10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.


That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 17, 2017, in African authors, British authors, South & Central American authors, Top Ten Tuesday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 57 Comments.

  1. I have got The Spinning Heart on my bookshelf, and have meant to get to it for ages. Somehow I always end up selecting something else. Should make some time for it.

  2. Thank you so much! I am so happy to see Stanley Middleton on your list. It’s shocking how difficult it is to find his work. If you back a bit further in time you can find another neglected wonderful writer: RC Hutchinson (1907-1975) was also short-listed for a Booker (1975). He wrote 18 novels.

    • “Rising” is wonderful, if incomplete. Recommendations of other exceptional RC Hutchinson novels would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • thats a completely new name to me. Ive read a few of the shortlisted/long listed authors but they tend to be from recent years rather than in the early days of the prize. Maybe thats a project for the future

  3. A very nice list! I am going to have to check some of them out! Even thought there has been a bit of a Clarice Lispector revival in the last few years, I still think not enough people know about her. Hour of the Star is an amazing and utterly devastating book.

  4. ‘The Woman Next Door’ was one of my top reads of 2016 – I completely agree abut it being an under rated gem. I haven’t read the others on your list (but as they’re recommended on the same page as TWND I’m duly noting them down!)

  5. I also loved Harvest. Have read Wife of the Gods; enjoyed it so much that I ordered the next in the series. Have also read The Women Next Door and enjoyed it. Yewande Omitoso’s other novel Bom Boy is also a good read.

  6. I like your list and copied a few of the titles. Now I almost want to take inventory of my own list of underrated gems. In the meantime, here are two: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, and Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett.

  7. I’m making a note of many of these titles, for future reference, but have to disagree about ‘Harvest’, which I thought was a little pedestrian. To be fair, I’ve only read half of the 2013 Booker shortlist, but even out of those three, I’d have picked Ruth Ozeki or Colm Toibin over Jim Crace. Horses for courses, I guess! 🙂

  8. Pleased to see All Our Names here. A quietly powerful book.

  9. This is the year I read Holiday. I had trouble finding it so it drifted to the end of the list. Now I’m looking forward to reading it at last!

  10. I don’t recognize any of these, which means you did an excellent job with your list. I will look to see if any of the first section are available at my library–I’m trying to read more diversely. 🙂 My TTT

  11. Great list. I have not read any of these books. One under rated book in my opinion is South Riding by Dorothy Whipple. Read it last year and loved it

  12. I just ordered three of the African books from Amazon. Thanks for the recommendations!

  13. Looks like a great list. The only one I’ve read is _Petals of Blood_, which was great.

    • Have you read anything else by him?

      • Yes. Grain of Wheat, Matigari, and Decolonizing the Mind (nonfiction.) Also, I once saw him at an African literature conference in Ghana. When I walked past him, I said “hi” to him. He said “hi” back to me. So therefore, I consider him a close personal friend. 😉

  14. I have Holiday ..

  15. Good on you for including both Crace’s Harvest and Middleton’s Holiday, both excellent novels. Now how about Bernice Rubens’ Five Year Sentence too?

    • I see from a Goodreads group that the Rubens is highly regarded. I’ve read a different one by her – The Elected Member (her Booker prize winner) https://bookertalk.com/2012/03/14/reflections-on-the-elected-member/
      I should read more from her considering she comes from Wales and lived just 12 miles from my home

      • I’ve only read three novels from Rubens’ substantial output: Elected Member, Five Year Sentence, and Madame Souzatska. Of those, Five Year Sentence was my clear favorite, followed by Madame Souzatska. Brendan King’s new biography of Beryl Bainbridge has some interesting insights into the apparently close friendship between Rubens and Bainbridge. Your list overall is wonderful, and will provide me with yet more novels to add to my to-read pile. I agree with you that Harvest was deserving of a Booker win, but even more so Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, which was shortlisted in 1980.

        • Agree 100% re Earthly Powers.I just finished reading the eventual winner Rites of Passage. It was enjoyable though not as inventive as Earthly Powers

  16. Thanks for your mention of the book for contemporary literature around the world. Have it earmarked now! I’d love to read horror from every major country!

  17. I’ve got that book by Michael – it’s terrific, I agree.

  18. It’s an old one, but I’ve long loved Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel. Persephone has republished an earlier work of hers, I believe, but Swamp Angel is quietly subversive in many ways and I wish it found more readers. More recently, Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, about an indigenous woman living on the west coast of Canada: just brilliant, and it should have gotten scads of attention (and it’s not entirely grim – there is humour beneath). Most of yours are unfamiliar to me, but I’m especially glad to hear of the Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o because I’m set to read some of his work this year too!

  19. An interesting list – the only one I’ve read is Dom Casmurro, which I loved!

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