Taken By Surprise

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60One of the best features of belonging to a book group (or in my, perhaps extravagant, case, three book groups) is that just occasionally you are taken completely by surprise by someone else’s selection of a book that, left to your own devises, you would never have chosen to read.  This has just happened to me in respect of my Wednesday Morning group where the choice for March is Nevil Shute’s 1949 novel A Town Like Alice.

For no really good reason (i.e. I know nothing about his work and therefore don’t really have a right to have an opinion) I have always consigned Shute’s work to the internal shelf marked ‘romantic novels, not for me’.  Consequently, when this turned up on the group list I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it.  How wrong can you be?  It is, as one member of the group said, quite simply a good old fashioned read.  Shute doesn’t try to do anything clever with his narrative; he simply sets out to tell a first-class story about characters with whom the reader will be able to empathise.  I have spent the weekend laughing and crying my way first around the Malay peninsula during the Japanese occupation, then followed by the Australian outback in the years immediately after the Second World War and I can honestly say that I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a long time.

This set me thinking about other books that have similarly taken me by surprise.  Watership Down was one.  I mean, Rabbits?  And One Day (another book group choice) had much more substance to it than I was expecting.  So, with apologies for a very short post today, it having been an unexpectedly difficult weekend, I thought I would ask you to share with me your own surprise reads.  After all, it might just be that you recommend another of those books that I am sure simply isn’t the one for me and start me down a whole new path of enlightenment.


34 thoughts on “Taken By Surprise

  1. I read A Town Like Alice several years ago and was also pleasantly surprised. Yup, every once in awhile my pre-formed ideas get a shake-up. Anne of Green Gables was like that for me, as was Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons). Classics work that way for me far more often that contemporary works – but certainly not always.

    1. Thanks, Becky. I’ve always loved the two books you mentioned. The joy, of course, of discovering the first book of a series is something you really do like after all is that you have the rest of writer’s work to follow up with.

      1. LOL because the two books, Anne… and Cold Comfort Farm, both have sequels which I’m nervous about reading for fear they won’t live up to the joy of the first. I want to continue them, though – maybe Christmas time for the Gibbons ( the setting is Christmas) and who knows for Anne?

  2. You have so many great books to discover, with Nevil Shute! Not that you asked for recommendations, but if you’d like to read more, I’d recommend Pied Piper (another World War II story).
    With books that took me by surprise, I’d say Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, alt-history (the Napoleonic Wars with dragons) – I resisted those for a long time.

    1. Someone else mentioned ‘Pied Piper’ at the discussion yesterday. If the library has a copy, this is definitely going onto my list.

      1. Pied Piper and The Far Country were my favourite Shutes when I read them all a couple of decades ago!

  3. Sadly, I can’t think of a book that’s taken my by surprise but there is one that has vicariously surprised me and I plan to read it soon. It’s From Here to Eternity which a friend told me was the best thing she’d read in a long time and she’s a bookseller! Not sure if this counts.

    1. I tried it – got to the end of part 1 after 170 pages with 750 still to go, and lost the will to go on… just too much description. I hope you have a different experience!

    2. Now that is another book that I’ve avoided, Susan, for pretty much the same reason I avoided ‘A Town Like Alice’. So perhaps I should be adding that to the tbr list too.

        1. The writing was superb, it was just too much, too much detail, too intense, too much male-bonding (or not). I stopped before it starts to get possibly more interesting – when the main character embarks on an affair with an officer’s wife… just couldn’t face a whole 900+ pages though in the end.

    1. It’s like getting an unexpected present, isn’t it Ali? Especially when you really didn’t expect to enjoy it in the first place.

  4. I think the book that most took me by surprise recently was a factual – The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein. I was expecting a worthy tome about how to protect rare species, and it is. But it’s also delightfully written, hugely optimistic and full of totally infectious enthusiasm. In my review I said I felt like I’d been taken on a wonderful holiday with a great guide, and a year on I still look back on it as if I’d actually been on a round the world trip and seen some of these wonderful places and creatures for myself.

    1. I think the joy of finding a non-fiction book that gives you a really good read is even more than a fiction book for me, partly because it is such a much rarer experience.

  5. I am very bad at picking up books out of my comfort zone, but the one that comes to mind is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I picked up simply to see what the book that had some much attention was about and ended up loving.

    1. I browsed through that, Jane and decided it wasn’t for me, but it was nothing more than a quick browse, so perhaps I should go back and give it a second chance.

  6. Last week I stayed up until 2.30am reading the latest Jojo Moyes novel – The One Plus One. I read very little of this kind of fiction, but I was grabbed by this one.

    1. Now that is something I would never have thought of trying, Annabel. That tbr pile is going to become a mountain range before much longer.

  7. Shute is someone whose books deserve more attention – I loved On the Beach and No Highway (just make sure you are not sitting on a plane when you are reading the latter, or just about to catch a flight). As for surprises, Crime and Punishment was something I approached with some nervousness thinking it would be hard going, ‘serious’ Russian stuff but I was rivetted by it.

    1. I had the same experience with ‘War and Peace’, Karen. I read it on my journey to and from work one winter and frequently only just realised that I was about to sail past my stop.

  8. Like you I have always consigned Neville Shute to some cupboard of old-fashioned books that deal with experiences I’ll never relate to. Hmmm, sounds like that opinion needs a drastic rethink – and I love it when that happens! I think there must be loads of books in this category, but the one that comes to mind immediately is Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. I avoided it for YEARS, thinking it would be gruesome and depressing. Instead it became one of my top ten favourite novels, though I don’t imagine it’s everyone’s cup of tea. Quite possibly avoiding it for a long time is one of the key factors to enjoying it! 🙂 Do hope the issues of the weekend are fading and the week is looking more peaceful. What is UP with the universe lately? Things do seem unnecessarily hard. Big hugs to you and The Bears.

    1. I love ‘The Plague’ although whatever prompted me to read it in the first place I can’t begin to think. Shute is definitely of his time and you have to read him with that in mind. But, if you just want a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling than you couldn’t ask for better.

  9. I’ve only read Shute’s On the Beach and I liked it quite a lot. I have to put in a good word for Watership Down, good book. You will never see a rabbit again and think, “oh what a cute bunny!” I am at a loss for the moment about books I have been surprised that I liked. I am sure there are several but my brain likes revisionist history so goes back and tells me I have never been surprised by liking a book only by not liking one.

    1. You are so right about rabbits. Mind you, I don’t have young shoots for them to eat. The friend with whom I had lunch on Monday had an entirely different point of view when I pointed out the rather large specimen bouncing over her garden in the direction of her spring sowing.

  10. I reread Watership Down last summer while sitting and watching our newly acquired pet bunnies. He is just spot on with their mannerism and the book is so cozy and enjoyable, yet thought-provoking.
    I have a hard time too coming up with surprises but I think Virginia Woolf surprises me. I keep thinking she is extremely difficult yet I have loved the two books I’ve read by her.

    1. Which Woolf have you read Christina? She does change style as she goes through her career so if you’ve only read the early novels you may find the later ones more challenging, I know I do.

  11. I feel like this happens to me a lot. I was surprised when I discovered the LOTR books in my middle school library. I was surprised when I read To the Lighthouse for my comprehensive exams in grad school and loved it. Most recently I was surprised when I read Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World.

    1. I still have problems with the later Woolf but I haven’t read ‘To The Lighthouse’ so perhaps I should try that one and see if I too am surprised.

  12. Many of my very favorite books mentioned here already (including various Neville Chute, Watership Down, The Plague, War and Peace). I am sure you have already read Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows, but if not, absolutely essential and amazing! Two high-canonical books I read in this spirit, thinking “oh my god, how come nobody told me these were GREAT, great in the lovely sense rather than the canonical”: Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick! (Particularly the latter – I am not keen on Conrad, and vaguely thought Melville must be similar – I WAS QUITE WRONG!) BTW Knausgaard is absolutely amazing if you have not already dipped in – ditto the War and Peace effect, where one imagines it might be a duty read and it turns out to be absolutely gripping.

    1. I read War and Peace one winter Jenny, when I had a forty-five minute journey to work. It got me through a full four months of travelling.

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