7 Books That Deliver Unexpected Mystery

Ursula Villarreal-Moura, author of “Math for the Self-Crippling,” recommends books that live on the fringe of the imagination

Illustrated houses sit beneath a blue sky full of equations

Having been raised by my grandparents and great-aunt, my early years were predominantly filled with oral storytelling. Many tales my family shared bordered on the fantastical and incorporated magical elements or hinged on the unexpected. In one story, crickets were transformed into silver coins while in others people levitated or shapeshifted into human-animal hybrids.

When setting out to write a book, my aim was to capture some of the wildness of my childhood. In the twenty-five flash fiction stories that compromise Math for the Self-Crippling, the reader is invited to witness the mysterious coming-of-age of Tatum Vega, a Chicana living in San Antonio, Texas. The book explores mysticism, loss of home and family, dream travel, romance, and self-agency all at a slant. In order to shape my book, I had to dwell deeply in my imagination and embrace surprises. 

Imaginative narratives still enrapture me. The following books excel at creating mysterious spaces for the reader to explore.

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

Winner of the National Book Award, Hell of a Book is stellar on many fronts. Most appealing to my sensibilities are the parallel narratives. One is rooted in the everyday reality of a famed author on book tour. The other narrative is a more cerebral examination of childhood, which fluidly interacts with time and space. The blurriness of the story makes the reader feel semi-drunk and question what is real.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

The narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is unlike any protagonist I’ve encountered in literature. An older woman, living alone with dogs in rural Poland, the protagonist’s action are guided by astrology and her love of animals. It would have been easy for a character fixated on celestial objects to be frivolous, but instead Tokarczuk upends the reader’s expectations and delights with a thriller that feels like a beautifully strange dream about karma and revenge.

When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen

Among the most informative and original books today are those that blend racial tensions with ghostly spirits from the beyond. When the Reckoning Comes is a story about a wedding weekend that cleverly explores how everyday life cannot function without a reckoning of historical tragedies. McQueen deftly offers mirages of the past that inform the present and characters who dare not speak the full truth aloud. It is a riveting novel about what people of color sacrifice in order to maintain their sanity and provide for themselves in an unjust system.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

No book in adulthood has unsettled me as much as Alam’s Leave the World Behind. A catastrophic event occurs in this novel, but the reader and characters are left to piece together what exactly has happened. Life as we know it has ended but we’re left speculating how much time is left. While reading the first thirty pages, I was convinced someone was trying to break into my apartment. Reader, they were not! Even still, I couldn’t sleep because Alam understands the fringes of the imagination almost too well. 

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good Indians opens on the anniversary of a tragic hunt and follows four characters in different states. This horror novel explores family legacies, a cultural relationship to animals, and how past actions haunt future generations. Jones masterfully builds suspense to the point where I felt my heart in my throat while a character dribbled a basketball. The rhythmic echo of the ball felt like a threat. The novel’s pacing and mystery hooked me to the very end.

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani

This thriller about a nanny in France was ubiquitous upon its US release. Undoubtedly it landed with so many readers because it tackles many societal ills within such an engaging narrative. The nanny and mother who employed her are an exquisite protagonist and antagonist duo. Tensions arise between them dealing with domesticity, ageism, racism, class, power, and ambition. The first line of the book spells out the horrible ending but yet the novel offers so many satisfying surprises while astutely examining the boiling point of people society merely tolerates.

Confessions by Kanae Minato 

In the opening pages of Confessions, a schoolteacher reveals that not only has her only child been murdered, but that the killers are sitting among the students in her classroom. Sentence by sentence, the author carefully strips the reader of comfort while weaving a hypnotic tale of mischief. In less skilled hands, the opening reveal would deflate the tension of the novel, but Minato only ratchets up the intrigue as the novel shifts points of view and the reader begins to learn that everyone has a different truth.

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