Some Books I Was Surprised to Love

Like most fiction readers, I generally stick with what I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For me that means that, unless I’ve heard very good feedback that makes me think the book will stand out from its peers, I tend to avoid science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels (or genre fiction in general). I’m also leery of magic realism and allegories, as these techniques can so often be cringe-inducing. But occasionally a book will come along that proves me wrong.

to-say-nothingFor instance, last week I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!). Once I got into it, I read it extremely quickly – finishing the final 230 pages on one Sunday afternoon and evening – and it provoked a continuous stream of snorts. I can hardly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. 4-5-star-rating


This got me thinking about some other pleasantly surprising books that took me outside of my usual reading comfort zone in recent years:

dark-edenDark Eden by Chris Beckett: Six generations ago a pair of astronauts landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of eerily primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rises up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror many of the accounts in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett provides an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative. Page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I liked each of the two sequels less than the book that went before, but they’re still worth reading. 4-star-rating

dead-in-their-vaultedThe Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley: Normally I shy away from series and tire of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine, also the narrator, performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) is the best yet. In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The most recent, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8), is a close second. 4-star-rating

discovery-ofA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: The thinking gal’s Twilight. Harkness, a historian of science, draws on her knowledge of everything from medieval alchemy to recent DNA mapping. The main character, reluctant witch Diana Bishop, is studying alchemical treatises at the Bodleian Library. She calls up an enchanted manuscript from Ashmole’s original collection, presumed missing since 1859. There are three excised pages, and the book instantly draws attention from the myriad “creatures” (non-humans) plaguing Oxford. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a mega-hot vampire with a conscience. From rural France to upstate New York, he and Diana fight off rival vampires and the witches who killed Diana’s parents. As with Beckett’s books, the two sequels are a bit of a letdown, but the first book is great fun. 4-star-rating

you-too-canYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on body image, consumerism and conformity. The narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoid anorexia. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we compulsively buy things we don’t need, have no idea where our food comes from and worry about keeping up a facade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. 5-star-rating

first-fifteen-livesThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but I liked this book so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives. 4-star-rating


What books were you surprised to love recently?

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19 thoughts on “Some Books I Was Surprised to Love

  1. I loved the Connie Willis when I read it a few years ago, and I’m another non-scifi reader. I was surprised to love The Poisonwood Bible because I’d shied away from it for YEARS until it ambushed me in a charity shop in Bridlington. I suppose I also go for what I know I’ll like most of the time, though. Hm.

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    1. I had to smile when I saw that you avoid books set in Africa. (Do you notice how most of them feature a baobab tree against a sunset on the cover?!) I tend to avoid books set in India because I feel like I’m going to encounter lots of cultural cliches. That said, I still haven’t read some of the great epics — by Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry, for example — and I’m tempted by Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day, which has a nominal cricket theme.

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      1. How funny, I LOVE books set in India, can’t get enough of them! And North Africa is a favourite, too. There is, indeed, often a baobab. Ha! I think you’d like A Suitable Boy, especially if you don’t read much Indian fiction. Also you’re missing out on R.K. Narayan, whose Malgudi books are very special.

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  2. I don’t normally read genre fiction, either, but I do love time travel when it’s done well. And multiple lives. Now I want to immediately read To Say Nothing of the Dog and The First Fifteen Lives!

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      1. I just did a more extensive library search (for the whole province) and it looks like I can get both through ILL. I just have to be careful with my ILL timing, so I don’t get a bunch at once – those ones can’t be renewed!

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  3. Fantasy, sci fi, time travel leave me cold too but I started thinking I should give them another go. So off I went to the library which had about 10 shelves of scifi/fantasy – I dont know how many books I took off the shelf and read the blurb – and immediately felt a sinking feeling. I found nothing that appealed at all. But I’m thinking that I need some guidance on where to begin so your selections are really helpful

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    1. That’s great! I know the feeling: when I hear something is about space or mythical creatures/aliens, I think “oh brother, how silly!” But these were all a pleasant surprise, and I’d be happy to read more that are like them.

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  4. I’ve been meaning to read about half the books you mention above for so long! I grew up on genre fiction, and although I may read mainly mainstream fiction these days, I love returning to it now and again. Becky Chambers two SF novels have really rekindled a need in me to read more SF.

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