Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE FURROWED MIDDLEBROW DOZEN 2015

Last year, I did my end-of-year favorites around the New Year, but in fact this was just because I hadn't managed to get my act together enough to do it as a holiday season post. This year (is it possible?), I have actually managed to do it a bit earlier, before the luxurious 10-day holiday break Andy and I will be taking from our jobs.

As I did last year, I've selected my twelve favorites of the books I read during the year. A top ten is just too hard, and a dozen allows a bit of latitude for including most of the titles I really, really loved this year. Actually, though, I have to admit that even narrowing my favorites down to a dozen was a challenge. There were several more classic mysteries that I very much enjoyed (Patricia Moyes' Many Deadly Returns, Gladys Mitchell's St. Peter's Finger, Harriet Rutland's Knock, Murderer, Knock!, and Maureen Sarsfield's Green December Fills the Graveyard, to name the ones I just couldn't resist squeezing into this post even if they didn't make the list), and even a couple of really wonderful modern "cozy" mysteries, including the final (no! say it ain't so!) Mrs. Mallory mystery from Hazel Holt (who, as many of you must already know, very sadly passed away just a few weeks ago, but remains my absolute favorite of modern cozy authors) and all four of Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy mysteries. But ultimately I had to make the tough decisions.

Amazingly, I find that I actually managed to blog about all of my favorite titles of the year, so I've linked to the original posts below.

Without further ado:


Elizabeth Fair


Since Fair ranks as my very favorite newly-discovered author of the year, I couldn't place her anywhere but at No. 1. It was tough to choose only one of her charming, funny, Thirkell-esque village comedies, but ultimately I found A Winter Away the most polished and readable of her six novels. Oh, that there were more than six! I did finally break down a couple of months back and read the last of her novels, The Mingham Air, which I also quite enjoyed, but I was suitably bereft to have finished all of Fair's oeuvre. If you haven't checked her out yet, this one is a great place to start.




I know I'm not alone in loving this one, though it's downright criminal it's not in print and available to a larger audience. Ashton is high on my list of authors to explore further in 2016, but in the meantime I can heartily recommend the lush domestic and architectural details of this charming tale of a single day in and around the country estate of the once-prosperous Hornbeam family. And for once, copies are fairly readily available—due to its having been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection or alternate, there are quite a few copies floating around.




No one would expect one of my lists to lack at least one WWII home front novel, so here it is. I managed to come across this one even before Greyladies reprinted it earlier this year, and it fits one of my favorite (admittedly self-invented) genres—the "uncozy," a term I use to describe a novel that is basically cheerful and comforting, but has some deeper and darker meanings there for the pondering if one wants to ponder them. This seems to have been one of Crompton's strengths, and she too is certainly an author to explore further in 2016—particularly now that many of her adult novels have been released as e-books by Bello Books.




For whatever reason, Mabel Esther Allan was probably my single most-read author of 2015, so it would hardly be fair not to list one of her titles here. The trouble was deciding which one. I was especially tempted by her lovely combination holiday/coming-of-age story Swiss Holiday (which I also discussed here), but finally I had to go with this early title (though not published until the 1990s and not made readily available until it was released by Girls Gone By a few years ago). It's one of my two favorite school stories—and the other one just happens to be No. 5 on this list!




A worthy companion-piece to my favorite grownup school story, Mary Bell's Summer's Day, Darch's tale is certainly written for girls, but has an unusually mature perspective on school life drawn from Darch's own experience as a teacher. New School goes for realism rather than far-fetched adventure, and is all the stronger for that. Since blogging about New School and another Darch title, Alison Temple—Prefect, I've read one more of Darch's titles, her first, Chris and Some Others (1920), and loved it as well. I have one more on my TBR shelves…




One of my all-time favorite memoirs, and a lucky book sale find, I know this one is also a favorite with many of you. Not only a vivid portrayal of Victorian life through the eyes of a child, but one of the funniest books you'll ever read, I can't recommend it enough—and the final quote I used in my post about it still makes me laugh whenever I think of it.




From Bruce's Colmskirk series, this was one of the most thoroughly amusing and entertaining books I read all year. It has much more the feel of a charming, cozy novel for adults than most of the other titles in the series, and even readers not usually interested in "children's" fiction are likely to find it a rollicking good time.




Another of my favorite "cozy" reads this year. Channon, like Bruce, is known for her school stories, but this was her final novel for adults and has loads of charm and humor and glimpses of ideal village life. Who doesn't love a tale of a curmudgeon whose hard heart is gradually softened by likeable children and an irresistible woman?




My favorite mystery discovery of the year is also rather frustrating, since Pullein-Thompson was apparently discouraged by her publisher from continuing to write mysteries after she'd published only three. It's really a toss-up for me which of those three—Gin and Murder, They Died in the Spring (1960), and Murder Strikes Pink (1963)—is my favorite, but this one is the first and makes an excellent introduction to her immensely likeable Holmes/Watson team, DCI Flecker and Detective-Sergeant Browning, so I'll make it my recommendation.




Funny, charming, and surprisingly edgy for its time, Sharp takes as her heroine a smart, funny, oversexed heroine who makes an irresistible companion for a weekend's reading. There are lots of writers I love who are completely or mostly out-of-print, but Sharp is the most bewildering oversight on the part of publishers. Sourcebooks or Bloomsbury or Bello or another savvy publisher needs to get to work reprinting Sharp's entire body of work.




Whipple is one of Persephone's most popular rediscoveries and one of my favorites of their authors, but this late work, "compiled from note-books and journals kept from 1925 onwards" and covering tantalizing glimpses of Whipple's life during World War II, as well as delightful insight into her always-humble reactions to her literary success, has yet to be reprinted. It provides more evidence, if any were needed, as to why Whipple is one of the authors I would most love to have as a next-door neighbor.




And finally, my second favorite mystery discovery of the year (though, technically I "discovered" her years ago, but just hadn't got round to reading her until this year. This, her debut novel, is my favorite so far, with a loveable amateur sleuth, a gardening-related crime, and an irresistibly Thirkell-esque setting in an Irish village in wartime.

And that's it! What were your favorite books of the year?

19 comments:

  1. I won't saddle you with my dozen, Scott, but thought I might mention two that might be of interest (though neither is by a British writer).

    The first is Margaret Millar's The Fiend (1964), a challenging novel that centres on a registered sex offender. I'm probably making it seem more disturbing than it really is... which isn't to say there isn't a great deal of unpleasantness. Interestingly, it is other characters who prove to be truly terrible. I've long been a champion of Millar - no one writes domestic dramas like her - so am pleased to see that her books are slowly being rereleased.

    The second is a novel that reminded me of Millar: Frances Shelley Wees' The Keys of My Prison (1956). It too is rather dark, settling on a woman whose husband emerges from a coma as an entirely different person.

    I recommend both!

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    1. Thanks, Brian, both of those do sound intriguing. I've always meant to try Millar's work, but always find myself distracted by other authors. Thanks for sharing these!

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  2. You know I am glad to see Sheila Pim on your list. I am slo glad to see Elizabeth Fair at the top - you turned me on to her and I am buying what I can find, although I have yet to locate "A Winter Away." Because of you I bought the movie "Julia Misbehaves" and I hope that can count, and I bought "Forbidden Street" the film version of "Britannia Mews." So, we'll see.
    Happy New Year (well, still the 24th) so Merry Christmas to you two guys, many more!
    Tom

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    1. Do let me know how you like Julia Misbehaves, Tom. I've been yearning to see it, but if you don't like it, I won't yearn anymore. So glad you enjoyed Elizabeth Fair!

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  3. Merry Christmas Scott. I was sorry to hear that Hazel Holt had died, I also love her books. I have several of your top 12 on my tbr shelves, probably as a result of reading your reviews! I also loved the Whipple & the Raverat which I read years ago. I hope Persephone reprint Random Commentary at some point. I borrowed it on ILL so would love to own a copy. Best wishes for another wonderful year of reading in 2016. Enjoy your holiday.

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    1. Thanks, Lyn. Yes, it's so rare for me to read living authors these days that Hazel Holt's death was particularly sad. And yes, I would hope that Persephone would consider reprinting Random Commentary, but I haven't heard any mention of it. Glad you were able to track it down and enjoy it!

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  4. I love the look of all of your favorites. Mine included Whipple's 'They Were Sisters', Gibbon's Nightingale Wood, 84 Charing Cross Road and Sharp's Martha trilogy among others. I also really enjoyed Brand's Green for Danger.

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    1. Thanks, Arpita, our tastes are very similar! I loved 84 Charing Cross Road (and you know there's a sequel, right?), and I'm a big fan of Whipple and Gibbons. Also Green for Danger is a favorite mystery of mine.

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  5. That Gwen Raverat book is a delight. A great list -- one can only hope that more on your list come back into print soon.

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    1. Well, with the rise of ebooks (for better or worse), it does seem like more authors are becoming available again. Let's hope some of these join the ranks of the available again soon.

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  6. Merry Christmas Scott, to you and Andy. Enjoy your lovely 10 days off, with lots of reading.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! Our time off has been lovely.

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  7. I have a tough time creating "top" lists. A newly discovered (by me) author from this year was Patricia Moyes, after getting a copy of Many Deadly Returns for a third of a pound when in England this summer. I looked all over for more and couldn't find any locally so ordered the first one, about murder on a ski holiday, then during my Christmas visit to the grandchildren in the Tulsa area stopped by Gardners used book store (a treasure) and they had a bunch, but NOT the one I had already ordered, so I bought 5 more, and have much enjoyed the one I have had time to read. It involves sailing, I think Down among the dead men or something like that was the title.

    I ordered a copy of The Debatable Mound, and got half way and lost momentum. I just couldn't get into it, for some reason. I'll give it another try one of these days, it just might have been the wrong time for that book.

    I always enjoy my re-reads of Heyer and D. E. Stevenson and Angela Thirkell and Dorothy Sayers and more.

    In a completely different type of book, I read a new novel and a new novella by Lois M. Bujold, one Science Fiction and one fantasy, and enjoyed them both very much.

    I hope not to be washed away in the massive rain we are getting. The tiny public library where I volunteer is having an addition built, and due to the partially completed addition there has been serious leaking around one of the side doors, and Dan and I spent some time yesterday and more today trying to limit the damage. Why couldn't the rain have waited till they had the basic roof up?

    Wishing Scott and Andy and all who read this blog a great 2016 with lots more wonderful reading.

    Jerri

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    1. I forgot to add The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis D. Hay, an author from this list. I listened to it as an audiobook and enjoyed it a lot.

      Jerri

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    2. Thanks, Jerri. As it happens, we made a short trip to Monterey this past week, where resides one of my favorite bookstores, and I just happened to pick up a new-to-me Patricia Moyes, Night Ferry to Death. I finished it the next day...

      I hope you haven't washed away yet. Send more of that rain our way!

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  8. I don't have any particular standouts from this year, but for the first time since I began tracing my reads (2010) I broke 100. And there are still 2.5 days left in 2015.

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    1. Congratulations on that new precedent, Susan! I must be just slightly ahead of you--my total for the year was 118.

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  9. A great list, Scott! I've only read the Crompton and perhaps the Pim, but all the rest sound wonderful. I certainly hope to read more Sharp this year, and she made me end of year dozen too.

    I've just finished a book I feel sure will be on my 2016 Best Of - The Lark by E Nesbit, which I bought after reading your review - so many thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Simon! Glad you enjoyed The Lark as much as I did.

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