Top 5 Books that Weren’t What I Expected

Hey guys! Every Tuesday this February, I’ll be doing Top 5 Tuesdays, hosted by the wonderful Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm. Today’s topic is the top 5 books that weren’t what I expected. The way I see it, this can go two ways: a book wasn’t what I expected in a good way or in a not-so-good way.

In the case of the former, I was happily misled by the synopsis through the author’s use of an ingenious plot twist; but in the case of the latter, I was misled by the synopsis in a way that made me want to demand my money back. (Luckily, there’s just one of that on this list.) Regardless, I did my best to make my write-ups as spoiler-free as possible, since the pleasure in reading these books is precisely the feeling of surprise.

Anyway, let’s get to it!

Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)


This is the only book on this list that was unexpected in a not-so-good way, and the only book that’s a sequel. I had such high hopes going into this, too, since the first book, Annihilation, was easily a 5-star read for me. In Annihilation, an expedition is sent to the mysterious and unpeopled Area X, a geographical location that has been cut off from the world for decades. The catch? None of the previous expeditions came back alive – or if they did, they were never the same.

I can’t rave about Annihilation enough. It was page-turning, adrenaline-pumping, skin-crawling, and hallucinogenic; every single scene worked to forward the plot, and so was packed with action or suspense. The only downside to it was that it ended on a cliffhanger (understandable, I guess), so I couldn’t wait to read Authority. 

I was expecting this to pick up where Annihilation left off – as the sequels do, and as the synopsis alluded at. I expected that we’d finally know more about Area X, and what happened to the scientists who went on the expedition. But instead, Authority was basically a rehash of Annihilation from the point of view of a new character that I could really care less about. Instead, Authority consisted of people filing a ton of paperwork and making dead-end guesses. It had not a single iota of the action, suspense, and lush landscapes of the first book. Even when I finally found a semblance of plot in the last thirty or so pages, it still wasn’t worth slogging through 300 pages to get there. It was a complete letdown that discouraged me from even finishing the series.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019)

How to Do Nothing

I’ve seen a number of people giving this two stars or less because they expected it to be a self-help book. Originally, even I was expecting it to be self-help-y – the title does place it among the ranks of Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less or Eyal and Li’s Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I was expecting an informal tone, a couple of lists, and a couple of fallacious causal claims about how doing nothing can actually increase your productivity.

Turns out that this book is nothing like that. Odell’s writing here is accessible but dense – closer to a slightly dumbed-down academic essay than a blog post – and instead of advocating hacks to productivity, she actually questions the very imperative to be productive in the first place. She draws from an astonishing variety of examples and disciplines to make her points – art, psychology, ecology, and women’s and labor rights – and articulates possible modes of resistance against the current capitalist ethos by reclaiming spaces for thinking, reflecting, and ‘doing nothing’. This was a tough but ultimately rewarding read. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for critique of the ‘down with capitalism’ variety, then I can’t recommend this enough.

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller (2004)

What Was She Thinking?

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] is told from the perspective of schoolteacher Barbara Covett. Barbara intends her notes to be a defense for her colleague Sheba, whose affair with an underage male student had just been uncovered by the media. The frame had led me to believe that this was a story about how Sheba’s affair had been exposed, but further into the story, I realized how it really was about Barbara’s relationship with Sheba – and how it becomes more and more insidious the more she reveals more about Sheba’s affair with the student. This was a chilling read that I couldn’t put down until the very end.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

Gillespie and I

Gillespie and I is told from the point of view of the elderly Harriet Baxter, who is writing a memoir about her acquaintance with the talented artist Ned Gillespie and his family. The bulk of the story is set in the late 1800s, so it has a bit of a Jane Austen feel. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but there was an unexpected twist halfway through the novel that upended everything I knew about the first half and recast all the events thus far in a new light.

This novel also hit all the right spots for me – it had both vividly-painted characters and a very tight and clever plot that made it as compulsively readable as a thriller. I usually stay up late reading, but this was one of the novels I remember reading until the sky lightened. A really fun page-turner that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys good writing and being surprised by a story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I saved this for last because this novel is very close to my heart. I don’t usually cry while reading but I was moved to tears while reading this one. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is told from the perspective of Rosemary, who has progressively transformed from a talkative child to a silent and reticent young adult after her sister, and then her older brother, vanish one after the other. Again, I can’t say much without giving it away, but it’s been hinted in the synopsis that there’s something special about her sister Fern, and the surprise consists in finding out what this is and what became of Rosemary’s once happy and boisterous family. This was a heart-rending novel about family and the power of love to transcend all kinds of divides.

Topics for Top 5 Tuesdays this February

Have you read any of these books? What book have you read that wasn’t what you expected? Let me know in the comments!


11 thoughts on “Top 5 Books that Weren’t What I Expected

  1. I really like Annihilation (and adore the film adaptation), but I’ve heard such mixed things about book 2 that I’ve always put off reading it. It seems a very odd creative choice to have such a huge tonal shift mid-series…

    1. “Odd creative choice” is a wonderful way to put it, and it is! Authority was basically filler for me. I’m guessing the author meant to portray the more bureaucratic and political aspects of the operation behind the expeditions, but what happened was that his writing also took on a vague and convoluted quality, just like his subject matter. I haven’t watched the movie—would you say that it was close to the book or that it stands on its own right? 🙂

      1. It’s a rare example where I actually enjoyed the movie more than the book! It’s very faithful to the setup and overall tone, but it takes things in its own direction and is absolutely able to stand on its own. I’d highly recommend checking it out since you liked the book so much! 😊

      2. Wow, a film adaptation better than the book! Now that is something worth seeing. You’re the second person in the past few months to recommend it to me – I think it’s a sign. I’ll definitely check it out. 🙂

  2. I actually thought Authority was really effective – it definitely reads differently than Annihilation does, but I found the slog of paperwork built up the stress for me almost as effectively as the creepy moss monsters.

    I haven’t read any of the others on this list, but they all sound intriguing. Adding some of them to my library list for next time I feel the need to branch out from romance. 🙂

    1. Oooh, I didn’t realize that sort of build up could work for other people! Guess I was disappointed since I was expecting more of the creepy moss variety, but glad it worked for you. Yay! If you ever do get around to reading them, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

      1. I mean. Annihilation was definitely better, but I hated Authority less than a lot of people seem to.

        And I definitely will! Talking about books is half the fun of reading them. And I bug my husband much less these days gushing over all the things I read because I have found other people to gush at.

      2. Yes! That’s why I’m so glad I found your blog – I’m a closet romance reader irl but here I felt like I can finally flaunt it.

        Ha, I always chuckle at the posts ft. your husband. He sounds so long-suffering in them.

      3. Hahaha, he really is. Though he nerds out at me about British history on the regular so he really shouldn’t complain.

        (And don’t get me started on Erin’s poor husband, who features less frequently but is probably even more long-suffering.)

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