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Ten of the Most Unique Novels I’ve Read

This week’s Top Ten topic, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is books that are unique. What makes a book unique?  Some books are told in a unique way, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or David Nicholls’ One Day.  Some books have spawned lots of copies, but were original when first published (Harry Potter comes to mind, or Gone Girl).  For my list I excluded non-fiction, because it seems to me that many real-life stories that are unique, but with fiction there’s an awful lot of repetition. You even see the same covers over and over again. I chose books that would be hard to explain to a fellow reader, books that are strange or surreal, books that can’t be pinned to one genre, and book concepts that shouldn’t have worked but did.  Above all, these are novels that stay fixed in my memory, and that I recommend again and again.

The first half of my list is really about the author, not a particular book.  I think these authors regularly write books that are so original, it’s hard to imagine anyone else writing them.

  1. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, so I can’t say for sure how unique Murakami is, but I know what I’ve read felt so surreal, it was my first thought for this week’s list.
  2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – everything about this book felt unique to me, from Vonnegut’s writing style to the way he tells this story, to the way he combines historical fiction, science fiction, tragedy and humor.
  3. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin – back in the 90s when I was in college, Maupin was a must-read. I’m not sure if that’s true today, but I still love them.  With his Barbary Lane novels, Maupin created an address that you wish was home, and a group of friends you wish were family.
  4. The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle – it was hard pick one T.C. Boyle; I don’t think anyone else writes like he does. I’ve read a lot of his books, and I love the way he fictionalizes real times, events, and people.  Some of my favorites are Drop City and Riven Rock.  I also liked The Women and The Inner Circle, which are about Frank Lloyd Wright and Alfred Kinsey.  Boyle really gets in the heads of the people he writes about, but he doesn’t make them heroes.  His characters are all really flawed.
  5. The Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde – if you were going to create my perfect fantasy series, a world where literary characters jump out of their books would be it. It’s hard to say, if you love Thursday Next, read this.  Because what else comes close?

The next five books fall into more of the shouldn’t have worked, but did, category.

  1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – falls into the impossible to explain category. This is simply one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking books I’ve read, and quite different from Ness’ other works.
  2. The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne – this book was like reading a dream, it was so strange but really compelling. I can’t even explain it, but it’s an under-read book in my opinion.
  3. Room by Emma Donoghue– a lot of people are put off by the subject matter, and others by the idea of a small boy telling this story. Room is nothing like Donoghue’s other works, or anything I’ve read for that matter.  It works because Donoghue shows us, through a young boy’s eyes, how much complexity there is in something (rape, imprisonment, and escape) that we might assume is straightforward.
  4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt — on the surface this book may not seem unique; there are plenty of coming of age college stories, and stories about murder are way overdone.  But this book stands out, for its unforgettable characters, their intense study of ancient Greek, and its brooding atmosphere. I haven’t read another book by Tartt that is anything like this one.
  5. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple – one of my favorite books, this one feels unique from top to bottom, from the way it’s told, to the strange characters, to its settings which include a hillside house in Seattle, a snooty private school, and a cruise to Antarctica. Semple manages to pull off snarky and sentimental in one book, which isn’t easy.

I thought about a lot of other books but these are the ones that jumped out at me.  I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones!  What do you think?

20 thoughts on “Ten of the Most Unique Novels I’ve Read

  1. I think I like unique books! 🙂 I’m also a fan of The Eyre Affair, The Secret History, and Where’d You Go Bernadette, and I really want to read Slaughterhouse Five, A Monster Calls, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s interesting that these tend to have unique titles, too — no boring trends here. Except for “The Girl in the Road” jumping on the “Girl” bandwagon — but maybe that was before it became such a thing.

    • I’ve heard that before about “Girl” titles. I think “Girl in the Road” is a horribly bland title for a strange and fascinating book. It’s her first novel so maybe the publisher pushed the title.

  2. Yes, I agree about the Eyre Affair–that would’ve made my list as well. Interesting that you put The Secret History on the list, but I agree with you–not your typical coming of age, school story. This was a good Top Ten subject–but tough.

    • I went back and forth on The Secret History, but it’s a book I was just glued to for a while, and then I kept re-reading it. I couldn’t think of a book I think is comparable to it. (I also thought about including Outlander for much the same reasons, but of course time travel has been done so often.)

  3. I found it hard to come up with a list of 10 this week – every time I thought a book might be unique, I found reasons why it wasnt that special. I got to 10 in the end….

    • I agree this was a tough topic. I came up with too many at first, but then all those books couldn’t be “unique” if I could think of so many. Some of these are really books that stood out to me over time, more than being unique, but I figured that has to count for something too.

  4. I didn’t end up writing a list this week, but The Girl in the Road was going to be on mine! My feelings were a bit ambivalent but I completely agree that it is under-read. I loved Slaughterhouse-Five and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, too.

    Many of Murakami’s books have that sort of surreal feeling, so if you liked Wind-Up Bird, you should try his others.

    • Any suggestions on Murakami’s books? I liked Norwegian Wood but not nearly as much as Wind-up Bird. I had some ambivalence about Girl in the Road too, but it’s a book that’s really stayed in my mind so that counts for a lot.

      • Same here! It’s a strange book to recommend to people; I tell them that I honestly don’t know whether or not they’ll like it, but it’s so unique that I’m sure they won’t regret reading it.

        It sounds like you prefer the magical realism, so I think you would like Kafka on the Shore and the Rat series—which technically is a series but I didn’t know that until after I’d read them in the totally wrong order, so they work fine as standalones, too. I’m looking at Goodreads and while I just remember loving all of them, I can see by my star ratings that Dance Dance Dance and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World were two of my favorites.

  5. Love that you included The Secret History. It was such an amazing story. You should try If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. It has a lot in common with The Secret History. One of the best books I’ve read this year. I reviewed it on my blog today!

  6. I wasn’t impressed by The Eyre Affair. Maybe because I read another fan fiction book around the same time, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which made a better impression on me. I never felt compelled to read more by him. Maybe I do, who knows.
    We may be on reading Antipodes, because I found The Secret History impossible to read. She writes so well, I agree that her characters are well done, I just couldn’t breath, I had to quit, it was disturbing me beyond what I can cope with. As for Murakami, wow, this one I finished, his 1Q84, but I’ve heard much more praise from reader friends on the Bird book. 1Q84, I had to read to know, and some parts I loved (his writing is captivating, magical), but again, his thematic was totally crushing for ‘me’. I know the problem resides with me. (This year I’d like to read my first Vonnegut. I don’t know. I can do some modern titles like Catch 22, but the closer to postmodern, the more troubles I encounter.

    • We all respond differently to different books! I had trouble getting through Catch 22 but I mean to finish it one day. It’s interesting that you were so disturbed by Secret History (I agree it’s disturbing) – at least you weren’t bored by it. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

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