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Archive for March, 2008

Hopefully the annual (yawnsworthy) brouhaha concerning the Orange Prize has died down  …. and I’m safe to post about this year’s longlist …. or rather those that I managed to reserve by means of a virtual trolley dash around the library online catalogue.  Voila!

From left to right around the bowl (if such a thing is possible): The Road Home – Rose Tremain, Fault Lines – Nancy Huston, The Keep – Jennifer Egan, Lottery - Patricia Wood, Sorry – Gail Jones.  I also have Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs on reserve.    Where to start?  Alphabetically?  Reverse alphabetically?  By title?  By author?  The most appealing?  This whittled the list to two.  The Huston or the Egan.  The McLuhan test had the deciding vote …. but would you come to the same decision?

Excerpt 1

it with his nonparalyzed arm. The dark cypress and blue sky turned crazily over his head.
Martha: What’s going on? Are you okay? She sounded not scared, exactly, but anxious. Danny was in too much pain to enjoy it.
I’m fine. He was wheezing. Sweat pricked him under his arms and around his groin. He hauled himself into a sitting position.
Martha: Talk to me. Is it your knee?
She cared about him, it was obvious. Danny kept discovering this right when he wasn’t expecting to, right when he’d given up on Martha, and then as soon as he’d figured it out she would make him forget all over again. Now Danny had one of those clear seconds where everything extra kind of drops away and all you see is what’s actually there. He saw himself with Martha. He got a feeling of peace. Then the phone started shorting out and Danny’s eyes hooked on something he didn’t comprehend at first, but then he did – oh fuck, he did – the satellite dish in the black pool, sinking.
Danny (bellowing): No!
He jumped up, lunging for the dish. It was already halfway underwater. Somehow he must have kicked it in when he tripped, or could that be the thing he’d tripped on? It was too far away from the pool’s edge for Danny to grab it and fish it back out, so he flattened himself gut-down on the marble and stuck his torso straight out over the pool as far as it would go and tightened his ass and grabbed the rim of the dish with two fingers of each hand and tried to ease it back out without bending at the wasit and dunking his head, and that’s when the smell got him – oh God, what a smell: not rot but something after rot, a moldy emptiness, the smell of stale pollen, bad breath, old refrigerators that haven’t been opened in years, rotten eggs and certain wool when it got wet, the afterbirth of his cat Polly when Danny was six, his aching tooth when the dentist first drilled it open, the nursing home where Great aunt-Bertie dribbled pureed liver down her chin, that place under the bridge near school where

Excerpt 2

sticks her hand into the back seat and takes G.G.’s hand. Even more unexpected is that G.G. takes her hand and strokes it gently.
She’s the one who says, “Here, Randall. You can turn left here and park. Yes. It’s that building right over there.”
We go through the usual rigmarole, hoisting the wheelchair out of the trunk, opening it up, helping Grandma Sadie into it, locking the car doors, the whole bit. People in the street stare at us as if we were a circus act and I hate seeing how conspicuous we are, this oddball collection of English-speakers including a cripple in a wig and a wispy white-haired witch and a little boy with a Star Wars kippa on his head. I wish I could zap their eyes with a laser beam to force them to look away from us but at long last we find ourselves inside the building.
The corridor seems pitch dark after the brightness of outside, but Grandma Sadie propels herself down it, leading the way. As Mom and I follow, holding hands, Mom bends down and says to me in a whisper, “Maybe you should take your hat off, sweet.” Bringing up the rear, G.G. is clinging to Dad’s arm which she wouldn’t normally do but today she’s walking slowly, so slowly that they drag a long way behind, and eventually she stops.
“What’s the matter?” yells Sadie, having now reached the elevator at the far end of the hall.
“Her heart’s beating too fast,” Dad calls back. “She’s going to take a nitro. Can you wait a minute?”
“Of course we can wait a minute,” says Grandma Sadie. “So we wait a minute.”
G.G. draws a little bottle of medicine from her bag, shakes a couple of pills into the palm of her hand, claps her palm to her

Which would you read first?

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Which classic crime author comes to mind when you read this?

 Then the green curtain in the confessional twitched and was drawn back and a good-looking woman of about thirty stepped out.  She was holding a rosary, crossing herself more for form’s sake than anything else.  She was wearing a tight red dress and it was easy to see why she had spent such a long time in the confessional.  From the look of her, none of the venial sins would have detained her.  She was built for just the one kind of sin, the mortal kind that cried aloud to heaven …..

The woman is Brita Warzok and Bernie Gunther, the dry, sardonic, wise-cracking private investigator in Philip Kerr’s 2007 novel, lives to regret the day she ever crossed his path.

It is 1949 and, after the death of his wife,  Gunther reestablishes his private investigation business following the catastrophe of WWII.  He is based in a Munich, bombed-out and ruined by the Allied campaign.  The rebuilding of the city is in full swing and Gunther expresses his respect for the builders who are reconstructing the many buildings in line with their original architectural designs.  (As do I - Munich is the apple of my eye.)

Alongside reconstruction, the fledgling Federal Republic of Germany  is grappling with the issue of retribution.  Many Nazis have been hanged and many more are on the run.  There are those of Gunther’s mindset who believe that the Nazi sadists should all pay for their crimes with their lives. Others advocate an amnesty in order to stabilise administrative functions quickly.  Amongst them, surprisingly, a Jewish lawyer who sends Gunther his first few cases.  Brita Warzok is his third case.  She needs to know if her husband is dead or alive because she wants to remarry.

What follows is an enlightening but shocking tour through post-war Bavaria and the murky foundations of the Federal Republic of Germany; the organisations helping Nazis to escape justice (Odessa, the Comradeship) and their counterpart, the Nakam (Jewish vengeance squads).  And while the narrative tone is pure Chandler, the material is much darker, with many war-crimes and atrocities related in gruesome detail. (Not a book for the faint hearted.)

Gunther,  at risk of life and limb, is brought into contact with two war criminals, Adolf Eichmann and Eric Gruen.  The crimes of the former are well known.  But what of the atrocities perpetrated by Gruen in the cause of finding a malaria vaccine? Experiments that were continued well after the war on the inmates of mental hospitals and German POWs.  Experiments condoned by the Americans ….. (cf Life Magazine, June 4, 1945, pages 43-46).

All of which (and more besides)  is uncovered in Kerr’s novel as Gunther is set up as fall-guy for a war criminal seeking to effect his escape.  No government is safe from Gunter’s political cynicism which becomes more virulent as he is made aware of the deceit and hypocrisy of both victors and vanquished.  It is, at this stage in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, impossible to tell one from the other.

1/2

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There be money in historical fiction.  A lorra lorra money.  When I heard her speak at the Glasgow Aye Write Festival some 3 years ago, Philippa Gregory said that she had a contemporary novel stashed in the bottom drawer of her desk waiting for the day when the fascination for all things historical waned.  Obviously that day has not come for she is about to publish her 6th Tudor novel, The Other Queen, while her first, The Other Boleyn Girl,  is currently generating revenue at the box office.

Now I’m not enough of an historian to say whether Philippa Gregory’s interpretation of the Mary-Henry-Anne triangle sticks to the facts.  There is sufficient controversy in historical circles regarding the paternity of Mary’s son  and Anne’s alleged incest with her brother to suggest that Gregory has added a goodly portion of sensationalism here and there.  Regardless, The Other Boleyn Girl, is a page-turning read with more intrigue per page than the most lurid British Sunday paper.   But I have to say I was expecting more of the film.  Exquisite costumes, A-list actresses, Eric Dana, a handsome Henry in his prime.  Main point of how both sisters were sacrificed to the ambition of their father and uncle made well.  But it did suffer because there was just too much material for two hours - many of the scenes reduced to vignettes as a consequence.  I now find myself craving  a rewatch of Anne of A Thousand Days and the classic BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 

Alison Weir, respected historian, has also turned her pen to historical fiction.  Innocent Traitor focuses in on the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, another pawn in the power struggles and religious foment of Tudor Times.  I’ve enjoyed a couple of her non-fiction titles in the past.  How does her debut novel stack up?  

With no need to invent a plot or an ending - the facts are as Alison Weir herself says in the afterword astonishing and horrifying – Weir cleverly writes most of the novel from a sucession of feminine viewpoints:  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk,  Jane’s mother, who gives not a toss about her daughter; Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, a kindly women who becomes Jane’s surrogate mother and mentor; Mrs Ellen, Jane’s nurse, the one point of unfortunately helpless stability in her life, and Jane Grey, herself.  Jane’s voice matures from that of an obedient but abused child to that of her obedient but abused - I hesitate to use the word – adulthood, as her life is cruelly cut short at 16.  There are only two males voices:   John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the machiavellian mind behind the plot to put Jane on the throne and Jane’s nameless executioner. 

Each voice is distinctive and grounded in the mindset of its time and sex.  With such a variety of narrators we get the full picture of the danger which surrounded Jane and a kaleidoscopic view of the character herself; Jane, who found her consolation in books and learning as she discovered she would never be forgiven for being female.  This education made her one of the finest minds of the times.  But with the men in her life as abhorrent and uncaring as her mother, she never stood a chance, apart from one.  Mary Tudor had offered her a reprieve on condition of her renouncing her Protestant faith.  But Jane was stauchly Protestant and the end result was never in doubt.  The ultimate irony is that the only decision of her own she was ever allowed to stick by,  forfeited her life.

Jane wasn’t the only victim of the times.  Edward VI, crown notwithstanding, suffered agonies at the hand of Dudley as he lay on his deathbed.   The kindly Catherine Parr very nearly lost her head.  It was only the fortuitous finding of a signed death warrant that allowed her time to avert disaster – although disaster struck soon enough after Henry died.

In Children of England, Alison Weir had already published a non-fictional account of these same events.  Now she has used the freedom of a novelist to inhabit the minds of her characters, to give them flesh and blood and breath.  She plays a little with details but not the facts per se and she’s honest about exactly what she’s done in her afterword.   In doing so she has penned a fine historical novel. 

 

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ISBN: 978-1-58736-733-5 (Review copy)

When a clinical social worker and psychotherapist with 25 years experience contacts you to ask whether you’d be interested in reading his anthology of stories full of uncomfortable stories and troubled minds, the answer is yes, particularly if you’re addicted to dark, angst-ridden tales like myself. 

Freese remains deeply horrified by the Holocaust and determined not to let mankind become indifferent.  His novel The I Tetrology is written from the viewpoint of a Nazi officer.  Freese – a Jew – entering both courageous and dangerous waters here.  In his own words “It is a book written from pain, despair and sorrow. I wrote a book that few people would want to read because they would rather not know. ”  I know enough to realise that there’s detail in it that I have no wish to revisit.  There is an excerpt in Down to A Sunless Sea  – the story – Unforgettable - which offers as fine a secular rationale for the horrors of the Holocaust that I’m ever likely to read.

Fascists and Holocaust survivors appear in this collection also, although not all of the stories worked for me – some were just too short and I didn’t have time to absorb the nuance and mood.  (I am a fledgling short story reader after all.) 

The stories which break away from the Nazi past are very fine indeed. Freese drops his characters into extreme situations of varied kinds and chronicles their psychologies at times bluntly, at others with finesse. The young adult male in “I’ll make it, I think” struggling to come to terms with a lifelong disability.  The writing tense and the emotions raw.  At times screaming, swearing, railing against the cards that have been dealt.  At others trying to come to terms via warped humour.

I’m like a distorted X.  Everything on my right arm is thin and bony, but my left arm and hand are powerful, very powerful, stronger than most, and noone fools around with me because I’ve damaged people real good with that hand.  I even gave my cousin Nate a bloody nose.  I was nine years younger than him – caught him by surprise, really rocked him good.  It became a family joke: ha … ha.

My favourite story however, is that of Herbie, a school boy who wishes to make some money by opening a shoe-shine stand with his pal.  His father, however, sees this as an affront to his ability to provide for his family and the power struggle that erupts from a standing start around the family dinner table leaves me squirming at the poor boy’s bewilderment and pain.

I did say this was a book full of uncomfortable situations and troubled minds, didn’t I?  Not a cozy read by any means and a little patchy in places.  As a collection I would award it which feels crazy.  How can anything this dark be enjoyable?  But I must say that the two stories mentioned above are all kinds of outstanding.

A sampler can be found on Mattias B Freese’s blog: Don Peron’s Hands

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It’s happening again – completely separate reading paths converging.  Last month everything I chose brought me to New York, this month everything is becoming …. well, I’ll let you guess.  First up Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and secondly Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection.  Find the common denominator in my reviews ……

Does this happen to anyone else?  Is it coincidence or simply confirmation of chaos theory? 

This coming week sees the publication of the Orange prize longlist.  I’m hoping that Ann Patchett’s Run and Valerie Martin’s Trespass will be present.  Both hardback editions have been sitting in the TBR since I got them signed at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.  And how similar are the book covers?

 

Again I ask, coincidence or chaos?

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Within 24 hours of announcing my intentions of reading an alphabet of shorter fiction (short stories, novella – I’m still trying to determine the dividing line), I was exhorted twice, from completely separate sources, to ensure that Bartleby The Scrivener received my attention.  That coupled with a dinky “Art of the Novella” edition accelerated its rise to the top of the TBR.

I’ve never read Melville before – Moby Dick in its epic grandness is far too daunting but 64 pages of Bartleby is a much more attractive proposition.  This novella has gained much recognition since it was published to critical disdain in 1853.  With hindsight it can be viewed as a precursor to absurdist literature, a genre that those giants of C20th literature, Camus and Kafka,  developed to its full potential.

This does not augur well; Camus and Kafka have both driven me to distraction in the past (yet strangely I find myself contemplating revisiting both ….).  Fortunately I found Bartleby much more palatable – more gentle in its absurdism – no big black beetles for a start.  Bartleby is simply a man who refuses to abide by the rules – doesn’t pull his weight – isn’t a team player – simply prefers not to do anything his employer asks of him.  The employer – the narrator of the tale - at first tries to accommodate his wayward employee because Bartleby is a sympathetic and gentle soul.  Matters escalate.  The simple way of interpreting events is that Bartleby gets his comeuppance.  A revelation at the end, however, transforms the tale from slight comedy to a tale of existential import, divesting both employer and reader with more than a little guilt.

However, some big claims were made by the recommendees …. life-changing?  Comments please!

  

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Actually, before I review the new de Bernieres,  I need to mention Captain Corelli’s Mandolin;  its rise to superstardom due, not to literary critics, but to word-of-mouth recommendations.  I’ve read it three times now – I still find the verbosity of the initial three chapters a trial – but I do genuinely love the book as a whole - even that ambiguous ending.  I admire writers who don’t give readers the ending they crave.

At Glasgow’s Aye Write! festival De Bernieres made much of the fact that the reviews of A Partisan’s Daughter in England had been good, while those in Scotland had been bad.  The Times with creative imagery said “This is a silk stocking of a novel: fragile, light, of little practical purpose – and yet possessed of surprising tensile strength.”  While Scotland on Sunday warns us to “Kerb our enthusiasm for loathsome predator“. De Bernieres jested that the loathsome quote would make a good blurb and would guarantee millions of sales!

Sounds like A Partisan’s Daughter has the makings of a classic marmite novel.  So does this English woman in Scotland love it or loathe it?

It was a book of 4 quarters.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first 50 pages – the setup in which Chris meets Roza, having mistaken her for a “bad girl”.  I certainly was not expecting to laugh out loud as often as I did.  And given that the things that made me laugh were both roundly criticised by the Scotsman and not read by de Bernieres at his event because he couldn’t face their “sordid realism”, perhaps I should tame my wicked sense of humour.  Then again not – the images conjured by the narrator’s wife who reminds him of “a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on the sofa in its cellophane wrapping” skimmed milk in her veins, are indeed cruel but apt.  I,  the proverbial great white whale on a beach, can just see it.

The second 50 pages in which the rhythm of the piece establishes itself with Chris ostensibly listening to Roza’s stories and thinking only lustful thoughts pale in comparison.  In the third quarter Roza’s stories become increasingly shocking – for the sake of it – I don’t believe a word she says.  By the last 50 pages De Bernieres has backed himself into a corner with only one available exit.

De Bernieres categorises A Partisan’s Daughter as a melancholy love story.   Love? No.  Lust, yes. Also disappointing is his handling of the time setting.  The winter of discontent -  I remember it only too well. The parallel with Chris’s unhappiness is obvious.  The text is peppered with historical and cultural references – I don’t like Mondays, the death of Airey Neaves, the lack of bin collections, the rat-infested streets.  However, the action doesn’t depend on them,  De Bernieres playing the social context mostly for laughs.

The next time I saw Roza there was a lot to be depressed about.  The Ayatollah Khomeini was saying there wasn’t going to be any democracy in Iran.  Everyone was still on strike for preposterous wage rises and the only good news was that Idi Amin had absconded.  Everyone was singing some bloody song that you couldn’t get out of your head called “I will Survive”, but not many of us reckoned we would.

What of Roza’s tales of Yugoslavia, at the time of her telling a whole, but a pressure cooker, simmering with tension and ethnic emnities, waiting to blow its top upon the death of Tito.  Don’t expect the historical re-enactments of Corelli, nor the tragic panorama of Birds Without Wings.  The tales of Yugoslavia are nothing more than vignettes, enlightening vignettes maybe but the history is ultimately sacrificed to seedy tales of Roza’s sexual history.  Or clumsy satire in the form of a carthorse called Russia “because it was very big, a complete liability, and always going where it wasn’t wanted”.

I wonder if I’m being too harsh on Roza but I am as alienated from her as the male reviewer in the Scotsman is from Chris. Chris’ brand of misogyny may be unpalatable but I suspect there are still plenty of non-fictional specimens out there. On the other hand,  I don’t believe in Roza, from her first entrance to her exit.  I don’t believe in her either as a character or even as a figment of Chris’s imagination.  That’s a real problem when half of the novel in written in her voice. I wonder how the real Roza – a Serbian woman de Bernieres met while living as a Bob Dylan Upstairs in a “hard-to-let” property during the 70′s - has reacted.  I wouldn’t be at all flattered.

I realise that I am not appreciating this novel as I should; ignoring the underlying metaphors that are Roza and Chris: Roza, the predators in Yugoslavian history, the Yugoslavs themselves, sowing the seeds of their own defeat; Chris, the litter and rat-like infestations in the life of the average middle-aged British bloke.  

It appears, to my chagrin, I am one of those that de Bernieres expects not to like his novel.  But then again I never developed a taste for marmite.

 

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My literary weekend started Saturday morning – cup of tea and back to bed with A Partisan’s Daughter - the new Louis de Bernieres.  It couldn’t wait because I had two appointments with the author at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival.

Saturday night saw me at Glasgow’s Mitchell library (*1)  attending a music and poetry recital by The Antonius Players.  Louis de Bernieres playing a variety of guitars, banjos and saxophones as well as reciting beautiful poetry from the pens of leading international poets.  There were also some unpublished poems of his own.  My favourite though was one about love found in old age, written by Piers Alexander, none other than de Bernieres father, who has published at the age of 84 only at the behest of his son.  The name change precipated by the father not wishing to trade on his son’s trademark!

The evening was both cultural and comic.  Before the concert started the audience were given a selection of percussion instruments and told to join in as the mood took them … and we did.  Although for the majority of the time we were held spellbound by the beauty of music from the renaissance, Turkey, Ireland.  We were even treated to Beethoven for the saxophone!

If you get a chance to go see the Antonius players,  do go.  Delightful musical entertainment with some good, if corny jokes and repartee among the members of the group.

Which brings me to this afternoon – an event devoted to de Bernieres’ new novel.  As the Antonius players were in Glasgow, we were treated to another concert. This time the music  centred on themes in his book.  So we heard de Bernieres sing Dylan as well as a selection of Serbian pieces; one of which composed by Ilone of the Antonius Players specially for the book launch.  De Bernieres read selections from the first two chapters of his new novel.  Before we knew it, the hour was gone.  No time for questions and answers. As De Bernieres said “It’s amazing the lengths I will go to avoid someone asking me what I thought of the film of Captain Corelli.”

I have no idea if de Bernieres intends to promote A Partisan’s Daughter entirely in this way.  I meant to ask when I got my copy signed.  But I forgot …..

The rest of this Sunday evening will be devoted to finishing the novel.  Expect thoughts later this week.

( *1 Photograph of the Mitchell Library at Night courtesy of ajnabee at flikr.com)

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James Tait Black Memorial Prize Winner 2006 / Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007

Accolades galore from the blogosphere – named in several 2007 top 10′s.

Acclaimed as “the most important enivironmental book ever” – George Monbiot, British environmental campaigner, who also wrote at greater length in the Guardian of 30.10.2007: “A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important environmental book ever written. It is not Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago, and it will change the way you see the world.”

What can I possibly add?  Apart from I agree.  Putting aside the picture of the polar bear on the melting ice to one side (because it wasn’t exactly what it seemed, was it?)  …  The Road packs a more powerful punch  than Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” for a number of reasons: 1) It’s a work of the imagination – noone can dispute its findings 2) the consequence of the catastrophe (unnamed but definitely man-made) is brought down to the most fundamental human level – the survival of a father and his young son as they struggle to find “the good guys” in a post-apocalyptic landscape 3) the protective love of the parent is understated but permeates every single word, action and self-sacrifice 4) the depth of the father’s despair and his anger at his god is complex, real and understandable (provided you accept that God is to blame for man-made disasters …) 5) the message that you must never give up, no matter what.

What took me so long to travel this way? Offputting comments regarding the violence and the cannibalism.  Yet I think there are but a handful of explicitly awful scenes – oh, they’re bad and they are images burnt everlastingly on my memory but they are written with such control that I watch with awe.  However, the vast majority of the novel feeds off the threat of meeting “the bad guys”.  This adds a level of suspense that is, in places, palpable and almost unbearable.

Just as well then that I listened to the unabridged audio in 30 minute chunks.  This was enough to realise that the simple, sparse prose is deceptive.  Biblical references, Shakespearian references abound.  The simple language of oral tradition interwoven through repetition.  The downside of listening while driving is that I can’t quote details but I know that when I come to read The Road, and I will, my pen and pad will be on hand to take copious notes.

 A story deserving every accolade heaped upon it.   on first listening.  I suspect the fifth star will appear on reading. And that, as McCarthy’s characters would say, is OK.

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Not that I’m wishing my life away but when the 29 days of February are accompanied by a book-buying embargo, they can drag a little.  However, I succeeded – a major accomplishment for a sufferer of CBPS (chronic book purchasing syndrome).

Thanks to those who understand the withdrawal and aided abetted my first steps on the road to recovery by sending a small supply of new tomes for me to stroke, smell, browse and generally drool over.

March’s acquisitions – from left to right:

Gaetan Soucy – The Immaculate Conception (Purchased in January but only arrived from Canada in February.  The spirit of the embargo remains intact.)

James Meek – We are now beginning Our Descent - review copy from Canongate c/o www.bookgrouponline.com .  Proof copy cover much classier than the real thing in my opinion.

Cathy Dobson – Planet Germany – review copy sent by author.  Thanks, Cathy.  I’m really looking forward to this.  It has been placed at the top of the getting-in-the-mood-for-the-next-holiday reading stack.  I fly to Bavaria in May - Getting in the mood starts April.

Joel Rose – The Blackest Bird.  Courtesy of the Library Thing early reviewers programme.  Which means that once I’ve read it I can put this very appropriate blackest bird badge on the blog!  This book jumping to the top of the reading stack for other reasons also ….. 

Sometimes books choose themselves.  For the past couple of months my reading choices have been taking me to New York.  Characters from The Cry of The Owl, I am Mary Dunne and Fall on Your Knees moved there.  Taking the hint I had a quick rummage through the TBR and came up with a few more New Yorkers vying for my attention.  Now that The Blackest Bird has landed and The Good Life is my next book group read, the ticket has been officially purchased and the Big Apple will be March’s reading destination.

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