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.

harry potter

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.


top-ten-tuesday-new

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.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

60931If you were to hand me Kindred and tell me to shelve it in the appropriate section of the bookstore, I’d be stymied. It defies categorization. While it’s often billed as the first science fiction written by a black woman, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is a novel of rich literary complexity written by a black woman; however, it’s not exactly science fiction. One of its key elements is time travel, but the book provides no pseudo scientific explanation for how that occurs. Kindred is more accurately an amalgamation of fantasy, historical fiction and slave narrative. It’s a unique and powerful story about power.

Dana, the main character, is a 26 year-old woman living in California in 1976. She has a white husband, aspires to be a writer and works degrading jobs to make ends meet. Ironically, she and her fellow temps refer to the staffing agency as the “slave market.”

One day, without any warning, she is thrust back in time to antebellum Maryland. There, she rescues a young white boy from drowning and faces down the barrel of a shotgun. Abruptly, she ends back in her own time and place. Over and over again, she travels back and forth between the two times, each time to rescue the same young man, who she learns is a slaveholder and her distant relative. She grows to understand that she needs to keep him alive long enough to father her great-grandmother.

While I had an academic understanding of how awful the treatment of slaves was, this book made me feel it on a more visceral level. Dana often admits that she, a modern woman, does not have the fortitude to endure what many of the slaves took for granted. You or I might think to ourselves, I’d never put up with that. I’d run away. The book makes it abundantly clear how impossible that would actually seem to a person caught in that world.

Kindred also explores how there can be a strange mixture of love and hate for someone who has absolute control over your life. At times, Dana experienced maternal and sisterly feelings towards the slaveholder. Many other times, she struggled with her revulsion and her need to comply.

Notably, Dana’s mission in the past was not to undermine the oppressive system. She had to endure it, like so many before her. The experience changes her utterly. It complicates her relationship with her white husband, and her family and friends. A piece of her will always be left in the past–as I think is true for anyone with such a traumatic and dehumanizing heritage.

“I began writing about power because I had so little.”

~Octavia E. Butler

Curious about Octavia Butler? Here’s a great piece on her in the Independent. An aunt told her “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately for us, she ignored that advice.