Saturday, December 29, 2018


(If all goes according to plan, this post will appear while Andy and I are gearing up for New Year's celebrations with his family in the Philippines. Hope you all have a festive holiday, and good health and happiness to us all in 2019!)

I've been blogging now for almost six years (which I find mindboggling). But the advantage to all that time spent geeking out and obsessing over obscure women writers is that I've now been able to get quite scientific about it all, which I'd like to think is why this has been my single happiest year of literary archaeology ever.

I think I've mentioned before the database I use to keep track of the authors and books I come across. I created it back in grad school, to keep track of notes on reading for classes and to flag things I needed to remember or still needed to follow up. That phase having ended, I adapted the database to a sortable and searchable storehouse for information on the books and authors that interested me—which, as you know, has become quite an inclusive category. It has evolved over the years since and grown more complex.

As it stands, the database includes a dizzying 6,155 authors in all. These include the 1,966 women writers of fiction on my British women writers list (complete with their entries from my list and flags for things that need to be updated—very much an overdue process at this point—as well as biographical info, research, and entries for each work they published), 521 authors who are or will (theoretically) be included on my incomplete and woefully stagnant American women writers list, 68 authors I need to consider more closely for possible inclusion on those lists, and 921 "peripheral" authors—authors who were writing during or around my time period (1910-1960), but who don't qualify for my lists (fiction writers who stopped publishing in 1908, for example, male novelists of the period, women who wrote only memoirs, etc.).

I also use the database to keep track of other kinds of book related things, not just related to the blog, so the other 2500+ authors include non-fiction authors, most of the "classic" authors, older or newer authors than those covered by my blog (ranging from Chaucer to Sarah Perry), random authors I've read (I also use the database to keep track of all the books I've read since May of 1986—I passed the 3,000th title on that list not long ago), contemporary authors I have some interest in, and, last but certainly not least, authors by whom I own one or more books (I use the database to keep track of my library—both electronic and physical books).

Oh yes! I am certainly obsessive. But that's not all (or even, really, the point as far as this post goes).

I also use the database to keep tabs on my ever-expanding TBR list. I have no less than three blog-related checkboxes by which I can flag different levels of interest in tracking down and reading a book, and there's also a non-blog-related list for books I want to get round to that have nothing to do with the blog (like the Louise Penny books, or, say, Andre Gide or William Faulkner). For most of these books, I've already poked around to see how available they are from libraries and/or how affordable they are to buy, and I keep that information in the database as well.

This year, I decided to take matters further and export the titles from all four of my reading lists into an Excel spreadsheet. Which allowed me to color code it (no, I'm not kidding) and prioritize it more precisely, in order to make library visits and interlibrary loan requests more efficient, and to set up strategic Abe Books "wants" as needed. Knowing which books I can or can't get from a library allows me to focus my shopping attentions and resources on the hardest-to-find titles.

The fact that this spreadsheet contains over 2,000 individual books I'd like to read might give me a pause, given that I've read, as mentioned above, just over 3,000 books since 1986. But obsessions are not, practical, and readers are the most optimistic of souls when it comes to estimating what they'll have time to read!

Regardless of its delusional elements, though, it's this more efficient way of obsessing that, I choose to believe, allowed me to have such a good reading year. I have to believe this, as I'd hate to think all this obsessiveness was just a waste of time.

It was a terrible challenge whittling this year's favorites down to 12 (and I even cheated slightly, as you'll see). How on earth could my list not include any of the obscure STELLA GIBBONS novels I read and loved early this year? Nor any of the page-turning domestic dramas of GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, which I've been reading and will be writing more about here in the future (I wrote about the first here, but I'm now through three more of her lovely books and very much a fan)?

Other also-rans this year include DAISY NEUMANN's quite lovely Now That April's There, which I reviewed here, MAVIS DORIEL HAY's frolic of a mystery Murder Underground, ELFRIDA VIPONT's Dowbiggins trilogy, which I never got round to reviewing (fun but not up to her Lark series), GERALDINE SYMONS's intriguing novel of childhood The Suckling (see here), and STELLA TENNYSON JESSE's delightful travel-themed Eve in Egypt (see here). All perfectly worthy of inclusion in an ordinary year.

Among books that don't fall within the scope of this blog, I want to mention CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD's Prater Violet, a very short, humorous novel from 1945 about behind-the-scenes Hollywood madness, and CELESTE NG's Little Fires Everywhere, practically the only non-mystery contemporary novel I read this year, a riveting social drama about several mothers, their children, and the tensions that flare in a well-to-do Ohio community after a Chinese baby is adopted by a white couple.

On the mystery front, I've been steadily working my way through LOUISE PENNY's absolutely marvelous Inspector Gamache novels. I finished #9 just before #14 came out late last month, so I'm getting there! I also had my first, very belated introduction to MARTHA GRIMES, reading the brand new entry The Knowledge and enjoying it very much. But above all, I'm prioritizing JEANNE M. DAMS's very cozy Dorothy Martin mysteries—I just read the first, The Body in the Transept, and loved it more than any other cozy mystery since Hazel Holt's Mrs Mallory mysteries. (I know I'm hardly on the cutting edge here—Body was published in 1995, but better late than never!) With typical self-restraint, I waited until I was nearly halfway through the first book before ordering the next six…

But enough about the books that didn't make or didn't qualify for the final list. Without further ado, I give you the Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen:

12) BETTY ASKWITH, A Step Out of Time

A past "possibly Persephone" suggestion that I'd long meant to read, and I have a review coming soon. An entertaining timeslip story that reminded me a bit of Mabel Esther Allan.

I was thrilled to find this less-known title from the inimitable Miss Read—just a tad more realistic and edgy than her imminently cozy Fairacre and Thrush Green series. If you're a fan of Miss Read, or a fan of school-themed novels or widening world stories, this one's a sure winner.

10) SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER, With the Hunted: Selected Writings

I can't believe I didn't get around to reviewing this, and I also can't believe that it only warranted publication from a tiny press that immediately allowed it to lapse out of print (though I am grateful to them for publishing it to begin with—it must have been a rather thankless and profitless endeavour). A collection of Warner's non-fiction pieces that makes clear what a brilliant and eclectic mind she had. Perfect bedside reading, it's like chatting over tea with an unassuming, charming genius—sometimes her interests may grab you more, sometimes less, but it's always a pleasure to be in her presence. [I also read and loved Warner's posthumous collection Scenes of Childhood, featuring short pieces originally from The New Yorker and largely about her own childhood.]

Never are morbid horrors more entertaining than in Comyns's work, and this example from among Comyns's less well-known work proved no exception. I got distracted too soon from my return to reading Comyns—must rectify that next year…

Okay, cheating a bit here, but I can't choose between these. The former is the very best of the MEA romantic suspense novels that I've read, and the latter is my favorite so far of her school stories. Plus, I got to write the intro for the Greyladies edition of the former!

I've just realized that all the remaining entries contain titles with WWII or immediate postwar settings. My spreadsheet clearly bore lots of WWII-related fruit this year!

Another Greyladies rediscovery. A sequel, for adults, to Barne's classic children's story She Shall Have Music, which both lives up to the earlier book and presents a completely believable grownup version of its heroine, all in a poignant romance set just as World War II is baring its teeth.

6) SUSAN ALICE KERBY, Miss Carter and the Ifrit

I am going to review this title, I promise, so for now let's just ponder: what becomes a dispirited middle-aged spinster beaten down by long years of war more than an enthusiastic genie? A delightful late-war romp with a surprising bit of romance.

5) D. E. STEVENSON, Spring Magic

Oh, and I really did mean to review this one too, dammit, but I read it just before we got the go-ahead to reprint it along with four other DES titles, and there was such a flurry of activity on the publishing side that I lost track of doing a review. But oh, what a delightful DES title—it's a mystery why no one else had already reprinted it (but I'm glad they hadn't, so that I could!). A coastal village in Scotland, a spunky heroine, three entertaining military wives who befriend her, and a burgeoning romance complicated by misunderstandings, all in the early years of World War II. For DES fans who, like me, consider the Miss Buncle and Mrs Tim books the crème de la crème, here's another delicious dollop!

#4 and #3 are both in the category of "not great novels but marvelously valuable social documents." Wine of Honour traces the lives of an array of folks in an English village just after the end of World War II, with a special focus on women who have been in the services and are readjusting to their various peacetime lives. Fly-on-the-wall fiction at its finest.

For Blitz Lit aficionados, this one is irreplaceable. In part the story of a hopeless (and rather mundane) love affair, it's really focused on how people went on living their lives in surprisingly ordinary ways among the terrors and disruptions of falling bombs. Noble clearly lived in London during the Blitz, and provides lavish details of what it was like that can't be found anywhere else.

1) (tie) CAROLA OMAN, Nothing to Report

I've gone back and forth repeatedly on which of these top two entries should be #1, so I finally gave up and called a tie. This one I haven't reviewed yet, but soon, I promise. Oh, I am in love with it. Stay tuned!

1) (tie) DORIS LANGLEY MOORE, Not at Home & All Done by Kindness

These two, on the other hand (yes, I'm cheating here too—so sue me), I've already raved about at length. A Game of Snakes and Ladders and My Caravaggio Style are also winners, but these are Moore's masterpieces, both showing the unexpected intricacies and repercussions of one's simplest actions. And Not at Home falls into the late wartime category as well...

Well, that's that! What books did you love this year?

Thanks to all of you for sticking with me through another year, as I keep raving about books that are nearly impossible to find. But two of these twelve are currently in print (both from Greyladies), and a third will very soon be available as a Furrowed Middlebrow title. A couple of others are not too difficult to track down, and as for the rest, well, you never know!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Happy holidays! (and a holiday blog break)

I wasn't actually planning to do this quite so soon, but things have got away from me a bit. Andy and I are gearing up for our biennial international trip and time has run out for me doing a couple of posts I was planning to get to. As a result, the blog will be inactive until after the new year. But just a few things to tell you about before then.

First and foremost, I hope you all have exactly the kind of holidays that best suit you—lively and social with friends and/or family, filled with travel, stuffed with good food, or pleasantly lazy with good books. Ours will certainly include the first three, with perhaps even a bit of time here and there for the last.

Next, the trip, which I don't think I've mentioned here before. We are off in a few days for a three week excursion to the Philippines, with a side trip of several days to Siem Reap in Cambodia! Woohoo!

Andy spent his early childhood in the Philippines and makes a return visit every few years, but this will be my first time accompanying him. It's the first time in a long time that he's making the trip at Christmas, and several of his siblings will be there as well, so we'll have a chance to see lots of family and enjoy the holidays with them. It will not only be my first time in the Philippines, but my first time in Asia—or, for that matter, any other continent besides Europe and North America—so I'm excited to experience something quite different from our usual European vacations. Sadly, however, it means that, barring a major climatological anomaly, it will not be a white Christmas—temperatures are expected to be in the upper 80s.

We've been planning this trip for over a year, but I'm very glad that my world traveller boss suggested at one point that we look into doing a short jaunt somewhere else in Asia. As it turns out, the flight from Manila to Siem Reap is only about three hours. The temple complex at Angkor Wat (see here if you're unfamiliar with it) is a bucket list item indeed, and an appropriately Asian variation on my obsession with medieval British and European churches and cathedrals. But have no fear—historic churches will still figure on our trip: the Intramuros neighborhood of Manila boasts, among many other things, the church of San Augustin, which dates back to the early 1600s.

On a slightly less cultural level, the trip will also include my first experience of ziplining. Good heavens!

We'll be back home after New Year's, just a day or two before the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press are officially released. If you missed the original announcements, see here and here for details. I've now read both the Alexander McCall Smith intro for the D. E. Stevenson books and the one by Elizabeth Crawford for the Elizabeth Eliot books, and they're both a treat. I'm very grateful to both and I hope you'll enjoy them as well.

And finally, I am very much hoping to find enough time before we leave to prepare the 2018 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. If I succeed, I'll schedule it to be posted just before New Year's. It will include a few titles I haven't managed to review yet, but reviews will follow in due course. Suffice it to say, what a year of reading it's been!

Have a wonderful few weeks, and I'll see you in January!

(This makes one fewer item on my to do list. Next up: what books to take on our trip???)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Mummies and pharoahs and suitors, oh my!: STELLA TENNYSON JESSE, Eve in Egypt (1929)

I added Stella Tennyson Jesse to my British Women Writers list years ago, but knew precious little about her. She was (fairly obviously from the name) the sister of the far better-known F. Tennyson Jesse, author of A Pin to See the Peepshow among others, but beyond that I knew only the name of her one book. We couldn't even verify for certain if that work was a novel or a travel book. Copies of the book were few and far between, so I had nearly resigned myself to never finding out more.

But that was reckoning without Michael Walmer, who recently emailed to offer a review copy of the newest reprint from his self-titled publishing endeavour. I rarely accept review copies from anyone, because I'm far too scatterbrained to focus on reading a certain book at a certain time, but obviously I had to make an exception for this one. And I'm glad I did, as Eve in Egypt turned out to be a delightful read, combining romance and travelogue, with a healthy amount of daft, cheerful dialogue thrown in. (It's also one of the most striking covers I've seen for awhile, so it's safe to judge this book by its cover.)

The premise is simple enough: young Eve Wentworth is overly prone to receiving marriage proposals:

The nuisance was that so often just being natural and friendly seemed to do more harm than anything else! What a pity men were so terribly susceptible! The least little thing, and they seemed to be thrown off their balance. No stamina, Eve supposed.

The two proposals she has just received have created an awkward situation, such that Eve is happy to accept an invitation from her sister Serena, brother-in-law Hugh, and childhood friend Jeremy Vaughan to spend a few weeks exploring the Nile on a traditional dahabeah. Eve is happy to put a few thousand miles between herself and her suitors, but Jeremy's presence might just add new complications. Then there are two elegant, wealthy young Americans, Isobel Page, in whom Hugh shows an interest, and her brother Tony, who, Eve fears, might threaten her with yet another proposal:

It was hard enough to avoid getting engaged with a full moon at home. It must be next door to impossible with a desert and a sphinx thrown in.

There are relatively few surprises as to where it will all end up, but this is all to the good, as it allows the reader to enjoy the charming frolic and the luscious armchair travel. Considering that it's entirely possible that I'll never see the pyramids in person (the Middle East not going out of its way to make gay couples feel welcome—and then there's the heat and the sand…), it's lovely to get a first glimpse of them through Eve's eyes:

When Eve opened her eyes the next morning the words of the hotel manager swam up in her mind, and she jumped out of bed at once, slipped her feet into her little "mules," pulled on a silk wrapper and ran out on to the balcony. The sun was shining, though it was still too early for any warmth to be in its rays, and the Nile, which last night had looked so dark and mysterious, was now a pale greenish-brown, sparkling with a myriad little ripples in the bright light. The palm trees on the further bank now showed themselves to be a large plantation, and a tall minaret reared its graceful head from amid the plumy green. So great was Eve's sense of anticipation that it was almost with an effort she turned her eyes southward. She looked—and for a moment she caught her breath with the wonder of what she saw. There they were—three dark, mysterious peaks rising out of the thick cloud of mist that still floated over the land, with something remote, almost stark, about their definite shapes, so arrogant in their immutability.

I'm not sure I mind that I likely won't be riding a camel any time soon, but Eve's several encounters with increasingly contemptuous camels are tremendous fun (though I don't think camels can match their cousins the llamas for sheer haughty disdain). Here's a snippet of Eve's first camel ride:

She could only set her teeth firmly as her animal started to unfold itself in snarling sections. How she stuck on as it rocked and heaved beneath her she never knew. Fortunately, she was unaware that Jeremy had taken a cinema of the proceedings. Anyhow, here she was at last, incredibly high up in the air, clinging like grim death to the inadequate little brass tube that stuck up in front of the saddle, her hat tilted over her nose, her cheeks flushed with emotion and exertion; shaken, agitated, terrified, but still alive.

On a few occasions, the pace of the novel slows a bit to allow for discussion of Egyptian history and customs, and while this is perhaps a slight weakness in a novel, I found it useful and interesting in a work of armchair travel. I may have learned more from this book than from any history course in school (though, sadly, I will likely forget most of it within a week or two…).

One of the things we gain from travel, of course (and the reason that a good many insular Americans—and perhaps some Brits?—should be sent immediately on extensive international travels), is more extensive self-knowledge. I liked Eve's observations on the differences between Americans and Brits while traveling:

It amused Eve to notice the different behaviour of the English and the Americans on the private steam dahabeahs. The Americans always waved in the friendliest manner, and then the Isis waved back. But a boat full of other English people just stared unemotionally at the Isis, and the Isis stared unemotionally back at them.

I have to say that wasn't our impression of ever-helpful, ever-friendly Brits during our trips there, but perhaps it's just that they've loosened up since 1929? For that matter, I'm not sure Americans are very friendly and outgoing when traveling these days (even before our president made many of us want to pretend to be Canadian).

Eve in Egypt is great, perky fun for anyone interested in Egypt or in travel narrative more generally, or in cheerful, ditzy romance. My thanks to Michael Walmer for retrieving the book from obscurity and for sending a copy along!

Friday, November 16, 2018

A 1950s career woman: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, Against the Stream (1953)

"You're taking a job?" exclaimed Mrs. Wilmot to her daughter, Diana Pemberton. "Oh dear, what has happened to make you decide to do such a thing?"

We can be pretty certain from this opening that Diana's efforts to claim a career for herself, now that her children are all at school, aren't going to go swimmingly. It's not terribly hard to predict just how things will go wrong either (indeed, her mother among others fairly accurately predict the way it will go). But though there's nothing very revolutionary or surprising about Against the Stream, it's an entertaining window on a time from which there aren't a lot of portrayals of career women.

Diana's discussion with her mother follows familiar lines, but occasionally sheds some interesting light on postwar domestic life:

"Family life isn't so uncomplex and one-sided now: girls are given the same education as boys, women don't wait on men, they compete with them for jobs. And there's another thing, Mother. For various reasons, home-making has lost a lot of interest for many of us. We live in small houses with small gardens because we can't afford anything bigger, and if we could, we couldn't get the staff. As for the traditional interests of the housewife—preserving—where's the sugar? The linen-cupboard? We can only afford enough to fill a shelf instead of a cupboard. What's our larder? A row of tins. We can't entertain often, it's too expensive; our houses are too small to have visitors for more than a couple of nights, and anyway, what can we give them to eat? Running a home as one's sole interest can be very dull, Mother. One is reduced to the bare bones of home-making—housework, washing, ironing, shopping and cooking monotonous meals with indifferent materials."

Fortunately for Diana, however, a dream job exactly fitting her qualifications and interests more or less falls into her lap. (Some people have all the luck—why hasn't a lucrative job requiring extensive knowledge of British women writers just happened to fall into my lap, dammit?)

Diana and her husband Rupert live in the fictional village of Hirst, outside of Canterbury, a place known primarily for its nearby Roman fort. During the war, a bombing raid brings to light further evidence of the town's history:

For, during the Baedeker raid upon Canterbury, a stray bomb fell upon a furniture depository in Hirst. It was an odd scene next day: the stuffing out of mattresses hung like macabre blossoms in back-garden fruit-trees, the air was white with down out of burst pillows; a bicycle hung by its handlebars from the sign of The Bull and Butcher; brass-ware from Benares littered the entrance to the County Library, and iron bedsteads, twisted into unlikely shapes by fire, reminded one of the obscurer modern sculptures.

The bomb was, of course, unfortunate for the people who had stored their beds, their bicycles, their Benares brass-ware and so on in the wrecked depository, but had dramatic and exciting results, for it revealed what no one had known before—that there had been a Roman town as well as a Roman fort.

As a result, a wealthy resident has financed the creation of a new museum, and guess who (after 14 years of housewifery and with apparently no other work experience at all) is made the first curator? No, it's not terribly plausible (though in all fairness the position is poorly paid and so perhaps only feasible for a woman with other means of support), but it ensures that the reader, at least a reader interested in historical knowledge, will become invested enough in Diana's work, which we get intriguing glimpses of, to then share her frustration at the thought of losing this stimulation.

In some ways, in fact, Meyrick's strategy here is kind of brilliant. Every time the reader becomes excited about her professional successes (she has great ideas for the museum, she makes an important discovery at a construction site, she gains an admirer in a world-renowned scholar in her field), the reader gets pulled up—like Diana herself—by another domestic conflict or misunderstanding. Thus, the reader's experience echoes Diana's, which means that we pull for her and want her to find a way to keep the job. Of course, the risk is that visiting the heroine's frustrations on readers can compromise their pleasure in reading, but by and large I think Meyrick gets away with it.

The novel doesn't have any solutions to these problems, not surprisingly, and although it has a happy ending of sorts, it's an inevitable compromise (and perhaps no more realistic than her getting this plum job in the first place). But it makes for an interesting read, and Diana's mother in particular is a high point. Much is made of Mrs Wilmot's telephone manner. First, we learn that Diana's father used to have the eccentricity of shouting deafeningly into the phone, unable to believe that his voice needn't be modulated according to the distance he wanted it to cover. But her mother's phone manner is even more striking:

At last she heard someone, and her mother's voice said very crossly:


Mrs. Wilmot had not a good telephone manner: she had been brought up to write well-worded letters at a writing-desk, not to use the telephone. She had never grown used to it, and her discomfort expressed itself in a furious manner of speaking, quite out of keeping with her character. Diana was used to this furious voice, and was not in the least quelled by it as others were apt to be. Indeed, one timid lady had been so upset by the accusing, abrupt "Yes?" that she had replaced the receiver without ever daring to give her name.

"Mother, something's happened, and I want you to help me."

"Whatever is it?" demanded Mrs. Wilmot, sounding extremely angry, but actually longing to be able to help her family.

And sometimes reading this sort of book can put other books from the time into perspective. Diana is required to go to a conference in York and spend the night, and her reaction seems extreme to modern readers used to occasional travel:

It was so unusual for Diana to be going away without either Rupert or the children, that although it was only a matter of one night she found herself becoming quite dramatic about her departure. She hugged the little boys when she said good-bye to them; she walked to the bus-stop with Marian and kissed her lovingly good-bye in full view of several schoolgirls in the bus, much to  arian's discomfiture; she said to Rupert, "You will meet my train tomorrow night, won't you?" as though she was arriving at London Airport after a dash of thousands of miles across five continents. By the time Joyce arrived she was quite strung up, and felt like tearfully imploring her not to desert the children, on the emotional level of Mrs. Micawber's declaration of her own fidelity to Mr. Micawber—which would have surprised Joyce very much.

For me, this scene evoked the Provincial Lady's fretting over her departures for London and, later, America, which I always thought were merely meant as exaggerated and self-deprecatingly humorous. But as PL was making such departures two decades before Diana's, and furthermore was leaving her husband and family for literary pursuits, it becomes a bit easier to see how conflicted she likely would have been.

Going into reading this novel, the sum total of my knowledge of Gwenllian Meyrick was:

1) Born 5 Sept 1908 in Norwich, married Orrell Hamilton Strafford 1934, died Gloucestershire 21 Feb 1997, full name Gwenllian Clara Richmond Meyrick/Strafford.

2) Listed as a teacher on a 1930 passenger list.

3) Author of six novels 1950-1961. The fourth, The Disastrous Visit (1956), was described by a bookseller as "Novel set among an ordinary family in London in the 1950's." I also found a blurb about the last, Shed No Tear (1961): "Catherine, a twenty-year-old art student, married Hugo Thornton knowing that he had been attached to the elegant Mrs. Olivia Seymour, but after a while Hugo begins to tire of family life."

4) Some of the dustjackets of her books are adorable, and her name is distinctly melodious (though I learned from a web search that if her first name is pronounced in traditional Welsh fashion, there is no earthly way I can make the required "ll" sound).

So, there wasn't a lot here to really justify my flagging her to track down her books, but for whatever reason (honestly, it was probably the dustjackets) I've intended to do so for ages. Will I be tracking down more of her novels? I think I might actually. I can't help but wonder if her other novels are as "issue" oriented as this one. If they are, they could be similarly interesting time capsules, and if they're not, it would be interesting to see how entertaining she can make a more conventional plot.

Stay tuned!

Friday, November 9, 2018

My first book introduction!: MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, In Pursuit of Clarinda (1966) (and some other recent MEA reading)

The lovely cover of the new Greyladies
edition of In Pursuit of Clarinda

A few weeks ago, I was delighted (and a bit anxious) to receive an email from Shirley Neilson at Greyladies asking if I would write an introduction to her new edition of this romantic suspense novel by one of my favorite authors, Mabel Esther Allan. (I've written about Allan several times before—see here.) I initially hedged, noting that while a fan I'm hardly an expert on Allan and couldn't speak with any authority about her. Shirley quickly assured me that authority wasn't what she wanted at all, but rather something more quirky and idiosyncratic. I considered this, agonized a bit, and then told myself that if there's anything I can do (and perhaps can't avoid doing), it's being quirky and idiosyncratic. So that was that. A few hours later I had a PDF of the book on my Kindle and was eagerly diving in.

And the book's original cover

And now I'm excited to say that the book is being released (complete with quirky, idiosyncratic intro), and Allan fans should be quite excited. Not about my intro (though of course you'll be excited about that too), but because In Pursuit of Clarinda is one of the rarest of Allan's titles—at the time of this writing, not a single copy is available on Abe Books for love nor money—and it's also one of her most entertaining and satisfying.

Allan wastes no time at all diving into her story. Eighteen-year-old Lucy Bucknall has been staying alone in London for a week while her parents are away visiting her elderly grandmother who has been ill. She's been enjoying herself, but now her friend Sally has gone on holiday and the joys of solitude are wearing thin. Staring idly out the window, she sees her handsome neighbor William Drake and resolves to go out in order to just happen to run into him (mmm-hmmm).

But William has disappeared from sight and Lucy strolls on into nearby Hyde Park, where she encounters instead a charming, slightly disabled, jumpy young girl named Clarinda, who after brief small talk about the relatives with whom she's staying, tells Lucy, 'I expect you’ll think I’m mad, but I have to tell someone and you’re so nice. I think they’re planning to kill me.' She elaborates on a hard-to-believe tale about the inheritance she will come into in a matter of days—if she's still alive—her fiancé who is recovering from a motor accident in far-off Scotland, and the diabolical uncles and aunts with whom she's trapped without any evidence of their evil intent except for a near miss with a gas fire, which they blamed on her own absentmindedness. In a few days, her relatives are planning to take her first to a remote farm in Wales and then on to the National Trust house where her Aunt Ann is a caretaker—complete with an ominous moat into which Clarinda imagines she might, because of her disability, just happen to tragically fall.

It's a far-fetched tale, but Lucy agrees to contact a friend of Clarinda's and help her go to stay with her until after her pivotal 21st birthday. The next day, however, when Lucy asks for Clarinda at her hotel, she finds that she and her relatives have suddenly cleared out, though a hotel maid gives her a clue Clarinda has left for her. And from there, with the help of William (whom she really does run into by chance this time) and William's gung-ho sister Della, she's off on a chase across England and into Wales.

It's an irresistible, fun, and page-turning plot, very tightly plotted and entertaining. I wrote before about another of MEA's romantic suspense novels, A Summer at Sea, in which the heroine, another eighteen-year-old named Gillian, was such a mopey, navel-gazing drip that I quite wished she would be washed overboard. But although Lucy has one or two moments of playing the dim-witted damsel (would any Brit for even a moment imagine that a scrawled clue from Clarinda, in which can be made out "Buck", was an attempt to write "Bucknall" rather than the obvious abbreviation for Buckinghamshire? even I, a dim-witted American, knew better), she is more often brave and resourceful and practical, and the new challenges she's facing (as well as the possibility of romance with William) make this a highly enjoyable "widening world" novel as well.

The book also bears the imprint of Allan's tendency to include excellent armchair travel in her fiction. In my intro to the book, I pick out some of the references along the way that would make it possible to pretty precisely recreate the journey Lucy and her friends make, and there are lovely details along the way. 

And the climax of the novel takes place in a fictional National Trust house called Brynteryn Manor which is brought to life so vividly that I thought it simply had to be based on a real house. And indeed, as Shirley figured out from some savvy googling, it turns out that MEA gave a pretty clear clue as to the house's true identity. At one point, she describes the house as "very like" Old Moreton Hall in Cheshire (now more commonly called Little Moreton Hall, though "little" isn't a term most would use to describe the house, if you look at some of the photos and videos to be found online). Indeed, Allan's descriptions of the house make it quite clear that she has merely lifted that house, Wizard of Oz style, and dropped it into Wales.

All in all, the book is great fun, and I'm thankful to Shirley for putting it on my radar—and for thinking of me for the introduction! (I should also mention, by the way, that I also make a special appearance in the newest issue of The Scribbler, which Shirley also publishes. I just received my copy yesterday and have barely been able to restrain myself from reading it in one sitting.)

As it happens, Shirley's timing was excellent, as I had just been reading a lot of MEA, and have continued to do so since finishing Clarinda. Allan wrote billions of books (really a bit less than 200 in all, but you have to admit that's quite a lot), so happily I'm in no danger of running out. I thought I'd use this opportunity to catch you up a bit.

Now easily my favorite of the MEA school stories I've read—and nearly up there with all-time MEA favorites like Changes for the Challoner and The Vine-Clad Hill—is School Under Snowdon (1950), which has been on my TBR shelves forever and turned out to be really wonderful. I've read some of Allan's other school stories, and was particularly fond of Chiltern School, but there's something about the charming characters, the interesting progressive school portrayed, and the way Snowdon rollicks along hardly giving the reader time for a deep breath.

An unhappy orphan is sent to a new school in Wales (three guesses what mountain is nearby), where she makes trouble alongside Gwenllian, another mysteriously discontented girl. The school features climbing as a popular extracurricular activity, and there are conflicts over the rules (Gwenllian is in fact an experienced climber, but is deemed too young for the challenging climbs). There's a particularly snowy winter, and a dramatic rescue is needed... The adventurous scenes are entertaining, but it's really the likable characters, the humor, and the scenery that makes the book. I loved it right from the first page, and wished—as many other MEA fans have before—that Allan had tried her hand at writing a school series, because I'd love to spend some more time with Verity and Gwenllian.

On the other hand, I was terribly excited a while back when a copy of Allan's Room for the Cuckoo (1953) came up at World of Rare Books for not such an exorbitant price, but this one proved a little disappointing. I'd been yearning for it ever since reading that Allan's first version of the book was actually a non-fiction memoir of her time in the Women's Land Army during World War II, subsequently revised into a girls' career story about farming because publishers were no longer interested in wartime memoirs. I can't help feeling that this is a tragic loss, and I still wish it were possible to read Allan's original version, because Room for the Cuckoo turned out to be a rather lackluster read. I'm sure some of the details about farm life were from Allan's actual experiences, but without the wartime background, and without any of the armchair travel or armchair adventuring that her books so often provide, it was all a bit drab. My little Dent copy of the book, with dustjacket, is nice to look at though...

I read MEA's The Ballet Family (1963) several years ago, but inexplicably only got round to the sequel, The Ballet Family Again (1964), very recently. It reminded me just how good the first book was, and also how extraordinarily good MEA can be at family stories. Each character has a distinct personality, distinct interests, and each is therefore likeable in his or her own way. And it's all making me think it may be time to finally sample MEA's Drina stories, written as Jean Estoril. I don't have any particular interest in ballet, but the Ballet Family books are making me think that’s not a prerequisite for enjoying well-done ballet stories.

Strangers in Skye (1958) is another of MEA's widening world novels, as 17-year-old Elizabeth Falcon, who has been a bit too obsessively studying and preparing for university, unwillingly arrives in Skye to spend a summer of rest and outdoor life. Her brother John is managing a fledgling youth hostel there, and facing some resistance from the locals. Of course, Elizabeth discovers a love for the outdoors, makes friends, and finds romance, as one would readily expect, but it's quite enjoyable and one can practically feel the brisk air of Skye in one's hair while reading it.

MEA obviously liked the sickly heroine plot device quite a lot, as it's also what gets Flora of Flora at Kilroinn (1956) to the Western Highlands for the summer after suffering from colds, measles, and mumps all in the course of one school year. (Why can't I get a doctor to send me to the Highlands for a couple of months, dammit?) This is another perfectly enjoyable story, but unfortunately far shorter than most of MEA's books (less than 100 pages), so it never seemed to be able to quite spread its wings. I wonder if it was written as a longer book and then harshly edited by the publisher?

And finally, I sampled one of MEA's late titles flirting with the supernatural. In A Chill in the Lane (1974), Lyd Allbright arrives in a small village in Cornwall with her adoptive family. The location is idyllic, and of course there's a handsome boy at hand, but Lyd has visions of a tragic scene of violence every time she passes a certain spot in the lane leading to the family's holiday home. It's a very light kind of ghost story, and never more than faintly eerie, with Lyd merely witnessing historic events rather than interacting in any way with ghostly figures, but it was enjoyable enough and all the story's elements link up satisfactorily in the end.

Wow, I really have done a lot of MEA reading lately! And, judging by my TBR shelves, I have more to come (thanks to another recent World of Rare Books sale):

Then there's New Schools for Old (1954), just reprinted by Girls Gone By...

Monday, November 5, 2018

Friends of SFPL Big Book Sale 2018, part 2: The haul

Yes, this post was indeed supposed to happen over the weekend, but through circumstances beyond my control (well, being absent-minded certainly seems to be beyond my control), it's only appearing now!

The look behind the scenes and the pics from before the sale started were fun (see here if you missed it), but let's be real—the books themselves are what we all care about. So here's the whole mess I brought home:

As I mentioned last time, not quite such a haul as last year (thank heavens, really!), but still great fun, and first off, I have to share two lovely books that I'm including with the sale books but that were really lovely gifts from Deborah, who does the wonderful Book Barmy blog. Have a look:

Both GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL and LOUISE PLATT HAUCK will belong on my American Women Writers list (if I ever get back around to that), and both books look like great fun. And the dustjackets are to die for (I will fetishize them some more for you when I've read them). Thanks so much, Deborah, for making book sale day even brighter and more exciting than usual!

At the book sale itself, there weren't actually a large number of really exceptional finds, but rather late in the sale, I happened to glance at one of the boxes under a table and see a suspiciously old hardcover, with two more dusty old books under it. And lo and behold!

Two of these three are by authors on my list. The book with a dustjacket, of course, is a SHELLEY SMITH novel, one of several of her novels to have been released in e-book in the past couple of years. I have at least one other Shelley Smith novel on my shelves, languishing unread, but how could I pass up a dustjacketed copy?

The second of the books is more obscure and therefore right up my alley. MARY DURHAM wrote eleven mysteries in the 1940s and 1950s, about which little information has been available, so I'm delighted to have the chance to read one!

And the third might be the most obscure of all, since I can find little about its author, KATHERINE MCCOMB, except that she wrote at least a couple of other mysteries and a few romances. The Library of Congress only lists two of her titles, not including this one, Death in a Downpour, published in 1960. Is it a great lost treasure? Well, probably not, but you never know!

Then, shortly after, I came across the CELIA FREMLIN paperback. I've always meant to read The Hours Before Dawn, her most famous novel. I didn't find that one, but Appointment with Yesterday seems to have been well-received too. She's apparently more suspense than mystery, which may or may not work for me, but it should be interesting.

I also picked up a couple of other books specifically relevant to or of significant interest for this blog:

The first—MARGARET HALSEY's With Malice Toward Some—is really also thanks to Deborah, who pointed it out to me when we chatted during the sale. I've been meaning to read Halsey's humorous book about travelling in the U.K., and now I have no excuse not to (except the two thousand or so other books on my TBR list!).

This year, as always, Andy was with me at the sale and had his list of authors to be on the lookout for. I've never thought to put MABEL ESTHER ALLAN on his list before, but I've been reading a fair amount of her this year, and some of her later works in particular seem to have had success in the U.S., so I thought why not? I didn't really expect him to find anything, but I underestimated him. The Flash Children, the beginning of one of Allan's late series for younger readers, wasn't my highest priority (why couldn't Lost Lorrenden or Glenvara or another of her vanishingly rare titles from the 1950s have just happened to turn up?), but I'm happy enough to get to sample her later work.

And while Andy was perusing the children's section, he also picked up a few other older books, all American, that he thought might appeal to me. I had to Google DORIS GATES' Blue Willow, but one look at a reference to it as a Grapes of Wrath for young readers made clear I'd have to give it a try. I know I've also come across CORNELIA MEIGS before, though I can't recall how or in what context. Wild Geese Flying isn't one of her best-known works, it seems, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try.

The two JANET ALDRIDGE books are new to me and pretty bedraggled. What little I can find out about the Meadow-Brook Girls series suggests they could easily go either way—great fun or purely dreadful—but I knew I needed to peruse them a bit more.

Now, ordinarily, a beat-up copy of a WILLIAM INGE novel wouldn't seem like a "find" in particular. Inge, as some Americans and probably very few Brits will know, was primarily known as a playwright—author of Picnic (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop, and Come Back, Little Sheba, all of which were probably more widely known for their film versions than for the plays they were based on. He also won an Oscar for his screenplay of Splendour in the Grass. He's not known particularly for his fiction, which consisted of only two novels. Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff was the first, about a high school teacher who has an affair with an African-American janitor, with many repercussions.

So what makes a copy of this novel, a little worse for wear despite being a first edition, something of a find? What about this?:

Too bad he lost control of his pen a bit and blotted the first name, but if you can't make it out, yes, it does say "Bill Inge." Which makes this the second vintage author inscription I've come across this year at library book sales—I've been meaning to post about the first for a while, so hopefully this will inspire me.

Then, a few more books that are perhaps very loosely related to the blog:

SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER is one of very few authors I might actually enjoy reading letters by and to, so The Element of Lavishness, including her correspondence with long-time friend and New Yorker fiction editor, was a nice acquisition. And I have an on-again/off-again love affair with Aussie CHRISTINA STEAD, so it's fun to have a nice-ish copy of one of her late novels, Miss Herbert, which I haven't yet read.

I have a real fondness for the rather quiet, low-key travel books of EMILY KIMBROUGH, and have read a number of them, but Floating Island is one of those I haven't read yet, so that's a nice find. And I have a peculiar fascination with Ottoline Morrell, a Bloomsbury figure and all-around eccentric, and actually had MIRANDA SEYMOUR's bio of her on my TBR list. And finally, although it's surely one of the bleakest books of the past year or so, based on the reviews I've come across, I already meant to read MARGARET DRABBLE's The Dark Flood Rises, and a pristine hardcover cover was too much to resist.

The biggest group of books from this year's sale are an array of contemporary (or at least more recent than my blog's period) mysteries, including several that are the first in their respective series, which is handy. None of these are rare or extraordinary, but it's always nice to stock up on relaxing reads at bargain prices.

Finally, just a few odds and ends:

I've actually read the Capote, the Baldwin, and the Mann books before, but thought re-reads might be in order. I can't quite imagine what possessed me to buy the Kerouac—I think I bought it once beforebut I did sort of like On the Road when I read it ages ago (probably at a more appropriate age, honestly, when I was young and restless), and thought if I re-read it it might as well be the more complete, less edited scroll version. I'll probably just donate it back in a few months, but who knows? And I meant to read some Patrick Modiano when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago, and never did (of course), so Missing Person looked kind of intriguing.

And that's that. Certainly not a bad collection, though also certainly fewer really exciting finds than in previous years. I think the Friends have become much savvier about weeding out the best vintage titles to sell online for higher prices. Which is understandable and desirable from the perspective of raising money for the library. But I think it just might mean that the golden age of the Friends book sales is over. Still entirely worth attending, of course, but not quite the excitement that it used to be. Ah, well, all good things…
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