Archive for March, 2012

Library Lust

I’ve got another book-lined hallway for you today, this time with a rolling ladder.  I am a relatively responsible adult but even I can’t help looking at that ladder and that nice, smooth stretch of hallway and wondering how fun it would be to roll down…I blame the bookshop scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for this particular fantasy:

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Last week, I bought an e-reader.

I’ll give you all a moment to process this shocking statement.

Yes, I am now the proud owner of a Kobo Touch and, what’s more, I love it.  This means I must now recant all of my statements over the years about how I could never use an e-reader, how they are evil, etc.  Like most people, I hate admitting I was wrong.  But I was.

I had been thinking seriously (but quietly) about getting an e-reader for some time.  My brother’s girlfriend and her family all have Kindles and all adore them.  But I think their enthusiasm also scared me a little and I got very defensive about the superiority of print books whenever conversations turned to how great e-readers are.  I love print books, you all know that, and for a long time I felt threatened by e-books on their behalf, refusing to see that both formats could exist in harmony, complimenting rather than competing with one another.  Once I made my peace with that, and it took a while, the decision was easy.

For me, the main appeal of the e-reader is the access it gives me to out-of-print or hard to obtain titles.  There are so many free e-books available by authors I adore: for instance, Girlebooks, which offers an excellent selection of nicely formatted (mostly free) e-books by female authors, has ten of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels available, including the suitably obscure The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight and In the Mountains.  I love von Arnim but her books can be difficult to track down.  Yes, you can obtain reprints of these titles (generally with hideously dull, un-illustrated covers) but is it worth the cost?  I don’t like buying books I haven’t read  and if an e-reader costs around $150 and a physical book costs $15 but an electronic version can be obtained for free and there are literally dozens of titles where this is the case…well, the math isn’t difficult.

I had also been noticing how often e-books came up when I ran searches in the library catalogue.  In some cases, the library would have the e-book but not a hard copy.  What a singularly frustrating feeling that is.  But it did make me realise that getting an e-reader wouldn’t have to be a hugely expensive undertaking, not with all these recent titles available on loan and all the older books out of copyright protection.

And, of course, there was the allure of having something so small and light when I travel.  It was excruciating trying to pick only three or four books to accompany me on my trip to Europe last September, trying to find ones that would see me through almost three weeks but not be too heavy for my bag.  I can’t tell you how fantastic it is to know that I won’t have that problem this year when I go, that I can bring as many e-books as I want and not have to worry about finding the space or weight allowance to fit them in my luggage.  I hate flying but I’m almost eager for my next trip, for the novelty of having just this in my carry-on or purse instead of the many paperbacks that usually weigh me down (I always seem to take as many books for a three day trip as for a three week one).

All of these thoughts have been whirling around my head for some time, but it wasn’t until early last week that I actually started seriously contemplating buying an e-reader for myself.  My parents had been talking about getting one and, as usual, I was put onto technical research duty with the instructions to brief them with my findings and make a recommendation.  I spent a lot of time researching and I read a lot of different reviews but, for me, it became clear quite quickly that what I wanted was the Kobo Touch.  The Kindle and the Nook are both praised to the skies but Kindles don’t let you access library books in Canada and Nooks are difficult to obtain and support outside of the U.S.  The Kobo, on the other hand, is Canadian and it is easy to go play with one at any Chapters/Indigo store to get a feel for how they perform.  I wasn’t looking for bells and whistles; I knew I wanted an e-ink reader, I knew I wanted a touchscreen, and, most importantly, I knew I wanted something I could read library books on.  The Kobo Touch offers all of that at a reasonable price and came with Very Good to Excellent ratings from techies.  So I passed my research on to my parents (who are still mulling over their options) and promptly went out a bought the Kobo for myself.

It has been a week since I bought it and, I have to say, I’m shocked by how much I love it.  I’ve read three books on it now – no surprise that the first was The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight – and was surprised by how quickly I got used to it.  For me, the biggest difference is the small ‘page’: I’m just not used to tiny pages and this is only 6 inches.  But the reading experience is remarkably similar to reading off the page, thanks to the e-ink display.  I love having the ability to change the font size as well as the type face itself.  I also find the annotation feature, allowing me to highlight quotes, incredibly useful when it comes to keeping track of what I want to include in my review.  I think if I were using the Kobo alone, without a case, I might find it a bit difficult and insubstantial to hold but my case (a stunning hot pink with a cover that folds right back and can be secured with an elastic) gives it enough dimension that I can hold it comfortably one-handed for long periods of time – without it, it’s almost too slim and I have to fold my hand in a very awkward way to support it.  It is perfect for reading in bed, both because it weighs so little and because it means I no longer have to do an awkward twist to catch the light every time I switch from the left page to the right, needing only to make sure the light is cast on the display screen (actually, that’s probably just an argument for me getting a better, stronger lamp).  I haven’t even turned the wireless on but I don’t really see any reason to.  From what I can tell, the main reason to do that would be to purchase books from the store but I really have no intentions of buying any e-books, not when there are so many free ones available from the library and other sources.  If I’m going to spend money on books, it will be on paper ones.

I’ve had a very fun week playing around with my new toy, getting comfortable reading on it and getting to know its features, and I’ve been having a great time looking about for books to load onto it.  I’ve got pretty much the entire Girlebooks catalogue on there, as well as a number of Anthony Trollope titles and a couple of O. Douglas books.  I’m also enjoying going through the library catalogue (which allows you to search by publisher, always a favourite feature!) and seeing all the wonderful things available there.  I have to admit that the novelty of my Kobo has kept me away from my physical books this week but that was just a temporary aberration – and an enjoyable one at that.  This will never replace paper books for me but, by giving me easy access to a host of titles that might otherwise be difficult to track down and by providing a travel-friendly reading format, it does complement them very nicely.

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When I read Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton back at the beginning of February, I didn’t so much read as devour it.  Persephone seems to have a genius for publishing ‘unputdownable’ books and, as with The Home-Maker, Little Boy Lost, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, and The Shuttle, once I picked this up there was no way I was going to put it down until I had read the final page.  This was my first encounter with Crompton and my goodness but could she write an absorbing story.

Family Roundabout revolves around the Fowler and Willoughby families.  Both families are headed by a widowed matriarch, each the mother of five children, each with a very different approach to parenting.  Mrs Willoughby dispenses orders like a general, while Mrs Fowler generally allows her offspring to fumble along with very little interference from her.  Over the course of almost twenty years, from 1920 to 1939, the novel tracks the fates of these women and their children as they struggle with relationships, both romantic and familial.

Mrs Willoughby is my hero.  That is perhaps not what Crompton intended the reader to think but I adored her from the first page and hope desperately to be her when I grow up and have relations to boss about.  She is magnificently confident and has total authority over all her children (much to her sons-in-law’s despair).  There is no problem too small for her notice and she always knows what must be done.  And when Mrs Willoughby tells you what must be done, you do it.  It’s marvellously efficient to have a family so well-trained at taking instructions, though this universal obedience was perhaps the first sign that there were going to be moments and characters that didn’t ring true to life.  For Mrs Willoughby, family is paramount and all-encompassing: cousins, aunts, and all sorts of distant and aged relatives fall under her care.  She is bossy, yes, but also loving and generous: she becomes involved in other people’s lives because she wants to make them better.  When she acquires a daughter-in-law just as forceful as she, she views her not as a rival but as an apprentice to be tutored.  She is overwhelming and probably terrifying if it is your life she’s trying to organize but I adored her.

On the other extreme, there is Mrs Fowler, who is remarkably passive.  Years before, she fell in love with a man who liked weak, silly women so, to win him, presented herself as one.  She has separated herself into two personas: ‘Milly’ is the soft, yielding character her family knows so well, whereas ‘Millicent’ is the one with all the sharp comebacks, who comes out when Milly forgets to silence her.  Now, even after her husband’s death, Mrs Fowler keeps up her Milly-ish appearance so as not to confuse her now adult children who only know her as a dear, foolish lady.  She is generally content with her languid life, passing pleasant afternoons reading in the garden or engaged in other similarly strenuous activities.  Mrs Willoughby’s active interference is utterly foreign to Mrs Fowler, but where Mrs Willoughby drives the actions of her family members, Mrs Fowler’s are driven by her children and their expectations of her.  She dare not travel or let them glimpse her true intelligence, not when they might need her to be there for them to be the simple, sweet mother they know.  She loves her children and is deeply loved in return but knows her limits when it comes to parenting them.  She is always there to support them but would never think of trying to guide them in the manner of Mrs Willoughby.

As the novel begins, these two women and their families are awkwardly united by the marriage of Helen Fowler to Max Willoughby.  Helen was my favourite character from the moment she was introduced as a blunt, managing, unemotional young woman, practical and forthright but unaware of her own heart and of how much she really does love Max.  She was the character I followed with the most interest over the years, as she became fully assimilated into the Willoughby family and was taken up by Mrs Willoughby as her natural deputy (unlike Mrs Willoughby’s own, easily cowed daughters).  Whereas some of the dramatic situations experienced by other characters felt a tad contrived, the minor crisis Helen experiences later in life felt like a very logical consequence of her behaviour.

The novel was going along very nicely until suddenly an extraordinary amount of trouble is experienced almost entirely at once by almost everyone, as through Crompton had decided her characters were all far too happy and that it was now time to upset all their lives on very little pretence.  Okay then.  Max and Helen get off easily, as do his two sisters, but everyone else is tortured to some extent by bad marriages, desperate loves, or…I’m not really sure how to describe what happens to Oliver Willoughby, actually.  That had to have been the most bizarre twist, as he descends from passionate lover to fussy, neurotic bachelor in a breathtakingly short amount of time.  Even allowing for the contrived circumstances under which some of these characters found themselves in these frankly bleak situations, Crompton seems to offer very little hope to some of them for a more cheerful future.

As much as I loved Crompton’s writing style and her excellent sense of humour, in the end I was left pleasantly diverted but not wildly impressed.  The writing is utterly absorbing, the characters are wonderfully realised, and I do think she brings up some fascinating if disturbing points through her characters’ emotional struggles, but for me this was a manufactured drama which admirably served its purpose as entertainment but doesn’t leave you with anything more.  I enjoyed it and will happily reread it but it did not win me over in the way it has so many other readers.  I do know that I will certainly be looking out for more of Crompton’s adult novels (like Frost at Morning).

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Only two new books for me this week!  Hopefully, this will give me a chance to make a dent in the pile that I already have out.

Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde – Fforde’s newst novel, focused on a woman who is taking part in a televised cooking competition.  I’m certain I’m going to have the same problem as Elaine and will spend the entire novel picturing the male lead as Paul Hollywood (of The Great British Bake Off).  A fine problem to have, really.

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith – Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is back!  The ridiculous von Igelfeld is undoubtedly my favourite Alexander McCall Smith creation and I am thrilled to finally get to read about more of his embarassing adventures.

What did you pick up this week?

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Almost as soon as I expressed an interest in gardening books, blog reader Margaret Powling recommended that I try The Laskett by Roy Strong.  Thank goodness she did as otherwise I would probably never have come across this wonderful chronicle of how Strong and his wife, designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, created The Laskett, “the largest formal garden created in Britain since the war.”  It has not only become one of my favourite gardening books – and probably the most inspirational of the ones I’ve read so far – but also one of my favourite books of 2012.

Part of what makes this book so incredibly fascinating are the plentiful photos included in it.  It is wonderful to actually see the garden progress over the years, from the bare fields that were there in the mid-1970s when Strong and his wife purchased a very ordinary early Victorian house set on four acres in Herefordshire, to the established, rather eccentric garden of the early 2000s.

Another huge part of the book’s appeal is the level of detail Strong happily goes into.  I loved how specific he was.  I need details (the more minute the better) and Strong provides them, getting into the particulars about cost and labour.  As a reader, it is very easy to win my affection: all you need do is disclose your finances to me.  Works every time.  As both Strong and his wife were devoted to a poorly paid field (the arts), The Laskett was created on a shoestring budget, with many cutting and plants donated from friends.  It was fascinating (but also a tad frustrating) to read how many trees could be purchased in the 1970s for less than £20 and equally intriguing to find out just how little cash there was to work with, Strong having received a paltry salary at the V&A (where he was the first director without a private income).  His portrait of 1970s, pre-Thatcher Britain is bleak and the creation of The Laskett, begun in the mid-1970s, was his escape from an ever-more worrying world that seemed on the brink of collapse:

I was fully conscious from the outset that The Laskett garden was a child of its time, the middle of the seventies.  When I talk to groups I am about to escort around the garden I always evoke those years on the backcloth to the making of The Laskett garden.  In front of me I often see nothing but a sea of bewildered faces, as though gardening was a world apart from reality.  I remind them how in January 1974 I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and began my directorship in the midst of the three-day week, with the miners on strike and the imminent collapse of the Heath government.  My secretary and I sat and worked by candlelight, for government had decreed that the lights be turned off.  This was the prelude to over five years of social turmoil until, after the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Even then it was not until the middle of the eighties that anything remotely resembling stability and economic prosperity returned.

Strong writes so engagingly about the creation of the garden, sharing all number of personal stories about his inspiration and adventures while making it, that you can’t help but warm to him.  I did finish the book a tad envious of his diverse circle of friends, many of whom are paid tribute to in the garden.  He and Julia had such an amazing group of gardening-inclined friends and acquaintances to draw inspiration from.  I started taking down names as I read, eager to learn more about these people if I could.  Some are well-known (Cecil Beaton and Rosemary Verey, for instance) while others sounded vaguely normal but terribly fascinating (like George Clive), the kind of people who no doubt gain mentions in all sorts of books written by their friends but who will never be the focus of one themselves.  The best thing about reading memoirs (which is essentially what this is) by interesting people is how many other interesting people they know and are able to ‘introduce’ you to.

I think Strong may have also inspired a passion in me for formal garden design, which, given the spaces I’m likely to have available in my city-dwelling lifetime, is inconvenient.  Where am I going to have the chance to indulge a passion for topiary, or even the chance to create garden ‘rooms’?  His passion for structure, for trees and hedges creating walls and canopies, was intoxicating: 

Hedges to most people are a burden.  To me they are a joy.  If I had to simplify The Laskett garden I would indeed sweep away everything and leave just the hedges and topiary.  They endow the garden with its romance and mystery, evidence too that garden is as much about placing human beings in space as are architecture and theatre design.  It is not for nothing that I sometimes like to shock an audience by saying to them, ‘Remember, flowers are a sign of failure in a garden,’ a remark that is always guaranteed to produce a reaction. 

Who needs flowers indeed!  Me, I would have said before I read this, but Strong has converted me (except for my beloved blubs – I could never give those up). 

I think what I loved most about The Laskett is how individual it is.  Strong was inspired by others but this is identifiably his garden, telling his and Julia’s story.  It may not gain the approval of professional garden designers, may not follow the ‘rules’ gardeners are supposed to abide by, but it is wonderfully them, from the garish paint choices to the unexpected (and abundant) statues.  It chronicles episodes in Strong’s life, pays tribute to friends and family, and celebrates both his and Julia’s professional achievements.  There’s a Shakespeare Monument, erected after Strong won the Shakespeare Prize from the FVS Foundation of Hamburg, the V&A Museum Temple (Strong spent 14 years there as director), the Nutcracker Garden (one of the ballets Julia designed for) and the Elizabeth Tudor Avenue (named in memory of a book Strong wrote about her, the proceeds from which helped finance the planting).  The garden is truly Strong’s masterpiece:

The Laskett garden was never to me anything other than a work of art in the making, one that called for vision, the exercise of the eye, the application of taste, discipline, patience, craft and knowledge over a sustained period of time to conjure up an unforgettable experience through the time-honoured application of art to nature.  It was always viewed with that higher vision in mind, one of a kind I learnt about through studying garden history.  There I read that any great garden was not only an arrangement of plants and artifacts in terms of design and composition but also a tissue of allusions and ideas.  In our case to wander in The Laskett garden was a journey of associations.  On a superficial level the garden sets out to delight and surprise but, on a deeper one, for us the resonances have always been far more complex.

It took decades to develop the garden to the impressive state it was in when the book was published in 2003, restricted by time and money, but the garden is truly a reflection of the gardener, of Strong’s personality and influences.  Every garden should be this unique, should have its own identity, complete with a memory and sense of humour.  It is an art, garden designing, and really does offer you the scope for wit and whimsy, drama and tribute.  But few, I think, recognize that and are truly able to make as much of their gardens as Strong.

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Library Lust

Emma Campbell's colonial 'shack', Kenya (The World of Interiors, April 2012)

There is a lot of colour and pattern here and it certainly makes for a strong first impression. This has the look of a well-loved, well-used room that it would be a pleasure to spend any time in – especially with those two very comfy-looking sofas to curl up on!

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Hollyhocks by Frederick C. Frieseke

I blame these fantasies on those isolated moments when, undemanded, garden ideas germinate.  I see I should have kept my head, but a part of gardening must surely have come from losing it?  Without being led astray from the known and tried, how would Charles Bridgeman have conceived the idea for the first ha-ha in 1712?  Vita Sackville-West contrived a clematis ‘table’ so that she could gaze lovingly into the upturned faces of the flowers; and wasn’t it Gertrude Jekyll who first thought of growing ramblers horizontally as ground cover?  Lady Anne Tree has a dressing table of yew, a four-poster bed made of clipped box with a vine canopy, a bedside table of ivies and an armchair of briar roses.  As for outlandish garden eccentricities, they burgeoned from the dotty nineteenth-century Frenchman Audot, who made whimsical fantasies from sculptured trees, and his batty compatriot the conductor Louis Antoine Jullien, who cut his evergreens in such a way that a howling gale played the opening bars of a Beethoven symphony, to the giant shell in which to bask at Strawberry Hill, and the invention of glass cucumber straighteners.  Thank God there’s no limit to fanciful garden deviants. 

– A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler

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My first Slightly Foxed Editions (A Late Beginner by Priscilla Napier, Another Self by James Lees-Milne and Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith) arrived earlier this week and oh, are they ever pretty!  They are small but perfectly formed.  Yes, I’m very excited to read them – especially Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love, which seems to have delighted everyone who has read it so far – but in the meantime (as I work my way through a truly ridiculous pile of library books) I am perfectly content just to admire their beautiful exteriors.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

This was supposed to be my ‘down’ week.  I was not going to pick up anything and was just going to focus on reading through everything else I had out.



Ice in the Bedroom by P.G. Wodehouse – It’s been too long since I read any Wodehouse, even one of his lesser offerings!

The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal – I’ve only heard excellent things about this book, which I placed a hold on back in November after reading Litlove’s review.  It sounds very fun.

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi – a beautifully written and highly original collection of seventy-two essays, alphabetically arranged, on topics ranging from “Annuals” and “Artichokes” to “Weeds” and “Wildflowers.” An amateur gardener for over thirty years, Eleanor Perényi draws upon her wide-ranging knowledge of gardening lore to create a delightful, witty blend of how-to advice, informed opinion, historical insight, and philosophical musing.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper – I placed a hold on this while I was only half-way through A Brief History of Montmaray.  I read it immediately after it came in and it’s even better than the first book, picking up the adventures of the FitzOsbornes once they find themselves in England.

The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig –  the newest instalment in Willig’s always fun “Pink Carnation” series (though I can barely stand to look at the cover on this one, it’s so ugly compared to the earlier books).

The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope – Trollope’s most recent offering.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Lives and Afterlives of Europe’s Lost Realms by Norman Davies – An evocative account of fourteen European kingdoms-their rise, maturity, and eventual disappearance.

All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent… A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world- soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund – A brilliant mosaic of perspectives that moves between the home front and the front lines, The Beauty and the Sorrow reconstructs the feelings, impressions, experiences, and shifting spirits of […] twenty particular people, allowing them to speak not only for themselves but also for all those who were in some way shaped by the war, but whose voices have been forgotten, rejected, or simply remained unheard.


Crooked House by Agatha Christie – Three generations of the Leonides family live together in a large, if somewhat crooked looking, house. Then the wealthy patriarch, Aristide, is murdered. Suspicion falls on the whole household, including Aristide’s two sons, his widow – fifty years his junior – and even his three grandchildren. Could any member of this seemingly devoted family have had a hand in his death? Can Charles Hayward, fiancé of the late millionaire’s granddaughter, help the police find the killer and clear his loved one’s name?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – Invalided home from the First World War, Lieutenant Hastings finds himself in a convalescent home very much to his disliking. Thankfully his old friend John Cavendish invites him to spend the rest of his sick leave at his family home. The beautiful Styles Court is home to John’s step mother Mrs Inglethorpe, and her new husband Alfred. Despite the tranquil surroundings Hastings begins to realise that all is not right. When Mrs Inglethorpe is found poisoned a murder investigation begins, and who better to investigate than war refugee Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley – My first encounter with Kearsley (I read Mariana last week) went well enough that I immediately went to the library to see what else they had of hers.  Everyone (Marg, Eva, Helen, Danielle, Lyn, and Jane) has raved about The Rose Garden and I can’t wait to read it!  I’m sure that, as with Mariana, once I start I will not be able to put it down.

What did you pick up this week?

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A Bit of Housekeeping

There hasn’t been much bookish chatter here the last few days as I have been working behind the scenes organizing my review directories.  I’ve completely reformatted the Book Reviews by Author page and I’m much happier with it now.  There is a lot more white space and it no longer feels so jumbled – even I, who know what books are there, was having trouble finding what I wanted before.

I’ve also created a new directory page: Book Reviews by Year, which lists all of the titles I’ve reviewed by year of publication.  I love this page and find it a fascinating way to view the distribution of my reading.  For instance, before I pulled it together, I had no idea that half of the books I’d reviewed here were published in the 21st Century or that half of those books were non-fiction whereas almost everything pre-21st Century has been fiction.  But I also hope it may be useful for other people looking for reading ideas for A Century of Books.  Stuck on 1981, for instance, and looking for inspiration?  You can review my thoughts on three different books (Diplomatic Passport, A Countess Below Stairs, Nella Last’s War) published that year to see if any of them might interest you!

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