Over the years, we’ve written countless reviews of books that captured our hearts. Digging through the Off the Shelf archives, we’ve rediscovered some special reviews that deserve another shot in the spotlight. The books below are ones that hooked us right away. They carried that special something, whether it was an intriguing premise, a mystery that begged to be solved, or mystifying prose that pulled us in like a magic spell. We hope you find them just as captivating.
“I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.” These are brilliant geneticist Don Tillman’s first words to the reader. The “Wife Problem” is not a euphemism for a genetics study or even a personal problem with his wife; no, Don’s “Problem” is that he doesn’t have a wife. Most people would just say “I’m single,” but Don Tillman is not most people. The protagonist of Graeme Simsion’s romantic comedy THE ROSIE PROJECT is the most refreshingly unique, honest, and hilarious character I’ve read in a long time. I don’t generally read romantic comedies, but this one stole my heart right from the first paragraph. Read more of Sarah Jane’s review
The international bestselling romantic comedy “bursting with warmth, emotional depth, and…humor,” (Entertainment Weekly) featuring the oddly charming, socially challenged genetics professor, Don, as he seeks true love.
The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.
Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.
Arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional, Graeme Simsion’s distinctive debut “navigates the choppy waters of adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, with a fresh take” (USA TODAY). “Filled with humor and plenty of heart, The Rosie Project is a delightful reminder that all of us, no matter how we’re wired, just want to fit in” (Chicago Tribune).
A good book should draw you in right from the start. I’ve always felt that way, both as a reader and as a writer. There are simply too many good books in the world—and too little time—to spin our wheels delving into something that doesn’t hook us. That’s why THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE by Heather Gudenkauf is still so fresh in my mind. The book starts with the seeds of a mystery, piquing the reader’s interest immediately. Who is the little girl the narrator is talking about? What’s she doing running through the woods in her nightgown? And why hasn’t she said a single word in the last three years? But these bread crumbs that Gudenkauf scatters for us don’t captivate on their own. What captured my attention from the very first sentence was the unusual choice to begin the story in the second person. “Louis and I see you nearly at the same time,” the novel starts, as the chapter’s narrator speaks about the mysterious little girl by talking directly to her. That sort of thing doesn’t often work, but by the time I’d read the first two pages, I was enthralled. Read more of Kristin’s review
When I went to Washington, DC, to visit my college roommate, I was a terribly rude houseguest. I blame Laura McBride. It’s not my fault that I started her novel IN THE MIDNIGHT ROOM on the bus ride and was so spellbound by the beautiful and compelling story that I couldn’t put it down all weekend. At the heart of the novel is June, a young Jewish woman who abandons her roots and settles in Las Vegas with her husband, Del, and their son, Marshall. Together they open a new nightclub called El Capitan, which flourishes thanks to June’s instinct for hiring amazing talent. But when she becomes involved with Eddie, an exquisitely talented African American singer she hires to entertain the segregated audience of the Midnight Room, June sets in motion a series of events that will change not only her life but the lives of the three other women, too. Read more of Taylor’s review
“If McBride is trying to prove—that if you change one life, you change the world—she succeeds magnificently.”—Booklist
From the author of the acclaimed novel We Are Called to Rise comes a “jewel of a novel” (BookPage) about four vivid and complicated women in Las Vegas whose lives become connected by secrets, courage, tragedies, and small acts of kindness.
Fun-loving and rebellious, twenty-one-year-old June Stein abandons the safe world of her New Jersey childhood for edgy 1950s Las Vegas. For the next 60 years, June will dare to live boldly. She will upend conventions, risk her heart and her life, rear a child, lose a child, love more than one man, and stand up for more than one woman.
June’s story will intertwine with those of three unlikely strangers: a one-time mail order bride from the Philippines, a high school music teacher, and a young mother from Mexico working as a hotel maid. Knit together around June’s explosive secret, they forge a future that none of them foresee.
This jubilant, compassionate novel explores the unexpected ways that life connects us, changes us, and even perfects us. A powerful story of lust and of hope, of redemption and of compassion, In the Midnight Room is a smart, sagacious novel about womanhood, family bonds, and how we live in America now.
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” That’s how one of my favorite novels begins. WAITING is a story about a man in love whose good intentions are foiled by government bureaucracy. Lin Kong spends eighteen years applying again and again to divorce the wife who lives thousands of miles away, a woman to whom he is bound by an arranged, loveless marriage. He wants to marry the woman he loves, but even though he and his wife haven’t had relations in years and she consents to the split, getting divorced in the new China isn’t so simple. Improbably, author Ha Jin makes a story about inaction compelling. Manna is a woman waiting for the man she loves to divorce his wife; Shuyu is waiting for the day Lin Kong succeeds in divorcing her; Lin Kong is waiting for the divorce to go through; and in portraying their inability to act, Ha Jin captures the dilemma of ordinary people who let the best opportunities of their lives go by. Read more of Helen’s review
One of the best things about independent booksellers is their spot-on recommendations, sending a title your way that might otherwise have escaped your eye. One such novel for me was THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! But let me tell you, after I’d read the first few pages, it was an instant love affair. All you need to enjoy this story is an appreciation for strong female characters and a sense of humor. In fact, I challenge you to find a more endearing, crotchety, undaunted heroine than seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance, who sets sail on a cruise against her better judgment. THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! (based on the TV show This Is Your Life) is both a rollicking ride through old age and a heartrending tale of a woman who discovers that the family she has devoted her life to is not, in fact, what it seems. You’ll cheer for Harriet from beginning to end, even as the book’s narrator counsels her, much like the show’s host, Ralph Edwards, himself: “This is your life, Harriet, what it’s become. But do not lose heart. Things will get better . . .” Read more of Wendy’s review
Mary, also known as Caroline, also known as Louise, is a woman on the run. What is it, exactly, that she’s trying to escape? Let’s just say it involves the Vietnam War, Dow Chemical and other purveyors of harmful materials, the Beach Boys, the FBI, and maybe, just maybe, a couple of youthful miscalculations. Dana Spiotta’s riveting novel EAT THE DOCUMENT, a National Book Award finalist, spans the underground movement of the early 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the late 1990s. As the multiple narratives come together, the book pulls at you—calling you back until you’ve made it to the end. Read more of Chris’s review
In Kate Zambreno’s GREEN GIRL, Ruth is a young American expat living in London and working at a store she calls Horrids (more affectionately known as the iconic London department store Harrods) selling a perfume named Desire. She lives with her best friend, Agnes, a seductive and obnoxious Australian redhead who dresses like Golden Age movie stars and is always calling things “BIZ-arre.” They go to movies and clubs, groom themselves in front of their mirror, and seek out the attention of men who are generally pretty awful and/or mundane. At one point Ruth dates a Horrids coworker she calls “holy boy,” a genuinely sweet guy who worships her and tells her stories about suffering female mystics, but she grows bored and dumps him, then subsequently quits her job. That’s pretty much the gist of GREEN GIRL, as far as plot goes. We follow Ruth as she goes about her daily routine, toggling between wanting attention and shunning it, fighting boredom but seeming to sink willfully into depression. We watch curiously and often cringingly as she stumbles along the path to becoming someone. That might sound boring, but trust me: GREEN GIRL is impossible to put down. Read more of Meg’s review
After listening to multiple people rave about this memoir for months, I decided to try the first chapter. Turns out I didn’t need a whole chapter. I felt my life shift from the very first sentence. “‘Dying isn’t the end of the world,’ my mother liked to joke after she was diagnosed as terminal,” Nina Riggs writes. “There are so many things worse than death: old grudges, a lack of self-awareness, severe constipation, no sense of humor, the grimace on your husband’s face as he empties your surgical drain into the measuring cup.” I suppose you could add fear of dying to that list, and Riggs confronts that fear head-on in her memoir. In THE BRIGHT HOUR, she celebrates the last two years of her life, choosing to embrace her experience with cancer and celebrate the bright moments shining through the dark. She finds joy in her family, in beach vacations, in books, in changes in the weather, in gardening, and in music. While writing about dying, Riggs really writes about living. It’s an understatement to say that I loved this book. Read more of Taylor’s review
If you need a good reason to miss a few social functions in the next week or so, pick up NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl. Once you dive into this literary thriller, you may find yourself skipping all your commitments just so you can keep reading. It’s that good. Never sure who was telling the truth, including the spectacularly unreliable narrator, I was pulled from scene to scene in a daze, not quite ready for what was around the corner. In this complex story, journalist Scott McGrath’s career and marriage is ruined by a libel lawsuit over comments he made about the reclusive horror-movie director Stanislas Cordova. Now the director’s daughter, a former piano prodigy, has died a suspicious death, one that’s officially labeled a suicide. McGrath is drawn in by his hatred of Cordova and his desire to clear his name. As he attempts to learn the truth about the apparent suicide, he’s pulled into an ever-deepening morass of maybe-clues and possible leads. Reality starts to become an elusive commodity as the lines between science and mysticism are increasingly blurred. McGrath finds himself in a shadow world, as frightening and unsettling as a Cordova movie, and seemingly just as controlled by the mysterious man. Read more of Becky’s review
Photo credit: iStock / Nutthaseth Vanchaichana