Second and last part, again in no order of preference.
7. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge (England, UK)
It’s not a complete unknown (its sequel is on the shortlist of the Guardian children’s fiction prize), but I only know three other people who’ve heard of it.
As I’ve mentioned in my review, someone in Goodreads said that Fly By Night was “written as a gushy Valentine to the English language” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better description.
Fly by Night is the story of 12-year-old Mosca Mye. She loves words and it’s her favorite treat to find new ones to play with. Before her father died he taught her how to read, a dangerous skill in a world where education is feared and books are distrusted. When a travelling storyteller passes through town, she sees her opportunity to explore the world.
It’s a children’s story, but adults will appreciate it as well (even more?). It has many layers, it’s too subtly political, full of dark humor and clever sarcasm. I’m glad there’s a sequel because, as Mosca said, “True stories seldom have endings. I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”
8. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (USA)
The Mists of Avalon (39,925 ratings on Goodreads) is very popular, but Firerbrand (only 2,911) doesn’t have the recognition it deserves. While I agree that The Mists is the better of the two, Firebrand is a (very) close second.
I’m a sucker for Greek mythology, so that might be the source of my amazement. Firebrand is the re-telling of the Trojan War and Homer’s Illiad (that “boys story”), seen through the eyes of Kassandra, the priestess cursed with seeing the future, but never being believed. She’s also the twin sister of Paris, the Prince who brought Helen to Troy.
Great historical detail, a nice dose of magic, a strong female heroine and a wonderful love story. What more can you ask?
9. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (Scotland, UK)
Is it possible to be in awe of a book, to obsess about it, put it in your top-3 best of all time, and at the same time be afraid to recommend it? Yes. This might also be why The Lymond Chronicles are probably the most under-rated books in this whole list.
So here’s a warning: The Lymond Chronicles might be some of the most challenging books you’ll ever read, but also become the best and most rewarding.
They are a series of six novels set in mid-sixteenth century and telling the story of a young Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Renaissance man through and through: polyglot, philosopher, military strategist and musician. We follow him from Scotland to the deserts of North Africa, from Istanbul to Moscow.
The detail is exquisite and the plot extremely intricate, readers are never spoon-fed, but you’re constantly in awe of Dunnett’s genius. You won’t find a staggering amount of reviews online, but notice the high average rating and praise.
10. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Un viejo que leía novelas de amor) by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile)
Like Captains of the Sands, this book is very popular in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, but never made the jump to the wider world. I’ve heard it talked off as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Amazonian deforestation.
António Proaño is a simple man. He lives in El Idilio, an isolated village in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon forest. The dentist comes only twice a year and brings with him the romantic novels that António started to love after his wife died.
He wants a quiet life – his hammock, his monkey meat, his rum, his novels – but all is disrupted when gringos start hunting ocelot cubs and push the animal into a killing spree. António respects the ocelot, but is asked by the El Idilio’s nasty mayor to kill it.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a beautiful tale about the jungle, man’s impact and Nature’s response when threatened.
11. The Royal Game (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
While Dr. B is in a Nazi prison, he keeps a fragile grip on sanity because of a book he stole from a guard. The book is about chess, a compilation of the games of past masters, so Dr. B starts playing chess in his mind, endlessly, voraciously. After learning every single move of any variation in the book, and having nothing more to explore, Dr. B begins to play the game against himself, developing the ability to separate his mind into two: I White and I Black.
After the war, a traumatized Dr. B has given up chess, until on a cruise he’s challenged by an arrogant world champion…
Don’t really remember how I came to read this, suspect it was a book-ring organized by Bookcrossing, but I’m glad I did. Zweig was a friend of Freud and you can see his influence in the way Zweig writes about blind passion, obsessive, over the top, all-consuming, Id-type of passion.
12. Os Olhos de Ana Marta by Alice Vieira (not translated yet, but would probably be something like The Eyes of Ana Marta) (Portugal)
Nymeth over at “things mean a lot” actually offered to translate this book and buy copies to give away through her blog. I’d do the same in a heart-beat, so Editorial Caminho, if you’re listening: we can help promote it, just make it happen!
A girl called Marta thought she didn’t belong to her family. Her mom is “fragile” and her father distant because of The Great Calamity, a mysterious event that happened long ago and no one in the house speaks about. Marta is raised by the house-keeper-come-nanny, in a house with rooms that are always closed and questions that can never be asked.
I had the same thought after finishing it as I did after To Kill a Mockingbird: I’ve just witnessed perfect storytelling. I’m only sorry most of you won’t be able to enjoy it too 😦
So this is it! Hope I’ve increased my karma by spreading The Joy and that I’ve persuaded you to at least try some of them. I’d really like to hear about your own hidden-gems!