5 Unexpectedly Brilliant but Underrated Books I Read in 2021

I read 60 books in 2021, but you MUST read these 5.

5 Unexpectedly Brilliant but Underrated Books I Read in 2021
Image from author’s Instagram

I read 60 books in 2021, but you MUST read these 5.

Reading-wise, 2021 was an incredible year for me.

I read 60 books and found some truly underrated gems that took my heart away.

In this post, I’m sharing five such books which left a deep and lasting impact on my life. None of the books on this list are wildly popular, but they are so incredible, they will leave you with a lot to think about.

If you’re on the lookout for something new and underrated to read, feel free to pick up a book from this list. It spans several genres and I’m sure has something for every reader.

Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts in the comments.

(Note: The links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase these books through them, it will help me earn a small amount — at no extra cost to you. Thanks!)

1. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Genre: Historical fiction.

Image: Goodreads

I only wanted to read this book because the premise sounded so interesting — what if the human brain still continues to function and process memories 10 minutes and 38 seconds after the body dies?

This is the story of Tequila Leila, the whore from Istanbul who’s found dead in a trash can one morning.

As her body dies and her brain shuts down, she still has 10 minutes and 38 seconds to recall the 43 years of her life, right from the moment she was born, to her tumultuous childhood, to an adulthood racked with pain where she finally managed to find some peace and solace.

This is Leila’s story, and the story of the five friends she made in her life — friends, who are desperately searching for her after they heard the news of her death.

The book is divided into three sections-

  1. The Mind, where we get to see Leila’s story in reverse.
  2. The Body, where we see what happens to her after her death and how her friends finally manage to give her the funeral she deserves.
  3. The Soul, which is Leila’s journey into the unknown after leaving the mortal world.

Set in Istanbul in the 1940s, this book is a testament to the pain and trauma that’s part of everyday lives for those not so fortunate. It’s also a look into how religion ruins the lives of so many innocent believers.

It made me feel fortunate that I was born in a country like India in times like now where I have the freedom to pursue the life I want to without the world telling me what I should and shouldn’t do.

It also made me marvel at the delicate beauty of how Elif Shafak has crafted the myriad characters and brought them to life. More than Leila’s life, this is the story of the friendships she carved in her limited time on the planet and how much impact she made, even though she worked in a profession that was considered lowly and sinful by the people of her country.

Gift yourself a copy here.

2. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Genre: Autobiographical fiction.

Image: Goodreads

This is the letter from a son to a mother who cannot read English.

It’s the story of “Little Dog,” a Vietnamese boy learning to settle in an America where he’s always marked as an outsider. Where the color of his skin and the shape of his eyes determine his identity. Where his sexual orientation and country of origin are more important than his name or his dreams.

It’s the story of a family ravaged by war. Of a heritage torn to shreds and a language on the brink of extinction.

This is the story of love and loss and the depths of compassion, hatred, friendship, and envy the human heart is capable of.

“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence — I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”

The unabashed honesty and the raw pain in the narrative make it one of the most genuine, authentic books I’ve ever read. For an enhanced experience, read this book while listening to the audiobook. It’s narrated by the author and the emotions it will evoke in your heart are unparalleled.

Gift yourself this book here.

3. The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu

Genre: Fantasy fiction.

Image: Goodreads

A kingdom grappling with the fear that the rakshas Danh-Gem would be reincarnated soon.

A young prince with the weight of a two-hundred-year-old prophecy on his shoulders.

The last remaining descendent of a race that departed this world so magic would disappear and some semblance of balance would return.

What happens when their paths cross?

As the Goodreads blurb describes, this book is what you get when “Monty Python meets the Ramayana, Alice in Wonderland meets The Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood meets The Arabian Nights.”

There’s a chimera called Nimboopani, a desert called Al-Ugobi, and a group of spell-casters called the Hex-Men. The references will make you laugh out loud. If you’re familiar with Indian history and mythology, the Easter eggs will have you squealing with excitement.

The Simoqin Prophecies has all the elements of an epic high fantasy story. There’s a rich world-building, mighty warriors and ancient villains, young heroes who are destined to do great things, and a brilliant narrative laced with humor that will make sure there’s not a single dull moment while reading this book.

This is hands-down one of the wittiest books I’ve read in recent times. Go ahead and treat yourself to it.

Gift yourself this book here.

4. Life as a Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi

Genre: Memoir.

This is the story of Amrou Al-Kadhi, an Arab born in Iraq and raised with strict Muslim values, who moves to Britain during their early teens and starts life as a drag queen called Glamrou during and after college.

It’s so heartwarming to see young Amrou growing up with their strict Islamic values. They’re always counting their points for sin and points for doing something good. The love for Allah is ingrained deep into them, as is the love for their family.

But when Amrou is ten, they start realizing they might like men. But how can they be homosexual when the Quran apparently considers it as one of the biggest sins? How can a person so obsessed with making sure they have more “good points” than “Sin points” acknowledge that just by existing and being who they are, they are committing the greatest, most unforgivable sin?

And thus begins Amrou’s journey of first rejecting Islam and all that it represents to finally making peace with the concept of Allah and religion. The journey is so moving and heartbreaking — it often veers into dark places, but Amrou’s sharp wit keeps the text from becoming too depressing. We get to explore the world through the eyes of this gender-non-conforming queen who shows us humanity at its best and worst.

The most touching part of Amrou’s story is their relationship with their mother. She was always his favorite while growing up, but when she started treating their homosexuality as the biggest curse of her existence, the mother-child bond weakened, until it almost faded into nothingness. It speaks volumes about the love that flows between them that they managed to reconcile their differences after so many years and begin anew.

Maybe Amrou’s mother never understood their homosexuality and their need to dress in drag. But she always loved them, even though her way of showing love was not what Amrou needed at that age. And towards the end, when Amrou recounts all the ways the world failed them, it’s almost funny to see their mother’s reaction — “But Amrou, you’re so lucky you are a man. I don’t understand why you’d want to become a woman.”

Maybe then Amrou finally understands that of all the privileges that were denied to them, the biggest was that they were born a man — a privilege their mother can’t help but envy as she’s always been forced to stay silent and never speak her mind as a woman.

This book is such a rewarding journey, I wish I’d come across it earlier. I’m going to recommend this to every straight cisgender man that ever claims that pronouns are not important or that the LGBTQ community should shut up and not make so much noise.

There’s a lot of intersectionalities here — the book exposes the discriminations that lie inside the LGBTQ community, the discrimination against people of color, the hatred for Muslims, the bias against femmes, and the prejudice against people who are brave enough to openly flaunt their sexuality.

This book made me realize the pain of being born in a body you don’t identify with. It taught me what horrors life can hold for a person who is shamed for being who they are. It broke my heart and made me whole again. I can’t recommend this enough — especially the audiobook — performed by the author themselves — is a true gem.

Gift yourself this book here.

5. Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

Genre: Urban fantasy.

What if there was a lot more to life after you died?

What if, instead of drifting away in oblivion, you woke up in a strange place? A quaint tea stall where the occupants offer you tea, companionship, and more love than you’d ever experienced in life? That’s the premise of Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune.

Wallace Price dies of a heart attack in his office, only to awaken at his funeral to watch his own service.

He also meets a strange girl called Mei who claims to be his reaper. With no other option in sight, Wallace follows her in shock to Charon’s Crossings Tea and Treats, where he meets Hugo, the handsome tea-stall owner, Nelson, his grandfather, and Apollo, the best dog in fiction.

Then on, the greatest adventure of Wallace’s life begins. It’s ironic that he got to live and experience so much right after his death.

The theme of the book is “Death was only their beginning.” Needless to say, you can expect a LOT of talk of death. There are triggers of death, self-harm, and suicide, so please proceed with care.

Read this book if you need a shoulder to lean on. Better still, listen to the audiobook by Kirt Greaves. It’s sheer brilliance and an experience you wouldn’t be able to forget easily.

Gift yourself this book here.

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