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The 13 Most Underrated Books of All Time

Looking for a great read but already burned through the bestseller list? Don't miss these rare delights.

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A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

First published in 1957, this sizzling page-turner brims over with gorgeous slangy prose, plot twists, and wild characters taken from Harlem in its heyday, when the author lived there. Don’t miss the con artist dressed as a nun, the café-au-lait femme fatale, the sucker who loves her no matter what happens, and the chase scene involving a hearse with a corpse and a trunkful of gold. These are the top 10 books people lie about reading.

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Fraud: Essays by David Rakoff

If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love David Rakoff. In fact, Sedaris himself says of his late friend: “…I keep finding whole interviews with [David]…so it’s still possible for me to hear his voice, to believe he’s in a studio somewhere reading stories—I don’t ever want to come to the bottom of that trove, and accept the fact that he’s not here.” After reading Rakoff’s account of a gig where he played Sigmund Freud in Barney’s shop windows for several days, you may feel just the same way.

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Chéri and The Last of Chéri by Colette

If you loved the recent biopic Colette with Kiera Knightley as the scandalous, trailblazing French writer, begin exploring her surprisingly modern work right here. The spoiled, charming son of a former courtesan, Chéri has spent six years living in amicable cougarish passion with Léa, an old friend of his mother’s. When Chéri is about to make a long-awaited arranged marriage, both he and Léa are forced to confront the true possibilities—and limitations—of their relationship. Want to read the book before the movie comes out? We’ve got a list for you!

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Shikasta by Doris Lessing

Still best known for her incendiary feminist classic, The Golden Notebook, Lessing ruffled literary feathers with Shikasta, her first science fiction novel, which ingeniously reinterprets accounts of human history (especially the Bible and Koran) as the story of three galactic empires fighting each other in and through our planet. She weaves in the painfully real individual stories of particular characters involved in the struggle. Lessing’s theory that human suffering actually feeds an evil empire known as Shammat is, alas, only too persuasive, and haunted us long after we turned the last page.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

What if there was a tree that required total darkness, fed richly on lies, and in return bore a semi-toxic fruit that, when eaten, revealed a powerful secret to the caretaking liar? Faith Sunderly is a proper Victorian girl, which means she must hide her brilliance, ambition, and fierce desire to find out what happened to her murdered scientist father. But The Lie Tree already knows it all. This creepy, beautiful historical fantasy won Britain’s much-coveted Costa prize in 2015 (only the second children’s book ever to do so). Love talking about books? Here are the 12 most controversial books of all time.

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Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Picture a beautiful, vibrant young woman in 19th-century Paris who lives and works in a filthy passageway that never catches a ray of light. Thérèse was married off to her sickly, fretful first cousin by her tyrannical aunt and doomed to this life before she ever got a chance to explore her options. It’s no wonder that she finds herself in love with the first handsome young man who comes along. The question is, how far will the two lovers go to be together? And will they get caught in the end?

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Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

These days Waugh is best known for his most somber work, Brideshead Revisited, but in his own day he was hugely popular for a series of riotously funny novels about decadent aristocratic Londoners after World War I. Vile Bodies features a writer who is miserable because his long-awaited tragic novel has become a bestseller…as a comedy! And even his fashionable fiancée is fooled. Waugh’s characters rejoice in names like the Honorable Agatha Runcible, Miles Mapractice and Mrs. Melrose Ape, and use phrases like “too, too sick-making.” The whole thing could hardly be more fun. These are the 50 books to read before you’re 50.

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The Crazy School by Cornelia Read

The author’s first witty, tough literary mystery about amateur detective/former debutante Madeline Dare made a big splash in the publishing scene, but we actually prefer this one, her sophmore effort. Madeline has moved to the Berkshires to work in a severe, cult-like “therapeutic” boarding school where suicide is a constant threat, students and staff are encouraged to rat each other out for small infractions, and the kids call each other “suckbags,” a term that made it into our permanent vocabulary. (Full disclosure: This writer is a friend of the author.) When two students are poisoned, Madeline has no choice but to take the case.

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Burning Lights by Bella Chagall

This series of painstakingly observed memories of the tiny Belarussian village of Vitebsk by Marc Chagall’s greatly beloved first wife is illustrated with line drawings by the artist himself. Bella’s yearning for the past permeates the book:

“From every corner a shadow thrusts out, and no sooner do I touch it than it pulls me into a dancing circle with other shadows…Dear God, it is so hard to draw out a fragment of bygone life from fleshless memories! And what if they should flicker out, my lean memories, and die away together with me? I want to rescue them.”

And so she did. Check out the 17 memoirs everyone should read.

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Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

Just recently Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 both made Amazon’s bestseller lists. But in this, his first book, he tells his own story of leaving a cushy job, slaving as a dishwasher in a Parisian restaurant, and wandering England as a homeless tramp. “You thought it would be quite simple [to be poor]; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.” This is a book that stirs our souls, wrings our hearts, and illuminates the lost corners of two great cities.

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A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

At once a ghost story, a love story, and a teen novel, A Certain Slant of Light defies the cliches of all three genres. A young girl’s spirit clings to an English teacher, fearful and alone, until she realizes that one boy can actually see her. For he too is a ghost, inhabiting a young borrowed body. Whitcomb’s writing is heartbreakingly beautiful, and her old-fashioned dialect easily convinces us that the two lovers are from a bygone time. We never thought we’d be rooting so hard for a pair of ghosts to fall in love. If you love reading as a couple, here are 10 truly romantic books to try.

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If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

The poet Carl Sandburg called this “the best book ever written about how to write,” and we agree. It was published in 1938 and we’ve never found a better tool for smashing through writer’s block. As Ueland herself says so memorably,

“The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can.”…And if you have no such friend—and you want to write—well, then you must imagine one.”

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The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

No one truly appreciated Jim Thompson’s hardboiled crime novels in the ’40s and ’50s, though more recently he’s been praised as “the dime-store Dostoevsky.” He’s at his sardonic, chilling best in The Killer Inside Me, a first person account by Lou Ford, a small-town deputy sheriff who hides his stone-cold sociopathy behind a mask of corny proverbs and puns. He can just about keep “the sickness” in check until he meets a voracious prostitute named Joyce who enlists him in an elaborate blackmail scheme. Where will Lou’s violent urges lead him in the end? You’ll be turning pages to find out. Don’t miss the best thriller books to add to your reading list.

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