Every year, there’s a handful of books that come out and are given tons of awards and get an outrageous amount of hype upon being released. There are the kinds of books that make you afraid to go on the internet in case somebody spoils them for you before you even get the chance to read them. For every bestselling hype machine, though, there are several more books that exist in the shadows, managing to go unnoticed by the majority of readers. I have decided to create a list of some great novels that many people haven’t heard of, to raise awareness of more obscure, but nonetheless high-quality, literature.
- Electricity by Ray Robinson
Electricity features one of the most compelling and unforgettable protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Lily, an angry young epileptic woman who goes on a journey to London, to find her long-lost younger brother, after her abusive mother dies. Lily is constantly at war with her own body and writes notes to herself (a la Memento) on the walls of her apartment to get her bearings when she has an intense seizure and loses time. Some readers might dislike the novel because of its lack of a truly conclusive ending, but for me the journey made it worth it.
2. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This bone-chilling French novella tells the story of an unnamed woman who takes her two young sons to a shoddy motel near the sea on what appears to be an impromptu vacation. The mother is clearly psychologically disturbed, and her sons become increasingly scared and frustrated. I won’t spoil the ending, but this is probably one of the scariest books I’ve ever read and it’s not even horror.
3. All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
I went through a period of several years where I lost interest in reading almost entirely. This was the book that got me my mojo back. All My Friends Are Superheroes is a very short satiric novella (just over 100 pages) about Tom, an average schmo who falls in love with a superhero named The Perfectionist, only to have The Perfectionist hypnotized on their wedding night by her jealous ex-boyfriend. The Perfectionist cannot see, hear, or otherwise perceive that Tom exists, and Tom becomes determined to get through to her before it’s too late. This book is quirky, sweet, and often very funny and features unique worldbuilding and a multitude of heroes whose superpowers, for the most part, seem hilariously pointless and bizarre.
4. Westlake Soul by Rio Youers
Imagine being in a terrible accident and losing complete and utter control of your own body. Now imagine that everyone around you is convinced that you are completely incognizant of your surroundings and the only thing left to do is to disconnect your feeding tube. What surfer dude Westlake’s friends and family don’t know is that he understands and perceives everything that is going on around him, and Westlake believes he’s reached a higher state of consciousness. He holds telepathic conversations with the family dog (who’s kind of a wiseass), dabbles in astral projection, and uses his mental powers to protect his beautiful caretaker from her abusive boyfriend. Westlake Soul is a perfect balance between lightness and tragedy, and a testament to remaining hopeful in even the most insurmountable situation.
5. The Box Children by Sharon Wyse
This book is a pretty tough read, because of its prevalent theme of child abuse, but the strength of its young protagonist’s voice makes it worth reading. Written in epistolary format, The Box Children is narrated by the bright and resilient Lou Ann, a little girl whose philandering father and unhinged mother’s marriage is at the breaking point and whose older brother’s behavior toward her has taken a dark turn. Coming of age in conditions that are all but unlivable, Lou Ann struggles to understand the events that are unfolding around her and the twisted agendas of the adults who are supposed to protect her.
6. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
If I had to pick one book this year that outshone all the others, this would probably be it. Stream of consciousness in literature can be hard for some people to wrap their heads around, and while this book can be confusing and hard to get into at first, the payoff is undoubtedly worth it. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors centers around an alcoholic cleaning lady named Paula Spencer who has suffered some of the most sadistic abuse you can possibly imagine at the hands of her ex-husband, Charlo. When Charlo is killed, Paula looks back on their volatile relationship and his horrific treatment of her. This novel is beautifully written and finds an unforgettable (and very flawed) heroine in Paula Spencer. Smile and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (the other two books I’ve read by Roddy Doyle) are very good too, but this one is the best.
7. God’s Own Country (AKA Out Backwards) by Ross Raisin
While God’s Own Country contains certain stylistic similarities to The Butcher Boy, another book on this list, they’re both absolutely worth reading on their own merit. Sam Marsdyke, the chatty, eccentric sexual predator at the heart of this bleak novel, wanders the moors of Yorkshire England with his sheepdog puppy Sal, not particularly caring about anyone or anything else. He’s vilified by the locals for the attempted sexual assault of his classmate, and when a fifteen-year-old girl moves in next door to Sam’s parents’ house, the situation begins to slide dangerously out of control. There’s a lot of dialect in this novel, which you’re either into or you’re not, and Sam is a fascinatingly skewed unreliable narrator.
8. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
I read this novel as a teenager, and I still have strong recollections of it. Reading The Butcher Boy is like watching a trainwreck unfold in slow motion, but Patrick McCabe’s skills as a writer are undeniable. The book is narrated by Francie Brady, a wee Irish lad with a sociopathic streak and a loose grip on reality (to say the very least), who sets out to punish the person he considers responsible when his life crumbles around him and he loses everything: his parents, his best friend, and whatever innocence he might have once had. The Butcher Boy is relentlessly bleak and can make for tough reading at times, but Francie is such a fascinating character and the book has a stunning amount of psychological depth.
9. The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Books don’t make me cry very often, but this one managed to do the trick. The protagonist, Mary, is a teenage girl with a twisted leg who is living in the 19th century and is mostly illiterate. Her parents send her to work as an indentured servant at a rich man’s house. Her employer teaches her to read but also abuses her after the death of his wife, and Mary is driven to take desperate measures against him. The Colour of Milk is written, in very simple style, in the form of Mary’s journal (with lots of grammatical errors), but despite its brevity it carries a lot of emotional heft.
10. They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
I got this book at the Goodwill without knowing anything about it. I started it and put it down several times because it was very slow paced, but I finally read it all the way through and ended up really liking it. They Came Like Swallows centers around a well-to-do family, a mother, a father, and two sons, whose lives experience a major upheaval when the Spanish flu epidemic goes from being something people are talking about to taking center stage in their lives. William Maxwell does an unusually sensitive and accurate job of portraying childhood through the characters of the two brothers, Bunny and Robert, and the novel is beautifully written.