Criminally Underrated Books
We share our favorite books, plus picks from Stephen King, R.L. Stine, and more
1. Letters To Felice, Franz Kafka
Kafka was a total stalker. His missives here are riveting and inadvertently hilarious.
2. Happy All The Time, Laurie Colwin
In this Manhattan comedy of manners, Colwin wrings magic from ordinary lives.
3. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
Sharply serrated portraits of dysfunction in an aristocratic British family so depraved, they make the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch.
4. Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald
An off-the-charts brilliant book that deconstructs the Beatles song by song.
5. Catherwood, Marly Youmans
A heart-stopping novel about a mother lost in the woods with her 1-year-old. It’s insanity that no one’s made a movie out of this.
6. Actual Air, David Berman
He’s an indie musician — frontman for the Silver Jews — and an indie poet, too, with offbeat verse that snaps and sparks with life.
7. Pobby and Dingan, Ben Rice
A seriously moving novel about an Australian girl who can’t find her imaginary friends.
8. Winner of the National Book Award, Jincy Willett
All of Willett’s novels are sardonic and bitingly funny, but this one — about twin sisters, relationships, and books — is the best.
9. The Interrogative Mood, Padgett Powell
Why is every sentence in this odd little book a question? And how did Powell make it a genuinely great read?
10. Marbles, Ellen Forney
This graphic memoir — a chronicle of Forney’s bipolar disorder — vividly explores the line between creativity and mental illness.
Stephen King: My Picks
Author, The Shining and The Stand
Germinal, Émile Zola
A terrific novel of a labor strike, as fresh now as it was a hundred years ago.
Headhunters, Jo Nesbø
Hilarious and creepy, too! Couldn’t put it down.
Sloane Crosley: My Picks
Author, I Was Told There’d Be Cake
But Enough About Me, Jancee Dunn
This is one of the funniest memoirs I have ever read and certainly the funniest one about music journalism. It includes such helpful everyday tips as “how to politely refuse your host’s kind offer of heroin.”
Ben Fountain: My Picks
Author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross
Part domestic drama, part murder mystery, this novel goes as deeply into the swamps of marriage as any book I’ve ever read. Stephen King called it “the most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” True dat.
Dogfight, A Love Story, Matt Burgess
The hilarious, harrowing story of an extremely bad weekend in the life of 19-year-old Alfredo Batista, a very small-time drug dealer with some very big problems, including the Mob, a seven-months-pregnant girlfriend, and an ex-con older brother who just might want to bash Alfredo’s head in. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the pit bull Alfredo needs to steal for the homecoming dogfight. Poor dog. Poor Alfredo. I couldn’t stop laughing.
The Violin Face, Rufi Cole
Heartbreaking, unflinching, and insanely beautiful, this novel follows a clutch of teenagers — barely postpubescent, actually — in a world where the adults who make the rules are ineffective at best, psycho tweakers at worst. Who is this Rufi Cole who writes like a dream? I have no idea. Her brief bio says she can shoot you in the chest with a blowgun at 30 paces in the dark. But why would she bother? Her book already did the job, at least with this reader.
We Agreed To Meet Just Here, Scott Blackwood
Barely 160 pages long, this novel set in Austin packs the substance of books two or three times its length. In the course of exploring the death of the Deep Eddy community’s beautiful lifeguard, Blackwood delivers a rich and nuanced meditation on love, loss, death, and grace.
Walter Mosley: My Picks
Author, The Easy Rawlins Novels
The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat
Danticat gives a heartrending historical basis for unforgivable current events.
The Journey to the East, Herman Hesse
In The Journey to the East, I found the magic of literature in literature.
The Best of Simple, Langston Hughes
This book compiles the cream of Langston Hughes’ masterful interpretation of black life in the ’30s.
Daniel Handler: My Picks
Author, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Running Wild, J.G. Ballard
A pack of children attack and terrorize a gated community. This is why I don’t live in the suburbs.
Not To Disturb, Muriel Spark
Servants gather outside a locked door to make sure a murder goes smoothly. My favorite episode of Downton Abbey that sadly does not exist.
Under Radar, Michael Tolkin
This moody and tangled book is by the author of The Player and has a witch in the first sentence who never shows up again. If that’s not enough for you, you should rethink your priorities.
The Beautifully Worthless, Ali Liebegott
A past-the-speed-limit blur of fast food, weird caves, a wary dog, and “the click-clack of sadness.” In my head, this is the road book everybody knows instead of what’s-his-name, Kerouac.
The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing
Very good novel, very bad baby-shower gift. Read it, shudder, and then go to YouTube and watch Lessing hearing she won the Nobel Prize and wonder why you’ll never be that cool.
Collected Alex, A.T. Grant
You probably don’t remember that time your parents gave you a corpse, but after reading this book you will swear you do.
Cheryl Strayed: My Picks
Author, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things
Lost Cat, Caroline Paul
Lost Cat was my most delightful literary discovery of last year. As the subtitle explains, the book is “a true story of love, desperation, and GPS technology,” in which two women try to find out where their once-missing cat had gone during the five weeks he was away. It’s funny, poignant, and as original as they come. Plus, the illustrations are genius. Though it’s a book for adults, my 8-year-old daughter and I read it together, and she considers it her favorite book of all time.
You Only Get Letters From Jail, Jodi Angel
This story collection is devastatingly good. Every sentence in the book crackles with beauty and sorrow and real life. Angel’s unflinching prose reminds me why I read and why I write. She’s what we call the real deal.
R.L. Stine: My Picks
Author, The Goosebumps Novels
Marathon Man, William Goldman
This is a superb thriller. Everyone remembers the movie — but who reads the book?
The Inspector Rutledge Novels, Charles Todd
These World War I-era Scotland Yard mysteries are tangled and sophisticated and fun — and should have a bigger audience.
George R.R. Martin: My Picks
Author, A Game of Thrones
“Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series has all the good stuff that’s in my books, minus the fantasy…but it actually happened. The books were originally published in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. HarperCollins is reissuing the set in the U.K., and I’ve provided an introduction.”
“Jack Vance was a name in SF and fantasy but remains relatively unknown outside the genre. But his Dying Earth stories are classics and by rights should be as well-known and widely read as Tolkien and Howard.”
Julia Glass: My Picks
Author, And The Dark Sacred Night
Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man
Who doesn’t love Robert McCloskey’s traffic-stopping ducks? Burt Dow is McCloskey after happy hour down at the Dory: the tale of a Down East Jonah that involves Pollock-style painting, a whole lot of Band-Aids, and a giggling gull.
The Man Who Sang The Sillies
On the Olympus of children’s verse, Seuss will always wield the thunderbolts, but if lesser gods dally with mere mortals, imagine the love child of Shel Silverstein and Dame Judi Dench. That would be John Ciardi.
A B-side book we nearly missed: Roald Dahl’s The Minpins. It’s a don’t-go-into-the-woods tale, but more heroic than cautionary — a bit unexpectedly, considering Dahl’s typically twisted take on human nature.