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Ten Underrated Authors

I always feel mildly surprised when I read a book which I love, but which barely anyone else seems to have picked up. Of course, there are so many books in the world, and thousands of new ones being published every year, that we can sadly never get around to picking up everything which interests us. There is a real shame though, in enjoying an author’s voice so much, and realising that others, who would surely love it too, haven’t discovered it yet.

I find examples of this often; there are so many authors who make my favourites list that draw a blank with the readers in my life. This spurred me on to create a list of ten authors, all of whom I think are underrated, and all of whom I would urge you to read. I have chosen what I feel would be a great starting point for each author, and really hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, to pick up something new.

Harriet Scott Chessman

Start with: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001)

I picked up Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in a secondhand bookshop. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but was captivated by its blurb. I took it home and, intrigued, began to read it the same day. I found myself pulled into the visually beautiful world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. Her sister, Lydia, posed for five of her most famous paintings, and the novella follows her primarily. Scott Chessman writes with such sensitivity about Lydia’s Bright’s Disease, which attacks her kidneys, and how she deals with the knowledge of her inevitable early death. Despite this, there is so much beauty in the book, and I still think about it often.

Julia Stuart

Start with: The Matchmaker of Périgord (2007)

I can’t remember when I first discovered Julia Stuart, but I have read each of her four novels to date with a great deal of delight. Although I would recommend all of them – and they are all rather different in what they set out to achieve – my absolute favourite has been The Matchmaker of Périgord. I am always drawn to novels about France, as any readers of this blog will surely know, and this novel, set in a southwestern corner of France, is just lovely. A barber, named Guillaume Ladoucette, is losing business, and decides instead to branch out into matchmaking. Along the way, he helps a great deal of unusual and quirky characters, and instills a great joy into his small village. I loved this amusing novel, and cannot wait to reread it.

Alice Jolly

Start with: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (2015)

I spotted this in my local library whilst I still lived in my hometown, and was drawn in by the book’s title. After reading the blurb, I added it to the staggering pile of tomes already in my arms, and took it home with me. What I found in the book’s pages was a great deal of sadness balanced with hope, all revealed in the most beautiful prose. The main events of this self-published memoir revolve around the stillbirth of Jolly’s second baby, and her consequent difficulties in conceiving, as well as a surrogacy journey. It will be relatable to a lot of people, and although it is quite often difficult to read, I savoured every word, and greatly admired Jolly’s bravery in telling her own story.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Start with: Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)

I must admit that Miss Plum and Miss Penny is the only book of Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s which I have read to date, but I feel that she will be an author whose work I adore. This novel, which tells of Miss Alison Penny, is amusing, a little silly, and rather charming. On the morning of her fortieth birthday, ‘spinster’ Miss Penny, who lives in a picturesque village, saves another woman – Miss Ada Plum – from drowning in the local duckpond. What follows took me by surprise at points, and kept my attention throughout. I must thank Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow for reprinting this one, as it may have passed me by otherwise!

Jo Baker

Start with: The Body Lies (2019)

I must admit that my absolute favourite of Jo Baker’s books is the beautiful historical novel The Picture Book, but The Body Lies is the first which I read, and one which I would highly recommend beginning with. I received a copy of the novel on Netgalley, and did not quite know what to expect, but what I found was a compelling and clever literary thriller. A writer moves to the countryside of the north of England, along with her young child, to work at a university; this is supposed to be a fresh start for her. Baker writes with such intelligence about sexual politics, and has created a deeply unsettling, and highly satisfying novel.

Joanna Cannan

Start with: Princes in the Land (1938)

The Persephone fans among you have probably heard of Joanna Cannan, a rather prolific writer who published over many different genres, from crime fiction to pony stories, and sister of the quite wonderful poet May Wedderburn Cannan. I was pulled into her novella, Princes in the Land, from the very first. We follow Patricia, who is lamenting about her children growing up and leaving home, and wondering where it leaves her in the world. Other reviewers have called this depressing, and I suppose it is to an extent, given its focus, but I thought it was beautifully written, and a very thoughtful piece.

Jesse Ball

Start with: Census (2018)

I try, as best I can, to keep up with contemporary American literature; I love it so much. It is often difficult to pick out authors whom I want to read immediately, but something about Jesse Ball caused me to scour my local library catalogues, and even to contemplate whether it would be worth ordering some of his books from the States, as they are often quite difficult to procure in the UK. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of his novels to date, and admire them for their unusualness. I would highly recommend starting, as I did, with the incredibly beautiful Census, which charts a relationship between a father and his son in a strange, changing world. You can read my full review here if you would like to.

Vendela Vida

Start with: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)

I have been lucky enough to read all of Vendela Vida’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. She writes about highly believable characters in such beautiful language. One of the real strengths of her books is the way in which she sets the scene; she is like a painter, unfolding what she sees in front of the reader. This particular novel follows Clarissa, a twenty eight-year-old woman, who finds out after her father’s death that he was not really her father at all. This leads her on a journey to Lapland, to discover her origins. There is so much to love in this story, and love it I did.

Jessie Greengrass

Start with: Sight (2018)

Jessie Greengrass has released two novels and a short story collection to date, and all of them have really appealed to me. She focuses on different things, and each of her books is really very different, but Greengrass’ writing is something which has kept me coming back. Her first novel, Sight, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, revolves around three females from the same family, and their relationships with one another. There are moments of such beauty and clarity here, and it is definitely a novel which I will reread in future. You can find my full review of Sight here.

Kathleen Jamie

Start with: Findings (2005)

Kathleen Jamie is both a poet and nature writer, but it is through the latter that I first discovered her work. Published by the excellent Sort Of Books, one of my favourite houses, Jamie spends her time in Findings ‘simply stepping out to look’ at what is around her. There is much about the beautiful countryside of Scotland, a country which I lived in for three years, and the nature which she is lucky enough to see here. Findings is filled with exquisite prose, and it really gives one a feel for the main themes in her work, and her way with words.

Please let me know if you’re going to pick up any books by these authors, and also which your favourite underrated authors are!

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Books to Read in One Sitting

I quite often read relatively slim tomes, without writing down enough thoughts in my notebook to type up a full review. I have collected together ten such books which I have very much enjoyed, and which are fitting to read in a single sitting.

1. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett (50 pages)

‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’

2. Someone Not Really Her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman (162 pages)

‘In this graceful and compassionate fiction, three generations of mothers and daughters in the McCarthy family face the challenges of Alzheimer’s. This story offers unusual insight into the consciousness of Hannah Pearl, who lives her daily life with courage and generosity in spite of her confusion. Although her daughter and granddaughters attempt to help her stay in the present of her Connecticut shoreline town, Hannah increasingly inhabits the world of her ardent youth in war-torn France and England. As Miranda McCarthy and her daughters Fiona and Ida walk on tiptoe around Hannah’s secrets, it is the reader who discovers and illuminates all the pieces of this intelligent and dream-like puzzle.’

3. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (176 pages)

‘A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change. This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.’

4. The Part-Time Job by P.D. James (46 pages)

‘Follow the ‘Queen of Crime’ as she takes us into the mind of a man who has waited decades to enact his patient, ingenious revenge on a school bully.’

Also included in The Part-Time Job is a highly enjoyable essay entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, which I feel the book is worth picking up for alone.

5. The Shortest Day by Colm Tóibín (31 pages)

In Ireland, a man of reason is drawn to a true mystery older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge in this enthralling story about ethereal secrets by New York Times bestselling author Colm Tóibín.

During the winter solstice, on the shortest day and longest night of the year, the ancient burial chamber at Newgrange is empowered. Its mystifying source is a haunting tale told by locals.

Professor O’Kelly believes an archaeologist’s job is to make known only what can be proved. He is undeterred by ghost stories, idle speculation, and caution. Much to the chagrin of the living souls in County Meath. As well as those entombed in the sacred darkness of Newgrange itself. They’re determined to protect the secret of the light, guarded for more than five thousand years. And they know O’Kelly is coming for it.’

6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (112 pages)

‘”Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: ‘Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'”

Willa Cather’s protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.’

7. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton (112 pages)

‘Glancing by chance at an advertisement in the Spectator, Stephen Glennard perceives a way to escape the downward spiral his career has taken, begin a new life for himself, and win the hand of the beautiful Alexa Trent. It would seem he has one highly sought-after possession: the letters written to him by the eminent and now deceased author, Margaret Aubyn. All he need do is silence his uneasy conscience and sell the letters for publication.

As the publicity frenzy around its publication heightens, the Aubyn Letters becomes the latest hot topic among the glamorous and money-driven society that Glennard’s wealth now gives him entrée to. And the source of greatest fascination is the identity of the man whom Aubyn so adored but who has betrayed her so irrevocably. Glennard, resolute in his silence, can only watch in dismay as, from the grave, Aubyn begins to exert a powerful and unmistakable influence over him.

Exploring the dual themes of money and moral compromise, The Touchstone is an early and extremely accomplished work, foreshadowing many of Wharton’s greatest novels.’

8. Summerwater by Sarah Moss (208 pages)

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

9. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (112 pages)

‘When Olivia turns sixteen she is sent to a Parisian finishing school to broaden her education. Soon after her arrival, she finds herself falling under the spell of her beautiful and charismatic teacher. But Madamoiselle Julie’s life is not as straightforward as Olivia imagines and the school year is destined to end abruptly in tragedy.’

10. The Fruit of My Woman by Han Kang (28 pages)

The Fruit of My Woman is about a woman born in an impoverished fishing village. She wants to go to the ends of the earth on her own but, believing that marriage is ultimately one of the best ways to face the world, she ends up settling down with her husband. They gradually lose their attachment and affection towards each other. Aside from the communication problem, the woman’s wish of running away from her husband to a remote place fails to come true. She then imagines herself as a plant soaring through the veranda ceiling of her house up to the roof top. Through this outstanding story, the writer shows that people have a strong will to escape from the mental fatigue and hopelessness of modern life.’

Are you tempted by any of these books? Which are your favourite books to read in one sitting?