The Case of the Leaning Man by Christopher Bush – A Distracted Travers Detecting…

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A fairly complex mystery featuring the theatrical world and some interesting observations on the love life of Bush’s highly successful amateur detective, Ludovic Travers. A novel of its time, this book was originally published in 1938 and has now been reprinted by Dean Street Press who generously sent me a copy. Unfortunately some of the attitudes to the victim make something of his race, but he is also shown as a thoroughly unlikable character. That said, this is a solid book with a case that is difficult to solve, and a good range of possible suspects, motives and possibilities. It marks the start of a new chapter of more than one life, as various kinds of natural justice must be served in this complex narrative.

Travers at the beginning of the book is at loose end. He is writing a book about murders, which is not entirely supported by his friend, George Wharton. He becomes distracted by the theatrical world, partly in the person of two sisters Bernice and Joy, as he tries to discover why they are refusing to talk to each other. Meanwhile, Wharton is summoned to investigate the murder of a Maharajah, who seems to have been surrounded by servants who disliked him. A mysterious man appears to have visited, which apparently coincides with the public death of a “Leaning man” who collapses against a wall. At the same time, the theatrical world is electrified by the return of an actor who has been semi retired for a while, as he performs a marathon number of trademark scenes. Expensive and exotic jewellery then seems to become important, as a London fog descends and conceals and confuses. Alibis, elderly priests and covert actions by Travers and others make this a complex tale of guesswork and compromise. Truth and justice are not always easy to reconcile in a book in which detection is not a straightforward process.

I found this book a challenging and enjoyable read, full of Travers’ usual lateral thinking in breaking or at least shaking alibis. The extra dimension of this particular novel in a multifaceted series is the problems that Travers faces in sorting out difficulties which have nothing to do with the murder mystery. Apparently there was some debate about the fictional male detectives popular at the time finding romance, as mystery fans did not always appreciate the distraction. While Dorothy L. Sayers made a virtue of creating another effective detective in the form of Harriet Vane, some romantic developments in the lives of favourite fictional detectives were seem in a negative light. Bush handles a distracted Travers well in this book, as he manages to maintain his concentration on detecting the crime here. This murder mystery sometimes seems as difficult to penetrate as the London fog, and perhaps the reader will be more than usually baffled at some points, but it is a sound novel in a series which seems to improve with each novel.

Meanwhile, I have hard a busy few days; a successful coffee morning, with well over forty people present, and a Big Book Sale, where we managed to take a lot of money for books for Book Aid. I have worked with some wonderful people who were brilliant at what they did, including tea making, cake cutting and book wrangling. Now for Harvest weekend…

Slow Poison by Helen Slavin – a powerful book with a fantastic element

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This book is a sequel, but it is in no way a lesser book than its predecessor, “Crooked Daylight”. In many ways it is a stronger book, with more magical fantasy and compulsive readability. It is a book in which solidly reveals people in their world of employment, school, relationships and ordinary preoccupations, against a growing sense that there is far more going on that cannot be easily understood and therefore dealt with by the Way Sisters and their allies. Mystical happenings and human nature bring a truly disturbing outcome for a small community, with the causes and outcomes being far from clear. This is a tale of our times, but with large slices of mystery, courage and special strengths combining to create a very special novel. I was grateful to receive a copy of this special book from the publishers.

Anna, Charlie are three sisters who live in a small community. Each has their own story, with Anna having suffered a grievous loss, Charlie working through difficult relationships and Emz discovering that being a sixth former with a secret life can be tough. The have recently come to realise that their much loved, late grandmother, Hettie, had spent years showing them that their now jointly owned cottage and adjoining wood was an extremely important, both as a place of sanctuary and source of power as they work as Gamekeepers. Each girl is coming to terms with their own Strengths, powers which defy rational explanation. At the beginning of this novel a stranger, an unusual girl turns up with a strange and dramatic burden. As they try to deal with this challenge, another visitor to the area brings a whole new dimension to life in the town. A community event is disrupted, with an almost tragi comic outcome. The sisters find themselves tested beyond their own expectations, and they find support from those closest to them as terrible events threaten to explode. The natural world, the supernatural invasion and the intelligence of the sisters must combine to create answers to unformed questions, and battles must be fought.

This is the sort of book which almost defies classification and easy description, but is a gripping read that kept me thoroughly engaged, as I wanted to find out what would happen next. It worked for me because it is so understated in its setting and language, never overly dramatic but strongly rooted in human experience. It is not a great literary experience, but works on many levels to create believable situations and powerful images which linger in the mind. Its achievement is to keep the fantastic rooted in the real, even when not everything is explained. It is so engaging that it is difficult to put on one side, as it creates its own momentum on lots of levels. It is a book of powerful women, feminine mutual support, and the immense strength which can emerge on a fantastic level. A book which is far from the usual, and is dramatic in an immensely controlled way. Well worth finding.

Meanwhile a coffee morning at the Vicarage has raised over £300 for the Macmillan charity,and there was a trailer for the Big Book Sale in aid of Book Aid in the form of many books for sale. Let’s hope for much money raised! So far I avoided the cake, but as it is so plentiful I am not such that my resolution will hold for much longer… Meanwhile, we hit three bookshops in York yesterday, so some new acquisitions to investigate are calling, but other things must be done first!

I Am Heathcliff -Short stories curated by Kate Mosse – on Shiny New Books today

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This very powerful book full of stories inspired by Emily Bronte’ bicentenary is an great read; none of them directly tell that famous story but all  are inspired by some element of it, in fascinating ways

My full review appears on Shiny new books today here

I hope you enjoy it!

Crooked Daylight by Helen Slavin – a deep story of the everyday where nothing is as it seems

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This is a strange book, full of the mysteries both of modern everyday life and a sort of magic. Helen Slavin has constructed a world so nearly familiar, yet far away from easy explanations. This is not a straightforward narration, but a strangely flowing story with clues as to what may really be going on under the story of women at work and school. The cottage at its centre is both a place of refuge and a magnet for danger, and it is only as the novel develops that it becomes clear what may be going on. The supernatural in this book never takes over, but there is an undercurrent of questionable behaviour and some violence throughout. I am grateful for a copy of this book so that I could begin to appreciate this unusual writer’s work.

Three sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz are living in a small town, each with their own lives in many ways. Anna is a chef, original and talented, working at various restaurants. Charlie works as a brewer of beers at an independent brewery. Emz is still at school, but also works at a wild animal sanctuary. Their mother, Vanessa, is a successful scientist firmly anchored in her job and minimalist home. The family has recently lost a grandmother, Vanessa’s mother, and the girls have jointly inherited her cottage and the surrounding ancient woodland. They are strangely attached to the cottage, and even holiday lets for short periods provoke strange emotions within them. Their new temporary tenant seems uncomfortable and ill at ease, and strange things are happening in the small town around them; new challenges and memories emerging. They begin to relive their grandmother’s teaching about the woods and lake, and also find their own abilities tested. Strange encounters and some violence reawaken old memories and bring about new threats.

The reader questions what has happened for most of this book, as the past seems to motivate and empower the present. Each woman in this book has her secrets, and awakening realisation that they may well have powers beyond easy comprehension. An appreciation for the secrets of their own skills and abilities grows as they are each presented with challenges of daily life and dramatic emotions. A sense of bereavement for at least one character shapes her world view, beyond the common feeling of sadness for a lost grandparent who presented a very alternative view of the world. This is a clever book as the reader is left to fill in the gaps of the narrative, learning about the individual characters of the people in a small town. It is not the easiest book to follow at times, as the author seeks to balance an understandable variation on a coming of age book with other themes of special powers and a deep appreciation of the natural world. There are many elements of this book to hold together while reading, as the characters come to a greater understanding of their unique nature and abilities within the framework of the present day. This is a challenging book for anyone wanting something unusual set in the present day, and presents an exciting beginning to a series of books featuring the Way sisters.

This is the first book in a series featuring the Way sisters, and I hope to post a review of “Slow Poison” within the next few days.

Meanwhile, I am still working on Vera B. I have started to make a booklist of my collection of V.B. books, of which I seem to have quite a number. I am still missing my original copy of “Testament of Youth”, so the hunt goes on, but I have acquired a new copy with the help of Heffers in Cambridge (a truly great bookshop). It seems that I will have to add V.B. to my list of books to look out for in second hand bookshops, though I do have a signed copy of “Honourable Estate” so I  have a history of acquiring her books! I also found two more Angela Thirkell books  last week while in a converted railway station in Wells next to the Sea: “Peace Breaks Out”  and a copy of “Growing Up” in original dust jacket!

School’s Out by Jack Sheffield – Life in eighties Britain

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A series of books about a village school, told from the point of view of the Head teacher, set in the 1980s, is a familiar idea. “School’s Out” is the seventh book in the series, which seems to be continuing into this year with a prequel. These books are better read in order, but I am convinced that this book, like the others, could be read as a standalone. These books, and certainly this one, are essentially gentle reads set in a small community with all its foibles and events. Perhaps it is not full of great literary elements, and it will not change the world with either its narrative, language or character insight, but it is a delightful read in any circumstances.

This book is set in the academic year 1983 -1984, and no opportunity is overlooked in giving the details of the time; the price of sweets, newspapers and magazines. News and views of the day is referred to throughout, perhaps most poignantly in the references to the miners’ strike of the time. This is a book about people, mainly seen through the eyes of Jack, the head teacher of the school, as he records the real nature of events and daily life in the school in an unofficial school logbook. This is a book about the children, making their mark in the school, being scouts outside the building, and general contributing to the life of the village. It is about the staff, as they deal with their classrooms, their own relationships, and the change of teachers as they face the new technology of computers. Vera is the efficient secretary who has married the local lord of the manor, but retains an unrivalled knowledge of the village. Ruby is the cleaner, devoted to her own and all the children of the village, but who must face her own problems. The small stories of the people in the village, the hairdressers, the shopkeepers, the limitations of the of the local drama group, are all faithfully depicted, mostly in very funny ways. This book does not really build up into any great crisis point, but progresses through the school year with changing weather, various celebrations and always the funny and strange things that children do and say. The story of Jack’s own relationship with his wife Beth, her family, and the growing baby John also form a background to the novel, as they face the same decisions as couples have done over the years.

I enjoyed this book, with all its too human challenges and stories. As a teacher I recognised the sort of little anecdotes of what children say and do, and this being a village school there are many sorts of children, a fact recognised by Sheffield as he hints at what they will do in the future. This is a book which is immensely approachable, much in the same way as James Herriot wrote so movingly about the people and animals of the Yorkshire dales. It is special because this is a writer who knows his subject so well that he does not need to create the stories as much as order them and draw out their full humour. His painstaking recording of small details meant to anchor the novel in the time can be a little tiresome and breaks up the flow of the stories, but that is a minor quibble in an engaging read. This is a book with few pretensions, but is undoubtedly enjoyable and part of a fascinating series.

So many different sorts of books, so little time! This week (on Thursday) my review of “I am Heathcliff” is featured on Shiny New Books and I will hope to have some other reviews popping up hereabouts. In other news I start back at University for the second year of my M.A. course in Public History and Heritage this week, continue preparing my talk on Vera Brittain and the First World War, host a Macmillan Coffee Morning with much cake, and help with the Big Book Sale for Book Aid. I may read a book or two as well!

A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson – A Middlebrow Classic

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“All time is one” can be seen as the theme of this unusual book. Set in the period before and during the First World War, this is no standard work of fictional autobiography but an almost mystical book about family, relationships and the sense that the past, the present and the future are all one. A deep work of fiction, it not only delves into the psyche of people who feel that they have a unique sense of the past, but also the importance of place in ‘hearing’ what has gone on before. It also looks at children who grow up with a mature view of their own attractions and responsibilities. There are times when the writing is stilted, bewildering and multi layered; there are also times when the reader can revel in the overturning of what an imperious character expects and demands. On the surface this seems to be a small book, but such is its depth and complexity that it turns out to be a big read. I was grateful to receive a copy from Dean Street Press as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint.

Vere and James are twins born to a middle class family in London in the late nineteenth century. Together with their older sister, Lalage, they form an unusual group of precocious children in the social scene of parties and entertainments. They are close to their mother who is widowed relatively early and who provides a strange home life for her children, who grow into young adults who experience vivid hearing and sights of long dead people in the places where they lived. They have a peculiar relationship with their mother’s mother, Lady Vallant, who seeks to impose her will on her adult children and grandchildren. She is particularly attentive to James, as he begins to take responsibility for not only his sisters but the urge to volunteer for the Army. She tries to use her money and her iron determination to impose her will, but comes up against the narrator and main character of Vere for one of the monumental tussles of the book. There is a mystery at the heart of the book which only Vere can appreciate, and inspires many of her later actions. Her relationship with an actor is touching and unusual; this is far from a war book despite the time in which it is set.

Although it was originally published in 1936, this feels like a much more modern novel, as Vere’s honest narration reveals her own hesitations and fears, despite her clear sense of a mission to release her mother and others from her grandmother’s domination. Without clarification of a mystery of long ago childhoods, there are so many locked in emotions that no one in the family can truly live their lives. I found this a fascinating book, full of social history and insights into the human condition centred in a challenging family. It is not an easy read, and the style can be at times disjointed and opaque. Overall it is a strong and powerful testimony of a young woman in a taxing family situation, and how she uses her unusual gifts and strong relationship with her twin to survive and rescue her family.

As you can see, this is one of several Furrowed Middlebrow reprints I have reviewed. If you study their blog you will discover many pieces about searching out obscure books and authors. There is even news of more books to come in January, which I am excited about!

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes – The past as a long hot summer

“We are all about secrets in this family”. Every family has its secrets, but in this novel they combine with a child’s view of the world and very adult desire for revenge to present a traumatic yet touching picture of a long ago summer which is full of drama and incident. The impact on the present of events twelve years previously means that nothing and no one is as it seems. Growing up in 1970s Britain was challenging enough, but the small town here depicted in the long hot dry summer of 1976 is an unforgiving place when people behave in unconventional ways. Bullying children is one element, but when this becomes mixed up with adult fear and hatred the claustrophobia of a community would become unbearable, if it was not for the essential spark of human kindness which survives, even when it comes at a high cost. I was happy to receive a copy of this book which gives such a strong picture of late twentieth century life.

Robyn, the “Little Bird” of the title, is a nine year old girl during the summer of 1976. She spends idyllic days at the pool with her much loved older brother Kit, sometimes her unconventional mum and her friend Debbie. Her family is made complete by Matthew, who is her mum’s partner. There are problems, however, as the “WendyCarols”, older girls bully her, and her mother has a disturbing way of inviting strange women who weep into the house. When Robyn is an unwilling witness to an altercation between her mum and Mr Mace over one such woman and her son, the whole situation suddenly becomes complicated. Worse still, Robyn has been approached by a man in a cowboy hat who seems keen to upset her family by handing over mysterious items. The scene then moves to 1988, when Kit and Robyn return to the family home which has apparently stood empty for twelve years, with their belongings boxed up. It becomes obvious that Robyn and to an extent Kit are desperate to find something or someone, even as it becomes obvious that there are those in the small town who are angered by their return. Robyn searches archives and places newspaper advertisements as the scene swops between the two years, but in both there are deep feelings and even violence.

This is not a wholly grim tale. There are some decent people in both time frames, willing to risk much for others. There is a sense of nostalgia for a childhood of sun and parties, drawing sketches and being with friends. Hope for resolution propels the narrative, as the reader and the participants both discover the truth together. This is a sensitively written book of long held grudges and fear, with perhaps a little too much violence which tends to dilute the effect. Generally I found this book moving and absorbing, and it certainly maintained my interest throughout. The recent past is a fascinating study here and the picture of childhood confusion is well created.

It is a real pleasure to take part in the blog tour for this book, and I found this an engaging story, well written and creating a very full atmosphere.

Meanwhile, over at he seems to have started posting furiously – I am struggling to keep up!

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons – A court drama from the British Library Crime Classic series

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This book is another British Library Crime Classic reprint of a mystery unjustly neglected since its original publication in 1957. Like Symons other reprinted novel, “The Belting Inheritance”, it features an unreliable narrator whose evident confusion seems to be from a far more sinister motive than youth and naivety. It is a remarkable book, partly from its first section which is a first person profile of a character which may or may not explain the tragic events of the novel, and partly from its forensic narration of a court case in all its detail. This is not simply the story of a murder; it is far more about the characters involved before and after when a detailed examination of the case is shown. As Martin Edwards describes in his fine introduction, Symons also gives us plenty of social history in this volume, as the aspiring postwar generation join tennis clubs, host television parties and reveal their real motivations. I was really grateful to receive an advanced copy of this book.

John Wilkins is an unhappy young man. He reveals this in the first part of this book, which is in the form of an extended statement to a psychiatrist. After his father’s business failure and secret affairs are revealed to John, his mother is forced to take a smaller house in a less desirable location. However, John’s former address has been enough to attract the interest of May, who persuades him into a loveless marriage. Her social aspirations come to dominate their lives, and her intense dislike of John’s mother regularly surfaces. John is in a miserable job, with a boss who seems eager to pick up any mistakes, and who is unwilling to give John any credit.  John becomes somewhat unstable, enduring blackouts whenever he drinks, and developing an obsession with a young woman, Sheila. As he fantasises about their relationship, he begins to lose his grip on events even when they favour him. The confusion increases with John seemingly unable to understand or explain what is truly going on, as he misreads situations on a daily basis. A tragic discovery propels everyone connected with him however tenuously into the spotlight of a trial, where the expert work of lawyers is contrasted with those who claim to have knowledge of the events leading up to and during one tragic night.

This is such a clever book in its establishment of a character and those around him being pitched into a complex situation. Symons manages to get so much contrast between the characters, especially the women, that it shows that this is a new type of Murder Mystery in which the characters drive the plot, in contrast with the rather more stock characters of the interwar novels (with some honourable exceptions, obviously). I enjoyed the way in which it keeps the reader guessing, with every character seemingly having mixed motives and behaving in such realistic ways, from the small details of their speech to their larger choices in life. I recommend this book not as a great dramatic murder mystery, but as a carefully wrought observation of life and times, a powerful picture of a man on the edge.

A quick check shows that October’s British Library Crime Classic book looks forward to Christmas! Meanwhile we are still enjoying late summer/ early autumn hereabouts. The darker evenings are a good time to read though! We are having our big book sale in the church hall soon, hundreds of books at a ridiculously cheap prices. This time it is in aid of Book Aid, which buys new books for those who cannot afford them in various countries. I am no expert on the charity, but it seems a good idea to buy medical books, school textbooks and other vital books that do not need electricity or technology to read. I can see I’m going to have to do some more research on this…

The Angry Tide – Poldark number seven by Winston Graham – An important turning point

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Of all twelve of the Poldark novels, this seventh book is one of my favourites. Although it has deaths, much mourned and life changing, it also has obsession, some sense of justice, and throughout it marks characters reassessing their lives. It is significant as the end point of the second series of the original 1970s tv favourite; the last episodes to be filmed featuring Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis. It was originally published in 1977, whereas the next in the series did not appear until 1981. It was also the end of the fourth series of the current tv success. Significantly for the series of novels it represents the end of the first block of the saga with the end of 1799; the next book will come back to the characters ten years on. The narrative therefore marks a significant point for many of the characters at the end of a century, when huge events occur.

The novel opens in a way very similar to the first in the series, as travellers are depicted in a coach travelling into Cornwall. Again it emerges that one of them is Ross Poldark, this time returning from London. There are small hints as to why he is travelling earlier than expected, a fact that momentarily confuses his wife Demelza when she finally catches sight of him later. Another traveller is the young, deeply unpleasant clergyman Osbourne Whitworth, whose story and marriage to the unwilling Morwenna is soon described. Both men reveal much of their characters in the brief exchange they have on the journey. Osbourne is keen to enlist Ross in his quest for a third church living. He already claims an allowance of money for two parishes, but his greed for clothes and the good things of life means that he would like another source of income. Ross has been elected to Parliament by a local nobleman’s interest, but he seeks to retain his independence. He promptly refuses to use his influence to help Osbourne’s quest, mainly because the curate of Sawle who does the work is so badly paid. There is a swift contrast with George Warleggan, self made man who uses his power and influence for his own purposes. Despite being married to Elizabeth and being undoubtedly rich, he is unhappy in his suspicions and loss of his seat in Parliament. He will go on to try and wipe out his commercial opposition, repeat his suspicions about Elizabeth, and unwittingly contribute to the greatest loss of his life. The feud with Ross will also dominate not only the lives of the two protagonists but so many others in the area. Ross is forced to reconsider their lives, until one character comments on life “And at this moment, now, we are alive …We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask.”

Compared with some of the books in this long series, this book is dramatic and full of incident. Most of the characters are true to the types established in the earlier books, and this book marks a natural ending to their stories for the time being. The next book will have much to do with the next generation, but this novel ties up many loose ends. Despite this there are characters going forward into a new century with all the challenges that will bring, of new technology, new battles and new people affected by old feuds. This is an important novel in the Poldark series and well worth reading.

I appreciate that this book review appears out of order with other books in the series, but when I picked up my copy I realised how significant it was in the series as a whole, and indeed how enjoyable it is. Many of the lines have great significance, especially at the end.  It also makes a change from “Testament of Youth”! Many book reviews are to come.

Nutmeg by Maria Goodin – a work of imagination

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This is a delightful book on the surface. A book of stories and images of food coming to life around a series of houses, throughout the life of a young woman. It is also, however, a book about how people learn to protect themselves, through imagination and exercising their talent. On the one side is hard, scientific realism, investigation and refusal to accept anything but the truth, no matter how painful. On the other hand, the loving gentle deception which shields against horrific truth. This is a funny book full of great invention. This is a story of women who have to find a way to live with their past, to protect those they love.

Meg is a young woman who is fundamentally confused. She lives a strictly scientific life, in an arid relationship with Mark, who is always pushing for the truth. She has worked hard to exclude all hint of fantasy from her life in reaction to her growing up with her mother, who seemingly cannot function without a ridiculous explanation for every aspect of life. From the moment of Meg’s birth, which apparently happened before she was thoroughly cooked and she needed to finish growing on a sunny windowsill, to the identity of her father who was a French pastry chef who died in a pastry making accident, Meg has been told stories by her loving mother, who compulsively cooks. Innocent meals are dominated by dancing foodstuffs, escaping toads and window boxes which produce more than allotments. Meg’s mother talks in fairy tales, alluding to Meg’s extreme sweetness as a child, the smell of London being the food shops and stalls many miles away, everyday life being transformed into delightful adventures. Meg had rejected these tales in her own mind as soon as she was subjected to the sceptic children around her at school, as she realises that her mother’s tales are untrue and unconvincing.  She ruthlessly excludes any hint of imagination in her studies or life, and succeeds until her mother becomes seriously ill. As Meg moves back to her mother’s house, she tries to balance her own passion for the truth with her mother’s continuing manic cooking and recitation of fantastic tales. She tries to satisfy her boyfriend’s urging to find out the truth of her birth and childhood before, as Mark says, it is too late. Coincidence, hints and nervous exploration discovers some answers, but she questions if she really want to know the truth after all. The Gardener, Ewan, also shows there is another way to live, as he seems to suggest that too much reality is not always the answer.

This is a clever book, pitting different explanations of life against one another. Traumatic events can be dealt with in various ways, and here gentle fantasy is the answer. Meg’s situation is far from unique, but the way of dealing with it is unusual. The reader experiences her frustrations with her mother, life and real life, and the book itself has much to say about relationships in a complicated world, and there is much to reassure in this book. Sometimes the whimsy gets a little cloying, but it accurately reflects the nature of the world view Meg is battling with on a daily basis. A complete antidote to hard edged murder and mystery novels, this book itself is a romantic confection, with a traumatic edge. I was glad to receive a copy of the book from Legend Press. I found it an unusual read, comforting, funny and unchallenging, but also presenting an alternative way to live.

One of the things I like about writing Northernreader is reviewing a great variety of books; books that appeal to different people at different times. I hope you enjoy it as well! I am recovering from a huge book group meeting yesterday – nineteen people in our little sitting room! (One member is only four moths old, but behaved beautifully) Another good thing is that most had some good things to say about the book – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, – so maybe it was not such a bad choice!