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It’s a Dog’s Life!

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Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

5 russian dogs

The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….

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“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

A Welcome Return

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Third Voice by Cilla & Rolf Borjlind

One of my bookish pleasures last year was the discovery of a new series of Scandi-crime books by Cilla & Rolf Borjlind, a husband and wife team responsible for many TV adaptations of the Martin Beck and Wallander stories. The first book of their own, “Spring Tide”, was a huge hit , is being adapted for TV, and very excitingly has been chosen as a World Book Night title. As a fan of ensemble-cast crime, I was really pleased to hear the next book in the series “Third Voice” was due out, and publishers Hesperus have been kind enough to provide a review copy.

third voice

Following on from the revelations at the end of the first book, main character Olivia Ronning has been taking some time out to recover from events. Having completed her police training, she’s no longer sure she wants to make a career of this and seems to be at some kind of crossroads. The other main protagonist from “Spring Tide”, ex-policeman Tom Stilton, is also making some readjustments after spending many years living rough; trying to clean up his act and get back to normal, he also seems to be searching for some kind of closure. They have no wish to make any kind of contact, but events seem to be conspiring against them. Firstly, a neighbour is found hanged and although it’s initially thought that he’s committed suicide, Olivia is not so sure. She knows his young daughter, having spent time babysitting for her when she was small, and things don’t add up. The neighbour was investigating a case of corruption and it soon becomes clear that this is more than a straightforward suicide..

Meanwhile, an old ally of Tom’s from the first book, Abbas, drags him off to Marseilles where a woman, Samira, has been killed. Seemingly two completely unrelated events, it soon becomes clear that the cases will intersect in a very unexpected way…

cill and rolf

It was a real joy coming back to these characters again, having got to know them again in the first book. I’m not going to say too much about the plot because I’d hate to spoil all the twists and turns, but suffice to say it’s very cleverly done, very gripping, with all the strands being brought together at the end – and I didn’t guess the twists, either! It’s hard to discuss crime fiction without spoilers, and you *definitely* need to read the first book first, as there’s a strong continuation of plot and character from it to this one. There *is* graphic violence (it seems to be a given with Scandi-crime) so I let my eyes slide over those bits, but the characterisation is wonderful and that’s the strength of these books, together with the wonderful plotting.

If you’re a fan of Scandi-crime, or if you liked the first book as much as I did, this is an essential read for you. I loved renewing my acquaintance with Olivia, Tom and all their associates and I’m very glad the Bjorlinds are planning another book!

Recent Reads – The Obelisk by E.M. Forster

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It’s a Hesperus! It’s E.M. Forster! It’s in lovely condition and only £1.50! Those were the thoughts that ran through my head when I picked this up in the Samaritans Book Cave, and as I seem to be stuck in “flinging myself into a book” mode, I did so with this! I should confess up front that although I have much Forster on Mount TBR, I’ve actually read very little – to be precise, two short stories which I reviewed here. However, these stories are somewhat different – they were only collected and published after Forster’s death, and the reason for this is that the subject matter or subtext in them is essentially “the love that dare not speak its name”. We now of course know that E.M. Forster was gay, but during his lifetime it was impossible because of the prevailing mores for him to be open about this – which is not only a personal tragedy, but a literary one because this rather excellent collection really shouldn’t have languished out of print for such a long time.

The-Obelisk-Modern-Voices
It’s hard to review short stories, I find – do you cover each on in detail, pick out your favourites or try to give a general impression of the collection? Certainly, there is a common subtext in these pieces, that of repressed sexuality (whether male or female) and also much implied criticism of the current social mores and the general Colonial attitudes displayed. However, each of these little gems is wonderful in its own right. The title story, in particular, was possibly my favourite; it tells the tale of Hilda and Ernest, an ordinary, bickering couple out at the coast. Neither of them seem particularly happy, until a chance encounter with two very different sailors affects the couple’s relationship very unexpectedly…. This is a quite wonderfully clever piece of writing with a kicker twist at the end – I shall say no more!

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Some of the stories are a darker, however. “The Life to Come”, in which a missionary influences and changes a ‘primitive’ civilisation has much to say about the impact of so-called progress on a people who are quite happy the way they are. “Dr. Woolacott” and “The Classical Annex” blur the lines between reality and dreams. “The Other Boat” and “Arthur Snatchfold” deal with the social consequences of sexual transgression. And all feature Forster’s wonderful prose.

“The visit, like the view, threatened monotony. Dinner had been dull. His own spruce grey head, gleaming in the mirrors, really seemed the brightest object about. Trevor Donaldson’s head was mangy, Mrs. Donaldson’s combed up into bastions of iron. He did not get unduly fussed at the prospect of boredom. He was a man of experience with plenty of resources and plenty of armour, and a decent human being too.”

This is a really excellent collection of stories: thought-provoking, sad, uplifting, funny and very, very well written. Forster was obviously an incredibly talented writer and we can be glad he produced his masterpieces – but also a little sad that some of his writings had to be suppressed until more enlightened times.

Recent Reads: Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers

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The more books I read, the more highly I come to regard the works of the 20th century. I often find myself wondering if we reached some high point in culture then; despite the upheavals, war and turmoil of that century, the books written during it are some of the best in my view. Many of them are lost and out of print now, and so it’s often on the recommendation of another blogger that I’m pointed to a work I love (the perfect example being “Guard your Daughters” which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book had us all reading).

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However, we’re also in an age where we’re blessed with publishers who will dig lost works out of obscurity and rescue them for the modern age – Hesperus Press being a case in point, and they’ve just brought out a beautiful new edition  of one such book, “Love Insurance”. The author, Earl Derr Biggers, is best known for creating that classic fictional detective, Charlie Chan, and I should confess up front I’ve never read any of the Chan stories. But on the evidence of this book, I certainly think I should!

First a word about the author from Wikipedia:  “Earl Derr Biggers (August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933) was an American novelist and playwright.He is remembered primarily for his novels, especially those featuring the fictional Chinese American detective Charlie Chan, from which popular films were made in the United States and China. He was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University in 1907. He worked as a journalist for The Plain Dealer before turning to fiction. Many of his plays and novels were made into movies. He was posthumously inducted into the Warren City Schools Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.” So he died quite young, but left behind him a lasting body of work!

LI was published in 1914 and opens with a nervous English peer, Lord Harrowby, approaching the US branch of Lloyds of London to put to them a strange proposition. The impecunious peer is due to marry a beautiful heiress, Cynthia Meyrick, in less than a fortnight’s time, and he wants to insure against Cynthia’s changing her mind. Initially he’s scoffed at, but then one of the underwriters agrees to take up the challenge – on condition that one of the firm’s young men, Richard Minot, is sent along to make sure the marriage goes ahead. His Lordship and Minot decamp to San Marco in Florida, where the wedding is to take place, and then the fun begins…. Let’s just say the book is populated with thieves, blackmailers, impecunious newspaper men, crooked newspaper men, missing brothers, heirs apparent, missing necklaces, unrequited love…. well, you get the picture!

And what fun this is! I wasn’t surprised to find that the book had been filmed, once as a silent movie and once starring Abbott and Costello (and probably bearing very little resemblance to the original!) because the book just screams “1930s screwball comedy” and is none the worse for that! I had Minot in my head all the way through as Cary Grant in full “Philadelphia Story” mode, and the book rocketed along from one wonderful episode to another non-stop, barely giving you time to draw breath. The plot was clever, convoluted and very, very funny, and just a pure joy to read.

“No matter how quickly your train has sped through the Carolinas and Georgia, when it crosses the line into Florida a wasting languor overtakes it. Then it hesitates, sighs and creeps across the flat yellow landscape like an aged alligator. Now and again it stops completely in the midst of nothing, as who should say, ‘You came down to see the South, didn’t you? Well, look about you.’ The Palm Beach Special on which Mr Minot rode was no exception to this rule. It entered Florida and a state of innocuous desuetude at one and the same time. After a tremendous struggle, it gasped its way into Jacksonville about nine o’clock of the Monday morning following.  Reluctant as Romeo in his famous exit from Juliet’s boudoir, it got out of Jacksonville an hour later.”

There’s plenty of dry humour and Biggers is happy to have a little pop at more ‘literary’ writers:

“At ten o’clock that Saturday morning Lord Harrowby was engrossed in the ceremony of breakfast in his rooms. For the occasion he wore an orange and purple dressing gown with a floral design no botanist could have sanctioned – the sort of dressing gown that Arnold Bennett, had he seen it, would have made into a leading character in a novel.”

or

“One of the strangers was short, with flaming red hair and in his eye the twinkle without which the collected works of Bernard Shaw are as sounding brass.”

Oddly enough, I found myself thinking it was perhaps an American-style “Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day” – not quite in content, but more in the feel-good factor. The blurb describes the book as a “zany romantic comedy” which pretty much sums it up! The characters might be a tad stereotypical and the action a little unbelievable, but this is a fun fantasy adventure so that doesn’t matter.

earl derr biggers
Needless to say I loved this book to bits. If you like screwball comedies, snappy and humorous dialogue, glamorous settings and madcap adventure this is definitely the book for you – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers, Hesperus Press – for which many thanks!)

Weekend Fun …. plus the odd new book or three….

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This most recent weekend was a lovely one for lots of different reasons! Firstly, I went down to London to visit family as my Little Bro got me tickets to see the Manic Street Preachers (one of my fave bands) for my last birthday. Turns out they were supported by Scritti Politti, another favourite, so it was a two-for-one treat! I could rant on for hours about how wonderful the gig was (I hadn’t been to a Manics show since I saw them at the same venue – Brixton Academy – in 2001) – suffice to say they were mega, and I can’t wait for the new album!

Scritti were a joy, too – I loved them back in the day (late 70s/early 80s) and they’ve returned recently so I was able to see them for the first time. A wonderful long support set with all my faves and also some new songs! It was a grand night, as Wallace might say!

(This was last year, but much the same as Saturday night)

The second lovely thing of the weekend was of course seeing family. My Bro and his wife have three young’uns – a nephew and 2 nieces for me – and were very accommodating putting me up for the night despite being afflicted with various lurgies (including Man Flu for Bro who was not well and still came to the gig with me!) Plus the Aged Parents were down visiting also so it was quite a family reunion – and it’s always nice to see that the APs, despite being a little frail, are still enjoying life.

The RFH in 1951 during the Festival

The RFH in 1951 during the Festival

Further fun was spending a lot of Saturday (and some of Sunday) on the South Bank. I’m inordinately fond of the Royal Festival Hall – perhaps because it’s the only thing surviving from the Festival of Britain, with which I have quite an obsession. I could hang around the RFH for hours (and have done over the years) admiring the lovely 1950s architecture, gazing at the wooden panelling and noting the fact that features like the original engraved glass door handles are still in place.

And finally, of course, there was the odd book or two or three or….. Well, I was quite restrained I thought but still brought home a small pile:

stackI was quite pleased at the smallness of the heap. The two Viragos came from the second-hand book market under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank and were volumes I haven’t come across before.

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The Fantomas book was also from the market – I’d love to see the films of this classic crime story as they starred one of my favourite French actors, Jean Marais.

fantomas

The gorgeous looking NYRB is from Foyles and I confess I was attracted to it by the fact it has Italo Calvino’s name on the front. This is one of the many reasons bookshops are best – browsing in a store will find you treasures like this that you can pick up and discover in a way online shopping will never replicate.

imagist

And finally, an oddity. Opposite the Bloomsbury Oxfam is a little bookshop called Bookmarks that I ventured into for the first time on Saturday. It’s mainly left-wing stuff (and I was very tempted by some little pamphlets on Lenin and Trotsky, but reminded myself I have so many books on them already…) However, tucked into their bargain boxes at the front for £1 was this little Penguin book of Imagist Poetry. The book itself was worth picking up, but tucked inside were some sheets of poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins that someone had once typed out and put in the book for safekeeping. I love finding little hints about previous owners of books – another reason I like to give old books a new home!

So – a lovely weekend, all in all. I revisited the RFH on the way home on Sunday to soak up the South Bank ambience and sample the lovely food stalls at the back of the Hall. My feet were very pleased to get home, though….

BUT (and it is a big but!) – today the results of a bit of online madness a week ago arrived…..

journeys

Since discovering the ridiculous “is-Roth-or-Zweig-the-best-writer” controversy online, I’ve been keen to read more Zweig and this collection of his essays, translated by Will Stone and published by Hesperus Press, sounds ideal.

spectre

And these two lovelies were the result of browsing the Pushkin Press website (Wolf) and giving in to the urge to buy the Transylvanian Trilogy which I’ve been fighting off for ages…

Oh well – for the record, I’m currently reading “Transit” by Anna Seghers and trying to catch up with reviews – I’d better get my skates on really!!

Recent Reads: The Runaways by Elizabeth Goudge

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As I mentioned recently, this book was the winner of the Hesperus Press competition to find a lost children’s classic – and they’ve certainly come up with the goods here! Goudge is often mentioned nowadays as ‘the author who inspired J.K. Rowling’ as apparently her book “The Little White Horse” is Rowling’s favourite. I confess this is the first Goudge I’ve read – but I don’t think it will be the last.

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Wikipedia says: “Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge FRSL (24 April 1900 – 1 April 1984) was an English author of novels, short stories and children’s books as Elizabeth Goudge. She won the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books in 1946 for The Little White Horse.She was a best-selling author in both the UK and the US from the 1930s through the 1970s.”

“The Runaways” was originally published under the title “Linnets and Valerians” and the story focuses on the intertwining lives of those two families. The four Linnet children – Nan, Robert, Timothy and Betsy – are living with their grandmother and her fearsome companion, Miss Bolt, while their father is abroad. Unfortunately, the lively quartet are a little too much for the old people and the story opens with each child locked in a different part of the house, with Absolom the dog howling. Fortunately, Robert is a resourceful boy (every 5 minutes changing his mind about what to be when he grows up!) and soon the children have broken out of the house and are running away. A fortuitous find, in the form of a horse and cart, leads them to the village of High Barton and a rather strict gentleman who owns the conveyance – and just happens to be their Uncle Ambrose, retired teacher and Vicar! Despite professing to hate children, he soon becomes attached to his nieces and nephews, and it is decided that they will stay with him and his general factotum, Ezra (who seems to be able to do just about anything around the house). The Linnets explore the local area, meeting the sad Lady Alicia Valerian, who has lost both husband and son, plus the decidedly unpleasant Emma Cobley, a women with hidden, wicked depths. All seems not quite right in High Barton – as the Linnets venture deeper into the countryside and explore further, will they be able to counteract the local evil, or are they in danger themselves?

“Uncle Ambrose did not have to call for attention, for in a few moments he had them spellbound. He was, they discovered, the most wonderful storyteller. Who would have thought that education was like this? He told them first about the land itself, and he took books down from his shelves and showed them pictures of the glories he had seen, mountains crowned with ruined palaces, statues and temples and shrines beside the sea. And all he described to them they saw with their inside eyes, so that the pictures in the books were scarcely necessary, and the words that he used fell chiming, so that they remembered the sequence of them as one remembers the sequence of the notes in a tune.”

“The Runaways” is *such* a wonderful read! The writing is lovely – readable and intelligent, shot through with humour and also with real threat at times. The characters of the children are all believable and distinct; and Uncle Ambrose is a delight, with his desire to teach them, his foibles and his mad owl Hector! Emma Cobley is a genuinely creepy person, and her evil cat sent a few shivers up my spine too! Because there is a lot more going on in this book than a simple, straightforward children’s narrative…

Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge

The story is in many ways a battle between good and evil, the former represented by the Linnets, the Vicar, Ezra and their friends. They’re up against some real nastiness in Emma Cobley and her cohorts, who seem to have no restraint when it comes to getting what they want. There’s magic in the book, but it’s a kind of subtle, earth-bound magic, rooted in the English landscape and its heritage. The forces of good are guided by the Vicarage bees, who always seem to be there to point the way to safety when needed. This is the type of world where animals and bees and humans are in sympathy and understand each other, and there is tolerance for all. Although good is represented by Christianity (Vicar Ambrose and the church), there is also room for the pagan, in the form of Ezra with his pixie ears and his own kind of magic, and Pan who makes a brief appearance. Goudge is a good enough writer to recognise that these elements existed in Britain before Christianity and are part of the fabric that makes it up.

Goudge’s writing is very compelling, and I found myself drawn into the book and staying up late to finish it. It’s definitely the best sort of writing for young people, multi-layered and surprisingly sophisticated and which doesn’t talk down to them. Truly, this is a book I wish I’d read as a child, as I can see that I would have loved it and returned to it over and over again. As it is, I loved it as an adult and can’t commend the competition judges enough for making it the winner. And from now on I shall always pay attention to what the bees are singing…

2013 – A Year of Reading, and plans for 2014

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And actually, this was my first full calendar year of blogging – I can’t quite believe I’ve been doing this for 18 months now! I did wonder when I started if I would have the impetus to keep going, but I *have* enjoyed very much rambling away here, and sharing my thoughts on books and book-related thingies. Roll on 2014!

In the meantime, a few thoughts on the highlights of 2013. It has been on a personal basis a bit up and down, with various family illnesses and crises, so in many ways books have been what they always have for me, something of a coping mechanism. And I have read some wonderful volumes this year, and interacted with some really lovely people – fellow bloggers, readers, publishers – which has made the blogging journey even more special.

I’ve also learned things about myself as a reader, which is odd after all these years! The main thing I’ve discovered is that I’m absolutely rubbish at challenges! In 2012 I caught up late with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s works, and managed to keep pace. However, this year I only committed myself to one Barbara Pym and one volume of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” a month and even that small challenge has proved impossible: I abandoned the Pyms halfway through the year, and am struggling with the last two volumes of Powell this month! I am definitely a wayward reader, influenced by whims and moods and what’s happening around me bookwise, so the only formal challenge I’m setting myself next year is the LibraryThing Great War Reading Event. This weighs in with a very reasonably one book per two months, and even with a choice of books, so I ought to be able to cope with that! Apart from this, I am really going to try to read as many books as I possible can which are already on my shelves – if for no other reason than to try to clear a few out and stop the house falling down under the weight of books!

So – highlights of 2013? In no particular order:

The Russians – I’ve spent time in the pages of a *lot* of Russians this year, having a particular binge on Dostoevsky. I finally read “The Brother Karamazov” which knocked me out – and I’d like to return to more of his books in the new year, as I do have a shelf full…. I also at last experienced the wonder that is “Anna Karenina”, a long and absorbing read which was just great to sink into. And then there’s Bulgakov – 2014 needs to see a revisit to “The Master and Margarita”!

Beverley Nichols – a recent discovery, and such a wonderful writer. His wit, his passion, his wearing of his emotions on his sleeve, his wonderful writing – in 2013 he became one of my favourites and I have the joy of several volumes waiting on my shelves for next year.

The Hopkins Manuscript – a lovely Persephone volume which I read fairly recently and which was unexpectedly compulsive. My unforeseen hit of the year!

Small presses and independent publishers – some of the best books I’ve come across are from publishers like Hesperus, Persephone and Alma Classics; and I’ve discovered new presses like Michael Walmer and Valancourt. Long live the independents!

Italo Calvino – I continued my reading of one of my favourite writers with a new collection of his essays – and I’m hoping that the volume of his letters will find its way to me soon…

Lost books – there’s nothing I like more than rediscovering an obscure volume and there were two stand-outs for me this year – Andrew Garve’s “Murder in Moscow” and the very wonderful Fred Basnett’s “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”. I came across the Basnett book by chance in a charity shop and it ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year!

Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence – I set myself the challenge at the start of the year to read the 12 books in this series, one a month. I haven’t quite kept to the schedule (though I do hope to finish by the end of December), and I’ve struggled at times – but this has been a really rewarding reading experience, and I’m so glad to have spent time with Nick Jenkins and the fantastic (in all senses of the word) set of characters that Powell peopled his books with!

The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group – one of the most important things of my reading year has been my involvement in this group, surely the nicest and friendliest place on the ‘Net! The Virago group are responsible for introducing me to so many blogs, bloggers, books and authors; we share secret santa, companionship, views on books, recommendations and support each other in the highs and lows of life. I do feel blessed to have been part of the group this year and look forward to another year of reading Viragos (and other books!) alongside them.

So – Plans for 2014?

As I said above, I’ve realised I function best as a reader if I don’t restrict or tie myself down. So there are a small number of books I plan for the Great War Reading Event and here they are:

Not too many when spread out over 12 months and with a commitment to only one every 2 months even I should be able to manage to keep up!

I’ve also decided that in 2014 I’d like to read the Raj Quartet and so I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of picking up the first two volumes in a couple of local charity shops – not bad for £1.75 and £1 each! But I won’t give myself deadlines, I’ve decided – I shall just read them when the mood takes me.

There are also a couple of review books I need to get on to:

Apart from this, I need to take some serious action about Mount TBR. I actually have so many books that I haven’t read that I don’t even have a separate TBR shelf (or two) – if I tried this the books would end up in chaos, so everything is shelved roughly by category/author. The danger in this is not only that I can’t find things, but also that I forget what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, and also forget what I had intended to read next. Therefore, I’d like 2014 to see a process of reading what I already own, then deciding if I want to keep it or not, and perhaps gradually slimming down the shelves a little. If I had an infinite amount of space I wouldn’t worry about it – but I haven’t, so I need to reduce the collection a bit.

I think this is a workable plan and gives me a *lot* of freedom in my reading – after all, whatever whim takes me, I’ll probably have *something* to fit it in my library! So that’s my plan – what’s yours?

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