Underrated Reads of 2021
Perhaps my favourite list to make each year, is my list of underrated novels, I wish more people would read and talk about. These books weren’t quite favourites for me personally, so they didn’t end up on that list, but I loved all of them nonetheless, and it pains me that many of them have under 1000 ratings on Goodreads. I split the list in two parts this year, based on target audience, as I know some of you are only here for one or the other. Without further ado, let’s get into my 10 most underrated novels for adults and children/teens respectively.
1. Night, Sleep, Death. The Stars by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ 2020 release is probably the most well-known book on this list, yet in my opinion still criminally underrated, as it has all the ingredients of a modern American Classic of its time. Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, a powerful upper-class white man, intervening in the brutal mistreatment of a black man by police. As a result, he becomes a victim of police-violence as well and eventually loses his life because of it. In the wake of this tragedy, his widow and each of his adult children must find a way to fit this injustice into the narratives of their own lives, and overcome their differences to unite their family in their shared grief. It makes for a powerful 800 page family saga that explores race, psychological trauma, grief, and family relations. It’s absolutely worth your time, not only for its political and societal relevance, but for its stunning portrayal of a family finding each other under unexpected circumstances. Similarly underrated, and dealing with the same topic of grief over the loss of a spouse, is Oates’ 2021 release Breathe, which I can also highly recommend.
2. Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece
Next up is a novel done dirty by having almost no marketing supporting it. With a little help however, I have no doubt that this would’ve found its way into the loving hands of many readers. Wildwood Whispers is a magical realism story about a young woman grieving the death of her best friend and “foster-system-sister”. In order to fulfil her final promise to her friend, she travels to that latter’s birthplace: a small Appalachian village, to scatter her ashes in the lush surrounding woods. Once there, she finds herself swooped up by the magic of the place, the Wisewomen that inhabit it and the memories of her friend that linger at every corner. The story is an ode to the healing power of nature and modern green- and hedge-witchcraft. Highly recommend the audiobook whilst on a hike through the forests or your local park.
3. We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen
Moving on to some science fiction, We Have Always Been Here is a space-thriller, centring around a mysterious madness going around their ship, ever since they’ve approached their planet of destination. Although a little predictable, and far from a perfect novel, this was a very enjoyable and thrilling debut that hooked me from start to finish. Claustrophobic space-stories tend to work for me though, so if you’re looking to have that specific itch scratched: know this is out there.
4. The Upstairs House by Julia Fine
Underrated in both senses of the word (few ratings, but also a low average score) is The Upstairs House by Julia Fine. While part of me understands why this literary horror isn’t for everybody, another part strongly disagrees with its 3.39-star average. I gave The Upstairs House 5/5 stars. We follow a woman’s postpartum psychological unravelling, in which she starts to hallucinate a ghostly neighbour in the apartment above her. Not just any ghostly neighbour, mind you: Megan finds herself haunted by the ghost of quixotic children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown, who happened to be the subject of the thesis she had to postpone due to her maternity leave. The Upstairs House genuinely creeped me out, as it feels like such an honest portrayal of what postpartum depression can look like from the inside. We are inside Megans head, as her reality is turned upside down by everything surrounding her, and how in her exhaustion, everything that’s occupying her mind starts to blur together. It’s a genuinely unsettling experience, and I understand how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but to me it was near perfection, and I hope it finds its audience to give it the love it deserves.
5. Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
This year in literary fiction felt like the year of the “pandemic-novel”. I’ve been offered quite a few of them for review, but turned most of them down as I personally didn’t feel like I was the right person to review them. That suspicion was confirmed when I ended up hating all the ones I did read, but one. That novel that I didn’t hate, was Burntcoat. In fact: I loved it. You can find my full review here, but in short: we follow 59-year old Edith Harkness, an eccentric artist who lives out her final days confined to the apartment she’s called home for years. She reflects on her life and imminent death, both of which are marked by the viral pandemic she survived in her twenties. What follows is a masterful exploration of art, expression, connection, body, and the way illness can change our perspective on all of those things. I was especially impressed by the way the relationship between us and our bodies change when we encounter illness and decline, which this story covers through multiple lenses. Coming from someone who’s experienced that relationship through similar lenses as Edith does here (caretaker of a disabled parent as well as, chronic-, and life-threatening illness): I related deeply to many parts of this story. You may notice this is the only novel that makes a second appearance in my Year-in-Review lists, both as a favourite and an underrated novel, and it’s for good reason. If you’re in doubt on what “pandemic-novel” to read: this is my go-to recommendation from now on out.
6. A Million Things by Emily Spurr
Moving on to the only YA-novel on my list, we have Emily Spurrs impressive debut A Million Things following fifty-five days in the life of ten-year-old Rae, who must look after herself and her dog when her mother disappears. Don’t let the protagonists young age, or the brightly coloured cover fool you: this novel deals with some very dark and adult topics, and is about as much of a tearjerker as they come. While I’m usually a little apprehensive with book that use kids (or even worse: dogs) for emotional leverage, this one got to me in the best possible way. It’s the perfect mix of bittersweet, heartbreaking and heartwarming with Rae’s harrowing past with her mother that forced her to grow up quickly, contrasted with the wonderful reluctant friendship she strikes up with her “nosy old-bag”-neighbour Letty. There’s a substantial plotline dealing with mental health problems, which are all handled sensitively and are at no point used for shock . Letty, Rae and Splinter made for wonderful characters that will stick with me for a while, and I feel their story will absolutely appeal to a wider audience than it’s managed to reach so far.
7. The In-Between by Rebecca Ansari
I’ve mentioned before how middle-grade is the genre that houses the biggest surprises and hidden gems for me time after time, and 2021 proved no different. These 4 middle-grade releases flew right under the radar, despite all having the potential to be important and formative books to readers young and older alike. The In-Between garnered some attention for being featured in an Owlcrate Jr. box, but I’ve heard nobody talk about it since. Part mystery, part fantasy about two siblings who team up to uncover the secret of the mysterious girl across the street, this story had a lot more emotional depth and heart to it than I expected. My full review (as well as triggerwarnings) can be found here.
8. A Snake Falls to Earth – Darcie Little Badger
Darcie Little Badger’s debut Elatsoe rightfully got a bit of hype in the book-community around its release last year, but somehow everybody seems to have missed the fact that Darcie has released their sophomore novel since. A Snake Falls to Earth is a very different story from Elatsoe, yet shares enough similarities in tone and inspiration to feel familiar. Equally based in Apachean mythology, we follow a girl who interacts with the border between the spirit world and our own. When a catastrophic event on Earth forces spirits from the realm of monsters and animals over to our own, Nina strikes up a friendship with some of them, in order to save both their worlds from tragedy. Darcie Little Badgers novels are marketed towards upper age-range of middle-grade, spilling over into the younger side of YA, and for that reason sometimes struggle to find their audience. That doesn’t make them any less precious and well written, though. To me, both their novels are the perfect feel-good-adventures, whilst simultaneously being filled to the brim with positive representation and important topics. If you are, or have in your life, a young adult with an interest in native American mythology, that goes beyond the Americanized skinwalker-horror: this is one for you. Bonuspoints for the seamless way the LGBTQ+ spectrum is represented in its fullest, without ever being the focal point of the story. We need more books in which representation isn’t the “main theme”, but just the norm!
9. Julia and the Shark – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Even more so than Darcie Little Badger, Kiran Millwood Hargrave has made quite the name for herself in the bookish community already with the likes of The Mercies and The Girl of Ink and Stars. Yet her latest release seems to have flow right under everyone’s radar. Julia and the Shark is the authors first collaboration with her husband Tom De Freston, and with her words, and his hauntingly beautiful illustrations, they’ve made a book that’s hard to forget. Ten-year-old Julia has followed her parents to a remote lighthouse for the summer; her dad for work, and her marine-biologist mother on a determined mission to find the elusive Greenland shark. When her mother's obsession threatens to submerge them all, Julia finds herself on an adventure across dark depths and rocky seas, but with a lighthouse of hope on the horizon...
10. The Mending Summer – Ali Standish
Last but not least, this wouldn’t be an underrated-middle-grade list from me without Ali Standish. This author has been pumping out quality works year after year, and middle-grade readers all over the world are still sleeping on her. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ali writes the kind of books that I wish I’d had as a child; middle-grade stories that deal with difficult subjects that children often deal with unseen. Topics they’re deemed “too young to understand”, or left out of conversations because adults feel uncomfortable themselves. Ali has covered identity, grief, PTSS, chronic illness and more, and now takes on alcoholism and domestic violence from the perspective of a child in The Mending Summer. Don’t be fooled however: at no point is this story depressing, heavy or does it use these topic in any other way than with utmost sensitivity. Ali Standish is a master in striking a balance between optimism, realism and a warm understanding that can only come from a place of knowing and remembering what these kind of experiences were like as a child. In case you’re still on the fence on this author: she has a new book coming out in 2022, that promises to be a bit different, as it has a historical setting rather than a contemporary one. Perfect excuse to read her entire oeuvre back to back to prepare yourself if you ask me.