Feb 26 2011 5:00pm

You Stole My Heart: Surprise Fiction Favorites

Every time you open the cover of a new book and start reading a brand-new story, you have certain expectations. To be entertained, to have a happily ever after (if it's a romance, that is!), and to be left with a smile after reading the last line and closing the cover. As a romance reader, I think you also expect to swoon at the hero and his incredibly romantic ways and to root for the plucky heroine because she deserves love so much more than any other girl in the story.

But occasionally, you read a story that, after you've read the last line and set the book down on your nightstand, makes you pause. You pause because something in the story blew you away. It exceeded all expectations; you tell all your friends and the Twitterverse about this book. You try not to give any spoilers away, but it's like not telling your best friend that you've just won the lottery. A couple weeks later, you're still thinking about the book and you need to reread it. Five years later, you still think about it, still reread it occasionally, and you've given away so many copies you can't count. These are the books of your heart, that shape and mold you, and for some, the books that will inspire you to become a writer yourself. I call them AWEsome books.

One of the first AWEsome books I read was To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker. This is an epic novel of over 600 pages, and I devoured every single one of them. Several times, in fact. The story follows four generations of a French family. The setting is mainly Versailles, and the protagonists are all intertwined with the French monarchs of their time from 1664 to the 1790s. The ending takes place during the French Revolution and focuses on Marie Antoinette. Not only did this book entertain me, it inspired me. I could smell the orangery, feel the lush fabrics of heavy dresses, and see myself dancing in the Hall of Mirrors. When I finished it, I had a voracious need to devour everything I could on Marie Antoinette, Versailles, and the French Revolution. I was reading history books and memoirs—vastly different from my normal taste in reading. To this day, I have a great love of all things Marie Antoinette and Versailles. And this past summer, one of my dearest friends visited Versailles and sent me back a compact with Marie Antoinette images. To hold something in my hand that came from Versailles made my breath catch!

Intensity by Dean Koontz

About ten years ago  good friend of mine told me to read Dean Koontz's Intensity. I laughed and replied, “I don't read those slasher books!” Realizing, however, that I sounded like those snobby people who scoff at my beloved romance novels, I decided to give it a try. How bad could it be, right? Cracking open this book, my expectations were pretty low. I hoped to make it through without covering up my eyes. But there's a reason this book is titled Intensity—it’s intense! I was on the edge of my seat reading this book. I couldn't put it down. My breath was held and my heart was pounding the entire time. By the time I was finished, I was hooked on “boy books.” That experience taught me to broaden my horizons and to stop judging a book by where it was shelved.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series was definitely AWEsome for me. A local bookseller recommended One For The Money; she said that if I liked fun books, I would love this. So, off to my library I went to check out this new author. Holy cow! I think I sped through One For The Money in three hours. I was howling with laughter. My sides hurt, my eyes were watering, and my husband was looking at me like I'd lost my mind. At the time, only eight books were out in the series and I read them all over a weekend. For me, each one was more hilarious than the next; not only were these books entertaining, they were honest-to-goodness hysterical. Even more important than that, though, they introduced me to heroines who weren't from the picture-perfect Barbie mold. Stephanie Plum was a lot like me. She messed up. A lot. And she had a family that she wished she could hide.

These are just three of the many books I've read that have blown me away. Have you ever read a book that beat all of your expectations and surprised you?

Stack of books image courtesy of msbhaven via Flickr

Kim Castillo loves happily ever afters and books of all kinds, and she thinks everyone should always have a teetering to-be-read pile. She also has the most awesome job in the world working with many of the authors she adores. She can be reached by email at kimscastillo at gmail dot com.

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1. EvangelineHolland
I must second your recommendation of Laker's To Dance With Kings. It is monumental in scope, yet incredibly sensual, emotional, and realistic, and filled to the brim with historical detail. I am forever amazed by Laker's skill for weaving real-life historical events and people into her fictionalized universes, and how utterly romantic, even heartrending, the relationships are. She's been a favorite author for nearly ten years.
Charli Mac
2. CharliMac
I am so picking up To Dance With Kings. I tried a Stephanie Plum but couldn't get into it.

I still pick up The Outlander from time to time and re-read my favorite scenes.
EC Spurlock
3. EC Spurlock
Emma Bull's books do that to me; they are few and far between but they always blow me away. I read Territory not long ago and when I finished it I looked at my husband and said, "That book was so good I wish I was still reading it." It's one of those books that can never be long enough, rich with historical detail and fascinating twists on that history in equal measures.

I agree, Dean Koontz is fantastic but I can't take too much of him at a time, even though the darkness is usually overcome in the end. I had issues with Janet Evanovitch (maybe because Plum reminds me too much of people I grew up with and dislike, and her setting is too close to the world I ran away from) but Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books had me rolling on the floor. You have to pay attention to everything in them, every name and every detail, or risk missing out on his meticulous British humor.
Rachel Hyland
4. RachelHyland
Thank you for the enthusiastic recommendation of To Dance With Kings! It has been on my TBR pile for a while, and now has made it... well, if not to the top, at least much closer.

I loved the line: "These are the books of your heart, that shape and mold you..." For me, I think the romances that did that are Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, Kay Hooper's Hagen Series -- sigh, I still miss Loveswept --and pretty much anything Heyer-ish. True, the works of Roger Zelazny, John Christopher, Lloyd Alexander and David Eddings (and a host of other SFF geniuses) also had a hand in molding me, but that's another story.

@ 3. EC Spurlock

Couldn't agree more on Jasper Fforde! I just finished my ARC of the upcoming Next novel, and can I just say: bring your brain. Preferably supercharged with some kind of powerful guarana/ginseng/wheatgrass blend and after a few of Edward de Bono's mind training seminars. It's so confusing, and yet so much fun! Never have I been more grateful to be so utterly bewildered. The earlier books in the series were not exactly easy, but this one... on such a whole new level, it's practically Inception-y.
EC Spurlock
5. EC Spurlock
@4. Rachel

Lucky girl! :-) Now you've got me even more excited about the next Next!
Kim Castillo
6. Kim Castillo
Thanks, EC, for the Emma Bull rec. I haven't read her yet but will defintiely check her out.

Hey Rachel--thank you so much! I hope you enjoy To Dance with Kings.
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