This may come as a surprise to some people – because I realize this is not really what most people do – but I don’t always expect to love every book I pick up. Sometimes, I do. But I also like picking up books to explore new things or read books outside of my comfort zone. I’ve found so many great books that way, and this year is no exception.
Today, I wanted to talk about some of the books this year that I wasn’t expecting to love… but did. It’s always a pleasant surprise to find a new favorite I wasn’t anticipating. And it seemed to happen quite a bit this year, largely due to my reading experiment where I let Buzzfeed decide what I read (side note: I do want to get more into these reading experiment posts next year, just got a bit off track in the latter half of 2020).
Here are the books I read this year that I maybe didn’t have the highest hopes for and ended up really enjoying (in no particular order):
Kindred by Octavia Butler
I knew pretty much nothing about this book when I picked it up. Just that I’d been hearing about Octavia Butler for a while, and kind of wanted to try her books. I don’t remember why I ended up reading Kindred first, but I am so, so glad I did. Because this book absolutely blew me away. It’s fantastic, amazing, and so much more than I could have hoped for. It was one of the first books I read this year, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I’m already temped to reread it. It’s that good. I don’t even care that I probably just spoiled my favorites post. If you take one recommendation from me this year, please make it this book.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
I read this for a failed reading experiment. I had the brilliant idea in October to try and read seven thrillers in seven days. Which, to be fair, I’m pretty sure I’ve done before, even while working a full-time job. But the reading slump was extra strong this year, and I only made it three books in. I wanted to pick up some diverse thrillers, and a lot of the ones that were being recommended, I had already read. I came across The Hole and I was intrigued. It’s a creepy Korean thriller, kind of along the lines of The Vegetarian, but I liked this one a lot more.
If I’m being totally honest, I kind of had a hard time getting into the story at first. But then I realized it was because I wanted it to be a more exciting thriller, which it isn’t. So I gave it a chance, and it grew on me. I don’t even think I liked it all that much until I was finished. It’s definitely one of those books where the whole is greater than its parts. Maybe it’s a Korean thriller thing, it had the same vibes as Parasite, and I loved that about this book. I’m honestly still thinking about it.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
This is one of the books I read for my Buzzfeed experiment. And man, that experiment set the bar ridiculously high. I only read this because of that post. And the same can be said of the next three books on this list. I’m still kind of in shock.
How to Stop Time has been on my radar for a while. But I just never felt compelled to read it. I’ve seen it around, but hadn’t heard too much about it. Which is a shame, because this book is incredible! It’s one I’ve been recommending to people ever since I read it. It was kind of a mash-up of two of my all-time favorite books: The Pillars of the Earth and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. So, obviously, this book also got added to that favorites list. It’s amazing, and now I need to read all of Matt Haig’s books.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
I distinctly remember my aunt recommending this to me when I was maybe twelve or thirteen (she questioned if I was old enough to read it). I didn’t read it then, and I’m honestly kind of glad I didn’t. I appreciated so much more at thirty-one than I would have at thirteen. The reason I didn’t read this before this year was that the hype kind of put me off. I have this thing where I just get turned off my books that are super popular. I think I’ll want to read them, because everyone seems to love them, and then I just never get the desire to do so.
But, I finally read this, and I can say everyone was right about it. This book is so good! I was having major issues with my reading this year, and Memoirs of a Geisha was the first book in a while that I actually wanted to pick up and read, and not just force myself to get through it. It helped me out of a slump, and kind of just reminded me how good books can actually be. I loved it!
Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
I hadn’t heard of this book at all before it came up in a Buzzfeed quiz I was using to decide my reading. It’s both a new release and a debut and wasn’t on my radar at all. So I had no frame of reference. I also didn’t have high hopes because I generally don’t love alternate histories, which this is. I’m a huge fan of Tudor history, and this is set in Tudor England.
Somehow, this book just worked for me. I really enjoyed it. It was compulsively readable, and I completely lost myself in the story. Which is exactly what I want from a book. It definitely exceeded any expectations I had, and I’m pretty happy about it. I also learned that sin-eaters were real, which is pretty cool and definitely made me want to learn more.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan
This is the final book on this list that came from my Buzzfeed reading experiment. This had actually been on my radar for a while, but I never really looked into it. And then when I did, I was skeptical. Not because this seemed like a bad story, but because it’s a story that centers on a mother-daughter relationship. Because I don’t have a great relationship with my mom, I tend to avoid books like this because I struggle to identify with them and sometimes they bring up some painful emotions.
But, for the sake of a blog post, I read this anyway. And, surprisingly, I kind of loved it. I listened to the nearly-twelve-hour-long audiobook in a single day. I just fell completely into this story. I loved the magical realism elements and how the story was a lot about grief and loss and family. I honestly think this is the book on this list that surprised me the most. I’m glad I finally read it.
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
I’ve had some Anna-Marie McLemore books on my TBR for a while, but just never picked up any of them. I’m in a period of my life where I’m not super in to young adult books. In my early thirties, I really don’t enjoy remembering my teenage years. Also, I’ve found I’m at an age where I identify with parent/adult characters in YA books more than the main characters, and it’s just not as fun to read anymore.
I honestly don’t remember the reason I picked this up, but whatever it was, I’m grateful. Because I really loved this. It is such a great retelling (of “Snow White & Rose Red”, in case that wasn’t obvious). But mostly, I loved the representation. The characters are diverse and real, and it was great to read a nonbinary character written by a nonbinary author.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
This is another book I didn’t read for a long while because everyone seemed to love it, and my brain is wired where I think that means I won’t actually like it. Also because everyone was raving about the audiobook, and I wasn’t really into full cast audiobooks. So, I picked up a copy, and then it sat on my shelves. Again, not sure why I finally decided to pick this up, But I did. And I actually braved the full cast audiobook. Which may have changed my mind about full cast audiobooks.
I think the reason I loved this so much is because it was like a fictionalized true crime book. And I love true crime. It’s kind of a fictional true crime podcast, which was fun. Even though I don’t really listen to podcasts normally (I want to, I just find myself always going for an audiobook instead). But this was really good. Intriguing and fun. I already have an advanced copy of Courtney Summers’s next book, so I’m excited to read more.
Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Before this year, if anyone asked me what I don’t like reading, my answer would be historical romance. I love historical fiction in general, and I do like picking up the occasional romance novel when I want a fun, quick read. But I’d never read any historical fiction. The whole swooning thing isn’t really my cup of tea, so I stayed away.
This book changed all of that – the main character is a suffragette. Which obviously piqued my interest. Because feminist historical romance? I’m here for it. And this was so good. Wonderful feminist message and characters, but also a very Pride and Prejudice-esque romance. I already read the second book in the series and am a tiny bit upset we have to wait until the fall for book three.
There it is! All the books that surprised me this year. I really enjoyed all of them, and am very much looking forward to reading more by all of these authors. And, don’y worry, the more exciting counterpart to this post – my most disappointing books of the year – will be up very soon.
What books surprised you the most this year?