Discussion, Guest Post

Books That Surprised Me (For Better Or Worse) | Written by Gail

booksthat surprisedmeI don’t know if you could tell from the everything about me, but I read a lot. At any given moment, I’m probably reading or watching something; those are the two options. I’ve been known to do both with other people. And after 21 years, I think I have a pretty good idea of what stuff I like, and whether or not you like it, in this age of marketing, you can judge a book by its cover. That means that usually I enjoy the books I pick up, because I picked them up because the combination of the cover and the summary is usually a good indicator of whether or not this book will work for me.

What this means, in practice, is that most books I read get either three or four stars. I’m not one to give five stars unless a book is truly exceptional; and I very rarely give a book a solid try if it isn’t working for me. These are a few standouts.


BEAUTY QUEENS by LIBBA BRAY

This is one of those books I kept hearing about, but never really found out anything about. I knew it was supposed to be Lord of the Flies but with – well – beauty queens, and that was about it. I figured it was probably some kind of survival drama and let it be. Eventually, past June, I made a “book recs for pride month” list on my bookblr, and in the replies, among many recs added to the list was Beauty Queens. And, I guess on a whim, I got the audiobook.

I did not listen to it all at once, unlike some other books on this list, but a busy life does not mean I didn’t absolutely adore it. It was full of bizarre pl

ot twists, social commentary, and representation of all kinds (props for the hoh/deaf rep, which is really rare). It was creative, and took its premise to places I did not expect. But what really hit me was the humor, which absolutely makes or breaks this book – the irony, especially. If you’re not into social commentary through humor, you will not enjoy this book. But if this is your type of humor – irony and absurdism that make our reality seem all that more ironic and absurd – then read this immediately. It will improve your life by far.

Verdict: Better than I expected.


THE BELLES by DHONIELLE CLAYTON

I may or may not be serving a really unpopular take here. Honestly, I didn’t know much about it going in except that I had seen glowing review after glowing review on twitter. I wasn’t even going to read it, but I was bookshopping with a friend when I was in the States last summer (finding good reads in English in Israel is……… difficult) and I found a signed copy, and I was like, oh, what the hell. So I bought it, and I read it, and I genuinely believe it was a waste of my money and time.

I guess I expected better. I thought I was going into a narrative with social commentary on beauty standards, but that never really went anywhere, and certainly wasn’t inclusive of multiple body types; I thought I was going into a diverse narrative, but there’s a severe case of Bury Your Gays; I thought I was entering a fantasy story, and then I thought it might be a dystopia, and then I wasn’t sure what was going on, because the whole thing was just… messy. The idea was very clever, but the actual execution was just bad.

As others have pointed out, it was important to prove that there was and is a market for racially diverse YA. But this is four-hundred-some pages of wasted potential.

Verdict: Worse than I expected.


UPROOTED by NOAMI NOVIK

I somehow managed to completely miss the hype for this book in English, and get completely into it in Hebrew. I saw it everywhere for a while; I decided to wait till I had a bigger budget to buy it, and then sort of forgot that I hadn’t. I got the English copy for my 20th birthday, and somehow never connected between the two titles – Hebrew and English. (Sidenote – check out how gorgeous the Hebrew cover is.) It wasn’t until more than six months had passed that I finally sat down and read the whole thing cover to cover in an evening.

I wouldn’t call this the most original novel, and I wouldn’t say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In fact, just two weeks ago I went to a fan convention and attended a lecture about the similarities between Uprooted, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Evil Wizard Smallbone (based on the comparison to the other two, I have now purchased the audiobook to the last one). I would say it’s Novik’s take on Howl’s Moving Castle, in a way – but that’s only the bones of the story. What’s actually written is a very different story, with very different characters, whom I grew to love over a very short amount of time – I swear, this book does more with four hundred pages than other fantasy books do with seven hundred. I came in expecting pretty much nothing, and left wanting so, so much more.

Verdict: Better than I expected.


AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING by HANK GREEN

Quiet sci-fi always takes me by surprise in a way that quiet fantasy doesn’t. I think maybe sci-fi is somehow louder to me than other genre fiction, like it needs to announce itself with trumpets and horns. Maybe that’s why I generally prefer fantasy to science fiction; it feels to me like there’s more nuance in the range of fantasy fiction than there is in science fiction. This book calmly told me that I was absolutely wrong about all of those assumptions, and that I should sit my ass down, because I don’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

The list of foolish assumptions I had going into this book was as long as The Wheel of Time is exhausting. I have read every John Green book, excepting the new one; I didn’t read the new one, because I used to be a nerdfighter, and so I was his fan, and then I wasn’t a fan anymore, and me and my local nerdfighter community have become, like, genuine friends with other interests, and I never really felt the need to. I guess I just figured this would be a John Green book, but, like, by his brother? Even though I still like Hank and follow his personal channel and don’t do anything of the like with John? Like I said, foolish assumption. But, I got this as an audiobook on a whim (my credits are always building up) and then I just… didn’t listen to it. Compared to other books on this list, I didn’t actually wait all that long (only four months) to get around to it, but I’m now mentally kicking myself for all that wasted time.

I don’t want to say anything else about it, because I truly believe the best way to read this book is to know absolutely nothing about it. Just, it’s fantastic, and you should read it. And the audible narration is one of the better ones.

Verdict: Better than I expected.


WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND by ROBIN TALLEY

I’ve now bought two books by Robin Talley that were total disappointments, but this one takes the cake. I don’t know how else to describe it other than gross.

Is Talley writing offensive books about queer characters on purpose? Does she actually think all queer people are that gross? She seems to herself be a lesbian, which somehow makes the way she represents minorities all that much worse. A cis gay who uses the word “feminazi” and a LOT of transphobic language, specifically against the “genderqueer”(I’ll get to that) main character, who is not given the chance to comment on any of this, and none of this frankly disgusting language is ever commented on; the lesbian who befriends him just… thinks it’s okay. Not that that doesn’t happen in real life, but, uh, maybe we shouldn’t be writing books that present this as okay? Speaking of harmful representation, the “genderqueer” character is about as harmful representation as a nonbinary character could possibly be. At no point does this character seem to be a person who identifies as genderqueer – instead, this character is permanently confused. The way this character treats other people and gets treated is awful.

In fact, looking back, it almost seems like everyone in this book is awful to everybody else, all the time. These characters are empty vessels for grossness.

I have never so vehemently wanted to give a book zero stars before. Oh my God.

Verdict: Much, much worse than I expected.


THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by TAYLOR JENKINS REID

May I remind you that it seems as though I suck at keeping up with hype, and tend to impulsively buy books I’ve heard of? I somehow completely missed the fact that this book was so goddamn queer, and I chose to buy it because the title sounds really interesting and the conceit of classical Hollywood really appeals to me at this stage of my film & TV studies degree.

It was fucking fantastic. I just… I sobbed so hard reading this. It killed me inside. Just this week I bought her next book, Daisy Jones and the Six, which I’ve heard more mixed reviews about but I’m looking forward to reading it because Reid absolutely KILLED IT with this one, and she deserves eternal gratitude and a bunch of money for making my life that much better by adding The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo to my life.

Read. It. If you think the hype will make you disappointed in the actual book, you are wrong. Read! It!

Verdict: Much, much, MUCH better than I expected.


Have you read any books that completely surprised you recently? Anything to recommend or warn me against? Please let me know in the comments!
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49 thoughts on “Books That Surprised Me (For Better Or Worse) | Written by Gail”

  1. Maybe I should finally get to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It’s ALL over the place, but totally doesn’t look like a book that I would enjoy. Sad to see that The Belles didn’t live up to the hype for you, because it’s still on my wish list… the cover is just SO pretty.

    1. I think the general feel I get from pretty much everyone is that Evelyn Hugo is a concept that appeals to almost no one, and a book that absolutely everyone enjoys. HOWEVER, see a previous post, Reading What You Want, for my opinion on caving in to public pressure. Don’t read it if you don’t want to!
      I’m honestly still a little sad about the Belles. It could have easily been something completely different than it was :/

      1. I know what you mean about reading because others love a book. I won’t pick up Throne of Glass because I hated A Court of Thorns and Roses, but everyone seems to LOVE that series which makes me want to read it.

        Maybe I will wind up liking the Belles… I guess we will find out because I still want to read it.

      2. Nah I can’t stand sjm. I’ve read everything she’s written, but she’s terrible. It’s a compulsive thing.

      3. Some people read them and then write rant reviews of how bad they were. I don’t think I will hop on the bandwagon. I can’t even understand why so many people think she’s so good. Maybe the books get better further in the ACOTAR series.

      4. Nope lmao they’re all terrible. Do you have guilty pleasures? I don’t believe in feeling guilty for enjoying something, but I come REAL close with SJM

      5. I’m very proud of enjoying fluff. Fluff is good for your soul. Like chicken soup.

      6. My point is that i refuse to feel guilty about it, not that there isn’t anyone who wants to make fun of me :)

      7. Well it’s hard because NO one in my real life reads at all and they will make fun of my love of YA. They seem to think that those are the only kinds of YA titles that I read or something. I don’t know, but they definitely make fun.

      8. People are jerks. Also, I don’t remember if I mentioned this in my first post, which was about sexism in “criticism” of trashy romance, but YA – especially YA like that – is associated with teenage girls, and therefore is mocked mercilessly just for existing. I used to fall into the trap of believing that I deserved it. But having tried reading Asimov, I now know trash is revered all the time. We can appreciate the hell out of the trash marketed to us.

    1. Honestly I recommended it to someone I had just met and will probably never see again the other day because it’s just so good everyone deserves to know about it

  2. YESSS An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is FANTASTIC!!! It was a much anticipated read for me and I picked it up immediately (after 2-3 days) when it came out and IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT! SO STOKED FOR THE NEXT BOOK.
    YES AND YES FOR EVELYN HUGO. She’s an ICON. Tbh going into it I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. Easily one of my all time favorites!
    For recent surprising reads I’d pick The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. A couple years back I picked up The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor on someone’s recommendation and went into it completely blind AND BOY DID IT SURPRISE ME. Binge read the whole trilogy! It holds a special place in my heart as it kinda introduced me to urban/paranormal fantasy ๐Ÿ’–

    1. I picked up the Daughter of Smoke and Bone when it was sort of new on a recommendation from a close friend at the time. What I learned is that that friend & I have very different taste ๐Ÿ˜‚ pretty writing that covers up what essentially is a very uninteresting book, in my opinion. I tried reading the second one just to give it another chance, but I couldn’t even finish that one. But I’ll concede that the writing itself is very beautiful.

      1. Ohhh ๐Ÿ˜‚ Yeah the writing is beautiful ๐Ÿ˜Also everything was a new concept for me at that time (it still is ๐Ÿ˜‚) so that might’ve played a major role in my love for the trilogy. I wonder sometimes if I’d enjoy it as much now as I did a few years back. Might reread it to find out
        Did you like Strange the Dreamer by the same author? I haven’t read it yet but I have reallyyy high expectations for that one!

      2. Nah, haven’t given it a chance since I dislike her first trilogy, but enjoy it if you do give it a chance!

  3. I had the exact same emotions about Evelyn Hugo! Honestly, I wasnโ€™t expecting much but I have become obsessed and reread it twice in one week! Absolutely outstanding!

    1. Honestly I don’t understand how this could possibly be true but it seems to be the universal positive surprise!

  4. Yey! Iโ€™m so glad The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was better than you thought, I love TJRโ€™s work ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ‘Œ๐Ÿป

  5. Yessssssss Evelyn Hugo! I was planning on reading Uprooted, but I recently finished spinning silver and really didnโ€™t like that, so I am skipping on Uprooted. now. Also the belles is not my thing Iโ€™m afraid.

    1. I haven’t read Spinning Silver yet, but I haven’t found anyone who didn’t enjoy uprooted. I’m sure they exist tho – it’s your choice! I personally recommend.

  6. Great post!
    I was the same with Seven husbands of Evelyn Hugo but now it’s one of my favorite books of all time. Alas! I can’t say the same about Uprooted though, I was so excited to read it but couldn’t get through with it.

    1. SO AWFUL. I sold one of her books to a friend and I feel almost bad because honestly it’s so damaging and I didn’t remember until i went over my review for this :/ but worst comes to worst she’ll get rid of it too lmao

      1. Oh noooo! :( It happens to us all eventually – I know I’ve recommended books to friends before without realizing they were harmful or that the authors were trash. I’m sure she’ll not think badly of you for it โ™ฅ

  7. Alright – Seven Husbands is officially going on my short list. I have heard nothing but good things and just keep putting it off, but I think your post sealed it for me!

  8. I loved Evelyn Hugo! I was really surprised when I was able to read it in a timely manner, not 5 years after the fact! There are so many books that I expect to love and don’t, and that is such a sucky feeling! But, I guess that is life, isn’t it?

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