Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Thought I’d Like More/Less Than I Did

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

This week, I thought I would talk about some well-hyped books that came out within the past few years. For each of these, I bought into the hype, with varying results. While some of these books greatly exceeded my expectations, others, regrettably, fell short. I should point out that I didn’t actually dislike (or, at least, vehemently dislike) any of these books. They were each just much different from how I had guessed they would be.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like More Than I Did:

Swamplandia!The Night CircusGone GirlThe Marriage PlotHow To Be a Woman

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell—I really thought I would love this one, which means I was almost certainly setting myself up for disappointment. Russell is a great writer, but there were times when I could tell that this was a short story that had been unnaturally expanded. The characters and settings were interesting, but I couldn’t quite connect with any of them. All of the book’s cleverness never really added up to a complete story, even though some individual parts were quite brilliant.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern—I loved the atmosphere in this book, but was underwhelmed by the character development and, especially, the love story. The descriptions were beautiful, but I found myself caring more about the Night Circus itself than about any of the people involved with it.

3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—I will admit to not quite guessing the twist, but this book had little to recommend it outside of that. Though very clever and well-plotted, I found it completely depressing. It left me feeling empty and unsatisfied.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides—The beginning of this book was a hilarious send-up of pretentious English majors (probably best appreciated by pretentious English majors, like me), but the middle was endlessly depressing. Until I started reading, I had no idea that the story was largely about one character’s bipolar disorder. Though beautifully and thoughtfully written, this book was a lot less fun than I thought it would be.

5. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran—Moran made some good, funny points, but I thought there was too much Lady Gaga love and excessive references to British celebrities that aren’t well known outside of the country. The book was at its best when Moran was being honest and insightful about her own very personal experiences. I could have done without the rest.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like Less Than I Did:

State of WonderThe Tiger's WifeBefore I Go to SleepBetween Shades of GrayThe Hunger Games

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett—I knew the reviews had been good, but I picked this book up more on a whim than anything else. I was surprised when I became instantly hooked. The story is suspenseful, unusual, and at times completely insane—all things that I can appreciate. Where else can you find magic tree bark or a pregnant septuagenarian?

2. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht—I had seen this book being promoted for so long that my curiosity finally got the better of me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was certainly surprised by what I got. There was magical realism, profound insights on war, and a whole lot of weirdness. In a good way. Mostly, though, I was impressed by Obreht’s writing, which was skillful, assured, and quite lovely.

3. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson—I love the movie Memento, so I was curious to see how a suspense novel would handle a similar premise. I tore through this book in a couple of days, eager to discover what came next. Every page was exciting, and even though the ending was completely ridiculous, I still loved the ride.

4. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—When this book started winning awards—and getting mistaken for Fifty Shades of Grey—I decided to see what it was all about for myself. And…wow. This was a tough read, but so, so worth it. Though at times heartrending, it still managed to show how resilient the human spirit is.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins—I hadn’t even planned to read The Hunger Games until I happened to see it on my friend’s Kindle, which I had borrowed for a week or two. Curious but not expecting much, I read through the first few chapters and was immediately addicted. I’d say I raced through the book to make sure I could finish before I had to give the Kindle back, but, really, there was no stopping me anyway. I tracked down the final two books of the trilogy and read them each in about a day. I loved them all, and I can confidently say that I completely understand the hype for this series.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read In 2012

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

QuietThe Handmaid's TaleOld SchoolPlease Ignore Vera DietzThe Hunger Games

1. Quiet—Susan Cain

For me, Quiet was a revelation; for others, it is the start of a revolution. The success of this book is heartening, because it proves that there are a lot of people besides me who are interested in what it means to be an introvert in today’s world. One of Quiet‘s virtues is that it reaffirms the value of the introvert in a time when it is almost inexcusable not to constantly manifest extrovert behavior. What’s more, it shows that some of these prized extrovert qualities are actually the cause of some of our current economic and societal problems. It doesn’t knock extroverts (well, only off a pedestal), but it makes a great argument about the need for balance. It’s a great read for introverts and extroverts alike, but it’s especially helpful in teaching introverts to accept, and even prize, the qualities that they may have been criticized for in the past.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood

The story of Offred, a woman who, even in name, is defined by men in her restrictive society, is harrowing and horrifying. It is bleak, it is infuriating, and, worst of all, it doesn’t feel that far out of the realm of possibility. I loved this book not because it was an easy read, but because it was an important one. Particularly in this past year, when woman’s bodies and rights were constantly a source of debate and government regulation, I found its message to be a powerful wakeup call.

3. Old School—Tobias Wolff

No student of literature should pass up the opportunity to read this clever, often hilarious, and very insightful coming-of-age story about one boy’s experience in a writing-obsessed prep school. From its spot-on, uproarious portrayals of famous writers like Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, to its nuanced understanding of everyday prep school life, this book is both fun and incredibly smart.

4. Please Ignore Vera Dietz—A.S. King

As much as I enjoy YA books, I’ll admit that it’s sometimes difficult to find a character who feels 100% real to me. (Of course, the same can also be said for books written for adults.) What most impressed me about this novel, aside from its sheer uniqueness, was how believable Vera Dietz is as a character. She is complex and conflicted, yet, in a genre currently over-saturated with dystopian fantasies, refreshingly ordinary. She is the kind of girl I would like to be friends with: though she is no damsel, she also is not fighting against the whole world. Hers is a quieter courage, but one that is immensely important. The title of this book is ironic, for we should all be paying attention to her.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy—Suzanne Collins

When a series is hyped as much as this one, it can be difficult to judge it solely on its own merits. In fact, these are the types of books I often avoid, or at least put off reading, because it is almost impossible for me to determine how I actually feel about them. I read the first book of this trilogy accidentally; at least, I didn’t set out to read it, and I only started perusing it because my friend had a copy on her Kindle, which I was borrowing. But from the first few chapters I was hooked. A day or so later, I was looking for someone who could lend me the latter two books. And then I devoured those. What I liked about The Hunger Games isn’t easy for me to articulate because I have been bombarded with other people’s opinions as well: it’s sometimes difficult to separate out their feelings from my own. I found the story incredibly interesting, of course, and I loved Katniss both when she was strong and when she was in a weaker, but still totally believable, state. Perhaps what also appealed to me, though, was the fact that these books are so universally beloved, and thus something I can discuss with a wide variety of people. I think the greatest thing about the series is that it really is as good as everyone says it is.

When You Reach MeBetween Shades of GrayPassingState of WonderThe Complete Maus

6. When You Reach Me—Rebecca Stead

Have you ever read a book that made you nostalgic for a place you’ve never known? If so, then you have some idea of the effect When You Reach Me had on me. It is a book that is in some ways deeply nostalgic—for childhood, for innocence, and for a different New York City—but which is also quite timeless. It works beautifully just on this level, but it has the added bonus of being an intricately-plotted time travel story. From beginning to end it is flawless, wonderfully rendered for both children and adults.

7. Between Shades of Gray—Ruta Sepetys

It can be hard to pick up a book knowing it will make you sad. No matter the accolades that have been heaped upon it, this type of book often requires a certain mindset. Between Shades of Gray is obviously no beach read, but it is exquisitely written, at once beautiful, heartrending and, most importantly, truthful. It tells a story that has too often been left out of history, of Lithuanian families forced by the Soviets to relocate to the treacherous conditions of Siberia. Despite the almost insurmountable odds, these people maintained their humanity and helped each other to survive. I was tremendously moved by this story, and glad that the experiences of these people are no longer shrouded in silence.

8. Passing—Nella Larsen

Passing is weird and wonderful and not at all what I expected. On the surface, it is a story about race, particularly as it applies to three black women who are light-skinnned enough to “pass” for white. Yet, it is so much more complex and convoluted than that, at times feeling like a taut thriller that plays with readers’ expectations. The ending is shocking, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Still, it is perfectly fitting for this bizarre tale of secrets, doppelgangers, and race betrayal. I was consistently challenged and impressed by this one.

9. State of Wonder—Ann Patchett

This book has it all: a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, hallucinogenic malaria pills, magic tree bark, a pregnant septuagenarian…. How could anyone resist? Better yet, it is brilliantly written and, despite its absurd premise, completely believable. It’s rare to find a book that is this much fun while still maintaining some semblance of “serious” writing. I look forward to reading more from Ann Patchett.

10. The Complete Maus—Art Spiegelman

One of the biggest debates regarding Holocaust literature is how to present the material, and whether such stories can be told at all. Maus is one of the most inventive takes on this that I have seen: it is a comic book, with cartoon mice and metafiction tendencies. As such, it may not solve any of these quandaries, but it does try to find a new way to present the story of a Holocaust survivor. What I liked about Maus was that it recognizes that not everything can be told in words, and that any version of a story will fall short of the real thing. It calls out its shortcomings, but still manages to be emotionally honest and thus effectively devastating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Are Even Better the Second Time

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is blogger’s choice, so I thought I’d talk about some of my favorite books to reread. In general, I’m not big on rereading—with so many new books I want to read, it’s just not practical. I do, however, think the practice is important, both to maintain a familiarity with the books I’ve read and loved, as well as to see how my interpretation of those novels changes over time. I’ve broken this list into four categories as a sort of experiment. Mostly, I wanted to convey a few of my own reasons for rereading.

Books You Read in High School:


Remember all those classics you were forced to read in high school? Chances are, you weren’t in the right mindset to appreciate them then, either because you had no familiarity with the style or because you hated being told what to do. Maybe you’re still under the impression that you don’t like some of them. Maybe you’ve even told people you hate some of these books, based on an impression you formed when you were 15. Well…I ask you to reevaluate some other decisions you made at 15; do they all hold up? I think we owe it to ourselves to reread in adulthood some of the books we dismissed as teenagers. I have been pleasantly surprised, time and again, by some books I initially found boring, annoying, or just plain impossible. Here are some of my favorite books, which many teenagers don’t enjoy the first time around.

1. The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger

Yes, Holden Caulfield is whiny. Yes, his slang is dated, and if I never hear the word “phony” again it will be too soon. BUT, in spite of all this, he is actually a very engaging narrator, and he is dealing with some pretty serious issues. Maybe today’s teenagers think they can’t relate to Holden, but here’s a little secret: they totally can. When I reread The Catcher in the Rye as an adult, I couldn’t believe how much of my teenage self I found in him. I just wasn’t willing to admit it back then.

2. The Scarlet Letter—Nathaniel Hawthorne

No one understands The Scarlet Letter in high school, so I’m not even sure why we assign it. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a somewhat inscrutable literary style even for adults; forcing that on kids who have just graduated from reading books written specifically for their age group seems unfair. Add to that the 17th century time period and the subject matter, and it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of high schoolers passing this book around their group of friends. They absolutely cannot relate to it, and they are probably not prepared to make the necessary connections to find out why it is still important. I’ve reread this book many times as an adult and even wrote my English Master’s thesis on it, so it’s safe to assume I’m a big fan. But did I even like this book in high school? No, I absolutely did not.

3. The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald

In 10th grade AP prep English classes in my high school, this book was notorious. Some students liked it, but it also had a reputation for being difficult, boring, and, weirdly enough, too long. It’s safe to say that no one quite got Fitzgerald’s writing style, and the themes of the book were a little beyond many of us. Those who liked it at the time were in it more for the parties, the glamor, and the sense of sophistication it imparted than for its actual literary merit. And even that was better than dismissing it outright. Although I remembering liking The Great Gatsby, there’s no way I absorbed very much of it the first time around. It has only been on repeated readings that I’ve truly been able to appreciate the exquisite writing and surprising simplicity of the plot. It’s also a lot shorter than I remembered, now that I’m more well-read. Rereading is a breeze: I can get through it in an afternoon.

4. Great Expectations—Charles Dickens

When it comes to reading for class, word count is a big issue, even for those kids who are willing to give the assigned reading a chance. Give students a short book, and it’s likely that at least some will read it, but assign a book that will require many pages of reading a night, and suddenly there’s no guarantee. When I was asked to read Great Expectations for my 9th grade English class, I gave it a try. I even thought the beginning was pretty good. But, ugh, if it wasn’t just so long, and the language so old and hard to understand. I quickly gave up, and faked my way through. It was only years later than I realized how great this book is from beginning to end. I wish my teacher hadn’t trusted that our class would be able to appreciate this text; on the whole, we couldn’t.

Favorites to Reread in Adulthood:


It’s difficult to consider a book a favorite when you are changing, perhaps imperceptibly, all the time. Many of my favorite books, however, are the ones I first read when I was in my teens, a time when I did nothing but change. Luckily, when I reread some of these books in adulthood, I realized I still loved them just as much as I had before, though perhaps in a different way. I’m glad I’ve been able to look at them through new eyes, and even happier that I haven’t found a reason to strip them of their title.

5. Jane Eyre—Charlotte Brontë

The first time I read Jane Eyre, I loved it; it immediately became my favorite book. I enjoyed the mystery, the atmosphere, and, most of all, Jane, who became my favorite literary heroine; in short, I was crazy about pretty much everything. I am, however, of the firm belief that a book cannot truly be a favorite until it has been read at least twice, so I was eager to reread it and thus solidify its status. I have since read Jane Eyre a few times, and each time I remember why I’m so passionate about it; I also find new things to love. It is a book that, thankfully, has not become less charming the older I get, but remains as appealing to me as it was the first time I read it.

6. I Capture the Castle—Dodie Smith

When I read I Capture the Castle for the first time, I knew it was something special. I loved the story, of course, but what really appealed to me was the narrator, Cassandra, who—perhaps because we were about the same age—felt so relatable to me. As I rushed through it, I became convinced that I would soon list it among my favorite books. And then…I came to the end. Although I still loved the book, when I would recommend it to friends my one caveat would be that the ending was a bit of a letdown. It was a perfect book until. A few years later, I bought the book and reread it, bracing myself for the inevitable disappointment. A strange thing happened: I wasn’t disappointed. In rereading it, I was finally able to appreciate the story exactly as Dodie Smith wrote it; better yet, when I recommend it now, I no longer have to temper my recommendation with a criticism.

7. The Bell Jar—Sylvia Plath

I loved The Bell Jar when I first read it at 16, but, in retrospect, it’s probably exactly the kind of book one would love at that age. I wasn’t sure if, once I read it when I was older than the protagonist, Esther, I would still be able to appreciate her viewpoint. I’ve read the book three or four times now, at different stages of my life, and I’ve enjoyed it each time. Esther is still as witty and insightful as I found her nearly a decade ago, and her struggles still feel real and vital to me. Maybe there are some things better left to our teenage selves, but this is not one of them.

Mysteries That Only Get More Intriguing:


Of all literary genres, the mystery is perhaps the one least likely to be reread, by virtue of the fact that its appeal lies in suspense and the incremental uncovering of its solution. Once a mystery has been solved, it may seem redundant to revisit the book; after all, it has already given up all its secrets. Still, there are some mysteries—truly great mysteries—that can continue to surprise and delight even after the final page has been turned. I have found that some mysteries even manage to get better the further they are examined, proof of a truly skilled writer.

8. Special Topics in Calamity Physics—Marisha Pessl

Why do I love Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Well, actually, it’s no mystery: I admire its flamboyance, its exuberance, and its impossibly cool world. Above all, though, I love its protagonist, Blue van Meer, who makes being smart look really awesome. Although the mystery in this novel is pretty enticing, it’s nothing without the vivid, quirky, and endlessly fascinating characters who flesh out the story. This book is so intricate, so labyrinthine, that no two readings could possibly be the same. There’s always something new to discover, to obsess over, to revel in.

9. The Big Sleep—Raymond Chandler

Philip Marlowe is the coolest of the classic hardboiled detectives, and I could hang out with him anytime. For me, The Big Sleep isn’t about solving any crime (probably a good thing, since even its author admitted that he failed to resolve one of the book’s key murders), but about Marlowe’s struggle to be a moral person in a world full of corruption. He’s got a delightfully wry sense of humor, but also a conscience, which means that justice matters. I like having the opportunity to see the world through his eyes, and that is true no matter how many times I read this book.

Books You Need to Reread to Understand:

Some books were not written for one reading; their puzzle pieces will only fit together once the totality of the novel has been revealed. These novels are usually willfully cryptic and misleading, but often for a good reason. These are stories you must work for, that you must study the text to unlock. While they will never be very popular with the reading masses, they make an important statement about the intricacies and possibilities of literature.

10. The Sound and the Fury—William Faulkner

When I first read The Sound and the Fury, without having any previous experience with William Faulkner, I had to drink just to get through certain passages. The novel is divided into four sections, and the first section is narrated by a 33-year-old man with the mind of a child. It is, seemingly, nonsense. His past and his present intermingle, and he doesn’t understand much of what’s going on in the world around him. As a result, neither does the reader. The novel gradually becomes more understandable, but many events are only hinted at, or are not revealed in whole by any one narrator. It’s impossible to put together the plot—let alone what’s going on behind the scenes—in one reading alone because the reader’s understanding is so constantly shifting. While the novel is a struggle the first time, it starts to make sense the second time around, which is a gratifying feeling. Still, that’s not to say the book gets easier—it just gets less infuriating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Get In the Halloween Spirit

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

Although I don’t usually (read: never) participate in blog memes, I thought this topic seemed like a lot of fun. I really like the idea of Top Ten Tuesday, and I’m excited to check out the suggestions that others have generated for this week’s list. Maybe this will be a new thing for me! (Please do not check the status of past “new things for me,” including knitting, exercising, and cooking vegetables.) Regardless, please enjoy my painstakingly-crafted list, which I hope is sufficiently scary, atmospheric, and/or just plain weird. Keep in mind that I’m not exactly a horror connoisseur—the only Stephen King book I’ve read is the one he wrote about writing!

10. Chime — Franny Billingsley

Do you like witches, bog creatures, dead people and self-hating narrators? Striking, florid prose and magical scenarios? What about dreamy landscapes just on the edge of the Industrial Revolution? Chime is one of the most original YA books I have recently read, precisely because it combines all of those elements so weirdly and so wonderfully. It tells the story of a guilt-ridden young girl unable to come to terms with her magical powers, and the evil influences in her life who have poisoned her against her gifts. It’s a strange story, an acquired taste, but one that is wholly enchanting and memorable.

9. Black Hole — Charles Burns

Looking for a graphic novel that will haunt your dreams? Look no further than Black Hole, a visually-stunning (and nightmare-inducing) story about a sexually transmitted disease that turns its victims into literal monsters. The artwork for this comic is amazing, evoking the classic horror movies you like to watch every Halloween, but the story itself is quite dark and bizarre. Characters develop lesions, boils, and even tails, becoming horrifying mutants who must live as outcasts. The whole comic is disturbing, to say the least, but it makes for an unforgettable experience.

8. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Ransom Riggs

Old photographs can be spooky in general, but the pictures included in this YA book take that creepiness to a whole new level. Combining found photographs of magical children who hover, harness balls of energy, or simply aren’t there at all, with a story about a modern day teenager who travels back to the 1940s to meet these strange beings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children offers a reading experience unlike any other. It is eerie, mysterious, and a lot of fun—just the right mix of light-hearted and terrifying to get in the Halloween spirit.

7. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife — Mary Roach

It’s easy to get lost in a good horror story, but there’s no reason why Halloween has to be all about fiction. In Spook, science writer (and skeptic) Mary Roach takes a look at the afterlife, from ghostly apparitions and séances to reincarnation and soul-weighing, to find out whether claims of such occurrences could be for real. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, travels to India to interview the family of a supposedly reincarnated child, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts. The book is great fun, and an amazing journey, but it also has a lot of interesting insights into our belief—or our desire to believe—in the supernatural.

6. A Monster’s Notes — Laurie Sheck 

There are a lot of Frankenstein stories out there, and relatively few of them have anything that touches upon the brilliance of the original. If you’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, and are looking for a new take on the story, consider A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck. Let me be upfront: this is certainly the most avant-garde book on the list. It has variously been described as being “bold,” “baroque,” and “oddly compelling.” (Yeah, oddly.) Nonetheless, it is one of the most moving and original works of contemporary literature I have recently read, and it is completely worth exploring if you are an adventurous reader. While you may not necessarily get scared, you will be enchanted; this is a poetic book that works a magic all its own.

5. The Historian — Elizabeth Kostova

I’m just assuming you’ve already read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but if you haven’t, start there first. Done yet?  Then you’re ready for this academic Dracula story, which makes research a thrill (and will have you thinking twice about digging too deep into the life of Vlad the Impaler). The Historian has all the elements of a good, creepy mystery: strange clues hidden in ancient books, secret tombs and old churches, and even an evil librarian! It’s the kind of book that will make you believe that Dracula is real, and still alive in the present day. Just try going to sleep with that worry weighing on you.

4. Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey is technically a gothic novel parody, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in atmosphere. In satirizing popular books like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Austen conjures up a pretty good haunted house story, even if you know all the spookiness will have a reasonable explanation. It’s a good choice for anyone who eschews horror, prefers the lighthearted side of Halloween, or has just joined a Jane Austen book club. If you’re really adventurous, try reading it alongside the Radcliffe book.

3. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

I would argue that Jane Eyre is the perfect book to read at any time of the year, but it does seem to be a particularly good choice for Halloween, thanks to its gothic DNA. Thornfield Hall might as well be a haunted house, for all its things that go bump in the night. Many of the situations are quite harrowing, and, of course, the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about time. And, actually, I think it might be time for me to revisit it.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

Okay, so there are shorter books to get you ready for Halloween. But this is one of my favorites, precisely because it is so sprawling, so imaginative, and, to put it simply, so magical. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the story of two feuding magicians, but it also brings together a number of equally enchanting characters and subplots. Villains like the gentleman with thistle-down hair are as memorable as the main protagonists themselves, and the numerous footnotes may just contain some of the best fairy tales I have ever read. Worth the time, if you have it; worth making time for, if you don’t.

1. The Monk — Matthew Gregory Lewis

I’m guessing that if you’re not specifically into late eighteenth century literature, the gothic novel, or really, really weird literary curios, then you’ve never read this book. Probably you’ve never even heard of it. Well, The Monk defies any sort of tidy summarization, but suffice it to say that it takes every gothic trope popular in its day and magnifies it by a thousand. It features family secrets, a lusty monk, and, oh yeah, SATAN, who just shows up because…why not? It’s a wild ride, and one you won’t soon forget. Basically, this book is the Halloween spirit, and if you haven’t read it yet, you must.

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