A – Z of TBRs: X, Y and Z

And so I come to the last letters in the alphabet,  X, Y and Z in my A – Z of TBRs, a series of posts in which I’ve been taking a look at some of my TBRs  to decide whether I really do want to read them all. Some of them were impulse buys, or books I bought as part of those 3 for 2 offers, but most of them are books I bought full of enthusiasm to read each one – and mainly because I wanted to finish books I was already reading, they have sat on the shelves ever since. And then other books claimed my attention.

X  – is for Xingu and other stories by Edith Wharton Xingu is the first story in this IMG_20180517_155637127_HDR.jpgcollection of seven short stories. It’s about a group of ladies who form a book group called The Lunch Club – but it’s more

‘And what do you think of “The Wings of Death”? Mrs Roby abruptly asked her.  It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a breach of discipline. They all knew there was nothing Mrs Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. (location 77)

Why, I wonder, would anyone want to smuggle laces – and why would it be necessary?

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Y – is for The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I’ve had this book for 8 years. According to Wikipedia this book focuses on a religious sect called the God’s Gardeners, a small community of survivors of the same biological catastrophe depicted in Atwood’s earlier novel Oryx and Crake, which I read soon after it was first published in 2003. The earlier novel contained several brief references to the group.

Figuring out the Gardener hierarchy took her some time. Adam One insisted that  all Gardeners were equal on the spiritual level, but the same did not hold true for the material one: the Adams and the Eves ranked higher, though their numbers indicated their areas of expertise rather than their importance. In many ways it was like a monastery, she thought. The inner chapter, then the lay brothers. And the lay sisters, of course. Except that chastity was not expected.

Since she was accepting Gardener hospitality, and under false pretences at that – she wasn’t really a convert – she felt she should pay by working very hard. (pages 55 -56)

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Z– is for Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson, a book I’ve had for eighteen months. It’s described on the book jacket as ‘By turns angry, elegiac and rude’,’ a novel about love – love of women, love of literature, love of laughter. It shows our funniest writer at his brilliant best.’

I haven’t read any of his books, although I have a copy of The Finckler Question, the 2010 Man Booker Prize winner still to read. Looking at Zoo Time today I’m wondering of I really do want to read it – I’m not very good with ‘funny’ books, often wondering what’s so funny about them. It’s about a writer, whose readership is going downhill, with lots of problems.

Things had not being going well in my neck of the woods: not for me, on account of being a writer whose characters readers didn’t identify with, not for my wife who didn’t identify with my characters or with me, not for Poppy Eisenhower, my wife’s mother, where the problem, to be candid, was that we had been identifying with each other too well, not for my local library which closed only a week after I’d published a florid article in the London Evening Standard praising its principled refusal to offer Internet access, and not for my publisher Merton Flak who, following a drunken lunch in my company – I had been the one doing the drinking – went back to his office and shot himself in the mouth. (page 23)

What do you think? Do you fancy any of them? Would you ditch any of them?

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the WarThis is another short book review as I catch up with writing about my reading. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is one of my TBR books. It is her second novel and I enjoyed it so much more than her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s the  summer of 1914, set in Rye in East Sussex when spinster Beatrice Nash arrived to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Her appointment was the result of Agatha Kent’s and Lady Emily Wheaton’s wish to have a female teacher as a Latin teacher.

This is really a book of two parts – the months before the outbreak of the First World War and then the events as the war got underway. It begins slowly with the first part describing the lazy, idyllic summer and in which all the characters are introduced. Although there is a clear distinction between the classes in society cracks are beginning to appear which will only widen as the century gets under way and the war acts as a catalyst for change..

But it really gets going in the second part when the young men sign up, including High and Daniel, Agatha’s nephews, and Snout one of Beatrice’s pupils. He was underage but his father, the local farrier, signed the papers agreeing he could enlist. Simonson doesn’t hold back on the horrific conditions under which the war took place and from a gentle beginning the book moves into a war novel, emotional and moving.

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into two of the categories, The word ‘the’ used twice and A season. For the time being I’m putting it into the ‘season‘ category but may change that later if I read one of the other ‘season‘ books on my list.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1770 KB
  • Print Length: 497 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; 1 edition (24 Mar. 2016)
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 4*

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

Catching Up

It’s that time of year – the grass is growing at a rate of knots, the weeds are shooting up all over the place, the garden is crying out for attention and my time for writing is disappearing.

So here are two quick reviews of books I’ve read this month:

Blacklands

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer – her debut novel. I loved this book, so different from other crime fiction books I’ve read. It’s told mainly from Stephen Lamb’s perspective. Stephen is twelve years old. Nineteen years earlier Billy, Stephen’s uncle then aged eleven had disappeared. It was assumed that he had fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery, but his body had never been found. Stephen is determined to find where Arnold had buried his body and writes to him in prison.

What follows is an absolutely gripping battle of wits between Stephen and Arnold as they exchange letters. This is a dark and chilling story that took me inside the minds of both Stephen and Arnold, making this a disturbing experience and also a very moving and heartbreaking story. Since reading this book I’ve also read Snap, which although I enjoyed it I don’t think it is as good as Blacklands. I shall certainly be reading more of her books!

A Life in Questions

A Life in Questions by Jeremy Paxman (one of my TBRS). This is an interesting and entertaining autobiography, which is mainly about his career with little about his personal life, written in a very readable style. His sardonic wit and sense of humour come across, often aimed at himself. He tells of his childhood and his career first with the BBC in Northern Ireland and then in various war zones and trouble spots before becoming a presenter on Newsnight, where his interviews with politicians both infuriated and delighted me, and quizmaster on University Challenge. He has also done documentary programmes including an enlightening one on the EU, on art, and on history and has written several books on a variety of subjects. The only one I’ve read is The English: A Portrait of a People.

As I would expect from such a forthright person Paxman’s book is full of his opinions, but I couldn’t help wondering how much of  his grumpiness is a facade and what the real man behind it is really like. Maybe his reflections on his love for fly fishing and for nature, give us a glimpse of the real person. I liked these passages very much. Extending to 6 pages he describes how fishing is

essentially about trying to inserting yourself into an environment where you don’t belong, without being noticed. If you blunder about you won’t catch anything – on a sunny day you will be able to see the trout darting off in all directions when they sense your footfall on the bank, their flicking tails a snub to your clumsiness. Be quiet. And then, when you’re stalking a fish, things happen around you. A grass snake swims sinuously across the river. A water vole plops into a stream. Wagtails and oystercatchers dance at the water’s edge. Swallows and martins swoop low over the water, snatching flies. A kingfisher flashes that spectacular iridescent blue above the river; it is gone in an instant.

… To become absorbed in the natural world frees your mind: fish cannot survive in our element, and only imagination will allow us to live in theirs. …

In essence it is a solitary occupation. But the best fishing days are those spent with friends, meeting for a picnic lunch on the riverbank, united in the awareness that we are doing something which defies rational explanation. (extracts from pages 254-255)

 

Although I don’t fish I think I’d like to read his book on fishing: Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.

A – Z of TBRs: U, V and W

I’m now up to U, V and W in my A – Z of TBRs, a series of posts in which I take a fresh look at some of my TBRs to inspire me to read more of them, or maybe to decide not to bother reading them after all. These are books I bought full of enthusiasm to read each one – and mainly because I wanted to finish books I was already reading, they have sat on the shelves ever since. And then other books claimed my attention.

U V W books

– is for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joycea novel I bought five years ago. It appealed to me because it’s about a man, Harold Fry, who walks from Kingsbridge in South Devon to Berwick-upon Tweed in Northumberland and I liked the idea of following his journey – on paper, that is.

Harold receives a letter from an old friend who is dying from cancer, writing to say goodbye. Feeling he can’t say what he wants to say in a letter he decides he needs to speak to her in person and phones the hospice where she is a patient:

‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. ‘ (page 28)

~~~

Harold Fry was a tall man who moved through life with a stoop, as if expecting a low beam, or a screwed-up paper missile, to appear out of nowhere. The day he was born his mother had looked at the bundle in her arms, and felt appalled. She was young, with a peony bud mouth and a husband who had seemed a good idea before the war and a bad one after it. A child was the last thing she wanted or needed. The boy learned quickly that the best way to get along in life was to keep a low profile; to appear absent even when present. He played with neighbours’ children, or at least he watched them from the edges. At  school he avoided attention to the point of appearing stupid. Leaving home when he was sixteen, he had set out on his own, until one night he caught Maureen’s eye across a dance hall and fell wildly in love. It was the brewery that had brought the couple to Kingsbridge. (page 36)

V – is for The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella. I’ve had this book for nearly 10 years and started it not long after I bought it. My book mark is at the start of chapter twenty seven, so I’ve read about a third of the book. I can’t remember now why I stopped reading it. If I am going to read it I’ll have to start again.

It’s historical fiction and a love story beginning in 1896 in London where a struggling poet, Robert Wallis, accepts a commission from a mysterious coffee merchant, Samuel Pinker, to compose a ‘vocabulary of coffees’ that can capture their elusive fragrances. Robert is then dispatched to Africa in search of the world’s finest coffee.

In this extract Robert is considering how to describe black coffee beans:

… ‘these ones over here are as black as despair, whereas these are as golden as virtue -‘

‘No, no, no,’ Pinker interjected. ‘this is far too poetical. One man’s despair is another man’s gloom, and who is to say whether gloom and despair are the same colour?’

I saw his point. ‘Then we shall have to decide on words for several different shades of black.’

‘Exactly, sir – that is my purpose entirely.’

‘Hmm.’ I considered. It was, when one thought about it a rather vexing issue. ‘We shall begin,’ I declared, ‘by fixing the very blackest form of black there is.’

‘Very well.’

A silence fell upon us. It was in fact, quite hard to think of a word to describe the pure blackness of the darkest beans. ‘The pure black of a cow’s nose, I said at last. Pinker made a face. ‘Or the glistening black of a slug at dawn -‘

‘Too fanciful’ And if I may say so, hardly appetising.’

‘The black of a bible.’

‘Too objectionable.’

‘The black of a moonless night.’

Pinker tutted. (page 38)

and so it goes on, until they finally settled for ‘jet’.

W– is for The Water Horse by julia Gregson, a book I’ve had for nine years. This is a historical fiction based on the true story of a young Welsh woman, Jane Evans, a Welsh woman who in 1853 ran off with Welsh cattle drovers and volunteered as a nurse with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.

The title refers to the story of the Water Horse

‘And God help you if you find the Water Horse,’ said Eleri, ‘he looks so lovely and he’s deadly.’

‘Do you believe in him?’ Catherine was interested at last. ‘I think about him every time I see the sea. ‘

‘No.’ She put down her pipe. ‘No, I don’t. but I do believe he shows us what we fear.’

‘What?’

‘Well, there he is: beautiful, extraordinary. he stands placidly by the water’s edge. We try to mount him, and sometimes you can ride him and feel so powerful, so wonderful, and the next time he bolts back into the sea with you and you die a horrible and frightening death. What could be clearer?’ Eleri’s eyes were shining in the dusk. ‘It’s our fear of being out of control. He’s the one who tells you, stick with the ordinary, don’t move, everything else is dangerous and nothing possible, but the problem is that if you fear everything you can’t control, you’ll never do anything that matters to you.’ (pages 58-9)

Looking at them this morning the one that appeals most is The Water Horse.

What do you think? Do you fancy any of them? Would you ditch any of them?

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny

The Tenderness of Wolves

Quercus| 2006|450 p|2.5* rounded up to 3* on Goodreads

The Tenderness of Wolves was first published 2006 when it won the both the Costa First Novel Award and the Costa Book of the Year. It has been on my TBR shelves since May 2007 when I first heard about it and thought it sounded fantastic. And yet it has sat on my shelves ever since, mainly because it’s in such a small font. And then at the beginning of March I included it in my S and T post of TBRs and encouraged by the comments  began to read it.

Stef Penney is a screenwriter and the author of three novels: The Tenderness of Wolves, The Invisible Ones (2011), and Under a Pole Star (2016, winner of the 2017 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize). She has also written extensively for radio, including adaptations of Moby Dick, The Worst Journey in the World, and, mostly recently, a third instalment of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series.

It’s set in Canada in 1867 beginning in a small place called Dove River on the north shore of Georgian Bay, narrated in part by Mrs Ross in the first person present tense (*see at the end of the post) and also occasionally in the third person past tense. Mr and Mrs Ross were the first people to settle in Dove River – the name she gave to it. Other people came later and settled near the river mouth.

It begins dramatically as she describes the last time she saw the French-Canadian trapper, Laurent Jammet alive ‘he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder‘. He was the Ross’s closest neighbour and the next time she saw him was in his cabin, lying dead on his bed, his throat cut and he had been scalped. Francis, the Ross’s adopted teenage son is missing and is immediately suspected of being the murderer. But Mrs Ross is convinced of his innocence. With no police force as such it is the Hudson Bay Company (the Company) employees and the local magistrate, Andrew Knox who lead the investigation. William Parker a half Indian tracker is also a suspect and is taken into custody. But Knox isn’t convinced Parker is guilty and releases him. Parker and Mrs Ross then set off to follow her son’s tracks into the wilderness.

That’s it in a nutshell, but it is much much more complicated than this. There’s a large cast of characters and at first I found it confusing, unsure of their identity and how they interacted. In fact some of them are just minor characters that don’t feature in the main plot, which is a problem when you’re trying to sort out who is important.

Following Mrs Ross and Parker are the Company employees, Donald Moody and Jacob, another half Indian. Then there is Thomas Sturrock, who says he had business with Jammet who had agreed to sell him something. He describes himself as a lawyer and an archaeologist by inclination and the object he is looking for is a bone tablet inscribed with strange markings that could be some sort of writing. Sturrock was also involved in the search for two young girls who years earlier had disappeared from their home presumed to have been abducted by Indians. Added into the mix are Susannah and Maria Knox, Andrew’s teenage daughters, a group of religious Norwegian settlers, and the employees of the Company, some of them very strange, in an isolated outpost deep in the wilderness.

This is one of the most difficult books to summarise in a coherent way and without giving away too many spoilers.

The plot moves very slowly, switching between locations and characters as very little progress is made in the search for the murderer. I found it frustrating. I never quite acclimatised myself to the use of the present tense which kept distracting me from the story. But when the pace picked up nearer to the end of the book I was keen to find out what happened – and by that time I had worked out who all the characters were. But I was left with a few questions – I really would have liked to know more about the relevance and meaning of the bone or ivory tablet, for example.

Overall, despite my criticism of this book, I did enjoy it and the descriptions of the landscape and climate set it in geographic context, but it just took so long to read particularly with so many sub-plots to hold in my head! I think some of the sub-plots that don’t contribute much to the story could easily have been developed into books in their own right. And the ending seemed so abrupt. I’m not sure I want to read any more of Stef Penney’s books.

* I want to analyse why I find the use of the present tense a problem as I hardly notice it in some books but in others such as this one I find it so irritating that it clouds my judgement. Perhaps it will help if I write my thoughts in a separate post … *

 

A – Z of TBRs: S and T

I’m now up to S and T in my A – Z of TBRs, a series of posts in which I take a fresh look at some of my TBRs to inspire me to read more of them, or maybe to decide not to bother reading them after all.

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– is for The Stranger House by Reginald Hilla book I’ve had a mere two years. I bought this because I love Hill’s books.

It’s a stand-alone book, a psychological thriller – no Dalziel and Pasco in this book. It’s set in Cumbria in a fictitious valley, Skaddale and village, Illthwaite, where the Stranger House offers refuge to travellers – people like Australian, Samantha Flood and Miguel Madero, a Spanish historian. The two of whom uncover intertwining tales of murder, betrayal and love. There are dark mysteries at the heart of this ancient place.

[Miguel] entered the Seminary in Seville at the age of twenty-three at the same time as nineteen-year-old Sam Flood entered Melbourne University, both convinced they knew exactly what they were doing and where the paths of their lives were leading them.

And yet neither yet understanding that a particular path is not a prospectus and that it may, in the instant it takes for a word to be spoken or a finger-hold to be lost, slip right off your map and lead you somewhere unimagined in all your certainties.

In the cases of Sam Flood and Miguel Madero this place was situated far to the north. (page 22)

 

S – is also for Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 – 2014), the author of the Cazalet Chronicles. I’ve been meaning to read this for so long – it’s been on my shelves for 11 years, would you believe! It was published in 2002 when she was seventy nine.

This quotation comes from the final chapter of the book:

For the last two years while I have been writing this, I have been getting noticeably older. Getting old is a classic slipstream situation. It’s rather like that game Grandmother’s footsteps. I stand at the end of a lawn with my back to a row of the trappings of old age whose object is to reach me before I turn round and send them back to their row. One or two of these have caught me during the last five years: I have neither the health or the energy that once I had. In these respects I am not as young as I feel. Arthritis is dispiriting because it is both painful and incurable, and it takes time to become reconciled to it. I can’t – like my friend Penelope Lively – garden any more and that is for both of us a privation.

But on the plus side,  I am able to go on writing, I can sew and cook and have friends to stay and above all I can read. I continue to go to my women’s group; I can still learn. One of the good things about living longer is that we have more time to learn how to be old. It is clear to me now that inside the conspiracy of silence about age – because of the negative aspects of the condition – there is the possibility of art; that is to say that it can be made into something worth trying to do well, a challenge, an adventure. I don’t want to live with any sort of retirement, with nostalgia and regret wrapped round me like a wet blanket. I want to live enquiringly, with curiosity and interest for the rest of my life. (page 476)

T– is for The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, a book I’ve had for three years. She is probably best known for her children’s books – the Moomin stories. I haven’t read those or any of her books for adults. But a few years ago I kept seeing her name cropping up on book blogs and thought I would like her books. This one is set in winter in a Swedish hamlet. A strange young woman fakes a break-in at the house of Anna Aemelin, an elderly artist, to persuade her that she needs companionship.

Her parents had lived long lives and never allowed anyone to cut trees in their woods. They’d been rich as trolls when they died. And the woods were still untouchable. Little by little they had grown almost impenetrable and stood like a wall behind the house; the ‘rabbit house’, they called it in the village. It was a grey wood villa with elaborate carved window frames in white, as grey-white as the tall backdrop of snow-drenched forest. The building actually resembled a large, crouched rabbit – the square front teeth of the white veranda curtains, the silly bay windows under eyebrows of snow, the vigilant ears of the chimneys. All the windows were dark. The path up the hill had not been shovelled.

That’s where she lives. Mats and I will live there too. But I have to wait. I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life. (pages 30-1)

T is also for The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, another book I’ve had for 11 years! It was the 2006 Costa Book of the Year.looking at it now I think one of the reasons I haven’t read it yet is that it appears to be written in a mix of the present and past tenses.

Set in 1867 in Canada, on the isolated settlement of Dove River a man has been brutally murdered, a woman finds his body and her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared. She has to clear his name, heading north into the forest and the desolate landscape that lies beyond it …

In this extract Thomas Sturrock is listening to a conversation between two men when he just has to ask them who they are discussing – is it a trader?

‘A Frenchie trader in Dove River was murdered. I don’t know if there’s more than one such there.’

‘I don’t think there is. You didn’t hear a name by any chance?’

‘Not that I remember off the top of my head – something French, is all I recall.’

‘The name of my acquaintance is Laurent Jammet’.

The man’s eyes light up with pleasure. ‘Well I’m sorry, I truly am, but I think that was the name that was mentioned.’

Sturrock falls uncharacteristically silent. He has had to deal with many shocks in his long career, and his mind is already working out the repercussions of this news. Tragic, obviously for Jammet. Worrying, at the least for him. For there is unfinished business there that he has been very keen to conclude, awaiting only the financial means to do so. Now that Jammet is dead, the business must be concluded as soon as possible, or the chance may slip out of his reach for good. (pages 34-5)

What do you think? Do you fancy any of them? Would you ditch any of them?

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

A quest for justice

The Midnight Line (Jack Reacher, #22)

Bantam Press| 7 Nov 2017|391 p|Hardcover|4*

I wasn’t sure when I began reading The Midnight Line that it was my sort of book. It’s the 22nd book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and I haven’t read any of the earlier books. See this post for the first paragraph – what struck me was Lee Child’s straight forward style of writing and the short, staccato sentences.

Jack Reacher, a former military policeman, is looking for the owner of a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s a small ring, a woman cadet’s graduation present to herself, engraved with the initials S.R.S and Reacher wonders what she went through to get it and why it ended up in a pawn shop. He tracks the ring back to its owner in a search that takes him to the deserted wilds of Wyoming.

After a slow start containing too much description of fighting for my liking and too many short sentences I began to find that Child’s writing grew on me. It’s not all short sentences, and I liked the way that every now and then Reacher recaps where the search is taking him. I began to feel it was a book about a quest – reminiscent of tales of heroes or knights of old on a mission to rescue a damsel in distress, or of a ring-bearer returning the ring to its rightful owner – in a very modern setting.

I like the characters, particularly Reacher, a huge guy variously described as Bigfoot or the Incredible Hulk and I like the description of the landscape of the West with its vast open spaces – at least 20 miles between neighbours – long straight and dusty roads, rocky tracks and unmarked trails. Reacher doesn’t drive, but hitch hikes, or takes a bus, walking when he has to. He’s a loner, with no home, no belongings, just buying new clothes as he needs them, always on the move, a tough guy who uses a whole bar of soap when he showers.

The hunt first takes Reacher to Rapid City, South Dakota to find Arthur Scorpio, a laundromat owner, who tells him the ring came in from a guy in Wyoming in a place called Mule Crossing, a ‘wide spot’ on the road to Laramie. Whilst in Rapid City he meets Detective Gloria Nakamura, keeping Scorpio under surveillance and Terry Bramhall, a private detective, also watching Scorpio and looking for the same woman as Reacher. Reacher and Bramhall meet again at Mule Crossing and join forces.

It turns out that this is more than a search for the owner of the ring. As Reacher gets nearer to finding her he comes across the trail of a drug smuggling circle and I learned a lot about the history of heroin and pain relief and the terrible issues facing US veterans. Reacher finds out exactly what did happen to S.R.S., the owner of the ring, and it’s not pretty! This book is dedicated to the nearly two million recipients of the Purple Hearts awards.

I finished the book delighted that it was so much better than I thought it would be and was just as pleased when I went to Barter Books yesterday (more about that visit soon) and found the first book introducing Jack Reacher – Killing Floor – so that after reading the 22nd book I can start at the beginning.

About Lee Child

Lee Child (James ‘Jim’ Grant, known by his pen name Lee Child) is not American (as I thought) but British, born in Coventry.   He went to law school in Sheffield, England, and after part-time work in the theatre he joined Granada Television in Manchester for what turned out to be an eighteen-year career as a presentation director during British TV’s “golden age.” During his tenure his company made Brideshead RevisitedThe Jewel in the CrownPrime Suspect, and Cracker. He now lives in New York.

He has received many awards. The most recent is the CWA’s Diamond Dagger for a writer of an outstanding body of crime fiction, the International Thriller Writers’ ThrillerMaster, and the Theakston Old Peculiar Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

Many thanks to my husband for buying me this book as a surprise Christmas present.

I’m choosing this book in this year’s What’s In A Name Challenge in the category of a book with a shape in the title.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link