That one has a really distinct voice and characters I cared about A LOT. And I really think you’d like Tell the Wolves I’m Home; it’s gorgeous and underappreciated.


    1. Yes, you recommended it first but now it’s getting a lot more votes, so definitely going to the top of the list. I’d never heard of Shock of the Fall so now I have to look up that one too.


  15. I read Eleanor recently and was so enamored with her voice and worldview that I forgave the “twist.” Which honestly didn’t feel like a huge twist. I’m not sure if that’s because it was well set-up by the story and Eleanor as a character or that it just seemed obvious.

    I will be interested to see what you think of Big Little Lies. Read it a few years ago and while I enjoyed it while reading it, I can’t tell you much about it today. It’s kind of like the potato chips of reading material.


    1. My potato chips are not usually contemporary-fiction flavored, I guess. But somehow I feel as though I should see what everyone else is eating — er, reading.


  16. tell the wolves I am home is lovely!!!! Instead of Big Little Lies, I would suggest one of that author’s other books such as, “The Husband’s Secret’ or “What Alice Forgot.” They were both way better than, “big little lies.”


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