Top Ten Best Novels You’ve Never Heard Of
  • Or perhaps you have.

    Yet the following list, laid out in no particular order (with the exception of the last one, at the bottom of this list), is relatively obscure:

    Nothing is as it seems under the sharp western sun. After recovering from an enigmatic and near-fatal illness, Gasteneau, a man with an iron will, glimpses something so extraordinary and so horrific that he feels his life irrevocably altered. But did he really see what he thinks he saw? In the aftermath of his sickness, he’s also drawn deeper into a resolution he made just before getting sick: to seek out a piece of evidence that shows with certainty God’s hand at work upon the earth. But in seeking this evidence, he finds instead that he’s growing more and more obsessed by the loss of his mother, whom he barely knew, and is pursued as well by a ghostly figure in black and a feeling of hypochondria he can neither shake, nor fully define. Part mystery story, part literary crime novel, More and More unto the Perfect Day is at its core a tale of philosophical intrigue, a metaphysical thriller that combines the surreal imagery of Nabokov with the psychological complexity of Dostoevsky. The result is a novel of dreamlike strangeness and philosophical power.

    10. Light Years

    Published in 1995, this is James Salter’s fourth novel — a novel as real, as poetic, and as heartbreakingly beautiful as anything I’ve ever read.

    9. Demons

    By Fydor Dostoevsky. Once translated as The Possessed and often regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s four great masterpieces, the novel Demons (which contains my favorite character of all-time) nonetheless remains poorly known. Perhaps it’s the first 100 pages, which Dostoevsky later admitted were “a mistake” and not the proper way to start his mind-spinning story, which is an absolute masterpiece of plot-and-theme integration.


    8. The Driftless Area

    Tom Drury’s fourth novel, published in 2006, is intelligent, endearing, funny — though perhaps at times a little too farcical — and contains an exceptionally likable hero named Pierre Hunter.

    7. 2666

    The final novel by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who, in 2004, died somewhat mysteriously at the young age of fifty. 2666 is a strange and sprawling novel — not quite one thousand pages — which depicts, among many other things, the unsolved murders of over 300 young, poverty-stricken, uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez. The story is poorly paced, but the novel is symmetrical and stylistically stunning.

    6. Mao II

    Written by the prolific and inconsistent New York City writer Don DeLillo, Mao II is one of his very few that held me to the end, with its excellent and unorthodox prose and its memorable female protagonist — the photographer Britta — and, most of all, his utterly real J.D. Salingeresque hero Bill.

    5. In the Hand of Dante

    Nick Tosches, who writes for Vanity Fair magazine, got poor reviews for this book, and in many ways you can understand why. It is an undeniably flawed novel (his third), but if you’re at all interested in the actual craft of writing, this book will sustain you by the sheer power of Tosches’s writing style and the fascinating originality of his story. Johnny Depp recently bought the rights to this book.

    4. Answered Prayers: the unfinished novel

    Many regard Truman Capote as America’s finest stylist, and I think there’s a good reason why. This book, which was published posthumously in 1986 in England and in 1987 in the United States (though chapters of it first appeared in Esquire magazine), represents Capote at his best. Because of its subject-matter, it created a storm of negative controversy, from which Truman Capote never really recovered. Admittedly, the plot, such as it is, is wobbly, but the prose positively coruscates.

    3. Outer Dark

    You’ve doubtless heard of the author — Cormac McCarthy — but you might not be familiar with his second novel, which was published in 1965, when Cormac was thirty-three-years-old. There’s something biblical and apocalyptic in this book — a raw and, at times, astoundingly poetic read. The title itself ostensibly comes from the bible, where a variation of it appears three times, and all three of those are from the book of Matthew:

    But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12).

    Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13).

    And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30).

    That’s a lot of teeth-gnashing, I think you would agree.

    But Outer Dark will not leave you gnashing your teeth, though it just might leave you weeping.

    2. Trip to the Stars

    Nicholas Christopher is one of the best least-known novelists and poets alive today — a true writer’s writer. His novel Trip to the Stars was first published in 2001, and here’s how it’s appositely described on his website:

    At a Manhattan planetarium in 1965, a ten-year-old boy called Loren is kidnapped from his young adoptive aunt, Alma. The event profoundly changes the rest of their lives. Told through their alternating voices, A Trip to the Stars charts the paths of Loren and Alma over the next fifteen years, as they search for each other and in the process, discover themselves.

    When he is whisked away by strangers, Loren at first believes he has been mistaken for another child. But his abductor turns out to a blood relative–his great-uncle Junius Samax, a wealthy reformed gambler. To his even greater surprise, Loren learns his “real name” is Enzo.

    Growing up in a lavish converted Las Vegas hotel, Loren is surrounded by a priceless collection of art and antiques, and a host of eccentric guests–including experts on Atlantis, Zuni occultism, vampires, and other mysteries of the universe. Slowly, he pieces together the truth about his mother, and the complicated history that led to his adoption shortly before her death. He also battles a malicious woman, with hidden ties to both his birth parents. Although he still thinks about his aunt far away, Enzo is lulled by the belief that she knows he is safe.

    But in New York, Alma is devastated by Loren’s disappearance. After months of frantic, fruitless searching, she stops and starts striving to escape the past. Changing her name to Mala– the word for “bad” in Latin, Spanish, and Italian–she gets a car and drives as far as New Orleans. After a stint working for an arachnologist, she volunteers for duty in Vietnam–a war she opposes. Trained as an X-ray technician and assigned to the Navy Nurse Corps, she keeps to herself and mourns for Loren. On Christmas day, the unexpected happens. Mala meets Geza Cassiel–a striking Air Force captain with the strange outline of a key in his stomach. Immediately, they are drawn to one another. Yet just as Mala opens her heart, Geza too vanishes. Devastated again, Mala begins a restless ten-year journey, moving from island to island around the globe, seeking for some way to overcome her losses.

    Seamlessly fusing fantasy, scholarship, and suspense, A Trip to the Stars follows Enzo and Mala across a vast landscape–with stops in the Mojave Desert, Greece, North Africa, the South Pacific, and Hawaii–and through harrowing and electrifying events. At every step, Christopher tantalizes with dark secrets, breathtaking coincidences, psychic revelations, celestial influences, and the converging forces of fate and chance.

    Christopher builds a story of tremendous scope as he traces the intricate latticework of Mala and Loren’s lives. Each remains separate from the other, but both are tied in ways they cannot imagine — until the final, miraculous chapter of this extraordinary novel comes to an end.

    1. Toilers of the Sea

    Toilers of the Sea is one of my all-time favorite novels, and Victor Hugo is one of my all-time favorite novelists. This book is a paean to human ingenuity, human strength and self-discipline. At the same time, it is an absolute condemnation of superstition.

    Toilers of the Sea was first published in 1866, when Victor Hugo was sixty-four-years-old, and I promise you one thing: you’ll never forget Gilliat, surely one of the greatest characters in all of world literature.

    There you have it. Now please share some of yours.

    Possibly related: Is Shakespeare All That?

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

77 Responses and Counting...

  • Averil Dean 03.04.2012

    You’re far too brainy for me. I can’t even give you my recommendations for fear of being barred from the page.

  • Brainy — please. Truth be told, I’m a dumbass.

    And, for the record, you would never — and I mean ever — be barred from this or any page I’m administrator of.

  • Then I will whisper Absent in the Spring, though not as a recommendation for you because I think your tastes are too masculine. I love it though, a gem of a character study, beautifully crafted and very English.

  • My dear Ms. Dean, a whisper is for the vermouth in your martini.

    Shout it out.

    “From you I have been absent in the spring.”

    Thank you for that.

  • Although typical required reading for literature classes, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first novel that because of its theme, made me appreciate reading and the power that a book can have to make one examine themselves and the world around them. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest not long after – while I cannot speak to the writing, I loved the characters. I also find Mitch Albom’s books to be simple, but uplifting reads (and surprising considering the writing he does for his profession).

  • Hi Susan G. Isn’t Atticus one of the greatest characters ever? I mean, I really think he holds up no matter how much time goes by.

    Thank you for your comment, and thank you for dropping by.

  • A better magazine theme would make the blog nicer.:)

  • I think John Connolly has a phenomenal book that I don’t think is all that well known, though not as obscure as the ones on your list, called “The Book of Lost Things”. While I like his Charlie Parker series, this standalone novel had me thinking about it for quite a while…

    Thanks for the recommendations I have out four of them on my kindle for some holiday reading!

  • Hiya Frank. Thank you for the recommendation. I’d not heard of that book — The Book of Lost Things — but right after I read your comment, I went and read the first few pages on Amazon, and I liked it. I’m always on the lookout for good books.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • 2666, poorly paced? Oh my god, what kind of reader are you? The novel is perfectly written, you should read it again. Or even better, you should read it in its original language.

  • Hello Luna. It’s nice to meet you. Yes, I thought 2666 was poorly paced. In fact, I thought it was very poorly paced. But I do agree with you: I should read it in its original language. Unfortunately, my Spanish isn’t nearly good enough. Thank you, though, and thank you for dropping by.

  • You might like the writings of Eduardo Galleano. He gives voice to the unheard and disenfranchised in the history of the world. Beautifully written. It is more poetry than a story

  • Antal Szerb’s Journey By Moonlight belongs on a list like this.

  • Thank you, Ariel. That’s an excellent recommendation.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Thank you for singling out the The Driftless Area! I sometimes feel like I — apart from the students to whom I’ve assigned it — am the only person on the planet to have read it. A gem of a book if ever there was one. I’ll also take this opportunity to name a few others worth attention not being paid them: Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, Frederick Buechner’s The Storm, Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

  • Thank you, Jason. And thank you for your suggestions.

  • Although I have to say that my wife and I were a bit shocked at the absence of women from the list. One more title I could contribute is the Tiina Nunnally translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter — possibly the greatest novel I’ve ever read, full-stop.

  • Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.
    Funny, emotional, interesting. When I got to the end, I loved all of them so much, I could not bring myself to read it. I put it off for a couple of weeks. Could not bear to read the cruxifiction. Loved this book.

  • I’ve never heard of that one. Thank you, Christy.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • I have read none of these books… but ur attention to your own comment section combined with your love of these novels makes me want to read all of them. best of luck to you and your site. stumble brought me here

  • Hi David. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for the exceptionally nice comment, and thank you for dropping by.

  • v

    I loved “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo. Eclipsed by his “Empire Falls” (which won the Pulitzer), I found this earlier work wise and funny (sometimes hysterically so) and kind and infinitely understanding of humanity with all it’s quirks….

    Loved the list by the way, always nice to get recommendations for new books…

  • Thank you, v. It’s nice to meet you. Coincidentally enough, I liked Thomas Pynchon’s novel V and even considered putting it on this list, but in the end I decided it was too well known.

    I appreciate your suggestions and thank you for dropping by.

  • Thanks for the recommendations. I also appreciate the additions in the comments :

    Here are some from me :

    – All Five novels of Edward Whittemore (two of them reviewed by me on Amazon)
    – “Human Landscapes……. ” Nazim Hikmet (review on Amazon)

  • I might recommend House of Leaves. We have a copy in our bookcase, and I feel almost prepared to begin.

    Take care,

  • Just stumbled across this. A great list, which I shall explore. A few for you – To The End of the Land(David Grossman) – moving story of the Arab/Israeli conflict; The Wizard of the Crow (N’Gugi n Thi’Ongo) – satire on International aid, v funny; The Old Man and Mr Smith Peter Ustinov – God and the Devil return to see how things are going, very funny

  • Ahmet, my friend, thank you. And thank for the recommendations. I’m not familiar with any of those.

  • Hi Jennifer. It’s nice to meet you.

    House of Leaves — yes, it’s an undertaking. It’s a decent story, but there’s a lot of rodomontade to flense through, and I personally don’t really enjoy literature that consists of too many typographical games.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Thank you for dropping by, Ian. And thank you for your recommendations. Visit often.

  • Interesting list. Will definitely look into them. Here are a few I like

    Atlas Shrugged- Ayn Rand
    The Alchemist- Paul Coelho
    Hard Boiled Woinderland and the End of the World- Haruki Murakami

  • Thank you, Vincent. It’s nice to meet you.

    I’ll tell you very honestly that I couldn’t quite get with Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World — though I did try. I truly did. I wanted to like it.

    In general, my feeling about Haruki Murakami are rather complicated. I liked South of the Border, West of the Sun and I liked Kafka on the Shore, but most of his novels, for all their originality and inventiveness, leave me wanting. 1Q84, despite its mediocre title, was a very pleasant surprise … until the end.

    Thank you again. And thank you for dropping by.

  • An American Romance by John Casey struck me as the kind of professional piece of novel-writing that justifies the decades of relentless preparation that some writers go through to perfect their skills. It’s not much on plot, or– as I remember it– romance, but it frequently achieves a surreal level of reality from inside characters minds. Not just the content of thought, but the quality, shape, color, and texture of it. Maybe a little something like telepathy.

  • Hello Ehren. It’s nice to meet you. I know of John Casey — I’ve even read a little of him — but I’d never heard of An American Romance. Thank you.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • All That Is , the new James Salter novel

  • Hi John! Would you believe me if I told you I just bought that book? I swear it’s true.

    It’s very good to see you. Thank you for dropping by.

  • Just wanted to second the recommendation of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. It’s funny, thought-provoking, and surprisingly tender. It’s not a perfect book, for sure, but still one of my favorites.

  • Hi Lisa. It’s nice to meet you. I liked your comment, and I’ll look into that book (which I’d never heard of, though I’m quite familiar with the author) forthwith.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • I’ve finally encountered someone who has read THE TOILERS OF THE SEA! I love it! I read to two times consecutively. I was first introduced to the story by reading the Classics Illustrated version of the novel when I was a boy. I was fascinated by this very physical, outdoor adventure that depicts the power and majesty of nature. At first, it was hard to find a copy of the novel. I got used hardback copy but the translation was stilted. Finally, I found the Signet Classic edition and the Modern Library edition, that include’s Hugo’s illustrations. The translations vary, but I like them both.

  • Thank you, Richard. It’s nice to meet a fellow Toiler’s-of-the-Sea admirer. It hasn’t happened often.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • Ian

    Love the blog. Great to be exposed to the works lived by others. Be great to know what people think of Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene. A wonderfulbparody set in relatively modern Spain. Quixote is a priest, Sancho is an ousted communist mayor – funny, but fascinating insights into belief and different realities. Also loved Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov – a satirical book set in Ukraine. Funny, wistful, compassionate and biting commentary.

    If you’ve not read them, I recommend you add them to your list.

    Happy reading

  • Thank you, Ian! It’s nice to meet you. I’d not heard of either of those, but I’ll definitely add them to my list.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • how weird. Toilers of the Sea is the only one on the list i have read. amazing story. Hugo is one of my favorites of all time tho. i will have to read Demons and A Trip to the Stars.

    my recommendation is Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan. its very dark but it really makes you think about the roles we play in each others lives.

  • Thank you for the list I really must read them all. Mine – The Hobbit , From Russia with Love ,(in truth I love all of Fleming’s books, and all of Tolkien’s as well) To Kill a Mockingbird (my mother and Ms Lee were schoolmates in Monroeville) , Gone with the Wind , Centennial , The Old Man and the Sea… my list is more “commercial” I suppose but I feel they are good reads even if only for mere entertainment

  • Thank you for reading, threenotch. That’s one cool avatar you have.

    Thank you for your list, and thank you for dropping by.

  • I enjoyed The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian. It’s a pretty funny read and reminded me of Hunter Thompson as I started reading it. Also, William Brandt’s novel The Book of the Film of the Story of My Life. It’s slightly uneven but quite funny. I’ve never seen these mentioned anywhere. I also thoroughly enjoyed David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, a collection of the authors articles from various periodicals. He’s like Erik Larson in that his research is spectacular. Definitely a book you’ll enjoy reading. And finally, Jasper Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels (she’s a detective within the world of fiction who polices characters, style, and plot). They’re not groundbreaking works of fiction that will change the way we think or stylistic masterpieces, but they’re intensely well-plotted stories with a constant nod to literature and classic characters. Hope those give some enjoyment!

  • Thank you, Roger. It’s a pleasure to meet you. To be honest, I haven’t heard of any of those books you mention. (The Fuck Up? That could be my manifesto.)

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Wonderful List!
    I would also suggest a few contenders:
    Blood Meridian/ the evening redness in the west – Cormac McCarthy
    The Handmaids’ Tale – Margaret Atwood
    Hyperion – Dan Simmons
    American Gods – Neil Gaiman
    That offered, I will be seeking out a few titles from you list. Thank you for sharing!

  • Such an oversight! I cannot believe I forgot to mention Max Barry
    Jennifer Government is one of the best satires I’ve ever read, and damn funny not to mention his less funny but just as original Lexicon which toys with the fantastical power of words in a stark and immediate way

  • Thank you, Kate!

    Blood Meridian is in many ways my all-time favorite novel, and the only reason I didn’t include it here is that I didn’t quite think it fit the “novels-you’ve-never-heard-of” description. But perhaps I’m wrong.

    Max Barry, on the other hand, I HAVEN’T ever heard of, and I appreciate the recommendation.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Karel Čapek, “The War with the Newts”

  • Little, Big by John Crowley
    Kafka on the Shore by Murakami

    I’m excited to check out your list! The Demons by Dostoevsky is one of my all time favorite books. And, victor Hugo was one of my favorite authors as a young adult… But I’ve never read the book you mentioned. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lela Casey. I LOVED Kafka on the Shore, which I had not yet read when I wrote this post. I’m not a categorical Haruki Murakami fan — in fact, I think he’s hit-or-miss — but there’s a scene in Chapter 31, when Kafka asks Miss Saeki where she found those two chords, that I think is so touching and so profound that it makes up for any flaws the novel may have.

    I almost never meet someone who’s read Demons, let alone loved it, and so I think you will really enjoy Toilers of the Sea.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Thanks for a good new list. I love getting advice, especially for the books you have to go hunting after. I second (or third) Lamb- its super funny, but it does stay with you. And the sermon on the mount scene has to be one of the funniest ever.
    The Beach by Alex Garland is great- he was sort of a one hit wonder, and many people would give it a miss because the movie made from the book was so lousy- but its a good read. Finally The Land of Love and Drowning- recent release, very good.

  • Thank you, Lauren. It’s good to meet you. I’ve never heard of The Land of Love and Drowning, but I just listened to an excerpt — “honey-skinned and ocean-haired” — and it persuaded my to buy it.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • All the Kristen Lavransdatter books by Sigrid Undsett.

  • Thank you, Laura. In fact, I haven’t ever heard of Sigrid Undsett — or, at any rate, I hadn’t until you dropped by.

    Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment.

  • “Although I have to say that my wife and I were a bit shocked at the absence of women from the list.”

    Aha, a kernel for a post on my site, if you don’t beat me to it. I’m thinking of the trajectory of oppressed identities from minor entries in graduate syllabi to “(fill in your favorite oppressed identity here) _____ studies” departments.

  • My dear Father Time, I won’t beat you to it. The subject is all yours.

    As for the absence of women on this list, I can only say that all the novels I know and love that were written by females are, by and large, too well-known to be included here.

    Although I did almost include The Sea, The Sea.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Varamo by Cesar Aira is a hilarious, bizarre novel set in 1920s Panama. Visually it felt like Kafka meets Bill Plympton. To give an example of the incidents, there is a car race where a constant (slow) speed must be maintained. Those drivers who get frustrated and accelerate are arrested as anarchists.

  • I just bought a copy, Paul Threlfall (nice handle, that!) — based entirely upon your recommendation and description.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • I would like to give an honorable mention to The First Immortal by James L. Halperin. When and if you read it, you have to keep in mind when it was written and how true to form it has become.

  • I’ve never heard of it. Thank you, Nick.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • I have only read the Dostoyevsky book you mentioned. (His Crime & Punishment is my favorite book of all time) I think I might give some of these other books a try. I would also like to add that I absolutely enjoyed reading the novel, Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. What a wonderful mixture of many topics including unrequited love, prejudice, injustice, honor, history and so much more. I highly recommend it.

  • Very intriguing list, thank you for it. Between your list and the novels mentioned in the comments, I have been able to build on my own ever-growing “to-read” list! Perhaps not unknown, but certainly worth recommending, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is at the top of my list of best books written in the twenty-first century. Anyone not familiar with the work of Mr. Mitchell has a delicious treat in store!

  • Thank you, Gary.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • Just bought 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami….

  • There’s a long section in the middle part of 1Q84 that had me turning pages faster than any book in recent memory. I mean, it was so compelling and so thrilling that I almost couldn’t believe it. The book as a whole left me wanting a little — particularly at the end. But that middle section was so good that it made it all worthwhile.

    Let me know what you think of it.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • I hope no one mentioned one of my favorites (I confess to skimming the comments above, but I’d recommend An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. It’s a fascinating story that builds through four different retellings/perspectives. Also, all of the works of China Mieville, a surrealist sci-fi/fantasy writer who breaks genres … Especially Perdido Street Station.

  • Thank you for your comment, Karl.

    You were not redundant, and as a matter of fact, based upon your suggestion (and the first two pages of the actual book), I just purchased Perdido Street Station.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • China Mieville is somewhat hit and miss for many people because his range is so large, but Perdido Street Station is nothing short of amazing. The Scar is a kind of sequel though not in the traditional sense as it’s just in the same world.

    I also thank you for an interesting list. I’ve tagged most of them in Goodreads so that I’ll remember them as I work through my massive to read list.

  • I was particularly interested in his stated Mervyn Peake influence, because Titus Groan is one of my all-time favorite novels.

  • Thanks for the info

  • Thank YOU, Sourav.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • Shame by Salmon Rushdie.
    If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

  • Thank you, Vanessa!

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • Perhaps for inventive fun and microdetails Mezzanine by Nicholson baker and I really enjoyed crossing to safety. Reading tosches Dante book now. Thanks very much for your list. Looking into a few of them John

  • It’s a fascinating story that builds through four different retellings/perspectives. Also, all of the works of China Mieville, a surrealist sci-fi/fantasy writer who breaks genres … Especially Perdido Street Station.

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