2017 Bloggers Bash Awards – I’ve been nominated!

I am delighted to have been nominated for this year’s Bloggers Bash Awards in the category of Best Book Reviewer!

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This is the first time I have been nominated and I am really chuffed. I’ve no idea who nominated me, so thank you to my mysterious benefactor!

The Bloggers Bash Awards is an annual ceremony held in London that celebrates blogging in all its forms and has awards nominated for and voted by bloggers themselves.

Voting opens today, so if anyone would like to cast a vote for me here I would be very grateful. I’m nominated alongside some of my favourite blogs so I’m delighted to be in their company!

Cathy x

20 Book of Summer is just around the corner!

I will be taking a little break from my usual Monday Books that Built the Blogger post as I’m starting to plan for my annual 20 Books of Summer!

Yes, it IS that time already.

Well nearly….

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The weather here in Northern Ireland has been amazing for the last few weeks, blue skies, sun, no rain…yes, there has been no rain in Northern Ireland. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. So, as usual when there is a bit of sun in May and I’ve booked by summer holiday, I start planning my 20 Books.

For anyone who hasn’t taken part before, 20 Books of Summer is a reading challenge I do each year from 1 June to 3 September where I read 20 books from my TBR in three months. I just about managed to complete it last year as I read all 20 books, but didn’t manage to review them all, although I was hampered by a mid-summer change of jobs. Hopefully now that life is a bit more settled, I’ll be able to complete it in style!

I haven’t chosen my 20 books yet, but it will be the usual mix of novels, short story collections, memoirs and a couple of sneaky short ones to make my life a little bit easier! I’ll post my list in a few weeks and see who’s up for joining in this year.

As ever, there will be a 15 books and 10 books option and as previous years, a few Australians might take part and rename it the 20 books of winter! I’ll have a Master Post with a linky where you can share your reading lists and the #20booksofsummer hashtag will be buzzing again.

I do hope a few of you can join me, but if not, I’ll need all your encouragement to try and get another 20 books knocked off my never-ending pile of books!

Now, I just have to pick my 20…..

The Books that Built the Blogger with Karen from BookerTalk!

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This week on The Books That Built the Blogger I am excited to welcome Karen, from BookerTalk. If you haven’t checked out her blog yet, please do! IT’s a fantastic mix of reviews and articles on Booker Prize winners, classic literature and translated fiction. I love her reviews and insights and am a regular visitor to her blog.

Here are her excellent choices for the books that have made her the reader and blogger she is today!

 

Hello or as we would say in my native country of Wales “Schwmae”. I’m Karen, the blogger behind BookerTalk which is a mixture of reviews and comments on anything to do with reading/buying books. When I started blogging five years ago my plan was to use the site to capture my thoughts as I read my way through the list of Booker Prize winners. It’s evolved to reflect my other interests in the classics of literature (especially the nineteenth century) and fiction in translation.

 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. As a child I was into Enid Blyton of course – rattling through The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Naughtiest Girl in School series as fast as my pocket money would allow. By the time I was 12 I’d graduated to historical fiction and began devouring everything that Jean Plaidy could throw at me, including those novels she wrote under two other pseudonyms Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt. Of ‘classic’ literature I knew very little ….I can’t remember reading anything by Charles Dickens for example.

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Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare

My epiphany came when I was 14 and had to start the syllabus for a major set of exams (called O levels in the UK). Until then English lessons had passed in a blur and I have little recollection of what we studied. But this first day of the new term was my introduction to Shakespeare. The play was The Merchant of Venice and I was so hooked that when I went home I read the entire play twice. By the time the next English lesson rolled along I could recite from memory the key speeches from Act 1.  I recall that day so clearly; me in

the second row of desks oblivious to anyone else in the class as I answered every question; the teacher looking at me rather stunned. The experience triggered in me not just a love of Shakespearian drama but of literature in general. Oh and in case you’re wondering, I can still recite Shylock’s speech that begins:

 

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Go to, then; you come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold:

 

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George Orwell: Collected Essays

 

The hands of the clock moved on a few years and I was in a different classroom, this time studying for my Advanced level in English. Who choose the set books I have no idea but they were masochists for making us study John Milton’s masque Comus. I am eternally grateful however for their choice of George Orwell’s Collected Essays.   I can’t recall all of the essays now but it was the sheer versatility of the writing that astonished me. This was a form of journalism I’d never before experienced. One moment he was writing movingly about the long and painful death of an escaped elephant (Shooting an Elephant is one of his most famous essays), the next he was delivering a witty critique of the stereotypes portrayed in boy’s comics. In between he found time to condemn Charles Dickens for merely posturing as a social reformer and to demonstrate the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. I was heady with Orwell…

Years later I took my own steps in journalism. I never reached the heights of Orwell’s prose but I like to think as I bashed out my reports on an aged typewriter that he was looking over my shoulder all the time, reminding me of the possibilities of the spoken word.

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Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse

The Daily Mirror, one of the biggest tabloid newspapers in the UK, was delivered to our house every day during my teen years. The version on sale today is a pale imitation of the campaigning journal I recall that frequently ran exposes of corruption and social injustice. My favourite columnist was Keith Waterhouse who held forth on topics such as his love of public libraries, his contempt of computers and his obsession with the smallest, most ordinary things, such as the change in his pockets. He also fought a one-man battle against what he considered to be a decline in the standards of modern English, regularly berating shopkeepers whose window displays advertised “potatoe’s” and “pound’s of apple’s and orange’s.” His passion carried through to his book Daily Mirror Style in which he argued against a cliché-ridden, overblown style of writing seen in tabloid newspapers. It became my bible as a young reporter. This is the book I hold responsible for my hatred of the kind of jargon I found all around me when I moved into the world of multi-national business and heard such aberrations as “leverage” and “mind-set”.

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The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott

It took just one paragraph for me to fall in love with Paul Scott’s quartet which is set in the dying years of the British Raj in India. The first novel, The Jewel in the Crown, begins with a British girl fleeing the men who have raped her: Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance…” The girl we discover is Daphne Manners (one of my favourite literary characters). She’s clumsy, awkward and shy but very spirited and independent. She doesn’t believe in the privileged lifestyle or the racism inherent in the British presence in India. Nor does she believe it’s wrong for her to fall in love with a young Indian boy. Her attack threatens the stability of a regime already under pressure from Ghandi’s independence movement. In this and the next three novels Scott shows how the British in India were as much trapped by codes and principles as the Indian subjects of the Empire. It’s a superb series that taught me a lot about India’s history and ignited my interest in the sub-continent.

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Germinal: Emile Zola

I’ve read this novel four times and it never fails to make me angry and sorrowful. It’s set in a coal mining village in northern France in the 1860s. Life here is harsh but when the miners go on strike to try and improve their lot, it becomes brutal. It’s painful to read descriptions of the way these villagers toil underground with little in their bellies to sustain them and of the indifference of the mine owners to their plight. I know it’s a faithful and uncompromising depiction because Zola visited French mining towns, seeing at first hand the effects of the miners’ struggles. It’s a book which has a deep personal resonance since I come from a coal mining family myself so as I read Zola’s words I picture my own grandfathers and uncles underground, experiencing similar conditions to those he describes. It’s a book that always reminds me how hard my parents had to work to get out of that life and to find a better future for themselves and for their children.

What great choices from Karen and the second outing for The Raj Quarter in the Books that Built series. I’m most intrigued by the Keith Waterhouse, whose plays I love, but whose essays have passed me by so far and I am always happy to see a Shakespeare play in the mix!

Are any of your favourites here?

No 590 The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

 

Following my enjoyment of the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies, I decided to read The Husband’s Secret, a book that has been gathering dust on my Kindle for quite a while now.

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I loved the television show Big Little Lies, mainly because it was so focused on the female perspective and dealt in a dramatic and emotional way with marriage, relationships, domestic violence, rape and a host of other issues. Accusations that is was pulpy, or trashy only made me defend it more, so I hoped I would feel the same way about The Husband’s Secret.

There are some similarities between both stories. Set in and around St Angela’s Catholic Primary School in Sydney, the book focuses on several women, all trying to have a fulfilled and fulfilling life for themselves and their families, all the while carrying their own secrets. The idea of the fragility of the façade of the perfect life and the way in which the past has a tendency to resurface are played out against a backdrop of normal everyday lives.

The Husband’s Secret is a hard book to review without spoilers, but I’m going to try and do so. To be fair, the central ‘twist’ – the facts of the husband’s secret – is not too hard to figure out, but it is the core of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away for anyone planning to read it.

The novel centres on three women. Cecilia is a stay-at-home Mum to her three beautiful daughters and creates an ordered, perfect life for them and her handsome husband John Paul. Head of St Angela’s PTA and a highly successful Tupperware salesperson, she thrives on organisation, surface appearance and order. Her seemingly perfect life belies crippling self-doubt and she is concerned about the fact that she and John Paul are not sleeping together anymore. The lack of sex is not for any reason she can imagine and it is his secret that is about to blow her life apart.

Tess has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her with her cousin and has fled the situation to stay with her mother and enrol her son in St Angela’s school. Smarting from the betrayal, she starts an affair with an old school boyfriend as she comes to terms with what has happened.

Rachel is the school secretary whose daughter was killed over twenty years ago and whose murderer has never been caught. On hearing the news that her son, wife and beloved grandson are to move to New York, Rachel becomes obsessed with what she has lost and becomes driven by the belief that she knows who killed her daughter.

When Cecilia discovers a letter, written by her husband several years before and marked to be opened upon the event of his death, it starts a chain of events that will affect all these women’s lives and bring them together in ways they could never have imagined.

A lot of interesting themes are at play here. Guilt, self-worth, grief and fulfilment. Some storylines play out more successfully than others. The plight of Rachel, forever imagining what might have been for her lost daughter, is heart-breaking and sensitively approached, but there is a strange tone to The Husband’s Secret that I just couldn’t reconcile with the subject matter.

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Liane Moriarty

 

While the characters, although very obvious types, are well-fleshed out and believable, often their actions and motivations aren’t. If Tess is so distraught at her husband’s infidelity, why does she begin an affair only a matter of days later? Emotional reactions appear to serve plot more than character and while that is not always a bad thing, it makes some of the decisions made seem completely unbelievable.

The tone of the book is one of flippancy and amusement and at times I found it very distracting. There is some incredibly serious subject matter here and while I don’t say that the tone has to be sombre all the time, the jokey nature of the writing at times seemed incongruous. Cecilia’s reaction to her husband’s secret – which is a pretty big, pretty damn serious secret – is bemusing. What she finds out changes her entire life and affects that of her daughters, yet the jokes continue to come thick and fast. She mulls over what she should do, when in reality, she would not have a choice.

Yesterday she’d thrown up in the gutter and cried in the pantry, but this morning she’d got up at six am and made two lasagnes to go into the freezer ready for Easter Sunday, and ironed a basket of clothes and sent three emails enquiring about tennis lessons for Polly and answered fourteen emails about various school maters, and put in her Tupperware order from the party the other night, and got a load of laundry on the line, all before John-Paul and the girls were out of bed. She was back on her skates, twirling expertly about the slippery surface of her life

The book seems to be asking questions about guilt and punishment. How do we recognise bad behaviour on any number of levels – from self-indulgence to adultery, rudeness to murder – and how should that behaviour be fittingly punished? Is a lifetime of guilt a justifiable penance for a crime, or is an admission of wrong-doing a mercy in itself? For me however, the answers Moriarty gives seem a little trite.

Moriarty appears to have a great insight into the minds of self-indulgent, depressed middle-aged characters. The dialogue and dynamics between them are snappy and entertaining and the internal monologues particularly capture the random thoughts and feelings we have about others but would never say out loud.

The Husband’s Secret is an easy read. It barrels along in an entertaining fashion and I read it in a day or two. From looking at reviews and reaction on Goodreads, I know I am in the minority by not particularly liking it. Once the titular secret was revealed, the book started to lose me but it was the ill-conceived Epilogue that I found particularly maddening. Why would you create a series of ‘what ifs’ that make the main plot twist of the book a complete irrelevance? Those last few pages dissipated any good will I had towards The Husband’s Secret and that is a shame.

The Husband’s Secret has been, inevitably, optioned for adaptation and I can imagine it will work, if done in the same vein as Big Little Lies. As a novel though, I found it disappointing.

Read on: Kindle

Number read: 157

Number Remaining: 589

No 591 The Bat by Jo Nesbo

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I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo and his dark, troubled creation Harry Hole. Nesbo has just published The Thirst, his eleventh in the Harry Hole series. I’ve read almost all the books, but thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Bat, the first Harry Hole novel written in 1997 but only published in the UK in 2012.

Following an accident that killed a colleague, the guilt-ridden and recovering alcoholic Harry Hole is sent to Australia to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, an ex-children’s TV presenter in Norway, who has been living and working in a Sydney bar. Despite being sent as an observer, Harry being Harry, is soon sucked into the case which appears to be the work of a serial killer, targeting fair haired women.

The Bat is an accomplished enough novel, but lacks some of the skills which make Nesbo’s later works like The Redbreast or The Snowman so successful. The setting will seem strange to Nesbo fans, used to encountering Harry in his Oslo milieu. The cold and snow of the Norwegian landscape is replaced with the heat and bars of Sydney. On his arrival in Australia, Harry is assigned to work with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal ex-boxer who is a well-written and intriguing character. However Nesbo uses Andrew as a voice for the way the Aboriginal people have been treated and the political struggles they face in general society. These passages are often superfluous and feel shoe-horned in to make a wider point about the debt owed by Australia’s collective guilt.

As you would expect from Nesbo, the book is well-plotted, but lacks the page-turning pacing of his later books. The story takes a while to really hit its stride but when the investigation becomes a catalyst for the resurgence of Harry’s demons it becomes more involving. In fact, Harry and those demons is probably the best reason for delving in to The Bat at all.

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Throughout the series, what happened in Australia and what brought Harry there in the first place, has often been alluded to. Harry’s tortured nature, his alcoholism and his disdain for authority all have their roots in this story and it is interesting to explore the pivotal experience that made Harry the character that regular readers of the books have come to love.

It is also interesting to see the work of a younger Nesbo. While not as tightly paced or plotted as the later novels, there is no sense of an author finding his feet. His trademark over the top violence is here, along with casual music references and a thrilling denouement that more regular readers will have come to expect.

If you’ve never read the Harry Hole series before, this is now the key place to start; yet, if you’ve read the rest of the series, The Bat will fill in enough detail in Harry’s backstory to be necessary in its own right.

Nesbo’s second book in the series Cockroaches has since been published, so the Harry Hole saga is now complete!

Are there any other Harry Hole fans out there?

 

Read on: Book

Number Read: 156

Number Remaining: 590

No 592 The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

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‘Do you hear? That is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours too.’

I have wanted to take part in one of Simon and Karen’s year events for quite a while, so when I saw that the 1951 club was coming up I had a good rummage through my books and (assisted by Wikipedia!) found I had two possibilities for books published in 1951, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier and The Grass Harp by Truman Capote.

I haven’t reviewed any Capote on the blog before and I am a fan of In Cold Blood and Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp then, was a lovely surprise – a sweet, amusing and heart-warming tale of friendship, family and finding your place in the world. The Grass Harp ultimately reminded me, at the end of the day, of what a bloody god writer Capote was and how his personality and legend can sometimes overshadow the beauty of his prose.

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Based loosely on Capote’s early life, The Grass Harp is narrated by Collin, who is looking back on his childhood. Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, Dolly and Verena. Verena is the formidable matriarch of the family, a shrewd business woman who is stern and controlling. Dolly, on the other hand, is a warm homebody, looking after Verena, taking Collin under her wind and making her dropsy cure that she sells via the postal system.  Dolly is a dreamer, living in her bright pink bedroom and never straying far from the homely kitchen where she spends her time with Collin and her toothless friend Catherine.

If some wizard would like to make me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary bakery spells

Residents in the town refer to Dolly as being ‘gone’ in the head, a charge sometimes laid against Collin too. It is an unusual household for a young boy on the cusp of manhood, but the situation becomes more unusual when Verena tries to commercialise Dolly’s dropsy cure by purchasing a factory with the help of the mysterious Morris. Dolly is having none of it and together with Catherine and Collin they run away and take up residence in a tree-house. While there, they are joined by a rebellious teen Riley and a widowed and retired Judge, Charlie Cool.

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Image: Shuterstock

 

To say anymore would be to spoil the story, but what follows is a comic yet emotional parable of what you need to do to find your place in the world. Dolly, considered to be slow, ‘possibly insane’ by her townsfolk, Collin, the orphan and Catherine, the crazy black woman are all outcasts in their own way, outsiders who yearn for acceptance and belonging.

As they pass cosy but fraught hours in their treehouse, they find allies in Riley and Judge Cool and that acceptance turns to friendship and even love.

It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except, we know there is, somewhere: and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.

They briefly and sweetly find their place and their freedom and this one, ridiculous, headstrong action opens up a world of possibility to these characters, reminding them that they can still make decisions that matter, they can still take responsibility for their own lives.

“Is it true, Charlie” Dolly asked, as a child might ask where do falling stars fall? and: “Have we had our lives?”

The Grass Harp is filled with some lovely writing, descriptive yet simple, with not a word wasted.

Wind surprised, pealed the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose

Capote, always so good at characterisation, excels here, with every character leaping off the page. Even background characters, such as a local bakery owner, or the girl that Collin is in love with are fully realised, creating a world that hums and glows with a warm, nostalgic light. For the most part, Capote eschews the conventions of Southern fiction and by doing so creates a timeless, vivid novella that reminds us that

Love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 155

Number Remaining: 591

The Books That Built the Blogger with Liz Dexter

Happy Easter Monday to everyone!

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Today on The Books that Built the Blogger, I am delighted to welcome Liz Dexter who blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

I love Liz’s blog – she reads books that I am often not the most familiar with and gives me ideas to look in different corners of my TBR for what to read next! For The Books That Built the Bloggers, Liz has chosen to intersperse her choices with a mention of her Enduring Reading Pleasures, which gives her books a great context within her reading and her life.

My name’s Liz Dexter and I’m a book blogger at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com . In my day job, I’m an editor and transcriber, and a writer (under my maiden name, Liz Broomfield) and I’m also a happy runner.

Anyone who knows me will think that I’m going to start this off with PONY BOOKS. But while I love pony books, and they have proved an enduring pleasure, they have not made me think differently about my reading and my world. With Cathy and the kind readers’ permission, I will intersperse these choices with five Enduring Pleasures that have run in threads through my life and reading, entered in the order in which they came, between the shocks and new discoveries that perhaps set me on new paths.

So, Enduring Pleasure 1 has to be pony books and children’s classics. We’re talking Nesbit, Hodgson Burnett, all those lovely old books, but mainly pony books – the Pullein-Thompson books, the Jill series … I was so happy when Jane Smiley started a pony book series, and Victoria Eveleigh’s modern pony stories have continued to enthral.

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But the first book I read that made me THINK was J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit. I was a precocious child, very intelligent, able to read before I went to school and devouring everything in the school and village libraries. Then, when I was 7, a misguided (or were they?) teacher gave me The Hobbit to read. Yes, it was within my reading comprehension. But it was HARD. I didn’t understand the motives, the epic nature, good and evil. I was getting a bit lazy, coasting, being proud of having read all the Readers. This gave me pause. Books can be Hard, and sometimes you have to grow up a bit before you can appreciate them. Good lesson.

I read both Toeckey Jones – Go Well, Stay Well, about the friendship between a black and a white girl in apartheid-era South Africa (this was in the 1980s) and another, now lost, book about a Danish boy in WWII, trying to work to resist the Nazis, from the Teen section of the village library in my early teens. With the emotional maturity developing to understand these books, they brought home to me very clearly social injustice and war and their effects. Living in an affluent, monocultural village, this was the first time I really realised about others’ experiences in this way.

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We had all of Enduring Pleasure 2 – Georgette Heyer’s novels in the school and village libraries and I devoured them with that love of a long series maybe only an early teen reader truly has (I worked my way through Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and the other historicals and (really?) Ian Fleming at the same time). I’ve always come back to Heyer for a comfort read.

This is an important one, because it introduces the Person Who Supplied the Books that made the Blogger. Mary was a beacon of socialist, feminist, home-made ice cream-making, soup making wonderfulness in the village. She acted as a kind of naughty extra grandma or fairy godmother to the girls in the village in particular, teaching us to knit and make jam and to read and explore and question. It was she who introduced me to Iris Murdoch, and one of her early books I read was A Severed Head. What a sheltered 14-year-old got out of this tale of incest and psychoanalysis, who knows, but I felt terribly sophisticated having read it, and it started off a lasting love of the author. I bought all her books that were out, the next ones as they came out, I read her oeuvre every decade or so, and I have done an academic study on her and ordinary readers.

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Mary, with her “you can read anything from my bookshelves” policy, also introduced to me to so many more Enduring Pleasures 3 – Virago books, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, great writers and imprints that have been woven through my life since. Nothing couldn’t be borrowed, and you could talk or ask about anything. Thank you, Mary. I try to be a Mary in other younger people’s lives now.

Fast forward to my life in London. One important point here is that I started keeping a reading diary in 1997, something I still keep today even though I blog online (which I started doing in August 2005). I lived in New Cross, on my own for much of the time, and got the Routemaster 36 bus round to Lewisham every weekend to change my library books. Lewisham being a very diverse borough, the library had a wonderful selection, and it was here that I devoured so many books, fiction and non-fiction, about other, different lives – LGBQT lives, lives of colour. Paul Magrs – Does it Show? represents these – what a revelation to read magical realism about people living on a council estate in the North-East, people so different to me but written about so warmly.

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A contrast to all this otherness was found in Enduring Pleasure 4 – Persephone books. The publisher started up while I lived in London, and while the books are mainly about white, middle-class people in the middle of the 20th century, they are varied, tell lost stories and are very valuable and marvellous, and predictably good. I love reading these and discussing them with blogging friends.

I kind of carried on with these reads and, of course, my not-very-mentioned love of biography, travel writing, sports writing … I also started to take part in reading challenges – first making my friends read all of Iris Murdoch, then working my way through Elizabeth Taylor, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf … I was picking up new books by old authors, and somehow through the world of my blogging friends I realised I would probably like Anthony Trollope. Starting with The Warden, I found I very much did, and I’m slowly working my way through his series, with Mrs Oliphant to come. I know I have blogging friends who are also reading him, and that sense of community is lovely.

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Just before I introduced myself to Trollope, I was made to realise by my friend Bridget that while I had loved George Eliot’s Middlemarch for years and read it several times, I actually had the Enduring Pleasure 5 of The Rest of George Eliot to enjoy, too! I have been working my way through her novels ever since, loving all of them and looking forward as I go to re-reading them in time.

Many thanks to Liz for sharing her choices, I love the idea of Enduring Pleasures as a way to follow a path through your reading life! A wonderful way to approach the challenge. Plus, I don’t know about anyone else, but I really want that copy of The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. What an amazing cover!