Top Ten…Er, Top Eight Tuesday: Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list ten books we read in the last year or so that are outside our comfort zone. A simple enough question, but looking at the list of books I read over the past 15 months or so, not an easy one to answer. I don’t spend a lot of time reading outside my comfort zone, probably because the last few years reading has seemed like a struggle, so when I read, I don’t want it to be a challenge. Whatever book I pick up, I want it to be THE book.

That said, I do try to get outside my comfort zone now and again. None of these books are a huge stretch, but they are outside what’s been my more typical fare lately, which I guess I’d call modern literary fiction with a twist.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Assassination Vacation

Unfamiliar Fishes

Nonfiction. I read very little nonfiction, but in 2015 I read three books I’d normally not pick up: I read Into Thin Air because my mother (cough**book pusher**cough) kept insisting that I read it. She said it was terrific. In this, she was correct. I read Assassination Vacation as part of an effort to read from the TBR pile. I picked it because I bought it in 2005 and you know, figured it was time. I loved the way Sarah Vowell writes so much that I immediately bought two more of her books (thereby thwarting my efforts to read what I already had) and followed up Assassination Vacation with Unfamiliar Fishes, a book about the colonization and eventual statehood of Hawaii. (And weird aside: I kept picking up books last year that took me to the South Pacific during times of exploration and colonization: this one, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams. I highly recommend all three, and reading them close together gives you a rich experience.) I have Lafayette in the Somewhat United States sitting on my bedside table and am hoping to read it soon.

Big Little Lies

The Husband's Secret

Chick Lit. I don’t know. Maybe the “chick lit” label isn’t completely fair to Liane Moriarty. She’s just this side of writers like Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah, or Paula Hawkins, only because she deals more in the domestic space and focuses less on mystery. Either way, she has a razor-sharp way with characterization that makes her books compulsively readable. I liked Big Little Lies the best, but they were both solid efforts and would be perfect travel or beach reads.

The Signature of All Things



Historical Fiction. Okay, first: look at those covers! So gorgeous! Second: do you ever decide that you just HAVE to read a book RIGHT THIS SECOND? That’s what happened to me last year with The Signature of All Things. The joke was on me, because the used copy I bought turned out to have a whole set of pages missing in the book’s final section. Lucky for me, the people at Viking are wonderful and when I tweeted about the problem, they sent me a new copy immediately. This story of a female botanist in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries was absolutely captivating–the characters, the narrative, the science all swept me away.

The same thing happened to me with A.S. Byatt’s Possession—I decided I just had to read it so I bought a used copy. I think I should note here that while plenty of things are outside my wheelhouse, probably nothing is further than Victorian poetry. But this story of two modern scholars uncovering the mystery of a relationship between two Victorian poets through their poems, letters, and journals was outstanding.

Landfalls I bought for two reasons. First I read this post on the author’s blog about the origins of the story (I found the blog via an interview with the author, but I’ve lost that link), which starts with a map she believed was the San Francisco Bay but turned out to be some other place altogether from an Eighteenth century expedition that was ultimately lost. Second, even though I’m terrified of the ocean, I’m completely fascinated by maritime exploration during The Age of Discovery. I was so excited to discover this book that I pre-ordered it, and I was not disappointed. Told from various points of view of people on board the two ships that took that fateful journey, Landfalls is completely absorbing. This was Williams’s first novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

What genres are most outside your wheelhouse? Do you read historical fiction? If so, give me some recommendations!

32 thoughts on “Top Ten…Er, Top Eight Tuesday: Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

  1. The genres outside my wheelhouse tend to be contemporary romance/chick-lit, fantasy, and anthologies. Mm, but historical fiction fits right into my “Nope. Nu-uh. Not happening” category. LOL.

  2. Yay for “Into Thin Air!” I became obsessed with everything Everest after reading that last year (though I will never… ever get into mountain climbing. That’s a big nope.)

  3. You had me at Sarah Vowell. I love love loved her book of essays, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I admit I’ve had trouble with some of her other books, but since her topics are outside my general comfort zone, I need to try again.

  4. I read one of Sarah Vowell’s books years and years ago, but this reminded me that I need to read her again – thanks!

    Also, yes, I do sometimes read historical fiction, and I wholeheartedly recommend the book The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. I listened to the audio book version, read by the great Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey, etc,) and it was fantastic.

  5. The Signature of All Things was one of the best books I read last year – I LOVED it! And, I can’t wait to read Landfalls. I love historical fiction when you pick the right books. A few I have loved: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett, A Measure of Light by Beth Powning, All True Not A Lie In It by Alix Hawley, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, The Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning, and The Outlander by Gil Adamson.
    Will that do for now?

  6. Your list contains so many books that I intend to read this year. Thank you for this.

    Usually, romance doesn’t agree with me. But, I threw caution to the wind, and read ‘Me Before You’ last week. I didn’t have a lot to complain. 🙂

  7. SciFi and Scary, I know there’s plenty of terrific historical fiction out there, but a lot of it seems to veer toward romance. That’s definitely not my thing.

  8. Lauren, not that I ever wanted to try mountain climbing before reading that book, but after reading it you can be sure there’d be no way in hell.

  9. Andi, I don’t have that one! I need to get it. I loved Assassination Vacation so much. At least two parts in the book had me laughing so hard I was in tears.

  10. Laila, that book sat on my shelf for 15 years…so sad! I have two more of her books on my shelf to read, and I’ve promised myself that I’ll get to them this year. I love her humor, and the fact that I’m also learning interesting things. I would give anything to be able to write like that!

    Thanks very much for the recommendation of The Chaperone! I remember being intrigued by that one when it was first published, but it fell of my radar. Adding to the list now!

  11. Naomi, oh I love The Signature of All things so, so much! You should have seen me when I turned the page and realized a hole section was missing. I’m excited for you to read Landfalls, especially since you also like Andrea Barrett! I’ve read Ship Fever and Servants of the Map, and I’ve had The Voyage of the Narwhal on my Amazon wishlist forever. Thanks for reminding me! The only other one that’s familiar to me is The Good Lord Bird, which I have marked to read already. (Weird fact: I just looked up Gil Adamson and she wrote a fan bio of Gillian Anderson called Mulder, It’s Me…random!) I’m adding all these others. As slow as I read that should keep me busy until 2018. 🙂

  12. Deepika, so many people who don’t care for romance have really liked Me Before You. Maybe I’ll have to give in and read it, after all!

  13. Nonfiction made my list as well. I really enjoyed the Jon Krakauer books I have read. I have heard good things about Sarah Vowell, but I have yet to read anything by her. I love historical fiction, but I don’t read a lot of it. That was nice of the publisher to send you a new copy of the book! Twitter has it’s good uses! 🙂

  14. Wendy, I highly recommend Assassination Vacation. It’s quite funny and interesting. Unfamiliar Fishes is a bit more serious in tone, but absorbing because she covers so much Hawaiian history.

    Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by Viking. They responded right away…I had the new copy within days!

  15. Ha! I didn’t know that about Gil Adamson – weird.
    I want to read Ship Fever, but my library doesn’t have that one, so I haven’t read it yet. At some point I’ll request it.
    I really didn’t want The Signature of All Things to end. I wanted more! Which is why I asked for recommendations for similar books at the end of my review. I think that’s when I found out about Andrea Barrett. And there were some more good suggestions that I haven’t read yet.

  16. Ah, I loved Into Thin Air! I also thought Under the Banner of Heaven by Krakauer was excellent (and disturbing) as well. I tried Unfamiliar Fishes recently as an audiobook, and it just did not work for me, but maybe the print version would be better. The narration (by the author) was just so weird. I love the Liane Moriarty books too, and I refuse to call them chick-lit! Landfalls sounds fascinating. I need to find a copy! I do love historical fiction. A few I’ve enjoyed recently are The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

  17. I always think I don’t love historical fiction, and steer clear of it, but then, some of my most favorite books are historical fiction. Have you read anything by Mary Renault? She writes historical fiction set in ancient Greece; The Mask of Apollo is a particularly superb one, though a bit slow. Ummm, Sarah Waters you’ve surely read, Wolf Hall ditto (did not expect to like it; loved it), maybe a bit of MM Kaye? If you’re in the mood for something swooshy and epic, her book The Far Pavilions might be a fun read.

  18. Naomi, I didn’t want it to end, either. Gilbert really surprised me–I honestly did not expect her to be such a fantastic writer. I can definitely see re-reading that one, though. I loved every second of it. I’ll have to check out what other recs you got at the end of your review!

  19. Lisa, I have Under the Banner of Heaven and Missoula on my wishlist. I think Krakauer is a great writer. I also like the way Vowell writes. I’m not sure Id like those books as audio books, either (but then I have a hard time concentrating on audio books, anyway). Funny about Liane Moriarty! She does deserve better than the chick-lit label. For the historical, I’ll have to check out the first two you mention, but I’ve definitely had All the Light We Cannot See on my list. So many people love that one!

  20. Jenny, you hit the nail on the head. Honestly when I hear “historical fiction” I think of Georgette Heyer and Philippa Gregory (I haven’t read either author and am in no way trying to criticize their work!), but just…historical romance but more literary. It’s funny you mention Mary Renault because I was just looking at The King Must Die. And why do I always forget to classify Sarah Waters as historical fiction? I’ve read four of her books and loved each one, but I think of her as writing literary fiction.

    In the mood for something swooshy! I love that! I’ll have to check out The Far Pavilions.

  21. I adored Possession! I have The Husband’s Secret in the 746 and have tried to read it a couple of times but never got past the first few chapters. Maybe I should persevere?

  22. Cathy, it did take me a little longer to get into The Husband’s Secret, and overall I liked Big Little Lies Better. I’d say stick with it through 6 or 7 chapters and see what you think.

  23. You’ve listed lots of fantastic books here! They’re not really outside my comfort zone as I love a survival story and the science aspects of The Signature of All Things persuaded me to overlook the historical fiction genre. I loved The Husband’s Secret too!

    I haven’t tried Sarah Vowel yet. I’ve seen her mentioned a few times, but your double mention is really tempting me. Which one should I try first?

  24. Jackie, it was the science aspect that drew me to The Signature of All Things, too. Well, that and the pretty cover.

    For Vowell, I’d start with Assassination Vacation, definitely. It has an interesting and fun premise, and it’s funny.

  25. I avoid alllll of these genres haha. The Hunt for Vulcan made me change my mind about nonfiction, and now I want to read Into Thin Air and Assassination Vacation. I was also really into Burial Rites, which was historical fiction, but I’m still wary. Maybe I’ll give Landfalls a try bc I’ve only heard good things. Not sure if I’m ready for chick lit, though, haha.

  26. Julianne, I loved Burial Rites. For some reason, though, it didn’t stick in my head as historical fiction. I’m starting to realize that what I think of as historical fiction is something only slightly more literary than bodice-rippers, but obviously I am very wrong about that. Landfalls is a terrific read. The thing about reading about maritime explorers is that it has the feel of science fiction. These people had no idea what or who they would encounter…it’s very much like Star Trek. and yeah, I hear you on the chick lit, but I did enjoy Moriarty. She has a great way with characters.

  27. Possession is such a beautiful book! I find I am reading a lot more fantasy these days, which I thought was outside my comfort zone, but it turns out I really love fantasy!

  28. Lisa, Possession was so beautifully done. What book got you into reading fantasy? That’s definitely way outside my comfort zone!

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