Saturday, December 29, 2018

THE FURROWED MIDDLEBROW DOZEN 2018

(If all goes according to plan, this post will appear while Andy and I are gearing up for New Year's celebrations with his family in the Philippines. Hope you all have a festive holiday, and good health and happiness to us all in 2019!)

I've been blogging now for almost six years (which I find mindboggling). But the advantage to all that time spent geeking out and obsessing over obscure women writers is that I've now been able to get quite scientific about it all, which I'd like to think is why this has been my single happiest year of literary archaeology ever.

I think I've mentioned before the database I use to keep track of the authors and books I come across. I created it back in grad school, to keep track of notes on reading for classes and to flag things I needed to remember or still needed to follow up. That phase having ended, I adapted the database to a sortable and searchable storehouse for information on the books and authors that interested me—which, as you know, has become quite an inclusive category. It has evolved over the years since and grown more complex.

As it stands, the database includes a dizzying 6,155 authors in all. These include the 1,966 women writers of fiction on my British women writers list (complete with their entries from my list and flags for things that need to be updated—very much an overdue process at this point—as well as biographical info, research, and entries for each work they published), 521 authors who are or will (theoretically) be included on my incomplete and woefully stagnant American women writers list, 68 authors I need to consider more closely for possible inclusion on those lists, and 921 "peripheral" authors—authors who were writing during or around my time period (1910-1960), but who don't qualify for my lists (fiction writers who stopped publishing in 1908, for example, male novelists of the period, women who wrote only memoirs, etc.).

I also use the database to keep track of other kinds of book related things, not just related to the blog, so the other 2500+ authors include non-fiction authors, most of the "classic" authors, older or newer authors than those covered by my blog (ranging from Chaucer to Sarah Perry), random authors I've read (I also use the database to keep track of all the books I've read since May of 1986—I passed the 3,000th title on that list not long ago), contemporary authors I have some interest in, and, last but certainly not least, authors by whom I own one or more books (I use the database to keep track of my library—both electronic and physical books).

Oh yes! I am certainly obsessive. But that's not all (or even, really, the point as far as this post goes).

I also use the database to keep tabs on my ever-expanding TBR list. I have no less than three blog-related checkboxes by which I can flag different levels of interest in tracking down and reading a book, and there's also a non-blog-related list for books I want to get round to that have nothing to do with the blog (like the Louise Penny books, or, say, Andre Gide or William Faulkner). For most of these books, I've already poked around to see how available they are from libraries and/or how affordable they are to buy, and I keep that information in the database as well.

This year, I decided to take matters further and export the titles from all four of my reading lists into an Excel spreadsheet. Which allowed me to color code it (no, I'm not kidding) and prioritize it more precisely, in order to make library visits and interlibrary loan requests more efficient, and to set up strategic Abe Books "wants" as needed. Knowing which books I can or can't get from a library allows me to focus my shopping attentions and resources on the hardest-to-find titles.

The fact that this spreadsheet contains over 2,000 individual books I'd like to read might give me a pause, given that I've read, as mentioned above, just over 3,000 books since 1986. But obsessions are not, practical, and readers are the most optimistic of souls when it comes to estimating what they'll have time to read!

Regardless of its delusional elements, though, it's this more efficient way of obsessing that, I choose to believe, allowed me to have such a good reading year. I have to believe this, as I'd hate to think all this obsessiveness was just a waste of time.

It was a terrible challenge whittling this year's favorites down to 12 (and I even cheated slightly, as you'll see). How on earth could my list not include any of the obscure STELLA GIBBONS novels I read and loved early this year? Nor any of the page-turning domestic dramas of GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, which I've been reading and will be writing more about here in the future (I wrote about the first here, but I'm now through three more of her lovely books and very much a fan)?

Other also-rans this year include DAISY NEUMANN's quite lovely Now That April's There, which I reviewed here, MAVIS DORIEL HAY's frolic of a mystery Murder Underground, ELFRIDA VIPONT's Dowbiggins trilogy, which I never got round to reviewing (fun but not up to her Lark series), GERALDINE SYMONS's intriguing novel of childhood The Suckling (see here), and STELLA TENNYSON JESSE's delightful travel-themed Eve in Egypt (see here). All perfectly worthy of inclusion in an ordinary year.

Among books that don't fall within the scope of this blog, I want to mention CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD's Prater Violet, a very short, humorous novel from 1945 about behind-the-scenes Hollywood madness, and CELESTE NG's Little Fires Everywhere, practically the only non-mystery contemporary novel I read this year, a riveting social drama about several mothers, their children, and the tensions that flare in a well-to-do Ohio community after a Chinese baby is adopted by a white couple.

On the mystery front, I've been steadily working my way through LOUISE PENNY's absolutely marvelous Inspector Gamache novels. I finished #9 just before #14 came out late last month, so I'm getting there! I also had my first, very belated introduction to MARTHA GRIMES, reading the brand new entry The Knowledge and enjoying it very much. But above all, I'm prioritizing JEANNE M. DAMS's very cozy Dorothy Martin mysteries—I just read the first, The Body in the Transept, and loved it more than any other cozy mystery since Hazel Holt's Mrs Mallory mysteries. (I know I'm hardly on the cutting edge here—Body was published in 1995, but better late than never!) With typical self-restraint, I waited until I was nearly halfway through the first book before ordering the next six…

But enough about the books that didn't make or didn't qualify for the final list. Without further ado, I give you the Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen:


12) BETTY ASKWITH, A Step Out of Time

A past "possibly Persephone" suggestion that I'd long meant to read, and I have a review coming soon. An entertaining timeslip story that reminded me a bit of Mabel Esther Allan.



I was thrilled to find this less-known title from the inimitable Miss Read—just a tad more realistic and edgy than her imminently cozy Fairacre and Thrush Green series. If you're a fan of Miss Read, or a fan of school-themed novels or widening world stories, this one's a sure winner.


10) SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER, With the Hunted: Selected Writings

I can't believe I didn't get around to reviewing this, and I also can't believe that it only warranted publication from a tiny press that immediately allowed it to lapse out of print (though I am grateful to them for publishing it to begin with—it must have been a rather thankless and profitless endeavour). A collection of Warner's non-fiction pieces that makes clear what a brilliant and eclectic mind she had. Perfect bedside reading, it's like chatting over tea with an unassuming, charming genius—sometimes her interests may grab you more, sometimes less, but it's always a pleasure to be in her presence. [I also read and loved Warner's posthumous collection Scenes of Childhood, featuring short pieces originally from The New Yorker and largely about her own childhood.]



Never are morbid horrors more entertaining than in Comyns's work, and this example from among Comyns's less well-known work proved no exception. I got distracted too soon from my return to reading Comyns—must rectify that next year…



Okay, cheating a bit here, but I can't choose between these. The former is the very best of the MEA romantic suspense novels that I've read, and the latter is my favorite so far of her school stories. Plus, I got to write the intro for the Greyladies edition of the former!


I've just realized that all the remaining entries contain titles with WWII or immediate postwar settings. My spreadsheet clearly bore lots of WWII-related fruit this year!



Another Greyladies rediscovery. A sequel, for adults, to Barne's classic children's story She Shall Have Music, which both lives up to the earlier book and presents a completely believable grownup version of its heroine, all in a poignant romance set just as World War II is baring its teeth.


6) SUSAN ALICE KERBY, Miss Carter and the Ifrit

I am going to review this title, I promise, so for now let's just ponder: what becomes a dispirited middle-aged spinster beaten down by long years of war more than an enthusiastic genie? A delightful late-war romp with a surprising bit of romance.


5) D. E. STEVENSON, Spring Magic

Oh, and I really did mean to review this one too, dammit, but I read it just before we got the go-ahead to reprint it along with four other DES titles, and there was such a flurry of activity on the publishing side that I lost track of doing a review. But oh, what a delightful DES title—it's a mystery why no one else had already reprinted it (but I'm glad they hadn't, so that I could!). A coastal village in Scotland, a spunky heroine, three entertaining military wives who befriend her, and a burgeoning romance complicated by misunderstandings, all in the early years of World War II. For DES fans who, like me, consider the Miss Buncle and Mrs Tim books the crème de la crème, here's another delicious dollop!



#4 and #3 are both in the category of "not great novels but marvelously valuable social documents." Wine of Honour traces the lives of an array of folks in an English village just after the end of World War II, with a special focus on women who have been in the services and are readjusting to their various peacetime lives. Fly-on-the-wall fiction at its finest.



For Blitz Lit aficionados, this one is irreplaceable. In part the story of a hopeless (and rather mundane) love affair, it's really focused on how people went on living their lives in surprisingly ordinary ways among the terrors and disruptions of falling bombs. Noble clearly lived in London during the Blitz, and provides lavish details of what it was like that can't be found anywhere else.


1) (tie) CAROLA OMAN, Nothing to Report

I've gone back and forth repeatedly on which of these top two entries should be #1, so I finally gave up and called a tie. This one I haven't reviewed yet, but soon, I promise. Oh, I am in love with it. Stay tuned!


1) (tie) DORIS LANGLEY MOORE, Not at Home & All Done by Kindness

These two, on the other hand (yes, I'm cheating here too—so sue me), I've already raved about at length. A Game of Snakes and Ladders and My Caravaggio Style are also winners, but these are Moore's masterpieces, both showing the unexpected intricacies and repercussions of one's simplest actions. And Not at Home falls into the late wartime category as well...



Well, that's that! What books did you love this year?

Thanks to all of you for sticking with me through another year, as I keep raving about books that are nearly impossible to find. But two of these twelve are currently in print (both from Greyladies), and a third will very soon be available as a Furrowed Middlebrow title. A couple of others are not too difficult to track down, and as for the rest, well, you never know!
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