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One of my favorite things about the Bookish Life is getting to champion a book and then watch as the world embraces it. Sometimes you know a book is going to be big but you can’t imagine how big (Gone Girl) and sometimes you think there’s no way a book will take off and then it does (The Fact of a Body). I always take a little personal pleasure in watching a book I’ve championed find its legs in the world.
But sometimes I’ll read a book before release, fall head over heels in love, and then it disappears into the ether. It’s a big world of books and not everything is going to break through the noise, but it still breaks my heart. So when I was trying to think of books to recommend to y’all, I decided to give some of my favorite under-the-radar gems of the last few years another shot.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
This is not a showy book, but I’m still very angry on its behalf. If I was a bookseller I’d be throwing it into people’s hands with the very simple pitch that it’s great for fans of Shirley Jackson and another recent Korean import, The Vegetarian. This is the trickiest little book. It presents itself as simple body horror: Oghi is recovering from the car accident that killed his wife and left him almost completely incapacitated. He is unable to speak or move and relies completely on his mother-in-law for care. But all is not quite what it seems and the strange things that accumulate start to show you that this book is not at all what you thought it was. It’s an impressive magic trick and I’ve wanted to read it again ever since I finished it
Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
This is actually the best readalike I know for Crazy Rich Asians, so I hope the excitement around the movie leads people to it. It’s also set in Singapore, though not quite among the same moneyed elite. Jazz, our protagonist, is a party girl who knows all the best clubs and has her ambitions set on marrying a rich westerner. Over and over while reading this book I thought of Cher in Clueless, the outwardly frivolous girl who learns that she actually has a heart of gold underneath all those designer brands. Jazz has a similar arc and she also has a distinctive voice, with the story told in first-person narration in Singlish (Singaporean English, with its own set of slang). It’s charming and surprisingly smart.
Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr
Lost Canyon is one I recommend as a counterpoint to that American classic Deliverance. (I have this weird soft spot for Deliverance, don’t @ me, maybe one day I’ll write a newsletter all about how it’s actually a takedown of toxic masculinity.) Four hikers of different genders, races, and classes go on a hike together and, as you can probably guess, things go wrong. It’s a satisfying thrill read, with perfectly rising suspense. It’s a smart character study as this group, who doesn’t know each other well, sizes each other up through worsening conditions. If you’re looking for something action-y for your book club, it’s a great choice, with plenty of meaty characters and topics that’s also a roller coaster read.
Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith
Arcade is one of my favorite modern queer novels that I’d recommend to people who liked Edinburgh and What Belongs to You. Our unnamed protagonist is in small-town Texas, he’s mostly closeted, and he’s obsessed with the guy he used to sleep with. He spends much of the book in The Arcade, one of those places you’ve probably seen if you’ve driven down a few Texas highways, with porn in the front and booths in the back for…whatever. I found the writing both sexy and seedy, a particularly rare feat that I don’t know if I’ll ever find again. It’s the kind of book where not a lot happens, but I got so sucked into this man’s self-destructive spiral, the perfect sense of place, and Smith’s spare prose.
Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
This one is for all you readers out there who like cult books, and I know there are a lot of you. It’s set in a community based on Jonestown that’s moved everyone from California to Guyana. And if you want to be wowed, this book starts with a pretty damn ambitious chapter told from the point of view of a gorilla kept in a cage in the middle of the camp.