I used to read widely. This has become a thing of the past because my favorite genres always were and will be fantasy and science fiction. Long ago, when a lack of books (and language skills) kept the supply of fantasy novels that interested me low, I branched out into other genres – and hey, I enjoyed those a lot. Now, I read mainly in English, the internet exists, I have an e-reader… it is so easy to get the books you want when you don’t have to rely on the meager foreign language section in your local bookstore. Plus, so much awesome fantasy is published that I don’t even have time for other stuff.
But reading things from different genres can really pay off, and until you try you won’t know if there’s a subgenre that may become a new favorite. Here is a selection of my favorite books that took me out of my comfort zone:
1. Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Contemporary YA novels are something I avoid, especially if they contain a love story. But Ari and Dante kept showing up on all my favorite internet places, so I gave it a try and ended up loving this book. This coming-of-age tale has nothing in common with what I have come to expect (and fear) from this “kind” of book. It’s a touching, slowly building romance, but it is also the tale of a beautiful friendship, of family and trust and finding your place in the world.
2. Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven Boys
This is fantasy but not the kind that I usually go for. Again, the internet is to blame for my interest in the series and I couldn’t be more thankful. This book (and the series) contains paranormal stuff and romance, two things that can go very wrong for me. In this case, they went just right and not only turned me into a total Maggie Stiefvater fangirl but also showed me one of the most beautiful set of characters I’ve ever read about. Not long until The Raven King comes out and I will be reduced to a puddle of tears. (Here are my thoughts on The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue)
3. Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day
A book about the life of a butler, without the slightest hint of magic, is not something anyone would recommend to me when they look at what I usually read. But, guess what, this was delightful! Its power lies as much between the lines as it does in the strength of its protagonist. You can read this first person narrative as the account of an unreliable narrator, a man who has wasted many opportunities for honor and duty, but the only magic here is in the language and in the way Ishiguro plays with your emotions. That ending had me in tears.
4. Wolf Haas – The Brenner Books
Here’s another genre that’s unusual for me: crime. Austrian writer Wolf Haas has a particular charm, though, that I simply can’t resist. I sadly doubt that an English translation can do it justice because the way he writes is just so utterly, utterly Austrian. The (for a while, at least) unnamed narrator speaks to you, the reader, as if you were sitting in a pub over a glass of beer. He tells of the adventures of police man/detective Brenner who solves crimes in Austrian cities. The murder mysteries as such are cleverly set up and thrilling to follow but it’s the voice that absolutely enchants me.
5. Leonie Swann – Glennkill (Three Bags Full)
And another crime story, except the protagonists and detectives are sheep. You read that right: sheep! This herd of sheep is investigating, in a very sheepish way, the murder of their shepherd who died of spade-in-the-body. They know that this is not a natural cause of death, even for humans, and go to find out who did it. As annoying as their behaviour can be at times, one cannot deny that these sheep are believable. There are clever ones, there are ones concerned mostly with food (and who can fault them?), and there are relationships and feuds among them. It’s a charming, adorable story. And who can resist the idea of sheep solving a crime?
6. Lauren Beukes – The Shining Girls
Lauren Beukes is an SFF writer but The Shining Girls and has only one speculative element to it. A time-travelling serial killer. It’s much more crime thriller than science fiction story, as Beukes is not very concerned with the mechanics of time travel. It’s about the one survivor and her trying to find her almost-killer. I don’t know if this reads like a “regular” crime thriller but I simply couldn’t put this book down. Beukes’ fiction flows beautifully and she managed to walk the tightrope of describing horrific crimes without being gratuitous. I loved this book and its characters to bits.
7. Amélie Nothomb – Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling)
I’ve read a lot of Nothomb’s fiction since I discovered her. She is hard to classify as her books are just weird. She writes about all sorts of subjects, her characters are all batshit crazy, and her very short books sometimes leave a bad taste in your mouth. I frequently closed one of her books and asked myself what the hell I’d just read. But although she is a bit hit and miss, I love going on crazy 200-page trips with this author and taking a glimpse into her strange mind. (Also that’s her on the cover – what you see is what you get.)
8. Kerstin Gier – The Ruby Red trilogy
These books are silly teen time-travel romances and I don’t care one bit about plot holes or unnecessary teen drama or stupidly obvious sub-plot romances. They are just wonderful the way they are. A young girl discovers she has the time travel gene which makes her jump through time uncontrollably – now she has to learn to navigate the past (and leave her cell phone at home), uncover an ancient conspiracy, and somehow get along with the handsome yet arrogant Gideon. You see where this is going. I saw where this was going. This doesn’t take away from the pure popcorn pleasure that can be gained from this trilogy.
Hm… it’s looking a lot like crime might be a good genre for me, after all. Flavia de Luce is easily the cutest, cleverest 11-year-old to ever solve crimes around her home town. She has a knack for chemistry, two annoying and cruel sisters, a dead mother, and a silent father. Again, it isn’t so much the whodunnit that interests me with this series, it’s Flavia and her relationships with the people surrounding her. But there is no denying that she is an excellent detective. These books live off Flavia’s charm but they are also seriously funny and have some truly touching moments.
10. Chuck Palahniuk – ANYTHING BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK!!!
I discovered the man in the opening credits to Fight Club and my love for his skill as a writer has only grown since then. I’ve only reviewed one of his books here but I’ve read almost everything he’s written. Palahniuk writes dark books, and funny books, and he always finds an ugly part of society to poke his finger into. My favorites are Choke and Haunted, although I don’t suggest you start with Haunted because you may not sleep or want to eat after reading it. Palahniuk is his own brand of weird and all his books haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. Good starting points are Fight Club, Choke, or Survivor.