Saturday, July 19, 2014

Books that Surprised Me


We’re a little more than halfway through 2014 (which seems crazy). I am nowhere near halfway through my Off the Shelf reading list (which should surprise no one), but at least I’m about where I want to be for total books read this year (50/100). 

Some of those 50 books have been excellent surprises… Books that weren’t originally in my plans, but that were recommended by friends, or called to me from the shelves, or came up in discussions at work, and somehow convinced me that I should set aside my skepticism and give them a try. I thought I'd share 5 recent (to me) reads that defied my expectations...

The over-dressed, star-crossed lovers who miraculously didn’t exasperate me

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Sara Raasch wins all the tiles for recommending this one to me, because there is no way I would have picked it up on my own based on that beautiful but misleadingly froofy cover. 
   
Star-crossed lovers are not my thing in general, but I am especially not impressed if your lovers are “star-crossed” because they come from slightly different social circles, or their parents disapprove, or they suck at communicating clearly, or they make stupid rash decisions, or one of them is pretending not to be interested for the other person’s best interests. If you want impediments to romance to be your source of tension, Go All Out, cross those stars to impossible lengths, and also give me some characters with energy and agency and edginess. The only books I’ve read in the past few years that have rocked this set-up to the hilt and swept me along with it are Daughter of Smoke and Bone (which happens to be one of my favorites of all time) and this, The Winner’s Curse

The unique narrator I’ve avoided for 6 years

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I was afraid of this book for a long time, despite hearing rave reviews from all corners. I've always had a hard time with the mental-illness/disability/difference-fiction genre: Flowers for Algernon, Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Being There... I could barely handle reading or watching them, even though (or because?) I was a psychology major reading articles on the topics just fine. Even when I started working with students on the autism spectrum, I still avoided The Curious Incident for another year, figuring that even though I would now understand the narrator better, I would probably be even more bothered by any misunderstandings or mistreatment he faced. 

But I finally forced myself to read it, and almost from the first page, “forced” was no longer accurate. I was blown away. It was fascinating and insightful and I still can't stop thinking about it. It was also hard or disturbing at times, and I know it won't appeal to everyone, but it is unequivocally worth a try.

The unique, unsettling merman

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
There was a time when YA seemed flooded with mermaids. They never became as ubiquitous as, say, vampires, but it was still hard to find a truly unique mermaid tale. This book definitely does not have that problem. It’s also rather unsettling and disturbing at times, but the atmosphere and the characters and their sharp dialogue absolutely hooked me. The story swept me up in this beautiful, horrible maelstrom and broke my heart against the dock.

(And yes, all of the above puns were intentional. *waves*)

The horror story that is something else entirely

Death Watch by Ari Berk
One of my students recommended this one (even though he ended up abandoning the series when it got too slow for his tastes – sometimes defying genre expectations works against you). Technically it is a story about a special sort of undertaker working to quiet the restless dead, but that sets you up to expect a certain kind of horror story, probably not one that is this poetic, atmospheric, and emotional . I could also call it a literary meditation on grief, small towns, and fractured families and be just as accurate. Or call it a retelling of Hamlet instead. Whatever it is, it's absolutely and strangely mesmerizing. 

The sequel that’s better than the original

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
This one is a bit different than the rest, since I did expect to enjoy Scarlet after the excellent Cinder. I just didn’t think it would be even better than the original. Cinder is even more entertaining now that she has Thorne as her foil, who reminds me of a young Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the concurrent plot with Scarlet and her Wolf won me over from the first pulverized tomato. So many trilogies struggle in the middle, so it’s an immensely satisfying surprise to come across a Book 2 that raises the bar and the stakes. Bring on Cress!


What books have pleasantly surprised you lately?