10 under rated books
This 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?
57 thoughts on “10 under rated books”
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.
He is fairly solid. I really like “Elephant and Castle,” “A Child Possessed,” and “Testament,” which is about the Russian revolution. and “Recollection of a Journey”.
ones for my wishlist ….
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
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.
Yes, Hour of the Star is remarkable and unforgettable.
thanks for the vote in favour of Hour of the Star. I have it to read but not sure when I will get to it
‘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!)
it’s sad isnt it when some books dont get the visibility they deserve
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.
I didnt know Wife of the Gods was part of a series – something for me to add to my wishlist along with Born Boy
The second one is Children of the Street. I haven’t read it yet. Oh and it’s Bom Boy. Love your posts by the way though they are bad for my tbr list.
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.
Thanks Leslie for those recommendations
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! 🙂
I started reading the Ozeki but didnt get far with it -maybe it was just my mood at the time.I will go back to it at some point.
Pleased to see All Our Names here. A quietly powerful book.
Perfect description Susan. I am surprised it didnt get more attention
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!
Hope you enjoy it after all the trouble you had to track it down
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
Kudos to you for trying to read more broadly – I am trying to do the same thing. If you are interested in literature from some other countries you might find the series called A View from Here to be of help – its where bloggers in different parts of the world do a guest post about literature from their country. We have India, Belgium, Finland as examples. Here’s the link Caitlin https://bookertalk.com/world-literature/the-view-from-here/
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
I think I have a copy of that somewhere – just a question of finding time to read everything
Hodgson wrote a sequel with Tom Hawkins – you might like it too.
I managed to get a copy from the library last year but had to return it before getting around to reading it.So its on my radar….
I just ordered three of the African books from Amazon. Thanks for the recommendations!
Wonderful, which ones did you get?
All our Names, The Woman Next Door, and Wife of the Gods. Can’t wait to read them!
Sorry if I have made your TBR topple over Debra…..
It’s a tough problem to have, but I’ll muddle through somehow. 😉
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. 😉
Grain of Wheat I’ve heard of – will have to check these titles out now. Long may that special moment remain in your memory…
I have Holiday ..
planning to read it any time soon?
Have to find it first
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
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!
Sorry to have been so long replying – your comment went into the spam folder for some reason. Ive not seen any lists of horror stories by country – you could start your own guide maybe?
I’ve tried but I’m having trouble finding some
Have you had a scout around on Goodreads – there are groups on there that are reading different genres and countries around the world. maybe you can ask them for recommendations?
That’s a great idea ! Thanks
(I’ve eyeballed listopias and stuff but never thought about asking groups )
I’ve got that book by Michael – it’s terrific, I agree.
I have to be careful when reading it otherwise my bank balance will go seriously adrift I fear
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!
What do you have by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o? I’m interested in reading more of his work but not sure what to choose
An interesting list – the only one I’ve read is Dom Casmurro, which I loved!
it took me a while to get into it but once I did I loved it too