The best literary novels with unreliable and morally compromised characters

Why am I passionate about this?

Since I was introduced to many authors published by Grove Press, I have been intrigued by transgressive literary fiction, especially stories and novels that feature narrators and protagonists whose unreliability and moral culpability fuel plots to surprising yet inevitable climaxes. Lesser writers of such works use the shocking and revolting as crutches for vapid prose, failing to lead readers to revelations that can be found in the darkest places and in the unlikeliest of people. What better accomplishment can any writer ask for except getting readers, in some way, to identify with characters whom they would avoid in real life?


I wrote...

And the Train Kept Moving

By Michael Kiggins,

Book cover of And the Train Kept Moving

What is my book about?

And the Train Kept Moving is a literary transgressive thriller narrated by Bryan Meigs, a gay alcoholic with OCD who struggles with the aftermath of getting date-raped and potentially infected with HIV. During the search for his rapist, Bryan will navigate parts of Memphis that most tourists never see—a world of gay clubs, late-night dives, and cruising spots—all set during a time when homophobia and the fear of contracting HIV were more rampant. Along the way, Bryan will be forced to reckon with his present fears of infection, ghosts from his past, and brutal truths about himself.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Guest

Michael Kiggins Why did I love this book?

Cline’s novel is one of the most unsettling books I read this summer.

Readers follow the protagonist as she slowly and inescapably sinks lower and lower, all while losing her grip on reality. In almost every chapter, she disrupts, if not ruins, the lives of the people she uses in various schemes in the hopes of convincing the older rich man whom she had been sleeping with to take her back.

The novel has a languid pace, but there are so many exquisite passages peppered throughout the creeping dread as you watch the protagonist’s increasingly destructive choices play out.

By Emma Cline,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Guest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* A TIMES 'Book of 2023' * 'Addictive' STYLIST Books to Look Out For 2023 * 'Destined to be the status read of 2023' HARPER'S BAZAAR BEST NEW FICTION * 'The perfect summer read' CULTURE WHISPER * An EVENING STANDARD 'Best New Books for Spring' * A Financial Times Best Summer Read 2023 *

Summer is coming to a close on Long Island, and Alex is no longer welcome...

One misstep at a dinner party and the older man she's been staying with dismisses her with a ride to the train station and a ticket back to the city. With…


Book cover of Hawk Mountain

Michael Kiggins Why did I love this book?

Habib’s novel is an interesting and disturbing debut following a single father who unexpectedly reconnects with a former bully who has ulterior motives.

The first part of the novel jumps back and forth between their high school days and the present, leading to a moment of shocking violence. It’s the aftermath of that violence and how the protagonist deals (or fails to deal) with it that stands out the most, leading to a gut-wrenching conclusion.

By Conner Habib,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hawk Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Single father Todd is relaxing at the beach with his son, Anthony, when he catches sight of a man approaching from the water's edge. As the man draws closer, Todd recognizes him as Jack, who bullied Todd relentlessly in their teenage years but now seems overjoyed to have "run into" his old friend. Jack suggests a meal to catch up. And can he spend the night?

What follows is a fast-paced story of obsession and cunning. As Jack invades Todd's life, pain and intimidation from the past unearth knife-edge suspense in the present. Set in a small town on the…


Book cover of Edinburgh

Michael Kiggins Why did I love this book?

Chee’s debut novel is quite simply a masterpiece. His language and imagery are lush and lyrical and arresting.

The beauty of the prose stands in stark contrast to the subject matter of child sexual abuse and the long-lasting trauma of that, pulling you into the primary narrator’s story. Once you finish it, you will want to begin reading all over again.

By Alexander Chee,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Edinburgh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A poignant work of mature, haunting artistry, Edinburgh heralds the arrival of a remarkable young writer. Fee, a Korean-American child growing up in Maine, is gifted with a beautiful soprano voice and sings in a professional boys' choir. When the choir director acts out his paedophilic urges on the boys in the choir, Fee is unable to save himself, his first love, Peter, or his friends.


Book cover of Bath Haus: A Thriller

Michael Kiggins Why did I love this book?

This thriller is a compulsively readable novel.

In dueling POVs of a gay couple, Vernon explores their relationship, with its power imbalances and manipulations, in all its messiness. Neither narrator is being honest with the other, and the novel is set in motion when Oliver decides to visit a bathhouse where a would-be trick attacks him, making him fear for his life.

The rest of the novel ping-pongs between the narrators, both of whom are concealing so much from each other for very different reasons. 

By P. J. Vernon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Bath Haus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nominated for a 34th annual Lambda Literary Award • A scintillating thriller with an emotional punch: “The tension builds to unbearably claustrophobic levels. To say more would rob readers of the 'no, he didn’t' suspense that makes Bath Haus an unexpectedly twisted, heart-pounding cat-versus-mouse thriller" (Los Angeles Times).

Oliver Park, a recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they've made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn't be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse.…


Book cover of Guide

Michael Kiggins Why did I love this book?

Guide is the fourth book in Cooper’s George Miles Cycle. This short novel is packed with so much to think about, even if what that includes will make your skin crawl.

If you are unfamiliar with Cooper’s work, this isn’t the book I’d recommend you start with, but his language is so precise that it’s hard to imagine the sentences being written in any other way. The shifting POV chapters take readers on a tour of the seedier parts of L.A., forcing us to examine and interrogate not only how we all tell our own stories, but also how some people then use those to erase or justify their complicity. 

By Dennis Cooper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Guide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Presents a disturbing and provocative exploration of four young men who want more than anything to be altered by drugs, the power of love, or the violently erotic experiences they share with each other.


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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