Books Out-of-the-Mainstream: Ten literary-fiction novels of the 21st century that you may not know, but should.

September 14th, 2010

Now, more than ten years into the 21st century, we’ve seen the world change in the political, scientific, and academic fields in ways that few thought possible. Linguistic and communications advances have led to technological progression and easy international interaction, despite the odd language barriers. Amidst all this lie the books that tell the stories of our lives. Literary novels both deal with the issues of today while taking into account the influence of the past. Fictional works portray characters that echo our own lives. Given the tight relationship of our own life experiences with our understanding of literature, have the standards by which we judge a good book changed along with the times? Is there any validity to the claim that awards and prizes don’t accurately represent the truly good books today? You be the judge: read on for ten literary-fiction novels of the 21st century that you may not know, but should. These books are rated “Top Ten Modern Books Out-of-the-Mainstream” by Literature Monthly and Literature Weekly magazines.

The Thirteenth Tale
We start off our review with what may become one of the most influential books from the beginning of the 21st century. Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is a gothic-style novel reminiscent of the Bronte sisters. The protagonist, Margaret, is the daughter of a bookstore owner. Her hobby is writing biographies of lesser-known writers. She’s also a twin, though her sister died in childbirth.

The story isn’t actually about Margaret, though. It’s actually about Vida Winter, a famous author who commissions Margaret to do her biography. The thing is, everyone who has interviewed Vida Winter in the past got different stories, none of them the same. Is Vida Winter actually telling Margaret the truth? What kind of stories is she hiding?

Like most good books, the story is multi-layered. What began as a story about Margaret and turns into a story about Vida Winter becomes again in the end a story about Margaret as she comes to understand both Vida and herself. But does she understand everything? What, really, is truth? These are the questions that this book grapples with – similar to other literature, yet entirely different. At once a novel of literary fiction yet a readable modern fiction book. Diane Setterfield as both a first-time writer and novelist has won numerous novel awards, including recognition by the Quill Awards and Galaxy British Book Awards. The Thirteenth Tale will soon take its place among the 21st century’s great literary novels.

The Thirteenth Tale on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0743298039/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Juliet

Juliet

Juliet by Ann Fortier

Ann Fortier walks a well-trod path when she starts yet another rewrite of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  This time, however, it’s 600 years later. We’re in Siena, Italy with the descendants of the famed Capulets and Montagues. The author was there with her mother, and got her inspiration from the city itself—yet another testament to the poignancy of our sense of place in an increasingly international world. Juliet stars protagonist Julie Jacobs, who inherits a key to a safe deposit box that supposedly holds an ancient family treasure. History sweeps her off as she discovers the depth of a 600-year-old feud. Juliet challenges us to reconsider the way that we view such monumental stories as Romeo and Juliet by leading us to reexamine the impact today of stories told long ago.

Juliet on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0345516109/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Agincourt
Their victory against the French in the Battle of Agincourt marked a major turning point for the English in the Hundred-Years War. King Henry himself fought and led his armies. As such, the Battle has long been immortalize in literature – it is featured in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a number of fantasy and science fiction novels, and was even the subject of a mock trial held in Washinton, D.C. With such a background, it takes a brave novelist to again tackle the battle.

Bernard Cornwell is that author.  In the novel Agincourt, he tells the story of a fictional archer in King Henry’s army, Nicholas Hook.  “English longbowmen” were key players in a number of battles of the era, largely because the French had no comparable weapons. We see the battle through Hook’s eyes. Because of Cornwell’s brilliant writing, we not only read about it, but almost actually feel the sweat and blood of this brutal time. When Hook starts hearing voices of long-dead saints, we, too, are entranced by their words. Cornwell is a stickler for historical accuracy, and as a writer prefers the brief and concise.. If you haven’t yet, read this book – not only will you come away with a bit more historical knowledge, but you will feels something akin to kinship as you put the book down and think on the soldiers.

Agincourt on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0061578908/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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The Hittite
Just out in April of 2010, Ben Bova’s novel The Hittite Makes for another fascinating reading. You may not have heard of this book because Bova’s background as a novelist is different than most in this genre – he is best known for his prolific science-fiction writing. Here, however, he takes on retelling of The Illiad, one of history’s most well-known literary epics.

As a writer, Bova does well in this switch-of-genre. His writing is traditionally clear, yet he isn’t stuck to one particular style. Perhaps slightly overusing the flowery language, Bova depicts the world of Lukka, a Hittite warrior who returns home to find his family gone and his city torn by civil war. He goes searching for them, and arrives at Agamemnon just in time to catch the final portions of the Trojan War. Bove doesn’t pull any sly ones – his characters are true to the time. Women are more property than they are people, and brutality isn’t condemned. As a work of art, a work of history, and a work of literature, this book will continue to be important as part of Homer’s continuing odyssey.

The Hittite on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0765324024/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Rooftop Soliloquy

Rooftop Soliloquy by Author Roman Payne

Rooftop Soliloquy by Roman Payne

Voted one of the ten best novels of the 21st century.  Rooftop Soliloquy, the fourth novel by Paris-based author Roman Payne, is a beautifully-written story of love, pleasure and seduction in the city of Paris.  The style reminds one of a great 19th century novel, although the humor, sexuality, and poetic eroticism in its pages make the novel a true, ultra-modern work.

The narration follows the travels and life of an eccentric artist and composer—a character who changes residences as most people change clothes—who drifts around Paris frequenting women’s bedrooms, luxury nightclubs, and jet-set parties.  All the while, he composes his masterpiece: an opera, or “Hero’s Tale,” based on Homer’s Odyssey.  When the pleasures of Parisian life threaten his creative production, the narrator decides to orchestrate an ingenious love-intrigue, for the sake of his art, that results in a murder.  The effect is an extremely creative and complex (though easy to read) literary masterpiece that is worthy of being compared to Dostoevsky.  Roman Payne’s novel could be considered a high-brow, more intelligent and sophisticated version Brett Easton Ellis’ jet-setter novels; or a continuation of American Francophile prose begun by novelists Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway.  Whatever the comparison, Roman Payne’s Rooftop Soliloquy is great fun to read, a flashback in the past to the “Golden Age of the Novel,” and a flash-forward to the future of high literature.

Rooftop Soliloquy on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0578032813/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20


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Blonde Faith

Mystery novels rarely qualify as literary works of art, yet Walter Mosley’s novel Blonde Faith goes beyond the bounds of a run-of-the-mill mystery. His detective Easy Rawlins is a black man who lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s – not an easy place nor time for anyone to make a living, let alone a person of color. But Mosely doesn’t fall into the trap of letting concerns about race overtake his novel. Blonde Faith isn’t about race, though as an honest writer the injustices still figure prominently; the book is about the character. This transcendence allows any reader of his literature to go beyond surface observations to a real look at the life that Rawlins lives. Rawlins himself isn’t perfect, either. He deals with his past mistakes, current pride, and a refusal to get in touch with his almost-wife who he threw out for having an affair. It’s one fear that he can’t overcome.

Mosely as a novelist doesn’t just write works of pulp fiction. He writes books with characters that you can care about, with questions you can think about. This book isn’t just a good read – it’s a book worth sharing.

Blonde Faith on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0446617903/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Everlost

What is a teen novel doing on a list of serious literature? Pick up Neal Shusterman’s Everlost to find out.

Schusterman was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At age 16, however, his family moved to Mexico City. He went with them. This international experience at a young age significantly influenced the way that he looked at the world – not as a Brooklyn teenager, but as an international citizen. He has been a writer since he was young, at one point as a child he even wrote E.B. White telling her that Charlotte’s Web needed a sequel. She wrote back, and he kept writing. Recently, his books have won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the California Young Reader Medal. His books keep winning their novel awards, and Schusterman the writer keeps writing literature that is important not just to teen readers, but to everyone.

The novel Everlost is a story of the spirits of dead children trapped in this world who don’t know how to “get where they are going.” In simple language, Schusterman the novelist addresses age-old existential questions of life, meaning, and significance.

Everlost on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1416997490/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Hidden Talents
Hidden Talents by David Lubar is another work of literary fiction masquerading as a teen novel. This book centers on 13-year-old Martin, who is at the last resort Edgeview Alternative School. Lubar frequently quotes poems and pieces of famous literature, include Emily Dickinson’s Death:

Because I could not stop for death
He kindly stopped for me.

While some might say that this makes the book a bit heavy for literature inteded for young readers, it sheds light on young people’s experience in a more ‘grown-up’ world. Writer David Lubar defly juxtaposes the formal and the informal, the old and the young, the used and the new. The book takes an almost fantasy-like turning as the children discover that they have psychic powers. What is really real? Pick up novelist David Lubar’s book Hidden Talents.

Hidden Talents on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0765342650/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To
Ironically, the novel: The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To stands to take the place of Catcher in the Rye as the American coming-of-age literary novel, despite mocking it predecessor within its pages. Young novelist D.C. Pierson (who is also a comedian and actor) picks up on the language and attitudes of high schools today, never pulling punches. The creative crowd is outcast, but form their own friendships that carry them to success, despite the disdaining crowds. The book itself can be seen as a metaphor for the interaction of different groups in society today, especially those that challenge the status quo with their unacceptable genius. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book of literature by novelist D.C. Pierson.

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0307474615/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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The Darling

Russell Banks - The Darling

Russell Banks' The Darling

Russell Banks wrote another book in 2004 worth looking at: The Darling. Inside you’ll find a story about an empty girl – one who doesn’t act for herself, but is led around by whatever man she happens to be attached to at the time. Eventually heading to Liberia, she gets involved with government officials and shady deals, eventually ending up in a laboratory doing experiments with chimpanzees. An authentic look at African and immigrant life, novelist Russell Banks lives up to his reputation as a writer and delivers literature this will be important not just now, but in the future as well.

The Darling on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0060957352/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

Arslan
M.J. Engh’s novel Arslan may not technically be a book of the 21st century. It was first published in 1976, went out of print, was republished in 1987, went out of print again, and was republished yet again in 2001 – making it a newly-published book in the 21st century.

Why would a book go into and out of print so many times? Engh herself states that the book is “about fathers and sons, about power, about a genuinely ruthless (but not unfeeling) mind in pursuit of a practical solution to the world’s problems.” As such, the writer begins the book with the rape of two children, then ends it on a comparably brutal and gruesome note. As a work of literature, Arslan stands at the top. It is not necessarily, however, a pleasant read. It is a fascinating examination of power in the modern world, of family interactions, and of the psychology of a Genghis Khan-like mind in a small town in America. Not any novelist can write a book such as this, but Engh carries the burden proudly.

Arslan on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0312879105/ref=nosim/?tag=wwwmbmaonlinc-20

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Picking-up any one of these books for a read will lead you to contemplate your own place in our 21st century world. Interestingly, many of these novels are set in the past. What does our frequent contemplation of the past in literature mean for our understanding of the world today? As we constantly gather and process the stories of our lives, sometimes we need to look outside of the popular and common to find the stories that help us understand our own unique experience.


 

Manon Lescaut : an old French novel that deserves international modern praise.

September 10th, 2010
Manon Lescaut

L'Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut is a novel where the hero is a scoundrel, and the heroine is a whore. But this realization comes slowly.  And it is a difficult realization for the reader, like when we begin a relationship with someone we greatly respect, only to discover their bad qualities later.  The disappointment that comes from losing respect for them is much like the disappointment the reader feels for the characters of this 18th century novel by Antoine François Prévost (or Abbé Prevost); although  our discovery only makes the characters more multi-dimensional and compelling.  While we first meet the teenage Manon as the “innocent,” “angelic” and “most beautiful of all the world’s creatures” who is awaiting her entrance into a nunnery, we slowly find out through the account narrated to us by her boyfriend, Le Chevalier Des Grieux, that she is little more than an angel-faced harlot who cannot restrain herself from sleeping with older men for the money, gifts and affection they provide.  The couple’s adventures take a  picaresque ride from Paris to the provinces, to colonial New Orleans as the couple lies, cheats and steals their way to fortune, to poverty, back to fortune, back to poverty, to prison, as so forth…

Des Grieux begins the story in seminary school, and leaves the holy life to become a cheat and a gambler, in hopes of earning the fortune that his expensive girlfriend would require to be faithful.  The fatal flaw of Manon that leads to tragedy is this: she loves pleasure, and if her young boyfriend doesn’t obtain it for her, she will find a sponsor who will.  The fatal flaw of Des Grieux is that he loves Manon and will do anything to keep her faithful.  The events in the novel resemble the scandalous adventures of their author.

Abbé Prevost lived a life of travel.  He was religious novice who abandoned the church several times, for one reason or another (to become a professional soldier, to work in publishing, to get thrown in jail, etc.).  He had a relationship with a courtesan in Holland, which may have been the model for this story.  He wrote this book called “L’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” and tried to smuggle copies into France, but it was caught at customs and refused entry.  The book has since had an enormous influence on French literature, and the literature of the Western world.

Most critics put forth that Manon doesn’t want to cheat, but that her love of pleasure forces her to, when  her young boyfriend cannot afford to give her what she desires.  I would put forth that Manon actually wants to cheat on Des Grieux, or at least, she has opposing wills within herself. First of all, she never asked for the relationship with Des Grieux.  He came to her rescue when she was waiting to be condemned to a nunnery and he literally saved her.  Then he astounded her with his perfect, unconditional, Christ-like love.  Women, however, often fall for the bad boy, leaving the meek nice-guy behind.  What Manon is uniting with in her affairs with wealthy, lecherous older men, is the corrupt masculine figure—while she leaves her weaker caregiver at home.  The relationship is doomed from the beginning as Manon’s nature doesn’t correspond to her lover’s vision of her. Des Grieux believes the face of an angel must possess the soul of an angel.  We are reminded of Myshkin and Nastasia Fillipovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Alexander Dumas Fils works Manon Lescaut into the plot his novel La Dame aux Camelias, which tells the story of another innocent-looking courtesan.

The ending is powerful, so I won’t give it away, and reading the book, you will form your own idea of how much Manon loves Des Grieux.  If you like Manon Lescaut, you will probably also be interested in Atala, by Chateaubriand; Paul et Virginie, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and Carmen, by Prosper Mérimée.

- Julie Sevigny

Editor


 

Modern Novel Awards : Top 10 Releases : Rooftop Soliloquy by Roman Payne

September 8th, 2010

Literature Monthly Magazine recently chose their list of “Top 10 Modern Novels Out-of-the-Mainstream.”  GreatNovels.org chose to feature the winners and include them in our canon of “great novels in world literature, past and present.”  Winners will be reviewed in separate articles.  In this issue, we discuss “Rooftop Soliloquy” by Paris-based author Roman Payne.


Cover of Payne's Rooftop Soliloquy

“One of the best literary-fiction releases of the last few years” according to Literature Monthly Magazine, and a “truly whimsical and poignant book.” Rooftop Soliloquy by Roman Payne is a fascinating read, very  light and lyrical, very poetic, one can read it in a couple of days.  It is more similar to Knut Hamsun’s Hunger than it is to the heavy Moby Dick, although like both these tales it plunges into the subconscious of the human mind.  As readers, we travel with the eccentric narrator; at the end, we have the feeling we have spent ten years wandering around Paris trying to make sense of life in the French capital and in the universe.

The narration of Rooftop Soliloquy is modeled on The Odyssey, that epic where we follow the ten year wanderings of Odysseus.  In Rooftop Soliloquy, the narrator, a famous composer, spends several seasons or years drifting around Paris in his artistic pursuit to compose an opera he calls his “Hero’s Tale” (compare this to Odysseus trying to reach Ithaca).  All the while, the hero’s creative output is threatened by the pleasures that the French capital offers—pleasures that come mostly in the form of champagne and beautiful French girls .  Compare this latter element to Odysseus’ homecoming being threatened by seductive females (Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, etc.)

Like the voyage of that ancient mariner Odysseus whom we see in three places: Calypso’s island, the island of Scheria, and Ithaca (until Odysseus relates his own tale that goes many places including the island of the Cyclops and the land of the Lotus Eaters), our narrator in Rooftop Soliloquy is on a voyage that sees him entirely in Paris, except when he relates his story of being in Italy, or in the Alps, or on a tropical island. Thus the book follows the tradition of urban “Flâneur literature, as begun by Rétif de la Bretonne, Edgar Poe, Baudelaire, et al.  Despite its pastoral reveries, Rooftop Soliloquy is a true “urban novel.”

Like The Decameron or 1001 Nights, Payne’s novel has a “frame story,” or an outer-story and inner-story: the opera that Alexandre (as the narrator is [usually] called in Rooftop Soliloquy) is writing, is a love story, a combination of The Odyssey and Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alexandre works on the opera with fervor, excepting interruptions where he copulates with high-born girls and parties in gardens and at nightclubs.  During this reveling, he realizes he cannot finish his love story when he himself doesn’t know what love is.  Then comes the plot that entwines a young French girl named Penelope.

We will save the rest in hopes that you will want to read this fun and spirited novel.  You can find Roman Payne’s Rooftop Soliloquy in English-language bookstores and on Amazon.com.  It’s definitively worth a read—and a re-read!

Julie Sevigny

Editor

Author, Roman Payne

Photo of Author Roman Payne, © 2010 Valentina Frugiuele

Rooftop Soliloquy on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rooftop-Soliloquy-Roman-Payne/dp/0578032813


 
 

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