Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Underrated Books & Hidden Gems
Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish, a weekly meme that now resides at That Artsy Reader Girl. The meme first came about because of a love of lists. Who doesn’t love lists? The original creators also wanted their lists to be shared with fellow book lovers and to ask that we in turn share ours with them and connect with other book bloggers. To learn more about participating, stop by their page dedicated to it and dive in!
This week’s topic: 10 Underrated Books & Hidden Gems
Perhaps a more accurate name for my list is “Books that I think deserve a lot more attention” since most of these have been highly praised, though perhaps under-read. They can also be self-published, from medium-to-smaller publishers and imprints, or perhaps are examples of an author’s lesser known work. Most, I was shocked to see, have less than 500 ratings on Goodreads at the time of this writing, and this is what I chose as a key criteria. Here’s a similar list I did last year.
For epic fantasy lovers who want to see storytelling, characters, and worldbuilding get the same extensive, sweeping treatment in sci-fi, Empire of Silence is the answer. In this debut, Christopher Ruocchio introduces readers to Hadrian Marlowe, a monster or a hero—you decide. The entire galaxy knows his name, but well before he achieved notoriety as the man who defeated an alien race—by destroying a sun and snuffing out billions of lives to do it—he was the disappointing firstborn son of a noble archon and hopeful heir to the family’s uranium empire. Since so much of the truth about his past has been misrepresented or obscured, Hadrian’s own accounting of his life’s story makes it clear there is much more than meets the eye. Told in the tradition of epic fantasy novels like The Name of the Wind and Blood Song, Empire of Silence is an autobiography-style narrative recounted by a controversial and misunderstood protagonist who looks back at his long and storied life. It’s a confluence of genres as readers are presented a sprawling blockbuster novel containing just as many fantasy elements as sci-fi. Hadrian is brought up amidst lordly intrigue and drama not unlike something you would imagine on Game of Thrones, complete with castle cities and gladiatorial spectacles. Other readers have also commented on the Dune-like handling of the politics, economics, philosophy and history of this world. In fact, I can’t say there is much in this novel that is truly original, but what makes it special is Ruocchio’s enthusiasm and willingness to blend all these ideas together into one cool concoction. (Read the full review…)
The Book of Hidden Things is a story about four childhood friends from a small seaside town called Casalfranco in southern Italy. After high school, they all left home to pursue their individual dreams. Fabio went on to start a career as a fashion photographer in London. Mauro went to law school in Milan. Tony moved to Rome and became a very successful surgeon. And Art, the most eccentric and free-spirited of them all, traveled all around the continent doing odd jobs before returning to Casalfranco, where he uncharacteristically decided to settle after the death of his parents. Art has always been the unpredictable one, bouncing around from one obsession to the next. To his credit though, he was also the one who came up with the Pact—a promise that no matter what, the four friends will meet up in their hometown at the same place at the same time on the same date every year. Except this year, Art doesn’t show. Concerned, the three others go around town, checking his house and asking people about their friend, only to find that Art has seemingly vanished into thin air. In general, I find that a good book usually elicits one of two responses from me: 1) bury my nose in its pages and not come up for air until I’m done, or 2) draw out the experience as long as I can, sipping it like a fine wine in order to properly savor all the flavors and textures the story has to offer. The Book of Hidden Things definitely fell into the latter category. It’s a mix of drama, mystery, and a bit of psychological suspense. There is also just a hint of the supernatural, just vague enough to make you wonder what’s real and what’s not. At the end of the day, this book drew me in completely and irrevocably with its enigmatic appeal. (Read the full review…)
Scream All Night is not a book that falls entirely into the realm of what I typically read, but quite honestly, despite not being a big reader of YA contemporary fiction, I really enjoyed it. No, it’s not a horror novel, but the fact that the premise was about the making of horror films was an idea that greatly appealed to me, not to mention the meta quality of the story. At the center of this coming-of-age tale is 17-year-old Dario, whose father Lucien Heyward is the legendary director of dozens of beloved B-Horror cult films. However, few were aware of the things that truly went on behind the walls of Moldavia, the castle estate where Lucien made all of his films. Dario was just a boy when he was cast in the starring role of one of this father’s movies, and was subjected abuse and unbearable emotional pressure at the hands of his father. Soon after filming was completed, Dario had himself legally emancipated, choosing instead to be raised in a foster facility rather than step foot in Moldavia Studios ever again. Years later though, the news breaks that Lucien Heyward is dying. Refusing to go out quietly, the eccentric director decides to invite all his family, friends, and fans to a mysterious event as a final sendoff. Dario reluctantly agrees to attend, with a promise to himself that this would be his last time at Moldavia. Instead, he finds himself roped back into his past when it is revealed during the reading of the will that Lucien had named Dario the heir to his studio and legacy. A quirky dramedy, Scream All Night delivers a unique spin on a familiar idea and contains a surprising amount of heart and warmth. It is a coming-of-age journey full of sadness and regrets, but also hope and lots of laughter. (Read the full review…)
As someone who has lost track of the number of times I’ve been hoodwinked into reading so-called sci-fi comedy mashups à la Douglas Adams or Star Trek-like spoofs only to have them turn out to be cringeworthy juvenile attempts at humor, all I have to say is Gate Crashers is the real deal. Smart, funny, and creative, it elicited more than a few genuine belly laughs from me, and not a lot of books can do that. Our story begins with humanity’s first extra-solar mission aboard the space exploration starship Magellan. Carrying a crew in suspended animation, the ship AI notices an anomaly on her sensors and wakes Captain Ridgeway from her stasis to inform her of the discovery. The anomaly turns out to be of alien origin, and Ridgeway, deeming this evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life too important to ignore, decides to load the artifact on board and report the find to Earth. Meanwhile, back at home, researchers, politicians, and the media are working themselves into a froth trying to understand and reconstruct the alien technology. But humankind’s sudden leap forward in technology and knowledge has not gone unnoticed. A more aggressive alien species called the Turemok, who sees humanity’s first awkward baby steps at faster-than-light travel as an opportunity to frame Earth and start a galaxy-wide war. Perhaps what works most about Gate Crashers is that it could probably be categorized as full-on comedy, but general sci-fi readers can also enjoy it as an adventurous space opera with comedic elements. While books of this genre aren’t all that uncommon, I found the blend of humor and amount of substance behind the story to be just right, and for me to find something that strikes that perfect balance is very special and rare indeed. (Read the full review…)
Yes, Minecraft is a ridiculously popular game, but for some reason, the novels based on its world have tragically flown under a lot of radars. Minecraft: The Crash is the second official tie-in based on the popular survival sandbox video game. The story follows two teenagers, Bianca and Lonnie, who have been best friends ever since the fateful day they met on the playground and bonded over a love for Minecraft. Almost ten years later, the game is still the glue that binds them. Then one night, while on their way to a homecoming game, the two friends get into a terrible car accident. Bianca finally wakes up sometime later in the hospital. She learns from the doctors and from her parents that the accident was very serious, but no one tells her anything more, only that she needs to concentrate on getting better. Soon, Bianca discovers that there are other children at the hospital, some who are very sick and are admitted for long-term care. To provide entertainment for their young patients, the facility is equipped with a state-of-the-art virtual reality gaming system which even supports a VR version of Minecraft. One day, she meets a young boy who visits her room and invites her to his server which has been heavily customized with mods that he designed himself. As Bianca explores the new realm, she also meets other teens who are at the hospital. She teams up with them, hoping to find Lonnie along the way so they can all work towards playing to the final dimension of the game. This probably goes without saying, but this book will also be perfect for Minecraft fans, though I daresay even non-gamers will be able to find a lot of joy in the book as it contains a story with themes that will speak to readers from all walks of life. I won’t lie—the ending made me cry. I did not expect such an emotional conclusion, or that the final message would be so beautifully or poignantly written. (Read the full review…)
Admittedly, I’m not so big a fan of Jane Austen or Austen-inspired fiction that I would normally pick up any book with a title that begins with “Pride and…”, but there was just something irresistible about John Kessel’s novel that called to me. Of course, the added element of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t hurt. Still, although it may draw inspiration from one of two of the most beloved novels of classic literature, it would be a disservice to simply label Pride and Prometheus as just your average literary mashup. The story begins with the chance meeting between an English high society woman and a young scientist from Switzerland. Mary Bennet, one of the sisters of Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, encounters the quiet and pensive Victor Frankenstein at a ball. Drawn to his intelligence and his shared love of the sciences, Mary immediately strikes up a rapport with him, but is disappointed when Frankenstein ends up standing her up for a dance. The reason for his reticence is soon made apparent with the introduction of the Creature, a monster whom the scientist had brought to life and then cast out. Now the Creature stalks him, driven by Victor’s promise that he would fashion him a bride. This book is artfully written, with Kessel capturing the original novels’ forms and styles. Even if you’re familiar with both classics, there will still be plenty of surprises. This book endeared itself to me and then broke my heart, but all I could think about after finishing this was how I wanted more. (Read the full review…)
I love reading fantasy, I love reading science fiction, and occasionally I’ll even be in the mood for a bit of both at once. Is it any wonder then that The Nine hooked me on page one? Defying genre traditions and labels, Tracy Townsend’s debut is a fresh and bold novel that marches to the beat of its own drum. By blending together a number of speculative elements, the author has created something that’s altogether different and new. Taking place in an alternate universe in which science has become a religion and God is seen as the great Experimenter, The Nine involves a magical self-scribing book which lists the nine people whose actions will determine the fate of world. It’s the mother of all experiments, and needless to say, there are various factions who will go to great lengths to affects its outcome. For a novel with so many characters and interlacing plot lines, it is surprisingly well put together and tightly paced. Townsend also balances her storytelling with outstanding character development and layered world-building, with the mythos creation being especially impressive. The subjects of religion and science are explored in a way I’ve never seen before, opening up plenty of opportunities for reader engagement, considering the vast number of possibilities for the direction of this series. Almost immediately, the setting feels at once familiar but also strange and exotic enough to be a full-fledged secondary world with all the escapist potential a fantasy fan could ask for. This debut positively crackles with imagination and enigmatic charm, and if you’re looking for a clever and magnificently crafted genre-bending fantasy, I wholeheartedly recommend this one. (Read the full review…)
From the fascinating premise to the amazing setting and characters, it’s clear everything about Ghosts of Tomorrow is pure Michael R. Fletcher—that is to say, grim, gritty, and violently gory. The story takes place in the near future, and technology has come a long way with the advent of brain scans and the ability to transfer a deceased person’s mind into machines called chassis. While they have sentience and retain most of the memories and personality they had in life, scans are more or less immortal and can be tweaked like any program, making them a highly sought after resource in almost every industry. Officially, people become scans voluntarily, but criminal organizations have capitalized by churning out their own black market scans in illegal crèches. It’s a horrifying process: children are put through forced conditioning, and then killed for their precious brains which are then scanned and sold. Somewhere deep within mob territory in Costa Rica, the scanned mind of an autistic girl known only as 88 awakens to her new reality. Bought for an exorbitant sum from a black market crèche, her scan was originally acquired by the South American Mafia to manage their business empire. However, all 88 wants to do is find her mom. And unfortunately for her masters, 88 has all the mental and technological resources at her disposal to break free of their virtual chains. Books like Ghosts of Tomorrow make me wonder why Fletcher isn’t a bigger deal in the world of SFF. Do not read it if you are squeamish or prefer only safe, happy, familiar topics—but if you enjoy unflinchingly twisted and mind-bending stories, then this one is a gem. (Read the full review…)
Ever since Spielberg made Jaws and traumatized a whole generation of moviegoers from swimming in the ocean, the ongoing popularity of books, films, TV shows about these mighty predators are proof of our obsession. If you have a fascination for shark fic or if you grew up watching cheesy horror flicks and creature features, I’m willing to bet this book will also tickle all the right synapses in your brain. Shark Island opens on a beautiful summer day on Cape Cod. College student Naomi Cardiff and her girlfriend are sunning themselves on a boat when she notices a large herd of seals on a nearby stretch of beach. Deciding to swim towards them for a closer look, Naomi subsequently gets attacked by a shark. The incident sparks off a debate surrounding seal overpopulation, which has been blamed for the increase of Great Whites in the area drawn to their natural prey. The solution ends up falling to a group of scientists who have developed an acoustic signal system that could be used to lure the seals away from the cape. Eleven months later the team is ready for its first trial run, and now a journalism student, Naomi is also along for the ride. However, a powerful storm has blown in, causing torrential rain and massive storm swells. After the frenzying sharks ram and breach the hull of their boat, Naomi and her fellow passengers’ only hope of survival is a tiny island which is quickly being swallowed up by the rising waves. Yes, there was a lot of screaming, dying, and limbs getting ripped off in this story, and 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. (Read the full review…)
Ambitious in scope and audacious in its execution, A Gathering of Ravens spectacularly weaves together the threads of history and mythological tradition, spiriting readers away on a journey through legend and time. Combining elements from Norse and Celtic mythology with the richness of the early medieval landscape, the story has plenty of bloodshed and triumph, love and loss, tragedy and hope…and yes, we also have an Orc. Grimnir is the last of his kind. Most would also agree that he is a monster, an evil creature birthed from the earth’s dark depths. But in truth, he is a lot more than that, as the plot expands to reveal his quest for vengeance against Bjarki Half-Dane, the oathbreaker who killed his brother. When two weary followers of Christ unknowingly take shelter in his cave one stormy night, Grimnir kidnaps the younger of them as his hostage, forcing her to be his guide to the land across the sea. Frightened and grieving for her friend now lost to her, Étaín has no choice but to do what her beastly captor says, accompanying him through the Danish wilderness. The strength of this book lies in Scott Oden’s skill in evoking the spirit and atmosphere of a time gone by. If you enjoy historical fantasy novels of vast and epic proportions, then you should absolutely read A Gathering of Ravens. (Read the full review…)