20 December 2018

Best Books of 2018 (none of which are from 2018)

I'm right now reading Thomas Jerome Seabrook's Bowie in Berlin, a book that has nothing at all to do with Canadian literature. The next up on deck is The Great Gatsby, which I'm in the habit of rereading every three, four or five years. Given this busy season, it's doubtful that I'll read another Canadian book before year's end. And so, the time has come for my annual reading obit, beginning with the three out-of-print books most deserving of reissue:

The Thread of Flame
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1920

The first novel the reverend wrote after the Armistice, this is the story of a man who, suffering from shell shock, loses his identity and memory. Essential reading for anyone studying the depiction of PTSD in literature.

The Empty Sack
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1921

A tale of two families, both trying to make sense of the post-Great War world. Murder features, rather unexpectedly. I dare not spoil, but I have reason to think that it influenced Ben Hecht's The Front Page.

Isabel Mackay
Toronto: Allen, 1926

The last of five novels penned by a woman known more commonly as Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, its depiction of failed promise and domestic abuse had me wondering how it is that she is so forgotten.

Between this blog and my Canadian Notes & Queries column, I read and reviewed twenty-five forgotten and/or neglected Canadian books this year, five of which are actually in print:

It's rare that I let a year go by without tacking a Grant Allen novel. Miss Cayley's Adventures is one of the most popular, but not with me. Oh, I liked it well enough... but there are much better. In the midst of reading the novel I posted a list of my ten favourite Grant Allen novels. Revising that list, I would place Miss Cayley's Adventures at number eight, between The British Barbarians and Recalled to Life.

What fun! Last year, Robert Barr's Revenge! made my list of three books most deserving of a reprint. The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont would've been a shoe-in for this year had it not been available from the good folks at Gaslight Crime of Harpenden, Herts. Their edition features "The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs" and "The Adventure of the Second Swag," two Sherlock Holmes parodies not included in the original. The most entertaining read this year.

The Invisible Worm, Margaret Millar's 1941 debut had been long beyond both my financial reach and that of Ontario's interlibrary loan system. At long last, I was able to read it thanks to Syndicate Books' Collected Millar. Or is it called The Complete Margaret Millar? Either way, I'm appreciative. Collectors should take note that a copy of the first UK edition (above left), published in 1943 by John Long, is still available from Dacobra Books, Belleville, NSW, Australia. Price: US$520.

The Lively Corpse is Rose's Last Summer under another name. Margaret Millar's tenth novel, it closes The Dawn of Domestic Suspense, the second volume in the Collected Millar. The third volume is titled The Master at Her Zenith. This is Millar ascending.

The author's second novel, The Box Garden was published fifteen years before The Stone Diaries made her a household name. I'm embarrassed to admit – yet I must admit – that it is the only Carol Shields novel I've ever read. On the other hand, does her work really have a place in a blog devoted to forgotten, neglected, and suppressed writing?

This year I was involved in returning John Buell's Four Days to print. The author's second novel, it isn't so well known as his debut, The Pyx, but I think it is his best (and here I acknowledge that I haven't yet read his 1976 novel Playground). A Ricochet Book from Véhicule Press, the new edition features an introduction by Trevor Ferguson (aka John Farrow).

I didn't publish a book this year, but did contribute a few photos, ticket stubs, and a handbill to my friend Jim Dooley's Red Set: A History of Gang of Four. This is what comes from being a pack rat.

Praise this year goes to American Frank L. Packard scholar Michael Howard, who has begun reissuing the Jimmie Dale/Grey Seal novels in annotated editions.

The next, featuring The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale and Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue, will be released in the New Year. True labours of love, they can be purchased through American online booksellers.

Resolutions, I have a few:
  • I resolved last year to read more books by women. And I did! Eleven of the twenty-five I reviewed were by women writers. Let's see if I can't improve on that number.
  • I resolved last year to read more books by French language writers... and failed miserably. What I'd thought was an all-time low in 2017 – one! – was surpassed with a zero count in 2018. I hang my head in shame.
  • I resolve to finish one of the two books I'm currently writing.
  • Finally, as always, I resolve to continue kicking against the pricks.
How 'bout you?

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  1. I've never read a Trevor Fergusson novel but did watch the film version of TIMEKEEPER. I have read all the John Farrow books.

    NUTS. Scratch that. I just checked the catalog and have not yet read the Farrow title PERISH THE DAY.

    The Jimmie dale books look interesting.

    1. Must admit that I've only read the novels Trevor Ferguson published under his own name, Gerald. Of the Farrow novels, a friend recommends the monumental 811-page River City.

      I should add that six years ago I had the honour of hosting a panel featuring Trevor on Montreal noir at the city's Blue Metropolis festival.

    2. The Grey Seal books are very much pulp fiction, not lost classics, but super imaginative. I'm hoping the ones that were written as novels are a little less repetitive than the first two. Cool to see the roots of super heros being born. I think they could make a great movie.

      I read some Trevor Ferguson while in school and was really impressed, but can't remember what I read. I think it was a couple of plays actually. When I found out he was writing noir I leapt at them (slowly). The first two are top notch noir, gritty and suspenseful with top notch prose. The third is much more epic- and more into literary territory than noir.

    3. John's novels are excellent. Must say, for all its pulpy goodness, I wish that fellow Montrealer Packard had set at least a few of his novels in the city.

      It might be a fun exercise to Canadianize one of his thrillers in the way he (or was it an editor or editors?) changed the locations of select novels from New York to London for the UK market.

      I've always thought that the Grey Seal novels would be a perfect project for Netflix, HBO and the like.

  2. Speaking of Montreal crime novels, I have greatly enjoyed John McFetridge's series with character Eddie Dougherty.

    -Gerard- whose Google/Blogger account won't show up.

  3. Last year I resolved to read more than I collected. I think it turned out about even. I've been diving into forgotten classics. This year I want to catch up on the last decade of Canadian writing. There are so many talented authors I've missed.

  4. Now that I realize the The Invisible Worm is so hard to find at a reasonable price, I will have to buy the volume of the Collected Works that contains that book. I was avoiding that because the print is so tiny.

    1. I know what you mean about the print, Tracy. It seems a chore at first, but I've found the eyes adjust.

      Coincidentally - and strangely - the only edition of The Invisible Worm published between 1943 and 2017 was a 1989 large print edition. Sadly, the used copies being sold online are absurdly expensive.

  5. Buell's last novel, A Lot to Make Up For, which I read this year, was more down to earth than The Pyx. Well written, for sure. Not all that complex, finally, but my only real complaint was the decision to avoid making the setting explicitly Canadian.

    Farrow's River City is admirable in its sweep. The portrait of Pierre Trudeau will be too idealized for some readers. How many people will buy a paper)copy of the book at current prices is another question...

    My old-Canadian-book resolution for 2019 is to read J.G. Sime's Our Little Life (1923). Brian, do you know it?

    1. I've always found it odd that Buell so often avoided identifying his settings, Patrick. For example, it's obvious that The Pyx is set in Montreal, yet the name of the city is never mentioned and the street names are fictitious.

      I'm afraid I know Our Little Life mainly through packing and unpacking. I bought my copy in the summer of 2002, not long after we moved back to Vancouver. It has since travelled to Ottawa, St Marys, and Merrickville - and I still haven't read it.

      I join you in your resolution. If I like it, I'll also read Sime's Sister Women, her 1919 collection of short stories (which I understand are set in Montreal).