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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas books’

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My tbr bookcase is full, it is very full, it has reached what I like to think of as critical mass sometime ago. Now… there is a stack of books on the floor by the tbr bookcase. There are empty shelves on other bookcases but if I start to put the tbr on there it will get confusing – so for now the pile on the floor stays. It’s not such a terrible problem, after all the pile has been caused entirely by lovely, generous Christmas gifts. There they are in all their glory. A mixture of gifts from friends, secret Santa parcels and family – who in the main took a chance on what they bought. They did very well.

From the bottom up:

Aunt Clara by Noel Streatfield – I immediately looked it up on Goodreads, the story of a woman taken for granted by the children in her life. She is thrown into turmoil by an older relative.

Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – book two of the MaddAddam trilogy, I read Oryx and Crake a couple of months ago and can’t wait for book two.

The File on Devlin by Catherine Gaskin – another I knew nothing about, it was a risky purchase by my sister who knows I like old books. It appears to be cold war mystery style novel, and the ratings on Goodreads are very favourable.

The Journey Home and other stories by Malachi Whitaker one of the latest offerings from Persephone books.

Midsummer Night at the Workhouse by Diana Athill, another lovely Persephone collection by a writer I know I love.

Emmeline by Judith Rossner – another of those recent Persephone publications. My Persephone collection has reached 95 out of the 125 books that Persephone publish. I am beginning to think I should collect them all. I am currently reading Long Live Great Bardfield the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood.

The Singer not the Song by Audrey Erskine Lindop – another of those books my sister bought on chance – she did think the story sounded interesting and it does. Unlike Catherine Gaskin who I had at least heard of Audrey Erskine Lindop was a completely new name to me – so I of course I immediately did some basic research. This novel was made into a film in the 1960s and the novel itself has some very good reviews on Goodreads. The story concerns a Roman Catholic priest in a small Mexico town, and the battle which ensues with a local bandit who rules the town.

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Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – I saw a review of this collection of essays recently from Jacqui and it immediately got added to my Christmas book wishlist that I give family members.

Live alone and Like it by Marjorie Hillis – this one, perfect for me in every way is a duplicate – I had a review copy sent by Virago a while ago, but this one is a nicer edition, and contains an introduction missing from that other edition.

In Tearing Haste the letters of Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor which I have heard are superb. I also received another book by Deborah Devonshire too which I somehow manged to leave off the pile – Eggs in One Basket. My mum remembered I like reading about the Mitford sisters.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell – I know I have been up and down with her – but I still think she is perfect comfort reading, so I am glad I have a chance to give her another try.

A Stranger with a Bag and other stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner one of my favourite writers and I know I adore her short stories so that is a very happy addition to my STW collection.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning – I have read a few Olivia Manning novels this year and I love her writing, so very much looking forward to this.

Home Life by Alice Thomas Ellis – a collection of articles written for the Spectator magazine.

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Quite a haul! I got very spoiled – I also received a gorgeous booky jigsaw, some book vouchers and lots of theatre vouchers – I adore going to the theatre here in Birmingham.

I hope you all had a good Christmas and were able to spend it the way you wanted.

So tell me how were your Christmas stockings for books?

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Popping up here on Christmas Eve to wish you all a very happy, peaceful Christmas, however you might be spending it.

Time to tell you about a delightful little book I read last weekend, while I was hurtling about finishing Christmas shopping and meeting up with friends. A Christmas Memory is a slight little hardback that I bought last year, and somehow didn’t get around to reading. This Christmas keepsake volume from the Modern Library was published in 2007 though the three stories were first published in 1956, 1982 and 1967 respectively.

I have read quite a number of Truman Capote short stories, and so knowing what a good short story writer he was, I had looked forward to finally reading the three stories in this volume. I wasn’t disappointed, these will definitely be stories I return to, perfect for the time of year.

There always seems to be a heavily autobiographical element to Capote’s writing, perhaps it is the way he writes so nostalgically about his Alabama childhood. Certainly, these stories also appear to be heavily autobiographical. The three stories are linked by the character of Buddy, who lives with the Alabama relatives of his mother, and who has a particularly close relationship with an elderly cousin named Sook.

In A Christmas Memory, Buddy looks back upon a childhood Christmas in the company of his cousin, his special friend. The setting is Alabama in the 1930s, Buddy is just seven, his distant cousin is in her sixties, describing her with affection and the kind of matter of fact honesty peculiar to children.

“Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-coloured and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together – well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy in memory of a boy who was formally her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

It is a story which celebrates a Southern country Christmas, the joy of friendship and giving. Finally, touching on, inevitably perhaps, the loss that comes with love.

One Christmas describes how Buddy – aged just six – is packed off alone to visit his father in New Orleans. Buddy is terrified to travel so far on his own, having to spend Christmas away from Sook his special friend. He steps off the bus expecting there to be snow in New Orleans – so far away from Alabama.

“I don’t know what scared me most, the thunder, the sizzling zigzags of lightning that followed it – or my father. That night, when I went to bed, it was still raining. I said my prayers and I prayed that I would soon be home with Sook to kiss me good-night.”

His father is a not a man much used to small children, and through the bemused eyes of his young son we see a hard drinking, cynic, a man quite able to provide lots of Christmas gifts – but who finds a relationship with his son more difficult.

In The Thanksgiving Visitor; Buddy and Sook are anticipating the annual Thanksgiving feast – where the family that Buddy lives with, are inundated with a whole host of far flung relatives who come for the big day every year. Despite his youth, Buddy has learned to hate – much to Sook’s disapproval. A local boy Old Henderson, a boy a few years older than Buddy, kept back in second grade due to his lack of educational prowess.

“Of course it wasn’t that I hated school; what I hated was Odd Henderson. The torments he contrived! For instance, he used to wait for me in the shadows under a water oak that darkened an edge of the school grounds; in his hand he held a paper sack stuffed with prickly cockleburs collected on his way to school. There was no sense in trying to outrun him, for he was quick as a coiled snake; like a coiled snake; like a rattler, he struck, slammed me to the ground and, his slitty eyes gleeful, rubbed the burrs into my scalp. Usually a group of kids ganged around to titter, or pretend to; they didn’t really think it funny; but Odd made them nervous and ready to please.”

Buddy never imagines that Old Henderson might have other talents. Sook is determined to teach Buddy something about giving people a chance – and so – much to Buddy’s horror – invites Old Henderson to the family, Thanksgiving feast. The day is destined to be a memorable one.

This entire book could easily be read in a couple of hours, or less – I wasn’t able to read it in one sitting last Saturday – I was too busy – but it proved a lovely companion to a busy day of Christmas preparations. Tender, powerful and nostalgic Capote’s festive stories are a real treat.

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It’s already the 1st January and a brand-new year and here I am still rounding up last month. There are always so many blog posts to squeeze into the end of December. Particularly of course my books of the year post. I still have two December reads to review.

December was a pretty good reading month for me, I finished my #Woolfalong reading with The Waves, and read a couple of Christmassy themed books as I like to toward Christmas.

December started very well indeed with me reading A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor – a re-read of what is probably Elizabeth Taylor’s best novel for my very small book group.

It felt like such a long time since I had read a Mary Hocking novel – and so I picked The Mind has Mountains from the self after a discussion about with a fellow Hocking reader on my Mary Hocking Facebook group. It’s a complex, ambitious novel – as I find many of her lesser known works are – a novel I kept thinking about after I finished.I will be reading more Hocking soon, that MH FB group are having a little group read at the end of January.

The Gingerbread Wife was a superb little collection of stories by Sarah Vincent author of The Testament of Vida Tremayne.

An English Murder – was the first of those Christmas themed reads, and it suited my mood perfectly at a busy tiring time, a lovely old fashioned country house mystery, which is also wonderfully clever.

The Waves was my final Virginia Woolf read of the year – although I shall be reading some books I have left, during 2017 too I should think. The Waves is challenging, but I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected and rather poignant. The writing is absolutely exquisite.

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner was a delight, a book I loved every bit as much as Lolly Willowes. Actually I have loved everything I have read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, she is fast becoming a favourite. The True Heart is deeply charming and wholly uplifting.

The physically delightful Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson was my second Christmassy read – and a more Christmassy book it is hard to imagine. I loved every bit of it, even the recipes (and I don’t cook much).

Persephone book 117 The Godwits Fly is an excellent novel in many ways though I felt slightly underwhelmed by it, I may have just expected too much of it. The writing is beautiful, and the story though rather sad, mirrors the life of the author whose own life was far sadder I feel.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel I kept hearing about since early in the year, it was my first by the author Elizabeth Strout but it certainly won’t be my last.

The Wind Changes by Olivia Manning was a book I received at Christmas as part of my Libraything Virago secret Santa gift – I was away at my Mum’s for a couple of days and needed to start a new book on boxing day. It was Olivia Manning’s first novel – and I liked it a lot. Review to come.

Mothering Sunday was the latest novel from Graham Swift, published earlier this year – only the third I have read by him. I bought it at the festival bookshop while in Hay on Wye last May. I’m not surprised to have seen it on one or two best of lists – it really is an excellent novel.

As the year ends I am disappointed that my reading continues a downward trajectory, I don’t really think mere numbers are important. However, with more and more books waiting to be read, I do want to stop that pattern somehow. I read 116 books in 2016 which is three down on 2015 down from for instance 141 in 2008 – I have only been keeping a record for the last ten years.

Christmas was slightly bookish – well when isn’t it, and here is what I got.

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Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, A Lady and her Husband by Amber Reeves, A Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim, Alive Alive Oh, Diana Athill, Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington, Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards (amazed I have never read it).

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The Night before Christmas – Nikolai Gogol, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, The Wind Changes – Olivia Manning (just read), A population of One by Constance Beresford-Howe, Pélagie by Antonine Maillet, The Imperialist by Sara Jeanette Duncan. Those final three all from the New Canadian library -they look fascinating (I just wish the print was bigger – need to get some extra bright light bulbs). Those three New Canadian library editions, the Willa Cather letters, the Olivia Manning and The Night before Christmas were all from my Virago secret Santa – how spoiled was I?

So here we are in January and I am revelling in not really having any serious reading plans. I have had one reading challenge or another every year for the last six years or so – so I definitely need a year when I can be more spontaneous. I want to get back to reading exactly what I want to read, and discovering what’s at the back of my overladen tbr bookcase.

What did December bring you? Something fabulous I hope.

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Well I must say that if you like a Christmassy read, then Christmas Days has got be one of the most Christmassy books around at the moment.

Twelve stories and twelve feasts for twelve days, it simply oozes Christmas spirit. The volume opens with ‘Christmas Tide’ an introductory essay by the author, ruminating on what Christmas is and where it, and all those traditions we take for granted come from.

The twelve stories which follow are a wonderful mixture, incorporating magic, love, ghosts and Christmas gatherings. There is snow, mistletoe, and mysterious spirits, a Christmas tree in a New York apartment, a haunted house a small silver frog and a SnowMama. There really is something for everyone in this collection. A recurring theme, perhaps unsurprisingly is that of abandonment, of unhappy children, a tiny child is found locked into a department store – another child returns to a cold dark house, her mother at work, unprepared for Christmas, then in a Dickensian style story of children in an orphanage we encounter sadness and cruelty, before the season of Christmas works its inevitable magic to set things right. Twelve stories are too many to talk about individually so I will attempt to give a little flavour of the whole book by focusing a little on some of my favourites. More of that later.

In-between each short story is a Christmas recipe, and along with the instructions of how to create the dish, we get the story behind the recipe. There is Mrs Winterson’s mince Pies, Kamila Shamsie’s turkey biryani, Ruth Rendell’s red cabbage as well several of Jeanette Winterson’s own favourites. In these recipes, and the stories behind them Jeanette Winterson’s personality shines through – where else this Christmas will you be told:

“… yes all unpasteurised. I could write a long essay here about bacteria, but it’s Christmas and bacteria aren’t that festive. So look up the pros and cons of pasteurisation once we’re past Twelfth Night, and see if I aint right.”

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There is plenty to raise a smile here, as well as recipes you might actually want to try out. If you like cooking that is – I’m afraid I hate it. The recipes contain some great reminiscences, the story of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas at Shakespeare and Company, the Christmases she spent in the company of her friend Ruth Rendell and we learn about Jeanette Winterson’s own traditions. If, like me you have read Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Why be Happy When You Could be Normal, you might be surprised at how much Jeanette Winterson loves Christmas, she even has happy memories of Christmas as a child, as it was, she tells us, the one time when Mrs Winterson was happy. There is a feeling of letting go of the past with this collection, I feel that Winterson is reflecting, and laying to rest perhaps, aspects of her upbringing, that she wrote about in those two previous books.

Incidentally if you love all this stuff as I did – you must listen to this episode of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour with Jeanette Winterson, Kamila Shamsie and Mary Portas – it’s a joy – I listened the other morning. I don’t know how long it is available for but you can find it here. For now anyway.

Also, because I read the book straight through, rather than just pick bits out over a longer period, I found the recipe sections a wonderful palette cleanser between stories.

The child at the centre of The SnowMama builds a snow-woman with her friend, they call her the SnowMama. When Jerry returns home, the house is in darkness, her mother still at work. Jerry’s mother is still grieving for Jerry’s father, and is unprepared for Christmas. Thankfully the SnowMama is on hand to help – for Jerry discovers the secret of the snow people, who come to life.

“They came to the city park.
All day long the children had built SnowMen and now the children had gone home and the SnowMen were still there.
They looked eerie in their brilliant white coats lit up by the brilliant white moon.
Then Jerry saw that some of the SnowMen were moving slowly towards the lake – where two of them were fishing.”

While some stories contain magic, which is not easily explained, the Christmas miracle at the centre of the story Christmas in New York is more easily explained. The narrator of the story is not really into Christmas, he lives in an apartment looked after by a doorman who he has only ever seen from the back – he must surely be dead. One of his friends Lucille is determined to bring Christmas into his life.

There are three great ghostly tales, which are always go down so well at this time of year, Dark Christmas, A Ghost Story and The Second Best Bed, will all deliver a delicious little shiver down the spine. A Dark Christmas takes place in a large old house with a little wooden nativity scene in the attic. The narrator is waiting for her friends to join her, only with the weather closing in, she is left alone in the house, as strange things begin to happen. In The Second Best Bed, a woman spending Christmas with her friend and her husband, is terrified by the appearance of a strange figure in her bed, while outside she hears a voice crying ‘help me’. While A Ghost Story is set in the ski resort of Mürren in Switzerland.

“I had gone to bed and was deep asleep when I heard it clearly. Above me. Footsteps. Pacing. Down the room. Hesitate. Turn. Return.
I lay in bed, eyes staring blindly at the blind ceiling. Why do we open our eyes when we can’t see anything? And what was there to see? I don’t believe in ghosts.”

The glow-heart, is a wonderfully poignant story of a man still mourning the death of his partner two years earlier. Marty needs to let David go, taking the memory of him into the rest of his life. Marty is struggling to do this – so it is David who must help him.

So, there we have it – the most Christmassy book of 2016? Well yes probably – and if you don’t feel just a little bit Christmassy after reading this book then there really is no hope for you.

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Finally let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a joyful Christmas/holiday season, wherever you are and however you spend it.
Merry Christmas. 

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Merry Christmas

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I wanted to wish all of you out there a very Merry Christmas. Whether you’re spending it quietly or in the midst of a noisy throng I hope the day brings you all you would wish. I will be spending Christmas with family – we’re a small family now – so it’s easy for us to get together in one place.

2015-12-12_11.42.02You may have noticed that I have been indulging in a little bit of Christmas reading – this has become something of a habit with me the last few years. This year I have already read: – The Santa Klaus Murder, The Snow Garden and other Stories and my marvellous online buy The Visiting Moon. I am currently reading one of the Penguin Christmas Classics series – (I fear I may buy them all next year if they are still available) Christmas at Thompson Hall & other Christmas stories by Anthony Trollope. I have to say I have enjoyed it immensely – time to dust off some of my other Trollopes perhaps?

In previous years I have enjoyed Christmas reads by Nancy Mitford, G B Stern, Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham, Stella Gibbons and of course Charles Dickens. I remember writing about my favourite Christmassy books a couple of years ago – well I could add two more to that list. A Christmas Pudding – read last year and The Visiting Moon which I reviewed yesterday.

 

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I can remember last Boxing Day sitting in my Mum’s conservatory with a large glass of wine (while everyone else watched something on TV I didn’t like) reading Nancy Mitford’s A Christmas Pudding – light, bright, funny and perfect for my mood that day. My experience of reading The Visiting Moon this year – reminded me of another little known book that I read about four years ago. Ten Days of Christmas by G B Stern– I would so love it if someone re-issued it – just such a lovely old fashioned Christmassy novel. I think I might re-read it next Christmas.

So with things still to organise I had better stop waffling. Remember I will want to hear about all your Christmas book shaped parcels that Santa flings down your chimneys – I am only expecting a few this year – which is probably just as well. However I have promised myself a little post-Christmas Persephone splurge – as a little gift to myself – after which there will be no more book buying for a while (ha! As if anyone will believe that!).

Merry Christmas!

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We all know I think how reading blog posts about books can lead to us to spend money and add more books to our already over flowing piles – but I do really try to keep that spending urge in check. However when I recently read a post from Leaves and Pages about The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse I knew it was a book I wanted to read right away. The only problem was going to be finding an affordable copy. I went in search…I found two expensive copies on Abebooks, one is still available there at over £40, there was nothing on Ebay – but surprisingly there were a couple of cheaper editions available on Amazon marketplace – (there seem to be none there now). So I paid £11.99 and waited for what I assumed would be a battered rather foxed copy to arrive. Therefore when a practically pristine copy arrived a few days later I was over joyed – no dust jacket of course – but every page is clean and unmarked – I feel I got a bargain. I started reading it just a couple of days later. I knew I would love it – and I did. Each chapter is headed by a lovely little illustration and a short piece of verse – details which for me added to my reading experience.

2015-12-22_21.07.20The story of an eleven year old girl sometime in the mid-nineteenth century paying a two week Christmas visit to her grandparents’ house feels very autobiographical, and seems to be viewed by other readers as a memoir. However that is where I am a bit confused – Celia Furse (Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse) published this book in 1956 – it was written a year earlier when the author was apparently in her sixties – so I can only assume that Celia’s own Christmas visit (if there ever was one) took place at a much later date than the early years of Victoria’s reign (there are references which point to the Queen’s reign being of reasonably recent date, and books still stamped William IV). In a sense that really doesn’t matter – this is a wonderful story of childhood at Christmas, set in an enormous country house – the kind now firmly in the hands of the National Trust – it paints a wonderful portrait of an aristocratic family Christmas. I must say I saw this as a novel – which I assumed to be heavily autobiographical, perhaps based on the author’s own family – but perhaps not strictly speaking a memoir.

Antonia is the young girl at the centre of this novel; she is an immediately engaging character, a spirited, lively child bubbling over with affection and enthusiasm. As the novel starts though she is a little sad, feeling deserted by her parents. Her mother has had to go to Madeira to care for her sick father, while she and her baby brother are left in the care of Nanna – and sent for a fortnight’s holiday to her grandparents’ estate, where a host of aunts, uncles and cousins also wait to celebrate the season. Nanna and the children arrive by train, are collected at the station by Burgess and Rolf in their smart silver buttoned livery.

“The young moon had set and it seemed very dark when once they had left the friendly yellow gas lamps of the town. But Antonia, who had so often driven to Selwood with Aunt Fanny in the wagonette or pony-cart, knew every bend in the road and exactly what point on the hill they had reached when Burgess reined in and, with a double effort, put on the grinding brakes. She held her breath then till, on the railway bridge near the bottom, he, he suddenly let them go again, allowing Whitefoot and Sultan to break into a canter for the last few yards downhill before they turned aside through the Lodge gates, to climb the long slope in the park. At the usual hawthorn clump the trot fell to a slow walk, and Antonia could just see Rolf plodding up the hill on foot beside the front wheel. He looked enormous in the fitful lamplight, with his tall hat and his long coat flapping round his ankles.”

With her arrival at her Grandparents’ home, Antonia (or Tony as she is mainly known) is surrounded by a large and loving family, and her regret at not being with her parents is largely forgotten. Grandpapa, Grandmamma, Great aunts, aunts, uncles and cousins and especially Aunty Fanny – a favourite with all the children – who often aids the children in their plans. Tony’s cousins, there are nine children in total – include thirteen year old John who Tony is keen to impress – plans made by one almost always including the other over the coming days. Helena is the girl closest to Tony in age, and five year Peter simply adores Tony hanging upon her every word.

2015-12-22_21.06.30Through Tony’s eyes we see and feel the heady excitement of Christmas, the anticipation of Christmas stockings, – and the absolute joy when its contents are revealed. The singing of carols, attending services – a plum pudding that catches fire.

Over the next two weeks Tony and her cousins celebrate Christmas with their large family, but there is a lot more than that to do. Tony is enchanted when snow falls, she sneaks outside onto the roof so excited to experience the Christmas snowfall, the day after is one of tobogganing on tea-trays borrowed from the cook. They play games of hide and seek, skate on the frozen lake by the light of the full moon, rehearse for a play of Struwwelpeter, attend a children’s party and are treated to a New Year’s Day picnic.

“Aunt Fanny smiled and kissed the child good night, not supposing an answer was needed. But when she was tucked up in the dark, Antonia lay awake a long time ruminating on all she had lived through since bedtime yesterday; the midnight bells that seemed now like something that had happened in a dream long ago; the winged spaces of ice; the picnic; and now the moonlight expedition that was even more exciting than anything she had ever dreamed of. Nothing she had told Aunt Fanny had been what she really wanted to say. It would never go into words, not into the words that Aunt Fanny would understand.”

Whether this is a novel or a memoir I am still uncertain – but whichever it is, it’s a glorious Christmas read. Tony’s world is idyllic, but very realistically portrayed. Tony’s grandparents are very religious, religion is at the heart of everything they do – the household is a wonderfully loving one, the adults are shown to enjoy seeing the children having fun – although the children in question know where the boundaries are and don’t really push it. This is a book I will return to again – and one I will guard jealously – now I know how hard it will be to replace.

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The Virginia Woolf giveaway closed last night and this morning I selected the winners using Random.org.

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So congratulations to:

Jacquiwine – who wins a copy of To the Lighthouse
Fictionfan – who wins a copy of Mrs Dalloway
Helen Kestle – who wins a copy of The Waves.

I hope to find time to post these off sometimes next week – and look forward to having you all join in the #Woolfalong fun next year.
Just to let you all know I will be adding a #Woolfalong page to my blog with the schedule on where people can – if they wish – leave comments with links to their own Virginia Woolf blog posts.

This last week has been so busy and tiring that I am a tiny bit behind in my blogging and I have had slightly less reading time than I would like too. I had hoped to review Richmal Crompton’s An Old Man’s Birthday on Friday but I just didn’t have the energy to write the review. So all things being well I will get something pulled together for tomorrow or Monday.

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I have one week left before I break up for Christmas, and I am already planning my reading for the two week holiday. I have these two beauties set aside – both collections of Christmas stories which I am itching to get my hands on. One of them I will probably read next week, one the week after. I am a sucker for Christmas books, and I simply couldn’t resist these – even though I am absolutely not supposed to be buying books.

So what are your Christmassy reading plans?

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