They always say you should under-promise and over-deliver, but today I’m going to be talking about books that over-promised and under-delivered. Whether it comes to you via a personalized recommendation or a dust cover, sometimes you hear about a book that sounds just about perfect. There’s not really any feeling like diving into such a book with a load of anticipation and excitement, only to progressively realize what a letdown it is. Here are some of the books that did that for me.
The Circle — Dave Eggers
Concept: A social media conglomerate infiltrates every aspect of the world. Imagine Google and Apple and Facebook were all one platform/company, and that entire company was consolidated on a self-contained and self-sufficient campus where all the employees lived and worked and shopped and partied. Then imagine that monopoly-styled social media/cult decided to apply their policies and insidious over-sharing to the entire world.
Why I was excited: This idea is up there with the recent Black Mirror episode Arkangel in terms of things I think about on a very regular basis (coincidentally, I think Arkangel was poorly executed as well). Social media is becoming an integral aspect of life, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a world in which everything is conducted over those platforms. Super-corps like Amazon and Google are already expanding into new sectors, and I’ve said more than once that someday those two companies will probably rule the world. It’s a spooky concept, largely because it doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to picture a world where social media runs everything and everyone is “transparent”. In our current world of live-streaming, apps that track “likes” and interactions, and global networks of online friends, the world of The Circle doesn’t seem very far off.
What didn’t work: When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about my pet peeves in female characters, and that post was largely sparked by the main character of this book, Mae. Mae is, hands down, the absolute worst female lead I have ever read. She is an insult to women and it is glaringly obvious that she was written by a male writer. She’s sickeningly one-dimensional (to be fair, the majority of the characters are), excessively contentious, overly and vocally emotional, easily distracted, overtly sexual (all within horribly written and trite sex scenes), and consistently jealous.
The book features very little plot development outside of events that propel the concept rather than the characters, and there is zero understanding of human behavior. People just accept that they are going to be on camera 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives, and the only people who don’t agree with it are painted as these crackpot outliers. The foreshadowing was obscenely heavy-handed (gee I wonder what that vicious killer shark in the office aquarium could possibly be alluding to). The entire story was undercooked, as were the characters and plot points. Eggers made little to no attempts to make the technological advances believable, and didn’t even bother to give a set time frame so readers could know how far in the future this is supposedly taking place.
“There were a handful of times when I looked something up, or asked the opinion of someone more tech-savvy than I am, but for the most part this was just a process of pure speculative fiction.”
–Dave Eggers on future tech
Who did it better: I don’t know if anyone has really delved into this concept yet? Obviously, 1984 does a pretty stellar job with the concept of being watched and how that impacts behavior, but it’s the social media aspect that I’m so fascinated by. If you know of a book that has a similar concept, please let me know because I would LOVE to read a better version of this idea. Social media and oversharing give me the willies.
The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins
Concept: In a dystopian society, children are forced to fight to the death, which somehow serves to enforce the power and control of the Capitol. The various “districts” are kept separated from each other to prevent communication and uprisings, but a teenage girl in this year’s games inadvertently starts a rebellion.
Why I was excited: Honestly, I just really love a good dystopian world with a rebel uprising. Even more so when those rebels are young folks trying to navigate the experience of growing up while simultaneously saving the world. Add in some borderline gladiator fights being broadcast around the world and I’m in.
What didn’t work: I haven’t read these books since they came out… because I really hated them. I remember being over the moon for the idea, but gradually finding myself more and more disappointed (and dare I say, disgusted) with the route things took. Even at the ripe old age of 14, I loathed love triangles with a passion, and Gale and Peeta made me want to set fire to those damn novels.
More to the point though: why kids instead of criminals? Why not force any other group except children to engage in gladiator-style showdowns? Regardless, Collins’s writing style is really not well-suited to this concept. She tends to be descriptive in the wrong places and bland and unimaginative everywhere else– I don’t really need three paragraphs about a dress, but I would like more than two sentences about the giant cornucopia in the arena. Also, Katniss is a total Mary Sue. Sorry not sorry, she really is.
Who did it better: I know that the common comparison is to Battle Royale, which I unfortunately haven’t read. However, if it’s teens fighting to the death that you want, Red Rising really knocks it out of the park and features a far more believable premise in a far more immersive world.
Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer
Concept: This is a tricky one to describe, given that the book was so damn vague about everything. Essentially, a strange biological invasion is very slowly spreading from the mysterious “Area X”. Expeditions fail to safely return, and a new group is sent in to try and chart further progress. We’re thrust into a world that’s kind of (not really) that different from our own. There are some weird creatures that are eerily sentient, strange lights and brightness, a gelatin monster in a tower/tunnel, lots of words that don’t make sense, and that’s basically it.
Why I was excited: I wrote a full review (see link below) about this book a while back, and I mentioned that I read the book because I saw the trailer. The trailer made it all look very exciting and mysterious, and even the blurb for the book made it sound similarly intriguing and eerie. A excerpt from the dust cover reads as follows: “They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.” I mean come on– what’s not to be excited about?
What didn’t work: Aside from the unpredictable narrator, pretty much none of it worked for me. The book presents loads of questions but provides no answers, and the whole thing feels like a long drawn-out fever dream instead of the psychological thriller that the synopsis makes it out to be. It would be the kind of dream where you’re listening to someone tell you about it, and you can tell it really resonated with them because they were there for it all, but they can’t really convey the specific atmosphere that made it resonate with them in the first place. I largely blame VanderMeer’s writing style for the atmospheric shortcomings. It had a lot of potential, but there’s very little that’s actually said and even less to be found between the lines. It spools on and on without actually saying much of anything or creating an immersive world. His descriptions are distracting and his prose is clunky, and it all just serves to take the reader further out of a world that’s extremely challenging to get into in the first place. You can read my full review here, where I complain a bit more eloquently.
Who did it better: I don’t have an exact literary example, but I recently watched The Machinist for the first time and I think this book could have (and should have) felt like that film. I had an elevated heart rate the entire time the movie was playing. From start to finish, there is a tangible tension because you know something is wrong, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Annihilation had the potential to harness that same uneasy energy, and it would have been infinitely better for it. It also would have been infinitely better as a short story instead of a novel.
Uglies — Scott Westerfeld
Concept: A futuristic world features what appears on the surface to be a utopian society that requires all teenagers to undergo a surgery which makes them beautiful and happy. They are told that the operation is the great equalizer and that this way of life is so much better than the lifestyle of the humans who destroyed the planet and decimated natural resources. Plot twist: the surgery actually infects parts of the brain to make people complacent and ignorant. And so begins the epic saga of Tally Youngblood and her efforts to restore free will to the world.
Why I was excited: Are you picking up on a common theme here? I really like stories about dystopian societies and the people who try to fix them. Like The Hunger Games, I read this book back in my freshman year of high school. Unlike The Hunger Games, I really loved this book at the time and found it to be quite successfully executed. In a fit of nostalgia, I re-read the full trilogy in February, and needless to say, I didn’t find it so successful this time around. However, I don’t find the concept any less intriguing. The idea behind the surgeries in the story is that we put so much stock into physical appearances. There are so many references to the old days when people judged others based on their skin tone, or people forced themselves to throw up because they felt inadequate. Sound familiar? The surgery gives everyone the same olive skin tone, the same BMI, as well as similar heights and bone structures. It’s supposed to bring peace by imposing physical equality. It’s easy to see how the leaders of the story’s society thought this could be beneficial. Unlike the other books on this list, there wasn’t a tyrannical dictatorship or a mega-monopoly that took things too far, just a group of people who looked at the world and saw that something needed to change.
What didn’t work: The biggest sticking point for me was the surgeries. These reconstructive surgeries completely revamp bodies: they peel back skin, change facial bone structure by shaving down the bones themselves, add height by introducing additional vertebrae, synthesize muscle tissue and hair follicles– all in an overnight surgery. The operations are impossible in their scope and inconceivable in their lack of recovery time. Westerfeld is a talented writer, but his descriptions consistently and repeatedly fall short. He fails to fully explain any of the technology that makes these surgeries (and all the other feats through the books) possible. In this regard– and several others– the trilogy progressively gets worse. The surgeries become increasingly intense and invasive, going so far as to create super-powered humans with faces like wolves (?!?). Of course, this all takes place in the course of a single year, so our MC is only 16 during all of these events.
Who did it better: Red Rising features an important reconstructive surgery, and instead of taking 12 hours, it takes closer to six months. The patient is in excruciating pain, has to undergo extensive physical therapy, and the surgeries come in waves instead of all at once. It’s believable, and because that surgery is the groundwork for the entire plot, it makes the rest of the story more believable by default.
While I was writing this post, I picked up a few common themes between these books: all of them had weak female leads, all but one were made into movies, and all but one were clever dystopian societies. When it comes to the film versions, I felt that all of them were just as poorly executed as the books, but in different ways. For example, Hunger Games vastly improved on the visuals and settings that Collins’s descriptions left lacking. However, it failed on simple items of importance, such as the source of the mockingjay pin.
We all know how much I love a strong female lead, and now I’m realizing how much I gravitate towards dystopian societies. So if you have a recommendation for me, drop it in the comments! As always, thanks for reading ♥
One thought on “Great Idea, Poorly Executed”
Interesting. I loved The Hunger Games, but when I read the series a couple years ago I was in my early thirties. I wonder if that makes a difference? I also read Harry Potter at about that time and hated it, while everyone who read it when they were younger seems to enjoy it.