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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!