Book ReviewsAmerican authors

Reviews In Short: Koch, Hawkins, Doerr and Filer

With just a few weeks left of the year the only way I’m going to catch up on the backlog of reviews is to batch a few of them in one post.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

This was an interesting take on a moral dilemma. It poses the question of how far parents will go to protect their children, even when they have committed a despicable act. Two brothers – one a political leader tipped for the top, the other a teacher with a bit of a past – and their wives meet for dinner in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. We discover that this encounter is organised not as a social occasion but to discuss what stance to take about a crime committed by 15 year old sons. The nature of that crime, and the resentment the teacher feels towards his more successful brother, is revealed slowly as dinner progresses. The dinner itself is wonderfully funny if you enjoy laughing at the pretentiousness found in the kind of restaurant favoured by foodies. The provenance of every item on the plate is described in minute detail by a oleaginous  maître d’ determined to get through his script though all the guests want to do is get stuck in. The humour nicely counters the darker elements of the narrative.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Apparently this 2015 best seller was labelled as “the next Gone Girl“. There is some similarity. Both titles featured the word “girl” (clever me for spotting that…); both had page-turning plots with more twists and turns than you’d encounter driving along the Big Sur and both stories were relayed by a narrator whose reliability came in at around level 2 on the credibility scale. There I think the similarity ends. The Girl on the Train had a murder plot that turned on the ingenious device of memory loss by a narrator drinking excessively to deal with a broken marriage.  Without giving any of the plot away all I can say is that this was a highly entertaining read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr won the National Book Award with this novel set in France and Germany before and during the German occupation of France. It’s told through the eyes of two children; one is a blind girl living in Paris with her beloved Papa, a locksmith and creator of intricate puzzles; the other is an orphan with a remarkable gift for radio technology and transmitters.  He can fix anything. On opposite sides of the war, their stories gradually come together as war rages over St Malo. I couldn’t warm to this book despite some clearly well researched details. The narrative seemed overly drawn out and the first 100 pages were very dull in fact. It wasn’t so bad that I felt I wanted to give up but it was really only the last quarter that was particularly interesting.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This was chosen by my Book Club much to my dismay. I hadn’t long finished reading the excellent Elisabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and the thought of another novel on the topic of mental illness wasn’t  appealing. But I’m so glad I didn’t skip Filer’s debut novel. He created a completely engaging narrator in the form of Matt Homes, a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to convey feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother (the nature of which we don’t discover until close to the end of the novel). Letters, doodles and sketches are mingled within his text. Matt knows however that there are limits to his memory and his ability to be honest about painful moments in his life. Filer brilliantly invests Matt with a caustic sense of humour which he deploys towards the condescension and jargon he experiences in psychiatric treatment. Quite simply this was such a superb novel I read it in one day.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

18 thoughts on “Reviews In Short: Koch, Hawkins, Doerr and Filer

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  • You’ve covered two books that I’ve read here and two that are very much on my radar. I’m still waiting for ‘Girl on the Train’ to become available at the library – it’s the price I pay for wanting to read a best seller! I’ve seen all the positive press that ‘All the Light’ has received, but I always need a lot of convincing to read yet more Europe during WWII novels … your honest review has made me feel less guilty about avoiding it!

    • I bet that library waiting list is very long – will likely get even longer when the film is released.

  • Most reviews I’ve read of All the Light You Cannot See have been so positive, but I have also seen a few who thought the same as you about it. I plan on reading it sometime, because I own it and I’m hoping to be in the camp that loves it, but your take on it makes me more curious about what I’ll think.
    I also enjoyed The Dinner – thought it was a fun change of pace for me. And, I have added The Shock of the Fall to my list – you make it sound great!

    • I love it when people read the same book and have vastly different reactions

  • I’m so glad you enjoyed the Filer. By pure chance I met him just a couple of days after it had been published and he was completely overwhelmed by all the attention the book was getting. His success couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

    • I’m hoping he comes out with a second title thats just as good.

      • The last I heard he was writing a play script. No sign at the moment of a new novel worse luck.

  • I really enjoyed The Dinner – I picked it up before it had loads of publicity so the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I had been really looking forward to Koch’s next novel (House with Swimming Pool… I think…) anyway, I thought it was terrible. So contrived.

    Haven’t read Girl on a Train yet but it is in my summer reading stack (and I’ve avoided reviews for fear of spoilers).

    I just loved All the Light We Cannot See – I thought every bit was exquisite BUT I can understand why it hasn’t appealed to lots.

    • I’ll avoid Swimming Pool in that case. Interesting how our reactions to Doerr differed so much.

  • I’ve only read The Dinner but I really really enjoyed its nastiness.

    • I was expecting it to be even more nasty just having seen a few comments in reviews. But it was just the right level.

  • I loved Elizabeth Is Missing, so I might have to pick up The Shock of the Fall. I enjoyed The Girl on the Train…and I’ve been eyeing The Dinner. Thanks for sharing!

    • The Shock of the Fall does deal with mental illness but its done in a very different way. Well worth reading Laurel.

  • I’ve read three out of the four books you feature here; I thought The Dinner was very clever and one I found exceptionally high on shock value. The Girl on the Train was a real page turner and I was absorbed by All the Light We Cannot See once it ‘got going’

    • It seems a lot of people liked the Doerr novel more than I did. I tried listening to it as an audio to see of that was better but still couldn’t get into it. Do try the Filer if yiu get a chance.


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