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Eight Author Discoveries of 2020

Throughout this strange year, I have tried, on and off, to read books by authors I hadn’t picked up before.  Sometimes these authors were on my radar but I had been unable to find their books through my usual channels; at other times, I chose to pick up one of their books on a whim, whilst browsing in the library or on Netgalley.  I have undoubtedly read work by more than eight new-to-me authors throughout this year, but this post is comprised of those who have really stood out to me for one reason or another.

 

1. Elly Griffiths 2541526
I had seen quite a few people reading Griffiths’ books on Netgalley, but I tend to be put off by enormous series, which stretch to over ten or so books.  I have started different series in the past, but have rarely continued to the end; normally I lose patience with the characters, become disinterested in their stories, or just notice how many similarities there are from one book to another.  Of course, this is almost inevitable in a character-based series, and with a couple of notable exceptions – Miss Marple and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series – I tend to stop reading series after the first two or three books.

I have got through three of Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels to date, all of which I listened to on audio through my library’s app.  I was initially drawn to the premise – that of a Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist aiding the police whenever they discover a new body – and found the first two books rather engaging.  However, I made a mistake by listening to the third book directly after the second.  I would ordinarily have left myself a few weeks between books, but my library reserve came in, and I only had a limited amount of time to finish it.  Whilst the Ruth Galloway series may not be one which I finish – there are a lot of similarities between the second and third books, and the characters do not become any better developed, I felt – I really do enjoy Griffiths’ writing.  I am going to be hunting out her standalone novels next.

 

elizabeth_berridge_1547558f2. Elizabeth Berridge
I could hardly create such a list without including Elizabeth Berridge.  She has been on my radar for a number of years now, but I have never been able to find copies of her books when I have searched for them.  Thankfully, a couple of publishers are beginning to reprint her work, and I was able to find three further copies of her novels on the wonderful AbeBooks after reading, and loving, Across the Common, which I received for my birthday.

Berridge has been a wonderful discovery this year, and I am pleased to see that she is gaining a lot of recognition on other blogs too.  She writes wonderfully, and has such an understanding of her protagonists, many of whom are women verging on middle age, who have something to overcome before they can move forward.  Her books are always a treat, and I am going to try my best to pick up the rest of her oeuvre next year if I can manage it.

 

3. Jean Sprackland sprackland
Sprackland is a non-fiction author and poet, whose topics of choice really interest me.  I have only read These Silent Mansions to date, a musing on the English graveyards which have, in a way, shaped Sprackland’s life.  I will have a review of this up next year.  Her other non-fiction book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is high on my wishlist, obsessed as I am with the seaside.

I am also really interested in trying Sprackland’s poetry books in the near future.  Her prose in These Silent Mansions is gorgeous, and you can tell from the outset that she takes such care about her vocabulary, and the imagery which it shapes.

 

77793744. Robbie Arnott
Australian author Robbie Arnott is a real gem.  I had wanted to read his work for a year or so before I found a gorgeous hardback copy of Flames in my local library; it was every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  He uses magical realism to great effect, and his writing and characters feel so original.  I am so looking forward to picking up more of Arnott’s work in the near future, and hope that his other novel – The Rain Heron – and his short story collection will be published in the UK very soon.

 

5. Shirley Barrett 1024
Barrett is another Australian author, whose work I found out about on Savidge Reads’ YouTube channel.  Her work is strange and fantastical, but I was hooked throughout both The Bus on Thursday and Rush-Oh!, which I reviewed back in October.  The novels could not be more different on the face of it – the former is a contemporary novel which charts the journey of a schoolteacher to a remote part of Australia, and the latter is historical fiction which focuses on whale hunting – but both are so exciting.  I could not put either novel down, and can only hope that more of her work will be made easily available to me soon.

 

duncan20barrett20author20photo6. Duncan Barrett
Barrett is a non-fiction author, whose book, When the Germans Came, I found masterful.  I have always been so interested in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, and this is by far the best book which I have ever read on the topic.  Barrett follows many different residents of the island throughout, revealing their hopes and dreams and, quite often, their bravery.  His prose is engaging, and never does the book feel too crowded with different people; rather, it is accessible, and really does the subject justice.

Thankfully, Barrett is rather a prolific author.  Whilst I probably won’t be picking up his ‘GI Brides’ series of novels any time soon (or ever…), he has written a few more non-fiction books which look fascinating, ranging from the post office workers throughout the Second World War, to true stories of the women who really made a difference during this period.

 

7. Jo Baker 3796
Baker is a writer of historical fiction and, being one of my favourite genres, I have always meant to pick up her books.  I requested her newest book, The Body Lies, from Netgalley, and settled down to read it in January.  Whilst it does not fit the genre of historical fiction, and is more of a contemporary literary thriller, I was invested in the main character from beginning to end.

Baker writes beautifully, particularly with regard to the landscape and physical settings, and she handled every element of the story in The Body Lies with grace and deftness.  I have my eye on her historical fiction next; of particular interest to me are A Country Road, A Tree which is set during the Second World War, and family saga The Undertow.

 

pamela_hansford_johnson_as_a_young_woman8. Pamela Hansford Johnson
Last but not least, Hansford Johnson has been a wonderful discovery this year.  I have settled down with a couple of her novels – An Impossible Marriage (1954) and The Holiday Friend (1972) – and posted full reviews for them both.  Hansford Johnson wrote wonderful literary thrillers, which are enthralling from beginning to end.  She has such insight, and her characters feel so realistic.  Both of these novels could be termed domestic noir, and I cannot wait to dive into the remainder of her oeuvre, which is thankfully quite extensive.

 

Which are your favourite new author discoveries of 2020?

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‘The Story of Stanley Brent’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

Elizabeth Berridge has undoubtedly been my author discovery of the year, and it is wonderful to see that she is having something of a resurgence across the book blogging world.  I was most excited when I was offered the chance to read her first ever published work, a novella entitled The Story of Stanley Brent, which has been reissued by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer.  I read it directly after another of her novels, Sing Me Who You Are, which I very much enjoyed.

54568079First published in 1945, The Story of Stanley Brent sounds, on the face of it, rather enchanting.  Its blurb begins: ‘Ada Boucher and Stanley Brent are young things at the time of boaters, parasols, champagne and trippers on the Thames.’  The novella captures a surprising amount, as it charts both their relationship and subsequent marriage, as well as their careers, and runs to the end of Stanley’s life.  In compressing the story of an entire life into a very small space, without rushing or omitting huge chunks, Berridge achieves something wonderful; as Walmer himself comments on the book’s blurb, she ‘navigates a path which speaks volumes.’

At the outset of the story, Ada is working as an apprentice, and Stanley as a land-broker’s assistant.  Although their relationship at first seems relatively happy, Berridge gives hints that something is not quite right.    Ada and Stanley’s courtship, and then their marriage, is ‘flushed through with naïve romance – he is bowled over by her raven-haired beauty, she by his humour and goodness.’  On their honeymoon, Ada discovers that ‘their greatest challenges may be compromise and really getting to know each other.’

I was fully invested in The Story of Stanley Brent from the start.  I found its opening sentence – ‘Stanley Brent formally proposed to Ada in nineteen-hundred and seven, on the landing of her aunt’s house at Paddington’ –  both informative and quite charming, and the same can certainly be said for the rest of Berridge’s wonderfully astute prose.

One of the elements which Berridge excels at is in capturing the relationships between people in all of their glory, as well as in the face of mounting despair.  There is such attention to detail which can be found throughout the novella.  During a storm, for instance, in which Ada and her friends form a party of six, Berridge comments, in rather lovely sing-song alliteration: ‘The men joined them on the bank, bearing the wet wicker picnic hampers on slippery straps.’

Berridge reveals her protagonists bit by bit.  Just before Stanley proposes, for instance, we are given a glimpse into the couple’s physical bearing: ‘Stanley seized her shoulders.  She was the same height but pliable, well-boned.’  Berridge taps wonderfully into the emotions and devotions of Stanley and Ada, and is shrewd and unflinching as she does so.

The Story of Stanley Brent is not entirely serious.  There are moments of humour peppered throughout.  In the same aforementioned storm scene, Ada considers whether she and her friends could run through the rain to her aunt’s nearby house; she thinks: ‘And surely Stan wouldn’t think Aunt Mildred’s skin disease ran in the family?…  Worry, she had said.  Worry and thin blood had been the cause.’  Later, Ada concludes: ‘She didn’t want her family to sound queer.  Even though Aunt Mildred was a distant sort of relation.’

As well as humorous, Berridge can also be rather a sharp narrator at times.  She does not shy away from anything, and the subjects which she focuses upon seem rather modern, given that this novella was published in the mid-1940s.  In her frank prose, she writes: ‘But when they returned from the honeymoon Ada was still a virgin.  There had been a frightening, confused scene in the gilt and crimson hotel bedroom overlooking the sea, which had finished with Ada weeping fitfully, alone in the big double bed – aware for the first time that terrible, upsetting things lay perilously near the surface of life.’  She also focuses upon Stanley’s interpretation of this experience, commenting: ‘This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself.  He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging.  He had never felt so helpless.’

As with Berridge’s other work, atmosphere is so important within The Story of Stanley Brent.  Ada’s home life, for instance, held an ‘uneasy atmosphere that lay, persistent and indefinable, within the tall narrow house.  [Stanley] would often think about it as he walked up the long road that seemed to bear such extremes of weather in its length.’

The Story of Stanley Brent is certainly a slim story, running to just 75 pages in this edition.  However, it has a great deal to say, both about the individual and the family unit.  Berridge makes comments upon society throughout, and the whole is well grounded within its historical context.  For such a short piece, Berridge provides a wonderful commentary on how a relationship can develop over time.  There is a lot of depth here, and the character development is both believable and insightful.  The nuanced prose has been split into short sections, a structure which works well given the length of the piece.  Even in this, her first story, Berridge is a confident writer, and her writing style really suits this shorter form.

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‘Touch and Go’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

I waxed lyrical about the first of Elizabeth Berridge’s novels which I read, Across the Common.  On the basis of reading the wonderful and absorbing novel, which I reviewed two weeks ago, I broke my year-long book-buying ban in order to pick up three more paperback editions of other Berridge books.  Touch and Go is a far later work, first published in 1995, and marked her return to novel writing after more than a decade.

The protagonist of Touch and Go is a woman in her late thirties named Emma Rowlands, who has just gone 81n6vihziilthrough quite a nasty divorce.  She has returned to the quaint Welsh village in which she spent her childhood, taking with her ‘no more than some favourite pieces of china, books, flowers, and her small pregnant cat.’  She has left behind her broken marriage, a flat in London, and a teenage daughter, who has fled to India to escape her parents’ constant arguments.  She has come into the inheritance of the old doctor’s surgery and house in the village, and is both nervous and excited to build a new future for herself.

Touch and Go begins in the ‘middle of October, with dusk curtaining the hills’.  As soon as she arrives, Emma begins to notice changes within the village ‘that marked her as a stranger and mad to come back.’  The house which she has returned for, Domen Gastell, is ‘solid, red and four-square on top of the hill’.  In her initial darkness-tinted exploration of her new abode, Berridge gives a series of wonderfully vivid descriptions: ‘She stalked over to see what kind of view there was from the long window, kneeling on a wide window-seat to look out into the damp, dark scenery of the garden beyond the bushes.’

Throughout, Berridge provides such a realistic portrayal of Emma, and her myriad feelings.  On her first full day, for instance, Emma ‘felt a painful excitement; an almost uncontrollable pleasure which gave her a headache; a giant fear that all this would be snatched away.’  One quickly gets a feel for how much the house, and the fresh start, means to her: ‘Emma was flushed with exploration, dizzy with ownership.’

Rather than her life in progressive London, Emma finds a community which holds onto its traditional values.  As her time in Wales goes on, Emma meets many figures from her past – a slightly disgruntled housekeeper who seems to come with the inheritance of the house, and a rather bossy childhood friend named Debby, for instance, who quickly makes her wonder about her place in the friendship: ‘Should she allow Debby to take over?  For years she had allowed her husband to do just that and was only now piecing together her own previous identity.’

Berridge creates wonderful atmosphere in Touch and Go.  In one of my favourite passages from the book, she writes: ‘The house was very silent and she was held in a strange immobility, as if she were in the middle of a web, and the threads of other people’s lives dense around her.’

Where Berridge’s real strength lies here is in the differences she outlines between the generations.  Emma’s mother Adela, for instance, is chiefly concerned with appearances.  When we first meet her, Adela, who has not seen Emma for quite some time, has these initial thoughts: ‘Had she put on weight and was the colour in her cheeks the beginning of weathering?  Could she warn her about broken veins?…  She hoped that Emma was not letting herself go; at her age she could surely marry again.’  This proves a marked contrast to the attitude of Emma’s daughter, Charlotte: ‘Evidently Emma’s move, exhausting and traumatic to her, meant little to her daughter, caught up as she was with exhilarating new experiences: jewels and saris…  a whole dazzling continent to discover.’

Touch and Go is a very readable novel, but I must admit that I did not feel as absorbed by it as I did with Across the Common.  The secondary characters in this novel were not as vivid to me, and until close to the end, there is not a great deal of plot.  A lot of the narrative in Touch and Go, too, is taken up with conversations between Emma and various friends and neighbours, almost all of whom reminisce about her parents.  There are some very tender and memorable moments within it, though.  It reminded me somewhat of Dodie Smith’s familial sagas, novels which I really enjoy.

Berridge has been getting somewhat more recognition over recent months, which is wonderful to see.  I only hope that publishers follow suit and reissue all of her novels in the very near future.  I can certainly see that Berridge will become one of my favourite authors, and feel as though I have a great deal of literary treats in store as I make my way through her oeuvre.

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‘Across the Common’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

I received a delightful Abacus paperback copy of Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common as a birthday gift.  As I have been keen for quite some years now to try Berridge’s work, I began it within the week, and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.  Noel Coward described it perfectly when he wrote that the novel is ‘… entirely good and most beautifully written.  I love her subtlety and observation and impeccable characterisation…’.  Me too, Noel.  Me too.

54013540._sy475_Although she seems to have fallen into something akin to disregard in the twenty-first century, Berridge’s ‘crisp and distinctly English style of writing established her as one of the most significant novelists of the post-war years.’

Originally published in 1964, Across the Common takes as its focus Louise, who has decided to leave her husband.  She opens by saying: ‘I know it was finished, as I finished it myself…  I cooked ahead for three days, took a purple pill and under its influence was able to write some sort of crazy note. He didn’t know I had those pills: he thought I was too stable to need them.’

Louise returns to her childhood home, The Hollies, a large rambling building which stands at the edge of a common in the fictional town of Pagham Green.  The Hollies is ‘tall and big and excelled in useless crenellations’.  The house has, over the years, become ‘a refuge for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’ – specifically, acidic and judgemental Seraphina, who steals cuttings of plants from royal parks to grow them in her own garden; Rosa, the eldest, and therefore the one who makes all of the decisions; and ‘tiny and malevolent’ Cissie.  When Louise arrives, without having notified anyone, she finds her ‘aunts stood at either side of the front door, without surprise, and embraced me in the intense, dry way of the elderly.’  The house has become a space exclusively devoted to women; the family has, over the years, ‘shed its men’.

Along with Louise’s present day story, and the turmoil which she feels to be back in her old home, run many memories of her early life.  These memories, all of which have been woven into the narrative, have a delightful flavour to them.  She is acutely aware of all of the differences, of all of the things which have changed since she began her independent life.  On her first morning, when she walks into the local high street, she observes: ‘I moved along the row of shops like a dreamer in a largely alien landscape.  Certain things were familiar, familiar enough to lull the dreamer into a sense of false security, so that she does not wake up screaming.’

I found Berridge’s acerbic humour both welcome and amusing, and felt that it suited the tone and the plot perfectly.  I very much enjoyed Louise’s witty asides and muttered comments.  She pronounces, for instance, that ‘Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist.  She dried up my juices.’

Louise comes to life on the page; she is complex, and feels thoroughly realistic.  Her narrative voice is lively and endearing.  I enjoyed the rather eccentric cast of characters, and found myself invested in their stories.  We as readers are given a lens into the life of a family, meeting both those who exist in Louise’s present, and those whom she never met, or knew only slightly.

Across the Common is essentially a domestic novel; in reality, it is so much more than that.  There are a lot of quite ordinary scenes at play within it – for example, when Louise is tended to by the ageing housekeeper, or the aunts looking through vast collections of family photographs which have been found in the attic – but Berridge makes each one into something compelling.  She manages, somehow, to give different perspectives on the most mundane of occurrences.  Berridge’s writing is exquisite, as is her attention to detail.

On the strength of Across the Common, I broke my longstanding book-buying ban to buy three more of Berridge’s novels, and I am wholly looking forward to reading them.  Already, I can see that she could easily become one of my favourite authors.