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Category Archives: End of month review

A Victorian End of Year Review (of sorts)

ImageVaultHandler_aspxAnd so, the end of 2013 has passed… and so has my two-year themed reading challenge. It’s been such fun choosing a monthly theme then piling up the appropriate books with fevered anticipation. And then posting gratuitous pictures of my personal library. The total of books read thematically has been less than impressive, as seen on my Good Reads list.

Organising my reading thematically has given me focus, made me take books off my shelves (even if they’re just been piled up and reshelved after a couple of months), and challenged me to discover new authors and genres.

However, it has sometimes been restrictive and the blogging element of the experiment has fallen by the wayside a little. I haven’t reflected on the themes deeply enough, perhaps because the reading in the end hasn’t been so focused. I’m still distracted by all the books I haven’t read, and all the books which keep piling up in our house.

So October’s theme, which melded into November and (oops!) into December, was Victoriana. I loved the anticipation of this and found some delicious looking books on my shelves (see previous post). The few novels I managed to read were successfully atmospheric and (perhaps) overly dramatic. Some were set in brothels with suitable emphasis on sexual proclivities (The Crimson Petal and the White in particular; not too gratuitous but with an engaging narrative style. And stonking good plot). There was swirling fog, gorgeous dresses, and grisly murders (at times). They all seemed to be hefty tomes with complicated plots and lots of sex. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance of our mis-conception that the Victorians repressed everything. (see Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians to redress the balance)

Reading contemporary novels set in the Victorian era has been an interesting contrast to the style and content of the ‘real’ Victorian novels I’ve already read.  Some of the Victoriana was almost a self-conscious parody, seeking to recapture the thrills of a Victorian ‘sensationalist novel’ but failing. I’d rather read Wilkie Collins or Mary Braddon, thanks.

I would recommend anyone to try a year, or a few months, reading within a certain theme; whether a particular author, setting, genre, subject matter. I have discovered some gems and authors I wouldn’t have otherwise have tried. Get out of your comfort zone and look in a different part of your local bookshop or library.

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And so as I look ahead into 2014, I’m resolving to ‘watch less, read more.’ I have many books piled up waiting to be read and am looking forward to a year’s ‘free reading’, returning to my old habits of reading different books, whatever takes my fancy…
…. but with the twist that I cannot buy any more books for myself for the whole year.

Now, that’s an idea for a year’s worth of blog posts…

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On Being On Holiday (Belatedly)

20121117-224129.jpg I’ve been on holiday. Literally (for a short time over the summer) but also metaphorically (from blogging). I didn’t go away anywhere very exciting, or particularly relaxing (I have children so much of my life is essentially the same with different scenery), but I have given myself a break.

I’m supposed to be blogging every month, reflecting on my reading theme. As you’ll have noticed by now, it’s been a while and I’ve heard a few self-imposed deadlines whizzing past.

Nevermind; back on track for the final few months of 2013. To be honest this ‘holiday’ has been refreshing. I extended June’s Sci-Fi theme into half of July so I could finish The Passage.  I have paused my reading of  The Game of Thrones for so long I think I should now admit to having given up on it, for this year at least (a shame, I know; I may regret the decision). I then challenged myself to take only my Kindle on a short trip to London, intending to read Wolf Hall and that alone (see blog post ‘On Not Packing Books’ in July ). That I managed, but over a longer period of time than I’d expected, with other books in between.Jubilee 2012 184

A holiday from themed reading  has been invigorating. I could read whatever I fancied, just like ‘the old days’, not exercising my critical faculties at all. (I couldn’t read when ever I fancied, those ‘pesky children’ had to be entertained, educated, fed and watered, but I had the evenings and a few long car journeys.) Unfortunately, I didn’t read anything particularly ‘high brow’ – Wolf Hall notwithstanding. I’ve returned to a few comfort reads (Joanna Trollope’s latest The Soldier’s Wife and a couple more of Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn series) in addition to a few titles I’ve been putting off because they don’t fit into a theme: the Hunger Games trilogy, Tigers in Red Weather, Good Omens, Separate Lives.  It’s been fun to jump and skip about around time, setting, style and theme. The ‘holiday’ feeling has been difficult to shake off. I tried to be good and get into the ‘back to school’ mood by posting On Iris Murdoch (in anticipation). I fully intended to read at least one of her novels and one biography. imageI failed. Both Bruno’s Dream and The Sea, The Sea are woefully, pitifully read. I have started both, attaining about 10% progress. I also started A.N. Wilson’s respectful but unorthodox biography/memoir of Murdoch but am only up to page 52. Both the novels are refreshingly different to what I was expecting with eccentric, troubled male protagonists with tangled personal lives. I may continue to read their stories as they provide a refreshing change both from what I have read before of Murdoch’s novels and my recent fayre. But onwards, onto the next thematic challenge; merging October into November to avoid deadline anxiety with multiple family birthdays getting ‘in the way’ of my reading. Perhaps this holiday from a theme has exposed my intellectual pretence. I am a book tart, a bibliophilic magpie, a will-o-the-book-wisp. imageAm I the only one?

 

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On June’s Journeying

Bob: The Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram. Highly recommended by me - and my kids

Bob: The Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram. Highly recommended by me – and my kids

Perhaps I was enjoying my sci-Fi and fantasy month too much, I extended it half way into July. Admittedly, I enjoyed entering into new worlds, an author’s imagination, imagining ‘what if?’, what’s out there, what are the limits…

it was good to get away from the ordinary and humdrum; to travel to another planet, to imagine the future.

I can begin to understand the genre’s appeal. A little like habitual readers of romance novels, reading a sci-fi or fantasy novel is a time to escape,to turn away from the domestic everyday concerns and let Ian author take you on an incredible journey.

But at heart, what really matters, what I think draws people back is the humanity (even if not humanoid); it’s seeing what people do, think, feel, interact in extreme circumstances. Even if they’re a vampire. Or green.

imagei enjoyed my ‘June Journeying’ but I think my visa’s expired. I shall return to earth and the next (mini) theme..

P.S. here’s what I managed to read:

The Passage – Justin Cronin

Enter Wildtyme – Paul Magrs (an almost random choice from my library; a time-travelling fantasy with its roots in Darlington bookshop. And there’s a sequel: Wild Thyme Beyond)

The Light Fantastic -Terry Pratchett (a rollicking ride!)

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks (hard work but it paid off; I had to be totally focused)

(Non sci- Fi: This Is How It Ends – Kathleen McMahon (passed the time entertainingly for a day in hospital); The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore (a reading group choice; I alway love her novels))

Here’s what I have left in my overly ambitious pile to read – one day:

The Gone Away World – Nick Harkaway

Darkmans – Nicola Barker

Under the Dome – Stephen King

The Magician – Raymond E. Fiest

The Left Hand Of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin

Jack Glass – Adam Roberts (I can’t wait to start that; a combination of the Golden Age of sci- Fi and the Golden Age of crime fiction.)

Oh, perhaps I can squeeze another book in….

 
 

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Hardy: a Heart-Tearing Man

hardy_at_desk_15_x_12_Pt

‘Emotional convulsions seemed to have become the commonplaces of her history…’ far From the Madding Crowd

May has ended, spring might have finally sprung.
I tried to get myself into the seasonal mood, by focussing on the fecund and pastoral work of Thomas Hardy, but – as ever – I was distracted by ‘real’ life such as family birthdays, half-term holidays and (minimal) gardening.

I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had an idea of what to expect. I knew I had to be emotionally strong to put myself through the affecting wringer that is a Hardy novel. I had already read Tess of the d’Urbervilles (and studied it for A level), Jude the Obscure, Two on a Tower, The Well-Beloved, The Trumpet Major, Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Casterbridge; emotional roller-coasters all.  I remember reading Tess when I was about fourteen (far too young to appreciate much more than the bare bones of the story) and having no idea what happened between Tess and Alec until I studied it again at eighteen. The pool of blood seeping through the guest house ceiling made a chilling impact on its first reading though. And I never ate strawberries in the same way again.

This month I started with a selection of Hardy’s short stories, a mixture of Wessex Tales and The Distracted Preacher. Fellow Townsmen was as hard-hitting as expected: conflict, tragedy, reflection on the pace of change, architectural details – all the usual tropes and themes were present and correct but slightly more palatable when in a bite-sized dose.

9780140431261The main focus of my reading has been Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy’s first major successful novel, published in 1875. I was drawn into the story immediately; I found it not so much a ‘love triangle’, more a ‘love pyramid’ with the scathingly beautiful Bathsheba Everdeane as the central focus. My sympathies ranged between characters, mainly towards the sympathetic, straightforward, hardworking shepherd Gabriel Oak, but also towards William Boldwood, Sergeant Frank Troy (but only slightly), Fanny Robin, and even Bathsheba herself.
(I confess, as I write this on 1st June, my Penguin Classics’ copy is beside me with a large leather bookmark in page 370, begging to be finished. I am desperate to find out what happens in the end; hosting in-laws, entertaining children for half-term and writing this blog have prevented me from keeping to my deadline precisely)

[the next day: finished, with a sigh of relief as it’s a happy ending. Highly recommended, now, where’s the DVD adaptation to relive it…?]

Desperate Remedies was my Kindle reading; I’ve not progressed very far, although I know already that the path will not be smooth for Cytherea and Edward.

9780141017419I only dipped into Claire Tomalin’s biography Thomas Hardy: A Time Torn Man; what I read of his early life was beautifully presented and I will certainly return to his story, even if I don’t continue reading it into June. The artistic tension between his training and work as an architect and his vocation as a poet and later novelist (mainly for the money; he never felt as proud of his novels as his poems) must have strained him at his metaphorical seams. He was also torn between his first wife and his second, reinventing his love for his first wife after her death; almost loving her more in death than in life, recreating her in his poems, more lovely and beautiful than in reality.
His life (1840-1928)  immense and intense chronological tension and changes during a particularly significant period in England’s history, from the beginning of the Victorian era with all the technological development and change, the extension of the British Empire, the explosion of innovation in art and design (architecture included), societal developments in addition to The Great War of 1914-18.

I will continue to dip into Hardy’s poems, novels and short stories for many, many years to come. I hadn’t intended to read much more than one major novel and a selection of poems this month and so I’ve achieved my goal; I knew the pile of books in the cherry blossom tree at the start of the month Thomas_hardywas overly ambitious.
Hardy’s an indisputably great writer (albeit a little verbose at times) and takes the reader on an intense journey of feeling and character development whichever novel you read. His romantic realism is breathtakingly beautiful at times. Some of his characters will always remain with me (Tess, Bathsheba and ‘Little Father Time’s’ heartbreaking note: ‘Done because we are too menny’). I cannot decide whether he loves or hates his heroines in particular; he treats them so badly. Perhaps there’s an element of masochism in his writing which he was never able to put into practice in real life.

As a postscript, I am (indirectly) named after one of Hardy’s poems. Although both my parents are fans of Hardy’s novels and poems (my mum’s a former English teacher and my dad’s an architect), I only discovered his poem ‘Amabel’ about ten years ago while wasting time on a search engine. As expected, it’s a poem of thwarted love and longing; Amabel’s a ruthless woman.
Look her up.

 

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On Not Reading Fiction

As expected, April’s reading challenge was cruel; i completed fewer books than I expected and only dipped into a fraction of what i had hoped for. Of course, non-fiction isn’t really a category or genre. It’s limitless in scope; many people never read fiction and never run out of interesting books. To be honest, it made as much sense to choose ‘non-fiction’ this month as it might have done to read only ‘fiction’ one month without specifying author, style, theme, content, etc.

Although this was intended to be a challenge outside my comfort zone, I gravitated towards areas I’ve already studied: history (British, English, monarchs, Tutors and Victorians mainly), theology (Christian, usually contemporary, Anglican, liberal), autobiography or memoir, with a sprinkling of contemporary poetry.

As I found last year, I read less during this ‘no fiction’ month. Perhaps the lure of a story well told is the most compelling choice; a book full of information about ‘stuff’, no matter how well and entertainingly written doesn’t leap into my hand alongside my cup of tea. I know it should. I know there is a plethora of well-written, gripping reads which happen to be ‘not made up’. Many such books adorn my shelves (in the non-fiction section of my ‘library’, arranged by subject rather than alphabetically; I’m not that obsessed with order.). I simply ran out of the time (and some days, the inclination) to dive in head first.

20130404-143451.jpg As I reflect on what I read (or didn’t read) in April, I realise that non-fiction is easier to ‘dip into’; to dabble with a bit of this, a dash of that, not desperate to follow the plot to the end. Although many historical books read like fiction (the soap opera of the Tudor dynasty for example), there isn’t the same sense of loss when you reshelve a book unfinished. I can always pick it up again, refresh, then continue where I left off. I usually know the end result if it’s historical; memoirs can often be delightfully gossipy or impressionistic; theology can be life-adjusting, knowledge without time limit.

Some months seem to be time for ‘dipping’; more time spent living than reading. Times to choose to watch a film together rather than trying to read while he screen-surfs; going to reading group, meet-the-author events and a quiz on World Book Night rather than staying in, reading. (We won the satisfyingly challenging quiz though; found some use for all that information at last); checking out piles of library books only to return them a few weeks later, having moved them around the house, to be reshelved unread, until the next borrower.

So, what did I dip into?
As I type, I am faced with a small pile of general theology/Christian life titles: The Life and Work of a Priest (Pritchard), Praying the Jesus Prayer Together (Ramon & Barrington-Ward), The Wounded Healer (Nouwen) alongside a couple of books on Islam and the Qu’ran.
I am also about to start (breaking my rules on changing topic each month: live dangerously!): Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I’ve heard great things about this apologetic of ‘why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’. I’m looking forward this reading this one.

Iimage‘ve also been reading about writing: Reading Like a Writer (Prose (the author not the style of reading: great name, I know!)), Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen? (Hitchings), How to Read a Book (Adler & van Doren) and the wonderfully glossy re-vamped The New Writer Magazine. I’m hoping these will inspire me to continue to find time to write alongside my reading.

Historical books have included: Crown & Country (David Starkey; one to return to as I only made it as far as the 7th C), Winter King (Thomas Penn, the reign of Henry VII), Behind Palace Doors (Michael Farquhar). Alongside this English monarchy-obsessed dip I’ve enjoyed watching Lucy Worsley’s new BBC series Fit to Rule which explored the lives of English monarchs through their physical and mental illnesses. I realise I know very little about the Hanovarians; I though Queen Anne was only a style of chair – I should have known better.

Iimage am glad I gave myself chance to start Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I’ve been too busy being a forcibly extrovert Mummy recently to continue much further than the first chapter but I hope to find more ‘quiet’ to read and reflect further on the characteristics and power of introverts.

The memoirs I have read, in varying degrees of completion, include: In the Blood (Andrew Motion), It’s Not Me, It’s You (Jon Richardson), With the Kisses of His Mouth (Monique Roffey), The Book of Silence (Sara Maitland), Out of Me (Fiona Shaw; an author I met this month), Wife in the North (Judith O’Reilly), Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth), A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English (Shappi Khorsandi).image

Still untouched on my shelves are a few books I had every intention of enjoying: Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match (Wendy Moore), Shelf Life (Simon Parke), She-Wolves (Helen Castor; admittedly, I read up to page 57 last year), Delusions of Gender (Cornelia Fine), Elizabeth (David Starkey), Watching the English (Kate Fox) – and that’s just one shelf.

A month of trying to not read fiction has whetted my appetite for more stories. However, I shall try to temper my joy of stories with at least one non-fiction choice. A little learning can go a long way…

This month’s main tea of choice: Fortnum & Mason’s Yunnan loose leaf tea (!)

Postscript: This month’s reading group fiction choice was: The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne. An emotionally involving court-room thriller set in the North-East. Worth giving up non-fiction reading time for.

 

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Nordic Noir

Branagh's Kurt Wallander

Branagh’s Kurt Wallander

Although it’s springtime, the wintry weather seemed to be blasting us from the North throughout March, and so my reading theme chimed with the Nordic-based weather front.

A librarian friend jokingly suggested that I should spend each month dressed according to my reading theme; she was particularly looking forward to last month’s Regency theme with empire-line dresses, fans and smelling salts. I disappointed her, but suggested this month I might appear in the library wearing the same, cable-knit jumper, unbrushed hair and a permanently surly expression. I resisted.

And so I started with Henning Mankell. I have had every intention of watching the TV series (both the original Swedish and BBC versions) but only seem to have found the time to have watched one episode of one BBC series. Similarly, I had accumulated a few of Mankell’s crime novels and looked forward to ‘meeting’ Wallander in his original form.
I started with Sidetracked, only because it’s the earliest (fifth) in the series I have on my shelf. Faceless Killers is somewhere on my Kindle and The Dogs of Riga is issued to me from my local library.

Wallander is as darkly dour as I had been led to expect, with a typically troubled personal life. but in this novel, he seems able to embark on a new relationship, cares for his dementia-troubled father and has genuinely good working relationships with his team, I underestimated the facets of the character at first. The writing is good, introducing a few strands of the story in the first few chapters, describing a visually dramatic suicide early on, killing a character we’d been ‘observing’ in minute detail only pages before, and, in particular, beginning the narrative inside the head of the murderer. Of course, none of this is new, but these techniques quickly and effectively create psycholocial suspense and intrigue which might take longer or not be possible in a more ‘plodding’ crime narrative. The action takes place in particular geographic locations; the Swedish geography is described in detail; the MidSummer setting of Sidetracked provides an interesting counterpoint to the self-immolating suicide and the psychological darkness of the perpetrator.image

I confess, I like Harry Hole. Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast has introduced us and I’d like to spend more time in his company. This thriller is longer, denser and more complex than Sidetracked, the narrative jumping between Winter 1999-2000 (including a visit from the US President to Sweden) and events on the battlefield and camp hospitals in the late 1940s. issues of loyalty, justice, identity, love and retribution resonate through the years. Gripping and chilling.

Harry Hole is, as expected, a character in conflict; an unsatisfied personal life, unresolved issues, hidden depths waiting to be explored in further investigations. He has a network of relationships, both personal and profiessional; he antagonises and infuriates colleagues and superiors. And has a very particular dress sense. (He reminds me a little of a Swedish Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-set novels)

Do you ever hang onto books ‘in case you might get round to reading it one day’? I do. I was reminded of this when I picked up my copy of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow when a charity shop receipt fluttered out. It was dated 2001. At least the book’s now off the shelf, being read. It’s a downbeat, dour, snow-laden mystery, although I’m only four chapters in; I doubt it’ll become an all-singing, all-dancing up-beat affair though. If, indeed, I finish it; it’s not gripped me yet, sadly.

 

imageThe wonderfully titled The 100-Year-Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson was, by happenstance, March’s reading group choice. I was looking forward to this best selling, quirky story of a centenarian’s journey (both literal and metaphorical) through his life. However, I didn’t warm to Allan Karlsson’s on his Forrest-Gump-ian adventures but I did make it to the end (too late for the group’s meeting) and was amused by some of the more bizarre situations he found himself in.

(A further confession: the final few days of March found me gripped by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: apparently, ‘the addictive no.1 US best seller that everyone is talking about’. It was gripping; a rollercoaster ride of a thriller, with many twists and turns, dips and peaks which kept my light on well past my bedtime.)image

I ran out of time for the further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, any of Anne Holt’s crime thrillers, John Ajvide Lindqvist or the novelisation of The Killing. A slightly disappointing reading tally this month, certainly compared to last month’s Regency romp, but my reading appetite is whetted to venture north again to hook up with Harry Hole, Lisbeth Salander, Kurt Wallander and Oskar & Eli. Hej da…

 

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Beyond Pemberley: Powder, Patches and Proposals – A Month-long Regency Romance

I don’t think I’ve fallen in love this month, but I hope I’ve made a good friend to while away a few hours over a pot of tea. (My husband of 13 years can breathe a sigh of relief)
I used to be a little (OK, very) snobbish about light, frothy, genre novels, wondering ‘why would any intelligent reader choose to waste their time reading a novel where you already knew the ending?’ But having spent February reading (mostly) romances set in Regency England, I can now understand why.

They are not especially demanding (some days you’re too tired to concentrate on complicated plots or characterisation), they can be light-hearted (because sometimes life is serious enough), they’re set in a historical era with different manners, customs and a strict social structure (a bit of escapism can be fun; it’s not too difficult to generally visualise the costumes and context if you’ve watched even just one Regency costume drama), the romances have a happy ending (because life is usually more complicated and unresolved, doesn’t always end happily and you don’t always end up with the right partner).

One of my friends who almost solely reads Mills & Boon Regency romances described them to me as ‘easy-to-read Jane Austen’. Once I would have dismissed her condescendingly; surely I would read the ‘real’ Austen and not be distracted by such frippery? But this month’s discipline has opened my eyes. Reading a number of Regency novels in quick succession has shown me a range of writing styles, and various levels of steaminess on the conjugal front. The hero (or anti-hero; the reformation of ‘a rake’ is more fun!) and heroine marry, they behave themselves (mostly) within strict moral and societal codes and there’s lots of description of costumes, material, balls, and everyone spends at least some time in Bath.
Other random things I’ve learnt, in no particular order:

  • What it means to be bon ton;
  • The importance of the look of a man’s legs in tight breeches, once memorably described as ‘shaped like a balustrade'(!);
  • What a beaver hat looks like;
  • That pregnancy or legs are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation (but of course!);
  • Lead: not just for building but used as make up;
  • That not to ride sidesaddle was considered most inappropirate for a gentlewoman;
  • That the true love of a faithful woman can transform even the worst ‘rakehell’;
  • The difference between ‘traditional regency romance’, ‘recency historical’ and ‘sensual regency historical romance’ (thanks Wikipedia).

So, what did I read? Here’s the list:

  • M.C.Beaton/Marion Chesney’s The School For Manners series (6 titles but as each one is only about 170 pages long, they were a fun evening’s read each; I loved the willful-daughter-taming chaperones for hire, the Tribble Twins; although not a pastiche, the author has a defiinite twinkle in her eye, if not her tongue in her cheek; all her novels are good, clean fun);
  • Mary Balough – A Summer to Remember (the second Bedwin prequel; very entertaining but with a few more saucy scenes than I originally expected; up a tree?!);
  • Georgette Heyer – The Black Moth (her first novel, created as an entertaining story for her younger, convalescent brother, published when she was just 19, it centres around a gentleman highwayman settling the affairs of his gambling brother – ‘terribly” exciting, I kept finding myself imagining Adam Ant in his Prince Charming mode…);
  • Baroness Orczy – The Scarlet Pimpernel (a ‘hangover’ from last month’s French Revolution theme, but also a romance in the same era mostly set on the other side of the Channel);
  • Victoria Connelly – The Perfect Hero (contemporary reworking of various Austen plots set in Lyme Regis as a production of Persuasion is filmed).

But there are so many more books I could have read: still to finish Persuasion (to my shame), I didn’t try out Galen Foley, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James (but now own at least one copy of each of their novels to enjoy another time). And I have 46 more Georgette Heyers to read…

Did I miss anyone else out?

It’s been a fun, February fling, but now onto more serious fare: ‘Nordic Noir’ for the month of March. Dark tales of murder and detection in northern wastelands. Any suggestions to add to my pile?

P.S. I couldn’t resist reading a few novels outside the monthly theme: The Dinner by Herman Koch for our reading group (odd, oppressive view of Danish middle-class life), Mutton by India Knight (an amusing story of a forty-something mother reflecting on ageing, and English middle-class life), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher (for a Read Regional event, enjoyed in one evening, met author the next day; see post ‘The Joy of a Quick Read’.)

 Oh, to be a Recency woman...
Oh, to be a Recency woman…
 

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