Read 'em and don't weep.
April 9, 2011 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Book recommendations - slay me with modern fictional awesomeness!

I don't really want fluff and/or fruitcake books; I have plenty of options for those. I'd like one-off, stand alone, single volume fictional stories that are modern (so no Gulliver's Travels, Jane Eyre, Ayn Rand, etc).

And I want it to be the single most awesome book you've ever read!

Before you say it, here's what I've already read:
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (my fave book of all time)
Winter's Bone
Hunger Games (books 1/2, book 3 wasn't as awesome)
City of Thieves
The Book Thief
High Fidelity

Here's what I can't read:
Marley & Me/Racing in the Rain or other memoirs about pet loss
A Staggering Work of Hearbreaking Genius or other memoirs about parental suffering. (I couldn't make it past the first chapter)
posted by santojulieta to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (51 answers total) 166 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: American Gods.
posted by gwenlister at 3:24 PM on April 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

I think that "Downtiming the Nightside" is the single best time-travel SF story I have ever read.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:27 PM on April 9, 2011

Corelli's Mandolin. I don't have one favorite novel, but that is definitely in my Top 10.
posted by something something at 3:33 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell.
posted by janepanic at 3:33 PM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (the characters are a bit mean, and there is a tiny bit of parental suffering, so this might not be great; you might like Freedom better)
A History of Love, Nicole Krauss
The Emporer's Children, Claire Messud
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld
A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (a little bit old, but great)
I Capture the Castle, Dede Smith
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (this one is a bit old, but is very good)

I also liked American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, as suggested above.
posted by k8lin at 3:34 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and sorry, Corelli's Mandolin is totally not modern. Damn! I change my vote to Never Let Me Go.
posted by something something at 3:35 PM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well, the single most awesome book I've ever read doesn't fit your criteria (I'm guessing when you say "modern" you mean contemporary fiction, and not modernist fiction, which puts Ulysses out of the running), so here are some contemporary novels I've really loved and that I think are very smart:

Possession, A.S. Byatt
The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco (caveat: Foucault's Pendulum intentionally takes some time to get into, and part of what drives the story hinges on computer technology from the late 1980s that feels wildly dated now)
Empire Falls, Richard Russo
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (people tend to either really love it or really hate it; I thought it was a riot)
Atonement, Ian McEwanTours of the Black Clock, Steve Erickson

Two that I'm currently reading:
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
posted by scody at 3:36 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

whoops, sorry about running in the McEwan and Erickson books like that; hit post instead of preview.
posted by scody at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2011

One of my favorite modern novels is Connie Willis's two-part Blackout/All Clear. It's long, but I think it's wonderful. It's about time travel to WWII, but I still wouldn't at all describe it as sci-fi.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure what you mean by fluff, but I'm suggesting The Name of the Wind (and it's sequel, as well).

It calls itself a "fantasy novel," but it is an incredible, beautiful, lyrical piece of myth. It's not pretentious, so it may look like fluff, but it's just amazing.

Never likely to be confused with fluff, but a little older: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and anything else by Haruki Murakami.
posted by meese at 3:41 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino.
posted by Dumsnill at 3:41 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: The Imperfectionists (modern newspaper employees)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (seriously, do it)
Fall on Your Knees and/or The Way the Crow Flies, both by Anne-Marie Macdonald (these, however, may make you weep)
Cloud Atlas (or any David Mitchell, really. Including Black Swan Green as suggested above)
On Beauty and/or White Teeth, Zadie Smith (really well portrayed family and race dyamics in modern society)
Lots of people are turned off by Margaret Atwood's public persona, which is a shame, because lots of her work is amazing. Try Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.

I love all Kavalier and Clay as well, and some of these had similar levels of love for me! Hope you like some of them.
posted by hepta at 3:41 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Iain Banks has some excellent fiction, e.g. Complicity, but they're often rather dark...
posted by knapah at 3:42 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

And a note about Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: The parental suffering part is really tough to read, but it's really just in the first chapter. He really doesn't dwell on it once it's done. After that it's just about being a young adult with a kid brother in tow.
posted by amethysts at 3:53 PM on April 9, 2011

Roberto Bolaño is amazing. I'd recommend starting with some short stories to see how you like his style. Last Evenings on Earth is a good place to start. Savage Detectives would be my next stop. Oh, and as for Murakami, I wouldn't start with Wind-up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood or Hard-Boiled Wonderand and the End of the World are better places to dive in.
posted by Kattullus at 4:01 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: This is always my answer when a question like this comes up and there's a good reason for that (because it's the best book ever).

posted by elsietheeel at 4:03 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just read Never Let Me Go and I'd have to second its recommendation. It's excellent.
posted by furiousthought at 4:08 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoyed 2008's The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway.

It concerns the aftermath of a global war fought with "go-away bombs," advanced weapons that erase the physical content of reality but which unexpectedly release metaphysical fallout called "Stuff" that can be shaped by the human subconscious. The unnamed narrator and his buddy Gonzo live with other survivors alongside a world-girding pipeline that supplies a Stuff-dispersing chemical. When the pipeline is sabotaged, they are tasked with venturing into the surreal wastelands teeming with bizarre creatures and impossible phenomenon in order to repair the pipe and apprehend the saboteurs. The story also explores their childhoods and lives leading up to the incident.

The writing is dense and funny, packed with asides and informal musings. It has a comic, postmodern feel while still including some interesting ideas.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:12 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Check out The Morning News' 2011 Tournament of Books contender list:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Nox, by Anne Carson
Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon
Bloodroot, by Amy Greene
Next, by James Hynes
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
Model Home, by Eric Puchner
So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
Savages, by Don Winslow

Skippy Dies was my personal favorite 2010-released book. Bad Marie reads like an engrossing movie script. Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad are well-deserving of their critical acclaim.
posted by kelechv at 4:23 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'll fly the Salman Rushdie flag in here, though his books tend to span large swaths of time, some of which might not be "modern" by your standards. Midnight's Children (story spans ~1915-1976) is my favourite of his; Shalimar the Clown is quite good too, and takes place in a more recent era.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:26 PM on April 9, 2011

Anything by Paul Auster. My favorites are Invisible, Oracle Night, and New York Trilogy.

How To Buy A Love Of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson.

Anything by John Green. Looking for Alaska is a good place to start.
posted by litnerd at 4:29 PM on April 9, 2011

Great suggestions so far -- I'm going to repeat some.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (and also The Magician's Assistant)
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

And, maybe fluffy, but I have a (not-so) secret love for Shogun by James Clavell.

These are the books I would want with me on a desert island.
posted by cider at 4:55 PM on April 9, 2011

Here to second "The Name of the Wind". You might also enjoy Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy. He was tapped to complete the Wheel of Time series, if that gives you an idea of his skill.

I'd prefer "The Remains of the Day" over "Never Let Me Go". I always felt like "Remains" was Ishiguro's original great novel and "Never Let Me Go" was some kind of pale imitation, like, "hey, nostalgia and a missed romantic opportunity won me the Booker once, right?".
posted by d. z. wang at 4:56 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, oh! Anathem by Neal Stephenson. You'll either love it or hate it by the third chapter, but if you love it you will love it.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:57 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
posted by creepygirl at 5:09 PM on April 9, 2011

A lot of my favorites are mentioned above already. I really enjoyed The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall.
posted by arcticseal at 5:13 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: Yay!

Here's what's in my Amazon cart right now:

Elegance of the Hedgehog
Visit from the Goon Squad
The Imperfectionists
American Gods

And I loved Wally Lamb when I read it when I was sixteen.
posted by santojulieta at 5:41 PM on April 9, 2011

Strongly seconding anything by Paul Auster, David Mitchell and Murakami.
posted by jbickers at 6:25 PM on April 9, 2011

These are on my best-of shelf:
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova (yes, she really is that good)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
posted by titantoppler at 7:42 PM on April 9, 2011

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood can be read as a single volume book, but if you like it (I loved it) you can follow it up with The Year of the Flood.
posted by kbar1 at 8:33 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you think you'll like American Gods (*great* novel, btw), you'll love Kraken by China Miéville.

Anansi Boys is a spinoff of American Gods. Starts a little slower, but the revelation and transformation of the "protagonist" is very very sweet. The prose is a lot prettier than the very solid American Gods.

Heck, if you're going this route, you'll eventually return to Good Omens which is a collaboration between Gaiman and Pratchett (of Discworld fame - incidentally, he took some unpopular time off to write a novel he wanted to write instead of another Discworld novel that fans clamoured for; Nation, which is a pretty kick-ass "young-adult" novel which worked with some themes such as imperialism/colonialism, gender roles, and religion).

On a tangent, Damnation Alley was an interesting action-ey short-ish novel by Zelazny. Ok stuff. Some dude I had never heard of, Walter Jon Williams, writes a "sequel" in the same world with Zelazny's blessings, Hardwired. I had assumed that it was just pulp cyberpunk... but it was pretty awesome and explored well some interesting ideas (consciousness as software). Awesome enough for me to hunt down and buy an out-of-print copy of the short story that links the sequel, Voice of the Whirlwind which is still action-ey and detective-y and interestingly addresses a lot of speculation about software memory copies, memory implantation in clones, political ramifications of ideological oligarchies, disenfranchisement of the lower classes, and socio-political impacts of first-contact with a "more mature" alien race. Surprisingly great reads.
posted by porpoise at 8:34 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pattern Recognition, but William Gibson. Not nearly as science-fictiony as his older stuff. One of my favourite books of the last decade.

It's the first part of a sort-of trilogy, so if you like it you could read the other books (Spook Country, which was so-so, and Zero History, which was very good), but Pattern Recognition stands alone well and not reading the other books wont detract from the experience.
posted by damonism at 8:47 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

s/but William Gibson/by William Gibson/
posted by damonism at 8:48 PM on April 9, 2011

I highly recommend Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - a collection of short fiction by Wells Tower. I'll quote my friend here, whose description of his own reading experience sent me right to the nearest bookstore:
"This book is a finely chopped blend of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and a keen ear for the high musical rhythm of speech in the Northern parts of the South ... 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned' is a spectacular collection of short fiction, but it’s also the title of the last story in the book — a first-person account from a world-weary Viking about the soul-crushing work he’s got to perform marauding and pillaging to feed his wife. He’s got a vain boss and a workaholic buddy, and he’s getting pretty sick of it. It’s hilarious and beautiful."
posted by D.Billy at 9:13 PM on April 9, 2011

I'm not sure what "fluff" is to you, but be careful, so much crap is passed off as "literary fiction." I'm with B.R. Myers on this issue if you know what that means. Egads!

With the above out of the way, there were a couple of mentions of Revolutionary Road above and I urge you to drop that in the cart one of these days. Easter Parade is another great book from Richard Yates.

Here's a "sleeper" for you - something from the bleachers...a wildcard....but an absolutely great first novel from a guy named Noam Shpancer, The Good Psychologist.

Happy reading!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 9:37 PM on April 9, 2011

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is great.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:47 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I can't believe no one's said it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susannah Clarke.

Little, Big, by John Crowley.

Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins.

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

The Gate to Women's Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.

At some point every one of these has held the title of "Best book I ever read," and I'd be hard-pressed right now to tell you which one's in the lead.

And supporting votes for American Gods, Anansi Boys (preferably in that order) and A Prayer for Owen Meany. MAN that was good.
posted by kostia at 9:57 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would strongly recommend the work of W.G. Sebald.

I have read The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz and was quite taken with them. Very intelligent and primarily concerned with the horrors at the center of the last century in Europe. Disturbing and beautiful in almost equal measure.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:34 PM on April 9, 2011

Seconding Winter's Tale, Cloud Atlass, American Gods, The Name of the Wind/Wise Man's Fear, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Anathem, and All Clear/Blackout. Note that The Name of the Wind/Wise Man's Fear is currently incomplete, so if you want to read them all at once, wait a few years for Rothfuss to finish the last volume. As for All Clear/Blackout, it really is one book that has been split into two volumes due to its size and is quite excellent.

I'd also recommend The City and the City by China Mieville. Not really even science fiction, although that probably depends on who you ask. This book won the Hugo (well tied for it anyway) last year and is probably Mieville's best book since the also awesome Perdido Street Station. I didn't think Kraken was anywhere near as good as these two.
posted by pwicks at 12:11 PM on April 10, 2011

The single most awesome book you've ever read

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (mentioned above)

posted by nev at 5:37 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Geek Love. Has Geek love been said? Geek Love. Get. It. Now.
Also, No one belongs here more than you. Don't blush.
posted by penguinkeys at 10:43 PM on April 10, 2011

If Edgar Sawtelle strikes a chord, other books that I think are great and in that vein are The Shadow of the Wind, Carter Beats the Devil, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and The Testament of Gideon Mack.
posted by troywestfield at 9:23 AM on April 11, 2011

Had to chime in a little late to put a good word in for John Irving. When he's good (A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules), there's nobody better.
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2011

Memoirs of a Geisha (random people on the bus in DC stopped me all the time just to talk about how awesome the book was)

Anything by Jhumpa Lahiri

Empire Falls

The Dive From Clausen's Pier

The Senator's Wife
posted by bananafish at 2:03 PM on April 12, 2011

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

Also, But Beautiful if you're into jazz.
posted by northxnorthwest at 8:47 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What, no Stieg Larssen?
Books that take you far away:
Mating by Norman Rush (most authentic woman's voice by male writer I've ever read)
David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (about the colonial politics, economics and culture on Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th century, full of lush and phenomenal detail and authenticity, along with a ripping story, truly an amazing achievement)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Anything by Michael Cunningham, especially The Hours and Speciman Days (completely haunting)
Winters Tale by Mark Helprin
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
posted by thinkpiece at 6:50 AM on April 15, 2011

Olen Butler, Bridge of Sighs.
posted by mecran01 at 11:31 AM on April 15, 2011

Sorry, Olen Steinhauer, and it's a trilogy of detective novels set impost wwII Hungary. Also The Tourist and the sequel. Like a faster paced John LeCarre.
posted by mecran01 at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2011

The Fortress of Solitude
posted by AceRock at 12:31 PM on June 10, 2011

Oh, wow, this is awesome; I'm just going to export the whole list to my library's request page.

Some of my favourites:

Life of Pi - Yann Martel
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz
Geek Love - Katherine Dunn
Headhunter - Timothy Findley (or anything by Timothy Findley)
The Corrections - Jonathan Franzten (does have parental suffering, but is so totally worth it)
Stanley Park - Timothy Taylor
The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver (SO GOOD)
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace (requires a serious commitment)
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth (EPIC, in the literal sense)
posted by looli at 7:28 PM on June 10, 2011

Best answer: Books I couldn't stop talking/thinking about for weeks after reading them:

The Way The Crow Flies
The French Lieutenant's Woman
The Time Traveler's Wife
Stones from the River
Cat's Eye

Although others have already mentioned them, these book fall into the same category:

One Hundred Years of Solitude
I Know This Much is True
The Remains of the Day
Life of Pi
posted by marsha56 at 1:08 PM on June 11, 2011

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