Sunday, October 30, 2016

Holiday hangover

Just a brief post to say that we are safely back in San Francisco after a wonderful three weeks in England and Scotland. Feeling just a bit the worse for wear, but I suspect after a couple of weeks of rest we would be delighted to do it all over again. Alas, would that that could be.

I promise new posts coming soon, including sharing a few holiday pics. (Andy took well over a thousand photos in all, but since you might not want to spend a month of your life looking at our pics, I promise to share only a few highlights...)

And what of book acquisitions, you ask? Did I exercise my usual, strictly-disciplined restraint and withstand the daunting temptations of Oxfam bookshops in every high street and proper booksellers like Barter Books in Alnwick and Edinburgh Books in Scotland?

Alas, I did not.

Oh dear.

(Details to follow...)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

FRANCES FAVIELL, The Dancing Bear (1954)

[Note: We're still travelling in England and Scotland at the moment, but I prepared a few posts to go up in my absence. Please don't be surprised, concerned, irritated, etc. if comments take a bit longer to appear or if I am not replying to comments as I usually do. It will be because I'm busy gazing at Alnwick Castle or Kings Chapel and haven't got round to moderating comments. But please do comment freely—they will appear eventually and I will appreciate them as always.]

The complete and utter devastation of Berlin had shaken me profoundly. Nothing, not even the nightmare journey from Cuxhaven across the areas of blackened and desolated towns and villages, shattered railway stations, and the twisted tortured relics of battle, had prepared one for the dead horror of this city.

Following her harrowing World War II experiences—described in her brilliant memoir A Chelsea Concerto—Frances Faviell moved with her family to the rubble and ruins of war-torn Berlin. The bombs are no longer falling, but the suffering caused by war goes on, and Faviell powerfully details her own experiences and those of the Altmanns, a family she befriends.

The new Furrowed Middlebrow edition of the book

She describes the hungry, increasingly desperate German people and the bureaucracy of the four occupying armies, witnesses the ruins of a once-great city, and learns the horrifying origin of a game played routinely by children in the streets. And she tries to help the kind Frau Altmann as she copes with a son who sympathizes with the Communists, a daughter strategically dating American soldiers for the benefits they confer, and the entire family’s daily struggle for survival.

The Dancing Bear offers fascinating and important personal insight into life in the German capital in its most difficult days. At times, these insights are harrowing to say the least, as when her husband’s aide, Stampie, gives her a tour of the city shortly after arrival:

It had begun with the memorial to his beloved Desert Rats and ended up with the Reichskanzlei, Hitler's headquarters, and each devastated stark ruin seemed worse than the last.

"Sorry I can't take you over Adolf and Eva's bunker," he had apologized, "We used to be able to go in—but now the Russians have taken a fancy to it we can only see it on Sundays in company with the Comrades on their conducted tours!"

It was the last straw when he said ghoulishly, "There are thousands of bodies still in these ruins! But it's over a year ago now, they can't be much more than bones. When we first came the stench was awful—sweet and sickly like cancer—but it's much better now. You'll notice it sometimes after the rain, though! We'll just see the Schloss now and the Dom; they both make grand ruins…"

Sometimes the reader catches glimpses of things they may never have heard about in history class, such as the process of “denazification” that German citizens were required to undergo in order to work for the Allies (“I agreed with Stampie that it was a lot of nonsense, and that anyone could just pay the fine imposed by the Court and still remain a Nazi at heart”). And there are numerous fly-on-the-wall glimpses of what Berliners felt about their city, such as this one:

I closed my sketchbook—it was too poor a light to draw. Lilli asked to see the sketches and exclaimed in delight as she recognized the lovely ruined Gedl√§chtniskirche and the Brandenburger Tor through which she passed so often on her way to the Opera House.

"I love the Gedlächtniskirche as a ruin," said Ursula, leaning over Lilli's shoulder and looking too. "It was really very ugly as a building."

(Apparently others shared her sentiments about the loveliness of the church’s ruins, since they were famously incorporated into the ultra-modern church built around them, which remains a tourist attraction to this day (better known to us as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church—see below.)

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at night

Faviell must have been at least as alarmed as she was flattered by the presentation of a gift from a woman who obviously hadn’t quite been denazified:

"This," she said, "is my greatest treasure, but if it were found n this house now that my husband is trying to get his denazification through, it might cause trouble for him. We are forbidden to possess these books, you know."

I took the box without opening it.

"I can't like you," she went on. "Life is too bitter for that—but I respect you—and I want you to have this and no one else."

I did not know what "this" was until we got home. It was a beautifully bound book with the gold title, "Adolf Hitler," and depicted in photographs the entire life of the former Fiihrer, from childhood to his rise to fame.

It was a most interesting document, and as my husband said, probably one of very few now in existence, as the Allies had ordered them all to be burned.

One wonders what became of this document? I recall being taken on a tour of the National Archives in Washington when I was still too young to fully appreciate it, and being shown some snapshots of Hitler and Eva—perhaps that collection had similar origins to the one Faviell was given.

An early American edition

Although The Dancing Bear is a bit quieter in tone than A Chelsea Concerto—the Blitz lends a sense of urgency that day-to-day life, even among the ruins of war, can’t quite provide—Faviell’s compassionate and observant eye makes this tale very nearly as compelling. Frau Altmann is a poignant and touching figure, and the books provides some sharp insights into, for example, the scars of war that children carry with them, and the rise of a youth culture in rebellion against the authorities who allowed war to happen (in the latter sense, although the city is different, it’s an interesting companion to Rose Macaulay’s brilliant The World My Wilderness, for example).

But Faviell is also, here as in Concerto, well able to shift gears and note the humor of situations as well as their horror. One of my favorite such passages, and the last I’ll share here, is a variation on the many examples of humorous notices posted on ruins in London:

The Berliners could laugh easily like Londoners, and some of the ironical notices they had put on their ruined homes reminded me very much of the days of our London Blitz.

"All my own work—Adolf Hitler" was one I saw, and "Give me ten years and you won't recognize Berlin. Oh yeah?" was another on a completely demolished home. In spite of the acute shortage of food and fuel and the hopelessness of the future, their spirits rose as the cold gave way to milder days with the promise of spring.

Both The Dancing Bear and A Chelsea Concerto, along with all three of Faviell’s novels—A House on the Rhine (1955), also in part based on Faviell’s experiences in postwar Germany, Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958), are now available as Furrowed Middlebrow books from Dean Street Press. Click below to view all of Faviell’s books on:

          Amazon US or Amazon UK

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A fetishization of Furrowed Middlebrow books

As most of you know, Andy and I are presently gallivanting around England and Scotland. But I didn't want the blog to go all ominously silent for our whole trip, and I wanted to continue to share my excitement about the nine Furrowed Middlebrow books newly released from Dean Street Press. (As I mentioned in my last post, don't be alarmed if it takes longer than usual for comments to appear, as I will only be able to moderate occasionally while travelling.)

I admit I was running out of time to do everything I would have liked to do, as we made our final preparations for our trip (and as my pesky day job was a bit rushed and crazy as well). So preparing several in-depth blog posts in advance just wasn't happening. But I had been overwhelmed by all the wonderful full cover images that Rupert from Dean Street had been sending me (I love seeing the whole wraparound covers, rather than just the front, which always slightly resembles a mug shot). So I thought perhaps some of you would enjoy seeing them all almost as much as I have.

Without further ado, then, here are all of the Furrowed Middlebrow covers, as well as the full covers for the two additional Winifred Peck mysteries published by Dean Street Press. At the bottom of the post, not so much out of shameless self-promotion (though there is admittedly a bit of that as well) as because several people had asked for detailed information about ordering, I am again including the information from last post—a list of all the books, with the titles linking to my original reviews of them, alongside links to their product pages on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

But for now, it's the covers that are front and center:

FM1 - Rachel Ferguson, A Footman for the Peacock (1940)

FM2 - Rachel Ferguson, Evenfield (1942)

FM3 - Rachel Ferguson, A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936)

FM4 - Frances Faviell, A Chelsea Concerto (1959)

FM5 - Frances Faviell, The Dancing Bear (1954)

FM6 - Frances Faviell, A House on the Rhine (1955)

FM7 - Frances Faviell, Thalia (1957)

FM8 - Frances Faviell, The Fledgeling (1958)

FM9 - Winifred Peck, Bewildering Cares (1940)

And the two additional mysteries from Dean Street Press:

Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)

Winifred Peck, Arrest the Bishop? (1949)

Note: You can easily find all nine of the Furrowed Middlebrow books by simply searching "Furrowed Middlebrow" on Amazon.

Rachel Ferguson

Evenfield (1942)
Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson

Frances Faviell

The Dancing Bear (1954)
(review coming soon!)
Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell

Thalia (1957)
Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell

Winifred Peck

And, as mentioned, there are two new titles in Dean Street's Golden Age mystery series that are being published to coincide with the Furrowed Middlebrow Winifred Peck title. Those are:

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Release party

[Note: It was just pointed out to me that somehow Blogger managed to lose all of my link lists. I've more or less rebuilt the list to the left (here's hoping they don't lose it again while we're gone), but I may not have time to rebuild the blog list and other links on the right side. If not, I'll get to it when I return. Sigh.]

Andy and I are in the final throes of preparation for our trip (to England and Scotland, and for three whole weeks, if you’ve missed my 97 previous references to it), with the accompanying anxieties, last-minute itinerary changes, and occasional jumpings out of bed at midnight to make notes of things we need to do. (If I make one more last-minute itinerary change, by the way, Andy may become exasperated and force me to make the trip on my own!)

Due to our glamorous travels, there will only be two or three more posts going up here before the end of October. Also, bear in mind that comment moderation may take a bit longer during that time, depending on wifi availability in our hotels (and my fatigue levels, no doubt), so don’t be alarmed if your comments don’t appear as quickly as they ordinarily do. In addition, I will probably not be able to respond to comments—though I will certainly be reading them, as always.

But we can’t go riding off into the sunset without a release party!

Okay, not literally a party, at least not in the sense of a Hollywood premeire with glamorous celebrities and haute couture, but it’s the closest we can come to one via this blog. I wish I could offer you all champagne and appropriate delicacies, and perhaps an elegant chat with Cate Blanchett or George Clooney, but in lieu of that, feel free to imbibe and consume the beverages and tidbits of your choice in celebration. For the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press is officially live, with all nine books available for purchase in both physical and e-book formats (see below for the nitty gritty details)!

I’m pleased as punch about this, as you might expect, and although it’s true I can’t offer you Cate (with a C) to nibble tidbits with, I can offer a very exciting tidbit from a Kate (with a K), who is a megastar in her own right.

As part of our rollout, Dean Street sent copies of our two lead titles, A Chelsea Concerto and A Footman for the Peacock, to various media outlets and high-profile literati. And in only a few days’ time, we received an email from none other than the brilliant Kate Atkinson, author of numerous acclaimed bestsellers, including Life After Life, which many of you, I know, have read, and which features a powerful section set during the Blitz (hence our feeling that she might take an interest in the books). In her email, she said she had searched for a copy of A Chelsea Concerto when she was researching her book, but was unable to find it, so she was delighted to see it back in print. She also generously provided us with an enthusiastic blurb, which we are now using on the book’s cover, but I can’t resist reporting it here too:

I am so happy that A Chelsea Concerto is back in print. It is a gem of a book, one of the best personal memoirs of WW2 on the home front, written with an artist’s eye for detail and immediacy.

She also noted, I might cheerfully add, that she “loved” A Footman for the Peacock as well. I’m very grateful to Kate for her enthusiasm and generosity!

(Speaking of Cates and Kates, I told Rupert at Dean Street of my fantasy of seeing a film version of Concerto—which would surely, with the right handling and cast, be Oscar-calibre—and I said I couldn’t imagine a better lead than either the aforementioned Cate Blanchett or the incomparable Kate Winslet. So he’s actually sending copies of the book to their People. Perhaps there’ll be a bidding war for the rights?)

I was also delighted to see some feedback on the FM books from a real live bookstore recently. Check out this tweet from the Regency Bookshop in Surbiton, kindly admiring the book covers and linking to my recent post about them. Thanks, guys!

(Which reminds me, a small favor to ask of any of you doing some real life physical book shopping in the coming weeks. If you happen to be in a bookshop and see our books in stock, I would love to hear about it, and if you’re camera-savvy enough to take a picture of them on the shelves, I would love to see that as well and might share the news/pictures here. Not sure how many bookshops will carry them, but hopefully some will—perhaps including the Regency Bookshop?—and it will be very exciting to know about any sightings.)

Speaking of Twitter, a universe I have only (at best) dabbled in thus far, Dean Street Press has an active Twitter account (@deanstpress) with an impressive following, where you can stay up-to-the-minute on the Furrowed Middlebrow titles as well as all of Dean Street’s Golden Age mystery rediscoveries and other publications. The idea has been floated, by the way, of a possible Furrowed Middlebrow Twitter and/or Facebook presence, and I am mulling it over. Can I see myself tweeting? Tweet, tweet. Hmmm, what do you think?

And speaking of online presences (how many times can I use “speaking of” in one post, you ask?—let’s see), an additional note that may inspire you to check out the Dean Street Press website with some frequency: They regularly have a “Free Kindle Ebook of the Week” available for downloading. They rotate through some of their popular titles, so you may well get lucky and find the occasional Furrowed Middlebrow title, available for nothing more than a couple of clicks of your mouse! (One quick note, though: Dean Street only has British ebook rights for the many lesser-known Patricia Wentworth books they’ve released—US ebooks are from Open Road Media, and are, I might add, rather pricier. The result of this is that when one of the Wentworth books is the free book of the week, it will only be available to customers in the U.K. However, when other titles, including the FM books, are on offer, they should be available on both sides of the pond.)

And speaking of… (sorry, just playing with you)

Now on to the details. I realize that some of my previous posts about our books haven’t contained complete information about buying the books, so this post (visually bland as it is without any pics) will finish up by having all the ordering information in one handy place. Then, the next post (assuming that all goes well when I’m off gleefully touching stones at Avebury or ogling Yorkminster) will be the purest book fetishism and will make up for this post's lack of photos—since I don’t have room for them in this post, I’m going to include all the full book jackets for you to peruse—and I’ll include the ordering information there too, just in case. But for now, here goes:

There are nine Furrowed Middlebrow titles in all (plus two additional Winifred Peck titles in Dean Street’s Golden Age mystery series that link up nicely). They’re all available both as physical books (print-on-demand, but quite lovely in my own slightly biased option—see here) and as e-books. The e-books are available exclusively from Amazon (and exclusively for Kindle—apologies to any users of other devices out there), and should be up on all its various English-language variants in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the US. The physical books are available from Amazon as well as from other online sources, including Book Depository, and, as mentioned above, from some bookshops as well.

Below, I’m listing all the books (click on a title to see my original review post about it) and providing links to purchasing them on Amazon US and Amazon UK (no offense to the Aussies or Kiwis or Canucks, or anyone else for that matter, but I fear that too many links may be as confusing as none at all). The links, by the way, will default to the physical books, but you’ll see the Kindle format option just under the title and author info—just click there if you prefer the e-book version (or of course, you can just type in the authors’ names and get there easily enough even without the link). Now, I know the list itself is by no means aesthetically pleasing, but I have—as you must know if you’ve been following this blog for a long time and have never seen an update to its overall design—no artistic eye whatsoever. But, ugly or not, at least the core information is present (or let me know if it’s not).

Thanks again for all the amazing support I’ve received from so many of you!

Note: You can easily find all nine of the Furrowed Middlebrow books by simply searching "Furrowed Middlebrow" on Amazon.

Rachel Ferguson

Evenfield (1942)
Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson

Frances Faviell

The Dancing Bear (1954)
(review coming soon!)
Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell

Thalia (1957)
Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell

Winifred Peck

And, as mentioned, there are two new titles in Dean Street's Golden Age mystery series that are being published to coincide with the Furrowed Middlebrow Winifred Peck title. Those are:

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Sunday, October 2, 2016


This is quite a random pairing of books to report on, and my only excuse is that the extent of my thoughts on each is about half the length of a proper blog post. How's that for well-considered, thoughtful planning?

I don't usually say a lot about books I don't like. I know that different readers feel differently about each book, and I'm always haunted by those reviewers on Amazon who have the chutzpah to denigrate even the greatest literary works of all time. If you haven't already, have a look some time at reviews of Hamlet, for example, or Pride and Prejudice, or Bleak House, or Middlemarch, or any other widely-read and highly-regarded book. There's always one or more dolts ready to weigh in with their carefully considered opinion that Shakespeare is a terrible writer, Austen is pretentious, or Dickens is crap.

I therefore always try to be mindful of the fact that every reader's ability to appreciate any kind of artistic work is relative and completely limited by his or her own likes and dislikes, life experiences, education, and previous reading, not to mention one's mood at the moment one is reading. (How often have I picked up a book, hated it, and then tried it again and loved it a year later?) I'd rather, usually, focus on my own limitations, and why a book didn't work for me at this point in time, rather than make a blanket statement that it's the book itself, not me, that's the problem.

All of which is to say that my long-planned, much-delayed reading of a second novel by March Cost (real name Margaret Morrison) finally happened but wasn't quite the experience I had anticipated.

When I first dived into Invitation from Minerva, I was delighted to find that it was a sequel of sorts to the only other Cost novel I'd read, The Hour Awaits, which I briefly wrote about here. I had only a vague recollection of that novel, but certainly remembered enjoying it. And Minerva starts off promisingly enough, just hours after Hour left off, with the Princess chatting with a friend in London, appreciating handsome men, whisking about Europe, arranging the sale of a painting in Florence, and then finally returning home to her impoverished chateau in what was former the Austrian empire but is now an obscure part of Italy.  Clio, a spunky 17-year-old who has been acclaimed for rescuing a cat from the roof of a villa (though the rescue turns out to have been a fraud, stemming from her having broken into the villa's library—a crime I can surely appreciate) joins the cast, coming to stay with the princess just before a flood of other guests arrive for a dinner party. 

But then, after such a sophisticated and enjoyable first half of the novel, Cost inexplicably locks her characters into the chateau, using the device of an avalanche burying the entire house. The rest of the novel, sadly, reads like a rather melodramatic play, with far too much gushing and gasping, paling of faces and narrowing of eyes, as all their various intrigues play out in a few rooms. From jetsetting across Europe to a rather tedious experimental play, all in the course of one novel! Clearly, this is quite intentional, and Clio's idea for a play becomes a central symbol for the novel itself:

With a gasp Clio came to the surface again, "But this is weird," she said, "—watching you all! Earlier I told Princess Sophia of a plot I'd got for a play—a gathering of affinities in a private house, just like this. In the first act, you would be as you are now. Hidden. In the second act, you would be disclosed. And the third act—the third act would be the most gorgeous of all ... for we'd all be back together, facing what we then knew of each other. Why! in some cases it might be simply frightful—" her inquisitorial glance flashed along the board—"or very wonderful." She paused to consider the Comte, and lost vigour.

Sadly, in the case of the novel, I found the result quite a bit more on the "simply frightful" side than the "very wonderful" one. But of course, other readers might feel very differently, and I haven't given up on March Cost quite yet! Bree at Another Look Book wrote about another of Cost's novels, The Bespoken Mile, fairly recently, and her review made me want to proceed straight to that novel. It might take me another year, knowing me, but I'll certainly sample more of Cost's work.

And speaking of how long it takes me to get round to reading certain books, it's embarassing to admit that I acquired a copy of Clare Tomalin's bio of Jane Austen almost as soon as it came out, and have now, a mere 19 years later, actually read it. (Well, to clarify, I read a different copy, actually, since that early copy was lost in the great purge of 2000, before my move from Washington DC to San Francisco—c'est la vie.) I've flirted with the book on numerous occasions since then, but it took our upcoming trip to England, and our impending visits to Winchester, Chawton, and Bath—Austenesque destinations all—to finally inspire me to make a commitment.

Some of you, at least, are sure to be Jane Austen fans already, and to be far more knowledgeable about her than I am, so I'll just mention a couple of things I was struck by. For instance, I hadn't realized that so much time elapsed between the writing of her first three novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey—and the later three, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. In between was a gap of more than a decade. It's hard to resist (and Tomalin doesn't resist either) imagining what other works Austen might have produced had circumstances allowed her to be actively writing for all of those years. In fact, Tomalin notes that the early version of Pride and Prejudice nearly found a publisher soon after its writing, and speculates what might have happened if a lazy and incompetent publisher hadn't passed on the book. With the encouragement and financial resources that might have resulted from a successful publication, who knows how many other Austen novels we might have?

Being the obsessive tracker of obscure authors that I am, I also liked hearing about Austen's own reading material, which, in addition to featuring some surprisingly scandalous authors like Fielding and Sterne, included women writers such as Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, and Hannah Cowley. A promising beginning for an 18th century Overwhelming List!

I was also surprised by reading about some of her early writings, and this one, sent to her brother Francis, takes the cake:

All her early works were given these dedications to friends and members of the family, whether present or absent, and she inscribed Jack and Alice to Francis more than a year after his departure. It must have made him laugh, this story of a quiet country village with a cast of bad girls, ambitious, affected, 'Envious, Spitefull & Malicious' as well as 'short, fat and disagreeable'. One girl is found with her leg broken in a steel mantrap; subsequently she is poisoned by a rival, and the rival is hanged. The ambitious girl captures an old Duke, the affected one leaves the country and becomes the favourite of a Mogul prince. Another village family is so 'addicted to the Bottle & the Dice' that a son dies of drink and a daughter starts a fight with the local widow, the pious Lady Williams, who is herself carried home 'dead drunk' after a masquerade. Particular interest is shown in the effect of drink on women; Jane sagely notes that their heads are said to be 'not strong enough to support intoxication'. This sounds so like an older brother's piece of worldly wisdom that it is not surprising Jane crossed it out; perhaps she and Francis had started on the story together before he went to sea. Two children intensely curious about the adult world, laughing at drunkenness, cruelty and death, seem plausible originators of Jack and Alice. Jane had already faced death when she was away at school, Francis might now face it even further from home; better to die laughing than be pitiable, was tough Jane's word for tough Francis.

A Jane Austen tale featuring boozy widows and spiteful bad girls duking it out in a country village? Count me in!

It was interesting (and a bit disappointing) to learn that Chawton cottage, which we hope to be visiting in mid-October, was turned into a tenement after Cassandra's death, and that it was only in the late 1940s that it was remodelled and restored to something approximating its look in Austen's day. But I suppose it's too much to ask that Austen's pen should still be lying exactly where she left it…

And finally, I have to share the funniest line of Austen's quoted in the bio. It's from a letter to her sister Cassandra, and has to do with a young man Jane was thrown together with in 1798, perhaps with an eye toward marriage. He, at least, seemed to have had marriage in mind—before even meeting her, in fact—but then did not pursue his goal. Here's Jane's hilarious formulation of the situation:

Jane was at her sourest explaining to Cassandra that it was 'most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.'

Clearly, Jane must go on my short list of people I'd love to have tea with if the opportunity arose.
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