PIle of birthday booksI was lucky enough to received a couple of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books for my birthday last year (as well as this year!). I read Miss Read’s “Fresh From the Country” back in March 2020 (I’d received a review copy I read on my Kindle but had requested a print copy from my best friend for my permanent shelves) and as it’s #ReadingIndies month this month I had the ideal opportunity to pick this one off the TBR shelf. A BIG thank you to DSP for republishing this marvellous piece of escapism! (By the way, I’ve now read and reviewed three of the books from this pile. I do need to keep on with the print TBR!)

Susan Alice Kerby – “Miss Carter and the Ifrit”

(21 January 2020)

An absolutely marvellous work of fantasy rooted in reality (the kind I really prefer, c.f. Joan Aiken, Paul Magrs, etc.) which was entertaining and absorbing, light but by no means shallow, and even moving, too. The end-of-the-war setting (the book was originally published in 1045; in the book the Blitz is over and things are relatively safe, if rationed and grey) is beautifully done and very atmospheric, and who wouldn’t want a new kind of friend to suddenly appear when things seem so straitened?

Georgina Carter, a 47-year-old spinster whom live has rather passed by, inadvertently releases an Ifrit (a sort of genie) from some wood blocks she buys for  her fire, who then rather embarrassingly provides sherbert, fruits, tented ceilings and the like, while exhibiting a strong interest in men’s contemporary hats and also interfering to make our heroine’s life more comfortable in other ways.

I liked the disconnects between “Joe’s” (for that’s what she christens him, after Stalin) knowledge of the world and the modern world. He believes Georgina can work magic (the radio) and must have been dispossessed of her birthright; she has, but not in the way he thinks –

Life had just passed her by without so much even as a casual wave of the hand. (p. 20)

and she struggles to explain how a wireless and other things work, although she takes it upon herself to carefully provide Joe with an education, teaching him to read and providing books and magazines. I love the cosy life they lead with not a hint of impropriety – although that’s now how it might look from the outside and she does waver about who / how to tell.

I was very interested to find the whole plot of Diana Wynne Jones’ “Castle in the Air” included in a story that Joe tells – presumably both originating from the 1000 and One Nights. We even journey to the deserts of North Africa to visit Georgina’s old friend and possibly love interest, in scenes where she draws on her inner resolve to stand up to scary and new things with wonderful aplomb.

We know that the arrangement with the lovely Ifrit can’t be permanent, and there’s a lovely and poignant act of selfless love – rewarded – near the end. It’s very well done and, if I can say it, plausible and believable – there’s a great moment where a visit to  her nephew is made able to be put down to overindulging in the drink due to Georgina forgetting the socks she was bringing him! It’s a kind book, too, with Miss Carter’s friendship with Margaret carefully repaired and woven back together after she grasps the wrong end of the stick.

Like “O, The Brave Music,” a book I wish I’d discovered years ago so I could be re-reading it now, and one I’m very glad has been republished.