There’s a specific kind of feeling I’m always looking for in what I read—that 2 AM, just woke up from a nap that you took at 9 PM which was probably ill advised but it’s too late now and you’re not sure what year it is or what planet you’re on and you can’t see out of your contacts feeling. Sometimes it emerges through a book’s prose style; sometimes through the construction of the main character; sometimes through setting and worldbuilding. But no matter what, when I find it, it usually means I’ve found a new favorite book.
If you too are looking for books to make you feel like you have a low-grade fever or maybe took too much NyQuil, here are five I recommend.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is a famous—and infamous—college which requires its students to forego all outside contact during their three years of study. Ines Murillo has no problem with that. She’s trying to avoid her past, and can think of nothing better than exchanging her friends and family for a promising future. But Catherine House has mysteries, and there’s a bigger price that Ines might have to pay.
Just out this summer, Catherine House is the dreamy, hazy mix of The Secret History and Never Let Me Go that you’ve been looking for. The speculative elements are pitch-perfect, adding to the almost syrupy atmosphere, one that stretches and compresses and moves with you until the whole world feels distorted, and the 90s setting renders the book timeless, detaching it from contemporary markers that might keep us rooted.
Rating on the feverdream meter: 5/5 meals that you can picture in the background of a still life of a skull
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablos Villalobos
This novella was translated from its original Spanish, and follows Tochtli, the young son of a drug baron known as “The King,” who wants nothing more than to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. As Tochtli and his father embark on a trip to capture one, Tochtli is forced to watch his deeply isolated world break open.
The star of Down the Rabbit Hole is the voice, painstakingly translated by Rosalind Harvey. Tochtli has a fondness for long words, which he learns from his dictionary, and is focused to the point of obsession on his limited interests. His voice is relentless, specific and oddball and matter of fact, which is incredibly effective in showing us the strangeness and cruelty that are so plentiful in his environment. Tochtli observes his father’s plotting and processes it all with the understanding of a ten year old who has grown up steeped in violence. One one page we hear Tochtli matter-of-factly describe methods of decapitation; on the next he tells us how he adores three-cornered hats. Funny, and surreal, and perfectly understated.
Rating on the feverdream meter: 10/10 lions and tigers, who await the hippos in Tochtli’s menagerie
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
This debut novel from Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird; Gingerbread) is another told in the voice of a child. It follows an eight year old girl named Jessamy who lives in London with her English father and Nigerian mother. Jessamy feels out of place in both England and Nigeria, but on a trip to the latter, makes a friend she calls TillyTilly. But when TillyTilly follows Jessamy back to London, things turn sour very quickly.
This book takes the classic theme of doubling, as in twins or doppelgangers, and uses it to explore fractures in Jessamy’s biracial identity. Oyeyemi’s prose here is a different voice than one might find in the rest of her bibliography, and is keyed perfectly to the story, open enough to welcome you inside the book before slowly locking the door behind you.
Rating on the feverdream meter: 2/2 girls who are definitely both real
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Emezi’s debut follows a Nigerian girl named Ada born with “one foot on the other side.” As we follow her from birth through to her traumatic college experience in America and on, we begin to understand that this means Ada has separate selves, and that they may drive her life in a dangerous direction.
Like The Icarus Girl, Freshwater is an examination of the fractured self, and of the conflict we can house within ourselves. Emezi writes with a propulsive power, and that, combined with the book’s non-linear structure, disrupts the reader’s expectations, leaving us all the more beautifully dazed by it.
Rating on the feverdream meter: 1/1 first person plural narrator, which always does the trick for me
Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World by Donald Antrim
Another novella, this time a sharp satire about a former third grade teacher, Pete Robinson, whose small seaside town has fallen into utterly bizarre chaos (the local school, for instance, has been turned into a factory for producing marine animal talismans). Determined to take back control, Pete runs for mayor, and finds that winning may be more difficult than anticipated.
Told in one go, with no scene or chapter breaks, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World completely consumes you, before letting you go with an offhand shrug, as though nothing important really happened at all.
Rating on the feverdream meter: 4/4 cars drawing and quartering the town mayor in the novella’s opening
Rory Power grew up in New England, where she lives and works as a crime fiction editor and story consultant for TV adaptation. She received a Masters in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia, and thinks fondly of her time there, partially because she learned a lot but mostly because there were a ton of bunnies on campus. Her novel Burn Our Bodies Down is available from Delacorte.