Maybe you picked up the book and thought it might be a fun distraction and it really made you think. Maybe a friend kept recommending it and you kept putting it off and it blew you away. Maybe the book exceeded the hype. So tell us about it/them.
As my taste for books has developed and I’ve learned what I like the best in books over the past decade, I’ve gotten better at choosing books to read. But I’ve also discovered that I can’t really predict what books are going to surprise me even if everything about the book is something I like. It’s literary magic!
All my friends loved The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine, although I was dubious. I wasn’t familiar with the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and wasn’t convinced that it would be up my alley without explicit SF elements. FACT #1: I was 150% wrong. FACT #2: this book is a heart wrenching feminist story about sisterhood and friendship with the oldest sister, Jo, at its center. Even though it doesn’t contain magic, it doesn’t matter because it feels like it does.
And sometimes, when I’m told a story will resonate with me and trust that the friends saying so are telling the truth, I go in expecting to love a book and it still knocks my socks off even more than the hype could have predicted. Chime by Franny Billingsley is about Briony and Rose, their relationship, and the complicated secrets Briony keeps from herself and everyone else. It’s a bittersweet story about truth and accountability.
I loved John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, and when I ran out of books back in 2008 I was morose. I picked up The Android’s Dream, hoping it would tide me over until Zoe’s Tale came out. But I was surprised because after finishing it, it quickly became one of my favorite novels by Scalzi. I loved it even more than any of the Old Man’s War books, even when I didn’t think I could love another character as much as Jane (Robin! ROBIN IS SO GREAT!). It sideswiped me and cemented Scalzi as one of my favorite authors across multiple SF subgenres. I’m still hoping for a sequel one day.
I expected to like Zoo City by Lauren Beukes because of the comparisons between it and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. But what I expected and what I got turned out to be two totally different things. Zoo City turned out to be complicated and fascinating in a totally different way for me, by turning the companion animals into representations of guilt rather than extensions of someone’s soul. The divide between people with and without animals was an incisive examination of social status and class. Zinzi December is one of my favorite SF characters in years and years, headstrong, lost, and just trying to survive in a world where she’s marked as Other.
The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer was a book I didn’t like that much initially. I finished it and put it away and then it jumped me from behind, sunk its claws in, and wouldn’t let me go. It’s an adventure story, an epic journey across a mountain range chased by evil magicians, but at its core it’s about trust, friendship, and the high price of being a survivor, no matter what type of survivor you are. The main relationship between Dev and Kiran is amazing, and I still get surprised over my fondness for the undertones in this book even years later after my initial lackluster reaction. Books! You can never tell with them.
The first of my three choices is Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. Erikson is now the author whose work I would say has most influenced my own, but GotM started off as an impulse buy at a local bookshop. As such I didn’t have high expectations. That’s probably a good thing, because whenever I get drawn into believing the hype about a book, I usually end up disappointed. GotM was seven hundred pages of awesomeness. For me no-one puts ‘epic’ into epic fantasy like Erikson. In fact, if I could write the word EPIC larger and set the letters on fire, I would do. Gods battling mortals? Check. Elder races with history stretching back thousands of years? Check. Throughout the book there are clashes between powerful characters that just leave you shaking your head in awe.
My second choice is Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie. I liked The Blade Itself – the opening novel in the First Law trilogy – but I didn’t love it. Logen and Glokta are among my favourite fantasy characters. For some reason, though, the storyline didn’t really grab me. So when I started reading the second book, Before They Are Hanged, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried. I finished the book in a day, and there was something to admire on every page. It had great characters, surprising plot twists, and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. There are some scenes I can remember clearly eight years on, like when Colonel West goes to tell Prince Ladisla of a fearsome force of Northmen bearing down on his ragtag army, and the prince responds – absurdly – by ordering an attack. It’s a brilliant book, and if you haven’t already read it, you really should do so.
My final choice is The Silence by Tim Lebbon. I don’t read horror as a rule, but I thought The Silence sounded intriguing. It’s about the release of a swarm of deadly creatures from a cave system cut off from the world for millennia. The book follows one family’s attempts to survive the devastation. I particularly liked how everything went slowly black around the characters as the swarm of monsters spreads across Europe. Official avenues of information are cut off. Electricity runs out. And the characters find themselves battling against not just the creatures but also against other people struggling to survive. Lebbon really ends the world in style.
I approached Bellwether by Connie Willis with measured expectations simply because it is a very short novel. I had loved To Say Nothing of the Dog but didn’t expect Bellwether to pack a similar punch. I had no idea of the delight I was in for—the intelligent humor, the thought-provoking ideas, and the elegance of the resolution.
And speaking personally, I came to the book during an extremely low point, when I needed a book to get lost in. Bellwether did even more than deliver on that. By the end, I felt uplifted, hopeful. In years since, it (and To Say Nothing of the Dog) were touchstones whenever life seemed grim. For that I will always be grateful to Connie Willis.
Oh, but I’m so jaded! How can any book ever exceed my expectations? There are a lot of good books to choose from, no lack of literature out there to devour by us courageous thrill seekers. And certainly there is great literature out there, but we all know the authors who produce it and those who are genuinely prolific at it; the ones we always return to because those are the ones we know are going to deliver.
But what about those little gems, those little surprises, that make searching for that special unknown author or over/under-hyped book like dangling your toes in a shark tank and taking a chance on losing one of your digits?
Sometimes surprises can come from well-established authors. Take The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty as a prime example. I loved the movie, it’s one of my childhood favorites, but I was reluctant to dive into the book because I didn’t know what to expect. What if it was worse than the movie and thus ruined it for me every time I tried to sit down and watch it? Or, conversely, what if it was so much better?
What I found was that the movie was an excellent representation of the book, and that the book was perfect in the divulging of tiny secrets that the movie couldn’t have possibly adapted. For example, in the book the relationship between Regan and the desecration of the church statues was drawn much tighter, and it made me imagine what the demon possessed child must’ve looked like skulking around in the back alleys of that little college town. I would not have wanted to meet her in an alley. Though, I imagine having seen the movie helped me flesh out the characters in my mind, all-in-all it was a book that greatly exceeded my expectations because it enhanced how I already felt about the legendary film.
Another fond memory I have of a book I picked up in a bookstore because of the cover, but had never heard a single thing about before, was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’ll be real honest here and tell you I was in a hipster neighborhood and felt a little “hip” and I loved the description on the back cover. That was all I had to go by. But what I read in the following pages was perhaps a life-changing experience for me. I’d never read a book with such hilarity, such divinely wrecked characters, and a plot that reminded me of a South Park episode before South Park was a gleam in its creators’ eyes. The way Toole brought New Orleans to life, the way the environment influenced the characters, reminded me of a wonderful murky puddle with tiny pieces of dirt floating around in it. Just a wonderful book that will always go down as one of my all-time favorites.
There are some new authors who have really surprised me as well. For example, Zachary Jernigan’s No Return was an extremely pleasant surprise. At first, I was sure I was about to read the book of one of my peers which (let’s be honest many of us are a little green) I would probably have to trudge through. But Zach writes with incredible depth and a certain fearlessness in his narrative that made the book hard to put down. I was a little blown away by how connected I felt to the characters.
Lastly, and sadly, I picked up a book called The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli based on the effort to help mitigate the cost of his health care after he’d gotten cancer, and was pleasantly and quite unbelievably sucked into Tom’s dirty, gritty world of violence and mystery. Tom’s narrative style was punchy, aggressive, and saturated with emotion. I couldn’t believe I’d not read anything by him before, but I always recommend him now.
I can think of two books this happened with, one nonfiction and one fiction. A friend recommended Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra; A Life and I picked it up. I expected it to be well-written and informative. I wasn’t expecting a strong narrative voice and a tale that unfolded like a novel! Schiff put the Egyptian queen in historical context with great economy, and brought her to life. I haven’t stopped recommending it.
My fiction example is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. Despite good word of mouth, I wasn’t in a big rush to read this one. I thought it would be a typical story of a young prince fighting for his throne, full of bleak landscapes, endless troop movements and clanking battle scenes. This was all me, by the way, filling in from one sentence I’d read about a prince whose father and brothers had been killed. Anyway, since it was nominated for a Hugo I had to read it. From the third page I felt like I had fallen straight into Maia’s world. I felt his yearning and his pain, and I was right with him when he struggled to do the right thing. It’s one of the best books of 2014 and I’m glad that circumstances forced me to overcome my prejudices.
The first book that I can remember surprising me and exceeding my expectations was Frank Herbert’s Dune. If I’m being honest, it was because I picked it up at too young an age. Maybe it was all the awards or maybe someone had told me it was a “serious” SF novel that everyone should read. But I was not prepared for a novel this deep, this complex. I had no idea a single novel could contain a curriculum’s worth of –ologies. It was overwhelming, but I was fascinated. And as I have grown older and more sophisticated in my genre tastes, with every re-read this book continues to amaze and surprise.
I have a friend—I think we all have a friend or two like this—who is a little embarrassed or disappointed in our love of genre. He suggested I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind because I should be reading more literary fiction (It was only long after I finished it that I learned it was the winner of a World Fantasy Award, so joke’s on both of us, I guess). While I braced myself for a boring, plotless read, Perfume was anything but. Instead, it was a incredible mix of description, characterization, and plot. Suskind’s keen eye (and nose) for detail and beauty amidst depravity will have you falling into his world, just as his ability to portray compulsion and obsession will make you want to go deeper into the mind of a killer instead of pulling away.
Another book that surprised me was Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. I know, it feels a little silly to say a runaway bestseller exceeded expectations. But I was in no way prepared for Rothfuss’s poetic and lyrical writing. Some people say they are far more likely to cry while watching movies on planes. Well, during a long flight, I felt myself getting choked up at the skill on display. In fact, by the time I finished reading it, I could probably say I had already re-read it, considering how many times I kept going back to read passages over and over again.
Finally, three comic books have blown be away recently: Saga, Locke & Key, and Sex Criminals. In Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have created the some of the best mix of sci-fi and fantasy I’ve seen since Star Wars and Thundercats, if far more adult than either of those. It’s wildly creative, snarky, and so much fun (what I wouldn’t give for a Lying Cat). With Locke & Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez have written and illustrated one of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching, and terrifying stories I’ve read in a long time. And finally, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is definitely worth the strange looks you may get for picking it up. It’s honest, charming, laugh out loud funny, and bizarre all at once.
I’m a sucker for e-book deals, and when one of my Twitter friends posts a link, I’ll often click BUY IT NOW before I read the fine print. One day, I bought The Shining Girls… or I thought I did. It turns out I bought Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which I’d decided, for some reason, I wouldn’t like. And then my TBR pile got too low, and I opened it, thinking, “Yes, let’s see how much I hate this. Goooood. Gooooood.” And I couldn’t stop reading. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but it was compelling, sort of like falling down a hill of sharpened sticks. And then I got to the turning point– you know the one I mean– and I was beyond pleased that the book had totally fooled me. It’s rare, as a writer and a smarty pants, for a book to surprise and delight me as much as Gone Girl did. Well worth $1.99.
And then there are the Door Openers, the books that were so great that I suddenly had to read other top picks in genres I’d never liked before. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris, which was my entre to Urban Fantasy so long ago. The Siren by Tiffany Reisz, which suddenly made erotica smart and compelling. Anna and the French Kiss, the first YA contemporary romance to hook me completely. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, which taught me that romance could also be in-depth historical fiction. I’m still waiting for an Epic Fantasy that gets me back in the genre, as I haven’t fallen in love with one since Mists of Avalon. My “Buy With One Click” finger is ready!