Sometimes, the flood of books surrounding us, as readers, can seem overwhelming. With the internet allowing anyone who wishes to self-publish, as well as the traditional publishing industry which, though under pressure, is still chugging away, and the sheer amount of books already published, in every language, it sometimes boggles my mind that so many books exist, and I will only ever read a tiny fraction of what’s out there.
Having said that, sometimes I look through my bookshelves (which are groaning, yes) and realise that even if for some reason books stopped being published tomorrow (what a nightmare!) I would have a collection of stories already amassed which would likely keep me entertained for the rest of my life. In preparing for this post I checked through some of my collection and found books I’d forgotten I owned, or ones I read so long ago that I could use a refresher, or ones which I love but which don’t seem to get talked about much anymore. Not every book can retain stellar status, of course: sometimes, really excellent books get published and for whatever reason fall beneath the flood. Hugely talented authors get ‘forgotten’, except among the people who love them.
This is a shame.
I adore Alan Garner, as anyone who knows me will be aware, but he’s an author whose (passionate, devoted) fanbase is small. I also love the work of Frances Hardinge, who – for some reason, unknown to me – is an author who is about one-fifth as well-known and widely read as she ought to be, but like Garner she attracts a passionate fanbase. It’s wonderful to have such a heartfelt following, but there are other authors whose work I love and who seem not to have the same sort of fanbase – so this post is for them.
Jenny Nimmo has been writing for young readers for years, and she is probably best known for her series about Charlie Bone, the Children of the Red King books. However, my favourite of her works is her magnificent Snow Spider Trilogy, which encompasses The Snow Spider, Emlyn’s Moon and The Chestnut Soldier, and which are masterworks of fantasy fiction. The stories introduce us to Gwyn Griffiths, a boy who is given five magical gifts on his ninth birthday, and who uses them to get to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to his sister Bethan, who disappeared when he was a younger child. Gwyn has magical lineage, being descended from the wizards of Welsh folklore, but his parents don’t hold any truck with nonsense like that – and so it’s up to Gwyn to prove to them that it’s the truth, as well as deal with newfound powers. I love these books for loads of reasons, Nimmo’s beautiful writing in the main but also their sensitive and delicate treatment of Welsh mythology and folklore (which, incidentally, is something she shares with another author, further down this list). Nimmo is still writing, and her work has been adapted for the stage, but for some reason she’s not talked about as much as I’d like. So, she’s top of my list of underappreciated masters. Check her out.
So, yeah. I have loads of reasons to love Kevin Crossley-Holland’s work, namely because as well as being a wonderful children’s author he’s also an Anglo-Saxonist who has lectured and taught for many years – so, he covers all the bases, for me. Only the other day I remarked to someone how often it happens that people who write for children are also medievalists – Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Crossley-Holland – or have an interest in medieval folklore or mythology. Clearly, if you have the sort of mind which appreciates the myths of medieval Europe, you’re onto a winner when it comes to imaginative literature. In any case, I’ve read Crossley-Holland’s creative and non-fiction work, and I love it all, but his trilogy of books about Arthur (later expanded with a fourth book), The Seeing-Stone, At the Crossing-Places, and King of the Middle March (with Gatty’s Tale being the latter book) are simply wonderful. They look at the life of a medieval boy named Arthur – but not the Arthur – who is growing up, becoming a knight in the usual fashion, and who has a magical seeing-stone which shows him the life of the other Arthur, hundreds of years before. In the seeing-stone, a piece of obsidian, he watches scenes unfolding which seem to him to mirror the challenges and stresses he is facing, and which his namesake – the glorious and legendary king – also faced. I adore these books; they’re beautiful. So, check him out, too.
Catherine Webb published her first book at the age of fourteen, and it was spectacular. Entitled Mirror Dreams, it was about a fantasy world wherein dreams – good ones and bad ones alike – exist within the Kingdoms of the Void. When the Lords of Nightkeep kill the king of Dreams, and people all over the world begin to fall asleep and not wake up, it is up to Laenan Kite – an inhabitant of Dream – to save the day. I couldn’t believe this book was written by such a young author; Webb’s command of language, dialogue and characterisation (not to mention the sheer scope of her plotting) left me flabbergasted. I adore her books about Horatio Lyle, too, a detective in a version of Victorian London who gets into all manner of scrapes with his two teenage sidekicks and his faithful dog, Tate. Webb has a gift for snarky, humorous dialogue and excellent interplay between characters, and I don’t feel her books get enough attention. She is currently writing under another name, and has achieved great success with that, but check out her early work, too. It’s marvellous.
I’ve mentioned Catherine Fisher on the blog before, I’m sure (and check out this Saturday’s book review, wherein she’ll be mentioned yet again!) but the reason for this is: she doesn’t get half the credit she deserves, in my opinion.
Catherine Fisher has written some of the most imaginative and thrilling stories I’ve ever read, and again she has a certain medieval-archaeological-historical feel to her work, which underpins but in no way overwhelms it. As well as Corbenic, above (of which more on Saturday), she has written the beautiful Snow-Walker Trilogy, the amazing Darkhenge, about the forces which can be unleashed when people unwittingly disturb things they shouldn’t, and the masterwork Incarceron, about a sentient prison, as well as many more. She has, in short, written so much that even an uber-fan like me hasn’t read all of it, but I really think she’s a writer who isn’t read widely enough or appreciated deeply enough. Her way with words, her soft touches of folklore, her use of Welsh mythology, her beautiful dialogue, her compassionate handling of relationships and the psychology behind her characters is second to none.
So. There you have it. Some of my ‘hidden gems’, which I hope you’ll check out (Christmas is coming, after all!), and perhaps, in time, you’ll be the one passionately spreading the word about these authors, and their work.
Are there any writers who, in your opinion, are underappreciated? I’d love to hear about them! On second thought, my bookshelves are looking a bit thin…