Once Upon a Time: Bitter Greens

Friday, May 22, 2015 | 4 comments

Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (2012; Thomas Dunne, 2014)

We tend to think of the tellers of fairy tales as anonymous, their personalities smoothed out and obscured by time, details of their lives irrelevant to the archetypal stories that have come down to us. But in fact the tellers and writers of these familiar tales were often real, individual women, who were known by name to the male collectors and anthologizers who took over their work and put their own stamp on it. The erasure of this female literary history is an injustice that has yet to be corrected.

In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth brings to light -- in decidedly fictional, quasi-fantasy form -- the story of one of these creators, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who set down the tale we now know as "Rapunzel." She wasn't the first or the last to do so, but she introduced important elements that we now take as essential to the story, including the healing of the blinded prince. In layers of tales within tales, Forsyth brings us into Charlotte-Rose's glittering and precarious world, the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, then moves into stories of a century and more earlier, of a Venetian girl captured against her will, and of the witch whose revelation of her own dark history gives us insight into the origins of this tragedy and the elements of its redemption.

It's a complex narrative to construct, and Forsyth does it well. She builds up her historical settings in rich and convincing detail, making us see and feel with the three women at their center. Only at the end does she falter a bit, in a rather hasty resolution that had less ambiguity than I personally would have preferred. But this didn't diminish my pleasure in the book as a whole, or my interest in the fascinating, forgotten character of Charlotte-Rose herself. She illuminates much about the plight of women denied a way to express themselves other than through sexual means, and amazes us with the strength of her drive toward freedom. For all girls and women who are still locked in the tower of their own fears and uncertainties, she can be an inspiration.

I'm counting Bitter Greens for the "Fairy Tale" category of the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.

Paperback release date: May 19 from St. Martin's Griffin

Review copy source: Hardcover from publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.
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Classics Club: One year update

Monday, May 18, 2015 | 10 comments
Just over a year ago, I joined the Classics Club with the goal of knocking 50 classics off my personal list within 5 years. How am I doing?

Pretty well, since I've read and blogged about nine books so far. Some were titles that I've been thinking of for years, others were new discoveries, but I was glad to have read each and every one. Here they are, in order of blog appearance:

I'm hoping to read more from my list over the summer since my pace has slowed a bit in the past few months. And I'm trying to fit most of them into the categories of the Back to the Classics Challenge. This is a little limiting, but I still have plenty to choose from.

Are you doing any classic reading challenges? How is it going?
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New in Paperback: The Bees

Friday, May 15, 2015 | 10 comments

Laila Paull, The Bees (Ecco, 2014)

With its insect-eye view of life inside a beehive, The Bees is a brilliant imaginative exploration of a fascinating and complex world. Born to be just one of a mass of anonymous sanitation workers, Flora 717 turns out to have some special qualities. As she goes on an unprecedented journey through the hive and its environs, she takes us from the drudgery of cleansing the morgue to the ritual ecstasies of the Queen's sacred presence, from the holy peace of the nursery to the furious activity of repelling intruders like wasps and mice.

Paull is a playwright and screenwriter, but I can see why she chose to write this story as a novel (her first). Through narrative she can depict the sensuous life of the bees, their experiencing of scent, taste, touch, and vibration, in a way that would be very difficult in a visual medium. This was a very vivid and striking aspect of the book, one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the semi-human characterization of the various bee groups -- the hedonistic drones, the brave and intrepid foragers, the solemn royal priestesses, the terrifying soldiers.

On the other hand, I found certain mentions of tables or door handles or symbols carved in the walls to be jarring, and thought these could easily have been eliminated to make the book more convincing. Of course, bees wouldn't talk, either, or have a religious life, and so on, but one has to accept some narrative conventions or the whole thing falls apart. For me, it was the physical objects that held me up, although they may have been meant metaphorically.

I was left wondering to what extent the depiction of bee biology was really accurate. I heard a podcast interview with the author in which she declared that the strangest things (like the fertility police and the expulsion of the drones) were factual, and although I was skeptical about the central premise of Flora's difference it seems to be technically possible, though extremely rare. I would have appreciated a few notes about this aspect, pointing out what was based in fact and what might have been altered by artistic license.

Although it's being compared to The Handmaid's Tale, Animal Farm, and The Hunger Games, the book The Bees recalls to me most strongly is Watership Down. Like Richard Adams's rabbit saga, it attempts to plunge us into the alien consciousness of nature, and thus to bring us a compelling new vision of our world -- but can't completely leave behind the human lens through which we see it. If you can accept it within those limitations, however, it can be a thrilling and immersive reading experience, and give you a new respect for these amazing and endangered creatures.

Paperback release date: May 12, 2015

Review copy source: ARC from The Book Stop giveaway

Be sure to check out the discussion over at Shiny New Books!
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New in Paperback: Alias Hook

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | 12 comments

Lisa Jensen, Alias Hook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014)

Within its technicolor Victorian exterior, Peter Pan surely embodies one of the most bizarre legends of childhood ever created. With its mishmash of confused feelings about death, domesticity, female sexuality, and male aggression, the tale of the boy who refuses to grow up retains its hold on our imaginations, no doubt because these remain areas that confound and perplex us. But for some readers, including me, there's something unsatisfying about it. What about a story that shows how there is actually magic in growing up, rather than just in avoiding it?

With Alias Hook, Lisa Jensen has created a past and a future for Pan's grown-up nemesis, Captain Hook, that turns the story on its head. In this version, an adult is trapped in a child's dream, which for him becomes an eternal nightmare. He can only be released by coming to terms with his feelings about death, domesticity, female sexuality, and male aggression.

This idea could have resulted in a dull sort of polemical tract, but Jensen makes her twisted tale just as thrilling and captivating as the original -- in a decidedly adult way. Her reimaginings of the worlds of the pirates, fairies, Indians, and mermaids are solidly convincing, adding details and nuances that are lacking in Barrie's cartoonish child's-eye portrayal. And the central romance between Hook and a grown-up woman who makes her way to the Neverland, contrary to all of the little tyrant Pan's rules, is both sexy and touching.

Ironically, as our sympathies transfer to Hook and Peter Pan becomes the villain, it causes us to wonder what caused him to cling so tenaciously to his sad, loveless childhood, and when he will get his chance at redemption. Topic for another book? I wouldn't be sorry to see it, or anything else from the pen of Lisa Jensen. She's an author worth watching.

Paperback release date: May 1, 2015

Review copy source: Hardcover from publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.
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The Vagabond Vicar: Author interview with Charlotte Brentwood

Monday, May 11, 2015 | 0 comments
I don't often read or review self-published books, but Charlotte Brentwood's debut novel, The Vagabond Vicar, lured me with its charming cover. Inside, you'll find a sweet and light romance that is unusual in its focus on a young clergyman who has no time for romance; he's landed a coveted living in England but really wishes to be serving the poor and needy overseas. How he is won over by an unconventional young lady of the neighborhood makes pleasant escape reading for Regency fans.

I was curious to know more about how these characters came to be and about Charlotte's path to self-publishing, so she was kind enough to answer some questions from me. Welcome, Charlotte!

ECBR: Everyone who sees your book is wowed by the cover. How did you find that painting? Do you know anything about the artist?

CB: I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for when I found the painting online - it was some sort of research/procrastination. I stumbled across it (Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack) and instantly fell in love with it. The characters are exactly as I imagined them, and my vagabond is enthusiastically showing his potential lady where his travels may take him. It also gives the reader a sense of this being a traditional, sweet regency. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Emil Brack was a German artist who worked in the late nineteenth century. He is a “genre painter” in that he focuses on capturing domestic details of life -- in this case, from the regency period. I’m very glad to have found him!

Within a short space of time I also found art for the covers for book two and three -- coming soon!

Getting into what's between the covers, how did you start writing this story? What was your inspiration?

I created a vicar character for another book, but he wasn’t very interesting and I soon gave up on that book. While writing something else, the character of William began forming in my mind. He kept telling me tales of his mercy missions in the seedy parts of London. He told me about how he was given a living in a small village, but that he would much rather be sailing the seas to adventures in exotic lands. I was moved by his compassion, his earnestness, and his heart. I knew I had to give him his own story.

I love your main characters, William, the earnest young vicar, and Cecelia, the impetuous painter. What was the process of developing these characters like? Did they spring into your mind fully formed, or did it take you a while to find out who they were?

William’s character was already well-established in my mind when I began to seriously write the book, but it took me a while to find out about his past and figure out what his motivations were. I set out to create a vicar who was not only true to his convictions and compassionate, but also heroic, bold and downright swoon-worthy. I think this quote from a reader sums it up nicely: “I’ve never been one to 'fall' for a religious man, but William Brook is likely to get fans fluttering and cheeks flushing. Dare I say he’s a strong contender against the famous (and my literary love) Mr. Rochester?”

Cecilia came to me almost fully formed as well. I knew she had to be the bright, shining foil to William’s serious, intense existence. They both dwell in other realities – his focus is on helping the undercurrent of society, while she lives in an imagined world of colour and light. It seemed obvious she would be an artist. She is pulled back down to earth by the need to marry, and her mother’s determination to see her settled within a titled family.

After reading a number of different Regencies, I have the feeling that they exist in a sort of parallel universe rather than trying to exactly reproduce the social conditions of the era, which are admittedly very limiting for an author. What are some of the ways that you perhaps stretched the bounds of historical accuracy, in the interest of a good story?

I haven’t changed any major historical facts (as far as I know!) but I did invent the setting of Amberley and all of the surrounding area, based on other villages in that corner of Shropshire. In regards to every day activities and social interactions, I have again tried to be faithful but I haven’t dwelled on some of the nastier aspects of life two hundred years ago -- things like the lack of sanitation. I’d like to think that the hero and heroine smell good but chances are that might not have been the case! Where, after exhaustive research, I couldn’t find a particular detail about society or domestic life I have had to fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, part of the fun of a historical romance is that it does give the feeling of being in a different time and place. What historical details did you most enjoy incorporating in your story?

The restrictions which society placed on the respectable classes make for great romantic subject matter. Then there are entertaining events to incorporate such as balls and card parties, and I had great fun creating a harvest festival (fete), during which pivotal events play out. Of course, I love imagining all the clothes and hairstyles -- I love the thought of a heart in turmoil beneath an elegant cravat and waistcoat.

You had a hard time getting an agent to take on the book to sell to a traditional publisher, although you received a lot of praise for your writing. What do you think was really going on there?

The common thread with the agents was that they were unable to pigeon-hole my book clearly into a genre. Apparently it’s not straight historical romance, nor is it a literary historical. They said they wouldn’t be able to tell editors what shelf it would sit on in a bookstore. The funny thing is that there other books like mine sitting on the shelves -- most often in general fiction. An agent even said to me that she agreed there is an audience for the book (herself included) but editors are being so picky that she just couldn’t take a chance.

It seems that if something doesn’t fit nicely into the wider commercial genres, it doesn’t get a look in. I would say my book is a traditional regency romance, but as that’s apparently not “fashionable” right now, they pretend the genre doesn’t exist.

Once you decided to self-publish, what were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet them?

Obviously there is the challenge of doing all the work a publisher would have done for you -- getting people to edit your work, designing a cover, formatting for the various different platforms and figuring out taxes and payment (which is a challenge for someone outside the US). And then the biggest challenge, which is not unique to indies: marketing.

You also have to take the huge leap of faith required in order to launch your product into the world without the sanction of the literary powers-that-be, hoping it will be well-received. It’s scary!

I’ve just done the best I can, with the help of my friends and the writing community. I hope the book is just as good as something which would come from the big five, but readers will be the judge of that.

Are you writing another book? Based on your experience so far, what have you learned? What might you try to do differently next time?

I am working on the two follow-up books to The Vagabond Vicar in tandem, as the stories of Amy Miller and John Barrington are related (though separate). I already have a lot of scenes drafted for each and I’m about to knuckle down to plot out all the details. I hope to get these stories out in the coming year.

Now that I know the processes involved, I hope to be more organised in terms of planning all the elements required before and after release. I hope that I am also a better writer than I was three years ago when I began the Vicar, so hopefully the process of writing these next books will be quicker and the stories just as good if not better.

What are some of your favorite books, inside or outside the Regency genre? What authors do you admire, and why?

Unsurprisingly, I like books which are similar to mine -- set in history with strong romantic elements but with a focus on character development and overcoming personal obstacles, rather than artificial conflict and lust. I have been an Austen fan since I was a teenager (that’s where this all started really) and I also love Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, Louisa May Alcott, Carla Kelly, Catherine Marshall, George Eliot, and LM Montgomery.

Authors I admire who have lived more recently (or producing today) include Patricia Veryan, Sarah M Eden, Candice Hern, Jennifer Moore Donna Hatch, Julie Klassen, and some Austen-related literature such as Abigail Reynolds.

Thank you for hosting me Lory!

And thank you, Charlotte, for stopping by. It was very interesting to learn more about how this book came to be.

New Zealand author Charlotte Brentwood developed serious crushes on a series of men from age fifteen: Darcy, Knightley, Wentworth and Brandon. A bookworm and scribbler for as long as she can remember, Charlotte always dreamed of sharing her stories with the world. Upon earning a degree in communication studies, she was seduced by the emerging digital world and has since worked with the web and in marketing. When she's not toiling at her day job, writing or procrastinating on the Internet, Charlotte can be found snuggling with her cat Sophie, warbling at the piano, sipping a hot chocolate, or enjoying the great outdoors. To learn more, visit her website: www.charlottebrentwood.com.
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New Release Review: Victorian Fairy Tales

Friday, May 8, 2015 | 12 comments

Michael Newton, ed., Victorian Fairy Tales (Oxford, 2015)

"If we wish to understand the Victorians, we should read their dreams," says editor Michael Newton in his introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales. This impressive new one-volume collection goes a long way toward facilitating that goal. Along with the most important, influential, and frequently anthologized stories of the period, including "The King of the Golden River" by John Ruskin, "The Rose and the Ring" by W.M. Thackeray, "The Reluctant Dragon" by Kenneth Grahame, "The Selfish Giant" by Oscar Wilde, and "The Golden Key" by George MacDonald, it collects some lesser-known and wonderful tales by Mary de Morgan, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, E. Nesbit and others. With its insightful introduction and excellent notes, it will be useful for students and scholars while remaining inviting and non-intimidating for the casual reader or enthusiast of the genre.

The tone of the tales varies widely, from comic verging on the burlesque ("The Rose and the Ring") to melancholy verging on the maudlin ("The Wanderings of Arasmon" by Mary de Morgan). As Newton points out, "the fairy tale is the most eclectic of forms," and this collection showcases its versatility. Some writers augment and expand on the rather spare and laconic style of the traditional fairy tale, giving it a lyrical and poetic flavor. Others take an amusing and lightly humorous tone, playing with the narrative conventions that have come down from the past, and using them as a way to both highlight and mask the very modern concerns that lurk beneath the surface.
Illustration by Walter Crane

A good example of the latter mode is "The Queen Who Flew," an early tale by the great twentieth-century novelist Ford Madox Ford, which was one of the few stories that I hadn't encountered before. A young queen beset by greedy regents and troublesome revolutionaries leaves her country behind thanks to a magical flower that enables her to fly. As she journeys to various other lands her experiences help to give her maturity and knowledge of what is truly valuable in life. This story could be read by a child, certainly, but there are depths of adult understanding wound into its seemingly casual and episodic narrative.

Many of the stories were profusely illustrated when first published, and though regrettably the pictures could not all be included, the few examples that punctuate the text give a sense of the artistic style of the day. I appreciated the chance to read more about the artists and even about the original bindings in the notes (though pictures would have been even better). A further notable feature of this volume is an appendix that collects four brief but essential essays on "What is a fairy tale?" by John Ruskin, Juliana Horiatia Ewing, George MacDonald, and Laurence Housman. These defend and articulate the power of a form that has often been dismissed as mere fodder for the uneducated. As Ewing says, fairy tales "treat, not of the corner of a nursery or a playground, but of the world at large, and life in perspective; of forces visible and invisible; of Life, Death, and Immortality." The publishers put this statement on the back cover of the book; it could stand as a motto for lovers of the fairy tale in all its incarnations.

In short, whether you have an abiding love for or passing interest in the Victorian fairy tale, you'll find what you are seeking in this splendidly produced book.

Publication date: May 1, 2015 

Review copy source: ARC and hardcover from publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.
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Does reading matter?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 | 19 comments
Today, with the ongoing barrage of terrible news of every kind from far and near, I scrapped my planned discussion post to address this burning question. Why, with all the other worthy causes that could claim my time and attention, do I spend time on reading, and on writing about reading? On books that take me away from the everyday world and the present moment? Isn't it frivolous and selfish?

On a certain level it is, and it does make me feel guilty sometimes. Sometimes I just want to escape into a world where I don't have to think about real problems, mine or others'. I want the safety of the imagination, where I have some measure of control, where I can stop reading if things get too dark or frightening.

But on another level, I've always been convinced that reading can be a path of development, a way of making ourselves more human. It connects us to the creative spark that lights up within another human being, that in turn connects us with something bigger than ourselves. If we really engage with what we're reading, really wrestle with its meaning and purpose, then we may learn some small lesson that can help us to deal with the problems that confront us in everyday life. This can happen, I hold, even with literature that doesn't overtly aim to address great and weighty issues. In every honestly creative act, I believe, there is a seed of the divine that waits to be brought to life through its reception in another mind and heart. Reading, rightly done, is a life-giving act, and we need all the life we can muster against the destruction that rages around us.

And in a dark and frightening world, there is a place for holding up the candle of joy and delight. This too is part of being human, and can be one of the greatest acts of courage of all.

It's with all humility, and the knowledge that I've never truly been personally tested by adversity, that I write these words. I know that any contribution I make to the creative purpose of the world is very, very small. But it's a contribution I can make, and that I try to make through the existence of this blog. Thank you for being here, and for holding up your own candle, whatever it may be.

What does reading mean to you? Can it make a difference in the world?

Posted for the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge, hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight
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Month in Review: April 2015

Sunday, May 3, 2015 | 12 comments

This monthly review is coming a bit later than usual because last Sunday I was busy with Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week. What a week it was! See the wrap-up post for all the activity that took place here and elsewhere. I read three books during the week, The Scent of Water, The Valley of Song, and Island Magic, and loved them all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular ECBR post this month was my Literary Blog Hop giveaway of Elizabeth Goudge's The Dean's Watch. Thanks to all who hopped by! There was also an active conversation in the comments of my April discussion topic, Does Spelling Matter? I was gratified to find that others care about this issue as well.

A swing with a view...
In real life, I visited the Emerald City -- Seattle, that is. I had a lovely time seeing family and friends, as well as some GREEN. We hit a window of beautiful weather so the mountains were showing themselves, the water was sparkling, and flowers from azaleas to lilacs to roses were blooming abundantly. Back home, the daffodils are just getting started, but at least it's a sign of spring.

Ishiguro shelf at the new Elliot Bay Book Company


Other features and events
  • I joined in the Books and Bloggers swap and had a lot of fun. I realized that I love picking out books for people, but seldom do it because I hesitate to assume what someone will like. This was an explicit invitation to try to get into a reader's mind and share books I thought she would enjoy, and I had a blast. This swap happens three times a year and is recommended if it sounds like something you'd enjoy.
  • I participated in some tags and memes: Library Loot, TBR Tag, and Top Ten Tuesday. I don't do any of these regularly but once in a while the prompt inspires me.

Other books read
  • Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard - review to come
  • How To Be a Victoriana perfect nonfiction complement to Doctor Thorne
  • Mort - in honor of the late, great author, Terry Pratchett
  • Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth - for the Once Upon a Time Challenge
  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood - Once Upon a Time Challenge
  • The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude - review to come
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - for the Cornflower Book Group
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - Once Upon a Time Challenge

Favorite posts from other bloggers
  • This April Fools post at Feed Your Fiction Addiction made me laugh, as soon as I figured out it wasn't real!
  • The Socratic Salon is a new discussion-oriented group blog, and it's fabulous. Here's a great discussion about whether you can enjoy a book without liking the characters.
  • Remember the post where I wondered why there are so many books about "The (fill-in-the-blank)'s Wife"? Turns out there's a whole online book club devoted to such titles. Check out the discussion of The Bishop's Wife at What Me Read.
  • Katie at Bookish Illuminations shared her experience of visiting the real Secret Garden. Jealous!
  • At Vulpes Libris, a fascinating conversation with the author Penelope Farmer, who has given up on conventional publishers and self-published her latest novel with the help and support of her agent.
What were your favorites this month? 

Linked in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer
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Books and Bloggers Swap Reveal!

Saturday, May 2, 2015 | 12 comments

This was the first time I've ever participated in a book swap, so I wasn't sure what to expect. This one is hosted three times a year by Chaotic Goddess swaps, and I was paired up with Holly of Finding My Everyday Happy. She did such a wonderful job of selecting books for me! Look at these fantastic choices:

A book from my wishlist: The Boys in the Boat. This is on Holly's list too, so it will be fun to share our thoughts.

A book she's read: Holly sent two books that her fifth and sixth grade ESL students have recommended, Esperanza Rising and Pictures of Hollis Woods. They both look great.

A book she hasn't read but is interested in: The Wolves of Andover. This historical novel set in colonial Massachusetts is right up my alley.

Plus, she put in some cute rainbow colored sticky tabs that will be perfect for marking passages I want to come back to or copy out for reviews.

Thank you, Holly! I loved being part of the swap with you and I hope you did too.
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Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week: Wrap-up

Friday, May 1, 2015 | 6 comments
A heartfelt you to all who participated in Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week! It was such a pleasure to celebrate one of my favorite authors with you. Here I'm collecting all the links I could find from around the blogosphere. Please let me know if I missed anything.

Special thanks to my wonderful guest bloggers from Fleur in Her World, Shelf Love, Charlotte's Library, and Howling Frog Books. You're the best! And thanks again to Girls Gone By for sponsoring the giveaway of Henrietta's House and Sister of the Angels.

Meghan of Hendrickson Publishers sent a helpful link to their Elizabeth Goudge page, with currently available and forthcoming titles. Note that The Dean's Watch is a great deal at only $2.99!

Lark of The Bookwyrm's Hoard did a wonderful birthday post and two reviews: A City of Bells and Pilgrim's Inn.

Cleo of Classical Carousel misplaced her original choice (The Dean's Watch) but was loving Island Magic. She posted a review and some amazing pictures of the Channel Islands a few days later.

Monica of Monica's Bookish Life read and posted about her first book by Elizabeth Goudge, The Scent of Water.

Helen at She Reads Novels also read her first Goudge, The Child from the Sea.

It took Jean of Howling Frog Books a while to get into The Dean's Watch, but once she did she "quite liked" it.

Cat of Tell Me a Story traveled to Devon and Gentian Hill.

And here's a recap of the "official" posts that appeared during the week. (If you have a link, you can still add it on the Introduction Post.)
I also posted about The Dean's Watch and The Eliot Family Trilogy earlier this month.

Finally, my actual reading for the week consisted of The Scent of Water and Island Magic, which were so beautifully described in the posts linked above, plus The Valley of Song, a lesser-known children's book that was well worth the effort to find it. I'll post a review soon.

Did you find any Elizabeth Goudge books to enjoy this week? Or any that you'd like to check out in the future? And, I'm thinking of doing another EG event next year, maybe just for one day -- are you interested?
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