Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2014

First and foremost, of course, a very happy new year to all of you. May 2015 be a happy, healthy, and fulfilling year for all of you (and one filled with great books).

I know that it's more traditional to do an end-of-year Top 10 list, but I just couldn't manage to narrow my choices down. And (I tell myself self-justifyingly) there's a certain logic to listing my dozen favorite reads of the year, since it works out to one book per month. Right?

I think I've mentioned here before that I've been keeping a list of all the books I've read ever since I was a mere lad. The list includes all 2,562 books I've finished in the past 28+ years—no wonder my eyes aren't what they used to be! I can also see that I finished 113 books in 2014, just over two per week on average, which is more or less my average, and which tells me that I am even more abysmal as a reviewer of books than I already knew I was, since I only reviewed 32 of those, plus a few more brief mentions that could hardly be called reviews. But then, as much as I love sharing books with you that you may not have come across and that might be worth tracking down, writing reviews has always been the hardest part of blogging for me. Plus there's the fact that I tend to get distracted by the authors being added to my list, and so I spend a lot of my time going in multiple different directions.

So maybe 32 reviews isn't all that bad...

2014 was the year I returned (with a vengeance, as it were) to reading mysteries. Several of the ones I enjoyed the most, such as Gladys Mitchell's Convent on Styx, Catherine Aird's A Late Phoenix, or—one I only finished just after the holidays thanks to reader and fellow DES-sie Tom Johnson generously surprising me with a copy—Ruth Rendell's A Sleeping Life (which, as Tom rightly noted, makes an excellent companion-piece to Josephine Tey's To Love and Be Wise, which I wrote about a couple of months back), were written a bit too late to fit my list. And several more, such as Joan Coggin's wonderful Who Killed the Curate? and Dorothy Bowers' Fear and Miss Betony (which I'm very sad to say I never got around to reviewing) narrowly missed making the cut. But I still wound up with four mysteries in my top 12 (five if you stretch the definition a bit—though one is included for its wartime setting much more than for its mysteriousness).

2014 was also the year I really dived into children's fiction—particularly that aimed specifically at girls. Andy always jokes that somewhere inside this bulky middle-aged body there's a teenage girl just fighting to get out, and that may have been evidenced rather more than usual by my reading this year. In particular, my discovery of Girls Gone By and their extensive array of reprints of girls' school stories and family stories has caused my reading habits to shift dramatically. Three of my top 12 titles of the year were GGB reprints, and the number of GGB books on my bookshelves continues to grow apace.

Certainly no single author dominated my year—or at least the second half of it—so thoroughly as Winifred Peck. I've read five of her novels in the past few months, reviewed three, and feel no hesitation at all including two of them below, both of which are among my all-time favorites. Here's a glimpse of my library pile recently, which demonstrates the heights to which my Peck obsession ascended:

But now, without further ado—though after much agonizing—I present my 12 favorite books of 2014. I managed to review or at least discuss 9 of these, linked from the book titles. Although I'm ranking them in reverse order, the rankings are mostly random—except for #1, that is, which really was my favorite read of the year.

I started 2014 with a review of this fascinating look at a murder, the peculiarities of the Scottish justice system, and the unfathomably sheltered lives of four spinster sisters who must venture into the world as a result of their brother's murder. It's not a murder mystery per se, but very much an exploration of murder and its aftereffects. This was my first taste of the work of this utterly forgotten writer, and it's not easy tracking down any of her other books, but I have managed to find one, which is patiently waiting on my TBR shelves...

11)  DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, The Serendipity Shop (1947)

I had already been reading several Girls Gone By reprints of school stories, but this novel, chosen on the spur of the moment to be my first read on our Italy trip this fall, started my most recent obsession with the numerous family stories in which they also specialize. One of Bruce's Colmskirk series—all set in the same locations and with some overlap of characters, but in different time periods, a concept I find particularly striking—The Serendipity Shop deals with a young woman making a success of an inherited shop and finding new friends along the way. It's light and frothy and the characters face few real difficulties, but it's impossibly entertaining. I have two more Colmskirk novels winging their way across the Atlantic to me as I write, and perhaps I'll get around to writing a proper review of one or both of them.

For the time period covered by this blog, Agatha Christie is so ubiquitous that recommending one of her novels is like presuming to introduce a painter to the color blue. Nevertheless, this one is so irresistible, features some of my very favorite themes—girls' schools and relationships between women first and foremost—and is surely one of the best demonstrations of Christie's often more subdued sense of humor, that I just can't resist.

Another completely obscure author, and another of my favorite discoveries of the year. As I mentioned in my review of it, Sallypark is clearly one long ode to Jane Austen and her unique style, but it is more than a mere imitation. The tale of persnickety old Dr. Harte and his three daughters, who must engage in elaborate methods of secrecy and subterfuge to find romance behind his marriage-phobic back, it's a charming, funny tale, and the Irish Civil War gurgling almost invisibly in the background lends it only the slightest hint of shadow. I have a review of another of Hassett's novels coming up soon...

8)  ELFRIDA VIPONT, The Spring of the Year (1957)

Maybe the onset of the shorter, chillier days of winter (the average temperature in San Francisco drops only about 10 degrees in winter, which hardly even counts as chilly, but we have to take what we can get) inspired me toward cozier reads, or maybe it some other psychological urge, but in the past few weeks my enjoyment of The Serendipity Shop has led me into an obsession with Girls Gone By's numerous other light-hearted family stories. This one, of which I also haven't managed to do a review, initially gave me pause, since I knew that Vipont's Quakerism played a significant role in the story. But I gave in to curiosity and absolutely loved it—a fun and inspiring tale of a family relocating to a new village and a young girl learning self-discipline and discovering her strengths. I probably need hardly note—knowing as you do my compulsiveness—that three more of Vipont's novels from the same series are now on their way to me (and the fourth is destined to join them but is, as yet, just a bit too costly)...

Adam was already a favorite author, but I had given up all hope of reading her one murder mystery until Grant Hurlock generously shared his copy with me. As a mystery, this is no great shakes, but as a portrait of the realities of wartime life, combined with humor, heartbreak, and Adam's sharp prose, it's well worth checking out (or reprinting—hint, hint...)

6)  JOSEPHINE TEY, To Love and Be Wise (1950)

Along with Dame Agatha above, Josephine Tey has to be the most widely-known author in this list. But this tale of a mysteriously vanished young man, read while we were on vacation in Italy, actually managed to make me want to stay in our hotel room and read rather than seeing the sights of Rome. So if any book deserved to make this list, surely this one did. Tey also wrote what is possibly my all-time favorite mystery, The Daughter of Time, but To Love and Be Wise is darn near as good.

My favorite mystery of the year, and the beginning of my ongoing obsession with Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel is primarily set in the Edwardian years, though its tale is framed by the present-day narrator reflecting on these earlier events. Unlike Adam's novel above, this one manages to provide a perfectly respectable puzzle that would have made Dame Agatha proud, as well as brilliant social observation and a heart-wrenching portrait of women's lives in an earlier time. It's inexplicable why this one hasn't already been reprinted by Greyladies or Rue Morgue (or Bloomsbury or...—you get the idea).

It's hard for me to believe that, back in April, this was the very first Girls Gone By reprint I had ever read. And it still stands as a high point for me. This tale, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, deals with the reunification of a family of six orphans who have been split up in various homes for much of the war. They each have very distinct personalities and backgrounds. Some of the youngest children barely recall their old family life, and others are none too excited about leaving their foster homes. I've since read two more of Courtney's tales—The Chiltons and Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre (aka Stepmother, aka Those Verney Girls)—and I loved both, but Sally's Family remains my favorite because of its complex family dynamic and its more subtle presentation of the children's personalities and the way they only gradually begin to work together to build a home. Still my favorite Girls Gone By, and one I'll be re-reading every now and again.

This one was previously suggested by some savvy reader as "possibly Persephone" at the event of that name hosted by Persephone Books. I was surprised by how powerful I found this very odd modernist tale of a young girl raised in semi-isolation, whose bewilderment at the world around her causes her to assign all sorts of extraneous meanings—associated with class, mortality, and the supernatural—to the elusive elderly woman next door and her surrounding estate. It's heartbreaking and hilarious by turn, and might just warrant being embraced as a modern classic. Not a light or cozy read, for sure, but one that's well worth the effort it requires.

A true page-turner for me, a rags-to-riches story with some darker elements of melodrama, High Wages deals with young Jane Carter, who begins as a maltreated shopgirl and winds up owning her own shop. It's packed with fascinating observations on fashion, shopping, advertising, and even politics, the characters are riveting and believable, but there is just enough gritty realism and heartbreak to made it vivid and convincing. I dare you to put it down after reading the first few pages!

As much as I loved the other books on this list (and indeed many of the other books I reviewed in 2014), it was a no-brainer choosing my No. 1 favorite of the year. On a par with Delafield's Provincial Lady and Stevenson's Mrs. Tim, Peck's fictional (well, semi-fictional, at least) diary of the bewildering cares facing Camilla Lacey, wife of the the vicar of the town of Stampfield, is absolutely irresistible. She records her impressions of just a few days (one assume she was exhausted after the events of those days), shortly after the beginning of World War II and immediately after the curate has scandalized the parish with a pacifist sermon. She must deal with the hazards of day-to-day life while trying to soothe the raw emotions of the parishioners—a task made more complex by the fact that she was dozing during the crucial part of the sermon in question. Shattering most of the ideals of a vicar's wife's behavior, while at the same time coming across as the kind of woman one would dearly love to have tea with, Camilla is a wonderful creation and an hilarious one, and I urge everyone to make her acquaintance.

There they are—my much-agonized-over choices of my favorites of the year. And I have to publish this post quickly, or I'll be changing them again—to add Edith Nesbit's The Lark, for example, or Norah Lofts' The Brittle Glass. Or what about my very first Georgette Heyer? And if only I could find any way that Marghanita Laski's brilliant story, "The Tower," could be considered a "book," you can bet it would be included as well.

Hmmm, or what about…???


  1. Apparently I am missing out by not having read any Winifred Peck! The only book I've read from your list is High Wages; it stood out for me as well. Thanks for sharing your favourites and Happy New Year, Scott!

    1. Yes, Darlene, definitely try one of the Winifred Peck books if you can find them. Some of her others have been uneven, but these two are delights.

  2. I also loved High Wages & I'm also a Josephine Tey fan. I wish someone would reprint Winifred Peck, all her books sound intriguing. Happy reading in 2015, Scott. You can hardly fail with all those books on their way to you!

    1. I feel like it's only a matter of time before Peck reprints happen, Lyn. I'm trying to do my part!

  3. I love High Wages too, and everything else I've read by Dorothy Whipple.

    I discovered Gwendoline Courtney a few years ago and Sally's Family went straight into my top ten comfort reads list. I love the housekeeping.

    Happy New Year and happy reading.

    1. Yes, definitely. I may have to re-read Family soon, now that I've been thinking about it.

  4. Happy New Year to you, Scott! Twelve seems exactly the right number, as you suggestively wrote, one per month. I've also read two from your list, Ms. Tey (am on a 3rd - love her humour), and the Christie.

    Thank you for writing this blog, which must take an inordinate amount of time away from your reading pleasure. Rest assured we readers greatly appreciate your willingness to do it.

    Looking forward to great literary adventures in 2015!


  5. Well, naturally, I am thrilled to be mentioned! And I am glald you liked the Rendell title as much I did - I must ask you - WHERE and HOW did you find Convent on Styx? I was tryin gto locate a copy to copile a package of convent murder mysteries for a fellow DESsie (Holly!) and did put in Aird's Religious Body, but the COnvent on Styx was elusive! Reading your list, I am reminded again of how your review of Cat Among the Pigeons put me onto a positive spate of reading all the girls' school mysteries I could find -and found some wonderful new titles! Scott, happy 2015, and many more good reads to all of us!

    1. Wow, the prices have really gone up on copies of Convent. It is available as an ebook for only a few dollars, if you want to go that route. But apparently my Greyladies copy was a good investment--prices are now about four times what I paid for it. Who says I'm not saving for retirement? :-)

  6. Lovely to see Elfrida Vipont on your list. She is much sought after by those in the know....

    And you introduced me to Sally's Family, and Gwendoline Courtney in general, for which I am very grateful. I am about to embark on the read-through of the Colmskirk books which I have been saving to gloat over before reading :-)

    But how could you leave your first Georgette Heyer off the list? I can only conclude it was not one of the very best ones? I have finally succumbed to buying one for the Kindle as I cannot bear that our three full collections have been in storage for two years now...

    Many thanks for your blog-writing efforts. They are hugely appreciated! The continuing saga in 2015 is eagerly anticipated....

    1. I'm green with envy for your Colmskirk reading, Gil, but I hope you have a lovely time. I have the other Vipont books to look forward to, so I can't complain. Glad to hear you're also a fan. And so happy that I helped introduce you to Courtney too!

  7. Thank you Scott, you inspired me to re-read To Love and Be Wise, and it had been so long I had forgotten the plot completely. For some reason Tey is a mixed bag for me when it comes to remembering the plots. I can never forget the plot of Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time or the Franchise Affair, but the others, although I can remember reading (and/or listening to them) with pleasure, the plots tend to slip out of my memory and I can read them again almost as a new book. And I am not usually like that, I usually remember plots and much of my joy of re-reading, especially of mysteries, it to watch for the set up and red herrings and clues being planted and fore shadowing, etc. Anyway, I read your first 2015 post yesterday and have just finished To Love and Be Wise. Thank you again.


    1. Oh good, Jerri, I'm glad I triggered an enjoyable re-read. I'm afraid I can only rarely remember mystery plots, but on the other hand, it means I can re-read them and the plot is all new to me!

  8. Oh, wicked list. (In the very best way.) What a dangerous blogger you book buying budget is looking much too small all of a sudden. I've been keeping my eyes open for Ursula Orange, by the way, and having no luck at all within my fairly generous willing-to-pay range. Well, the joy of the hunt to you in your continued acquisition and sharing of interesting middlebrowish things.

    1. I feel rather glamorous now, Barb, being called dangerous! Re Orange, it's funny, when I first wrote about her, there were at least a handful of reasonable copies online, especially of the books that had had U.S. editions, but now, you're right, they've vanished. I wonder if I have to take credit for that, or if it's the natural ebb and flow of the book market? But I do hope for a reprint of Ask Me No Questions/Tom Tiddler's Ground someday. It's just begging to be reprinted. Meanwhile, I'll send good wishes your way for an amazing find in a second hand shop!


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