While in other ways 2016 was an absolutely terrible year—here's hoping 2017 doesn't turn out as badly as seems likely—a look back at all the books I read this year, and my difficulty in selecting only 12 of my favorite books of the year, suggests that it was a very good year for me on the bookish side—and this is really true in more ways than one.
Firstly, as a reader, the fact that I had to force myself to eliminate no fewer than nine other books that I really loved obviously means that I was lucky enough to find books that really spoke to me this year. I had to make a rule that I would only include each author once, which required that ELIZABETH ELIOT’s Alice (1950) and RACHEL FERGUSON’s A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) be removed from the list. This was also the year that I properly discovered NGAIO MARSH’s late mysteries, having foolishly avoided them before, but there just wasn’t room for either Dead Water (1963) of Clutch of Constables (1969) on my list, and even JOSEPHINE BELL’s delightful Death at Half-Term (1939), which I read while we were travelling and enjoyed very much, had to be dropped.
Other terrible deletions from the list include my intro to the Thrush Green series by MISS READ/DORA SAINT, Battles at Thrush Green (1975), GWENDOLINE COURTNEY’s The Girls of Friar’s Rise (1952), my favorite ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER Chalet School book so far, The Chalet School Reunion (1963), and my return to reading MURIEL SPARK with Loitering with Intent (1981). (I loved the Spark, by the way, though in the rush of getting ready for our trip I never got round to writing about it.)
The second reason it was a good year for me is that I actually had the opportunity to play a role in bringing three of the books on my list back into print this year, in both cases for the first time since the 1940s. I’ve already written tiresomely often about the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press (see links to them in the left column, including my announcement from last week of the new titles we'll be doing in March 2017), but the opportunity came about and developed so quickly that, looking back at the list of books I read this year, I found it hard to believe that I'd only discovered two of the FM books and one additional Dean Street mystery in the early months of this year. Things happen quickly! And happily, as I announced last week, we'll also be reprinting another of the books from this year's list.
But to counteract, for just a moment, all this regret and all the adoration I’m about the express below, I can’t help mentioning one book I don’t regret not including here at all (which I also never got round to writing about, and it would have been an uncharacteristically harsh post if I had). I ordinarily love GLADYS MITCHELL unconditionally, but I’m afraid the love is now at least somewhat conditional—to retain my love, she simply must do better than The Longer Bodies (1930), her absolutely dreadful third novel. The daftness of Mitchell’s mysteries is usually a joy for me, but here it went over the top, and the perky, flapperish, dimwitted characters (indistinguishable from one another) and even more dimwitted plot were pure irritation and no joy. Fortunately, much much better work was to come.
But now, back to the adoration. This year, I’m going to present my top 12 in reverse order. The “ranking” is unscientific, but based on the strength of the feelings each book evokes in retrospect. Here goes:
I seem to have been even more focused this year on World War II—pre-, mid-, and post-—than usual (which is saying something!). Although it’s not the most polished of the novels on my list, this is one of the most astonishingly detailed portrayals of the immediate postwar years in England that could be imagined. As Rose Macaulay did with bombed-out ruins in The World My Wilderness, which I discussed recently (and which was a re-read, so it’s not eligible for this list), in Peace, Perfect Peace Josephine Kamm seems to have set out to carefully document the mundane day-to-day details of postwar life. It’s endlessly interesting.
Another flawed but fascinating novel, and I was thrilled to have a chance to read it, as it came from my Hopeless Wish List. Tracing the relationships and experiences of a group of women translators at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence, it’s particularly entertaining for anyone who works or has worked in an office environment, with the cameraderie and pettiness that such places can inspire. But imagine that office environment in the midst of the Blitz! Funny, a bit bitchy, and, like Kamm, marvelously detailed, it’s an almost unique portrayal of women office workers in World War II.
In some ways, this novel might have enabled the whole Furrowed Middlebrow publishing venture. I had already read and loved Peck’s first mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel, and when I finished this one I couldn’t resist emailing Rupert at Dean Street and suggesting both books for their Golden Age mystery series. The rest, as they say, is history! Both mysteries are in print from Dean Street, and of course Peck’s wartime novel Bewildering Cares was one of the first batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles (and was #1 on my 2014 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen).
This one is still in print and available from Greyladies! I can’t say it better than I did in my original review: “For me, what sets The Winter Is Past apart from other portrayals of the earliest days of the war, is that while it has all the hallmarks of a cozy, comforting bit of escapism (and indeed it is very, very entertaining and addictive, so it could really be read as such), Streatfeild's characters are undoubtedly real living breathing human beings, not idealized figures with only minor problems easily resolved at the end. Their flaws are shown and wrestled with, and reading about how they come to terms with them and with one another, one must come to terms with their failings too, and then forgive them and like them anyway.”
The first title on this list not related in any way to WWII! A wonderful intro to Young’s work for me, the tale of a 40-ish spinster with “too much dignity, a troubled relationship with the truth, and a tendency to speak her mind a bit too eloquently.” Miss Mole is a wonderfully complex, damaged character, which makes it even more inexplicable that none of Young’s novels seem to be in print on either side of the Atlantic (though happily most are fairly readily available in green Virago editions from the 1980s).
Released in October as one of the inaugural Furrowed Middlebrow titles, and recently discussed in Gillian Tindall’s article about Ferguson in the Times Literary Supplement, I go back and forth between this novel and A Footman for the Peacock as my favorite Ferguson. Both a satirical warning against nostalgia and a marvelous bit of nostalgia in its own right, it’s funny, highly literary, and a complete education in Edwardian pop culture all in one spot.
6) AUSTIN LEE, Miss Hogg and the Brontë Murders (1956)
I meant to find a way to work in a short review of the two delightful Miss Hogg mysteries reprinted by Greyladies in the past year, but with the trip preparations and the trip itself, they sort of got lost in the shuffle. Despite the fact that they are written by a man (I know, shocking, right?), I fell in love with both this one and the earlier Sheep’s Clothing (1955), which introduces the redoubtable Miss Hogg, spinster heroine of nine mysteries. But having just been to Haworth myself, I had to choose this one, set in and around Brontë country, as my favorite. Both are still in print from Greyladies, who reportedly will eventually reprint all nine Miss Hogg mysteries. I for one am very impatiently awaiting the other seven!
We’re back to the war with this one, but in what delightful style! I dared to compare this one to blogger favorite Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (which, for those of you who don’t subscribe to the Persephone Post, will finally become a Persephone reprint next year—exciting news indeed). In some ways, I like Cavan’s novel better than Tutton’s—there’s a similar focus on charming, perky young girls in an eccentric family, with a similarly dark undercurrent (in this case the imminent approach of war) and the inevitable romantic touches, but I think Moon might actually be more fun. It’s definitely on my radar to be an FM reprint if possible (though sadly Cavan’s other work doesn’t seem to be of equal quality), but its rather jumbo size (just under 400 pages!) would make it a costly reprint. Clearly, I will have to re-read it (and Tutton’s novel as well, of course, for comparison) to assess the situation.
In limiting myself to including one title per author on this list, I set myself the challenge of deciding between Elizabeth Eliot’s giddy debut, Alice, and her fifth and final novel, Cecil (Henry and Mrs Martell would both be close behind as well). Ultimately, though, the more subtle, mature work had to make the cut (though it’s the one that makes her subsequent silence as an author that much more sad). In Cecil, Eliot sets herself the challenge of presenting the dysfunctional relationship between Lady Guthrie and her son through the eyes of an in-law who only sees them infrequently. There’s an almost Jamesian subtlety about the narrator’s (and therefore the reader’s) limited perceptions and knowledge about these characters, which reminds one that we can never know for sure all the motivations of those around us.
I admit that I probably overuse the term “hilarious” on this blog—it’s an easy go-to term for any book that has regularly made me laugh. But in this case it definitely applies. I’ve long been a fan of Anderson’s rollicking memoirs—I wrote about two of her other titles here and here—but this one just might be my favorite of them all. Detailing the granting of a young Verity’s long-cherished wish to accompany her sister Rhalou to boarding-school, and the difficulties she has in adapting to the new environment, Daughters of Divinity is must-read material for fans of school stories and anyone who likes giggling deliriously while one’s family members, spouse, or fellow train-riders look on with unease.
I’m in the minority here, but I found this final novel from the divine Stella Gibbons—written around 1980 but not published until this year—to be one of the best she ever wrote—eloquent, heartbreaking, and impossible to put down. Many other readers have found it hard to engage with the emotionally disengaged heroine, but perhaps I have a bit more in common with Juliet than I’d like to admit. If you’re up for something a bit more challenging, empathy-wise, but with all the wisdom and wit that Gibbons had developed over a lifetime of writing, give this one a try.
It was tough to make a call about my favorite new read of the year. There are so many different kinds of books on this list, so there’s no way to objectively choose a favorite. But this only novel by Ursula Orange’s sister-in-law, recommended to me by Monica Tindall’s niece, Gillian Tindall, ultimately won out. A powerful portrait of a terrible mother and a precise dissection of exactly how she became that way, it’s as compellingly written as a mystery novel and will make your identifications and sympathies shift so frequently as to get tied in knots. And, as I mentioned in my pre-Christmas post, Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow will be reprinting Tindall's novel next March, along with the three best novels of Ursula Orange!
And that’s that. Wow. It really was an extraordinarily successful year of reading. I’d better get busy with my bookshopping and interlibrary loans to make 2017 just as satisfying!
Now, what were your favorite reads of 2016?
Now, what were your favorite reads of 2016?