Best of 2017: 10 Underrated Books & Hidden Gems
Whether you like to call them underrated books or hidden gems, the titles on this list are those I think deserve a lot more attention. Some of them have been highly praised, though perhaps under-read. Many are also from medium-to-smaller publishers and imprints, or perhaps are examples of an author’s lesser known work or first attempt at a different genre. Most, I was shocked to see, also have less than 500 ratings on Goodreads at the time of this writing.
Anyway, I had a fun putting this list together and thought it might also be a great way to spotlight some books that I haven’t featured yet on any of my best-of lists from the past few weeks (Notable Debuts of 2017, Best of 2017, Top Sci-Fi Reads of 2017, and my upcoming list of Favorite New-To-Me Authors of 2017) but are nonetheless fantastic reads that I want to recommend.
Set in a lush world reminiscent of late 19th century Europe with inspiration from the pre-WWI “Golden Age” era of France, The Beautiful Ones introduces us to Hector Auvray, a telekinetic entertainer who has arrived back in the city of Loisail after spending nearly ten years traveling abroad. Now rich and famous, he has returned to his home country hoping to meet up with his old flame Valérie Beaulieu, to whom he had been engaged when they were both young and penniless, but pressured by her family, she had ended up breaking his heart to marry someone else with wealth and status. To Hector’s disappointment though, the emotional reunion he had planned for was spoiled when Valérie fails to show up to the high society ball he attends. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of another young woman at the gathering, the interesting but socially awkward Antonina who is in the city for her first Grand Season. I won’t lie, I wanted to throttle nearly everyone in this book, but in this they have something in common with characters in a soap opera—you just love to hate them. Likewise, I found it impossible to tear myself away from the drama. This is because Silvia Moreno-Garcia knows how to spin a good yarn, and more importantly, she knows what it takes to capture the reader’s attention. Rather than shy away from the usual conventions of the fantasy of manners genre, she instead revels in them, offering up a lavish feast of romantic melodrama, high societal punctilio, and weaponized etiquette. (Read the full review…)
ReMade is Serial Box’s first foray into the Young Adult genre, bringing their serialized fiction format to a story described as Lost meets The Maze Runner. This fifteen episode season follows a group of twenty-three teenagers and young adults who wake up one day on a strange jungle world full of unidentifiable creatures and killer robots. Nearby, a towering space elevator looms. Are they in the future? Or have they been abducted and transported to an alien planet? No one knows for sure what’s going on, but gradually they discover a common factor among themselves—every single one of them has final memories of dying before they woke up here. When reading serialized fiction, I generally prefer waiting for the full novel or season to be completed before tackling all the installments in one go, as opposed to following them piecemeal by the week. Serials like ReMade are a pretty good example of why I do this, given its rather unusual structure. While it features a present storyline set on the mysterious jungle world, each episode also focuses mainly on one character and tells their backstory through a long sequence of flashbacks. More than anything else, it was this aspect of the series that reminded me most of Lost, with its use of a nonlinear narrative to tell a character-driven mystery. It now ranks among my favorite series from Serial Box. (Read the full review…)
It’s a year for pleasant surprises, it seems. The Salt Line is a book that first caught my eye because of its thriller-dystopian premise, but it’s more than just that; author Holly Goddard Jones has created an exciting high-drama experience, the kind that would not go amiss in a Crichton novel, but her story also contains a high level of literary quality that challenges most genre labels. Taking place in the not-so-distant future, the story features a world defeated by an enemy smaller than the size of a pea. The United States has even ceded most of its natural territories to this tiny terror, a tick that serves a as a vector to a deadly pathogen. Getting bit by one of these things is scary enough—their life cycle and what it does to the human body is like something straight out of an Alien movie—but the true killer is in fact Shreve’s disease, carried by a large percent of these ticks. For this reason, most people now live in safe zones in which these pests have been eradicated. These enclosed areas are separated from the wilderness, which is where the ticks thrive, by a physical wall as well as a burnt-out dead zone called the Salt Line, a large swath of land that has been purged of all life by fire and chemicals designed to keep the ticks at bay. Still, there are people who live beyond the Salt Line—some by choice, others by necessity. Then there are the thrill-seekers who pay big money for their chance to go out there, to have a grand adventure to see what’s left of nature. (Read the full review…)
Laura Elliston trilogy sooner, but as a Western/historical fiction, it didn’t quite fit into any of the categories in my best-of lists so far. I’m glad though, that I finally have a chance to shine a spotlight on Badlands, which brings this magnificent emotional journey that began with Sawbones to a gripping and satisfying conclusion. Still, I confess there had been a lot of initial hand-wringing on my part over how all this would end, though I really should have known better than to be worried—Melissa Lenhardt knew what she was doing and was in control the whole time, providing closure to the series while bringing things full circle. This series is really something special. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth saying again: the author does not pull any punches, and her rendition of the Wild West is a brutally authentic one, which sometimes makes all of the injustices and violence difficult to read. However, it also makes our characters’ struggles more heart-wrenching and their eventual triumph all the more powerful and poignant. The ending was everything I wanted, featuring a touching and joyous scenario that tied everything together perfectly. Melissa Lenhardt has accomplished a superb achievement in bringing the trilogy to a phenomenal close, and I can’t wait to see what future stories she will tell. (Read the full review…)
Let’s face it, guys—sharks are so hot right now. I for one was thrilled when I found out about Shark Island, and literally swept aside about a hundred other books on my TBR just so I could leapfrog this one all the way to the top. My fascination for shark fic is something I can’t really explain, but if you grew up watching cheesy horror flicks and creature features like I did, I’m willing to bet this book will also tickle all the right synapses in your brain. Let’s see what we’ve got here. Outlandish premise? Check. Rampaging sharks? Check. Lots and lots of blood and gory death? Check and double check. We’re neck-deep in pulpy, guilty-pleasure reading territory here…and quite honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. And yes, there was a lot of screaming, dying, and limbs getting ripped off. No one is truly safe, so you’re always going to be on the edge of your seat wondering who will be the next victim. So if you’re the kind of reader who just wants to get their gruesome shark porn fix and doesn’t give a fig about anything else, chances are you’ll also be perfectly happy with what Shark Island has to offer. The story is fast-paced and jam-packed with shark action, saving up the grisliest and most intensive heart-pounding moments for the gripping climax. (Read the full review…)
Well, Kim Liggett sure doesn’t mess around. That was my first thought after finishing The Last Harvest, but only once I was recovered from feeling like I was thrown off a bridge thanks to that ending. This book might be published under a Young Adult imprint, but when it comes to delivering horror, it’s the real deal—no kid gloves here. To give fair warning, I would probably place this on the “older teen” spectrum, and if you don’t like unsettling themes and endings, then you may want to stay away. Personally though, I knew it would be right up my alley. The book was first pitched to me as a YA horror thriller, described as Rosemary’s Baby meets Friday Night Lights. Think sprawling wheat fields, high school football, cattle ranches and satanic panic. No way could I resist. I’ve always believed that the best and scariest horror stories are the ones that make you wonder what’s real and what’s not as you’re reading. What I found most impressive about The Last Harvest was how Liggett managed to lure me into a false sense of security, and it wasn’t until later on in the book that she sprang her trap and surprised the hell out of me, giving me everything I wanted plus a lot more. (Read the full review…)
I’d never read a “painted novel” before, but I think I like it—especially if it means getting to enjoy my stories with such jaw-droppingly stunning artwork. It certainly doesn’t get better than Above the Timberline by Gregory Manchess, a lushly illustrated experience that is truly a feast for the eyes. And if you can somehow tear your eyes away from the artwork long enough to read the text portion of the novel, there’s also an adventurous pulp-inspired tale to go with it. Though due to the format, you can expect the writing to be on the sparser side, comprising meager descriptions, choppy transitions between scenes, as well as other stylistic quirks like line-by-line dialogue without tags. Fortunately for us, every entry is accompanied by detailed artwork, which helps us fill in what the text doesn’t show. By doing this, Manchess manages to presents the full story by supplementing his writing with the cinematic quality of his beautiful paintings. But let’s face it; if you pick up this book, it’s going to be for the irresistible visuals. At the end of the day, Above the Timberline is a masterpiece no matter how you look at it. The story is decent enough, but the superb visual component is what everyone should be–needs to be–talking about. (Read the full review…)
If you took a buddy movie and combined it with the desolation of the Fallout series and the rip-roaring explosive action of Mad Max, then you just might end up with something that looks a lot like Raid. Set in the same world as the author’s debut novel Bite, this was another entertaining romp through a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with raiders and cannibals. Told through the eyes of a scarred and vengeful bounty hunter named Clementine, the story begins with our protagonist cashing in on her latest kill at one of the many towns struggling under the control of a merciless dictator named Jedediah Johnson. Of course, for Clementine the greatest prize would be Jedediah himself, the man who is responsible for killing her family, but everyone knows that the raider leader would be too well-protected, surrounded by his many guards inside his impenetrable mansion. So when an informant tells her about a secret passageway that would lead her straight to the heart of his stronghold, Clementine immediately dismisses it as a trick. But to her surprise, the tip turned out to be good, and very soon she has her quarry tied up and gagged in the passenger seat of her getaway car. Raid can be enjoyed without any prerequisites, though if you have read Bite you might be delighted to find that a few familiar faces will show up for a bit of the action. (Read the full review…)
I’m always up for a good tale of alien first contact, and Tomorrow’s Kin definitely fit the bill. Expanding upon the author’s Nebula Award-winning novella Yesterday’s Kin, this book is told in multiple sections, first chronicling the arrival of the extra-terrestrials before exploring the far-reaching repercussions in the latter parts of the novel. Still, I must warn that Tomorrow’s Kin is not like most first contact narratives. If you simply want your aliens and not much else, then I’m afraid this might not be the book for you, because the aliens really only play a major role in the first part of the story (which I believe was the originally novella). The themes involved are also not the ones you’d typically expect from a novel about aliens, focusing instead on topics that run the gamut from environmental issues to foreign policy, which gives rise to plenty of potential for debate. Then, of course, there’s the science, spanning multiple subjects across fields like human genetics, ecology studies, astrophysics, and more. Needless to say, it would be impossible to read this book and fail to appreciate the amount of research that was put into its ideas, and even more impressive is the way Kress managed to juggle all this information in tightly plotted and well-written story, combining imaginative yet believable elements of science fiction with relevant and thought-provoking issues. (Read the full review…)
I can never resist a good mystery in space! Best known for his crime thrillers, Chris Brookmyre blends the science fiction and suspense genres to give us Places in the Darkness, a gritty crime noir type story set aboard a space station hundreds of miles above Earth. We are drawn immediately to this dark, dangerous world full of secrets and conspiracies. The plot itself begins at a careful and measured pace, ensuring readers are properly immersed in the wickedly alluring atmosphere of the station before ratcheting up to full-throttle action and twisty surprises. Before I knew it, I was completely sucked into this compelling tale, knowing it would soon escalate into something big and explosive. And yet, we still had plenty of time to get to know our characters. I loved how we had two amazing female protagonists at the helm, both of whom made this book a much more memorable read with their fascinating backstories and strong narrative voices. As the mystery deepens, Brookmyre gets you to feel invested in his characters, and makes you care about what happens to them. His background in crime fiction also shows through in the elaborate plotting, and in this complex setting full of machinations and intrigue, half the fun is the experience of watching its secrets unfold before us. (Read the full review…)