Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2019 (a day or two late)

(I just completely forgot to post this the last couple of days as intended. D'oh! I wish I could say it was because of wild and crazy New Year's celebrations, but it's more accurately just being distracted and absentminded. But better late than never!)

It was a slightly sporadic year for blogging on my part, a ghastly year for the state of the world, but (thankfully, as I try to avoid thinking too much about the apocalyptic and heartbreaking news from either side of the Atlantic) an excellent year of reading. As usual, I've done considerable agonizing to whittle my favorite reads down to a mere dozen, but I've done the heroic task. Though I will also, as usual, cheat a bit by mentioning a few other near-favorites for the year.

In the category of contemporary fiction, which you know I don't read all that often, I found one particular treasure, which I enthusiastically recommend to hearty readers with morbid senses of humor. During the dark, rainy winter months last January, I read MARGARET DRABBLE's brilliant and often funny novel about aging and death, The Dark Flood Rises (2018). I know, it doesn't sound so uplifting, but I found it amazingly life-affirming while also gloriously dark. It even evoked Samuel Beckett for me, and we catch some glimpses of characters from Drabble's earlier books as well. I'll also mention my vacation reading of Nobel Prize winner OLGA TOKARCZUK's Flights (2007) and the evocatively titled Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009), both of which I found completely addictive. It's enough to make me thing that I'm missing out not reading more current fiction, but on the other hand I also picked up at least five other recent, much-praised novels this year and didn't get past the first chapter of any of them, so… 

I had fun reading some lovely children's fiction this year, largely thanks to my Fairy Godmother's generosity. In addition to the title that made it to #7 below, I read several rare MABEL ESTHER ALLAN titles thanks to F.G., as well as more JANE SHAW, whose glittering, delightful Paris comedy-adventure, Anything Can Happen (1964), very nearly made the list (it's the invisible #13). I also had a marvelous time with BARBARA WILLARD's Snail and the Pennithornes (1957), which I never wrote about but which deals with the two Pennithorne children accompanying their mother's old friend Snail, a children's author herself, as she travels around England in her caravan. The two sequels, Snail and the Pennithornes Next Time (1958) and Snail and the Pennithornes and the Princess (1960), are pleasant but not nearly so good, but the first, as we share Snail's delight in exploring new places and making new friends, is a pleasure.

Now, on with the list:

I'm slowly but surely seeking out all the Elizabeth Coxhead books I can find. The Figure in the Mist is one of the best so far. It's a widening world story, it's a climbing story, it's a family story, and it's quite a lot more as well.

I just squeezed in my review of this one (and a couple of other books further down the list) in the past couple of weeks. Although not Godden's best work, Gypsy, Gypsy deserves better than the neglect it has fallen into. An engrossing, rather Gothic novel with a charming young heroine and her terrible aunt.

In my review of A Cat and a King, I noted that there was very little about it that we haven't seen before—young woman gets entangled with veteran stage actor and his family, flirts with heartbreak, and ends up older and wiser. But it was so difficult to put down and has stayed with me so much that I'm beginning to think there's more to it after all.

A charming and thought-provoking book that follows it's young Jewish heroine from boarding school to the vicissitudes of romance and the approach of World War II. Kamm—whose Peace, Perfect Peace (1947) was reprinted as a Furrowed Middlebrow title this year—has become a favorite author, and soon, thanks to Grant Hurlock, I'll be reading her hard-to-fine debut, All Quiet at Home (1936).

Not a lot of non-fiction appears on my lists, but I can't recommend this one enough for fans of literary history/biography like Thea Holme's The Carlyles at Home. Its intermingling of notable figures—the Carlyles, Robert Browning & Elizabeth Barrett, Dickens, Tom Thumb, Mary Russell Mitford, and others—brings the 1840s London literary scene vividly to life in ways that a mere bio of one of those people couldn't possibly.

7) MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Romansgrove (1975)

Possibly my favorite Mabel Esther Allan title so far (though The Amber House, which I wrote about here, is not far behind). I didn't get round to reviewing Romansgrove, but it's one of the loveliest time slip tales I've read and also the most polished and elegant MEA I've found (elegant not being a word most fans would associate with her, whatever else they love about her work). Although it focuses on teenaged protagonists, it could readily be enjoyed by fans of adult fiction. The ending gave me chills. It will be a periodic re-read for years to come, and it's not even terribly hard to find!

More thanks are due to Grant for making it possible to read this long-coveted title from my Hopeless Wish List, which turned out to be a delightful village comedy. Lambert's style may be, as I noted, "a bit rough around the edges," but she also presents a delicious cast of characters and lots of amusing happenings, which more than make up for its shortcomings.

Okay, I might be cheating here since this wasn't the first time I read Verily Anderson's delightful World War II memoir. On the other hand, until this year it was solidly out of print, while now it's readily available in e-book and paperback as a (ahem) Furrowed Middlebrow title from Dean Street Press. Plus, it's wonderful, so I am without remorse for cheating.

Knowing me, you won't be surprised that my current Margery Sharp kick, inspired by the suggestions offered in response to my "possibly FM" post, began with the rarest of all Sharp titles, her cheerful, silly, giddy, lovely debut.

After we reprinted Oman's WWII novels, Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England, earlier this year, I was delighted to find three more of her novels with contemporary settings (rather than her usual historical subjects). And this one was my fave of the three. A sort of Scottish holiday story slash romantic comedy.

I had a lot of trouble deciding which of these last two books should top the list, and finally broke the tie by determining that this one might not ordinarily fit the parameters of this list. But it's so, so, so beautifully done, and includes chapters about Tindall's aunt, Monica Tindall, and her mother, Ursula Orange, both published by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press. Not to mention that Tindall, whose first novel appeared in 1959, is herself on my author list. The book is an elegant meditation on time, loss, and the odd vicissitudes that determine what survives. I also read Tindall's The House by the Thames this year and loved it, and The Tunnel Through Time is on my TBR shelf.

Since I first read Apricot Sky before I was blogging, I never got a chance to make it my favorite book of the year. But this year, finally, I re-read it, reviewed it, and loved it even more than before. I usually don't include re-reads on this list, but... A funny, rollicking, romantic comedy, family/holiday story, all rolled into one. The next best thing to a holiday in the Highlands. I seem to have a real weakness for holiday stories this year, and indeed for Scottish holiday stories. Perhaps an actual holiday in Scotland is called for?

And that's that for 2019. Now I have to ask, what were your favorite reads of the year?


  1. Holiday in Scotland books: One of my loves. Perhaps a good idea for both a trip and a Furrowed Middlbrow theme publication day?

    I am not so organized as you, and do a LOT of re-reads, including some DEStevenson, Angela Thirkell, Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers each year. Some new to me books that I loved in 2019 include:

    The novella Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold, a continuation of her Sharing Knife series, I love just about everything she has written. SF/Fantasy.

    Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennen, also a new addition to her existing series, also SF.

    I discovered and loved the ongoing Regency Mystery series by Sheri Cobb South featuring John Pickett.

    Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. Actually letters from lots of places, and dealing with both WWI and WWII. Love and Scotland and the wars.

    And of course, I enjoyed the new Furrowed Middlebrow publications, especially Miss Carter and the Ifrit, Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England and the DES titles.

    And reading your blog! Happy New Year.


    1. Thanks Jerri! Here's to another year of happy reading!

  2. Wonderful! I've read none of them and want to read them all.

    1. Thanks, Simon, and also for the shoutout to Miss Carter in your own year-end list!

  3. I second the recommendation of The Dark Flood Rises, although it was a little dark for someone my age! Even better, I think, is The Pure Gold Baby.

    I also enjoy the Pennithornes books and agree that the first is the best.

    I've been wanting to read Apricot Sky for ages but it's so expensive!

    Books of the year? Right up your street, I think, would be Achachlacher by Emma Menzies, about the life of a minister's wife in the Highlands. Scotland again! Probably not your sort of thing but I love Mick Herron's Jackson Lamb spy series, which is both exciting and funny.

    1. Oh lovely, I have Pure Gold Baby but haven't read it yet, so that's great to know. And I've just ordered Achachlacher--how did I not know about Menzies??? I'm hoping to do something about the cost of Apricot Sky, but we'll see...

  4. I am just starting Apricot Sky now - got lucky, and my library had two copies and only one is circulating. Looking forward, based on your rave reviews!
    And happy 2020 to you both!

    1. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Tom! You're making me want to re-read it again.

  5. I have ordered Romansgrove! I want to recommend Seize a Nettle by Ann Ritner. It's a wonderful family story set in Depression-era Denver. I think the copyright is 1961 but it's so close!

    1. I hope you enjoy Romansgrove. Seize a Nettle does look really interesting--I've added it to my library list and have flagged her for my American list if it ever comes back to life. I see she wrote several other novels as well, including earlier titles--have you read any of those?

    2. I've read The Green Bought and Summer Brings Gifts. The Green Bough is a family story in Pennsylvania, early 1900s. It felt thin and unconvincing. Summer Brings Gifts is set in Colorado in a small town and I liked it quite a bit. Seize a Nettle was still best though.

    3. I've read The Green Bough and Summer Brings Gifts. I recommend Summer, didn't like the Bough much.

  6. My three favourite novels of the year were by Canadian women:

    1) The Arch-Satirist (1910) by the wonderfully named Frances de Wolfe Fenwick takes place amongst the upper crust of fin de siecle Montreal. At its centre are a half-sister and brother, the latter being a young, beautiful, drug-addled, talented poet who is dying of consumption.

    2) Frances Shelley Wees's horribly titled M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty (1954) will appeal to any fan of post-war domestic suspense. I should add that, as a transplanted American, Mrs Wees belongs on your American Women Writers of Fiction list.

    3) Attributed to "Kendal Young," The Ravine is the lone Phyllis Brett Young. A disturbing novel about a young art teacher's pursuit of a murdering rapist, I'm bringing it back to print this spring. Assault!, the 1970 film adaptation is not recommended.

    It occurs to me only now that you or your readers may be able to solve a mystery. Another of this year's favourite novels was Arthur Stringer's The Silver Poppy (1903). Its story revolves around Englishman John Hartley and Southern Belle Cordelia Vaughan. John is the author of an ignored volume of verse inspired by the tragic death of his fiancée. Cordelia is the celebrated authoress of a first novel titled (confusingly) The Silver Poppy. A bestseller, critics consider the work one for the ages. However, as things progress, John discovers that Cordelia is a plagiarist; The Silver Poppy is the work of a dead man that she has presented as her own.

    Newspaper of the day had it that Cordelia was based on a well-known American authoress, but never identified the woman in question. Would you or any of your readers have an idea. Any leads will be greatly appreciated.

    If interested, this is my blog piece on the novel:

    A Literary Vampire Alights upon an Impoverished Poet


    1. Thanks Brian, those all sound wonderful, and I've made a note of Rees for the American list if it ever revives.

      I did some poking around on Google (as I'm sure you did) and couldn't come up with any ideas for Cordelia, especially at that time period. But my brilliant readers may have more to contribute.

  7. Treasure on the broads, by W Gerald Elliott, a comedy /romance set on the Norfolk broads, a book you have to limit yourself to a few pages at a time or you would not put it down. The house of the Glimmering light by Jane Shaw and EE Cowpers books set in England during WW1

    1. Thanks for these recommendations! The Elliott sounds intriguing for sure, and I've always meant to get round to Cowpers. The Jane Shaw, meanwhile, is on my TBR shortlist already--glad to know it's well worthwhile!

  8. I always love to see what's on your list! The only one of these I've read is Apricot Sky (a few years back after you first wrote about it) but I've got my Furrowed Middlebrow copy of Spam Tomorrow standing by and ready for me to pick up whenever I like. Thank you for making it so easy to get hold of after years of hunting for a copy!

  9. These all sound great! I bought Spam but haven't read it yet. Romansgrove is one of my favorite MAEs (along with Time to Go Back, The Ballet Family, and We Danced at Bloomsbury Square) and I am glad you enjoyed it! Happy New Year!

  10. What a lovely set! I did my top 10 (well, 12, well, 13 really) on 1 Jan and as usual a book from between Christmas and New Year snuck in there.

  11. Oh its difficult! However I absolutely loved The Leaves of the Tree by Eiluned Lewis. Hard to describe it but Max Beerbohm writes on the dustjacket "What beauty and profundity and pathos and poetry and all that the heart desires!" I think I agree with that.

    Otherwise, you introduced me to Elizabeth Fair and I devoured the lot courtesy of Dean Street! And I very recently discovered Flora Klickmann (what a woman!!!) and her Flower Patch. A laugh and a smile on every page! I have to have the lot!!! Oh, but there's still so many on my TBR shelf!


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