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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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‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie ****

Kathleen Jamie is an author I can always rely on if I want to read something contemplative about nature. Jamie, who is based in Scotland, is both a poet and essayist, and I have thoroughly enjoyed her collections in the past. Surfacing is her newest effort, published in 2019. Diana Athill summed it up wonderfully when she commented: ‘It is not often that the prose of a poet is as powerful as her verse, but Jamie’s is.’

As I expected, having read several of her collections to date, Surfacing is heavily involved with the natural world. In these twelve individual essays, some of which have recurring themes, Jamie discusses archaeology, notions of discovery, climate change, her parents and their influence, and wildlife, amongst others. Each essay is interspersed with photographs and illustrations, many of which I believe Jamie took herself.

The essays in Surfacing move between Scotland, Alaska, and Jamie’s memory. It is a visceral collection, arranged non-chronologically. Here, Jamie has visited ‘archaeological sites and mines her own memories… to explore what surfaces and what reconnects us to our past.’ The majority of the essays here were written at pivotal points in Jamie’s life, from when she was caught up in brutal protests in China in the late 1980s, and banned from leaving the country, to stages at which her father passes away, and her children grow up and leave home. This collection promises to examine ‘a profound sense of time passing and an antidote to all that is instant, ephemeral, unrooted.’

Some of the essays in Surfacing are very brief, and I was left wanting more. This is not a criticism of what Jamie has written; rather, it is a testament to her prose, and the way in which I wanted to read more from her perspective. It is in the longer pieces in which Jamie’s work sings. I particularly enjoyed reading the essays about archaeological digs; so many of the details within them were fascinating to me as a reader.

My favourite piece was ‘In Quinhagak’, a small settlement in Alaska which has been dated to at least AD 1000. Jamie travels to assist on an archaeological dig, in a secluded town of around 700 people, where the maps ‘show no roads, just green scribbly waterways and melt-pools.’ I always admire the way in which the author captures scenery and details. As Jamie is taken to the town on a very small plane, she observes: ‘… immediately we were soaring over miles of emerald green and moss green, yellowish patches with coppery tints… At seven hundred feet we were low enough to see a line of moose tracks traversing a mudbank. Two white dabs were tundra swans.’ In an essay entitled ‘The Eagle’, she writes: ‘It’s summer, a long July gloaming. The road I’m taking cuts through a rough glen. There are no houses on this stretch, only the thin road and a lochan of peat-coloured water. The hill on the left is a steep strew of bare rock and heather rising to a ridge which runs north for about a mile and a half; the hill on the right is lower. The whole glen, now I’ve stopped, has become a place of entrancing isolation.’

Jamie is sensitive to cultural differences, and to what it means for very specific elements of history to be returned to the living generations. At the dig in Alaska, in which the plan is to excavate a village which was abandoned around five hundred years previously, she comments: ‘The objects are out of the earth, back in the hands of people who call them into memory and know them, weigh them, test them, name them. Truly, they have come home.’

It is fair to say that Jamie’s prose is sometimes simplistic and rather matter-of-fact. This is something which I find surprising, given that she is a poet too. However, her prose style undoubtedly works well within these essays; it allows her to blend different genres of writing, from (auto)biography and history to travel and nature writing. She looks into neolithic history, as well as the histories bound up between her own family. I very much enjoyed the variations within these essays, which made Surfacing so easy to read from cover to cover. Of course, it would also be a great choice to dip and out of, and to savour.

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Snippet Reviews: Tempest, Jamie, and Hornby

I am a recent convert back to the lands of Goodreads, and thought I would share a couple of my shorter reviews on things which I have read recently.

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest *** 9781408857304
I was so very excited to begin this, adoring Tempest’s poetry as I do. I was expecting the language to be sweepingly gorgeous, and to evoke an awful lot of vivid pictures as the novel progressed. There were sections where the vocabulary startled or awed me, certainly, but others seemed so run-of-the-mill that there was an odd, almost jarring effect given to the whole.

The family dynamics presented here, and the way in which different lives overlap and intersect, are Tempest’s strength; she understands humans, and all of their many complexities. The plot is rather thin on the ground, though; we learn about the pasts of each character, but it is simply not compelling enough to carry the whole. Had the writing been better, I probably would have awarded this four stars.

 

9781509801718The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie ****
Each of these fifty-two poems presents a view of Scotland, written, as they were, once a week.  The scenes which Jamie depicts are startling and evocative; her poems are thoughtful, playful, gracious, and important. Jamie’s poetry is as beautifully measured as her prose.  The sense of history – both in a general and personal sense – here is stunning too, particularly when contrasted with Jamie’s present wanderings.

 

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby **
I picked this up solely because I have very much enjoyed the majority of Hornby’s books in the past (aside from Fever Pitch, which I didn’t even begin; please don’t alert my Arsenal-supporting boyfriend…). I wasn’t overly enamoured with the storyline before I began, as the 1960s and 1970s are eras of history which I don’t profess much interest in. The writing was flat, and the characters did not spring to life, as I remember almost all of Hornby’s previous creations doing.  9780241965221

My primary issue here is that a book which has been described as having ‘clever, funny dialogue’ (Nina Stibbe), ‘hilarious’ (The Huffington Post), and ‘deeply funny’ (The Stylist) feels so lacking in humour and depth. In my struggle through the novel, I did not come across even one witty repartee, or smirk-inducing sentence to share with you.

I must admit that I did not even read a quarter of this book; my lack of enjoyment up until that point, as well as the incredibly varied reviews – the majority of negative ones saying, as they did, that they didn’t enjoy it from the start – put me off completely. Sorry, Hornby, but this was not for me.

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Saturday Poem: ‘Glamourie’ by Kathleen Jamie

When I found I'd lost you –
not beside me, nor ahead,
nor right nor left not
your green jacket moving

between the trees anywhere,
I waited a long while
before wandering on: no wren
jinked in the undergrowth,

not a twig snapped.
It was hardly the Wildwood,
just some auld fairmer's
shelter belt, but red haws

reached out to me,
and between fallen leaves
pretty white flowers bloomed
late into their year. I tried

calling out, or think
I did, but your name
shrivelled on my tongue,
so instead I strolled on

through the wood's good
offices, and duly fell
to wondering if I hadn't
simply made it all up: you,

I mean, everything,
my entire life....either way,
nothing now could touch me
bar my hosts, who appeared

as diffuse golden light,
as tiny spiders
examining my hair....
what gratitude I felt then -

I might be gone for ages,
maybe seven years!
- and such sudden joie de vivre
that when a ditch gaped

right there instantly in front of me
I jumped it, blithe as a girl -
ach, I jumped clear over it,
without even pausing to think.
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‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie ****

Findings by Kathleen Jamie is a beautiful book, which I revisited for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.  Before initially reading it back in the early summer of last year, I had wanted to read Jamie’s work for such a long time.  I seized upon Findings when I found it in the library.

Throughout the volume, Jamie – both a poet and a self-confessed lover of nature – describes her travels in Scotland, demonstrating the power of the country’s landscapes upon her, and upon the wildlife which inhabits it.  Throughout, Jamie touches upon so many elements of nature – the use of darkness in respect to harbouring evils, Neolithic remains, the way in which technology has infiltrated even the oldest sites, whale watching, and the specimens inside Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall are just a few examples of the essays she has written here.

Findings, as I expected it to be, is absolutely fascinating, and the photographs throughout add so much to each essay.  It is a wonderful volume to take away on holiday, or to read in the comfort of your own home.  The thoughts which it provokes, and the awareness which the reader will give to their immediate surroundings for months afterwards, is just wonderful.

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Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (20th June 2014)

‘Findings’

Findings by Kathleen Jamie ****
1. I have wanted to read Kathleen Jamie’s work for such a long time.  She is both a poet and a nature writer, and I seized upon Findings when I found it in the library.  Throughout, Jamie describes her travels in Scotland, demonstrating the power of the country’s landscapes upon her, and upon the wildlife which inhabits it.
2. Throughout, Jamie touches upon so many elements of nature – the use of darkness in respect to harbouring evils, Neolithic remains, the way in which technology has infiltrated even the oldest sites, whale watching, and the specimens inside Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall are just a few examples of the essays she has written here.
3. Findings, as I expected it to be, is absolutely fascinating, and the photographs throughout add so much to each essay.

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The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch and Richard van Emden ***
1. My boyfriend’s grandparents gave me this book an age ago, and it only came out of my book choice jar last month.  Patch has passed away since The Last Fighting Tommy, but at the time of publication, he was 108 years old, and the only surviving veteran of the First World War.
2. The camaraderie which he describes throughout is touching, particularly in this, the centenary year of the beginning of the conflict.
3. I found some elements of it a little repetitive, but overall, a fascinating portrait of a very humble man has been presented with the utmost care and consideration.

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Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren **

‘Looking for Enid’

1. I love Blyton’s fiction, but I did not receive a favourable impression of the woman herself when I watched the BBC drama ‘Enid’ a few years ago.  I hoped that reading what I thought was a biography of her life would be enlightening, and would show me what Blyton was really like behind her kindly author facade.  This book, however, is not a straightforward author biography; instead, it charts McLaren’s journey in travelling to the houses in which Blyton lived and the places in which she holidayed.
2. I like the way in which McLaren states that Blyton’s work should still be read in adulthood, alongside such other authors as Proust and Waugh.
3. Much of the novel is told through dialogue exchanges between McLaren and his friend Kate, and he also (rather annoyingly) imagines that he is writing Blyton-esque books at intervals.  The use of both techniques made the whole feel a little woven and patchy.  I shall be picking up Barbara Stoney’s biography of Blyton at some point in the future, and hope that I enjoy it far more than I did the sadly disappointing Looking for Enid.

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