Hidden gems: Quirky little books of literate fiction

Hidden gems: Quirky little books of literate fiction

With a few exceptions, I'm not a big reader of huge blockbuster bestsellers. I prefer a quieter novel, one that earns a following simply by the story line and not the name of the author or series title.

Sometimes I'm lucky enough to read something that was fairly unknown when it hit the publishing world but then grew into something big and highly desirable to the masses. Past examples have been "Room" by Emma Donoghue and "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins.

This week, I've found some quirky little books of literate fiction that may fit the bill. They are all different but have a common feel of realistic fiction set in an almost otherworldly reality. They are all contemplative debut novels of coming of age and are written with a delicate and artistic hand. The word formations are at times lovely while still packing a punch.

These are books that you can really sink into, the ones that take you away on a rainy day, and you forget where you are. Hopefully, you'll enjoy them as much as I have.

In "Our Endless Numbered Days" by Claire Fuller, we meet Peggy, an 8-year-old who lives in London with her famous pianist mother and her survivalist father in the late 1970s.

She lives a content life, blissfully unaware of the marital problems of her parents. She's lonesome at times, but her father frequently fills that void with his imaginative spirit and willingness to drop everything and devote time to Peggy.

Her mother is cold and too busy to be involved much in Peggy's life. Her father frequently meets up with friends who are also survivalists, and they run through various scenarios of world tragedy and plan on how they would deal with each situation. One day when her mother is on tour in Europe, Peggy's father packs up as much as he can carry and takes Peggy out for a walk in the woods.

Eating berries and trapping small animals is their only means of survival as they trek further and further through the countryside.

Eventually, they arrive at die Htte, the cabin that her father has told her about for many years. But it's not quite the rustic retreat she had pictured, as it's barely more than a worn shack, with rotted wood and missing any modern conveniences.

Peggy lives with her father in the hut for nine years, believing him when he told her that the rest of the world was obliterated in the apocalypse.

Her time there is narrated in alternating chapters with present-day reflections of trying to fit in with modern society. The 8-year-old Peggy and her 17-year-old counterpart take turns slowly revealing the true horror of her situation.

At the end, your jaw will drop. This book comes across as an old Grimm's fairy tale — full of promise mixed with menace and betrayal in the dark woods.

Another story written in lyrical prose with an eye for critical detail and minute descriptions of people and place is "Where All Light Tends to Go" by David Joy. As a debut fiction piece, this title bodes well for future works by the author.

In rural North Carolina, young Jacob McNeely lives a hard life. His father, Charlie, owns a car repair shop, but most of the business running through its doors involves a widespread meth ring. Local law enforcement has been paid off to turn a blind eye, and Charlie has a few desperate men on staff who regularly do his dirty work.

In the opening paragraph of the book, we meet 18-year-old Jacob, who should be graduating from high school, but instead has climbed a water tower to watch the festivities below.

He has dropped out of school and works as his daddy's first lieutenant, reluctantly helping to run his family's nefarious business. His only consolation is the future payout for all of his hard work. When that day comes, he can blow out of small-town Appalachia and start fresh somewhere where no one knows his family's bad name.

When he finds a way to reunite with an old girlfriend who is meant for better things, he knows he has to get things in order. When he manages to botch a murder ordered by his father, it sets off a string of trouble. So now he's faced with a choice. Does he stay and try to appease his abusive father and wait for his payout or does he give it all up to escape the hardscrabble life with his first love?

The descriptions of the people and the surroundings were so keen in the book that I found myself brushing my arms as if trying to clean off the dust and disappointment that I was reading about.

Lastly is "Church of Marvels" by Leslie Parry, a quirky story of a carnival family in 1890's Manhattan.

The story begins as Sylvan, who works as a night soiler (think sanitation), finds an infant during one of his cleanings of the preplumbing privies. At a loss of what to do, he hides it in his coat and takes it home at the end of the night. An orphan himself, Sylvan knows that he must care for the child and create a safe environment for it.

Meanwhile, across town in Coney Island, Odile is mourning the loss of her family's circus in a fire, and with it, her mother and their famous tigers.

The Church of Marvels was renowned for its magnificent sideshows and featured performers. Her talented twin sister, Belle, has run off to Manhattan and won't respond to Odile's letters.

And we have one other substory in the triangle of plot, as Alphie has been captured and placed into an insane asylum even though she is of sane mind.

This all seems a bit confusing at first, until the reader devotes more time to the story and finds that the characters all have a connection.

The character development is mesmerizing, with detailed and colorful descriptions of each person and their station in life. Slowly and carefully, the story lines are peeled like an onion until the reader begins to piece together the true meaning of the novel.

Anyone can pick up a James Patterson bestseller and enjoy it, but it's a little more difficult to find these hidden gems in literature. Check them out and judge for yourself!

Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.

Topics (1):Books
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