Let’s be honest. Quirky, slightly weird, and wonderful sounds like a pretty fantastic way to be.
These books are just that. Sometimes strange, sometimes haunting, sometimes funny, always entertaining - choose any of these books for readers on your list who can handle ambiguity; who enjoy characters who refuse to be imprisoned in neat little, categorized boxes; and for anyone who needs more very large ghost toads in their life.
Quan Barry’s second novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, is the story of a high school field hockey team in Danvers, Massachusetts in the 1980s - not far from Salem. The quirky cast of athletes, in an effort to dominate their team's senior year, make a pact with Emilio Estevez - and perhaps the devil. While there are plenty of 80s references and snarky, witchy chit chat, the real strength of this book is in its story of powerful female connection: each character’s story is told in a collective female voice. Barry uniquely takes on sexism, racism, homophobia, high school girl politics, and complex familial situations through clever and, ultimately earnest, storytelling. It's a wild ride.
Leesa Cross-Smith’s fantastic collection of short stories, So We Can Glow, is full of strong women, unafraid to claim their bodies as their own and express their brash and unapologetic female sexuality. In my favorite of the stories, “Crepuscular,” the narrator is obsessed with Abe Forrest, the host of a nature documentary show. She watches him every night and imagines a life with him every day. Finally, she decides to send him an email, and he responds and eventually comes to her apartment. She is brazen; she refuses to succumb to expectations of feminine demureness and instead behaves exactly as she feels - what a relief. This is such a lovely, empowering collection.
In my recent reading history, I cannot think of a book that I enjoyed so much with such an unlikeable narrator. Jane, a pregnant eighteen year-old who works as a pizza delivery girl, consistently makes the decision that I wouldn't make, and yet I found myself vehemently rooting for Jane. She is young, strong-willed, misguided, and traumatized by her father's drinking. She is also fiercely loved by her mother and boyfriend, and yet she struggles to accept their love as she cannot love herself. This is a slim but fierce debut - darkly comic and highly original.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton, is a fantastically immersive collection of ghost stories and it is everything we need. It's smart, funny, quirky, and weird - four qualities sorely lacking in life and literature these days. Matsuda's stories introduce readers to many different ghosts, each more alive than the living characters that populate the stories. They have agency and nuance and they're not looking for revenge. Often, they've come to help the people they are haunting. The stories create a hopeful and strange world - think giant toad ghost - and I loved it.
Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir
Our Book Club read Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence a few years ago and I really loved it. As a result, I picked up Butterflies in November and it did not disappoint. Our narrator is a brilliant but emotionally distant woman who finds herself dumped by two men on the same day. She decides that she needs a vacation just as her best friend also asks for help with her four-year old deaf, mute son. After winning the lottery, the narrator purchases a home along Iceland’s Ring Road, so the unlikely pair set off on a road trip. She’s a surprisingly attentive and intuitive mother figure for the boy who blossoms throughout their adventure. For readers who are missing travel during the pandemic, this book will transport you to Iceland: its lovely stretches of rocky beach, its darkness and cold, and its cast of quirky and sometimes helpful characters lighting the way.
I was both enchanted and inspired by this strange collection of very short stories - basically flash fiction - from Nicolette Polek. The strongest stories grappled with the barriers that we put up around ourselves. Many of the characters are dislocated and disconnected in ways both literal and figurative. And while that would seem to make for a depressing collection, I found it to be more hopeful than not. In "The Seamstress," the title character decides to remove herself from society - closing up her shop and disappearing from day-to-day activities. Eventually, though, she can be seen creating her own world with the mannequins in her shop, suggesting that we can never outrun our desire to be among others. For readers eager to take a chance on something different, Imaginary Museums offers bite-size insight into the human condition.
I loved Little Eyes! Samanta Schweblin tells a creepy story like no other. The kentucki, a mechanical stuffed animal with cameras for eyes and wheels for feet, is a perfect metaphor for the shadowy technology we have all allowed into our homes, cars, phones, and lives. Connected to an anonymous global server, a kentucki has both an owner, who houses the kentucki in their home and interacts with it much like a pet, and a dweller who accesses the camera and operates the machine, voyeuristically participating in the owner's life from afar. Schweblin's ability to turn a story of technology gone awry into a semi-hopeful tome about the possibility of global connection is incredible. (A warning, semi-hopeful may be in the eye of the beholder. This book is semi-terrifying in equal measure.) With spare, startling prose, her writing feels so alive. I enjoyed every minute of this book.
This is the book about chickens that I didn't know I needed. Deb Olin Unferth's Barn 8 is offbeat, funny, a little outlandish, and ultimately heartfelt and poignant. A rag-tag band of environmentalists and animal rights activists are led by two women, both lost after the death of the most important person in their life, to free one million chickens from a chicken farm in Iowa. The narrative perspective meanders from one character to another, making sure not to leave out the chickens themselves who have absolutely no idea what to do with their newly found freedom. Barn 8 is for readers who like a dose of hope with their smart, literary fiction.