26 December 2023

The Best Reads of 2023: Publishers Take Note

The season brings a flurry of activity, which explains why I haven't posted one review this month. Still, I did manage to tackle twenty-four neglected Canadian books in 2023, which isn't so small a number. James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) was the oldest. Were I judging books by covers it would've been considered the finest. James Moffatt's The Marathon Murder (1972) was the youngest and ugliest. But then, what can one expect of a book that went from proposal to printing press in under seven days.

De Mille's dystopian nightmare is available from McGill-Queen's University Press as the third volume in the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts series.  

I first read the novel back when it was a McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library mainstay. New Canadian Library is no more; it was killed by Penguin Random House Canada. McClelland & Stewart – "The Canadian Publisher" – has been reduced to an imprint owned by Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA, but that hasn't prevented the German conglomerate from trying to make a buck – two bucks to be precise – selling it as an ebook.


Three other books covered here this year are also in print, but from American publishers:

The Weak-Eyed Bat - Margaret Millar
New York: Doubleday, 1942
New York: Syndicate, 2017
The Cannibal Heart - Margaret Millar
New York: Random House, 1949
New York: Syndicate, 2017

The Heart of Hyacinth - Onoto Watanna [Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper, 1903
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000
I'm wrong,  The Heart of Hyacinth is by far the best-looking book read this year; it was also the very best novel I read this year.

Note to Canadian publishers: Winnifred Eaton's novels are all in the public domain. 

What follows is the annual list of the three books most deserving of revival: 

Pagan Love
John Murray Gibbon
Toronto: McClelland &
   Stewart, 1922

A novel penned by a man who spent his working life writing copy for the CPR,  Pagan Love provides a cynical look at public relations and the self-help industry. Add to these its century-old take on gender bending and you have a work unlike any other.

Dove Cottage
Jan Hilliard [Hilda Kay
London: Abelard-Schulman,

The fourth of the author's six novels, this once centres on a man, his wife, and his mother-in-law, whose lives are elevated by way of an inheritance. Black humour abounds!

The Prairie Wife
Arthur Stringer
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [n.d.]

The first novel in Stringer's Prairie Trilogy. Dick Harrison describes it as the author's "most enduring work," despite the fact that it hasn't seen print in over seven decades. I'd put off reading The Prairie Wife because I have a thing against stories set on "the farm." What a mistake! An unexpected delight!

Last December's list of three featured Grant Allen's Philistea (1884), Stephen Leacock's Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915), and Horace Brown's Whispering City (1947). 

Ten months later, Whispering City returned to print as the eighteenth Ricochet Books title. Yours truly provided the introduction. It can be ordered through the usual online booksellers, but why not from the publisher itself? Here's the link.

As for the New Year... well, I'm back to making resolutions:
  • More French books (and not only in translation).
  • More non-fiction (and not only the work of crazies). 
That's it.

Keep kicking against the pricks!

Bonne année!

Related posts:

18 December 2023

The Globe's Best Books of 1923: 'Canadian Authors Can Be Read With Pleasure, Profit and Pride'

The Globe, 10 December 1923

Three men feature on the first page of the 1923 'Recent Books and the Outlook,' the 'Globe 100' of its day. The first, Paul A.W. Wallace, is recognized for his debut, Baptiste Larocque: Legends of French Canada. The second man, W.J. Healy, wrote Women of Red River, which was "arranged and published under the Women's Canadian Club of Winnipeg by Russell, Land, and Company." Norris Hodgins, the third, was recognized for Why Don't You Get Married.

All three are Canadian and all three are new to me.

I've been following the Globe's century-old lists of best books for nearly a decade now, and so think I know what to expect. There will be a dour pronouncement – in this case, "there is a dearth of outstanding books, especially novels, at the present time" – which will, in turn, be counterbalanced by something of a positive nature:

Under the 'More Canadiana' banner are books by Americans LeRoy Jeffers, Charles Towne, John M. Clarke, Charles W. Stokes, Paul Leland Haworth, and Briton Wilfred Grenfell. The final ingredient in this messy mix is George King's self-published Hockey Year Book. Its inclusion marks the first ever mention of the sport in 'Recent Books and the Outlook.'

I can't imagine how much it would fetch today. 84 Victoria Street itself is worth a bloody fortune.

Despite the flag waving, Canadian writers don't fair all that well in the Globe's 1923 list, accounting for just 46 of the 196 titles featured. As in 1922, poets dominate: 

Ballads and Lyrics - Bliss Carman
Selected Poems - W.H. Davies*
Morning in the West - Katherine Hale
Flint and Feather - E. Pauline Johnson
The Complete Poems of Archibald Lampman
Shepard's Purse - Florence Randal Livesay 
 The Miracle Songs of Jesus - Wilson MacDonald
The Complete Poems of Tom MacInnes
The Songs of Israfel and Other Poems - Marion Osborne
The Garden of the Sun - A.E.S. Smythe
The Empire Builders - Robert Stead
Woman - Albert Durrant Watson

That's twelve titles! From a nation of nine million! The Globe informs that the rest of the world produced just five collections of note!

For the second year running, we have the inclusion of The Complete Poems of Archibald Lampman, of which there is no record. And so, for the second year, I'll suggest that what is being referred to is The Poems of Archibald Lampman, first published in 1900 by George N. Morang. As Ryan Porter notes, the collection enjoyed several reprints. Still, I see no evidence of a new edition in 1923, never mind 1922. I'll say the same of E. Pauline Johnson's 1912 Flint and Feather. There was a new edition of Robert Stead's The Empire Builders, which just happens to be the only poetry title I own.

Curiously, Wilson MacDonald's The Song of Prairie Land is singled out for mention in the introduction to the poetry list, yet only his The Miracle Songs of Jesus makes the cut.

Our non-fiction writers fare the worst with just four of the fifty titles listed. I don't have a copy of even one, though I am interested in the Marjorie Pickthall, "a memorial volume edited by Helena Coleman," which does not seem to exist.  

Our writers of fiction don't fare much better, contributing just eight titles to the list: 

The Gaspards of Pine Croft - Ralph Connor
Lantern Marsh - Beaumont S. Cornell
Why Don't You Get Married? - Norris Hodgins
The Happy Isles - Basil King
When Christmas Crossed the Peace - Nellie L. McClung
Emily of New Moon - L.M. Montgomery
The Viking Heart - Laura Goodman Salverson
Spirit of Iron - Harwood Steele

There were twenty-one Canadian works of fiction on the 1922 list.

Here are some that made it:

And here are some that did not:

Frank L. Packard's The Four Stragglers is at the bottom of the pile, Stephen Leacock's Over the Footlights is at the top. Between the two is Winnifred Eaton's "Cattle" – or is it Cattle? – which may just be the best Canadian novel of 1923. 

The Gaspards of Pine Croft, which I've not read, is one of my $2 Connors.  

I've long been on the lookout for Beaumont S. Cornell's lone novel Lantern Marsh because it's set in a thinly disguised Brockville, Ontario, which is where I do my weekly grocery shopping.  

Basil King's novel The Happy Isles is praised as the best since his 1909 breakthrough The Inner Shrine. I do like it, but nowhere near as much as The Empty Sack (1921).

I was once engaged to a woman who knew a woman who had been engaged to Harwood Steele. 

And so it goes.

* Correction: Roger Allen writes, "Are you sure the dozen poets are Canadian? The W.H. Davies nearly everyone thinks of - still in print - is the author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. He only became a poet because he lost a leg jumping on a train in Canada and had to go back to Britain, but that doesn't make him Canadian."

He's correct, of course. I can't explain the error, though it might have something to do with a bottle of Canadian Club sent by an aunt as an early Christmas gift. 

Related posts:

11 December 2023

Eight Gifts to Last

In past years I've noted gifts and donations to the Dusty Bookcase at the end of the annual list of Ten Best Book Buys. An exception is made here because of the shear volume, and because I wanted to add a personal note. And We Go On seems an appropriate title with which to start.

And We Go On
Will R. Bird
Toronto: Hunter-Rose, 1930

A memoir of the Great War, this first edition was given to me by military historian James Calhoun, with whom I co-authored the introduction to the 2014 Dundurn edition of Peregrine Acland's All Else Is Folly. Note the dust jacket description:
A story of the War by a Private in
the Canadian Black Watch;
a Story Without Filth
or Favour.
Bird's memoir was inspired in part by his disgust at the portrayal of soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front and Generals Die in Bed. He wouldn't have liked All Else Is Folly

Outlaw Breed
William Byron Mowery
Calabasas, CA: Cutting Edge, 2023

Novelist Lee Greenwood is doing God's work in reviving neglected novels. He reached out three years ago after I reviewed former Vancouver Sun scribe Tom Ardies' 1971 thriller Their Man in the White House. You'd like it. The novel tells the story of an American president who is beholding to the Russians. Oh, and he has an unusual – I suggest unhealthy – relationship with his blonde daughter. Lee was then in the process of returning all Ardies' novels to print.

Outlaw Breed is not a political thriller. First published in 1936 under the title Black Automatic, it was written by a Buckeye known as the "Zane Grey of the Canadian Northwest." Starring Noel Irving, ex-RCMP, the action begins with a murder in Winnipeg, moves on to Fort McMurray, and then the Northwest Territories.

The Woman's Harvest
Anna Floyd
London: T. Werner Laurie, 1916

An obscure novel by a forgotten English writer, set in England in and around the time of the Great War, The Woman's Harvest has nothing whatsoever to do with Canada, yet I was drawn to it after reading Brad Bigelow's Neglected Books review. I just had to read it, but not a one was listed for sale online. Worse still, the nearest copy is found in the National Library of Scotland. Brad was generous in giving me his. I'll say no more because Brad's review says it all. You'll want to read it, too.

Canada Speaks of Britain
and Other Poems of the War
Charles G.D. Roberts
Toronto: Ryerson, 1941

The River St. John and Its Poets
L.M.B. Maxwell
[n.p.]: [n.p], 1946

Two chapbooks donated by my friend Forrest Pass. The earlier, Sir Charles' Canada Speaks of Britain features seven "Poems of the War" (including 'Peace With Dishonour,' which was actually composed in September, 1938), along with three poems from the previous war, and three more poems thrown in for good measure. The longest in the collection is 'Two Rivers':
                     Two rivers are there in hold my heart
                          And neither would I leave.
                     When I would stay with one two long
                          The other tugs my sleeve.
The two rivers are the Tantamar and the St. John, which ties in nicely to The River St. John and Its Poets by L.M.B. Maxwell, LL.D. It consists of a series of biographical sketches and sample poems of sixteen poets, including Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, LL.D., D. Litt.; Theodore Goodrich Roberts, D. Litt.; William Bliss Carman, M.A., LL. D.; and Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey, M.A., Ph.D. I was more interested in plain old Francis Sherman, Charles Boyle, and Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, whose home I visited last autumn.

The Complete Adventures of Jimmie Dale, Volume Three
Frank L. Packard
[n.p.]: [n.p], 2022

The final volume of Packard scholar Michael Howard's annotated compilation of Packard's Gray Seal novels, this one includes Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder (1930), Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935), and the unfinished and previously unpublished Jimmie Dale's Only Chance. 

But wait, there's more!

Also included are four chapters that were cut from The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1919), the script for the first episode of the radio serial The Adventures of Jimmie Dale, the beginning of the British edition of The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (in which our hero is an Englishman), and a family biography by the late Francis Lucius Packard.  

The author's grandson, Jeffrey Packard, provides the preface. 

All three volumes can be ordered through Amazon.

One last  gift:

Self Condemned
Wyndham Lewis
Toronto: Dundurn, 2010

My friend Michael Gnarowski died on July 27th of this year. He'd taught at three universities, one of which I attended, but I was not one students. Still, I learned a great deal from Michael. We first met twenty years ago when I was working on my biography of of his friend John Glassco, that great practitioner of deceit. He and I were dogged in our pursuit of "the knowable truth." 

Our last days together started over pints in an Ottawa strip mall pub – the fish and chips wasn't terrible – after which we'd move on to apple pie and vanilla ice cream at the flat he shared with his wife Diana. In our second to last meeting, Michael pulled out this slightly battered copy Self Condemned, asking whether I had a copy.

I lied.

This edition is a Voyageur Classic, a series that followed the Carleton Library and the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts series, all of which Michael had overseen. I'd bought each Voyageur Classic upon release, and was honoured when he accepted my proposal to include All Else Is Folly (see above) in the series.

And so, because I lied, I was able to accept his generosity. Michael signed my copy, explaining that his writing hand would not do what he wanted it to.
I last saw Michael on Father's Day, which somehow seems appropriate. He ordered the fish and chips, and then we had pie and ice cream.

17 September 1934, Shanghai, China
July 27, 2023, Ottawa, Canada 

04 December 2023

The Ten Best Book Buys of 2023!

With sadness, I report that 2023 was another year in which all my favourite acquisitions were purchased online. This is not to suggest that every transaction was a good one. In March, I won a lot of twelve Marilyn Ross Dark Shadows books, three of which bear the signature of their true author, New Brunswick's W.E.D. Ross. 

My lengthy victory dance came to an abrupt end when they arrived loose in a recycled Amazon box. Most were in poor condition, some featured stamps from used bookstores, and one had a previous owner's name written on its cover. Added to all this was the shipping charge, which far exceeded the amount paid for the books themselves, and was several times greater than what Canada Post had charged the seller.

Had all gone well, this copy of Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride (New York: Paperback Library, 1970) would've surely made the cut.

Enough negativity! It was a good year!

What follows is 2023's top ten:

In Nature's Workshop

Grant Allen
London: Newnes, 1901

I bought three Grant Allen books this year – the novels This Mortal Coil (1888) and At Market Value (1895) being the others – but this is the one I like the most. The posthumously published second edition, it features over one hundred illustrations by English naturalist Frederick Enock (1845-1916).

Hot Freeze

Martin Brett [Douglas
London: Reinhardt, 1954

For years I've been going on about Hot Freeze being the very best of post-war Canadian noir; it was one of the first novels reissued as a Ricochet Book. I was aware that there had been a UK edition, but couldn't find a copy with dust jacket.

Found it!
Hilary Randall: The Story
   of The Town
Horace Brown
Toronto: Voyageur, [n.d.]

While working to return Brown's 1947 novel Whispering City to print, I learned that Saturday Night editor B.K. Sandwell had thought Hilary Randall just might be the great Canadian novel. Self-published roughly four decades after its composition, my copy is inscribed!

Wedded for a Week; or, The
   Unseen Bridegroom
May Agnes Fleming
London: Milner, [n.d.]

As with Grant Allen, I can't let a year go by without adding more Fleming to my collection. The Actress' Daughter was the first, but I much prefer this 1881 novel, if only for its two titles.

Writing this I realize that I haven't read a Fleming in 2023. 

A Self-Made Thief

Hulbert Footner
London: Literary Press,

As my old review of 1930's The Mystery of the Folded Paper suggests, I'm not much of a Footner fan, Still, at £4, this last-minute addition to a large order placed with a UK bookseller seemed a bargain. The dust jacket illustration, which I hadn't seen, is unique to this edition.

Pagan Love
John Murray Gibbon
Toronto: McClelland &
   Stewart, 1922

Had I not read this novel, it's unlikely this wouldn't have made the list. Pagan Love entertained at every turn as a take-down of the burgeoning self-help industry and corporate propaganda. Odd for a man who spent most of his working life writing copy for the CPR.

Dove Cottage
Jan Hilliard [Hilda Kay
London: Abelard-Schulman,

There are books that grow on you. Reviewing Dove Cottage this past March I likened it to an enjoyable afternoon of community theatre, but it has remained with me in a way that the local real estate agent's performance as George Gibbs has not.

Three Dozen Sonnets &
   Fast Drawings
Bob McGee
Montreal: Véhicule, 1973

This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Véhicule Press. Three Dozen Sonnets & Fast Drawings was the press's very first book. A pristine copy with errata slip, it appeared to have been unread.

No longer.

Awful Disclosures of Maria
Maria Monk
New York: Howe & Bates,

A first edition copy of the text that launched an industry. Not in the best condition, but after 187 years, much of it being pawed over by anti-papist zealots, what can one expect.

My work on the Maria Monk hoax continues. 

Crimes: or, I'm Sorry Sir,
   But We Do Not Sell
   Handguns to Junkies
Vicar Vicars [Ted Mann]
Vancouver: Pulp, 1973

As far as I know, Crimes is Ted Mann's only book. When published, he was an editor at National Lampoon. The Bombardier Guide to Canadian Authors was in his future, as were NYPD Blue, Deadwood. and Homeland.

What to expect next year? More Allen and Fleming, I'm betting.  Basil King seems likely.