Top 5 Books that Exceeded Expectations

I’m back for another Top 5 Tuesday post! Once again, this one’s hosted by Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm. This week’s prompt was a bit challenging because I couldn’t think of just five books, so I whittled it down by choosing the five books that exceeded expectations and the ones I loved so much that I plan to reread them. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (2016)

The Hating Game

My bar for contemporary romance isn’t even high in the first place, but WOW did this exceed expectations I didn’t know I had! It has all the romance tropes I love – enemies to lovers, witty banter, a quirky heroine and a straight-laced hero, bed-sharing, and the game motif – and it did everything right. It made me laugh, it made me sigh, it made me giddy, and it made me believe in the contemporary romance genre again. I hold any book in the genre now to this standard.

Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990)


Whenever I read literary books, there’s a tiny part of me that still feels like I’m “obliged” to do it – obliged to be more understanding of it, more deferential, more patient with the author’s formal experiments and meandering prose – so that at the end of it all, I can feel proud that I’ve conquered another literary work, even if I hadn’t exactly enjoyed it.

Not so with Possession. Possession is one of those literary works that’s also a romance and a thriller – if you can imagine a thriller set in academia, with two scholars of two dead Romantic poets as the protagonists. Plus, this is also a book-within-a-book, where we have the main narrative alternating with the trail of letters and documents left behind by the dead poets that our protagonists follow in order to unravel the real nature of their relationship. This book was magical and transporting, compulsively readable, and intellectually rewarding to read.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)

the secret history

Yes, this is the second book on this list set in the academe, and yes, I’m nuts for books set in the academe, especially if they promise dark undercurrents. This was one of those books that just hit the right notes for me – the discussion on the classics (even if I didn’t understand any of the Greek stuff), the group of brilliant misfits, the exploration of the repercussions of good and evil. This was also a startlingly insightful character study: Tartt’s characters are unlikeable and many times unsympathetic, but I was helplessly drawn into their orbit anyway, seduced, like the narrator, by the group’s air of brilliance and exclusivity. I was morbidly fascinated and invested in these characters until the bitter end, even when all their relationships with each other turned poisonous. This was another addictive page-turner that I’d recommend to anyone who’d appreciate its darkness.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The signature

Like I mentioned in my review on City of GirlsI honestly wasn’t expecting a lot from Gilbert in the first place, so I was genuinely surprised by how much I loved this one. The Signature of All Things is a historical saga spanning most of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it vividly portrays American society and the world caught in a whirlwind of change. It touches on the issues of women in science and of being an unattractive and intelligent woman; it explores the wider issues of colonialism and scientific discovery. Breathtaking in scope without sacrificing intimacy of detail, reading The Signature of All Things was a transcendent experience.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

A Tale for the Time Being

This is a very dear book. In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth, in present-day Vancouver, discovers a lunch box with some letters and a diary written by a certain 16-year-old Nao from Japan. I was more invested in Nao’s story, to be honest, but I remember finishing this book feeling like I had a lot to think about – especially about our existence in space and time. In the story, the author had also experimented with the notion of novelistic time by introducing the idea of parallel universes. It fell a little short in execution for me, but it’s definitely still worth the read.

Topics for Top 5 Tuesdays this February

Have you read any of these books? What books have exceeded your expectations? Let me know in the comments!


7 thoughts on “Top 5 Books that Exceeded Expectations

  1. Possession and The Secret History are both in my top books of all time (that aren’t smut), and I also thought Tale for the Time Being was really really well done. [Sidenote: last time I reread Possession, I was utterly tickled by all of the index cards that our protagonists carried around all the time.]

    Since we clearly have the same taste, I guess I should give that Gilbert a go? I thought Eat, Pray, Love was EXECRABLE.

    1. Wow, I’m glad you liked those too! And yes I do remember the index cards bit. Around the time I read Possession I had a lit prof who made us use index cards for research so it made me feel legit.

      Now excrable is a word I have to use more often! I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, but I disliked the entire concept of it from the start so I never bothered. I found Signature of All Things on the remainders table, and bought it based on the first lines: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. Swiftly—nearly immediately—opinions began to form around her.” I ended up reading it into the early hours of the morning, so I’d definitely recommend it. It had some dubious mystical parts but not enough to deter me from the overall story.

  2. I was not enamoured with A Tale for the Time Being (and I agree that the execution there could have been better), but I definitely agree with you about The Secret History. It was published in 1992, right? or your dates reflect when you read the books or books were re-printed? It was also very interesting to read your opinion of The Signature of All Things. To be honest, I kept moving this book in and out of my TBR list for years, and never quite settled on whether I want to read it. You have persuaded me that I should give it a go.

    1. Oh, I usually indicate the date of original publication, but I didn’t notice that for Secret History I put the date on my copy! Sorry for the confusion. I’m glad to hear that The Secret History worked for you! The whole dark academia thing is really something that appeals to me—was that what you liked about it too? Oooh, I hope you’ll enjoy Signature of All Things as much as I did. I liked that it covered a number of settings and touched on themes that were relevant for its century (colonialism, women in science, religion and progress, etc), so it was one heck of a ride. 🙂

      1. Thanks, I will definitely be reading The Signature of All Things now 🙂 And that is exactly what I liked about The Secret History too – “the whole dark academia thing”. Have you read “If We Were Villains” too? It has exactly the same element going on.

  3. Not yet, but I’ll definitely be checking it out! I don’t think I’ve read enough books that satisfy my dark academia craving. Thanks for the rec! And if you do get to read Signature of All Things, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. 🙂

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