Over the years, we’ve written countless reviews of backlist gems and classics that captured our hearts. Rediscovering them in the Off the Shelf archives is always a lot of fun, especially when we notice patterns, like reviews with the common theme of surprise. But why tell you what we mean when we can show you? The books in this review roundup blew our expectations out of the water, whether it was because the stories were profoundly different from what we’d been told or because they were instant favorites that we hadn’t expected to love with quite such fervor.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to recognize something of yourself in a book. It’s an even stranger and more wonderful thing to recognize your own feelings in a character with whom, at first glance, you have very little in common. While the circumstances of my own life aren’t much like those of Aaron, the main character in Lori Ostlund’s AFTER THE PARADE, I was amazed at how clearly I understood him, and how relatable he seemed to be. I found myself both nodding along with Aaron’s observations about people and at the same time feeling astonished at how astute his observations were. Read more of Allison Har-Zvi’s review!
I love when a novel surprises me. Myla Goldberg’s BEE SEASON has a quiet cover, plain red with a white circle reminiscent of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. It starts quietly as well, with an eleven-year-old winning her class spelling bee. When asked about how she structured the novel, Goldberg said in an interview with Grendel.org, “I did write it very consciously to get darker and stronger as it continues. I wanted it at first to be [a] sunny, happy . . . read, and to lull people into this sense of complacency and then hit them over the head.” As I read BEE SEASON, I was pleased to find just that; what begins with a child’s small victory leads to the unraveling of a family. Read more of Sarah Jane Abbott’s review!
“When asked about how she structured the novel, Goldberg said in an interview with Grendel.org, ‘I did write it very consciously to get darker and stronger as it continues. I wanted it at first to be [a] sunny, happy . . . read, and to lull people into this sense of complacency and then hit them over the head.’ As I read BEE SEASON, I was pleased to find just that; what begins with a child’s small victory leads to the unraveling of a family.”
If you’d asked me what I thought life in 1937 Shanghai was like, I would have told you in all sincerity that I had no idea. And yet I must have had some conception of China before WWII, because Lisa See’s SHANGHAI GIRLS promptly blew them all away. She immerses us into a gay, glittering, cosmopolitan city dubbed “the Paris of Asia” and into the lives of two privileged sisters, Pearl and May Chin. They stand as an emblem of modern China; while their mother grew up in an era of foot-binding, they are employed as “beautiful girls,” the local term for fashion models. Their smiling images are on everything from calendars to advertisements. Lisa See is a master of transporting the reader to an utterly unfamiliar place and time, immersing us in unexpected details and making us reconsider our preconceptions about the past. Read more of Kim Wright’s review!
Once every several years I get hit in the face and heart and soul with a book that overrides the electrical circuiting in my brain. HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon is that cerebrum hijacker. It is one of the most vital pieces of nonfiction I’ve encountered, full of the productive personal and political truth-telling we seek out in stories. Whenever I think of the bravery, sincerity, and honesty living in these pages, my heart walls swell and cave under the pressure as my mind yells Now you! I will preface this review by saying that reading HEAVY is not easy. It is hard work dealing with hard subjects and hard truths. It is a challenging exercise in confrontation and discomfort, but rewarding in its goodness. It leaves you happy/sad, all-around tender, and wanting to hug your loved ones. Read more of Ana Perez’s review!
Reading THIS BURNS MY HEART was an astonishing experience: I’d been prepped for a “good” novel following a wife’s unhappy marriage and dreams of love and success. I was not prepared for the breathless emotional journey of an extraordinary woman whose hard-fought aspirations are called violently to a halt. A character filled with so much nuance in her longing and love, your heart yearns and breaks alongside hers. Pages rich with historical setting, detailing the rapid changes in post-war Korea and the resulting friction between tradition and modernity. A mother’s deep well of sacrifice and the drama of acknowledging the ties that bind. Read more of Elizabeth Breeden’s review!
DELANCEY is the memoir of a young woman and her decision to open a restaurant with her husband in Seattle. Picking it up from my bookshelf, I was expecting to find the kind of feel-good but ultimately frivolous narrative that often characterizes writings on food. Instead, I found myself captivated by Wizenberg’s poignant and poetic voice. As she explains: “If it were all really that straightforward, if Brandon and I had both homed in on food from the get-go, and if he had known that he would be a chef and I had known that I would someday own a restaurant with my chef husband, this would be a boring story, and I would not be telling it.” Read more of Hilary Krutt’s review!
Molly Wizenberg, the voice behind the popular, James Beard Award winning food blog, ORANGETTE, recounts how opening a pizza restaurant sparked the first crisis of her young marriage. DELANCEY is a funny, frank, and tender memoir that explores the meaningful moments where food and life intersect.
One of the great things a novel can do is surprise you. Descriptions of Mohsin Hamid’s EXIT WEST told me that it would be about a young couple escaping an unnamed Muslim-majority country via mysterious doors. Reviewers said the book was timely and political, touching on war, religion, and the immigration crisis. All of this interested me and made me want to read the book. However, I was surprised and delighted to find that it was an incomplete description of this slim, brilliant novel’s scope. The book is about a chaotic and divided world, but it is also about the timeless, universal things that human beings share. Read more of Max Meltzer’s review!
When I first picked up THREE THINGS ABOUT ELSIE, Joanna Cannon’s sophomore novel, I was not expecting to be so deeply affected by the world inside Cherry Tree Accommodation for the Elderly. It is a charming suspense novel, yes, but it is also a heartwarming and profound treatise on lifelong friendships, bravery, and aging. I found myself thinking about this book long after I turned the last page, pondering my own lifelong friendships, and wondering about the lasting power of stories and what happens to truths that get left unsaid. (And immediately after finishing this book, I called my grandparents and my best friends.) Read more of Emily Greenwald’s review!
I finished Kent Haruf’s absorbing, finely crafted novel OUR SOULS AT NIGHT in tears. It had pierced my heart, where there are no words. To my husband’s bewilderment, all I could manage was wow, wow, wow. I wish I could write like that, I said. I wish my stories could make readers cry. The story unfolds in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where Haruf’s earlier novel, PLAINSONG, was set. From the first page, the fresh breeze of a distinctive, clear voice wafted through me. I welcomed a break from the hard-edged, twisty psychological suspense novels I’d been devouring. I was in the mood for a lightweight read, but Haruf’s spare prose is a deception, subterfuge. His gentle lullaby lured me in, keeping me comfortable and complacent before delivering a powerful emotional wallop that I didn’t see coming—a punch to rival any plot twist in any thriller. Read more of AJ Banner’s review!
Seventy-year-old widow Addie Moore makes a surprising proposal to her neighbor Louis Waters, a 70-year-old widower. What follows is the engaging story of two isolated people finding solace in each other’s company, falling in love, sharing memories, and reflecting on their lives—their joys, regrets, fears.
Read our review of OUR SOULS AT NIGHT here.
Photo credit: iStock / Ylanite Koppens