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.
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
- On Beauty
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe