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A little more library love…

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That heading is a bit of a giveaway, I suppose – yes, it’s time for more pictures of books…. ๐Ÿ™‚ Not that I suppose anybody who drops in at the Ramblings will mind, and I like to keep singing the loud praises of libraries – what would we do without them, I often ask myself.

I picked up a few titles recently, all of which have Very Good Reasons for me borrowing them.

I was bemoaning on a recent post the fact that there was so little available by Bruno Schulz. Then, whilst browsing the library catalogue, I discovered there was a Collected Works, so I of course had to have a look to see if it contained anything I hadn’t read. Well, it weighs a ton and I had to haul it round town with me… However, it has letters and artwork as well as the stories so I shall have a bit of an explore.

As for the Russians – well, Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” is kind of essential for me and Steiner has been getting a lot of love on Melissa and Anthony‘s blogs, so I really needed to have a look. The Tsvetaeva is just so I could see whether any of her Mayakovsky poems have been translated into English. I suspect not, although there *is* a fragment in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry …

Now for some Golden Age crime, courtesy of my BFF J. She’s taken to sending me books (not that I’m complaining – ta muchly!) and these three have arrived so far this year. So kind, and ones I haven’t yet read!

Aren’t they enticing?

And yet *more* GA Crime has arrived in the form of review copies from the lovely British Library in their Crime Classics range. This is another author new to me and I can’t decide which one I want to try first…

Last but not least, I confess I *did* actually pickย  up a couple of books (yes, actually bought them though I’m trying not to…) The little Swiss travel book came from The Works and just sounded fun. The Pasolini was from a charity shop for ยฃ1 so it would have been rude not to. So yes, I’m definitely going to have to abandon sleeping very soon…. =:0

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A Cracking Start to the Year!

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Murder in the Museum by John Rowland

Well, start as you mean to go on, I suppose! (With a winner, that is…) Technically speaking, this book actually belongs to 2017, as I finished on the last day of that year, but I’m still playing catch up with reviewing (and some pieces I’m doing for Shiny New Books) and so here it is… “Murder in the Museum” was one of the gifts OH presented me with at the end of the year, and I was most impressed he found one I hadn’t read and didn’t own – especially as he has no idea where any of my books are shelved in the house… MITM came out in 2016 and is a most apt title for the British Library Crime Classics series, as it’s set in the Reading Room of the British Museum! Rowland is definitely a forgotten author, and this book has been out of print since its initial appearance in 1938; so ripe for rediscovery then!

The book opens with the discovery of a dead professor in the aforementioned Reading Room, and the body is found by one Henry Fairhurst. Henry is a timid bachelor who lives with a battle-axe of a sister, but his meek exterior hides a slightly more steely nature and he’s soon embroiled in the investigation. The enquiry is led by Inspector Shelley (apparently Rowland’s regular sleuth) who isn’t averse to collaborating with Fairhurst – especially as it seems that the latter can often bring more information or a different slant to things.

The plot soon thickens, as it seems that the dead professor, Julius Arnell, was an expert in Elizabethan literature, and wont to become involved in academic disputes on the subject. And oddly some of his colleagues/rivals seem to have met unpleasant fates, leading the detecting duo to speculate on whether the finer points of literary research are the cause of the killings. Events are complicated by financial implications: Arnell appears to be connected to a Texan oil millionaire; there are questions about his will; Arnell’s daughter might inherit, but her fiance is a suspect who has connections to another victim; and there is an impoverished cousin lurking in the background as a rival to Arnell’s daughter regarding any legacy. Dramatic and exciting events lead up to a chase all over the country and a very satisfactory denouement!

MITM turned out to be the perfect read to wind up and year (and also to wind down a bit too!) The setting was wonderful, of course (and as I pass the BM regularly when I visit London and set out to visit the LRB bookshop, I loved the fact I was familiar with the location). Inspector Shelley and his sidekick Cunningham were the perfect GA police pair; however, the introduction of Henry added an extra fun element. It was particularly entertaining to see him constantly surprising Shelley with extra bits of information or unexpected deductions, and it was lovely to see him in at the kill.

Were there any down sides? Well, as Martin Edwards mentioned in his introduction, the question of the portrayal of Jewish people does come up again (as it so often does in murder mysteries from this era), but despite Rowland dealing with his characters in a slightly stereotyped way things are not as clear-cut as they might seem. At one point Shelley refers to a money-lender in disparaging terms but then goes on to say “He’s one of those unpleasant people whom the Fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew. Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.” This is not completely unproblematic, but I guess is better than the usual dismissive attitude that can be taken, and presumably shows an awareness by Rowland, in 1938, of the threat that was looming in Europe. As the author was also a journalist, this perhaps could be expected.

Anyway – “Murder in the Museum” was a fun read from start to finish, with plenty of humour mixed in with the drama and the action, and another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. I liked the setting particularly, and the interactions between Henry and his sister were great fun. On the strength of this book, it’s a shame Rowland has been out of print for so long; fortunately, I do have another one of his titles lurking on the TBR courtesy of OH!

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4ย  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.ย  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whateverย  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. ๐Ÿ™‚

…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. ๐Ÿ™‚

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… ๐Ÿ™‚

The perfect Christmas crime read? @BL_Publishing

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“Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith

The observant amongst you will have noticed the arrival at the Ramblings, earlier in the year, of a rather special book in the British Library Crime Classics series. This was a lovely copy of “Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith, the 50th in the series that BL have released, and they were kind enough to send me a beautifully wrapped copy of the special hardback edition which comes with an essay on Christmas crime fiction by the ever-knowledgeable Martin Edwards. The book is subtitled “A Christmas Crime Story” and it certainly lived up to all the hype, making it the perfect Christmas reading for me!

Meredith was a pseudonym of Lucy Malleson, who wrote a number of novels under the name Anthony Gilbert and was a member of the Detection Club. This novel was very highly regarded by Dorothy L. Sayers, a founder member of that Club, and it’s not hard to see why as it’s a little different from the standard Golden Age mystery fare.

The book begins with the bald statement that Adrian Gray was murdered at Christmas 1931 by a member of his own family – a particularly striking opening paragraph if there ever was one! Following this dramatic start, we are gradually introduced to the members of the extended Gray family, and most of them are a pretty unpleasant bunch. They range from eldest son Richard, obsessed with status and locked into a cold, soulless and childless marriage, through to daughter Olivia married to shady financier Eustace and taking in spinster Amy, crushed Isobel, the nicely normal Ruth and lawyer husband Miles, as well as the prodigal son, artist Hildebrand. They’re a colourful bunch, and Meredith brings them to life wonderfully, gradually introducing them to us and revealing their personalities and their peccadilloes.

This is a difficult book to discuss in detail without spoiling the plot and the wonderful surprises the author springs on the reader; because, actually, we soon know who the murderer is, and so the joy of the book is much like one of those old TV episodes of “Columbo” – you know all along whodunnit, why they did it and how they did it, but you have no idea if and when they’ll be caught. Controversially, Meredith has a detective, Ross Murray, who has a bit of a past of his own but who plays a minimal part in the story; because what we have here, really, is a study of personalities, of family dynamics, and it’s absolutely gripping.

For the most part, the Grays are a nasty bunch. As we find out, old Adrian was a tyrant with a nasty past (all is revealed eventually!) and his children are pretty warped too. Richard is completely obsessed by status and a wish for a title, and everything in his life is subsumed to this. He does have his own passions, however, and they are causing him particular financial issues. Son-in-law Eustace is a very shady character, involved in dodgy financial dealings which threaten to ruin him, his father-in-law, and a lot of other people too. Poor Isobel has suffered a bad marriage and loss of a child, and is in effect a broken woman. However, Ruth has managed to escape from this madness and has a nice, normal family life with her husband and the pair are definitely the most balanced of the Gray clan. (Hilde)Brand is the artist of the family, a real black sheep who has made a disastrous marriage, fathered several children and squanders his talents trying to eke out a living. Frankly, most of the family have a motive for murder, and you do wonder about the sanity of Adrian Gray in having them around him at Christmas time…

Meredith does marvels with her material here, gradually revealing a little more about the family and their background and circumstances, allowing you to watch the processes taking place in the murderer’s mind, following the developments as the police investigate and an arrest is made, and leading you on to a conclusion that perhaps in retrospect was inevitable but is nevertheless very, very satisfying. Her characters are not afraid to discuss the deeper meanings of life, the need to get out and live rather than scrabble around after superficialities, and it’s clear that the author feels strongly that you should go where your talents take you and grasp every chance that comes your way. And SPOILER ALERT the title of the book has a double meaning which becomes very significant when you reach the end of the book – more than that I cannot say.

Have you ever thought, Brand, how many things there are in life, and how terribly few we manage to keep? They all go slipping past, and we’re left in the midst of plenty with nothing in our hands.

I found “Portrait of a Murder” an absolutely gripping read, and definitely worthy of the status of 50th BLCC! It digs deeper than many a GA crime novel, really getting into the psychology and motivation of its characters. I became very fond of old Adrian’s victims and glad that the nastier characters got some kind of comeuppance. As for the murderer – well, their motivation is understandable, there is quite a lot of sympathy for them, and yet the final resolution is the best one possible. I don’t want to be any more specific for fear of spoiling things!

Were there any downsides? Well, the portrait of Eustace Moore was sullied for me by relying on a stereotypical version of a financier of Jewish background, which was very uncomfortable in places. It’s a stereotype that we should have moved on from by now and I wasn’t happy reading this in a book published in the 1930s, but I usually try to put stuff like this in a box and make allowances for the context of the times. I also thought that the character of Brand’s wife, a filthy slattern who slept around whenever she wanted, was a little melodramatic and unreasonable, but maybe that’s my feminist sensibilities coming into play (and there is a reason for her behaviour needing to be so bad, which I won’t go into…)

However, despite these minor caveats, this book was a real winner for me. The British Library Crime Classics imprint has brough real reading joys over the years, and they tend to vary from lighter works that a reader enjoys and then moves on from, to more substantial works that perhaps stretch and challenge the genre a bit more, and definitely stay with you. “Portrait of a Murderer” definitely falls into the latter camp; it’s one of the strongest entries in the series, a real joy and a treat to read, and a book that leaves you musing on what you want to do with your life and whether it’s too late to make some changes! A wonderful treat for the GA crime lover and the ideal Christmas read! ๐Ÿ™‚

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

Glorious Golden Age Crime – with a twist! @BL_Publishing

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Foreign Bodies (edited by Martin Edwards)

Since their launch, the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of pure joy: beautifully produced editions of lost Golden Age mysteries with stunning covers, they’ve been a massive hit with bloggers and general readers alike (and I’m very attached to those which have made their way onto my bookshelves…) However, a new collection of short stories is taking the series a little bit outside of its remit by presenting 15 Golden Age works with a difference – they’re all translated from a variety of languages!

Of course, despite the current media hoo-ha about Scandicrime and the like, translated crime fiction is nothing new – for example, the book often regarded as the original ‘locked-room’ puzzle, “The Mystery of the Yellow Room” by Gaston Leroux was not written in English! I know when I discovered GA crime in the 1980s that authors like Emile Gaboriau and Maurice Leblanc were ones that were recommended, but very hard to find. However, many of the translated stories available were from European authors, but this collection goes way farther in exploring the world of crime shorts in other languages.

This collection has been brought together by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, responsible for the BLCC editions as a whole and it seems to have been something of a labour of love. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that GA crime is cosy, English and set in little villages with stereotyped characters, but this book really goes out on a limb and is a triumph.

Each story comes with a short introduction by Edwards giving a little background context plus details of translator where this is known. A few have appeared in seminal (and long out of print) anthologies collected by Hugh Greene, whereas several are translated for the first time giving us a rare and welcome glimpse into work from as far afield as Japan, India, Denmark, the Netherlands and Mexico.

Like all of the best BLCCs this books was completely unputdownable! I can read GA crime at any time of year, but it goes down particularly well on dark, wet and windy autumn nights and there were plenty of those while I was reading the book and staying up far too late, telling myself I would enjoy just one more story before bed… All are inventive and all are marvellous reads.

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair in such a varied collection) to pick favourites, but there were a couple which really stood out for me and had me gripped. “The Spider” by Koga Saburo was a chilling tale of a devious murder in a rather unusual laboratory; and “The Cold Night’s Clearing” by Keikichi Osaki was a beautifully written, atmospheric piece which vividly brought to life the setting and events. Others were tongue in cheek, like “The Mystery of the Green Room” by Pierre Very which channels Leroux’s seminal story and gives it a very humourous twist. Many of these works, of course, draw on the Holmes/Watson template (as do UK tales of the same era) and there’s no shame in that at all – the format works so well, why change it??

So yet another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint – they really are going from strength to strength. And happily, I have another two lovely books from them on the TBR pile – what a treat! ๐Ÿ™‚

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – for which many thanks!ย 

Mysterious Happenings on the South Downs

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The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

The British Library Crime Classics series tends to get a lot of love on the blogs I visit – as well as on my own, as you’ll note from my many posts on them – and one particular title that’s been turning up lately is “The Hog’s Back Mystery”. Fortunately, I had a copy lurking, picked up at some point in a charity shop, and I must admit the thought of another relaxing mystery was just what I needed on my return to work after the summer break.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name new to me; back in the 1980s when I first had my Golden Age crime splurge and read more books by classic authors than I can remember, he was one of those whose works I tracked down. His Inspector French stories were hugely popular when they came out, and were still highly regarded among aficionados when I was reading him, so I wasn’t sure why his titles had slipped out of sight – and as I couldn’t remember anything about the Crofts titles I’d read I came to this completely fresh!

The book is set in the Surrey countryside, an area apparently well known to Crofts, and it deals with a sequence of mysterious disappearances. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a comfortable country house, with no apparent worries. Julia’s sister and an older friend are visiting when Dr Earle suddenly vanishes from his house, in his carpet slippers and taking nothing with him. There is no evidence of foul play and no explanation, and the police are baffled. Fortunately, the local men are able to call in Inspector French, who proceeds along his methodical way, asking questions, looking for clues and always making sure he gets his breakfast! Earle has been seen up in ‘Town’ with an unknown woman who, when eventually identified, proves to have also disappeared. Was there a romantic connection, as it seems the Earle marriage was perhaps developing cracks? However, when one of the house guests also vanishes, the plot really thickens. The motive for the disappearances is unclear, there are no bodies, anybody who might be suspicious has an alibi; and it will take all of French’s brain-bashing to get to the solution.

Well, I can see why “The Hog’s Back Mystery” has received so much praise: it’s an excellently constructed puzzle, full of twists and turns, and eminently readable. French himself falls into the category of detectives who succeed by sheer graft (much like John Bude’s Meredith who I wrote about recently). There is no flashy detecting, no dramatic set-piece denouement and no Holmes-like disguises and chicanery. Instead, French follows up every little clue, interviews people over and over again, as well as doing a remarkable amount of leg-work. However, he still manages to have those lightbulb moments (which surely every human being gets) when all of the pieces slot into place and it only takes a bit of research and careful checking to prove a theory.

Hog’s Back on the South Downs

Crofts as an author plays fair with the reader, so much so that when we reach the chapter with the solution, each deduction or fact has a page reference so that the reader can pop back and check this. I would think this is perhaps guaranteed to disgruntle the reader a little, as it kind of says that if they had been as astute as French they would have solved the mystery too – and I confess I didn’t! ๐Ÿ™‚ I *did* work out something about a guilty party before it was revealed, but the intricacies of the alibis etc were beyond me, despite the clues – which isn’t a problem, as I *do* like to be fooled by a murder mystery!

So, yet another satisfying read from the British Library Crime Classics series. A couple of the early titles I read seemed perhaps a little lightweight but I must admit that the recent books I’ve read have been excellent examples of the genre. And of course, they’re perfect relaxing reading when your brain is a bit frazzled and you want to watch someone else doing all the hard work for you…. ๐Ÿ™‚

*****

“Hog’s Back…” has also been loved and reviewed by BookerTalk and HeavenAli, and so you might want to pop over and have a look at their posts.

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