Great adventures? Please guide the way!
November 19, 2007 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I need me some literary adventure stories! Yeehar!

So I've realised that I particularly enjoy adventure stories that have a literary slant. Books like If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco and just about anything by Jim Dodge are among the most enjoyable books that I have ever read.

These books seem to combine elements of the page turner with a wee bit (or a big bit) of cleverness to create a satisfying reading experience that in the end I am sad to finish the book and want to start again. Any recommendations for books that manage to marry a page-turning ripping yarn with great writing and great, original ideas are most welcome.

Go Hive!
posted by ClanvidHorse to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Narcissus and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse
posted by The Straightener at 2:48 PM on November 19, 2007

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. (amazon)

Doesn't necessarily have the literary slant, except that the author likes to wax poetic & philosophical from time to time, but you'll never find a greater page-turner. Autobiographical account of an escapee from a maximum security prison, who absconded to Bombay & got involved in the underworld there, as well as running a free clinic in a slum, and fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians, just for a bit of icing on the cake.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:54 PM on November 19, 2007

It's the umpteenth time I've recommended it, but the Aubrey-Maturin series sounds exactly like what you are looking for.
posted by Manjusri at 2:55 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

For something a bit more literary, Tlooth by Harry Mathews has that whole manuscript, mystery, puzzle nexus, and pretty much anything by Jean Echenoz will satisfy your need for quirky, slightly surreal adventure. I'd recommend I'm Off as a good starting point.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:58 PM on November 19, 2007

Calvino and Eco are two of my favourite authors! The writing isn't at Eco's level, but you may enjoy Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. Thomas Pynchon's novels (especially The Crying of Lot 49), House of Leaves, and Neal Stevenson's novels (especially Snow Crash) carry the same feeling of careening erudition.
posted by Paragon at 3:04 PM on November 19, 2007

You might find Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series up your alley.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:05 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

And if the Aubrey-Maturin series floats your boat, then go for the Richard Sharpe series too, along with the other Bernard Cornwell books (especially Nathaniel Starbuck).

I'm not sure they are exactly what you are looking for, though, as they are more along the "rip roaring yarn" axis of your question. I'd go for something along the lines of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or especially The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (all her books are good).

And on preview, seconding House of Leaves and Snow Crash, but perhaps even more The Diamond Age.
posted by gemmy at 3:11 PM on November 19, 2007

Definitely try the Aubrey-Maturin books.

For some oldies, try some of H. Rider Haggard's stories, like She or King Solomon's Mines. I found his stuff strangely familiar, then realized that it was like reading the ancestors of the Indiana Jones movies.

That's the "She" of "She Who Must Be Obeyed", by the way.
posted by Quietgal at 3:28 PM on November 19, 2007

If you like science fiction, Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos are mighty fine space opera, with a (heavy-handed) nod to Keats, much metaphysical hand-waving, and a kick-ass bad guy from the forty-seventh pocket dimension or somewhere like that.

Simmon's most recent book is The Terror, a historical suspense novel about the exploration of the Northwest Passage by British seamen in the 1840s. It was spotlighted by The New Yorker when it was published last February.

And nthing the Aubrey-Maturin books. They're one of the greatest sustained narratives ever written, something that I think I have said at least ten times in similar AskMe threads. You will chuckle in sheer heady bookish glee when you look up from Desolation Island with a pounding pulse and realize that you've barely scratched the surface of the series.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:42 PM on November 19, 2007

T.C. Boyle's Water Music, a pageturner about 18th century Scottish explorer Mungo Park's voyages through Africa and, simultaneously, a look at the London underworld scene. Really ambitious, fun picaresque.
posted by Bromius at 4:29 PM on November 19, 2007

Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series.
8 books, so it's a committment. It's more intrigue and machinations across exotic locations than swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.
If the Count of Monte Cristo spanned the known world of the late 1600's and was 3000 pages long, it would be the House of Niccolo books.
posted by bartleby at 4:47 PM on November 19, 2007

Foucault's Pendulum, if you haven't yet read it, is just as good or better than The Name of the Rose. I think David Mitchell would probably qualify too, though he's maybe not as deep as some of the other writers mentioned here. I liked Ghostwritten a good deal, and I've heard good things about Cloud Atlas. And in a peculiar sort of way, I think Nabokov's Despair might qualify.

I'm hesitant to actually recommend John Fowles, but a bunch of his books are sort of in the realm you're looking for - maybe The Magus.
posted by whir at 5:20 PM on November 19, 2007

Also, for less AP history but more adventure, try the Riverworld books. Everyone who ever lived on earth is resurrected on an otherwise empty planet that has obviously been constructed for this purpose, then left to themselves. Aventure ensues, starring characters real and imagined from Neanderthals to Nazis. Requires you to appreciate the idea of Richard Francis Burton and Tom Mix teaming up to defeat local warlords John I and Hermann Goring.
posted by bartleby at 5:21 PM on November 19, 2007

Can't do better than Kidnapped and Treasure Island for adventure, page turning and clever plot twists. Not just for kids.
posted by nax at 6:02 PM on November 19, 2007

Another suggestion: I've recommended this one before, but I really loved Ironfire by David Ball, published in the UK under the much better title The Sword and the Scimitar. Set in the Mediterranean in the mid-1500s, it culminates in the Siege of Malta, pitting Ottoman war galleys against the Knights of St John. The history seems pretty accurate (note that some parts are not for the squeamish), the characters on both sides are wonderful and I totally fell in love with one of the knights.
posted by Quietgal at 7:18 PM on November 19, 2007

There are some great suggestions here. I nth the Aubrey Maturin books, as well as David MiItchell's Cloud Atlas (Ghost Written and Number Nine Dream are also excellent).

May I also recommend George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series? Flashy is a fantastic anti-hero who, through his adventures, provides an extraordinary survey of cowardice and inadventant glory in many of the major conflicts of the 19th century. Fraser's love of his subject matter is apparent in his scholarship.

You may also want to look up a copy of The Pyrates, an homage to all things piratical, from the historic buccaneers to celluloid swashbucklers.

Finally, an excellent resource for this question (aside from AskMe) are the columns and collected essays of Michael Dirda. He's an enthusiastic reader and reviewer who has read jsut about everything and really conveys the joys that inhere in a good book.
posted by Verdant at 7:18 PM on November 19, 2007

Go for some Graham Greene; The Power and the Glory gets almost unbearably suspenseful as the whiskey priest's fugitive run gets more and more circumscribed. Great stuff about faith and doubt there, too. And maybe look into Joseph Conrad; The Secret Sharer is a smart, suspenseful psychological read and Typhoon was so good I stopped breathing as I was reading it; it's a gripping look at how various folks on a ship deal with a horrific storm. They're both short but great, great reads.
posted by mediareport at 8:33 PM on November 19, 2007

Though it's not as "heady" as Umberto Eco, The List of 7 by Mark Frost (the co-creator of Twin Peaks) fits your description to a tee. It's The DaVinci Code for smart people, with some zombies and Sherlock Holmes thrown in.
posted by dhammond at 10:17 PM on November 19, 2007

Just to address the Bernard Cornwell general recommendation. Although I like Cornwell, I don't know that I'd call him literary. If you are only going to read one of his books I'd recommend The Gallows Thief.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:30 PM on November 19, 2007

Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow is a thriller with some thinking.

And seconding the Greene & Pynchon & Foucault's Pendulum recommendations.

If you're up for Neal Stephenson, then also look into William Gibson. He seems to spend less time reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica than Stephenson, but I would say he's more literary. His Pattern Recognition is not set in the future, if that's something you like to avoid.

This is my favorite sort of book. I may have some to add when I get home and look at my bookshelves.
posted by fidelity at 7:11 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. There's a lot of books to get through but many thanks to all who have contributed.

I have already read some Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49 among them -I have not yet managed to finish Gravity's Rainbow, despite starting it twice- and particularly liked Mason and Dixon.

I am intrigued by the Aubrey-Maturin series. I had assumed that they were gung ho, militaristic fodder (I know, I know, never judge a book by it's cover) but I will certainly take that back and have a proper look at them.

Shantaram sounds great too, as do many others. I will bookmark the lot of them on Amazon.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 8:12 AM on November 20, 2007

I'm not sure if these are quite what you're looking for, but the books I'm reading kind of have this element to them-- I am currently reading Michael Chabon's Summerland (which is a little more fantasy adventure, but very atypical in the way it mixes baseball into the legends) and after that will be diving into a new book of Nicholas Christopher's-- The Bestiary (he has another book, Veronica which initially grabbed me so I'm hopeful the new book will as well.) which is supposed to be about a search for a book that details the animals left off of Noah's Ark. Both authors I recommend for great adventure/mystical stories that are smartly written and definitely not run of the mill.
posted by actionpact at 10:48 AM on November 20, 2007

The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson (although some could argue its literary merit)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (although some could argue that its not an adventure)
Don Quixote by Cervantes (although some could argue its page-turner quality)
Spook Country by William Gibson
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
posted by slogger at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2007

It wasn't until book three that I was really excited by the Aubrey Maturin books. Now I've read the whole series five times (once every year or so). The series is more rich and subtle in good ways than the first book really conveys.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2007

Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:34 PM on November 20, 2007

Peter Ackroyd? eg Hawksmoor?
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:56 PM on November 20, 2007

Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a fabulous book with a fabulous title. It is a noir thriller interspersed with dreamlike internal fantasies. Pynchony, with more Johnny Mathis.
posted by fidelity at 11:18 AM on November 23, 2007

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