Underrated Reads

Every so often a book blips across my radar and I recall how freaking awesome it was to read it for the first time. Then, because I’m a cataloger and I live for our database and its statistics, I will take a peek at our checkout stats. Imagine my disbelief and sadness when gems I adore have low checkout numbers. How can this be? Don’t people realize how amazing this book is?

No. No, they do not!

For whatever reason some books that we library folk hold near and dear seem to have missed getting the spotlight. So with that in mind I asked my colleagues to recommend some of the best books they’ve read that don’t seem to be getting the love and attention they deserve. Read on for recommendations from Jennifer, Mindy, Ron, and Susan, as well as a few of my own. One piece of advice: get your library cards ready now. You’re going to want to put these on hold ASAP.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson is one of those books that seemed to slip into my hands without much decision-making on my part and quietly became one of the best books I read last year. As you might recall if you read Serena‘s rad post recently, Piecing Me Together is the 2018 recipient of the Coretta Scott King author award. It’s the story of Jade, an African-American teen in Portland who struggles with the different pieces of her identity as well as being put into a mentoring program for “at-risk” girls, a program that Jade feels disillusioned with when she can’t seem to click with her mentor. I loved​ everything about this book. Jade is a complex and dynamic character whose unique voice is still in my head long after I closed the book. Love, love, love.

Shortly before traveling to Europe I read Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Among other things, the story is about a professor and his assistant traveling across Europe in search of an apocryphal gospel. Although fictional, it was a beautiful introduction to the old country. Intrigue, bad guys, excessive drinking… all you could want in a tall tale! Barnhardt is not prolific or well known, but he is a talented writer well worth checking out.

Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge is one of those novels that has stuck with me because, while I can’t remember the specific details, I do remember how deeply it made me feel. Set in Budapest and Paris, it is the story of Hungarian Jewish family during the rise of anti-Semitism and the eruption of World War II across Europe. The Invisible Bridge is historical fiction at its finest—an emotionally riveting plot, richly detailed setting, and compelling characters who struggled to survive and build human connections in the face of unbearable tragedy. Eight years later, I’m still hoping the author writes another novel. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I recommend checking out The Invisible Bridge.

Small town with a big problem? Teen girl going to quietly start a revolution to topple the kings of this dumpster fire? Sign me up! I was definitely ready for a revolution when I read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu. As a way to resist the status quo at her conservative Texas high school, Viv takes a page from her mom’s past as a Riot Grrrl and starts a zine called Moxie. I absolutely loved how the Moxie movement became more than just one girl’s way of dealing with the bullying, misogyny, racism, and favoritism in her high school. Others used the spirit of Moxie to give them the courage to stand up for themselves against their adversaries. Part romance but mostly a quiet girl coming to understand her voice and herself, this insightful, relatable, and quotable book will get readers fired up! MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, while being a science fiction book featuring time travel, is really a look at life in Europe during the plague. In fact, upon reading this incredible historical novel, you will feel like you’ve lived through plague times. It’s a stunning journey into a time that we can hardly imagine, yet Willis imagined it in perfect detail!

I first picked up volume one of Bandette, Presto!, by husband-wife team Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover from the library after cataloging it. I was completely charmed by the Parisian setting and the moxie of the title character. Bandette is a warm-hearted teenage thief, sort of like a modern-day Robin Hood. She hangs out with other French kids, lobs friendly taunts towards the bumbling local police detective, and has both an alter ego and an arch nemesis (though sometimes they join forces for the greater good). I dare you to read Presto! and not pick up volumes two and three as well.

Critics panned The Colorado Kid by Stephen King because the ending was neither happy or tied together. It left a lot of readers upset when they reached the ending and it didn’t explain anything. But that genius King knew what he was doing and I think a little part of him wanted to make people left unsatisfied with no answers.

I think sometimes the books of new authors are underappreciated just because readers haven’t discovered them yet. Two new authors I discovered last year that I like very much are thriller writers Nick Petrie and Steve Cavanagh. Petrie’s second book, Burning Bright, was published last year and I loved it. The hero, Peter Ash, is a super competent military vet with an interesting form of PTSD. His first book, The Drifter, is also worth a read. The third book in this series, Light It Up, was just published in January. Cavanagh is a new Irish writer whose first book, The Defense, was recently published in the US. It’s a legal thriller set in New York and I liked it a lot. His second book, The Plea, was just published on February 13th.

I started reading I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez at the same time that it was announced as a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a realistic coming-of-age story centered around Julia, her dead sister Olga, and the secrets Olga left behind that threaten Julia’s future before it has even begun. As Julia chafes against her over-protective parents and tries to uncover just what Olga was hiding when she died, Julia will travel from her home in Chicago to Mexico and back again, exposing herself to a family history she may not want to accept and an uncertain future where she wants desperately to make her own path. The writing is exquisite: achingly real, brutally honest, a total gut-punch of a book that I could not put down until long after the last page was read.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, fascinates me as an early example of cultural exchange, of the world becoming a smaller place, of the industrial revolution’s amazing accomplishments. Imagine this backdrop as the setting for a murder mystery involving the world’s most imminent detectives! Steve Hockensmith has done just this in the hilarious World’s Greatest Sleuth, another Amlingmeyer brothers adventure. Read on as the two cowpokes match wits with the wittiest crime solvers on earth in a detection contest. Who will win? Who will survive?

We hope you find something here to love, or at least give a chance. What are some of your favorite underrated reads? Let us know in the comments below, because if there’s anything we love more than giving book recommendations it’s getting them!

The Only List That Matters

‘Tis the season to share my highly sought-after opinions. Hence the following list of reads and listens that I enjoyed in 2010. In no particular order.

Murder on the Yellow Brick Road by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1977) 
Down-on-his-luck detective Toby Peters rubs shoulders with the Hollywood elite as he plies his trade in 1940 Los Angeles. A munchkin is murdered and MGM studios calls Peters to find the killer. Toby hits the streets, questioning Judy Garland and Clark Gable and providing  “real life” experiences for Raymond Chandler to incorporate into his writings. Kaminsky excellently portrays Hollywood in its golden age filled with shining stars, abusive cops and society’s dregs.

Genuine Negro Jig by Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010)
Jug, hokum, string-band, old timey. All are terms for an American musical tradition with a long history. In this style, simple instruments such as washtub bass, comb, washboard and bones bring a primitive energy to bluesy songs. And while most of us don’t remember Cannon’s Jug Stompers or their contemporaries, everyone should get to know the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their music is simple, often sparse, and hauntingly beautiful. This is easily one of the best albums of 2010.

Nuclear Jellyfish by Tim Dorsey (2009)
There is something compelling yet repulsive about a protagonist who is a highly successful and cheerful serial killer. Of course Serge A. Storms, the resident “good guy” in Nuclear Jellyfish, only kills people who deserve it. Or who really annoy him. The book’s plot, which is perhaps secondary to its insanity, revolves around diamond thieves. The real fun is when Serge devises death traps using garden hoses, aerosol sprays and duct tape. Readers with strong stomachs and quirky sensibilities might enjoy this book.

Praise & Blame by Tom Jones (2010)
Tom Jones has always had an amazing voice, if not an amazing choice of material. In his latest release, a gospel album in the tradition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, the 70-year-old Welshman proves his instrument is as strong as ever. For those who are only familiar with his pelvis-swiveling, underwear-tossing Vegas repertoire, the material might come as a surprise. But this is the music that Jones grew up with. Praise & Blame would not make my desert island list, but it is worth hearing.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (2008)
The classic holiday film Christmas Story shows a disturbing vision of a demented magical kingdom filled with angry elves and an impatient Santa. “SantaLand Diaries,” from the collection Holidays on Ice, provides a similar vision  from an elf’s perspective. In this hilarious no-holds-barred tale of the author’s experiences as a Macy’s elf, Sedaris reveals the place in line where kids are most likely to throw up, the inability of parents to allow their kids to experience life spontaneously, and the secret training regime of an elf. Other entries in this collection include a manic family Christmas letter written by an extremely bitter woman and a harsh theatrical critique of children’s Christmas pageants. If you are a warped and disturbed human being, this could be just the ticket for your holiday jolliness.

The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo by Steve Martin (2009)
I’ve always suspected that Steve Martin is a pretty solid banjoist, and now I am certain. The Crow is a charming album filled with delightful music and exceptional musicianship. Surprisingly, most of the songs are original compositions. Banjo is not for everyone. If you don’t like banjo music you will probably not like this album. But if you have a hankering for some foot-stomping riffs and dazzling finger work mixed with traditional and humorous songs, then look no further than The Crow.