18 Great Obscure Books to Match the Famous Classics You Read and Loved
by Ellen Jones
Have you ever fallen in love with a book and wondered where you can get your hands on something similar?
Tired of ploughing through the same well-thumbed tomes as your friends, or of finding out the plot before you get to the end because everybody already knows what happens? Getting off the beaten track and discovering a book that’s new and exciting is often difficult when publishers, bookshops and school reading lists all seem to push the same roster of well-known ‘classics’ down your throat. But with this list of lesser-known alternatives to the literary ‘greats’ you can impress everyone with your knowledge of often superior but underappreciated contemporary works – not to mention give an interesting spin to that familiar set text you’re studying. Starting off with Regency and Victorian-era fiction, we speed through some twentieth century gems to underrated contemporary reads.
1) Pride and Prejudice and Evelina
If your all-time favourite book is Pride and Prejudice, why not try Evelina by Fanny Burney? Published anonymously about thirty years earlier, in 1778, Evelina is an important forerunner to Jane Austen’s novels, satirising society and exploring themes of sensibility, snobbery, and gentlemanliness. But Burney is often eclipsed by Austen’s enduring fame. Evelina consists of series of letters written by the main character Miss Evelina Anville, the legitimate but unacknowledged daughter of an English aristocrat. Evelina is belatedly introduced into London society at the age of 17 where she makes a series of humorous faux pas. We witness her trying to attract the attention of eligible gentlemen in the company of her embarrassing extended family, and to reconcile herself with her estranged father. A cracking read.
2) Northanger Abbey and A Silician Romance
Sticking with Jane Austen, if Northanger Abbey was your favourite of hers, get your hands on A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe, the very writer Austen is parodying. Better known for her later work The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe is recognised as legitimising the kind of gothic fiction in which seemingly supernatural phenomena turn out to have rational explanations. Two innocent and heroic young women explore Sicily’s sublime landscapes and the haunted labyrinthine passageways of its castles and convents, revealing the shameful secrets of the Italian aristocracy. Knowledge of Austen’s literary forerunners is guaranteed to impress.
3) The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is a must-read alternative to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Together the two writers dominated the sensation fiction market in the 1860s but today only the latter is well-known. Discussing murder, bigamy, illegitimacy and madness, Lady Audley’s Secret caused a scandal among critics and readers when it was first published. The unlikely sandy blonde anti-heroine and devilishly intricate plot will ensure you rush through this gem in a single sitting.
4) Jane Eyre and The Professor
Fans of Jane Eyre should try Charlotte Brontë’s earliest work, The Professor, in which she boldly writes the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Undervalued in its own era, it wasn’t published until after her death in 1857 but has received much-deserved attention in recent years. Exploring sophisticated ideas about gender relations, power and sexual desire, character and selfhood, The Professor gives a fascinating insight into the early development of Brontë’s creative mind.
5) Dracula and The Beetle
Everyone who adores Dracula should read The Beetle, which was published in the same year, outsold Dracula initially, is only just back in print (check out the 2007 Wordsworth edition) and is dramatically better. In this horror novel by Richard Marsh, a mysterious oriental figure is transformed into a beetle to seek revenge on a British politician for an ancient crime. Narrated, like Dracula, from several perspectives, this masterpiece of high melodrama creates suspense as well as the best of nineteenth century gothic fiction. A bonus suggestion for Dracula lovers is The Monk, an often ignored but frighteningly gothic and – in its time – scandalous novel by Matthew Lewis. Published in 1796, it recounts the seduction and corruption the monk Ambrosio in an abbey in Madrid in a thrilling tale of betrayal, temptation, lust and violence that polarised critical opinion in its time.
6) Great Expectations and A Suitable Boy
For fans of Great Expectations and Dickens in general, you ought to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. One of the longest novels ever published as a single volume in the English language (1488 pages!), it has been called ‘the closest you can get to Dickens for the twentieth century’. The richly described and exquisitely observed characters are reminiscent of Victorian realist writing, but the novel is set in post-independence India and interweaves the stories of four extended families linked by marriage, as a suitable husband is sought for the young, independent-minded Lata. Those brave enough to start such an intimidating looking tome will not be disappointed.
7) Goodbye to All That and Sherston’s Progress
If you liked Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Siegfried Sassoon’s virtually ignored Sherston’s Progress is essential reading. A fictionalised autobiography of his time during and immediately after the First World War, Sherston’s Progress is the third in a series and the least well-read, for no good reason. It begins with his arrival at Slateford War Hospital and features famous neurologist W H R Rivers, who did pioneering work treating officers suffering from ‘shell-shock’, his most famous patient being Sassoon himself. The two remained close friends. The book follows Sassoon to Palestine and Ireland, where he is almost killed, culminating back in London with the armistice celebrations of 1918.
8) The Trial and Invitation to a Beheading
For those who enjoyed Franz Kafka’s seminal novel The Trial, try picking up a translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s lesser-known Invitation to a Beheading, originally written in Russian and published in 1935. Set in a bizarre and irrational dream-like world, a young man named Cincinnatus C. is condemned to death by beheading for an imaginary crime that defies definition. He spends his last hallucinatory days in jail but at the final hour simply wills his executioners out of existence – they melt away along with the world they inhabit.
9) Tender is the Night and Disturbing the Peace
Everyone who enjoyed Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald should read Disturbing the Peace, an equally dark exploration a relationship and a career slowly unravelling, by Richard Yates. Yates is in many ways the great forgotten novelist of twentieth century America – although the release of the film version of Revolutionary Road and accompanying reissues of his seven novels has gone some way to revive critical interest – and this is certainly his most overlooked volume. A successful salesman with an adoring wife and son nevertheless seeks refuge from life’s disappointments in alcohol and adultery, spiralling downwards into an abyss of paranoid delusion.
10) Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea
If your all-time favourite book is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick then Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea is essential reading, as it recounts the extraordinary true story that provided the inspiration for Melville’s classic. Rammed and sunk by an enraged spermwhale in the middle of the South Pacific in 1819, the Essex’s twenty crew were forced to take to the open sea in three small boats. Only one reached the shore, three months later, off the coast of South America, and a terrifying story of cannibalism and courage became known. Philbrick weaves his story from a long-lost written account by Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy aboard the ship, only re-discovered in 1960. But best of all, a film version is in post-production at this very moment, due for release in 2015, starring Chris Hemsworth and Ben Whishaw, who plays Herman Melville.
11) The Lord of the Rings and Farseer and subsequent trilogies
For fantasy lovers who couldn’t put down The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s comparatively ignored trilogy of trilogies – yes, that amounts to over 6000 pages of meaty storytelling – is a must-read. The first – the Farseer trilogy – begins with Assassin’s Apprentice, which follows the early life of Fitz, a royal bastard working as a stable boy at the Arthurian-style court of the Six Duchies. Fitz has what is known as ‘The Wit’, an ancient and mistrusted magic that allows him to communicate and bond telepathically with animals. The Liveship Traders trilogy is set elsewhere in the same world with some tantalising overlap of characters and events, and the Tawny Man trilogy returns to many of the Farseer characters and brings all nine books to a dramatic conclusion.
12) 1984 and The Chrysalids
For lovers of dystopian fiction like George Orwell’s 1984, I recommend The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, published just a few years after Orwell’s book in 1955. Known largely as a science fiction writer and most widely acclaimed for The Day of the Triffids, many loyal readers actually consider The Chrysalids to be his best novel. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where all but a small enclave of society is affected by and radiation poisoning. To prevent God from punishing them with a second ‘Tribulation’, the oppressive authorities strive to preserve absolute normality among those surviving, considering any minor physical deformity as the work of the Devil. David’s friend Sophie grows up concealing the fact that she has six toes on each foot, and David himself soon comes to understand his own invisible abnormality: the ability to communicate telepathically.
13) One Hundred Years of Solitude and Like Water For Chocolate
Any fans of Latin American magic realism like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude should try reading Like Water For Chocolate, published in 1989 by debut Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel. Like Márquez, Esquivel has a knack for portraying the fantastical as every day – each chapter begins with a traditional recipe, and as the protagonist Tita’s emotions infuse into her cooking it begins to affect the behaviour of those around her, with many weird and wonderful consequences.
14) Trainspotting and This is how you lose her
For fans of the thick, working class dialect in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Junot Díaz’s newly published This is how you lose her is essential reading. Like Welsh’s book, this is a collection of short stories, and is set in an urban Latino immigrant community in New Jersey. Díaz’s electric mix of lyrical English, nerd-speak and Dominican Spanish slang, though it can take a bit of getting used to, makes his quasi-autobiographical narrator’s voice leap off the page. Díaz’s first full-length novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, but I think this collection is even better.
15) All The Pretty Horses and Road to Reckoning
If you love famous westerns like All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy or Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry you must read Robert Lautner’s Road to Reckoning. Set in 1837 Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Thomas Walker accompanies his father on the road selling Samuel Colt’s newly invented revolver. A devastating encounter cuts their journey short and Tom is left an orphan, making his way home through the wilderness with little more than a wooden replica of the revolver his father was selling.
16) The Handmaid’s Tale and When She Woke
For lovers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Hilary Jordan’s When She Woke will be unputdownable. Set in a future dystopian and theocratic America, Hannah Payne aborts her unborn child; the father is a public figure whose identity she is determined to keep secret. Her punishment is to become a ‘chrome’, which involves having her skin dyed red to match the nature of her crime: murder. The novel is actually a fascinating re-working of Nathanial Hawthorne’s tale of crime, guilt and punishment in 17th century England, The Scarlett Letter, readers of which are also bound to love this modern retelling.
17) Catcher in the Rye and Lean on Pete
If you got on well with Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin is a brilliant alternative – a portrait of American life at the beginning of the twentieth century, and a story about a boy leaving childhood behind. Flitting between high schools, fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson is the son of a single father – he wants a home and some structure to his life, but is left pretty much to his own devices. Charley takes a job at a local race track when his father moves them to Portland and finds Pete, an old, injured horse who becomes his companion as he’s forced to make his own way in the world.
18) Paddy Clarke, ha ha ha and The Fields
Finally, those who loved Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke, ha ha ha must read The Fields by Kevin Maher, published only last year. Set in mid-80s Dublin, this coming of age narrative is hilarious and touching in equal measure. Reminiscent of Doyle’s ten-year-old protagonist Paddy, Maher writes the voice of thirteen-year-old Jim Finnegan in an exuberant Irish vernacular.
Is there any underrated gem you’d like to recommend?