Book lovers all have favorite books we believe did not receive the recognition they deserved from other readers. All of us have books that we love to fight with popular opinion for. And for most of us, the Goodreads page for a book is a primary source of information about the popular reception of it, neatly distilled into an average rating out of 5-stars. Merits and demerits of the rating system notwithstanding, many readers still pick up books based on their average Goodreads ratings — so if a book that we love has a low average rating, we feel affronted.
Now, the guidelines for the 5-star rating system on Goodreads instructs readers to rate a book 3 stars if they have “liked it”. However, for many readers, a 3-star rating is reserved for a lukewarm, meh reading experience. When combined into the average rating, anything less than 3.50 feels low — even in the Goodreads Choice Awards, opening round official nominees have to have an average rating of at least 3.50 at the time of launch. But just because a book has low average ratings doesn’t mean it will not be the right book for you. The popular reception of a book depends on multiple factors, such as how much the actual book was aligned with readers’ expectations going into it, or readers’ feelings about ambiguity, open endings, and unlikable characters, or the average reader’s threshold for weirdness in fiction.
Some of my fellow Book Rioters and I have picked out 15 of our favorite books that have an average rating of less than 3.50, and we hope that this list inspires you to pick up some of them — we promise they’re better than the average rating suggests.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy
I cannot tell you why this book has a 3.08 rating on Goodreads. Maybe it’s because it’s slightly more risqué than the cover suggests? Regardless, the average is wrong. This is an immersive coming-of-age story with a mystery element set in 1970s India. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read: I could feel the humidity in the air during monsoon season as I turned the pages. It’s also about Charu discovering who she is outside of her sheltered upbringing. This has a bisexual main character and a love triangle, there’s a murder to solve, but it’s mostly about Charu figuring out who she is.
– Danika Ellis
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
I understand how this ended up with a 3.19 average rating, because it really challenges the reader. It’s a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, told from a huge range of perspectives. The constant point of view changes can be abrupt, but taken together, they offer the most multifaceted view of a story that I’ve ever experienced. It spans decades and continents, tackles difficult and complex topics, and does it all with a huge cast. It’s not an easy or quick read, but it was one of the few books that I’ve read that has left such a long-lasting impression. Also, this has several queer women POV characters, and the deeply flawed relationship between two of them is very compelling.
– Danika Ellis
A Hundred Other Girls by Iman Hariri-Kia
Noora is a blogger who has always dreamed of writing for Vinyl magazine. When she’s offered the job of assistant to its legendary editor-in-chief, it seems like her big shot. But it turns out her new boss is out of touch and a disaster to work with. I thought this contemporary novel with The Devil Wears Prada vibes was a clever and fun romp through the world of lifestyle magazines. So imagine my surprise to find readers gleefully ripping it to shreds on Goodreads, where it has a dreary 2.98 average rating. From a scroll through the reviews, it appears the leading complaint is that the book includes too many pop culture references/trends. This is an emerging popular pet peeve — a trend, you might say — that has become my pet peeve of pet peeves. ALL stories exist at some moment in time, whether it’s the present, past, future, or an alternate reality, and I personally appreciate how language and cultural references can situate the reader in that time. And in a book about a lifestyle magazine that’s falling behind the times, doesn’t it make sense that the characters would be overly concerned with trends? Anyway, it got a resounding 5-stars from me.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
I adore haunted house novels, so I knew before I picked up Nothing But Blackened Teeth that it would be right up my alley! This novella follows a group of friends who decide to use a Heian-era mansion in Japan as their wedding venue. Of course, the place turns out to be haunted and plenty of spirits from Japanese folklore show up. I loved reading this story, which is why I genuinely can’t fathom why it has a 2.71 average rating on Goodreads! I scrolled through the reviews to see why people disliked it, and it looks like the unlikable cast of characters and the descriptive imagery weren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people didn’t really consider it horror either, but I think that’s a problem with the platform’s categorization system. Not all haunted house stories have to be horror — which is the main genre displayed for this novella. Either way, this one was a win for me!
Never Name the Dead (Mud Sawpole #1) by D.M. Rowell
This mystery-thriller follows Mae “Mud” Sawpole, a queer Kiowa woman who returns home amidst significant community tensions only to find her grandfather accused of murder. It has tight pacing and dialogue, the type of book that’s easy to read in a few sittings just because you want to know what happens next. I’m not sure why it has a 3.49 on Goodreads. It deserves much higher, and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.
I can tell you exactly why this essay collection is teetering at the 3.49 Goodreads rating: it looks like a fun pop history nonfiction book, but instead it’s a rather confessional memoir in essays. People are mad at the bait and switch, and I get it. But if you know that the “tacky” culture this book explores is a launching pad for personal essays, you’ll be primed for work that’s generous, funny, and often deeply heartfelt. The piece about the author watching Jersey Shore with her dad is especially memorable. I will say, though, that her ode to Creed did not engender any fondness in me for that particular band. Read this one and then head directly to the Cheesecake Factory for some of that brown bread.
– Isabelle Popp
No Onions Nor Garlic by Srividya Natarajan
This is one of the best books I have ever read, and it deserves much more than the 209 reviews and 3.40 average rating that it has on Goodreads. I have recommended it to a lot of my friends and family, and most have loved it as much as I did. It is a funny romp that does not hold back in its relentless ridicule of the casteism and sexism in a university campus in Chennai, and the social life of the city in general. The biting satire seems to have been too much for some readers to stomach, and it stands in uncomfortable contrast to the homogenous, Brahminical representation of Indian culture that Western readers may have come to expect. But this book is a must read, an entertaining but incisive lens to modern Indian society still grappling with caste-based discrimination.
A Death in Shonagachhi by Rijula Das
This book is a brilliant literary noir set in the red-light district of Shonagachhi in Kolkata. It is a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the lives of the women who live there, a narrative that allows them agency, and celebrates their courage and resilience, without glossing over or romanticizing the complicated and difficult realities of their lives. There is a mystery woven through the book, but the focus is on the various convoluted structures involved, instead of a satisfying resolution a la murder mysteries. The writing is incredibly atmospheric — this book has one of the most exquisite depictions of the grime and splendor of Kolkata in contemporary English writing. The underwhelming 3.43 average rating on Goodreads probably is mostly because readers judge the book by its title, and go into it expecting a neat little murder mystery.
Memory of Light by Ruth Vanita
The grandeur of the setting of this book — the world of courtesans, poets, and performers in 18th century Lucknow — sits in beautiful contrast with the quietness of the central love story between Nafis Bai and Chapla Bai. A queer slice of life story that embraces both the happy and the melancholy, in a setting that is not common in anglophone fiction, this book deserves more readers and an average rating higher than the 3.47 it currently has on Goodreads.
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
This Book Riot favorite has only a 3.06 average rating on Goodreads. Inspired by the gingerbread house of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” Oyeyemi spins a tale about a family from a far-off land with a mysterious gingerbread recipe that is passed on from one generation to the next. The language in this book is beautiful, and it effectively evokes the deliciously dark undercurrent of fairy tales while exploring themes like family and class.
The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
The early medical history of malaria, a cult, science fictional elements, and a dash of (possibly) supernatural horror come together in this book to make a gripping, fast -paced read. The writing is so skillful that I felt genuinely unsettled at all the creepy bits. The book doesn’t provide unambiguous resolutions for all the questions that it raises in the mind of its reader — something that a lot of reviewers were unhappy with. But this, in my opinion, contributes to the delightfully atmospheric, slightly claustrophobic reading experience, which is why it deserves higher than its 3.48 average rating on Goodreads.
The City Inside by Samit Basu
I went into this book knowing that it was a near future dystopia set in Delhi, but I was still surprised by how close to home it hit. The book perfectly articulates the foreboding in the current political and social climate of India specifically, and yet also highlights the importance of resistance. I have loved Basu’s earlier works, and though this one is a few shades bleaker than the GameWorld trilogy or Resistance and its sequel, the world building is as fascinating — and the 3.30 average Goodreads rating does not do it justice.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
This is a novel that features a family that runs an alligator wrestling theme park in the swamps off the coast of Florida, a character who has fallen in love with a ghost, and high-stakes inter-amusement park rivalry. It is also a coming-of-age novel, and the contrast between the pensive or melancholy turns that the mood of the story takes makes for interesting contrast with the wackiness of the setting. The writing is beautiful as well — no wonder a lot of readers, me included, do not agree with its 3.27 average rating on Goodreads.
Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James
The first book in the Dark Star trilogy by Marlon James is rated a very average 3.44 on Goodreads. While definitely not an easy read, it makes for an exquisite, unique reading experience if you stay with it. The fantasy world in this book is rooted in African history and mythology. The narrative does not unfold in a linear fashion like traditional fantasy, but is a serpentine epic inspired by oral storytelling traditions. The book takes some really dark turns though — trigger warnings for violence, including violence against women and children, and sexual assault.
Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
I do not know why this entertaining romp of a book only has an average rating of 3.43 on Goodreads. It takes all the tropes of epic fantasy and gives them hilarious twists. We have a chosen one who is a farm boy, a bard who is part bunny, a warrior uninterested in violence, and a talking goat. With puns aplenty, this is a fun ride that deserves more appreciation.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s second work of fiction is rated 3.53 on Goodreads — just surpassing the 3.49 threshold that I set myself for this post. It still annoys me to no end that a book so brilliant from an author so celebrated for her first novel, The God of Small Things, has such lackluster reception on Goodreads. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, through the lives of a diverse cast of characters, Roy weaves together a tapestry of modern India. She writes about causes close to her heart, and unabashed passion makes for beautiful prose that earned this book a permanent place in my personal best of all time list.
Want more under-the-radar books? Check out our round ups of the best books you have never heard of.