Today the website shortlist.com posted “10 Underrated Novels from Great Authors.” All of the authors you’ll no doubt note are men and, with the exception of Murakami, also white.
In part to celebrate International Women’s Day but also because I’m just genuinely pissed off that there were no female writers and basically no writers of color on the list, I’d like to give you an alternative. So, here is my list of 10 Underrated Novels by Great Authors:
1. The Two of Them by Joanna Russ. Russ is perhaps most known for The Female Man and We Who Are About To… but The Two of Them expands some of the ideas presented in her other works while also deconstructing oppression in new and vivid ways. The story centers around Irene, an agent, who helps a young woman escape a male-dominated world where men are not allowed to “see” women.
2. Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn. Krohn is, I think, better well-known in her native Finland than in the United States but that is a travesty I hope to help remedy. Tainaron is essentially an epistolary novel: a nameless narrator writes letters to describing the wondrous natural beauty of this city. There are talking insects too. The prose is outstanding
3. Mission Child by Mauren F. McHugh. Her award-winning debut novel, China Mountain Zhang, introduced me to McHugh, though her short stories are also regarded as some of the best in the SF/F genre. At this point, I think I’ve read everything she’s ever published. Mission Child is easily my favorite though. The narrative resembles, to some degree, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (another great writer: see below), but is wholly McHughified: about a young woman who flees her home and embarks upon a journey of the spirit and identity.
4. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita. I-Hotel was an incredibly moving portrait of the civil rights movement from 1968-1978 as seen from San Francisco’s Chinatown. TtAofRF is more playful but just as serious and, in a lot of ways, more experimental than I-Hotel. I mean, it’s told from the point-of-view of a “satellite” narrator hovering around our protagonist. This book pretty much takes on everything and succeeds.
5. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin. Known for her Earthsea and Hainish Cycle novels, Le Guin is also an accomplished YA fiction writer. Very From Away from Anywhere Else is about Owen – seventeen, would-be scientist – and Natalie – eighteen, determined to be a music composer. It’s a story about finding your niche, about relationships, the meaning of friendship, and it is one of the most moving books I’ve ever
6. Kabu Kabu: Stories by Nnedi Okorafor. Better known for her excellent novel Who Fears Death and her YA work, Okorafor is also a master of the short story. Each of these stories packs and unpacks so much in such little time, some of which deal with Americanized Nigerians returning to Nigeria (authors writing about similar topics include Chimamandi Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole, both brilliant) and politics but always with at least a hint of the speculative element. My favorite in this collection is “Spider the Artist.” (Okay, so a short story collection is not a novel, but trust me, these stories are so complexly satisfying, you’ll feel like you’ve read a novel after reading them.)
7. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. Everybody’s talking about Beukes’s The Shining Girls right now – and they should be: it’s incredible – but let’s not forget this wonderful dystopian gem of a novel. Moxyland is as sharp, smart and funny as Beukes’ award-winning novel Zoo City and, in many ways, its themes – of online social identities, government corruption, etc. – are more prevalent now than ever.
8. The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller. Emshwiller, most notable for her short stories, writes some really great novels. In fact, any of her novels could be on this list of underrated works. The Secret City is ostensibly about two aliens stranded on Earth, waiting for rescue. But the story of Lorpas and Allush is far deeper than this and touches on themes of xenophobia, the struggle to define oneself, and the meaning of the place we call “home.”
9.Phosphor in Dreamland by Rikki Ducornet. If you are not familiar with Ducornet’s work, get thee to an
Amazon and purchase anything she’s written. Anything. Phosphor in Dreamland is her most underrated work, I think, because of its denser prose, lack of typical narrative tension, depraved beauty, and perverse humor. It is in a lot of ways like reading a fever dream, but its images – particularly that of the loplop (the last of a species of bird) – remain etched in your mind long after the last page.
10. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. This brief novel about a woman leaving her home in the West Indies to be an au pair for a family in the US is one of the best works of Kincaid, seconded only by The Autobiogrpahy of My Mother. Lucy – the book and the titular character – is fueled by sexual, political, and familial anger that concerns much of Kincaid’s work, but it is no less striking or important. Perhaps because it is such a short novel, Lucy tends to be overlooked (or, at least, I haven’t heard it mentioned as much as some of her other work), but this needs to be rectified post-haste.