Awards: Top Ten Books Out-of-the-Mainstream

September 20th, 2010

Ten literary-fiction novels of the 21st century that you may not know, but should.

Now, more than ten years into the 21st century, we’ve seen the world change in the political, scientific, and academic fields in ways that few thought possible. Linguistic and communications advances have led to technological progression and easy international interaction, despite the odd language barriers. Amidst all this lie the books that tell the stories of our lives. Literary novels both deal with the issues of today while taking into account the influence of the past. Fictional works portray characters that echo our own lives. Given the tight relationship of our own life experiences with our understanding of literature, have the standards by which we judge a good book changed along with the times? Is there any validity to the claim that awards and prizes don’t accurately represent the truly good books today? You be the judge: read on for ten literary-fiction novels of the 21st century that you may not know, but should. These books are rated “Top Ten Modern Books Out-of-the-Mainstream” by Literature Monthly and Literature Weekly magazines.

The Thirteenth Tale
We start off our review with what may become one of the most influential books from the beginning of the 21st century. Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is a gothic-style novel reminiscent of the Bronte sisters. The protagonist, Margaret, is the daughter of a bookstore owner. Her hobby is writing biographies of lesser-known writers. She’s also a twin, though her sister died in childbirth.

The story isn’t actually about Margaret, though. It’s actually about Vida Winter, a famous author who commissions Margaret to do her biography. The thing is, everyone who has interviewed Vida Winter in the past got different stories, none of them the same. Is Vida Winter actually telling Margaret the truth? What kind of stories is she hiding?

Like most good books, the story is multi-layered. What began as a story about Margaret and turns into a story about Vida Winter becomes again in the end a story about Margaret as she comes to understand both Vida and herself. But does she understand everything? What, really, is truth? These are the questions that this book grapples with – similar to other literature, yet entirely different. At once a novel of literary fiction yet a readable modern fiction book. Diane Setterfield as both a first-time writer and novelist has won numerous novel awards, including recognition by the Quill Awards and Galaxy British Book Awards. The Thirteenth Tale will soon take its place among the 21st century’s great literary novels.

The Thirteenth Tale on Amazon:


Ann Fortier walks a well-trod path when she starts yet another rewrite of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This time, however, it’s 600 years later. We’re in Siena, Italy with the descendants of the famed Capulets and Montagues. The author was there with her mother, and got her inspiration from the city itself—yet another testament to the poignancy of our sense of place in an increasingly international world. Juliet stars protagonist Julie Jacobs, who inherits a key to a safe deposit box that supposedly holds an ancient family treasure. History sweeps her off as she discovers the depth of a 600-year-old feud. Juliet challenges us to reconsider the way that we view such monumental stories as Romeo and Juliet by leading us to reexamine the impact today of stories told long ago.

Juliet on Amazon:

Their victory against the French in the Battle of Agincourt marked a major turning point for the English in the Hundred-Years War. King Henry himself fought and led his armies. As such, the Battle has long been immortalize in literature – it is featured in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a number of fantasy and science fiction novels, and was even the subject of a mock trial held in Washinton, D.C. With such a background, it takes a brave novelist to again tackle the battle.

Bernard Cornwell is that author. In the novel Agincourt, he tells the story of a fictional archer in King Henry’s army, Nicholas Hook. “English longbowmen” were key players in a number of battles of the era, largely because the French had no comparable weapons. We see the battle through Hook’s eyes. Because of Cornwell’s brilliant writing, we not only read about it, but almost actually feel the sweat and blood of this brutal time. When Hook starts hearing voices of long-dead saints, we, too, are entranced by their words. Cornwell is a stickler for historical accuracy, and as a writer prefers the brief and concise.. If you haven’t yet, read this book – not only will you come away with a bit more historical knowledge, but you will feels something akin to kinship as you put the book down and think on the soldiers.

Agincourt on Amazon:

The Hittite
Just out in April of 2010, Ben Bova’s novel The Hittite Makes for another fascinating reading. You may not have heard of this book because Bova’s background as a novelist is different than most in this genre – he is best known for his prolific science-fiction writing. Here, however, he takes on retelling of The Illiad, one of history’s most well-known literary epics.

As a writer, Bova does well in this switch-of-genre. His writing is traditionally clear, yet he isn’t stuck to one particular style. Perhaps slightly overusing the flowery language, Bova depicts the world of Lukka, a Hittite warrior who returns home to find his family gone and his city torn by civil war. He goes searching for them, and arrives at Agamemnon just in time to catch the final portions of the Trojan War. Bove doesn’t pull any sly ones – his characters are true to the time. Women are more property than they are people, and brutality isn’t condemned. As a work of art, a work of history, and a work of literature, this book will continue to be important as part of Homer’s continuing odyssey.

The Hittite on Amazon:

Roman Payne - Rooftop Soliloquy

Rooftop Soliloquy by Roman Payne

Rooftop Soliloquy
Voted one of the ten best novels of the 21st century. Rooftop Soliloquy, the fourth novel by Paris-based author Roman Payne, is a beautifully-written story of love, pleasure and seduction in the city of Paris. The style reminds one of a great 19th century novel, although the humor, sexuality, and poetic eroticism in its pages make the novel a true, ultra-modern work.

The narration follows the travels and life of an eccentric artist and composer—a character who changes residences as most people change clothes—who drifts around Paris frequenting women’s bedrooms, luxury nightclubs, and jet-set parties. All the while, he composes his masterpiece: an opera, or “Hero’s Tale,” based on Homer’s Odyssey. When the pleasures of Parisian life threaten his creative production, the narrator decides to orchestrate an ingenious love-intrigue, for the sake of his art, that results in a murder. The effect is an extremely creative and complex (though easy to read) literary masterpiece that is worthy of being compared to Dostoevsky. Roman Payne’s novel could be considered a high-brow, more intelligent and sophisticated version Brett Easton Ellis’ jet-setter novels; or a continuation of American Francophile prose begun by novelists Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Whatever the comparison, Roman Payne’s Rooftop Soliloquy is great fun to read, a flashback in the past to the “Golden Age of the Novel,” and a flash-forward to the future of high literature.

Rooftop Soliloquy on Amazon:

Blonde Faith

Mystery novels rarely qualify as literary works of art, yet Walter Mosley’s novel Blonde Faith goes beyond the bounds of a run-of-the-mill mystery. His detective Easy Rawlins is a black man who lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s – not an easy place nor time for anyone to make a living, let alone a person of color. But Mosely doesn’t fall into the trap of letting concerns about race overtake his novel. Blonde Faith isn’t about race, though as an honest writer the injustices still figure prominently; the book is about the character. This transcendence allows any reader of his literature to go beyond surface observations to a real look at the life that Rawlins lives. Rawlins himself isn’t perfect, either. He deals with his past mistakes, current pride, and a refusal to get in touch with his almost-wife who he threw out for having an affair. It’s one fear that he can’t overcome.
Mosely as a novelist doesn’t just write works of pulp fiction. He writes books with characters that you can care about, with questions you can think about. This book isn’t just a good read – it’s a book worth sharing.

Blonde Faith on Amazon:

EverlostWhat is a teen novel doing on a list of serious literature? Pick up Neal Shusterman’s Everlost to find out.

Schusterman was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At age 16, however, his family moved to Mexico City. He went with them. This international experience at a young age significantly influenced the way that he looked at the world – not as a Brooklyn teenager, but as an international citizen. He has been a writer since he was young, at one point as a child he even wrote E.B. White telling her that Charlotte’s Web needed a sequel. She wrote back, and he kept writing. Recently, his books have won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the California Young Reader Medal. His books keep winning their novel awards, and Schusterman the writer keeps writing literature that is important not just to teen readers, but to everyone.

The novel Everlost is a story of the spirits of dead children trapped in this world who don’t know how to “get where they are going.” In simple language, Schusterman the novelist addresses age-old existential questions of life, meaning, and significance.

Everlost on Amazon:

Hidden Talents

Hidden Talents by David Lubar is another work of literary fiction masquerading as a teen novel. This book centers on 13-year-old Martin, who is at the last resort Edgeview Alternative School. Lubar frequently quotes poems and pieces of famous literature, include Emily Dickinson’s Death:

Because I could not stop for death
He kindly stopped for me.

While some might say that this makes the book a bit heavy for literature inteded for young readers, it sheds light on young people’s experience in a more ‘grown-up’ world. Writer David Lubar defly juxtaposes the formal and the informal, the old and the young, the used and the new. The book takes an almost fantasy-like turning as the children discover that they have psychic powers. What is really real? Pick up novelist David Lubar’s book Hidden Talents.

Hidden Talents on Amazon:

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To

Ironically, the novel: The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To stands to take the place of Catcher in the Rye as the American coming-of-age literary novel, despite mocking it predecessor within its pages. Young novelist D.C. Pierson (who is also a comedian and actor) picks up on the language and attitudes of high schools today, never pulling punches. The creative crowd is outcast, but form their own friendships that carry them to success, despite the disdaining crowds. The book itself can be seen as a metaphor for the interaction of different groups in society today, especially those that challenge the status quo with their unacceptable genius. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book of literature by novelist D.C. Pierson.

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To on Amazon:

The Darling by Russell Banks

The Darling by Russell Banks

The Darling

Russell Banks wrote another book in 2004 worth looking at: The Darling. Inside you’ll find a story about an empty girl – one who doesn’t act for herself, but is led around by whatever man she happens to be attached to at the time. Eventually heading to Liberia, she gets involved with government officials and shady deals, eventually ending up in a laboratory doing experiments with chimpanzees. An authentic look at African and immigrant life, novelist Russell Banks lives up to his reputation as a writer and delivers literature this will be important not just now, but in the future as well.

The Darling on Amazon:


M.J. Engh’s novel Arslan may not technically be a book of the 21st century. It was first published in 1976, went out of print, was republished in 1987, went out of print again, and was republished yet again in 2001 – making it a newly-published book in the 21st century.

Why would a book go into and out of print so many times? Engh herself states that the book is “about fathers and sons, about power, about a genuinely ruthless (but not unfeeling) mind in pursuit of a practical solution to the world’s problems.” As such, the writer begins the book with the rape of two children, then ends it on a comparably brutal and gruesome note. As a work of literature, Arslan stands at the top. It is not necessarily, however, a pleasant read. It is a fascinating examination of power in the modern world, of family interactions, and of the psychology of a Genghis Khan-like mind in a small town in America. Not any novelist can write a book such as this, but Engh carries the burden proudly.

Arslan on Amazon:

Picking-up any one of these books for a read will lead you to contemplate your own place in our 21st century world. Interestingly, many of these novels are set in the past. What does our frequent contemplation of the past in literature mean for our understanding of the world today? As we constantly gather and process the stories of our lives, sometimes we need to look outside of the popular and common to find the stories that help us understand our own unique experience.

Reprinted with permission from:

– Gabriel Hemingway
Editor – CityRoom, Inc.