Tag Archives: Sarah Moss

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription

Six Degrees of Separation – from Atonement to Oscar and Lucinda #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Ian McEwan’s Atonement which is about thirteen-year-old Briony who misconstrues an event she witnesses one scorching summer day in 1935 leading her to make an accusation she will regret for the rest of her life.

Atonement reminded me very much of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between in which young boy becomes caught up in the relationship between a young man and woman and is irreparably damaged by it.

Julie Christie played a starring role in the film adaptation of The Go-Between just as she did in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd which I’m unable to watch without snivelling. Even the music starts me off.

There’s a scene in Hardy’s novel involving sheep which makes me cry all the harder unlike the one in Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

Butterflies in November is set in Iceland where the novelist Sarah Moss spent a year as a visiting academic. She writes about what it’s like to be a foreigner in a country so small that everyone seems to know each other in her entertaining memoir, Names for the Sea.

Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea is set nowhere near Iceland and I can remember very little about it having read it a very long time ago but I do know that it won what was then called the Booker Prize.

As did Oscar and Lucinda which is my all-time favourite winner (so far). Gawky, misfit Oscar Hopkins meets fellow gambler Lucinda Leplastrier – equally the misfit and unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune – on board a ship sailing to Australia where both wager their futures on the construction of a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism it’s a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an English summer’s day in 1935 to nineteenth-century Australia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: Living in uncertain times

Cover imageI’m something of a Sarah Moss fan having thoroughly enjoyed the closely linked Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children,  set in the nineteenth century, and Names for the Sea, her account of her year spent in Iceland. Her writing draws you in: it’s imaginative, witty and she knows how to spin a good story. The Tidal Zone leaps forward two centuries from her last novel to the present day when Adam gets a call from his daughter’s school. Miriam has been found collapsed and not breathing. Now resuscitated, she’s about to be rushed to hospital.

Adam is a stay-at-home father and has been since Miriam was born fifteen years ago. He has a part-time job teaching at the local university, while his wife Emma is a GP, caught up in working sixty hours a week with little energy left over for anything else. After her collapse, Miriam spends the next two weeks in hospital enduring a battery of tests – scared but determinedly hiding it under a stream of lacerating sarcasm. She’s a bright, articulate teenager, fully equipped with the well-developed, self-righteous political awareness that goes with that particular territory. Adam keeps the household afloat, taking the increasingly resentful eight-year-old Rose to school and spending all the hours he can at Miriam’s side while Emma continues to work, reaching for her daughter’s notes the minute she arrives at her bedside. It is, of course, every parent’s nightmare. Adam picks at his Coventry Cathedral project in the hope of distraction whenever Emma insists he goes home. His father’s arrival from Cornwall brings a little air into this claustrophobic situation, distracting the increasingly angry Miriam with the story of his search for a better life back in 1960s America. Slowly but surely the family begins to understand that life will be different in future. All the old certainty has been undermined, shown to be an illusion, and now they must learn to live with the opposite.

Beginning in the traditional fashion with ‘once upon a time’ when Miriam is conceived – Adam tells us his own story, interspersing it with both his father’s and the history of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt in the city’s bombed ashes. One phone call throws all the cards in his world up into the air, the constant background hum of parental anxiety turned sharply up. It’s not long before guilt rears its head in the shape of genetic inheritance, augmented by the radio’s  litany of violence done to children in less fortunate countries. Moss’ writing is compassionate, sensitive and clear-eyed but she is careful to underpin Adam’s narrative with a wry humour, steering it well clear of the maudlin. She has a brilliantly sharp eye for characterisation. Adam and Emma are good middle-class parents who resist cries for junk food, carefully explain how the world works to their eight-year-old and tolerate the barbs of their fifteen-year-old. Both Rose and Miriam are beautifully caught at their particular ages: Rose’s incessant demands for a cat together with her resentment at the attention given to Miriam and Miriam’s political idealism, cloaked in an adolescent cynicism which hides a new-found vulnerability, ring out loud and true. This is not an easy subject to handle without becoming sentimental or melodramatic but Moss succeeds beautifully, presenting a nuanced portrait of a family going about their business, juggling the multitude of things that need to be juggled to keep the show on the road, suddenly thrown into a chasm of uncertainty with which they must learn to deal. If I have a quibble it’s that the Coventry Cathedral sections interrupted the narrative flow in the middle a little, but that’s a small criticism. Another triumph, then, and, with its medical theme, surely bound for an appearance on next year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist, just as Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children did before it.

Books to Look Out For in July 2016: Part 1

Cover imageBack from a week in the wilds of Herefordshire with a look at what’s ahead in the July publishing schedules. No contest as to which book should begin this post for me. Sarah Moss has left the nineteenth-century setting of Bodies of Light and its sequel Signs for Lost Children, leap-frogging the twentieth century to land in the present day with The Tidal Zone. Shockingly, Adam is contacted by his fifteen-year-old daughter’s school to be told that she has collapsed for no apparent reason and has stopped breathing. ‘The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Moss’s last two novels, both shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, but I’ve no doubt she’ll match their excellence with this one.

Carrying on the family theme, Mary Gaitskill’s Mare – her first novel for some time – sees Ginger, a forty-seven-year-old recovering alcoholic, trying to persuade her reluctant new husband to adopt a child. They compromise, joining an organisation that sends poor city kids to the country for a few weeks but soon Ginger has become entranced by eleven-year-old Velveteen Vargas who they have welcomed into their comfortable upstate New York home, inviting her to visit whenever she likes. ‘Mary Gaitskill has created a devastating portrait of the unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings’ say the publishers. I haven’t had much luck with Gaitskill’s work in the past but this sounds an interesting premise

Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours also explores bonds that can form in highly emotive circumstances. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.

This first batch of July goodies ends with a writer whose novels – rather like Mary Gaitskill’s – I’veCover image failed to get on with in the past but the synopsis is wacky enough to make this one worth investigating. In Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Professor Solete has bequeathed his Theory of Everything to Eliade Jenks, a scruffy waitress who the rest of his circle look down their sniffy Oxford noses at. Unfortunately, the manuscript can’t be found so Eliade sets out to track it down. Now comes the interesting bit as, according to the blurb, she ‘falls down a rabbit-hole of metaphysical possibility. From a psychotropic tea party to the Priests of the Quantum Realm, she trips her way through Solete’s wonderland reality and, without quite meaning to, bursts open the boundaries of her own’ which suggests to me that it could either be fascinating or backfire horribly. The novel comes illustrated by Oly Ralfe.

As ever, a click on any title that catches your eye will take you to a fuller synopsis. More to follow but not before a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post later this week…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 2

Cover imageTwo of May’s second batch of paperbacks made it on to my 2015 ‘books of the year’ list, my favourite of which was Belinda McKeon’s Tender which I’d hoped to see on the Bailey’s Prize longlist. Catherine and James meet in Dublin in 1997 and almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone’s convinced they’re a couple. When James tells Catherine he’s gay, she basks in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. Then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel ends in 2012 with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one.

There’s a good deal of compassion in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory after one thriller too many for me. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Like so many of his generation, her father returned from the First World War a changed man, unable to show the affection Amory craves. Her Uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which leads her across the world. Boyd is a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences. A fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

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Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children follows on from her previous novel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses. Lonely and still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. It’s a beautifully executed novel which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time. Shame about that jacket, though. The hardback edition’s lacked the female figure which appears to be stuck-on.

I’ve not read either of the next two titles. Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home is about the tenants of a Brooklyn brownstone – each very different from the other and each challenged in some way – who come together when their home is threatened. It’s billed as ‘a poignant story of how a community is built and torn apart, and how when lives interweave a beautiful and unusual tapestry is made’ which could be interpreted as sentimental schlock but it’s an attractive premise and I’ve enjoyed novels based on apartments blocks as communities before.

Cover imageMy last choice for May is Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City which follows four Londoners –an asylum seeker, a self-made millionaire, a recently widowed woman and a young journalist – ‘each inhabitants of the same city, where the gulf between those who have too much and those who will never have enough is impossibly vast’, apparently. An ‘inexcusable act’ uncovers connections between these four in what could be a nice bit of state of the nation fiction. We’ll see. And, once again, the hardback jacket was so much more attractive

That’s it for May. A click on the first three titles will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and to Waterstones website for the last two. And if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here. Hardbacks are here and here.

My 2015 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logo 2015Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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       Academy Street                            Weathering                      A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover imageOur Souls at NightTender

   The Mountain Can Wait              Our Souls at Night                           Tender

Cover imageThe Lives of Women1004

        A God in Ruins                           The Lives of Women                          10:04

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         Some Luck                            The Lightning Tree               Signs for Lost Children

 

I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: What Ally and Tom did next

Cover imageSarah Moss’s excellent Bodies of Light appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine earlier this year. Signs for Lost Children is its sequel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses.

The novel opens with Ally and Tom very much in love. Ally knows that Tom must fulfil his six-month assignment in Japan but dreads a separation made longer by both the voyage and a lucrative commission to seek out Japanese artefacts for a local collector. Ally takes up her post at the Truro asylum, insulted and spurned by the nurses who want no truck with a female doctor, particularly one who thinks that kindness and empathy will help the inmates rather than the rough often brutal treatment they dispense. Lonely, still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s cajoling, judgemental demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall where she is made a surprising offer. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, opening himself to what had at first seemed its strange customs and forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. As the six months come to an end he can hardly bear to leave, no longer longing for home or for Ally, the wife he hardly remembers after such a short time together. These two must find a way back to each other, or lead separate lives.

Moss demonstrates the same eye for a striking phrase in Signs for Lost Children as she did in Bodies of Light: one of the Truro inmates displays ‘breasts flat as empty socks’; Tom’s guide is ‘somehow clothed in self-possession’ despite his nakedness in the communal baths. Her descriptions of the Japanese netsuke Tom buys are exquisite. There are many references to Bodies of Light but so subtly done that they act as little memory joggers for those of us who’ve read it, effortlessly filling out the details of Ally’s troubled early life for those who haven’t. It’s a book which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time: What is madness? How does it come about and how should we recognise and treat it? It also has profound points to make about human behaviour and morality: ‘Our labour and our moral worth are not the same thing, for what price kindness?’ thinks Ally of her mother who ceaselessly works for the poor but shows neither affection nor concern for her own daughter, dismissing her ‘nervous complaints’ as self-indulgence. Tom’s and Ally’s stories are told in separate alternating narratives – both equally engrossing – delicately intermeshed by the couple’s longing for each other and the gradual fading of that yearning. It’s a beautifully executed novel, every bit as good as Bodies of Light.

I still haven’t got around to Night Waking in which May, Ally’s sister, first made her appearance in a collection of letters found two hundred years after her death. May trained as a nurse, taking up a position on the Hebridean island of Colsay where she hoped to introduce modern midwifery practices but as readers of Bodies of Light will know, she was also determined to escape her puritanical mother and live life on her own terms. Another book which came to mind while reading Signs for Lost Children is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a history of the treatment of mental illness in women. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing read at times but complements Ally’s experience well for those who’d like to learn more.

Just one more thing to say in what has become a rather long and rambling post: Hats off to the jacket designers. Just as the original cover for Bodies of Light fitted Ally’s father’s arts and crafts work beautifully, so this one is a lovely echo of Tom’s Japanese experience. It’s a thing of delicate beauty.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 2

Cover imageTopping my wish list for this second July selection is Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children billed as the third part of a loosely linked trilogy which began with Night Waking. Bodies of Light, the second instalment, appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine. This one picks up Ally and Tom’s story from there. Newly married they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum and Tom builds lighthouses in Japan. Bodies of Light was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m particularly eager for this one.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was a huge bestseller in Germany, apparently. It’s about Andreas who arrives in the Austrian Alps as a small boy and stays there for the rest of his life, leaving just once to fight in the Second World War.The publishers have somewhat ambitiously compared it to Stoner. If it’s only half as good as John Williams’ rediscovered gem it will be well worth your time.

Paula McGrath’s Generation has a much wider stretch covering eighty years, three generationsCover image and three continents. Discontented with her life in Ireland, Aine takes her six-year-old daughter to an organic farm near Chicago. Things don’t go quite as planned and the events of that summer will have far-reaching consequences. It’s billed as ‘a short novel that contains a huge amount’, a neat little description that snagged my attention.

Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House could go either way. It’s a re-imagining of the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Lidell which gives the novel an intriguing edge although you may feel that Alice has been over exposed given the brouhaha around Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice earlier this year. I’ve yet to read that but the two could well be complementary.

Cover imageMy last choice for July is an uncharacteristic one for me but it’s by an author I’ve banged on about ceaselessly – at least some readers may think so – since the publication of his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’d love to tell you that there’s a new Nickolas Butler novel in the offing but sadly that’s not to be. Instead his collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire, is to be published this summer and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

That’s it for July hardbacks. If you missed the first part you can find it here and a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:

Ridely Road                                       The Miniaturist                     Academy Street

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Mr Mac and Me                         Our Endless  Numbered Days               Friendship

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Upstairs at the Party                      Black Lake                                 The Lost Child

Cover imageCover imageThe Lost Child

Bodies of Light                          When the Night Comes In  After Me Comes the Flood

Bodies of LightWhen the Night ComesCover image

A God in Every Stone                         Some Luck                     A Spool of Blue Thread

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Weathering                                  The Lightning Tree                 The Heroes’ Welcome

Cover imageCover imageThe Heroes' Welcome

I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.