Un-put-down-able novels for a fiction hater
June 29, 2016 5:07 AM   Subscribe

I've browsed a lot of book recommendation questions here but haven't found a thread that quite suits my interests. I'm a mostly nonfiction reader, but most of my all-time favourite books are novels. I'd like to read more fiction but I'm having a hard time finding novels I like. All suggestions appreciated!

I'm pretty sure I have aphantasia to some degree (i.e. I can't see things in my mind). I really hate descriptions and flowery writing, and this is probably why. I don't mind character thoughts or emotions, but I don't care about the landscape or the weather beyond a very perfunctory descriptive mention. I also have trouble with metaphors, as I tend to take things very literally, so any writing that depends heavily on metaphors won't grab me (though now and then is okay).

Lately I've been enjoying creative nonfiction as a way to get into a story that isn't too novel-y. I loved Bringin home the Birkin by Michael Tonello, liked all the A.J. Jacobs books I read, and also liked these:
- The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roosevelt
- Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
- Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Button

Although I have lots more like these on my list, I'd like to find novels I enjoy too, since they tend to draw me in more than most nonfiction books. Here are some of the novels I've really enjoyed:

- John Marsden's Tomorrow series
- Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut (his other books are okay, but this is the only one I loved)
- The Martian by Andy Weir (I liked the parts on Earth better than the parts on Mars, especially the science stuff)
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
- Catcher in the Rye
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (though it was a bit predictable, which I found annoying)

Everything else I've read that I rated 4/5 or 5/5 is either nonfiction, a play, or novels I read as a teenager that I wouldn't read now.

I also really like plays, in case that makes any difference. Partly because I love theatre, and probably partly because they're mostly action with very little description.

Some stuff I've tried and didn't like:
- Tom Robbins
- Terry Pratchett
- Anything fantasy or SciFi
- Horror or mystery stories
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
- John Grisham except The Innocent Man, which was based on a true story
- Game of Thrones
- The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

If you have similar tastes and can suggest a novel that I'll get sucked into, please do! Thanks a lot for the help.
posted by bellebethcooper to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
How about Martin Cruz-Smith? His police procedurals set in Moscow and various other Soviet cities got him banned in Russia for a while. Arkady Renko is a Moscow detective who keeps getting in trouble for investigating murders that various power-holders would rather not be investigated.

I'm not a fan in general of this sort of fiction, the way my wife is, but they sucked me in.

"Polar Star" is perfect for a hot summer. It's set on a Soviet fishing trawler in the Arctic.

"Red Square" is another. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Arkady is still in business, and the thugs and bureaucracy (sometimes one and the same) are no less horrific.
posted by qurlyjoe at 5:28 AM on June 29, 2016

Based on your list, you might enjoy The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

I'm also going out on a limb here, since plot-wise it's far afield from your picks, but based on the voices of your likes list, I'd also recommend The Russian Debutante's Handbook
posted by Mchelly at 5:31 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Patricia Highsmith, maybe.
posted by Miko at 5:34 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nelson DeMille, Gold Coast.
posted by AugustWest at 5:54 AM on June 29, 2016

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.

Gail Tsukiyama, The Samurai's Garden.

Cloud Atlas by James Mitchell.

Maybe Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood. (Mainly because of Catcher in the Rye.)

Looking at your list to try and see what the books have in common, I'm getting a very strong voice and point of view. Most of these books seem pretty original too. Is that it? If so, I'm thinking you may be able to tell within a chapter or two if you are going to like something. I download free samples of books and can usually tell from reading 15-20 pages whether or not I want to go on.
posted by BibiRose at 6:52 AM on June 29, 2016

Try The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
posted by gnutron at 7:06 AM on June 29, 2016

Have you tried Ernest Hemingway?
posted by pheide at 7:11 AM on June 29, 2016

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri...so good! I found it very realistic.
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:12 AM on June 29, 2016

Oh and Nick Hornby's older novels.
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:13 AM on June 29, 2016

The writing of Jo Walton is worth checking out. Her fiction is highly character-driven; she doesn't have a lot of flowery descriptions in her writing, instead saving her descriptions for character traits, motivations, and internal dialogues. Her Small Change trilogy is a good place to start. It's set in an alternate history (1940s-1960s) where Britain negotiated a peace with Nazi Germany. The first book reads more like a murder mystery/political thriller that happens to be an alternate history novel; the second and third books are solidly alternate history novels. (The first book is called Farthing and is relatively self-contained.)

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad is likewise character-driven. It's kind of a collection of short stories, but the stories interweave and share characters. It's all very well-done.

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette might be worth checking out as well. I wouldn't shelve it in the mystery section (although that's nominally what it is); I'd probably call it light literary fiction. It's a quick and easy read. If you grew up in a passive-aggressive environment (like Seattle, where this story is set), you'll find a lot to laugh about here.

Finally, since you mentioned "creative nonfiction," I'd be remiss not to bring up Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. It's a work of nonfiction masquerading as a novel; it's written in a narrative fashion, while sticking entirely to historical fact. I personally didn't get into it, but a lot of people I know love this book.
posted by duffell at 7:19 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Max Barry writes entertaining, fast-moving books with essentially no description. I've read Jennifer Government, Company, and Lexicon and enjoyed them all, particularly Lexicon (even though I generally prefer books with lots of description.)
posted by Redstart at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest you read The Brothers Karamazov

Don't be put off by the length or the subject matter - it is ADDICTIVE to read.

I also couldn't put down The Naked and the Dead

Neither are too flowery. They're intensely immersive.

And I'd second Cormack McCarthy's The Road and anything by Hemmingway (try The Old Man and the Sea and see if it catches you - very short)

I think you'd also like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

And lastly, I recently re-read Steinbeck's East of Eden and it holds up as incredibly compelling, fun summer reading.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:54 AM on June 29, 2016

Are you on goodreads? One way I get book recommendations is to think of a book I love, see who else has rated it really high and how they describe it in their reviews, then do a function called "compare books" where the site compares all the books in our libraries and lines up books that are in both, side by side with our respective ratings. If I find that we actually do have similar taste, I'll scroll around in their library to see what looks interesting.

My gut instinct for you is Lock In, by John Scalzi, mainly because of the narrative voice.

Two of my favorites, which I think you also might like, are Citizen Vince and The Zero, both by Jess Walter. I have been typing and erasing, trying to find the right way to describe these to pique your interest, but I just have to leave it at this: They are wildly, darkly funny although I don't think everyone would describe them quite like that; they both sneakily address serious issues; they have a ton of conversation, reminiscent of David Mamet; they are extremely satisfying reads.
posted by janey47 at 10:00 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not a huge fan of fiction and tend to actively dislike horror, but I found I could not put down "Wolfen," in spite of it being in the horror genre. It is just really well written and the idea is intriguingly plausible, unlike so much fiction/horror.
posted by Michele in California at 10:41 AM on June 29, 2016

If you liked The Martian and scifi, you may like Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. And if you like terse straigtforward prose and an action story you might like any of Lee Child's Reacher novels.
posted by lpsguy at 1:31 PM on June 29, 2016

Thanks for the recommendations, everyone! Really appreciate having more books to try. I've been so bummed at all the time and money wasted on novels that I didn't like in the past couple years.

I've been trying to figure out why I like the books I do enjoy, and I have some ideas:
- straightforward writing (Kurt Vonnegut is great at this, Room is told via a 5 year-old)
- character driven (I'm not too interested in crime, detective stories, history, or other action-packed books. I like stories and their psychology to be the focus)
- Moral dilemmas (eg. The mum's worry in Room after doing the interview, the guy on Earth in The Martian who wants to tell the crew, the flashback stuff on the train in A Man Called Ove, lots of points in the Tomorrow series)
- emotionally wrought situations (Ove thinking about his wife, most of Room, most of the Tomorrow series after the first half of book 1)

Hope that helps, and thanks again!
posted by bellebethcooper at 3:28 PM on June 29, 2016

@janey47 I didn't know about that Goodreads feature but I will definitely try it, thanks!

Also a couple of updates:

I've read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and only found it okay. Probably wouldn't recommend to anyone. Same for The Rosie Project which is along similar lines in terms of narration.

I've read a little of a Cormac McCarthy book that's not The Road and couldn't stand his writing. I started The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway and found it unbearably boring.

Devil in the White City is on must for nonfiction. I've heard great things about it.

My boyfriend read Cloud Atlas and Farther and told me not to read either. Apparently I'd hate Cloud Atlas.

All the rest, I will explore! Thanks!
posted by bellebethcooper at 3:32 PM on June 29, 2016

Your description of what you like makes me think you might go for something by John Irving.

And maybe this is too obvious a suggestion, but if you liked Catcher in the Rye you should try Frannie and Zooey.
posted by Redstart at 5:46 PM on June 29, 2016

Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose.
posted by jon1270 at 5:52 PM on June 29, 2016

Sorry, Farthing* not Farther.
posted by bellebethcooper at 6:01 PM on June 29, 2016

Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. A comedic novel about a river trip.
posted by fings at 9:43 PM on June 29, 2016

Since you said you didn't like Cormac McCarthy, that made me decide to answer since I also don't like his writing but have a somewhat similar reading situation as you do. Here are a few I've liked.

Sula by Toni Morrison
Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
A Fool's Paradise by Anita Konkka
Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
Extinction by Thomas Bernhard
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Conner
posted by perhapses at 9:50 PM on June 29, 2016

You might like Karl Ove Knaussgard's 'My Struggle' series, which I personally found almost TOO straightforward. It's an autobiography with some emotionally wrought situations for sure.

Here's an article he wrote on observing live brain surgeries that can give you a feel for his style.
posted by thebots at 6:12 AM on June 30, 2016

I read mostly non-fiction but have really enjoyed these fiction titles.

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese - absolutely wonderful story
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The GoldFinch by Donna Tartt
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
The Girls by Lori Lansens
11/22/63 by Stephen King

All have a great story and very enjoyable writing.

I am also going to make note of some of the others listed as they sound interesting.
posted by MrsMGH at 9:32 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am just crazy about narrative nonfiction and true crime and I found Devil in the White City to be kind of meh.




Just Mercy

I should also mention that that goodreads function I describe works best if you have rated a largeish number of books so that the comparison with another reader is more accurate.

If you don't have any books on goodreads at all, you can still look up one of your favorite books, skim through the reader reviews, and then just explore the books that are listed by someone whose review you really agree with.
posted by janey47 at 5:07 PM on June 30, 2016

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