It was a slightly sporadic year for blogging on my part, a ghastly year for the state of the world, but (thankfully, as I try to avoid thinking too much about the apocalyptic and heartbreaking news from either side of the Atlantic) an excellent year of reading. As usual, I've done considerable agonizing to whittle my favorite reads down to a mere dozen, but I've done the heroic task. Though I will also, as usual, cheat a bit by mentioning a few other near-favorites for the year.
In the category of contemporary fiction, which you know I don't read all that often, I found one particular treasure, which I enthusiastically recommend to hearty readers with morbid senses of humor. During the dark, rainy winter months last January, I read MARGARET DRABBLE's brilliant and often funny novel about aging and death, The Dark Flood Rises (2018). I know, it doesn't sound so uplifting, but I found it amazingly life-affirming while also gloriously dark. It even evoked Samuel Beckett for me, and we catch some glimpses of characters from Drabble's earlier books as well. I'll also mention my vacation reading of Nobel Prize winner OLGA TOKARCZUK's Flights (2007) and the evocatively titled Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009), both of which I found completely addictive. It's enough to make me thing that I'm missing out not reading more current fiction, but on the other hand I also picked up at least five other recent, much-praised novels this year and didn't get past the first chapter of any of them, so…
I had fun reading some lovely children's fiction this year, largely thanks to my Fairy Godmother's generosity. In addition to the title that made it to #7 below, I read several rare MABEL ESTHER ALLAN titles thanks to F.G., as well as more JANE SHAW, whose glittering, delightful Paris comedy-adventure, Anything Can Happen (1964), very nearly made the list (it's the invisible #13). I also had a marvelous time with BARBARA WILLARD's Snail and the Pennithornes (1957), which I never wrote about but which deals with the two Pennithorne children accompanying their mother's old friend Snail, a children's author herself, as she travels around England in her caravan. The two sequels, Snail and the Pennithornes Next Time (1958) and Snail and the Pennithornes and the Princess (1960), are pleasant but not nearly so good, but the first, as we share Snail's delight in exploring new places and making new friends, is a pleasure.
Now, on with the list:
I'm slowly but surely seeking out all the Elizabeth Coxhead books I can find. The Figure in the Mist is one of the best so far. It's a widening world story, it's a climbing story, it's a family story, and it's quite a lot more as well.
I just squeezed in my review of this one (and a couple of other books further down the list) in the past couple of weeks. Although not Godden's best work, Gypsy, Gypsy deserves better than the neglect it has fallen into. An engrossing, rather Gothic novel with a charming young heroine and her terrible aunt.
In my review of A Cat and a King, I noted that there was very little about it that we haven't seen before—young woman gets entangled with veteran stage actor and his family, flirts with heartbreak, and ends up older and wiser. But it was so difficult to put down and has stayed with me so much that I'm beginning to think there's more to it after all.
A charming and thought-provoking book that follows it's young Jewish heroine from boarding school to the vicissitudes of romance and the approach of World War II. Kamm—whose Peace, Perfect Peace (1947) was reprinted as a Furrowed Middlebrow title this year—has become a favorite author, and soon, thanks to Grant Hurlock, I'll be reading her hard-to-fine debut, All Quiet at Home (1936).
Not a lot of non-fiction appears on my lists, but I can't recommend this one enough for fans of literary history/biography like Thea Holme's The Carlyles at Home. Its intermingling of notable figures—the Carlyles, Robert Browning & Elizabeth Barrett, Dickens, Tom Thumb, Mary Russell Mitford, and others—brings the 1840s London literary scene vividly to life in ways that a mere bio of one of those people couldn't possibly.
7) MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Romansgrove (1975)
Possibly my favorite Mabel Esther Allan title so far (though The Amber House, which I wrote about here, is not far behind). I didn't get round to reviewing Romansgrove, but it's one of the loveliest time slip tales I've read and also the most polished and elegant MEA I've found (elegant not being a word most fans would associate with her, whatever else they love about her work). Although it focuses on teenaged protagonists, it could readily be enjoyed by fans of adult fiction. The ending gave me chills. It will be a periodic re-read for years to come, and it's not even terribly hard to find!
More thanks are due to Grant for making it possible to read this long-coveted title from my Hopeless Wish List, which turned out to be a delightful village comedy. Lambert's style may be, as I noted, "a bit rough around the edges," but she also presents a delicious cast of characters and lots of amusing happenings, which more than make up for its shortcomings.
Okay, I might be cheating here since this wasn't the first time I read Verily Anderson's delightful World War II memoir. On the other hand, until this year it was solidly out of print, while now it's readily available in e-book and paperback as a (ahem) Furrowed Middlebrow title from Dean Street Press. Plus, it's wonderful, so I am without remorse for cheating.
Knowing me, you won't be surprised that my current Margery Sharp kick, inspired by the suggestions offered in response to my "possibly FM" post, began with the rarest of all Sharp titles, her cheerful, silly, giddy, lovely debut.
After we reprinted Oman's WWII novels, Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England, earlier this year, I was delighted to find three more of her novels with contemporary settings (rather than her usual historical subjects). And this one was my fave of the three. A sort of Scottish holiday story slash romantic comedy.
I had a lot of trouble deciding which of these last two books should top the list, and finally broke the tie by determining that this one might not ordinarily fit the parameters of this list. But it's so, so, so beautifully done, and includes chapters about Tindall's aunt, Monica Tindall, and her mother, Ursula Orange, both published by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press. Not to mention that Tindall, whose first novel appeared in 1959, is herself on my author list. The book is an elegant meditation on time, loss, and the odd vicissitudes that determine what survives. I also read Tindall's The House by the Thames this year and loved it, and The Tunnel Through Time is on my TBR shelf.
Since I first read Apricot Sky before I was blogging, I never got a chance to make it my favorite book of the year. But this year, finally, I re-read it, reviewed it, and loved it even more than before. I usually don't include re-reads on this list, but... A funny, rollicking, romantic comedy, family/holiday story, all rolled into one. The next best thing to a holiday in the Highlands. I seem to have a real weakness for holiday stories this year, and indeed for Scottish holiday stories. Perhaps an actual holiday in Scotland is called for?
And that's that for 2019. Now I have to ask, what were your favorite reads of the year?