I almost decided to scrap my Dozen post this year. Following Rupert's , tragic death in March, my reading for much of this year went off the rails. There were several months when I was reading anything and everything but middlebrow fiction, which reminded me too much of our collaborations, so the number of really interesting discoveries I made in that field this year was down considerably from my norm—though happily my interest in the middlebrow revived by the time of our return visit to London and the British Library in September. (This was before the terrible cyberattack, of course—I've felt particularly bad in the past weeks for those researchers who come from faraway places, having planned and saved their pennies for the trip, to do work that can only be done at the British Library, and then have arrived to find they can do nothing. And how awful for the librarians and staff who have to deal with their stress and disappointment when they are frustrated themselves that they can't help them.)
Even a couple of days ago, I thought, no, I just can't be bothered with a list. It's too depressing this year. But then today I finally took a look at the list of books I've read this year, and I thought, well, maybe I could at least write about some of those I enjoyed the most. And then—by cheating just a bit and including three books I only finally posted about this year despite reading them earlier, as well as including not one but two representatives of the Y chromosome—I realized that, even if the competition wasn't as fierce as usual this year, I had come up with a pretty darned respectable list of twelve books I enjoyed most. I also frankly felt that I owed it to you loyal readers, who were so supportive of my obscure reading habits when I had doubts a few months back!
And so here we are…
One thing I turned to quite a lot this year, in my avoidance of middlebrow fiction, was mystery. In addition to those mentioned below, I polished off my too-long-delayed reading of Edmund Crispin's novels, which I loved, enjoyed some more George Bellairs, discovered Clifford Witting, whom I look forward to reading more of, giggled over one very zany thriller by American Elliot Paul, and, following our trip to Japan in April, quite enjoyed Okamoto Kido's The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hashichi. I even fell prey to the Agatha Christie estate's relentlessly clever marketing and read Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, and very much enjoyed it (my favorite stories were Lucy Foley's and Val McDermid's, for best capturing the feel of the "real" Miss Marple, with Ruth Ware's coming in next, but even the very untraditional ones—Miss Marple navigating the streets of New York or doing Tai Chi in Hong Kong—were highly entertaining and just what I needed to escape for a while. Of all the unlikely things, Chateaubriand's memoirs proved surprisingly distracting as well (I have volume 2 lined up to start before long)!
But here, for better or worse, are my top 12 reads of the year.
12) AGATHA CHRISTIE, The Secret of Chimneys (1925)
Discovering that there was one Christie novel I had somehow never read—in 40 odd years of reading and re-reading her work—and then discovering that it's a really delightful, fun adventure story that I shall now want to re-read regularly, should really probably rank higher than #12 on my list. On the other hand, I suspect you might have heard of Christie before, so she's not exactly a discovery… I'll just say that, though I tend to avoid the very early Christie because they tend to be a bit tediously perky and/or a bit dull for me, this one is certainly an exception. Silly, yes, but very charmingly so.
11) EDITH CAROLINE RIVETT (as E. C. R. LORAC), The Theft of the Iron Dogs (1946)
I confess I've flirted with Rivett/Lorac for the past couple of years, since the British Library started reprinting them, and my mileage has varied. I was underwhelmed by one earlier in the year, and enjoyed but didn't love Death of an Author over the summer. I was about to write her off altogether, but we were in the British Library shop in September, there was a 3-for-2 sale, this was hot off the presses, and I couldn't resist. And I absolutely loved it. One of several she set in rural Lancashire, including Fell Murder, which I'm saving with anticipation, and Crook o' Lune (1953), which I read and also loved when we got home. Though I found the mystery quite effective, it was almost unnecessary, so fascinating are the farming characters and the rural life described. I've also since very much enjoyed her wartime Murder by Matchlight (1945), and I've grown attached to Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, so I am now a solid (if selective) Rivett fan—and all thanks to the BL's clever marketing and the irresistible smell of a brand new book's pages!
10) BERYL SYMONS, Jane Carberry Investigates (1940)
Beryl Symons had already published a number of one-off thrillers and some romance when she created her own version of Miss Marple and wrote five novels about her. It's not too difficult to tell them apart however. Jane Carberry is a wealthy and glamorous middle-aged spinster with a brother who is Deputy Commissioner of Police and an arch nemesis in the Belgian police, who seems to make a habit of arresting Jane for the crimes she gets herself mixed up in but doesn't actually commit. Symons must have known Belgium well, as most of the books seem to involve Jane jetting back and forth from London. I can't ravely recommend it (I've only read this one so far, but I seem to have come across the others at the BL…)—it's ridiculous and implausible and there's no "detection" or "investigation" at all, only ludicrous coincidences and Jane stumbling into the middle of jewel thefts and murders and making everyone suspect her. But it reminded me just enough of Mrs. Pollifax to make me want to read more. I promise to properly review one of these soon-ish.
9) MARGARET MASTERMAN, Gentlemen's Daughters (1931)
Finally, a book I actually reviewed, and only recently! A quiet, charming little school story—marketed for adults, but could easily be enjoyed by all fans of the genre—about a girl's intellectual growth and sense of independence. Gently humorous, entirely plausible and realistic, and sensitively and subtly told.
8) ANN STAFFORD & JANE OLIVER, Cuckoo in June (1935)
Elder spinster (in her 30s, no less!) gets stuck with trying to keep her frivolous younger cousin away from men, first by taking her across Europe and then by hiding her away on her brother's farm. Cheerful, funny, and no substance whatsoever, but suffice it to say love is in the air and the farm is no place for either young woman to hide. Illustrated with Stafford's delightful drawings—hand-colored, even!
7) EMORY BONETT, A Girl Must Live (1936)
Unscrupulous, gold-digging Gloria Lind narrates her machinations to win an Earl at the expense of her fellow gold-digging chorus girls. Pure silly fun à la Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or How to Marry a Millionaire, with fashion elements to fulfill any fashionista's dreams, and charming illustrations by Anna K. Zinkeisen.
6) JANE BIRD, By Accident (1935)
Two mysterious newcomers to an English village provoke speculation, intrigue, and romance. Comic and tragic by turn, but with a lovely, life-affirming spirit, this was an impulse purchase and impulse read, and the impulse paid off this time.
5) A. A. MILNE, Four Days' Wonder (1933)
This was a gift from my friend Kathy, who sent it for Christmas as one of her own absolute favorites. I couldn't help diving in right away, and then of course I couldn't stop reading. I know I read Milne's Red House Mystery years and years ago, but I'd never read anything else, a fact I'll clearly have to address. Surely no one does silly, laugh-out-loud funny dialogue better. A murder mystery, albeit without the murder, and a rollicking good time throughout. Thank you, Kathy!
4) HUMPHREY PAKINGTON, Four in Family (1932)
There's no better purely silly frolic on this list (unless it's #2 below, or perhaps #3, or maybe #5) than this early (first) novel from Pakington, a successful and fairly prolific author in his day who has been as thoroughly forgotten as any middlebrow woman. It's delightfully giggle-inducing throughout, a difficult thing for an author, however clever, to maintain. I mention this because a friend and I have each read some later Pakington and found him uneven, to say the least. I have high hopes for The Roving Eye, another 1932 effort, but even if Four is his only perfect comedy, it's better than most authors ever manage to accomplish even once.
3) ELLA MONCKTON, August in Avilion (1940)
A bit rough around the edges, like a less polished Apricot Sky, but pure delight nonetheless, and it was just what the doctor ordered for a mood-lifter. A charming and funny family holiday in Cornwall, with the somewhat unusual but lovably eccentric family of an artist. "I was enjoying it so much that I did that thing where you start rationing the remaining pages to make a book last longer. It still didn't last long enough."
2) ELEANOR FARJEON, Miss Granby's Secret (1941)
A novel within a novel, a format I usually shy away from, but in this case loved so much it hurt. The Bastard of Pinsk is an unpublished manuscript written by 16-year-old Adelaide Granby, later a bestselling Victorian author of gushingly romantic, purple prose and now deceased. The manuscript is read by Adelaide's suffragette grand-niece, along with her aunt's diaries, as she speculates about the mystery man who may have been "darling Aunt Addie's Grande Passion." It's hilarious, but also touching, in its very clever examination of what a sheltered, repressed Victorian girl could have experienced of passion, and if you don't giggle at least once on every page, I'll eat my hat. (I don't actually wear a hat, so I'll just have another dark chocolate digestive biscuit instead.)
1) KATHERINE DUNNING, The Spring Begins (1934)
Perhaps a bit more serious #1 than usual this year, but this gorgeous thing deserves all the attention it can get. Heavily influenced by Woolf, but don't shy away if you're not a Woolf-hound because it's also more accessible and more down-to-earth, with it's focus on three young women just at the point of discovering men and sexuality. Two of them are servants, the other an impoverished gentlewoman, and their experiences and sensibilities couldn't be more different, but Dunning has so much to say about the vulnerability of women and the liberation they can find for themselves (sometimes). Don't tell anyone, but I might like it even better than Mrs. Dalloway!
That's that for this year. What were your favorite obscure reads this year?
Happy New Year to all of you lovely readers! Good heavens, let's hope 2024 is better than 2023…