Miss These Quirky Novels at Your Peril

Trust these 7 not-yet-blockbuster novels to provide many kinds of reading joy.

Posted Jul 09, 2015

Shared by thesaint/freeimages.
Source: Shared by thesaint/freeimages.

Certainly, some blockbusters are worthy of their near-universal acclaim. So many lesser known authors, though, don't get found by as many readers as they deserve. I love some of those the most.

The seven terrific novels rounded up here are worthy of your time, each one offering superb writing and absorbing stories to sink your teeth into.  

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango, a German screenwriter, is a wittily wicked psychological mystery. The protagonist, a bestselling author whose impossibly supportive wife has written all his books, gets away with more than one murder. He's so asocial and conniving, that it's hard to root for him. Still, the writing is so darkly amusing, the plot so well-constructed that we're compelled to keep reading. 

Aquarium by David Vann is so good that I don't want to give away any of its secrets. It's a novel about love, growing up and growing wiser, and family in several of its more confounding configurations. In turn poetic, moving, and surprising. The four main characters evolve in front of our reading eyes, sometimes in unexpected ways. I often eschew so-called coming-of-age stories, but this one deserves a niche of its own. Vann is an award-winning and marvelously empathetic author, and Aquarium, for me, is an unforgettable story.

Motherland by Maria Hummel is based on the author's grandparents' lives nearing the end of World War II in Germany. Yes, they went along with the Nazis, and yes, they paid the price. The focus here, though, is both on the quandaries of complicity and the human experience of being left home to try to survive with three stepchildren, not knowing if you'd ever again see your husband, a deserting doctor. In Hummel's Acknowledgments, she writes,

It was painful to write from this perspective. It was painful to keep the Holocaust off-screen, to mention Jews only a few times in the book, and then go to dinner with my Jewish friends and family. I used to sit across from them and think, There is a lake of blood between us, but right now, in this chapter I am writing, I am pretending it doesn’t exist.

But that effort and author's skill are probably among the reasons Motherland is such a psychologically challenging—and enlightening—read.

Time Loves a Hero (originally published as Chronospace) by Allen Steele is a novel in which time travelers from our future go back to the downing of the Hindenburg. As is usual in such stories, nothing they do seems to avert disaster, and even when things go well, parallel universes that got flung off don't always happen in desirable ways. The plot may sound familiar, but this is one of the much better examples of the genre (and I've consumed a vast number of them). The action jumps back and forth, and chapter heads always keep the reader apprised of the year the action is taking place. Witty and fun, with none of the many pages wasted.

Safekeeping: A Novel by Jessamyn Hope takes an Israeli kibbutz in 1994 as its main setting. I'm not a Zionist, especially not a fan of how Zionism has evolved and the way Israel treats Palestinians. And yet I enjoyed the novel a lot because it's well written, empathetic to everyone, and complicated. It's also more or less accurate to my own understanding of the historical events that propel the action. Politics stays mostly in the background, with a couple of minor Arab characters. Throughout is a muted sense of the challenge of achieving peace.

Adam, a drug addict and thief, volunteers at a kibbutz, carrying with him a brooch his grandfather wanted to return to a long-ago love he met on that same kibbutz. Adam's love interest is a recent Soviet immigrant who faked being Jewish to get out of Russia. The action moves around from New York to Israel to the Middle Ages to Dresden in 1945.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat (out 8/11/15) by Helen Phillips is a temporary salve for those of us who've often felt like throttling a large corporation peopled with faceless bureaucrats. In this, Phillips' surreal first novel, Josephine, a young wife, spends her numbing days inputting names and dates into a mysterious "Database." The few other workers she encounters are weird, and the walls themselves don't behave as expected. Well done.

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (out 9/15/15) is a delightful literary novel. Toltz, who lives in Brooklyn, was born in Sydney, and his novels are set in and around there. Toltz's first novel was the Man Booker Prize-Shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole, which I've ordered and can't wait to read.

Toltz's work has garnered comparisons by reviewers with Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers, as well as Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Twain, Dickens, John Irving, Borges, and Garcia Marquez. It's a challenge to do Toltz's writing justice by saying merely that it's postmodern in its mix of styles, very funny, literate, and character-driven. It's extraordinarily imaginative.

The tale is ostensibly written by a failed author-turned-police-officer writing a novel about his unlucky friend whose every business venture fails horribly. This is a novel that combines the desirable quality of page-turnability with existential anguish, surreality, and absurdity. Toltz's strength is the way he has his characters deal with the hard reality of having rotten luck in a meaningless world. Make up your own god, he seems to say near the end—you can't do any worse than what others have concocted.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel