I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that 2000 was 23 years ago, and then when I talk about things that happened in the early 2000s, I’m talking about things that happened 20 years ago. I was a young adult in those years, and while my reading taste has changed a lot since then, I still have vivid memories of reading certain early 2000s books. This list includes some of those personally formative reads, but it also includes books published in the 2000s that I’ve only read in the past two or three years. So it was a lot of fun to make this list of brilliant books from the 2000s that you’ve probably never heard of — but that you definitely are going to want to read.
I’ve included both fiction and nonfiction, and the parameters I’ve set for what “under-the-radar” means are pretty loose. Most of these books have under 500 ratings on Goodreads. A few of them have more than that (in the low thousands) but still haven’t gotten the kind of attention I think they deserve. Either way, all of these books are absolutely worth your time. So many amazing books came out in the first decade of the 21st century, and there’s something here for everyone: two brilliant story collections, a haunting literary masterpiece, several powerful memoirs, a super fun novel set in Tahiti, and an essay collection that will change the way you think about the world.
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
I have to start with this novel, because, even though it is not unknown, it is not well known enough. It is beloved in some queer circles, and has a few thousand ratings on Goodreads, and yet, I still encounter people who haven’t heard of it, and frankly, it’s unacceptable. It is one of the great novels of the 21st century. It’s about Fee, a Korean American boy who grows up in Maine, and the ways that the trauma of sexual abuse reverberate through his life for years. It’s devastating, and beautiful, and so beautifully written, and full of the most complicated, layered, human characters I have ever encountered in fiction.
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
If you’re looking for a short story collection, here’s a brilliant one you might have missed! These stories, set throughout Thailand, focus on the relationships between parents and children, friends and lovers, neighbors and acquaintances. They’re sharply observed and full of the kind of ordinary human entanglements that make for the best short fiction. Lapcharoensap writes beautifully about the complexity of place — who belongs and who doesn’t and why, what makes somewhere home, the intersections of culture and history that define how we move through the world.
Once the Shore by Paul Yoon
The 2000s were a great decade for short stories, because this is another must-read collection! These linked stories are all set on a small South Korean island, though they span many decades — from the years leading up to the Korean War to the present. Each story captures a moment in time, a turning point in a character’s life, a strange or heartbreaking interaction. Together, they paint an extraordinary picture of one particular place. Yoon’s writing is so rich and evocative — this is a vivid, transporting collection.
Breadfruit by Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Does your family ever pass around a book? Around 6 or 8 years ago, my family was passing around this funny and heartwarming series set in contemporary Tahiti. Everybody read them! This is the first one. It’s about Materena, who’s trying to decide whether or not to marry her longterm boyfriend and the father of her three kids. Materena is such a fun narrator, and her story is equal parts hilarious and moving. But a big part of the joy of this book — and the ones that follow — is getting to know all the side characters. It’s set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and so reading it feels a little bit like sitting down with a friend for a dose of afternoon gossip.
Nonfiction & Poetry
Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks
Obviously you’ve heard of bell hooks. But have you heard of this book? It is is my absolute favorite of hers, and yet it seems to get very little attention and doesn’t have the same status as some of her more famous works. I’m begging you, if you’re a bell hooks fan, please read this one, too! It’s a rigorous collection of essays about place, home, and belonging. hooks writes about her own hometown in Kentucky, and examines how it has shaped her life. She also explores the intersections of race, nature writing, and geography, and delves into the racist history of land ownership. It’s a brilliant and beautiful book.
Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González
In this vulnerable memoir, Rigoberto González traces his coming-of-age as a gay, first generation Chicano. He writes about the death of his mother, his struggles to find a place for himself as a gay man as a young adult, and the healing and strength he eventually found through writing and storytelling. This is a classic of both Latine and gay literature that deserves a wider audience.
Blonde Indian by Ernestine Hayes
This poetic, nonlinear memoir won the National Book Award in 2007, and yet it still seems to fly mostly under the radar. It’s a gorgeous book about storytelling, history, cultural heritage, trauma, healing, and homecoming. Hayes writes about her childhood growing up in a small Tlingit community in Alaska, the time she spent in other states as an adult, and her eventual return. She blends stories of her own life with stories of her ancestors, as well as Tlingit spirituality and story. It’s an unusual and powerful memoir that messes with genre to create something new.
Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway
There is a lot of brilliant disability lit coming out these days, which is amazing, but I think it’s also important to read older books by disabled authors, and to honor the experiences and contributions of the generations that came before. Galloway’s memoir about growing up queer and deaf in the 1960s and 1970s is funny and brash and honest. It’s a collection of episodic stories from her life, including the art she’s made, the theater communities she’s been a part of, her various relationships, and more.
Looking for more hidden gems? You’ll find some on this list of the best books by Black authors you’ve probably never heard of and this list of underrated award-winning nonfiction. And if that’s not enough, there are so many amazing books waiting to be discovered in our best books you’ve never heard of archives!