Life is full of surprises, but for avid readers, a genuinely unexpected twist is rare. After a while, the startling becomes predictable, the out-of-left-field ho-hum. We recommend these books for readers who are in desperate need of a shock—and these aren’t spoilers, because there’s no way you’ll see them coming.
I’m not much for “gotchas.” Often when a book takes a long time to reveal its twist, I feel a little let down—either with myself for not seeing it coming, or with the author for trying to trick me. But when a story starts with a twist—or in the case of Waking Lions, two twists—I’m on the hook, as every page after such a destabilizing opening could shake things up even more. Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel opens with the accidental death of an Eritrean immigrant, run over by an Israeli neurosurgeon’s SUV during an after-hours joyride in the desert. The next day, the dead man’s wife arrives at the doctor’s doorstep, having found his wallet beside the body, and blackmails him into tending the wounds of Eritrean refugees in a hidden desert location. The twists roll on and on in this provocative blend of thriller and social novel, its velocity never dropping, its controlled tension mirroring the ups and downs of a heart monitor.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Being BookPage’s mystery and suspense editor is a blessing and a curse. I can spot a disappointing ending a mile away, but I’ve also developed an unfortunately strong sense of pattern recognition. Superfluous character who is frequently mentioned or somehow involved in the plot? J’accuse! All this to say, I thought I had Leigh Bardugo figured out. I thought Ninth House, a wintry fantasy-mystery set among Yale’s secret societies, would be one of those books to which I would correctly guess the denouement but would enjoy regardless. As it turned out, Bardugo is smarter than I am. She planned for readers like me, and I fell for it hook, line and sinker. The rapt, breathless joy I felt upon realizing what her real game had been all along was one of my favorite reading experiences of last year.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
Nonfiction books don’t usually have twist endings—at least not in the conventional sense. When I finished Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, however, I reacted as I might have to a particularly startling mystery—gripping the page, mind reeling, trying to grasp the unexpectedness of its conclusion. The book is composed of 17 snapshots from the author’s life of all the times she’s had brushes with death: meeting a murderer on a trail in the woods, a childhood illness, a speeding car that clipped her side, dysentery, three near-drownings, the perils of childbirth and more. These encounters ebb and flow over the course of the book as mortality approaches and recedes again in the rearview mirror. By the penultimate chapter, O’Farrell’s relationship with death reaches a crescendo, and I thought to myself, How could a close call get any closer? But keep reading. As it turns out, death has been just out of frame the whole time.
—Christy, Associate Editor
The subtitle of Emily Jenkins' unbelievably charming collection of stories about a little girl's toys is “Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic.” Plastic takes center stage in the story “The Serious Problem of Plastic-ness,” in which she is dismayed by a book left lying open on the girl’s bedroom floor. Plastic is unable to find herself among the animals depicted in the book. Her distress increases when she reads in the dictionary that plastics are “artificial,” which “doesn't sound nice at all.” Only after a long talk with TukTuk the yellow bath towel (who has seen “a lot of strange behavior in her life as a towel”) does Plastic realize her identity. Jenkins has marvelously concealed key details about Plastic before this point, so the revelation of Plastic's true form feels like a delightful surprise for both Plastic and the reader.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Any reader of Atonement knows that British writer Ian McEwan is not afraid of a story-shaking ending. For admirers of that book, or any novel that sticks a difficult landing, his 2012 novel, Sweet Tooth, is a treat. In the early 1970s, fresh out of Cambridge, Serena Frome is recruited for the British secret service. An indiscriminate speed-reader who believes “novels without female characters were a lifeless desert,” Serena is assigned to recruit writers for a cultural propaganda campaign by posing as the representative of a literary foundation. This rather low-stakes spy game (which unfolds against an equally mundane, grounded portrayal of 1970s Britain, with its energy and labor crises) rolls out as planned—until Serena falls for one of the novelists. If you think you know where this is going, well, you’re not exactly wrong. But McEwan leverages the fungible line between fact and fiction and the power of stories, steering us toward a surprise ending that casts in a different light all that came before.