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8 Surreal Books That Read Like a Dream

January 26 2022
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“Is life itself a dream, I wonder.” Having grown up obsessed with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it would surprise absolutely no one to know that I still love surreal and sometimes seemingly absurd works of literature. These eight novels enter the world of dreams and absurdity in the best way possible mixed with elements of mystery or supernatural or perhaps even a bit of truth, they are sure to take you on an adventure you won’t forget.

Circus of Wonders
by Elizabeth Macneal

Elizabeth Macneal is a master of the Victorian era, and her latest novel does not disappoint. In her small town, Nell is considered a freak. The birthmarks that cover her skin brand her as something other and strange, but when Jasper Jupiter’s circus comes to town, Nell is kidnapped, sold out by her own father. Despite this betrayal, Nell finds a home among the circus and eventually notoriety in London from a society fascinated with the strange and unusual calling her the leopard girl. Crowds rush to see Nell perform, but when her fame begins to eclipse Jasper it threatens her relationship with his brother Toby and the secrets that bind them all together. There is always a mystical quality that seems to surround the ideas of traveling circuses, and Macneal captures all of that in this whirlwind historical fiction book.

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Circus of Wonders
Elizabeth Macneal

From the #1 internationally bestselling author of the “lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) The Doll Factory comes an atmospheric and spectacular novel where one woman’s life is transformed by the arrival of a Victorian circus of wonders.

Step up, step up! In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion-tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.

Before long, Nell’s fame spreads across the world—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to grow his own name and fortune. But what happens when her fame begins to eclipse his own, when even Jasper’s loyal brother Toby becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.

A gorgeously wrought exploration of celebrity, power, and belonging, this is a historical novel unlike any other, with an unforgettable heroine at its heart.

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Mirrorland
by Carole Johnstone

Assigning MIRRORLAND to a single genre would be a mistake. It is all at once a psychological thriller, mystery, and magical realism story folded into one chilling gothic tale. If you’re looking for a surreal book, this should absolutely be on your TBR list. Twins Cat and El created the magical world of Mirrorland full of pirates and witches, but Mirrorland was a dark world that began to threaten the girls’ reality. But that was years ago. Now Cat lives in Los Angeles, far, far away from her childhood home in Edinburg and her twin sister. When El disappeared after taking her sailboat out, Cat returns to their home and subsequently Mirrorland in the search for her sister. Many fantastical elements in this story add to the mystery and incredible twists that Johnstone weaves.

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Mirrorland
Carole Johnstone

Told with startling twists and haunting power, Mirrorland is a thrilling psychological suspense novel about twin sisters, the man they both love, the house that has always haunted them, and the childhood stories they can’t leave behind.

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs, full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days, Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband, Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which hasn't changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues: a treasure hunt that leads back to Mirrorland, where the truth lies waiting...

A brilliantly crafted story of love and betrayal, redemption and revenge, Mirrorland is a propulsive, page-turning debut about the power of imagination and the price of freedom.

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The Anatomy of Dreams
by Chloe Benjamin

I greatly enjoy Chloe Benjamin’s writing style and after reading THE IMMORTALISTS, I was excited to dive into THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS. Her storytelling honestly feels like clinging to the last threads of a dream just after waking, which is perfect for a story about lucid dreaming. Dr. Adrian Keller is the charismatic headmaster of a northern California boarding school who has dedicated his life to studying the effects of lucid dreaming to relieve stress and trauma. Two students Sylvia and Gabe embark on an experiment that changes their lives. Eventually, they follow Dr. Keller to the Midwest. But as things get more tangled, Sylvia begins to question Keller’s ethics and the very fabric of her reality. Benjamin’s prose is eerie and imaginative.

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The Anatomy of Dreams
Chloe Benjamin

Discover the award-winning debut novel by the New York Times bestselling author of The Immortalists, a “majestic collision of sci-fi thriller and love story” (Bustle) about a young woman struggling with questions of love, trust, and ethics as the line between dreams and reality dangerously blurs.

When Sylvie Patterson, a bookish student at a Northern California boarding school, falls in love with a spirited, elusive classmate named Gabe, they embark on an experiment that changes their lives. Their headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, is a charismatic medical researcher who has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming: by teaching his patients to become conscious during sleep, he believes he can relieve stress and trauma. Over the next six years, Sylvie and Gabe become consumed by Keller’s work, following him across the country.

But when an opportunity brings the trio to the Midwest, Sylvie and Gabe stumble into a tangled relationship with their mysterious neighbors—and Sylvie begins to doubt the ethics of Keller’s research. As she navigates the hazy, permeable boundaries between what is real and what isn’t, who can be trusted and who cannot, Sylvie also faces surprising developments in herself—an unexpected infatuation, growing paranoia, and a new sense of rebellion.

With stirring, elegant prose, “Chloe Benjamin has crafted an eerie, compelling first novel which, like the lingering effects of a vivid dream, resonates long past its finish” (Karen Brown, The Longings of Wayward Girls).

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The Glittering World
by Robert Levy

A wonderful mix of thriller and fantasy with a dash of the supernatural earns THE GLITTERING WORLD a spot on this surreal fiction list. Blue is an up-and-coming chef in New York who doesn’t remember much about his childhood or his life in Starling Cove before his mother whisked him away to the States. But after his grandmother passes and he inherits her house, he plans a trip with his best friend, her husband, and a new friend from the restaurant before he sells the house. Once there, however, he starts to remember bits and pieces, like the fact that he and another kid went missing for weeks in the woods and that the locals believe something known as the Other Kind haunt the lands.

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The Glittering World
Robert Levy

In the tradition of Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), Scott Smith (The Ruins), and Jason Mott (The Returned), award-winning playwright Robert Levy spins a dark tale of alienation and belonging, the familiar and the surreal, family secrets and the search for truth in his debut supernatural thriller.

AS A BOY, HE VANISHED INTO THE WOODS. SOMETHING ELSE CAME BACK.

It’s a long way from the grit of New York City to the stark beauty of Nova Scotia, and many years separate Blue Whitley’s only two journeys between them. One occurred at age five, when his mother stole him away from the hinterlands of Canada. Now, twenty-five years later, he’s returning to sell a house left to him by a grandmother he barely remembers. Envisioning the trip as a week of countryside leisure, Blue is accompanied by his best friend Elisa, her stalwart husband Jeremy, and Gabe, his young and admiring co-worker. Starling Cove, however, is not your typical vacation spot. Blue senses secrets withheld. Strange whispers on the wind welcome him home, and at first he finds himself staring transfixed into the woods. Then he feels them gazing back. After a shocking discovery—that Blue went missing in these forests for weeks as a child—life as he knows it begins to fall apart. And when another abduction strikes, the truth about Starling Cove begins to emerge.

Told from all four characters' points of view, through lush, evocative prose Robert Levy conjures a fascinating, sinister landscape. A unique blend of taut psychological thriller and supernatural suspense, The Glittering World is a stunning debut novel about belonging and betrayal, the mysteries of the natural world and the secrets buried deep within the human heart.

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Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
by Benjamin Constable

This book is dark and clever and has an imaginary cat named Cat, so already what’s not to love? THREE LIVES OF TOMOMI ISHIKAWA is a book you will not want to put down as you attempt to follow Butterfly’s clues along with Ben. Tomomi Ishikawa, or Butterfly, shakes up Ben’s life in Paris with a suicide note that doubles as a treasure map of her darkest secrets hidden around the city. But as each confession gets darker and darker, Ben must force himself to determine what is real for both himself and Butterfly.

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Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
Benjamin Constable

A new and enticing voice in fiction draws readers through the streets of Paris and New York on an intricate adventure. It’s twisting, contemplative, playful and darkly entertaining.

What writer Benjamin Constable needs is a real-life adventure wilder than his rampant imagination. And who better to shake up his comfortable Englishman-in-Paris routine than the enigmatic Tomomi “Butterfly” Ishikawa, who has just sent a cryptic suicide note?

She’s planted a slew of clues—in the pages of her journal, on the hard drive of her computer, tucked away in public places, under flowerpots, and behind statues. Heartbroken, confused, and accompanied by an imaginary cat, Ben embarks upon a scavenger hunt leading to charming and unexpected spaces, from the hidden alleys of Paris to the cobblestone streets of New York City.

But Butterfly’s posthumous messages are surprisingly well informed for the words of a dead person, and they’re full of confessions of a past darkened by insanity, betrayal, and murder. The treasures Ben is unearthing are installments of a gruesome memoir. Now he must draw a clear line between the real and surreal if he is to save himself, Butterfly, and what remains of their crazy and amazing friendship.

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Friday Black
by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The stories in FRIDAY BLACK are dark, riveting, poignant, and sharp. There are 12 stories in all and they deal with racism, violence, dangerous consumerism, unrest, and the fight for humanity. These stories will haunt you, and while grounded in real issues, take on a sort of fever dream and Black Mirror-like quality to them. What if there was a place that let customers enter virtual reality to hunt down terrorists played by actors of color? What happens when the victim and the assailant of a school shooting end up in purgatory together? What if an author sold his soul? What if you could design a baby the way you design an outfit? Explore Adjei-Brenyah’s powerful take on all these questions and more in FRIDAY BLACK.

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Friday Black
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton

If you are looking for a mystery that breaks the mold, then pick up THE 7 ½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE. Aiden Bishop has seven days to solve the mystery surrounding Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The catch? Every day he wakes up in the body of a different house guest at Blackheath Manor. Each guest comes with their own slew of access and issues as he races to find out what happened. To make matters worse, he’s not the only one in the house looking for answers, and if he fails, he starts the cycle all over again. If you’re truly looking for an unexpected mystery with a wonderfully unreliable narrator, then this is the pick for you.

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The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Stuart Turton

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The Midnight Library
by Matt Haig

What makes life worth living? If you could change one decision, or hundreds, would you? In between life and death, there is a library. Imagine if every book on the shelf contained an alternate life where you had made a different choice, pursued a different career, chosen a different partner, when for that night out, or pushed for a promotion? Would you still be the same person? When Nora finds herself in the library with a world of possibilities before her, she must look inside herself to determine what makes for a worthy lifetime. There are moments in THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY that feel very dreamlike in this unique premise of what happens in between.

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The Midnight Library
Matt Haig

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