Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

10 Underrated Books Worth Reading

There’s something both satisfying and frustrating about discovering a really good underrated book. That sounds contradictory, I know, but it’s true! On the one hand, it’s wonderful to find unexpected joy and take the opportunity to press it into other readers’ hands. On the other hand, it can be a bit disheartening to realise how many great books don’t get the fanfare they deserve. Through Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve come across a whole bunch of great books that I think need more time in the spotlight, so here’s a reading list for you: ten underrated books worth reading.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

All the long-time Keeper Upperers out there knew that this was going to be my number one! I’m still incensed that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves missed out on the Booker Prize (and lost to the misery-fest that was The Narrow Road To The Deep North, no less!). This is one of my all-time favourite books: it’s funny, it’s provoking, it’s heart-felt, and it’s got hands-down the best plot twist I’ve ever read. Perhaps that’s why more people don’t talk about it, they don’t want to spoil it for others… but I have no such compunction! Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think the reason Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t get more attention is purely political. In her day, Stella Gibbons was a forthright woman, and she didn’t hesitate to mock and satirise other authors – even the popular and powerful ones. She had the audacity to win awards that they were hoping to win themselves, and she thought “networking” and “nepotism” were bullshit. That’s how she invoked the ire of literary giants like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf: she refused to play the game, so the ranks closed against her. Reading Cold Comfort Farm is not only a delightful romp in a rich world of satire, it’s also a way to thumb your nose to the establishment. Fight the power! Read my full review here.

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Everyone my age – and plenty on either side – knows Melina Marchetta for her young adult classic, Looking For Alibrandi. It’s a wonderful book and I’ve recommended it highly elsewhere, but today I’m here to spruik for one of her other YA offerings: Saving Francesca. Marchetta’s true talent lies in writing beautifully believable, flawed and fierce teenage heroines. Francesca is one of them, perhaps the best of them. This is a book that will stay with you, even if young adult books aren’t normally “your thing”.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everything I’d heard about this book before I read it for myself was decidedly negative. It’s long, they said, and it’s dense and it’s dull. I’m here to set the record straight: Crime And Punishment is actually none of those things! I’m not sure where along the way Dostoyevsky got his bad reputation, but it’s a real shame, for him and for us as readers. I read the McDuff translation (I can’t attest to the others), and it was one of the funniest and most relatable classic books I’ve ever picked up. Read my full review here.

Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules Of Civility - Amor Towles - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As with many of the other books on this list, Rules Of Civility sadly lives in a rather large shadow. Amor Towles is much better known for his later book, A Gentleman In Moscow. I didn’t even realise that he’d written other books prior to that one, until I heard about this gem on Anne Bogel’s podcast. I was drawn in by the parallels to Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and I stayed for the glamour and romance of a young woman’s life journey in mid-20th century Manhattan.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might be skeptical about me calling this an underrated book: after all, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most frequently used characters in all of English literature. But how many of us have actually read Arthur Conan Doyle’s original collection of short stories, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes? The problem with our continuous re-tellings and interpretations of the Sherlock character is that we come to feel like we know him and his stories already. I can tell you that this original collection is better than anything subsequent I’ve read or seen. Doyle was the master of economy in language, and he packs incredibly clever and complex cases into just a few pages. Read my full review here.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Isherwood is best-known for books like Goodbye To Berlin, which drew heavily on his experiences teaching English in Germany and watching the Nazis rise to power. Yet he called this book, A Single Man, his “masterpiece” – and I reckon he was right about that. It’s a smaller story, in the sense that it follows a single day in the life of a grieving gay widower living in Los Angeles in the ’50s. It’s so cooly related, so darkly comic, so deceivingly complex – hands down his best work! Read my full review here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m sorry to say that Anita Loos is something like a cautionary tale. Despite her many accomplishments in her life-long career (she was the first-ever staff scriptwriter in Hollywood, for instance; she wrote dozens of incredible films and many stars of the screen owe her their careers), she was mercilessly bullied and meticulously controlled by her arsehole husband. As a result of hiding her light under his stupid bushel, she seems to have largely fallen from memory. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sold out its entire print run on the first day of sales, but few people have even heard of it now. Well, they’ve heard of the movie, of course, but not the incredible comic novel on which it was based. Read my full review here.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kazuo Ishiguro is hardly an underrated author. He’s won the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize, he was even knighted! But An Artist Of The Floating World is definitely his most underrated book. I think the popularity of his other books, like Never Let Me Go, has been spurred by their successful film adaptations. Unfortunately, this story of an ageing Japanese artist’s reflections on his role in WWII doesn’t translate so easily to the big screen, and no director has attempted it (yet). While we wait, be sure to check out the book itself – I promise it’ll be a pleasant surprise! Read my full review here.

The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

Look, this list could’ve been made up entirely of poetry books. Poetry in general is hugely underrated. But, for the sake of fairness, I narrowed it down to just this one: The Monkey’s Mask (but please take it as read that any poetry is going to be underrated, at least in some measure). In relative terms, Porter did pretty well for herself: throughout the ’90s, this was the best-selling book of poetry in Australia since WWII. Still, I don’t think it got quite the acclaim it deserved. Even if you don’t normally read poetry, this is a good book to try, because it’s actually a novel told in verse – a plot unfolds through a series of poems, and it’s a cohesive, gripping thriller plot at that!



Which underrated book(s) would YOU like to nudge into the spotlight? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

13 Comments

  1. What a great post! It’s like you’re talking to me:
    Cold Comfort Farm, one of my favorite books of all time;
    Crime & Punishment, what can one say? How was he able to write such a character, despicable & horrible, and get the reader to feel for him at the end?;
    Isherwood, excellent. I read Goodbye to Berlin years ago and loved his style;
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, how funny, that is sitting in my local library with my name on it right now. I pick it up tomorrow!;
    I’ve loved Dorothy Parker for decades but hadn’t heard about this particular one. Added to my TBR list. Thanks.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      January 31, 2020 at 7:47 PM

      Fantastic!! It sounds like we’re reading soulmates 😉 Would love to hear what you think of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Monkey’s Mask! Enjoy!

      • Got Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Friday and read it through till Saturday afternoon. I loved it. At the beginning, I thought perhaps I’d gotten a really poorly edited copy, then I figured out what she was doing. So funny. I’m going to put The Monkey’s Mask on my library loan list next. Thanks for the recommendations!

      • OMG, just noticed it is Dorothy Porter, not Dorothy Parker as I first thought. Interesting…

        • ShereeKUWTP

          February 3, 2020 at 5:22 PM

          Ahaha! Easy mistake to make! Hope you check out The Monkey’s Mask anyway, and SO glad to hear you enjoyed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes! (The Monkey’s Mask is less funny, but equally fantastic!)

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    January 31, 2020 at 9:04 PM

    Ah, one of my favorite topics: underrated books by well known authors. There are of course many options, especially among the classics, but if I could only recommend one to you, it would probably be Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Admittedly, I think he wrote better novels from a structural point of view, and the climax is a tad controvercial, but it is my own favorite, and I have a funny feeling you might quite like it also. At its heart, this is a story about lack of agency for women: a girl who was written off at birth by her father because of her gender, women who were trained by their own mothers to become commodities for men, even a servant who stands up to her male employer by criticising his appalling parenting skills. All fascinating stuff from an author who supposedly can’t write about strong or interesting women.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      February 1, 2020 at 1:37 PM

      Oh brilliant! I’m completely with you, I think Dickens’ capacity to write female characters has been unfairly maligned – I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Dombey and Son! Thank you so much, Alyson!

  3. Okay, fine. You’ve caught my interest! Lol. I never would have considered Crime and Punishment (and I’ll make a note of the translation you mentioned). As for Sherlock Holmes, I keep meaning to try one of the originals, so thanks for the added incentive!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      February 3, 2020 at 5:21 PM

      My absolute pleasure! Really looking forward to hearing what you think of both of them, I reckon you’re in for a good time 😉

  4. I love this list! I especially need to try out Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as you are not the only person I’ve heard say good things about it. And a resounding YES to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — that book blew me away.

  5. “she refused to play the game, so the ranks closed against her”, reading that sentence I realised that the subjects change but the outcomes don’t. Tolerance of people who refuse to play the game still does not exist. It’s just the game(s) that change.

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