The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of, July 2019

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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

Keeping up with all the newest releases is a losing game: you can never get through all of them, and they just keep coming! As fun as it is to read the books everyone is talking about, there are so many more books that don’t get nearly as much attention. Sometimes it’s nice to set aside some time to read “quiet” books, books that didn’t get the big advertising budget. These are hidden gems that lay forgotten on used bookstore shelves, or tucked away in a back corner of the library. But just because no one is talking about them doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading! Some of my favourite books are obscure or little known. In “The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of,” we share our favourite books that deserve more attention.

To make sure they’re actually underrated, we have picked an arbitrary cut-off point of under 250 Goodreads ratings. I highly recommend checking out your own underrated reads: you can sort your read Goodreads shelf by number of ratings to see how obscure your book taste is! (Go to your Read bookshelf and select “Num. Ratings” and “Asc.” in the bottom bar.)

That’s enough lead up. Let’s get into the best books you’ve (probably) never heard of!

Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-SamarasinhaBodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Bodymap is my favourite poetry that I’ve ever read, and one of my favourite books of all time. This is poetry that punches you in the gut. It’s hard and bright and unapologetic. There is humour and light, but most of all, Bodymap is passionate and honest. This collection is unapologetically about her intersectional identity as a queer disabled femme of colour, while also having a lot to say just about surviving in this world. Piepzna-Samarasinha experiments with style, but all her poems are accessible and grounded (which as a poetry novice, I appreciate). This is one I want to reread over and over, because I get more out of it every time I read it. —Danika Ellis

The Secret Lives of Sgt John Wilson by Lois SimmieThe Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson: A True Story of Love and Murder by Lois Simmie

This is a Canadian true crime story that crosses the Atlantic and has enough twists and turns to satisfy any Murderino. John Wilson was a married ne’er-do-well in Scotland who went to Canada to avoid paying off his debts. While there, he conned his way into the RCMP and married a new wife—who didn’t know about the first one, back in Scotland. Author Lois Simmie tells her story meticulously, combining researched non-fiction sections with imagined situations based on her impression of the people involved. The story may take place in early 20th century Saskatchewan, but the motivations of love, family, and ambition are truly timeless. —Ann Foster

Women Writing Resistance edited by Jennifer BrowdyWomen Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean edited by Jennifer Browdy

A collection of essays, poems, and prose from some of the most influential Chicana, Latina, and Caribbean activists and feminists of our kind. This collection features stories of exile, persecution, marginalisation and political oppression, but above all these are stories of resistance from women who have paved the way for many of our freedoms. Key submissions are “Speaking in Tongues,” an essay by Elizabeth Martinez and how she carved a place for herself among the educated elite, “A Small Place,” in which Jamaica Kincaid creatively explores the equal levels of contempt and envy local people have towards tourists, and “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” in which Judith Ortiz Cofer challenges dangerous stereotypes and misconceptions of Latin women. Actually, every entry in this collection is superb. —Enobong Essien

The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia by Marin SardyThe Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia by Marin Sardy

In The Edge of Every Day, Sardy opens her heart up to show readers the ways in which Schizophrenia has affected her family: first, her mother, and later on, her brother. It’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching account of what it means to love someone living with a mental illness you can never fully understand. The memoir shifts forms from anecdotes to lists and snippets of conversations with family. This is a great companion to Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, and I can’t recommend both enough. —Sophia LeFevre

Instructions for the End of the World by Jamie KainInstructions for the End of the World by Jamie Kain

If you’re looking for a follow-up to Educated or The Glass Castle, pick up the sophomore novel by Jamie Kain, Instructions for the End of the World. Nicole and her family are forced by her father to move to a remote area in the mountains, away from all modern conveniences, technology, and other people. But soon, it’s just her and her sister alone in this isolated location, and the two girls are left to fend for themselves. A chance meeting with a boy from a neighboring remote community help Nicole see maybe her father’s way of living their lives isn’t the only way to do so. This book is not about the apocalypse—it is about family. I remember this book being strange and ethereal, and I really loved that it was mysterious and not totally wrapped up nicely. —Cassie Gutman

Arrhythmia by Alice ZornArrhythmia by Alice Zorn

Arrhythmia is the incredibly compelling debut novel by Canadian author Alice Zorn, first published in 2011. Joelle is about to lose her husband Marc, who has become obsessed with Ketia, a young Haitian woman. Ketia lies to her family to conceal her liaison with Marc. Joelle’s friend Diane does not realize that her boyfriend Nazim has never told his Muslim family in Morocco about her, and then Nazim gets a letter that threatens his secret. Set against the backdrop of urban Montreal in 1999, it’s a novel of intense interpersonal drama that draws the reader into the demands of both cultural values and the intimacy found between romantic partners. To quote the back cover: “Betrayal is an ugly yet compulsive game.” —Jeffrey Davies

Future Fiction edited by Bill CampbellFuture Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction edited by Bill Campbell

This is one of my favorite anthologies I read in the past year, which is saying something (it has been a GREAT year for anthologies). If you’re looking to read more internationally, and/or just want your mind blown by some of the most innovative, unexpected science fiction short stories I’ve had the pleasure to read, pick this up ASAP. It’s a weird, wild, sometimes disturbing, but always fascinating trip. —Jenn Northington

Not So Stories edited by David Thomas MooreNot So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

The premise of this collection hooked me from the get-go: authors of color responding to Rudyard Kipling’s beloved but problematic Just So Stories. As a longtime reader of Kipling working to decolonize my bookshelf, I was thrilled to find this and even more thrilled once I read it. There are absolute gems in here, and many upcoming writers you should keep an eye out for. —Jenn Northington

The Vela, by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers SolomonThe Vela by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers Solomon

What do you get when you put four amazing writers together to write an action-packed space opera? You get The Vela Season One! I love these authors individually, and together they’ve created an incredible world full of robots, mercenaries, refugees, politicians, and one high-stakes caper after the next. —Jenn Northington

South of Freedom by Carl RowanSouth of Freedom by Carl Rowan

Carl Rowan was once the most famous black journalist in America, and his debut book is a searing account of his long trip through the mid-20th-century South to report on the state of race relations. The journey, and resulting book, began as a favor to one of Rowan’s Navy buddies, who argued that the vast majority of Southerners weren’t necessarily racist but rather so accustomed to Jim Crow laws that they had become blind to them. South of Freedom illustrates the incessant, day-to-day roadblocks faced by Southern blacks better than any other story of its kind I’ve encountered. Currently in print from LSU Press, this is an obscure nonfiction gem ripe for rediscovery. —Michael Herrington

I Knew Him by Abigail de NivervilleI Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville

As a queer Shakespeare nerd, this was basically my dream YA book! High school senior Julian just wants to play basketball and finish the school year without everyone finding out that he’s bisexual. But when he’s cast as Hamlet in his school’s production of the Shakespearean tragedy, he finds himself falling for his Horatio, a classmate named Sky. What I love most about I Knew Him is its powerful portrayal of bi erasure within the LGBT community. Not only do Julian and Sky face backlash from their straight friends and family, but a queer classmate also ignites a discussion on biphobia. —Andy Winder

Crux: A Cross Border Memoir by Jean GuererroCrux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

This experimental memoir follows a journalist as she tries to understand and trace the history of her father and his descent into schizophrenia. Jean’s father Marco is a genius, a handyman, and a loving parent. But his inner demons—his mental illness and a drug addiction he adopted while self-medicating—sends him on the run around the world for years before he finds his way back to his daughter. Jean investigates the psychological reasons behind his need to constantly run and whether she’s falling into the same self-destructive habits as her father. —Andy Winder

The Book of the Moon by Maggie Aderin-PocockThe Book of the Moon: A Guide to Our Closest Neighbor by Maggie Aderin-Pocock

I AM SO IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK. As a full-fledged “lunatic”, I adore every word of it and can’t stop talking about it, so I’m honestly shocked that it hasn’t gotten more attention. Maggie Aderin-Pocock is an amazing space science educator, and this book is a perfect expression of her love for the moon. The Book of the Moon explores our nearest neighbor from an astronomy perspective, as well as the culture and history of moon gazing, moon travel, and even some poems and science fiction related to the moon. The tone is engaging and easy to follow, even though it doesn’t hold back on advanced concepts. If you’ve ever looked at the moon and wanted to know more about it, you must read this book. —Susie Dumond

Behind These Doors by Jude LucensBehind These Doors by Jude Lucens

When I saw that this book had been nominated for the Lambda Literary Awards, I was sure that it would somehow explode in popularity. A queer Edwardian novel featuring polyamorous protagonists? Of course everyone would be into it, right? This is not only spectacularly written, with some depth to the characters, but also exposes the reader to a thread of polyamory that is not often explored in romance novels. The central character is already part of a mixed-gender triad, but also falls in love with another person. The relationship is measured just as important as the one he’s already in, though there is obviously conflict. Because of course there is. —Jessica Pryde

Sacred Wilderness by Susan PowerSacred Wilderness by Susan Power

Susan Power is one of my favorite Native American authors, yet little known. Sacred Wilderness opens with an older Native American woman coming to work for her new employer, a Catholic woman who claims to have Native American ancestry. It then switches to centuries earlier. Even though its scope is epic, it’s a slim novel. The best thing about reading this is being able to experience a well-rounded and sensual older woman, who’s funny and full of life. But I also enjoyed the explorations of spirituality and of the appropriation of Native American cultures. —Margaret Kingsbury

 First Laugh--Welcome, Baby! by Rose Ann Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Jonathan NelsonFirst Laugh—Welcome, Baby! by Rose Ann Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood, Illustrated by Jonathan Nelson

This is such a delightful picture book. In Navajo culture, the First Laugh Ceremony celebrates the entry of a baby into the tribe after the day of their first laugh, and the first person to make the baby laugh hosts the ceremony. This is such a wonderful marker to celebrate! This picture book tells the story of all the members of a family trying to elicit a laugh from their newest addition. I love the diverse settings in the illustrations, that show the Navajo family living in various, contemporary settings. This is a must for a child’s library! —Margaret Kingsbury

An Acquaintance by Saba SyedAn Acquaintance by Saba Syed

An International Book Awards Finalist, this 2017 Young Adult fiction romance deserves more readership. Syed captivates readers with her stark prose about a smart, outspoken Muslim high school student who gets caught between her traditional upbringing and teenage curiosity. Both Muslims born in the West and non-Muslims learning about their diverse friends and neighbors will relate to this bittersweet story about a sincere teen who has to grow up fast because of ignorance, racism, and community judgment. —Shireen Hakim

Jasmine Falling by Shereen MalherbeJasmine Falling by Shereen Malherbe

Voted top 20 best books by Muslim Women, this poetic fiction novel takes us to present day occupied Palestine, and shows us how Palestinians are still picking up the pieces of their devastated land and lives. Protagonist Jasmine travels and learns about her family’s painful yet powerful history, and falls in love in the meantime. This is a must read to understand the personal stories of the real people behind the politics. —Shireen Hakim

Can’t get enough little-known books? Check out the other best books you’ve never heard of.