A summary of my foray into mega-popular books and what I learned from them.
Some time ago I set out to cleanse my palate by reading a collection of extremely successful books.
Books I read
From my original list I successfully read (links to my reviews):
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner (11,198 reviews). Awful.
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (57,762 reviews). Compelling.
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (14,300 reviews). Delightful.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (43,944 reviews). Depressing.
- The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2,876 reviews). Entertaining.
Books I didn’t read
I failed to complete All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (27,246 reviews). Yes, it was a beautiful and poignant book about war and humanity and all that, it just didn’t interest me very much.
From my original list I didn’t get around to reading:
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (13,807 reviews)
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (34,735 reviews)
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (14,849 reviews)
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (18,198 reviews)
More books I read
In addition to my original list I read:
- Divergent by Veronica Roth (44,508 reviews)
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (7,721) – in fact, I started and finished this book yesterday based on Sacha Black’s recommendation.
- Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. A woman who forgets everything about her life each time she goes to sleep starts keeping a journal to piece together who she is. Great writing and I never saw the twists and turns coming.
- All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. A woman returns to her hometown ten years after leaving it and just in time for a young woman to disappear in a case somehow linked to the disappearance of the woman’s best friend ten years earlier. The two weeks after her arrival are told backwards. A great story, but narrators who withhold information and are deliberately evasive make my teeth itch.
- Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult. A fourteen-year-old girl is raped. The story tells the aftermath. Jodi Picoult’s books are usually highly enjoyable, but the story in this one didn’t ring true to me. Plus, I worry its message is dangerous.
- Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. The story of a school shooting told from both sides. The classic Picoult twist at the end didn’t seem believable.
- My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. A younger sister conceived to be a donor to her terminally ill older sister sues her parents for the rights to her own body to deny her sister a kidney. I was waiting for a twist at the end and I got two. One made sense. The other devalued what had come before.
- The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
- Keepers by Sacha Black
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. A little girl grows up in Germany during the war. Lots of people die. It’s very sad but the writing is gorgeous.
- Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
- The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. A charming old man tells a young woman he was once a Nazi and asks her to kill him. I was so proud that I guessed the twist coming at the end of this book. A powerful and beautiful book that almost made me want to bake bread.
- Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult. This is the book that got me hooked on Jodi Picoult and so far it’s been my favourite of hers.
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I admit I only made it halfway. The mystery was solved and all the tension dissipated so I stopped reading.
- Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
- Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. A girl who’s allergic to everything lives cut off from the outside world until she falls for the boy next door. A sweet book, but the ending made the whole thing a little silly.
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. A dead bazillionaire leaves the key to his fortune in the virtual reality game he created. I almost gave up at one point because of all the game culture references, but I powered through and was glad I did. I just wish the main character wasn’t so dislikeable.
- Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas. This book didn’t leap out as anything special, but it was an entertaining enough fantasy.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
What I learned from reading so many mega-popular books
The point of reading so many popular books was to learn something about what makes them so popular. A few things leap out.
Most of the books pose a strong story question early on and don’t answer it until the end. Will they fall in love? Will she be deported? Who killed the vicar? Will he win the fortune? Who dunnit? Where is her mother? Will she kill the Nazi? Did you ever see an elephant fly? Can the innocent girl sign Christian’s contract?
Most of the books are imminently readable. My average reading time was a couple of days, and there was no slogging through dense prose.
Many of the books painted unique characters, wove in a distinctive setting that illuminated the theme of the story, took us on a foray into some odd corner of life such as baking in a commercial kitchen through the middle of the night or dog sled races, and provided an unexpected twist at the end. (Yes, I’m particularly thinking of Jodi Picoult for many of these.)
No, there’s no bestseller formula here. Did you really expect one?
What I plan to read next
I’m not entirely done with popular books, but I do notice I’ve read few recently in the genre that I write, fantasy. You can’t write well in a genre you don’t habitually read, they say.
So my next plan is to do the same with popular fantasy titles.
I confess to a certain amount of trepidation as I start down this route. I enjoyed the readability of the popular non-fantasy books, and I know a lot of fantasy books are longer and denser.
Don’t get me wrong–I like long and dense–but I also like readable.
Stay tuned for my list of popular fantasy books to read.
Which of these books have you read? Did you learn more than me from them?
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