I look for two things when I’m picking out a book: a great love story, and a pretty-much-guaranteed happy ending (known to most as HAE). I like true love, hot make out scenes and more sweet moments than soul-wrenching angst. I’ve even been known to read the last page of a book first, just so I know where the story is headed. If it ends in tears and death, I’m probably not reading it.
There are exceptions, of course, and books I love that make me sob buckets of tears (The Fault in Our Stars, anyone?) or that challenge me more than the average mass market romance. But for the most part, I see reading as an escapist hobby, one I choose to find pleasure in rather than pain. That’s why I mostly stick to a few specific genres: romance, new adult and young adult novels.
This might sound boring to some, or too cheesy to others, but everyone has their preferences. Some of my friends only read serious nonfiction biographies about dead presidents, while others love mystery novels starring a strong female lead. There’s no accounting for taste, and I learned long ago to stop apologizing for mine.
But like I said, sometimes I find myself stepping outside of my comfort zone and reading a book that is neither happy, nor focused on romance. While my list of favorite books includes mostly romantic reads (shocker!), there are a few on there that surprise even me. Here are four of those unexpected reads that somehow snuck their way into my heart:
Bone Music, Stephen Cramer (Trio House Press, 2016)
I enjoy poetry, but I hardly ever read it for fun. As far as I’m concerned, beautifully spun verses are more inspiring than entertaining, and I often find myself tossing a poetry book aside after a poem or two in order to focus on my own writing. But Cramer’s latest book of poetry is a rare exception. The poems are lovely, lyrical and feel more like music than words on a page. “Bring on winter, bring on/disease, & rot & fracture,/because the more broken/we become, the more music/we can spin out of our bones,” Cramer writes in the book’s titular poem, referencing the fact that 1950s Russian hipsters would copy banned music onto discarded x-rays. I can’t decide which is better: the story or the words that Cramer uses to capture it. But that’s just emblematic of the depth and beauty of Bone Music, which is why this is one of those rare works of poetry that I know I’ll read again and again.
It Was Me All Along, Andie Mitchell (Clarkson Potter, 2015)
Memoirs can be hit-or-miss for me. Usually it’s only a very juicy tale that will entice me into trying one, and I tend to enjoy it more for voyeuristic reasons than a true love of the story. That’s definitely not the case with Mitchell’s well-crafted memoir. In it she explores what it’s like to grow up overweight, how her tumultuous childhood influenced her binge eating, and the hollow confidence that came from losing over a hundred pounds. But it’s not just a book about food: Mitchell is candidly honest about her love life, her relationship with her parents and her quest to find a fulfilling career. I read the entire thing in about two hours and left feeling like I had made a friend. This is the perfect memoir for anyone struggling with food issues, or for anyone who just loves a well-written story.
World War Z, Max Brooks (Broadway Books, 2006)
Despite loving all things romance, I do have a strange soft spot for post-apocalyptic fiction. I don’t read it too often though, as that kind of angst can wear a girl out pretty fast. World War Z is my one exception; I read Brooks’ novel last year and I’ve already reread it twice. Instead of the gory brain-eating and terror of a traditional zombie novel, Brooks examines what a zombie epidemic would look like on a global scale. Presented as an oral account, the story is told in an interview style, which introduces us to characters and experience from all over the world at different points of the outbreak. There are moments that are horrifying, sad, disgusting, but also uplifting and redemptive. This is by far my favorite zombie novel and a must read for anyone who is looking for a creative post-apocalyptic tale.
The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead Books, 2013)
While I do love historical novels, I tend to stick to ones with a strong romantic storyline. But everyone was raving about The Painted Girls when it came out three years ago, and I decided to give it a shot. I’m so glad I did. Buchanan’s second novel tells the story of three sisters who grow up in the slums of Paris in 1878. Ballet represents an escape, as does posing for the artist Degas. Each sister has her own path to take, some tragic, some successful, but it was writing that pulled me into this beautifully told story. Lush, descriptive, engaging –- I could not put this book down. It might not be a guaranteed happy ending, but this is one surprising story that I’m very glad I read.