Ecstatic Days, Gone For a Week: What’s Your Most Surprising Read?

(Two of the texts we read in acquiring stories for our The Weird antho–now coming out in 2011. Yes, that’s right–Jazz and Palm Wine is an antho of fiction from African nation writers, mostly non-genre, that has a spaceship on the cover! The Japanese antho is an awesome collection from the University of Hawaii Press–their books are highly recommended.)

I need a week off of the internet. Writing fiction is deeply immersive, and the computer and smart phone are fragmenting me too much. So, I’m out of reach of modern tech for a week (if you need urgently to reach me, do so through Ann or the contact form on this site).

Some great stuff is happening that I’ll talk about more when I get back, like Shared Worlds getting an Amazon grant. I’m also really happy about things like the second Apex Book of World SF and discovering this Muslim Steampunk site. Growing up on tales of the exploits of Saladin against the crusaders—which naturally dovetailed while living in Fiji with a disdain for the missionary impulse and our family’s own rebellion against fundamentalist forebears—I got a sudden surge of excitement at the idea of writers using such a rich heritage as a way to come at Steampunk from a radically different direction. It also brought back great memories of reading John Julius Norwich’s books on Byzantium, which do a great job of placing the crusades in the context of Saladin, the effect on the Byzantines, etc.

Mixed in with all of this, too, has been a feeling of being blessed to be writing at a time when there are so many new writers, international/multicultural, engaging with and working in non-realistic modes of fiction. This is all very welcome new energy and new emphasis—-and it, along with what seems like a nascent resurgence of interest in non-traditional narratives from a variety of sources, is a source of rejuvenation for me after a very tough 18 months of deadlines and hard slogs on various projects.

So, now I’m gone for a week…In the meantime, I’d like to know about your most surprising read. Which is to say, in a good way. What book just amazed you and you just weren’t expecting it. As with my prior post, somebody’ll have a box of books shipped to them. (And that person from the last one is: Laura Clemmons.)


  1. Quin says

    The first book that really surprised me was Jeffrey Ford’s ‘The Physiognomy’–I picked it up because it won the World Fantasy award. It was the first fantasy novel I read which was not part of the epic fantasy tradition (and yet it was the opener of a trilogy) and I immediately started looking for more books like it.

  2. Quin says

    The first book that really surprised me was Jeffrey Ford’s ‘The Physiognomy’–I picked it up because it won the World Fantasy award. It was the first fantasy novel I read which was not part of the epic fantasy tradition I was familiar with; I immediately started looking for more books like it.

  3. says

    This book is quite obscure, but: “On Night’s Shore” by Randall Silvis. I got it as an advance reading copy while working at a bookstore almost a decade ago, and didn’t even pick it up for a few days because I expected pretty standard historically-based whodunit stuff (featuring Edgar Allan Poe as a main character, though he’s not the narrator). When I finally did open it to check out the first page and see if I wanted to read any further, the sheer literary talent displayed in the first few paragraphs knocked me out so much that I immediately informed the owner that we must order a copy of the book for the store. This was when I had read about three pages. The whole book is great, though; it sustains its literary and narrative quality throughout. It’s a shame more people haven’t read it.

  4. James Kenyon says

    All the novels by Jeffrey Barlough amazed and surprised me. “Strange Cargo” in particular had a lush, intimate prose style, illluminating a marvelously conceived alternate reality. Warm, cozy characters with a Dickensian familiarity, and a steam-punk lifestyle gave great satisfaction to this reader. I expected a simple formula fantasy, and found a compelling other world along the “long coast”. Hop on a mastodon and ride away!

  5. Ronald Morton says

    This book is very well known, so a quick caveat: I pay attention to a great many review sites but I typically only read the first and last couple lines of reviews to avoid any spoilers, to the point that I usually buy books to read without even the most basic idea of it’s plot. In keeping with that I don’t read the dust jackets of the books I read either, I just buy books off of a list that I keep with me at all times and trust that they will be good.

    Incredibly long caveat out of the way, the most surprising book I’ve read in recent memory is China Mieville’s “The City and The City.” The idea behind the book itself is stunning, but the way in which the cities are written and executed still leaves me a bit awed. I actually frequently recommend this book to friends who are avid readers, but I always tell them that they should read it without knowing anything about it. A book that truly reminds me why I love reading, especially reading sci-fi, as much as I do.

  6. says

    When I was a freshman at UT and was in Honors Western Civ (now, appropriately redesigned and renamed as World Civ to reflect a much-needed change in focus), I was assigned to read and write a paper on Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. That was the book that opened up so many possibilities for me that I eventually switched my focus to cultural history. Just thought of that when reading the comment about “the resurgence of non-traditional narratives,” as quite a few of the “new social histories” and cultural histories of the past generation or so have emphasized those new narrative approaches.

    Now if you want a surprising fiction read, it would be Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch in English).

  7. Ben Jones says

    I’m looking forward to seeing more Muslim Steampunk, and the blog post you linked to certainly has my curiosity stoked. The idea has some precedent in The Years of Rice and Salt, but that just scratches the surface, I’m sure.

    As to the question, I remember that John Kessel’s Good News From Outer Space knocked me for a loop. My parents sent it to me, and I think I put it aside for quite some time before reading it. The story is told with a sense of humor, as you might expect from the title. What’s surprising is the way the apocalyptic sci-fi element melds so well with the small scale love story.

  8. Laura says

    Cool! Thanks for the books. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them :) Since I won the last one I disqualify myself for this one. I still want to comment though.

    It’s difficult to pick a single surprising book. There are a few that stand out in my mind. At about 10 or 11 years old I picked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Count of Monte Cristo at random off my parents’ book shelf. I was bored and desperate for something to read. I fully expected not to like either one since my previous experience with parents’ books was one of Mom’s “historical” romances which I just didn’t get at that age (honestly, I still don’t). I fell in love with both and immediately devoured everything I could get my hands on by Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas. No more Encyclopedia Brown for this girl!

    Most recently I think my biggest surprise was Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I expected to enjoy the book since I enjoyed Snowcrash and Diamond Age. I didn’t expect it to ignite my mind the way it did. His books usually spark my creative streak but this one prompted me to download some of the open source math and science textbooks to brush up on math and science skills. A year later I’m still checking out physics books from the library :) It’s rare to come across a single book of fiction that can change the way a person thinks and prompt them to improve themselves.

    The other big recent surprise was Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six. This collection of short stories blew me away.

  9. says

    My surprising (and highly recommended) read would have to be Moby-Dick. I read it as a chore, expecting florid prose and numbing nautical detail. Nobody told me it would be funny! Even the nautical detail is a joke: the narrator is a hopeless bookish sort, thrown into this harsh life at sea, and so he tries to cope in the way he knows best: by cataloguing. He catalogues whales according to the sizes of their bindings (folio, octavo, etc), and also according to the schools of philosophy their heads (hanging beside the ship and reeking to high heaven) best represent. Even the ending, and the narrator’s survival, is a (somewhat monstrous) joke.

    There’s stylistic experiment (one chapter is given as a playscript, including a song-and-dance number by the crew) and fans of the Weird should definitely check out the chapter on the malevolent associations invoked by the Whiteness of the Whale. But the biggest surprise was simply how often I laughed out loud.

  10. David K. says

    This year the book that surprised me the most was John Joseph Adams “The Living Dead” collection of short stories. Was expected some cheesy zombie fun, but it was so much more than that. Easily one of the best short story collections I’ve come across. (Also in the zombie vein, S.G.Browne’s “Breathers” is an instant classic.)

  11. says

    Thanks for the Muslim Steampunk mention.

    My first hope2be novel is set just a little before Saladin’s era, in 1148/9, but if I ever get as a far as a sequel, I want to do “Saladin gets dirigibles”! I’m in the middle of researching the science of the era, and it is indeed quite exciting – plus I’m discovering that there is far more to premodern Islamicate science than I imagined. Check out

    Fingers crossed, if the interest is out there and I deliver the goods, the book should be on the shelves by 2013, insha Allah.

  12. says

    Yakoub–oh sure! I was also (just!) able to get a mention of you and your website into the Future chapter of The Steampunk Bible, out from Abrams next year. I wish I’d encountered the site sooner, but at least we were able to get a mention in.

    I’ll definitely check out the link–very cool stuff.


  13. Sam Goodspeed says

    Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk was a remarkably stirring read. It’s the closest I’ve come to reading a story set in reality since I was 13, and yet it has a complete otherworldly vibe to it. The mixing of poetry with prose and the artfulness of his detailing all make it a quintessentially moving horror read.

    I guess when I first started it I was expecting dark comedy, an impression I got only from his book’s movie adaptations. So to find such a stirring tale of human deceit and self-destruction really knocked my socks off.

    Also, I had no idea the cover glowed in the dark. Waking up in the middle of the night with a glowing, screaming face looking up at you is a big surprise.

  14. says

    My most surprising book, not in a good way, was Forrest Gump. I had seen the movie and wanted more. The movie was a wonder to watch, a feel-good romp. The book was about a foul-mouthed simpleton who stumbled his way into various situations (including becoming an astronaut!) in about 3 pages per adventure. I was very surprised that such a good movie could come from such a horrid book.

  15. PhilRM says

    Most recently – Nick Harkaway’s “The Gone-Away World”. I had vaguely heard of it, but I was just completely blown away by its exuberance, inventiveness, and Harkaway’s almost flawless juggling act in managing to be funny, tragic, heart-rending, and uplifting – sometimes on the same page. It’s the kind of novel where you sit there reading with a big grin on your face, thinking “This is frakking AWESOME!”. You also have to admire him for sneaking an unabashed, unapologetic science fiction novel past a mainstream publisher.

  16. says

    I’ll go with “On the Road”. I had in my head this vision, from all those turtleneck-wearing finger-snapping cartoons and sitcoms of the sixties, of beatniks: too cool for school, detached and smooth, ironic and laid-back. I took “On the Road” with me on a long bicycle trek, and since Kerouac is the poster child for the beat generation I was expecting to find dry, wry detachment and irony between its covers. Instead I found a great exuberance, a joyous shouted love for traveling and everything and everyone encountered while traveling. When he meets a Minnesotan, man, wow, this guy is THE Minnesotan, and what an amazing thing it is to hear his big voice come booming out! When he gets a piece of cherry pie, or when the sun comes up, or when he hears the raucous gusty sounds coming out the windows of a juke joint, it’s all distilled pieces of America, little pure bits of naïve patriotic joy. It was invigorating.

  17. says

    Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction. I picked a battered copy up at a university bookstore for a dollar. Never heard of Dodge, had barely heard of Thomas Pynchon (the blurber). Now, it’s my favourite novel. Very rarely have I gone into a novel completely blind and been so gobsmacked that it stayed with me for decades. I seriously considered using “Daniel Pearse” as a pseudonym at one point.

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