Ten Enjoyable Offbeat Novels of 2014

The year's best in 'disapproved' genres like science fiction, fantasy and thrillers.

By Crawford Kilian 26 Dec 2014 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

My tastes in fiction are, at best, middlebrow -- that is, I like well-written fiction in disapproved genres like science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. So the novels I enjoyed in 2014 probably won't appeal to those who follow the bestseller list in the Globe and Mail. Still, a meal in the grottiest fast-food joint may turn up some tasty treats, and some of these recently read novels may surprise fastidious readers by their sheer fun and wit.

The Murdstone Trilogy, by Peet Mal. As a recovering writer of fantasy and SF, I appreciated this story of a wretched young-adult novelist bullied into writing fantasy -- and finding that his corny epic is straight journalism. Worse yet, it outsells Harry Potter. Mass-market publishing is flayed alive, and deserves it.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, are two very different "cli-fi" (climate fiction) novels, offering us long looks at post-apocalyptic societies. But their real interest is in their complex narrative structures as they swing back and forth from near-present to near-future. Spoiler alert: neither Mandel's Canada nor Mitchell's Britain will be fun.

The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, is based on a real young woman, a Yaqui healer in northern Mexico in the last years of the 19th century. This is magical realism moved from Garcia Marquez's Colombia to Mexico, with elements of Hollywood Westerns thrown in. I loved the dialogue, which translated beautifully back into the Spanish profanity I learned in Mexico City 60 years ago.

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh, is Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op (much tougher than Sam Spade) in 21st-century New York on some weird tailored drug. This is detective fiction not just hard-boiled but carbonized.

The Peripheral, by William Gibson. He gave us "cyberspace" in Neuromancer, and Gibson continues to be two steps ahead of everyone else. Here he gives us an impoverished America circa 2050 suddenly engaged with the post-apocalyptic 22nd century, where rich hobbyists play time-travel games with the past. After the first confusing chapters, Gibson takes us on a satirical tour of our own economically and politically unequal world, and even gives us a quirkily happy ending.

Perfidia, by James Ellroy. A murder mystery set in Los Angeles just after Pearl Harbour, Ellroy's latest is the latest in his long series of counterfactual crime thrillers, in which 20th-century America is run by and for gangsters -- including the Kennedys. Ellroy's vision would be horrifying if true; instead, it's just entertainingly creepy.

The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross. This the latest in Stross's series of novels about the Laundry, a secret British intelligence agency dedicated to keeping nameless horrors out of our dimension. Rather than dealing with a mole, the Laundry here is dealing with a vampire no one believes can exist. When not taking the piss out of H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Fleming, Stross is also a superb writer of hard science fiction.

On a Balcony, by David Stacton. I first read this novel over 50 years ago, when Stacton was a rising American literary star. Then he died young and his many historical novels were forgotten. Now they're being republished, and this one, about the monotheist Pharaoh Ikhnaten, seems even more modern than it did in the 1960s. Had he lived, he might have become the greatest gay American novelist of the century -- without ever writing about gay people.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, is almost a contradiction in terms: a very funny Swedish novel. Forcibly retired from his job in house construction, Ove is the nightmare of his neighbourhood -- the bigoted old crab who makes everyone else miserable. It doesn't help that he's usually right. But he's also a passionate lover who's lost his love, unexpectedly rescued by his hugely pregnant Iranian neighbour Parvaneh. Created in a series of blog posts, Ove grew into a novel that's sold half a million copies in Sweden (population 10 million). He'll make you crazy, but you'll love him.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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