The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of (Summer 2021)

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

I spend most of my time trying to keep up with buzzy new releases and always feeling behind. There’s so much to read, and so many people with recommendations! When you’re a part of the bookish internet, there can be pressure to read whatever the it book of the moment is or feel like you’re being left out of the conversation. Of course, this frantic pace is far from the only way to read. There are more books published every week than you could possibly ever read, so why not slow down and enjoy some of the quieter backlist titles?

This is the series where we look at books that didn’t get a giant publicity budget or a ton of buzz, but turned out to be hidden gems. These are the kind of books you stumble upon and then can’t believe you’ve never heard of before. Fun fact: this series was inspired by a tweet that asked for little-known books that got replies with classics and bestsellers. I was determined to find a way to shout out truly under read titles worthy of your praise, and this is the absolutely arbitrary distinction I came to: these books all have under 250 ratings on Goodreads. Not reviews, mind you: ratings. For context, The Hunger Games has 6.6 million ratings. In Watermelon Sugar has 14,000.

But enough preamble: let’s get into the books!

I'm A Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

I’m a Wild Seed: My Graphic Memoir on Queerness and Decolonizing the World by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

This is a graphic memoir that feels like a blend between a book and webcomic: It’s packed full of memes, diagrams, and other visuals that I’m more familiar with on the internet than I am in books. It’s about the author’s “coming into queerness,” and how that’s tangled up in her discovery and exploration of her racial and cultural identity as well. It’s a quick but thought-provoking read about decolonizing gender and sexuality. —Danika Ellis

Space Battle Lunchtime Vol. 3 A Dish Best Served Cold cover

Space Battle Lunchtime Vol. 3: A Dish Best Served Cold by Natalie Riess

I adored the first two volumes of this middle grade comic and have made it my business to know about sapphic book releases, so I was shocked to see this had been out for months before I became aware of it! The first two volumes are about a cooking competition in space with an F/F relationship — what more could you want? This one continues to develop Peony and Neptunia’s relationship and has a cooking and baking element, but there’s also a murder mystery. On a spaceship, of course. —Danika Ellis

Follow Your Arrow cover

Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi 

I am genuinely a little upset that more people aren’t reading this, because this is one of the best portrayals of bisexuality and biphobia that I’ve seen in fiction. CeCe feels like she’s not considered queer enough to have pride or have it be an important part of her identity. She and her ex-girlfriend were well known online, and she faces biphobic harassment for dating a guy afterwards. I talked about this more in a post about books that fight biphobia, but suffice it to say I need more people to be talking about this book. —Danika Ellis

Goodly and Graves: In a Bad Case of Kidnap by Justine Windsor and Becka Moor

Goodly and Graves: In a Bad Case of Kidnap by Justine Windsor and Becka Moor

A charmingly dark and comedic middle grade mystery about a girl forced to work for the strange and mysterious Lord Grave to pay off her family’s debts. When she begins to suspect foul magic is afoot, Lucy Godly takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of a string of missing children and put a stop to Lord Grave’s misdoings once and for all! But — is that even really what’s happening? With talking statues and enchanted books filling her head with questionable tales, who knows what is true and what is just a bad case of make believe. 

This book is such a delight it’s honestly a shock it hasn’t found more of an audience than it has! It mixes humor and Dickensian misfortune to great success amidst a tale of intrigue and adventure. Imagine if Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman had a literary lovechild. That’s this; that’s this book. —Rachel Brittain 

Cover of This Strange Way of Dying by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire and the Fantastic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

What’s this? You had no idea the bestselling author of Mexican Gothic and Gods of Jade and Shadow had a short story collection? Me neither until just a few months ago. And that is a crying shame, because Moreno-Garcia brings the same incredible voice and sinister speculative flair to her short stories that had readers — like me — falling in love with her writing. My favorites from the collection include the title story, “This Strange Way of Dying,” about death courting a young woman; “Happy Endings,” where a reporter and vampire chat at a diner in Mexico City; and “Cemetery Man,” an alternate history where enemy soldiers are raised from the dead. —Rachel Brittain 

Masquerade by Anne Shade cover

Masquerade by Anne Shade 

Masquerade is a steamy historical LGBTQ+ romance that follows Celine. Both her and her husband each have their own desires, but mutual respect and friendship to each other. Her husband convinces her to give in to her impulses and takes her to an adult party where she engages with women in a way she’s been longing for a long time. After, a tragedy strikes, and she now finds herself in Harlem at the cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance — and in love or maybe lust for not just one, but two women! The women are complete opposites of each other, too. One lover is more demure and professional, while the other one is a firecracker and full of zest. I love Celine’s rollercoaster ride to embracing her true self. —Erika Hardison 

99 Lies cover

99 Lies by Rachel Vincent

In the sequel to the sleeper thriller 100 Hours (pick it up if you can!), a group of teens are dealing with the aftermath of getting kidnapped over spring break. Now that the surviving hostages are home, they want life to feel normal again, with their affluent lives intact, full of galas and lavish parties, and no worries. Yet, secrets are about to come out, like the ways that they betrayed each other in the jungle. And while the kidnappers might no longer be a threat, it’s what “friends” might do to each other that will make them open their eyes, as well as a stint in the spotlight after being in such a dire situation. Filled with twists and turns, and exploring themes of friendship and the stress and anxiety that comes after such a dire situation, this is a quick, intense and great read. It’s also part of a duology I wish more people would pick up. —Aurora Lydia Dominguez

After the Bloom cover

After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara

Set in mid-1980s Toronto, After the Bloom follows Rita Takemitsu, a recently divorced woman still navigating life without her ex-husband and their teenage daughter, as she searches for answers in the wake of her mother’s mysterious disappearance. It’s not an uncommon occurrence; Lily has always been scatterbrained and prone to going adrift. As Rita tugs at the threads of her mother’s latest drama, however, she finds herself questioning Lily’s account of their family history. Leslie Shimotakahara’s novel is a poignant exploration of mothers and daughters, secrets and lovers, and the brutal legacy of Japanese internment. —K.W. Colyard

Before Wings cover

Before Wings by Beth Goobie

Living under the Sword of Damocles, neither Adrien nor Paul is interested in a relationship. She survived a brain aneurysm she knows will eventually kill her, and he’s been dreaming about his own death for years. Working at a summer camp with Paul, Adrien encounters the real-life ghosts of the camp’s past and pieces together a decades-old mystery…but can she find a way to cheat death again, for Paul’s sake? This is a truly unputdownable read, taut with chills and rife with angst. —K.W. Colyard

Dear Twin by Addie Tsai

Dear Twin by Addie Tsai

This YA novel is a dizzying, wonderful blend of giggly and silly, serious and heartbreaking. Poppy has just graduated from high school and is ready to start a new life at college with her girlfriend. But when her twin sister Lola disappears, she decides to remain at home with her dad instead. The novel partly unfolds in the letters Poppy writes to Lola, in an attempt to explain the rift between them. It’s a complicated book about sisterhood and being a twin, queer love, family secrets, childhood trauma, and Asian American identity. Poppy is a character I won’t soon forget. —Laura Sackton

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet cover

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet by Myrlin A. Hermes

I am convinced this book was ahead of its time. If there was a historical queer Hamlet retelling that was released now instead of 2010, it would have been much better received. The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet follows Hamlet and Horatio during their university days at Wittenberg, several years before the start of the play. Horatio is a skeptic by nature, and Hamlet is haunted by premonitions of dying young. Through philosophical debates, theatrical productions, and a lot of romantic tension, the two explore the nature of fate and whether love is worth transcending social norms. —CJ Connor

Decorated to Death cover

Decorated to Death (Simon Kirby-Jones Mystery #3) by Dean James

Sometimes I hope that if I just keep yelling about this series, there will be more like it released. Why? Because it’s a cozy mystery starring a gay vampire. If you were to ask me what the perfect book concept would be before finding this, I would have said, “Uh, I dunno, probably a cozy mystery starring a gay vampire.” And I both stand by that and think it suffered the same fate as the book I mentioned above — released before its time. In this book, Simon (the aforementioned gay vampire) attends a tea party hosted by a televised interior design show host. When said host is murdered, Simon must solve a locked room puzzle to reveal which of the guests is guilty. —CJ Connor

The Toadhouse Trilogy cover

The Toadhouse Trilogy by Jess Lourey

Most readers think of cozy mysteries when they think of this author, or her recent foray into crime fiction. And that’s not unfair, because those series of hers are very enjoyable. However, this book is woefully underrated and it’s one that the author herself has said holds a special place in her heart. I’ve always loved the concept of entering books ever since The Pagemaster movie and am always looking for books that fit that trope. The characters visit a lot of books in the desire to run away from the monster pursuing them, so you get to experience them as background characters in multiple pieces of literature. Hopefully Lourey decides to pick this back up in the future and continue the series, because I feel that once completed, it could go down as another beloved children’s classic. —PN Hinton

Can’t get enough little-known gems in your reading life? Check out our previous editions of The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of!