Popular Books that Lived Up to the Hype

When contemplating ten popular books that lived up to the hype, it dawned on me that this could be a really easy list to create. There are, after all, seven Harry Potter books. I’d only have to come up with three more.

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I loved all of the Harry Potter books. I’ve read them all multiple times. I’ve read them along with my kids. My daughter and I are currently re-watching all the movies. It’s safe to say that I believe these books totally earned the hype–and they’re holding up remarkably well to the passage of time.

I’m not going to take the easy way out here. Here are ten OTHER books that earned the hype:

hunger gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her little sister’s place as a tribute to the annual games hosted in the capitol, where representatives from each district battle to the death. Other competitors are bigger, stronger, faster and better trained. Can Katniss survive? Can she stand up to the oppressive regime forcing this barbaric ritual on the disenfranchised?

Katniss is everything you want in a hero. She’s honorable. She’s wily. She’s determined. This series had me on tenterhooks wanting to know how the heck Katniss was going to get herself out of increasingly dangerous situations. It’s not just a series of action scenes and suspenseful moments. There’s plenty of romance, too.

timetravelerThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Henry, a librarian with a taste for adventure, is the first person to be diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder. Whenever his genetic clock resets he is pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. This condition complicates the already complicated scenario of falling in love with Clare, a beautiful art student, and maintaining a relationship with her.

Not only is this novel wonderfully imaginative in its construction, it’s beautifully told and a real tear-jerker. I recommend having a box of Kleenex handy.

kite runnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. As the Afghan monarchy was crumbling, the friendship of two boys was put to the test–and broke. While they were constant companions during peaceful times, their differences in caste put a wedge between them. Amir belongs to the ruling Pashtun caste and enjoys the privileges of being the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant. Hassan, his servant, is a Hazara, a poor and despised caste. As the years pass by, Amir never ceases to regret abandoning his childhood friend. Eventually, he sets out to discover what had become of him and to make amends.

This tale is epic in scope, passionately written, and provides keen observations about human nature, love and redemption.

waterforelephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Jacob is an Ivy league drop out who ran way to join a traveling circus, which was struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Because of his training in veterinary medicine, he is put in charge of caring for the menagerie, chief of which is a seemingly intractable elephant named Rosie. In this colorful setting, Jacob falls for the beautiful star of an equestrian act. Unfortunately, she is shackled to August, a cruel animal-trainer.

This is a beautifully written book. The narrative voice is distinct and the setting is uniquely captivating. I will be honest though: the romance wasn’t as important to me as the welfare of Rosie, an incredible creature given an unfair lot in life.

dragonThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Michael Blomkvist, a journalist with a raging drive to uncover the truth, and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman with deep-seated anger against the world and an unparalleled ability to hack into computer systems, join forces to solve the 40 year-old mystery of the disappearance of a young woman from one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. During the course of the investigation, they grapple with their own demons.

This book is remarkable not only for unraveling such a complicated and tragic mystery, but also for the powerful character studies, and keen observations of social and family dynamics. This is one book where I’d be hard-pressed to say whether it was more character driven or plot driven. I believe it’s an incredible example of both types of narrative and one of the key reasons this book appeals to a large audience.

guernseyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Shortly after the second world war, writer Juliet Ashton strikes up a correspondence with the residents of the isolated island of Guernsey. She learns about the ordeals of this eccentric group of characters as they coped with the German occupation of their home. Through the letters, these people reveal bare their hearts and express a deep love of the written word.

It’s a deeply moving portrait of a small community of resilient people in the toughest of times. I’m sure I cried over this one and have a longing to re-read it.

naemofthewindThe Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This is the tale of the making of the greatest wizard the world has ever known. Kvothe had humble beginnings as a player in a traveling troupe of actors and then as a homeless orphan in a crime-ridden city, but through a daring bid to enter a famous school of magic, his career begins to take shape. His ambition and hard work bring him a great deal of fame until he commits a crime that forces him to flee as a fugitive.

Not since I first read Tolkien’s book about the hairy-footed hobbit did a fantasy world enthrall me as much as this one did. It’s fully realized with a fascinating society peopled a marvelous array of characters. It’s gritty and shies away from sentimental. It’s downright poetic. I’ve read it twice and expect I’ll read it again.

persepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In this graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi recounds her coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Regular growing pains are tough enough, but they become charged with greater meaning and greater risk when set amidst political upheaval. In her brave voice, tinged with both humor and sorrow, she explores notions of individual and social freedoms, homecoming and alienation.

I am not generally a reader of graphic novels, but I loved this. The narrator’s tone is so candid and so human that I felt a bond with her even though our lived experiences and homelands are so different.

oveA Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is committed to his long-standing principles, impatient with his neighbors, and blunt in his criticisms. He’s also deeply lonely. When a boisterous family moves in next door, we expect him to explode, but they weasel their way into his heart and he into theirs.

I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s one of my favorites and I had to include it here. I adore the old grouch. Behind his confrontational and unpleasant exterior beats a tender heart. His old friends are described in a tender fashion and the new neighbors are so lively, warm and wonderful. I cried my eyes out over this one.

Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green. When attending a support group for cancer kids, Hazel feels a mixture of impatience with the project and pity for her fellow patients. But then something unexpected happens: Augustus enters the room, and with a few incisive words, shakes everything up. Hazel had believed she was good and ready for the end of her story, but this twist recharges her zest for life and love for the people around her.

It was inevitable that I was going to cry my eyes out over The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. There is so much wit and charm oozing out of these characters that you can’t help but become attached. And when the inevitable happens, well, you just have to cry, regretting the loss but cherishing the pleasure of having witnessed something beautiful.


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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week.

This week’s topic is popular books that lived up to the hype.

Austenites: No Need for Smelling Salts

I’m a wee bit possessive about Jane Austen. I often wish her books were my secret, because all the starry-eyed gushing over romance plots and dopey quizzes on facebook telling you which heroine you are most like irritate me beyond belief.

Why would I want to be so selfish? What’s wrong with different people enjoying something at their own level and for their own reasons? In general, the answer should be there’s nothing wrong with people approaching something in their own unique fashion and evaluating it how they will–EXCEPT, that is, when they’re missing out on what makes something extraordinary.

There are thousands of Regency romances. There are thousands of costume dramas (admittedly, there’s only one scene where Colin Firth emerges soaking wet out of a fountain). There are many, many stories inspired by Austen’s works. But there’s only one Austen.

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Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice Photo: BBC

Austen is special because she created the kind of fiction that people have been loving for over 200 years now. We love the romance plots, of course. We also love the characters she brought to life. Even though people dress and occupy themselves differently, those sorts of characters still roam about the world. We all recognize the guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity; the lonely old lady who wants nothing more than some company every now and then; and the reckless young person who is about to get a taste of reality.

She is special because her writing is elegantly restrained, her observations about human behavior are sharp, and, although she can be critical of people, she reigns her observations in with great sympathy.

Given my snobbishness on this subject, I may not have been the best person to review  Miss Bingley Requests by Judy McCrosky. Except I’m exactly the sort of person who would never pass up an opportunity to read something based on Pride and Prejudice. I am Ms. McCrosky’s target audience.

Bingley

The problem with writing a novel based upon such a famous work is the same problem my friend Ted encountered when he was planning his set list for a musical gig. He suggested creating a special arrangement of Strawberry Fields. His teacher tried to talk him out of it. She said, “It doesn’t matter how well you play it. People love the Beatles so much that any other version just won’t hold a candle to the original–at least in their minds.”

Ted played Strawberry Fields anyway and he did a great job. However, he’s not one of the Beatles.

Miss Bingley Requests is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Caroline Bingley’s point of view. If you will recall, Caroline Bingley is the sister of Mr. Darcy’s best friend. She believed that she and Darcy would marry someday because it was the most sensible match imaginable–at least to her. They were connected by friendship and both belonged to the same social class. Much to her confusion, Mr. Darcy doesn’t respond to her flirtations and she finds herself dreaming of another man, Mr. Tryphone.

There’s a lot to recommend this book to a devoted Austenite. First, the author vividly paints the world we know and love and she ties in some of our favorite scenes from the original. It also contains some funny lines and observations:

“Great ladies are like onions,” Caroline said, and then paused for a moment when Lady Amesbury looked puzzled. “So many layers,” she hastily added…

Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to sympathize with Caroline Bingley throughout most of the novel. She is headstrong, blind to obvious clues, and snobbish. The moment when I finally felt like she showed some evidence of her humanity was when she was mortified by her brother’s chastisement. I held out some hope that she would use that feeling to make some changes and find true happiness, but that wasn’t meant to be. Miss Bingley didn’t change one bit.

Those are two faults Jane Austen wouldn’t have committed in her work. Every one of her heroines learns something and makes changes before the last chapter of the book. Even the character Austen thought would appeal to fewer readers–Emma–was cast in a sympathetic light. Emma is egotistical at first, but through a variety of experiences, she is humbled and learns to appreciate people who she once deemed beneath her.

What’s more, for a character who refuses to change, it becomes tedious to read her many expressions of the same sentiments and convictions in the face of ever more convincing evidence that she’s deluded. This is compounded by the fact that we already know how everything is going to turn out. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would become exasperated with her.

At the risk of sounding like a prude, I will also admit that I did not care for the more blatant treatment of sexual attraction in this book. I like a steamy sex scene as much as most hot-blooded women, but when set in the context of an Austen world view, it feels cheap and silly.

“What is it like, Louisa, between a man and a woman?”

Sexual tension was rife in Austen’s books, but it simmered under the surface, it was never spelled out in vulgar fashion. Austen was more concerned with the minds and hearts of her characters, than their bodies.

I really wanted to like Miss Bingley Requests, and did appreciate certain scenes, but I had to slog through it. Fellow Austenites, I’d save your fits of the vapours for other works.


N.B. I received a courtesy copy of this book from Netgalley for an honest review. The publication date is November 23, 2018.

First Line Fridays

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What’s the first line of the closest book to you? Leave me a comment, then head over to Hoarding Books for more great lines from great authors!

“To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.”

~Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist

My first line is from The Longely Polygamist by Brady Udall. It’s a New York Times Bestseller about one big dysfunctional family and its trials and tribulations. Its cast of characters features many eccentric people who, by all accounts, evoke sympathy even though their lifestyle may be far outside what most of us are familiar with. I have only read the first chapter, but am enjoying it thoroughly.

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