Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2017

No, my "middlebrow vacation" from blogging is not over. In fact, Andy and I will be on our real holiday vacation in Washington DC shortly. But I couldn't resist the temptation for one more Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen list. It was a great year of reading, and my blog vacation in the past few weeks has led me to some exciting new reads, including four contemporary novels that I have to mention even if they're technically "off topic".

Two of these might well be of interest to readers of this blog, even if they (like me) don't often read contemporary fiction. I couldn't put down RACHEL KADISH's The Weight of Ink, vividly set in London just before and during the plague of 1665, as well as in the early 2000s, when two scholars are making an astonishing discovery about a Jewish scribe working in the earlier time. Kadish is brilliant with her descriptions of the London of the time, and I felt I'd had a chance to travel back in time and experience a walk across the old bustling, smelly London Bridge with its ramshackle tumble of shops. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction, as well as for fans of A. S. Byatt's Possession.

That discovery led me (via Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature) to SARAH PERRY's amazing second novel, The Essex Serpent, which offers a similarly atmospheric and compelling version of 19th century England (and also evoked, for me, an earlier novel—John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). I loved this one even more, and recommended it to a co-worker who was similarly sold. I think many of you would enjoy it.

But the two biggest standouts of my sparse contemporary reading this year were, surprisingly, books by men, both of which harkened back to my days of reading slightly edgier, more experimental fiction. GEORGE SAUNDERS's Lincoln in the Bardo, which happily won this year's Booker (though at the same time I am still ambivalent about Yanks being allowed to win it at all), reminded me of both Mark Twain and Samuel Beckett, and I don't think there could be many books about which that's true. I've never been teary-eyed on one page and laughing maniacally on the next so many times in the course of one book, so if you're open to unconventional storytelling with a powerful historical bent, give it a try.

And finally, I geared myself up for all the trauma and beauty that is COLSON WHITEHEAD's The Underground Railroad and was fair blown away. Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but ultimately exhilarating and uplifting.

I've also started two other contemporary mystery series as a result of recommendations. People have been telling me to read LOUISE PENNY for ages, and I now have and am hooked. I've finished the first two in the series, Still Life and Dead Cold, and the third, The Cruelest Month, will accompany me on my flight to DC. And I read C. J. SANSOM's Dissolution as a result of an intriguing review in The Scribbler an issue or two back, and I've never learned so much about a period of British history and had so much fun at the same time.

But I'm not including any of these I my dozen. Per tradition, it's limited to books that fit the main focus of this blog, and for those that I've reviewed here, I'm linking to my review. So without further ado:

12) Monica Redlich, Five Farthings (1939)

In many ways an ordinary enough family adventure story, but oh my! As a travelogue of London just before WWII, particularly focused on churches and historic buildings, it was one of the two best wish-fulfillment fantasies I came across this year—see #3 below for the other.

11) Christianna Brand, Suddenly at His Residence (1946)

One of several books here that I never got round to discussing, but I had a great time with it, and surely there can't be many mysteries whose climax is punctuated by a doodlebug bombing.

10) Isabel Cameron, The But and Ben (1948)

My biggest regret of the year is not getting round to discussing Isabel Cameron. Something like an even cozier, Scottish version of Miss Read—cheerful, sentimental, and placidly (and not too intrusively) informed by Cameron's own Christian beliefs—she was one of the happiest discoveries of my bookshopping raids in Edinburgh last year. She is better known as the author of a series of tales about "The Doctor", which apparently sold more than a million copies, but it was her four Glen Craigan novels that proved irresistible to me. The But and Ben and its three sequels—Tattered Tartan (1950), Heather Mixture (1952), and The Kirk of the Corrie (1956)—trace the arrival and gradual settling-in of a young woman doctor in a close-knit Highlands community. They seem ripe for rediscovery, and they're actually not impossible to find at reasonable prices…

9) Verily Anderson, Our Square (1957)

Sadly the last of Verily Anderson's six wonderful memoirs that I hadn't read, but now I can go back and start re-reading them. This one tells of the early days of her hectic married life, in all of her usual incomparable and hilarious style.

8) Winifred Lear, The Causeway (1948)

One of the oddest and yet most satisfying of the novels I read this year. Sadly, Lear wrote only two novels, and her second, Shady Cloister (1950), set in a girls' school, didn't quite live up to its promise for me. But this one, even months after reading it and with my notoriously bad memory for plots, comes vividly back to mind, and the fact that it makes interesting use of wartime realities just adds to the mix.

7) Stella Gibbons, The Swiss Summer (1951)
6) Stella Gibbons, A Pink Front Door (1959)
5) Stella Gibbons, The Snow-Woman (1969)

The biggest chunk of my reading during my blog vacation has involved obsessively tracking down and reading several of the Stella Gibbons novels that weren't reprinted in the past few years by Vintage. It started innocently enough, when I finally picked up The Yellow Houses, the last of Gibbons's novels to finally be published. I didn't absolutely love that one, as I did the other "lost" novel, Pure Juliet, but Houses was enough to send me on a Gibbons bender, and these are the three standouts so far. Gibbons's nephew, Reggie Oliver, in his rather anemic bio of her, dismisses Swiss Summer as dull and little more than a travelogue about attractive characters spending a summer in the Alps, but that description might well make fans (like me) of Enchanted April and similarly quiet novels with wodnerful settings sit up and take notice. A Pink Front Door is also surprisingly cozy for a Gibbons novel, dealing with a young wife who attempts to solve everyone's problems, to the dismay of her father and husband. I enjoyed both a lot, but it was The Snow-Woman, the second to last of Gibbons's novels to be published in her lifetime, that made me feel more than ever that she's a kindred spirit. The story of a bitter—even, initially, rather unlikeable—woman in her seventies, who visits old friends in France, then returns to her quiet life to discover the "snow" of her years of bitterness melting away, it's a lovely, perceptive novel that deserves to be more readily available. Happily, Gibbons wrote quite a number of novels, so I still have several more left to track down…

4) Rumer Godden, China Court (1961)

I also re-read The Greengage Summer this year and was so tempted to add it to this list, but decided to limit myself to new discoveries from this year. I thought I'd already read all the very best of Rumer Godden's books and was only filling in some of her lesser works, but this one gives all my other favorites a run for their money. Which is best: China Court? Greengage Summer? Episode of Sparrows? In This House of Brede? Or her marvelous memoirs? I can't choose, so it's fortunate I read all those others in previous years.

3) Mabel Esther Allan, Changes for the Challoners (1955)

Possibly my favorite of all the MEA books I've read so far (and I must be up to 25 or 30 now), and the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. Who wouldn't want to move to Allan's fictional version of Chester, make new friends, and search for lost Roman ruins?

2) Hilda Hewett, So Early One Morning (1948)

An author that Shirley at The Scribbler and I both came across for the first time this year. This was my particular favorite of Hewett's work—a funny, charming, and and ahead-of-its-time portrayal of a 13-year-old aspiring actress's first love. Hewett turned out to be a wildly uneven author, though I also tracked down Shirley's discovery, Kaleidoscope (1947), set near the end of WWII, and enjoyed it tremendously as well. But So Early One Morning is the one I'll want to re-read and savor the most.

1) Marjorie Mack (later Marjorie Dixon), The Red Centaur (1939)

There was really no question what my favorite novel of the year would be, though Mack, too, proved to be an uneven writer (see my disappointment in her one other adult novel, Velveteen Jacket, here). Red Centaur focuses on 8-year-old Laurel Maude's observations (and misunderstandings) of the adult dramas around her during one glorious summer in Brittany. It reminded me of the best of Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer and Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy, two of my all-time favorites.

And that was my year of reading. What were your favorites of the year?


  1. Lovely to see you back, even briefly! I'm not doing my best-of until 1 January, as always: I've got some great books lined up on the TBR and there are also Christmas Piles to delve into, so I never like to assume until I've got the year done. Happy holidays and I hope you drop by to see my best of when it comes out!

  2. As a DE Stevenson and Jane Duncan fan, I am so intrigued by those Isabel Cameron books! A Dean St possibility?

    I used to like Rumer Godden but her late conversion to Catholicism and nastiness about divorce really bugs me. After all, she was divorced herself before her conversion and I do hate people who preach "do as I day not as I do."

  3. Thank you for your interesting and insightful year end list. Like a previous commenter, Isabel Cameron's books sound very interesting indeed, so I took my newly acquired Amazon Gift Card (from Christmas version 1, visiting one set of family) and rushed to Amazon and snapped up an inexpensive version of The But and Ben, before someone else reading this blog could beat me to it. At least I hope I got in first, with used book resellers there is always the finite chance that it had already sold and just not been removed from the computer system as of yet.

    Best wishes to Scott and Andy and all who read this blog.


    1. Well, I have just finished reading The But and Ben. I enjoyed it, especially as a comparison/contrast to some of DES's Scotland books. But I can't say I loved it as much as I expected to. To me it came across a bit "girls career story" rather than "novel". The characters didn't live and breath to me. And the part with "Sambo" was a bit difficult. But perhaps on a re-read I will get more out of it. Or if I ever manage to read the rest of the series it may grow on me. Certainly interesting to see some of the same issues addressed in DES's books dealt with in often quite different ways.

      Happy New Year!!


  4. Thanks for the update, Scott. Best books this year for me?

    Sisters in the Wilderness, the bio of Canadian 19th century settlers (or shall we remember they too were migrants?) Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, by Charlotte Grey

    Window on my Heart by Olave Baden-Powell: wonderful memoir of the Chief Guide, and her long life of public sevice in the Guiding movement.

    Youth at the Gate, Ursula Bloom's moving memoir of life on the home front in WWI

    And many others.

    Wish you and Andy a good Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

  5. OK, thinking about best new to me reads in 2017, high on the list come Furrowed Middlebrow reissues, The Lark, Tom Tiddler's Ground and the Elizabeth Fair novels.

    Then, for something completely different, I also read Fantasy and SF, and I have fallen in love with Penric, the invention of Lois M. Bujold, who is writing novellas about Penric and self publishing to her own schedule as a sort of "semi-retirement". Two came out this year, and I especially enjoyed Penric's Fox, although I do think for readers new to the series the first one Penric's Demon is the place to start (but it came out a couple of years ago, as I recall.)

    I don't do a good job of keeping a listing of what I read, but these stick in my mind and heart.

  6. I see I forgot to sign my post. The Penric and Lark, etc. recommendations come from me. And I remembered the delightful Sun in the Morning by Cadell, which I encountered only in audio book format, read by the authors grand-daughter (or great?, anyway, a direct decedent) which is a semi-autobiographical tale of her youth in India. I read or listened to other Elizabeth Cadell's this year, but that was the standout.

    Jerri (see, I remembered to sign this time)

  7. What? Elizabeth Cadell wrote Sun in the Morning? I read it when I was about 11. I went over to Goodreads just now to look for the one I remembered, and sure enough, it's the same book.

    Not to be confused with M M Kaye's memoir of her HER childhood in India, also called The Sun in the Morning.

    1. VERY interesting. I wonder if Sun in the Morning was a quote from something? It sounds like the two books are very different, but interesting reads in their own ways.


  8. Clicked on this by mistake, as I had given up - but LO! I guess it was not a mistake, but MEANT TO BE! So happy to have a column to read from you, Scott! Alas, you all know all the faves I would have listed, as almost all of them came from you all!
    Happy 2018, it's got to be better - I HOPE! - and here's to more good reading!

  9. Glad to see you back, Scott, albeit briefly! My newest discovery - about six weeks ago actually - is O Douglas. I can't imagine why I've never read her and can only assume I mixed her up with O Henry, a common mistake, it seems. I've now read half-a-dozen of her earlier books and am on a mission to find more at prices I can afford!
    (Nicola Slade)

  10. Happy New Year! I loved The Essex Serpent, and have started The Weight of Ink, which has been sitting on my e-reader for quite a while, so thanks for the recommendation.

  11. Hello! I found your blog just as you went on vacation. I am a huge fan of British fiction and have most of D.E. Stevenson books, as well as Barbara Pym, and many from the Bloomsbury group. I have been reading E.M. Delafield and enjoying her books thoroughly. Of course the Provincial Lady series is delightful, but her other books really intrigue me, particularly her insight into people who lack self awareness, such as Charmain Vivian in The War Workers, and the fascinatingly imperious Lady Rossiter in Tension. Such delightful reads!!! Looking forward to further blog posts!

  12. Another Rumer Godden fan!! Episode of Sparrows is so first rate. Her characterizations are spot on and always original. Thank you for your blog. I have found a kindred spirit.

  13. Hello Scott, Quite by chance I found your blog today when searching for Mollie Chappell's 'The Sugar and Spice'. As an avid collector and reader of early to mid 20th century children's fiction, plus adult fiction by women writers, it's a real find, and I know I will be spending many hours browsing your previous posts. Many thanks for this list. Karen

  14. So many books to keep an eye out for, Scott. Heartily agree with you about Stella Gibbons, I've read seven of her books so far and loved every one. And you've reminded me how much I adored An Episode of Sparrows by Godden. Have you read Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik? The paperback edition is expected sometime around the beginning of February so please take a peek...I think you'd like it!


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