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Back in Circulation: 20 Great Overlooked Books

Summer is the perfect time to dive into nostalgic reads with these hidden gems / BY Nathalie Atkinson / August 10th, 2023


The appetite for republishing unjustly neglected or forgotten out-of-print books has picked up steam since I last spoke with a few editors who are leading the charge. We’ve only just passed the midpoint of the reading year and already, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m also pleased to report that Joseph Hansen’s West Coast noir series, featuring an openly gay insurance investigator (which was among my top rediscovered titles of last year) will soon become a Netflix series.

Something about summer tinges my reading tastes with nostalgia — it’s when I tend to hunt for specific bygone reads. Most recently, several disparate random mentions put me onto Heat Wave, Penelope Lively’s out-of-print 1996 hothouse novel of parenthood and adultery. When I wandered into one of my favourite secondhand haunts last week looking for it, the proprietor told me he couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked for the British novelist (and he’s been in the trade for decades). In the end, I resorted to Biblio.com to order multiple copies for my not-a-book-club reading circle. Yet another reason I’m glad there are so many publishers and imprints that dust off forgotten gems, give them fresh covers, along with contextual introductions, then reintroduce the work to a new generation of readers. To read my piece on how anniversaries of classic books offer the chance to revisit and reassess timeless works of fiction, click here.

Until my next year-end instalment in December, here are recent favourites and highlights of the wide variety of engrossing non-fiction, mystery, suspense, feminist and literary fiction unearthed gems and re-issues of the year — so far.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

“I think I killed someone.” This psychological study of a murderer begins with a man’s confession in a Manhattan Catholic church on a sweltering hot August night. Naturally, the priest launches a parallel investigation at the same time as the NYPD. A bestseller when it was published in 1951, it was hailed by legendary critic Anthony Boucher and helped pioneer (albeit in the shallow understanding of its era) the psychological profile subgenre.


2A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

Two forgotten mid-century Celias — Fremlin and Dale — are the godmothers of domestic noir. Miserys Annie Wilkes has nothing on the Evanses, the middle-aged couple created by Dale (a British novelist and book reviewer whose career spanned much of the 20th century) in this 1966 chiller. When the seemingly kind duo welcome elderly Mrs. Fingal to stay in the spare room of their suburban home, she grows increasingly feeble and dependent — and the claustrophobic suspense slowly ratchets up. Details that chronicle both the horror and irritations of growing old help  further draw the reader and at times make them complicit. At last available in North America thanks to Virginia indie Valancourt Books, I recommend buying it alongside A Dark Corner (from 1971), Dale’s similarly bloodless tale of a young Black man who goes in search of London lodging and accidentally finds himself in the home of a ‘harmless’ elderly couple.


3A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

Since the onset of the pandemic, countless thinkpieces have extolled the psychological and physical benefits of the walking cure, and emphasising why we should all regularly be putting one foot in front of the other. This beautifully illustrated book by the French thinker is the original modern tome for why we walk. For its anniversary this summer, the part manifesto, part history lesson is being released in updated form complete with all the lore of how walking influenced great thinkers of the past intact.


4Death in the Dark by Moray Dalton

When literary agent and Dean Street Press founder Rupert Heath died in early 2023, he had five new mystery revivals in the works by Dalton; the pseudonym of Katherine Renoir — a London, England-born writer whose father was Canadian. Of the lot, this 1938 title is one of her Hugh Collier detective novels set in the 1930s as fascism in Europe looms ever closer. It’s about an acrobat convicted of murdering a wealthy London eccentric (are there any other kinds?). Each book comes with an intro by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans and a remarkable vintage trompe-l’oeil cover by golden age American illustrator Coles Phillips, master of the fadeaway girl (the one for this novel originally appeared as a Life magazine cover in 1911).


5Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott

This divorce and free sex novel caused a sensation when it was published anonymously in 1929, sharing space on the bestseller lists with Ernest Hemingway’s A Call to Arms. Racy and titillating, it became a cult read and was later adapted into the pre-Code Norma Shearer vehicle The Divorcée (1930s Hollywood enjoyed making movies of Parrott’s other novels, too). It’s about an emerging modern species: the new woman, young and single in New York City. To give you an idea: “She convinced me of the relativity of virtue: i.e. if a woman has been asked into twenty beds, and managed to stay out of nineteen of them, on a purely percentage basis she is a good deal more virtuous than a woman who has only been asked into one, and went.” Samantha Jones couldn’t have said it any better.


6Food For Free by Richard Mabey

For those wishing to be more self-sufficient: British naturalist Richard Mabey’s compendium of botanical information about collecting, cooking and preparing edible plants throughout history, first published in 1972, gets a luscious 50th anniversary edition. It’s got a new foreword by the author, plenty of history and lore, as well as an identification guide for all major species.


7Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, trans. by Ann Goldstein

Italian Cuban anti-fascist novelist, screenwriter and journalist de Céspedes wrote about women’s lives before and after the Second World War. Her subversive 1952 novel (written in the form of diary entries) about a middle-aged Roman woman’s domestic ennui was out of print for decades, but gets a fresh new translation. In style and content, it will be catnip to Elena Ferrante fans.


8Francisco by Alison Mills Newman

Before falling into obscurity and out of print, Newman’s autobiographical 1974 novel earned accolades from Toni Morrison. The book was written during road trips with her husband Francisco Newman while she was an actor (as a teen, she had a recurring role in Diahann Carroll’s Julia). This New Directions reissue has a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman and introduces us to unnamed narrator — a Black actress and poet — as is chock full of racy digressive stories that draw on the author’s disillusioned experience at the edges of Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the Black arts movement of the ’70s, with cameos by Melvin Van Peebles, Pharoah Sanders and Angela Davis. The New York Times calls it “a sensual odyssey of self-discovery and experience.”


9Heartburn by Nora Ephron

A food writer, seven months pregnant, discovers her husband is cheating. Does the late rom-com queen’s famously delicious, gimlet-eyed revenge novel need any more introduction? If you think so, then pick up the new 40th anniversary edition of her thinly veiled roman à clef for its brief foreword by actor (and fellow gourmand) Stanley Tucci.


10Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

This novel about a stubbornly single romance novelist who takes herself into a brief exile (for having embarrassed her circle in London) won the Booker Prize in 1984. It’s all brilliantly ironic narration, a running interior monologue from when she lands at a Swiss resort hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva at the end of the season, full of sarcastic observations and commentary on the surroundings and guests. The locale alone makes it an immensely satisfying summer read, as do its scant 180 pages in the slim new Penguin Essentials edition (with gorgeous cover art by interior design wunderkind Luke Edward Hall), perfect for taking on the go.


11Last Standing Woman by Winona LaDuke

The first novel of Anishinaabekwe activist LaDuke, who lives and works on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, was written while she lived in Moose Factory, Ont. The Harvard-educated economist is celebrated for her work on Indigenous and human rights. The new 25th anniversary edition of her provocative debut novel — set across seven generations of an Anishinaabe family’s resistance against European colonialism — encompasses social history, oral storytelling and characters in such a way that Publishers Weekly likened it to Louise Erdrich in its original review.


12Lover Man by Alston Anderson

Anderson, who died in 2008, was born in Panama to Jamaican parents who brought him to North Carolina as a child. After serving in the army during the Second World War, he studied philosophy at Columbia and the Sorbonne before overlapping with James Baldwin at the Yaddo artists retreat. His raw stories (first published in 1958) explore the identity and hidden lives of Black boys and men in North Carolina in the early 1940s, and are illuminated with an afterword by Kinohi Nishikawa analysing the queer elements of Anderson’s work.

 


13Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai

This sensational 1997 Japanese novel, newly translated into English by Polly Barton, has undertones of Mrs. Dalloway. The minutiae in domestic drudgery of a middle-class wife and mother’s monotonous days (and malaise) reads like a horror story — one The Atlantic calls astonishing for its portrayal of “the dichotomy at the heart of housework.”


14The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

This beloved 1958 bestseller is a portrait of a quartet of striving women working at a publishing house in post-war New York City and was revolutionary for its frank depictions of money, ambition and sexual harassment (it’s “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe”). The new 65th anniversary from Penguin Classics comes with an intro by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme discussing the many resonances (#MeToo, et al) of reading the popular classic 65 years later.


15The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

In a crowded field, Sherriff’s unassuming The Fortnight in September is still easily my favourite summer book. The English writer (seriously wounded during the First World War) who is best known for his celebrated anti-war play Journey’s End also wrote this dryly humorous 1939 speculative novel — a cosy catastrophe, as they’re known — about an ordinary retired schoolmaster in a small English village preparing for the end of the world. The Times calls it “a disturbingly relevant novel that inaugurated a genre of dystopian fiction in which the resourceful hero survives the apocalypse.”


16The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton

MIT Press adds to its Radium Age imprint with the creator of sleuthing priest Father Brown’s masterful 1904 debut: a political satire about a man chosen at random to become king of a near-future England (1984, hence the rumour it inspired George Orwell). The introduction unpacking why Chesterton pits London neighbourhoods against one another in a mediaeval-style contest is by American Canadian science fiction writer Madeline Ashby, with cover design by Canadian cartoonist Seth.


17The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale (reissue)

The jazz age rebel was an accomplished short story writer “whose long association with The New Yorker rivalled that of her contemporary John Cheever” and that alone would be reason enough for Library of America to bring her 1942 novel back into print. As it happens, it’s also a gripping triple coming-of-age story of friendships, marriages, abortions and feminist awakenings that influenced other hidden gems I mention this week by Jaffe, McCarthy, Spark, as well as Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.


18The Projector by Martin Vaughn-James

NYRB Classics discusses great novels you’ve never heard of in their Unburied Books podcast — and one of them is the graphic novel by the British-born painter and cartoonist who lived in Canada. His work was key to developing the modern medium and this gloriously vertiginous must-read (nominally about technology and urban wastelands) was originally published by the illustrious Toronto small press Coach House Books in 1971.


19Too Late to Turn Back by Barbara Greene

You might call this the Rashomon of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, the chronicle of his 350-mile trek in 1935 West Africa (Liberia). Greene, a young woman at the time, accompanied her cousin on the journey and quietly kept her own travelogue. The contrast between the two accounts is fascinating, as she notices not only what her more confident male counterpart does not (the racial injustices, for example) but observes him observing it all.


20Where I’m Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft

Diets, daycare, debt and everyday racism — this anthology assembles some of the seasoned American cartoonist’s trailblazing comic strips of the early ’90s. The series, by the first nationally syndicated Black female cartoonist, traced the experiences of Black life and Black joy among several African American women, and still resonates today.


THE SCROLL

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Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


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