I like to think that I read widely, and am always on the hunt for something a little bit different. I don’t tend to pick up very popular books that often, and prefer to look for under-the-radar gems when searching for my next reads. With that in mind, I thought I would put together a list of such books, for those of you who want to try something a little unusual, or pick up something which is perhaps out of your usual comfort zone.
1. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
The Death of Francis Bacon is very strange. I very much enjoyed Max Porter’s first two books, and will definitely pick up everything he publishes in future, but I don’t feel I was quite prepared for this one. It is a very short tome, which can easily be read in one sitting, but it can be a little complex to get one’s head around at first. It is not always entirely clear as to what is going on, and there is something unsettling about it. However, if you want to see Porter’s writing mastery at work, look no further. I found The Death of Francis Bacon incredibly memorable precisely for its layout, and Porter’s unusual choices.
2. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
Who knew that I would ever pick up a book centered around chess? I have never played before, despite my boyfriend having promised to teach me for years, and didn’t know all that much about it. However, seeing the amount of hype around for the Netflix adaptation, I thought I would give The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis a go. The novel was published in 1983, and I chose to listen to the audiobook version, as it was readily available on my library’s app during the height of the pandemic. I was fascinated at first, and certainly learnt a lot from the book. I do feel as though there were issues with the detachment I felt toward the main character, Beth, and some of the scenes felt a little flat. I still haven’t learnt how to play chess myself, but The Queens Gambit is a book which has stuck with me.
3. Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan
I really enjoy reading novels told in different narrative formats, and Sarah Crossan is quite a well-known author in this respect. She writes her books in prose, and manages to tell wide-ranging and effective stories through the medium. I picked up Here is the Beehive, her first book for adults, and found it both imaginative and inventive. It deals with a lot of serious topics, and the subject matter is sometimes difficult to read, but it is certainly worth pushing through. Here is the Beehive, like all of Crossan’s books, is memorable, and I very much look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.
4. The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville
Several years ago, I read quite a few of Australian author Kate Grenville’s novels, but hadn’t picked anything else by her up in the interim. I came across a non-fiction audiobook, The Case Against Fragrance, when browsing my online library app, and was very intrigued by it. Here, Grenville provides an intelligent and thorough investigation about the dangers of using fragranced products, which a quarter of the population have adverse reactions to. It scares me somewhat that the ingredients in perfume do not have to be listed on labelling, as they are protected. I found The Case Against Fragrance to be incredibly eye-opening, and whilst it has not made me stop wearing perfume, I will be leaning towards natural fragrances when I need to replenish my stash.
5. A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West is one of my favourite authors, but I hadn’t heard about the gorgeous A Note of Explanation until I stumbled across it online. It was unpublished during the author’s lifetime, and was discovered relatively recently in miniature form, in Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle. I am thrilled that this has been published – and not in miniature, as the Art Deco illustrations are an absolute joy. I don’t want to give too much about this away, as I knew nothing of it before ordering myself a copy. I think it is best to come to with little idea of the story, so that you can immerse yourself into it.
6. Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds by Stephen Moss
Stephen Moss is one of my absolute favourite nature writers, and I have loved everything of his which I have read so far. I spotted a lovely hardback copy of his Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds when browsing in my local library, and had to take it home with me. Here, rather than focusing on a single bird, as Moss often does in his writing, he takes into account bird species from all over the world, who have made their homes in urban areas. For each, there is a page of informative text about the species, and how it coexists with human populations. There are also stunning full-page watercolours included by Marc Martin for each entry, which are a real joy to look at.
7. Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri
In Don’t Touch My Hair, BBC correspondent Emma Dabiri has approached a topic of which I’ve read nothing about before – the ways in which ‘black hair has been appropriated and stigmatized throughout history, with ruminations on body politics, race, [and] pop culture’. Dabiri writes honestly, weaving her own experiences with the history of Black hair, and both the fashions and cultural expectations which have gone along with it. I learnt a great deal from this relatively short book, and it is definitely one which I would like to come back to in future.
8. The Rapture by Claire McGlasson
I include this on the unusual list because although I have read quite a few fictionalised books about cults, this one was a little closer to home. It is based upon the true story of the Panacea Society – a group set up in 1919, it was made up of mostly ‘virtuous single women’, all of whom obsessed with a prophecy – in the town of Bedford, England. I am quite familiar with the place, as several of my family members lived there when I was young. It’s not a town which I’ve read any other books set within, so it was really interesting to me to see what Claire McGlasson made of the place. I liked the use of her main protagonist, Dilys, and the LGBTQ+ segment was a really effective addition to the plot.
Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest? Please recommend some of your more unusual book choices!