Monthly Archives: February 2016

Where Does The Time Go? (I Used To Be A Blogging Machine)

Without blowing my own trumpet, as this is not something I can do and I have tried, over the years lots of people have asked me the same question quite a few times. No, not that one, another one. ‘How do you make time and fit everything in?’ I used to look bewildered or just, with a vague smugness, say ‘oh I make time’ and serenely drift off. Well, karma is a bitch and recently I have been asking myself just how on earth I managed work, a social life, reading, blogging and podcasting all in one week because over the last few weeks it has seemed impossible. Where once I was some kind of blogging machine, who could read a book every other day and blog every day, I have now become a man who takes a week to read a book or two and seems to only find snippets of time not long enough to write reviews. Or finds he has a day so back dates a few and then realises has no future content. It has all got a little muddled somewhere.

Not that I am complaining I have been busy doing lots of things that I love. Work has been good with some lovely literary Liverpool projects to work on as well as lots of exciting festivals over the next year or three, though my probation meeting is next week and I am somewhat nervous as you never know. Then there’s been decorating, trips to Cyprus, an engagement, time away with my mother seeing some family I hadn’t seen for over a decade last weekend, got far too excited by an All Saints reunion, hosted some live events with Joanna Cannon (have I mentioned you really must read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep) oh aswell as becoming a Stonewall School Role Model (and giving my first talk), being made a member of the Library Advisory Board and a This Girl Can Forum, so am feeling like a proper grown up. One of my new year’s resolutions was ‘to do lots of different things and lots of things differently’ and I am definitely doing that.

One of my internal new year’s resolutions was to blog more and I am a bit narked at myself that I haven’t been blogging as much. BUT I have been plotting and planning a few projects off blog all around books, book prizes and the like which will be coming to, or featuring on, the blog soon (two of them this week in fact, so I am not just being vague with no actual grounds) so things are coming honest and equilibrium is being reached, which feels very nice as I do miss blogging. Speaking of which I haven’t caught up with a blog or a bookish podcast in ages, I need that magic spell Hermione Granger has that allows her to do several things at once, don’t we all?

Anyway, this is a long winded (though hopefully not wanky and self indulgent or just on the safe side of) was of saying ‘oops, I haven’t blogged as much as I would like’ but I should be, even if it is just a random blog asking you what you are all reading, or a simple snapshot of something bookish like a shameless picture of Liverpool Central Library who I am working very closely with and am secretly hoping I could get a desk in a few days a week, I mean look at it…

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Anyway, even more long-windedly as it turns out, that is where we are, things are getting more balanced again. Ooh and by the way, I would love more of you to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves, the volunteer pool seems to have dried up and I love this series as much as, if more so, than regular readers here do, so please do volunteer your services and your shelves. I would also love to know if there is anything you would like me to do on the blog I am not, or any other thoughts, all welcome. Right I am off to try and catch up with something else I have been meaning to do for ages, watching the Icelandic crime drama Trapped. What are you all up to?

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The Story of Antigone – Ali Smith

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had the urge to return to my classicist roots, well genes if such things are in the blood which I feel they might be, and was working out how to do it. I plumped for the option of heading to a retelling by a favourite author and whilst I had Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad I decided to go for one I didn’t own by another author I love dearly too. Any excuse for a new book, I can’t lie. This was a book I had no idea existed until I saw Jen Campbell mention a while back, when doing a video on Ali Smith’s works. It was The Story of Antigone. So I promptly bought a copy and proceeded to read it in one big wonderful gulp one night after work. (I so need more books I can do that with, it’s quite the feeling to come home from work and somehow devour a whole book!)

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Pushkin Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, illustrated byLaura Paoletti, 100 pages, bought by myself for myself

Ali Smith sets herself no easy challenge in adapting the story of Antigone for a new audience, which this book is part of an initiative to do, because it is both complex and part of a the greek myths which tend to have glimmers of what could be bigger stories within the one epic. Antigone, a young Theban princess, has not long lost her father (King Oedipus) and now her brother Polynices has just been killed in battle. Polynices has been declared a traitor by the new King, King Creon, and so his body must remain outside, uncovered and open to the elements, to be eaten by crows. Should anyone dare to try and bury him they will be found and stoned to death. Funnily enough this is what Antigone wants to do, despite her sisters best efforts to beg her to leave Polynices and save themselves. Yet if you are facing death anyway what is there to lose?

In many ways the story of Antigone is actually a story that is really part of the story before it, and after it, if you know what I mean. I know you could say this of most books; however it is particularly so here. Many authors would struggle to set it up as a tale in its own right, though many have tried, Ali Smith seems to do this effortlessly. One of the instant ways in which she does this is to tell it through the voice (and eyes) of a crow. One of those crows that is probably going to get to chow down on Polynices at some point if Antigone doesn’t get there first.

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This works brilliantly. Firstly, despite my disdain for talking animals in fiction, who doesn’t like a talking crow? By their nature crows are a little bit sinister and somewhat untrustworthy and unpredictable by nature. Therefore being the perfect sarcastic and unreliable narrator who will appeal to readers of all ages. The crow is also, obviously, not human which also adds a distance to the story that is unfolding below. This to me makes the story at once all the more macabre and gory, because every Greek myth tends to be and crows delight on the bloody bits, and also oddly all the less disturbing as it takes away the human fear of death (which this story is all about) yet observes the human emotion of grief and makes the human need for power and control seem a bit daft frankly. In Smith’s hands the crow really is the perfect narrator.

“So,” the crow said. “What happened then was this. First his mother/wife killed herself, didn’t she, for ‘shame’. For ‘scandal’. And what did King Oedipus do then, for goodness sake? He put his hands in his own head and he took out his own eyes! And off he went, wandering the world like an old tramp, not a king at all. Typical still-alive stuff. His two sons. The big brothers of those two girls we just saw arguing, decided they’d share being king instead. The guess what happened? Go on. Guess.”

What I also really loved about crow and his voice (apart from the very witty interview he gives Ali Smith at the end about why she wrote the book, very meta and very entertaining) is that you are completely captivated. You also leave The Story of Antigone wanting to read a whole heap more around it. The way crow introduces the context of the story inside the story before and the story after (oh here I go again, making it sound all complicated unintentionally) hints at these othetr wonderful tales and leaves you desperate for more, as you can see above. I wanted crows version of the tale of Oedipus in more detail, maybe Ali Smith could just come back and adapt them all in a series all of her own?

Before I round off I do need to mention the gorgeous illustrations throughout by Laura Paoletti. As Smith does with the text, Paoletti again takes the old elements of the ancient classic and gives it a modern twist. I felt the pictures were at once contemporary and yet harked back to the wall paintings that you see when visiting a collection of Greek works in a museum or adorning the walls of a Greek ruin where they have survived. I thought this was a fantastic and apt addition to the book.

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The Story of Antigone was the perfect way back into the world of the ancient classics and myths and legends that I have been hankering after of late. It has left me most keen to go away and find more adaptations but also head back to the real thing. My mother, who is a classicist and who I saw last weekend, has told me I need to seek out a really good translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so if any of you know of a great edition of that please let me know. A new translation of The Iliad has arrived this week, so I am wondering if may that is where I will head next, though it does look rather daunting. What do you think, just dive in? I also really want to try the other Pushkin ‘Save the Story‘ titles too, The Story of Gilgamesh by Yiyun Li particularly appeals.

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An Evening With Joanna Cannon…

As many of you will know I am a huge, huge fan of Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, it is one of those books which I would called ‘required Savidge reading’, ha. So I was delighted last night to host the first event of her book tour at Waterstones Liverpool One last night, and it was a real treat – hopefully as much for the audience as it was for Joanna and myself.

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What I love about live events with authors, whether I am hosting them or not, is the fact that you can find out so much more about the book than you could ever imagine because people always have some really quirky questions. I also just love hearing from authors on how the story comes to live, not so much the writing rituals (though that can be fascinating) more the way certain little sparks can lead to a stories creation and where characters come from. I love all of this and was enthralled as Joanna read and answered my questions and even more interestingly lots from a very engaged audience.

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I would highly recommend you read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep at your earliest convenience and, if you can and happen to be in the vicinity, I would highly recommend you go and see Joanna on the rest of her tour, she is charming, fascinating and a joy. So there! Can you tell how big a fan I am of this book. Anyway, come on, join the flock…

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I am feeling quite spoiled as I will be chairing the Manchester event next Tuesday at Waterstones Deansgate, so get to do it all again. It would be lovely to see some of your smiling faces there. Do let me know if you can make it. If you can’t make any of these dates you can hear Joanna and I on the last episode of the second series of You Wrote The Book here. Right enough of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep for now, though I will be banging on about it a lot throughout the next year… or five, or more. Ha!

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So What Are We All Reading Then?

I have had another bonkers week followed by a lovely weekend away with my mother. The former has meant I haven’t done much reading, the latter has meant I have done loads as a) the weekend away was five hours by train away on the other side of the UK b) I had a hotel suite to myself which always means more reading. So I thought I would share what I am reading right now, in the hope that you might tell me all about what you are reading, have read and want to read too.

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So my current read is Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Remember I mentioned authors whose debuts are so good you are nervous of the follow up? This falls into that category as I thought Sunjeev’s debut Ours Are The Streets was pretty brilliant when I read it back in 2011, when I was somewhat more succinct in my book thoughts. So far The Year of the Runaways  is proving to be just as brilliant, if not even more so. I should say here that this picture is actually slightly misleading, though does show you my second favourite train pastime – eating M&S picnics, as I am not only reading one book but two. I am  also slowly (because it is so good) reading Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods one story at a time so as I can savour it for as long as possible. That said Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is begging me to read it at the moment, well next.

I can also tell you what a few other people are reading. The Beard has devoured The Trouble With Goats and Sheep (which his mum is now reading) before he comes to see Joanna Cannon and I in conversation at Liverpool Waterstones tomorrow at 6.30pm, he is just about to start Love Nina by Nina Stibbe, now with Savidge Reads fiancé status he has to get his reading habits up frankly. My mother was almost finished reading A Little Folly by Jude Morgan, apparently I started her onto Jude’s books, it seems I need to read them. She is going to read (a signed copy of) Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike which I gave her this weekend, I would buy that book for everyone in the world ever if I could.

So what about all of you? What have you been reading, what are you reading and what do you possibly fancy reading next?

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A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.

My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.

She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.

What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.

Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.

Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.

The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.

All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.

I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.

Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.

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Filed under Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman, Tinder Press

Some None Bookish News… 

Now we have told everyone who we wanted to that might be furious/sad if they saw it on the internet first, I can share something rather exciting with all of you. Whilst we were out in Cyprus the week before last it seems the spirit of Aphrodite took us over completely…


Yes, The Beard and I got engaged. Who saw that coming? Certainly not me. I am thrilled and very excited though. There will be bookish bells (in a very bookish venue if I have my way) late summer 2017 all going well. Thought I’d share it with you all, even if it’s not really that booky at all! Books will be back tomorrow.

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Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics?

It is funny how long you will deny something to yourself and indeed the reasons for doing so. From an early age I was brought up not just on fairy tales but on the stories of, and adventures around, the Greek gods and goddesses. You see my mother is something (understatement of the year) of a classicist and so as often as I would ask to be regaled with the story of Rapunzel again and again, I would also ask to be read and reread the tale of Persephone. I was also obsessed with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller spin off about the Greek Myths, I also just had a flashback to a phase I had of loving the animated Shakespeare series, especially Zoe Wannamakers Lady Macbeth. I digress. This all changed when I went to school, where Mum taught, and got 99% in my classics exam. Rather than this being a good thing, some bullying little sods at school made my life hell and said I was either a complete geek or my mum had told me all the answers. My response of course was to shut down and shut out classics. Wow, this is like therapy.

Almost 23 years later when I found myself picking potential holidays Cyprus (have I mentioned I have been on holiday at all) kept coming up and once I explored it, it wasn’t just the all inclusive four star hotel bargain that kept pulling me back, if I am being honest it was also the fact there were ancient tombs, moments, rocks, myths and legends about the island too – like being the birthplace of Aphrodite – that kept drawing me back. And when I got there it was the archaeological park that was one of the first places I wanted to visit, and oddly when I did I felt strangely at home.

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This might of course be because of all the times I went to these places with my mother as a kid (driving through the Greek mountains recently I was reminded of those trips where I played all Cathy Dennis’ albums on repeat) even the seven hour trip around Pompeii, which may have also hardened my heart to classics a little bit possibly. What I wasn’t expecting was for mosaics to bring such a sense of nostalgia back to me…

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But they did…

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And then I was really cross with myself when I couldn’t remember the stories surrounding some of the mosaics that we saw, even when I recognised the names. The more we saw the stronger the sense of nostalgic and slight pining for these tales of ancient times became.

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As did the sense of the ancient world suddenly being so vivid and overwhelming the more of the old ancient sites that we visited. Really there is nothing like standing in or in front of an old Odeon to bring back the spirits and beliefs of the people who would have been sat in there watching some performances.

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So the more we wandered round, and the more that we saw throughout the week, the more I started to get the old classicist itch, which I honestly thought was more dormant than Mount Vesuvius. So now I feel I need to scratch it, or if we want to go right down Pun Alley, the more I want to start an archaeological dig on my soul and start to excavate this side of me again.

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I have dabbled with the classics in the past few years. I read Poetics by Aristotle (who my mum once named a cat after) and thought it was a brilliant piece of writing about, well, writing. I loved Mary Beard’s collection of essays It’s A Don’s Life, and loved her TV show Rome but I love Mary Beard regardless, who doesn’t? I also really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury which weaves Greek tragedies through it, and enjoyed the nods to Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And then there is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which I love, love, love, love, love. If you haven’t read it you must.

The question is what next? I have just gone and ordered Natalie’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life as I think that will be up my street and am debating both Robert Graves Greek Myths (as I want to be reminded of them all, if it isn’t dry and dusty) and Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone. In fact speaking of Ali Smith, I should get my hands on more of the Canongate Myths series really shouldn’t I? Oh and Vintage did kindly send me a copy of Euripides The Bacchae so that could be next. Blimey so much choice. What do you think? Any ancient classic texts you would recommend to me, or indeed any other retellings?

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The Sunrise – Victoria Hislop

You may remember that I had a moment we all dread last year when my computer broke and lots and lots of files were lost/wiped. Imagine my joy when I was looking through my emails and I found some reviews which I thought were gone for good. What was I looking for was to see if I had Victoria Hislop’s email address as having been to Cyprus, where she set her latest novel The Sunrise, I wanted to email her about it. As it turned out I don’t have her email but I did find my review of The Sunrise sat in an email I must have sent to myself from my old work – how could that happen? I have never blogged at work. Anyway as it seemed Aphrodite had popped this review, which I wrote at the end of 2014, back into my life (well, onto my computer) I thought I would share it with you now.

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Headline, hardback, 2014, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the summer of 1972 and Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta are living a life of luxury through the riches of tourism in the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Their hotel, The Sunrise, is one of the most popular destinations on the whole island with loyal staff and even more importantly loyal customers. The couple can have pretty much anything they want, and life seems perfect. Yes, you guessed it there is a ‘but’ coming. For behind the facade of partying, glamour and wealth that the tourists see, there are tensions between Green and Cyprus which initially seem to be taking place further afield, until a Greek coup starts and the island is torn in two as civil war starts with Famagusta becoming one of the central grounds.

As the holidaymakers reclined in the sun, sipped cocktails, swam or lost themselves in the latest thriller, Huseyin noticed that they were always orientated towards the sea. The sunbeds had to be laid in rows, pointing towards the rising sun. These foreigners did not want to look inland. Even Frau Bruchmeyer, who lived on the island now, saw only its beauty and the paradise created by the blue sky and sea.
Although during their short conversations she never forgot to ask after Huseyin’s mother, she seemed unaware of the knife edge on which the Cypriots were living.

Victoria Hislop does something very savvy with The Sunrise. Initially I was completely won over simply by the hotelier couples, though Aphroditi in particular who gets her hair done and wears a different gown each day and night and is Cyrus’ answer to Alexis Carrington. I was then bowled over by the tension that unravels and soon takes us from the high camp and glamour of the hotel and into the streets where we join two families, the Georgious and the Ozkans, who both have links to the hotel itself with members of the families working there.

As we follow these families we gain more of an insight into the history of Cyprus and where the tensions came from  as we discover they both tried to escape prejudice, ethnic violence and bubbling unrest elsewhere on the island. We then follow these two families, and the Papacosta’s, as they come to terms with the fact that they must pick sides, whether they like it or not, and how their decisions on staying or fleeing will affect them all as time goes on and the conflict gets worse. How far will these people go to survive and how do people change when they have no idea what the future holds?

Everything was quiet, but at the end of the street not far from home, he noticed something that shocked him even more than anything he had seen.
He put the sack down behind a gate and went up close. Ahead of him, there was a line of barbed wire. He was at the edge of the modern section of the city now, and as he peered in both directions down the moonlit street, he realised that the wire stretched as far as he could see. Famagusta had been fenced off. They were now living in a giant cage.

Naturally as things go on Hislop’s plots thicken, twist and take many a surprising turn whilst all the while giving us an insight to a period of history. It is this combination that makes The Sunrise  so enthralling to read. Sometimes if you know a novel is based on historical fact it can go one of two ways; either there is an element of the story falling flat for you because you know the outcome or there is added tension and atmosphere. As with her debut The Island (of which I am also a huge fan and read before my blogging days) Hislop’s latest novel is definitely in the latter category. Whether she describes the city at its most buzzing and opulent or at its most devastated you are completely there, the city fully created at either end of the spectrum.

Here characters are also marvellously crafted, you end up liking them whether you want to or not. Be they spoilt rich women, eccentric tourists, vagabonds, victims, profiteers you end up following their stories and narratives avidly whichever side of the conflict they are on. Hislop very carefully pitches her tone on neutral ground, so that regardless of who is wrong or right (bearing in mind that each official ‘side’, not necessarily the characters though, thinks they are right) we the reader get to see the situation from all sides. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in any historical novel, set around conflict or not, especially without adding any hindsight to it. Hislop does it marvellously; her main focuses the story, the characters, the city and her readers with the facts firmly embedded in the fiction. The Sunrise is a perfect combination of an escapist, educational and enthralling read around a period in history you might not have a clue about. Highly recommended and a most timely reminder of how much I loved The Island and how I need to read all the Hislop’s I haven’t yet.

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If you would like to find out more about the book you can hear Victoria in conversation about it with myself on a previous episode of You Wrote The Book here. So those were my thoughts back in 2014 which were brought back to life when I arrived in Cyprus, especially once I discovered you can go on tour to Famagusta and see the ghost town pictured above. I was desperate to do it, alas we discovered that you actually don’t get to go into the city, just see it through a fence, so a four hour round trip seemed a little excessive to peer through the fences, maybe one day though? After reading the review I was quite cross I didn’t pack it in my bag to read while I was in Paphos. It has reminded me again I need to get back to more of Victoria Hislop’s books, have you read The Sunrise, The Island or any of her other novels, if so what did you think?

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Filed under Headline Review, Review, Victoria Hislop

Mrs Engels – Gavin McCrea

Many of you will know that I have a very good friend in Eric of the marvellous book blog Lonesome Reader, which you should all be dropping in on regularly if you aren’t already. His is an opinion that I value highly, though don’t always agree with which makes for great bookish chatter when we catch up, bookish bickering some might say. Ha. One of Eric’s absolute books of the year last year from the moment he read it was Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels which, I was kindly left a signed copy of on one of my trips to London when I stayed in his book nook. So naturally I read it very soon after, pondering if it would be a book we agreed on or a book we would bicker over? Well…

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Scribe Publications, hardback, 2015, fiction, 352 pages, kindly put in my hands by someone whose book taste I (still) trust implicitly

No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry, and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.

So opens Mrs Engels and instantly we are thrown into the world of Lizzie Burns as she leaves the workhouses of the north for a life of polar contrast in London as the mistress of social scientist and philosopher Frederick Engels just as his plans to form a revolution with his friend Karl Marx start to come into action. From the very start of the novel we are instantly asked to question why it is that Lizzie has ended up with Frederick is love a chemical thing or a practical one? Is it love from both parties, pity from one of them, a hope of some kind of security or future for the other or are the lines in love a blurry concoction of it all?

If you are worried this might sound a bit dry, or indeed you might need to have read everything about The Communist Manifesto fear not (funnily enough it has never been bedtime reading of mine either) because actually Engels and Marx are really supporting characters. This is the story about Lizzie and of the plight of many people, particularly women but also men as we see as we read on, who have become forgotten voices in history, Lizzie is a voice and a force to be reckoned with and indeed a vessel for McCrea to give an account of many who could not speak up or write about their experiences. It is a book looking unflinchingly at the classes of the times from a factual voice who got lucky in many ways, not so in others, rather than an idealistic one.

I go hard at it – my sleeves rolled, my face lathered – and I don’t let off till, out the side of my eye, I light on a crowd of four women coming up the road from the Hill side. They, in return, catch sight of me when they’re a few doors away. By my own deeper wisdom, I know they are headed in my direction. I put my attending back on my cleaning, but I’m aware of myself now and don’t feel inside the task.
They come to stand in a line over me. I twist my neck to look up at them.
‘Might we see the lady of the house?’ says the one in the high boned collar.
I stand. Brush the hair off my brow. Flatten my pinny. ‘Come on, Lizzie,’ I says to myself, ‘don’t be so easy to the blush.’
When it dawns on one, it passes through the others like electricity. ‘Oh!’ – they clutch their chests in the spot where the air has been knocked out – ‘How novel!’

For me the narrative of Lizzie Burns is the constant highlight of Mrs Engels and full credit needs to go to Gavin McCrea for this creation, as should the fact that all the research he clearly did into an unknown woman is never showy or forced. Huge round of applause from me. If this is ever to be adapted then I am sure there will be many actresses that will be vying for this role because Lizzie is not a woman or character that you are ever going to forget. Yet, for me, the strength of Lizzie in some ways became somewhat detrimental to the rest of the novel. She appears so completely and utterly that the rest of the characters and indeed some of the settings and atmospheres, though when we go back to the times working in the workhouse with her sister, often I felt paled by comparison. It seems quite a backward compliment that, but it is a compliment none the less in an odd way.

What I felt I was doing in the end was reading the novel for Lizzie’s voice and not for the actual story. This means of course we get the voice of the unheard through her, yet because I wasn’t really bothered about anything going on around her in London, much more interested in the Manchester parts of the book, I think it lessened the effect of their plight and for me was much more about how poor Lizzie got on as a mistress than where she had come from. From me it became an odd dichotomy rather than a powerful and moving sum of all its parts, if that makes sense?

The revolution has happened. In my parlour.
Chairs overturned. Empty bottles on the chimneypiece. Half full glasses among the plants in the pots. Fag-ends in the necks of the lamps. The clod from someone’s pipe stuck onto Jenny’s horse painting, right where its bit ought to be. And on the sofa, head to foot and snoring, their clothes screwed tight about them, morning wood standing up in their breeches: men I don’t recognise.
Another fancy evening for the comrades. Another night spent with cotton in my ears and a chair against the door. And now another day spent with yesterday’s smoke clogging up my lungs.

I have talked before about how whatever a reader has read before will of course affect and inform everything they read after, here is a prime example. and here was where a major issue for me lay with Mrs Engels, through no fault of its own. You see if I had not read that many historical novels of this ilk before I would probably think it was more than just a corking narrative. Because I have read the likes of Jane Harris, who if you haven’t read go and get both The Observations and Gillespie and I right now this instant, not only have I seen this sparky, saucy, snarky, northern charming and compelling voice before, I have seen it done with everything else done as vividly and strongly; all the secondary characters, the streets and houses, the atmospheres and smells in full technicolour, even if in smoggy tones.

I thought that Mrs Engels was a novel filled and brought to live with a passionate heart; it just lacked the full body for me personally. As I say though this is through no fault of its own much more mine for the books that I have read before it, it is a strong debut and I am sure will find a legion of loving readers as it deserves. I will be intrigued to see what Gavin McCrea writes next as I am sure it will have another narrative force to be reckoned with.

Head here to read Eric’s marvellous review. If you have read Mrs Engels I would love to know what you made of it. I would also love to hear of any other historical novels which have a real narrative propulsion as I sometimes find them a little too dry and research heavy and need ‘a voice’ to get me through them, that is why you don’t see the genre reviewed on here as much as I would like.

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Aphrodite’s Rock, Cyprus

I mentioned earlier in the week that almost everything in Cyprus tries to have some link, no matter how tenacious, with the Goddess Aphrodite. Amongst the many temples, restaurants, shops (so many Aphrodite’s Secrets, she must have been brimming with gossip) and hotels there are some with genuine links, like Aphrodite’s Baths which I told you all about the other day, well if a goddess can have genuine links. Though I think it is nice to believe in, or envisage. Anyway, the one with the greatest link to the goddess is Aphrodite’s Rock where it is said she was born from the foam of the sea leaving a great rock in her wake. We had to go there.

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When you arrive at Aphrodite’s Rock you are slightly spoilt for choice as to which rock it might be because the whole area is indeed very, well, rocky. So after you descend a secret staircase that then takes you through a tunnel (not ancient, but possibly called Aphrodite’s Tunnel or Aphrodite’s Walkway) under the main road you are greeted with the above and then when you turn to your right greeted with this…

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Isn’t it just incredible? We were told (by a man who would swim us out to it and help us get a picture on top of it for just fifty euros, hmmmm) that the big rock almost dead centre of the picture above is Aphrodite’s Rock. Fable has it that should you swim around it three times you will become a virgin again and become forever young which seems a small price to pay to contend with some possibly deadly currents. So The Beard went out to have a try…

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Alas despite his best impressions/efforts of Ariel from The Little Mermaid it wasn’t to be. And as we still weren’t sure that was the one I didn’t think potential death (which I also pointed out is how you might remain forever young, in people’s memories) was worth it. So we went to explore a little further along the beach, we found more rocks…

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Tricky. Whilst I had graced the sea with a paddle I wasn’t going to try any of those, so we just walked along the beach and waited for the spirit of Aphrodite to take over us. And she did. More on that in due course.

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Does anyone really know which one is hers? Have any of you swum around it three times and if so how is the reinstated virginity and eternal youth going? Jokes aside, I will never forget Aphrodite’s Rock, well rocks… Quite a magical place indeed.

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Mountains, Monasteries, Gold and Snow

After having a couple of splendid days in the Cyprus sun we were forewarned that the weather yesterday was going to probably be a little cloudier and overcast. With this in mind we decided that we would do our biggest day of driving and head up the Troodos Mountains to visit the Monastery of Kykkos and have a look at Mount Olympus from afar. I say from afar because I have been well traversed in Greek mountain ranges and the roads they house from trips with my mother, and I don’t like them. To put it mildly. We had been told to take the road to Limassol and then head up but looking on the map this seemed to take two hours and there seemed to be a much quicker route if we went up the hill from Paphos and then headed down (an admittedly winding and smaller) subsidiary road. Well who was the crazy person who thought that was a good idea? Oh me. And who was the person who spent the three (yes three, because that road really was lesser and really was windy) hours a complete bag of nerves and angst? Oh yes me. I thought I wouldn’t get up most of these roads…

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And this was only half way. I had to get out on a few occasions to have a walk and calm down, seriously. Anyway by the time we were at the top of what seemed the biggest mountain I saw that we still had another monster to go and might have said a slightly ruder version of ‘I am not really fussed about visiting that monastery thank you, I would rather go back’. The Beard however popped the child lock on and carried on regardless till we arrived at Kykkos.

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I have to say I was really unimpressed and might have muttered a slightly ruder version of ‘well this isn’t quite what I was expecting’. However once inside I was hushed, and not just because you have to stay very quiet so as not to disturb the monks. The walls are covered in some of the most stunning mosaics and they are covered in gold.

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This was just one of the entrances but from the moment you walk in there are these absolutely beautiful mosaics around every corner.

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We then went into the church and I nearly let out a small profanity because what greeted us in there was something quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. (Note. I have stolen this picture from the internet because we weren’t allowed to take any photos and I followed those orders.)

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To be fair no picture could actually do it justice as when you walk in it is very dark and your eyes adjust and you turn the corner and the gold and paintwork are almost blinding. I am not personally religious but the devotion, detail and downright splendour of it all left me feeling quite breathless and moved. The Beard was grumbling something along the lines of ‘imagine how many children that could feed’ but let’s not focus on that. I was just quite astounded by it all.

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After exiting via the shop, no really, where I got a tiny book on a keyring (which turned out to not be a book but a collection of mini photos) and some olive oil made by monks for The Beard’s mother, we headed home, or what we thought was home. We followed the signs to Paphos only seemed to go on a bigger road in another direction. I was fine with this, until we started going higher and then became surrounded by snow all of a sudden…

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Yes, remember that Mount Olympus I mentioned that I wanted to view from afar? Well suddenly we were on it and heading for the very top which is actually a ski resort because it is so high, so snowy and on this particular day was actually in the clouds. Imagine how much I loved that. I may have said a slightly ruder version of ‘oh dear’ a few times on the climb. Though when we got out it was quite something.

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From sunshine and the sea to snow in less than 24 hours. Quite unbelievable, but quite marvellous too. And well done to Bluebell the blue Nissan Note who became friend then foe and then saviour all over again several times. I think she needs a special mention.

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We were very grateful to be back at our hotel and by the safety of the pool, back in the sunshine again with a very strong cocktail for my poor nerves, later that afternoon with terrifying yet also incredible memories of quite an unusual day. Cyprus has really been spoiling us.

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Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff

I mentioned a week or so ago that I have decided to try and get involved, unofficially, with the Tournament of Books this year. The title, and indeed the author, that I have heard the most positive murmurs about both her in the UK and when I was in the US was Lauren Groff and Fates and Furies. I knew nothing other than the fact that lots of people I trust love her writing and this book and so I went into it completely blind with no idea of what to expect from the plot or the prose which can sometimes be the best way in. What unfolded was a book which I enjoyed very much indeed and has grown on me all the more since I read it.

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One of the things that has always bothered me most, and left me with some sleepless nights, is the fact that you can never really know exactly what someone else is thinking ever. Be it your family, friends or your partner. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel that looks at this conundrum thorough both sets of eyes in a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde seem like the perfect couple, in fact when they meet in their early twenties at a party everyone looks on as two of the most beautiful people first set eyes on each other and Lotto proposes on the spot. They soon become the envy of their friends, she the mysterious intellect who no one really knows and he the well known promising actor and loaded lothario who pretty much sleeps with whoever he wishes.

Despite many people, including their closest friends, thinking that this marriage will end before it has even started Lotto and Mathilde create a marriage that not only lasts after the initial honeymoon period but can weather any storm be it disinheritance, poverty, depression, unemployment you name it. Mathilde has tamed Lotto; Lotto has captured the mystery that is Mathilde. This is the version we are given in the first half of the book as we see the relationship through the eyes of Lotto, along with the history of his life up to the point he meet Mathilde. The question is will his perception be the same as Mathilde’s as we switch to her point of view in the second half, what secrets (good and bad) do they have from each other; do they really know each other?

He touched her hand. He bent down on one knee and shouted up, “Marry me!” And she didn’t know what to do; she laughed and looked down at him, and said “No!”
In the story he told of this – spun at so many parties, so many dinners, she listening with her smile, her head cocked, laughing slightly – she said, “Sure.” She never corrected him, not once. Why not let him live with his illusion? It made him happy. She loved making him happy. Sure! It wasn’t true, not for another two weeks when she would marry him, but it did no harm.

I thought Fates and Furies was a fascinating read for many reasons; the problem is how to tell you about them all without giving anything away. Often with a story told from two sides you feel that the author is with one character more than the other, or one character is the good one and the other will be the bad. Come on, it’s true. Not so with Fates and Furies as we discover both characters are flawed, both have faults and flaws as they do generosity and kindness, both come off the page fully formed, both are often oblivious to little things going on with the other, both are equals in the eye of the author and therefore the reader. Groff then treats us readers into hear both sides and so feeling a mixture of spectator/voyeur, confident and accomplice to everything that follows. You also feel at once clever, shocked and emotionally torn when you figure everything out just when Groff wants you to. All this I found particularly refreshing and rewarding reading.

I also think that whilst the tale of the secrets of a marriage is nothing new, the way that Groff deals with it all is from a new stance. At one point you very much feel that Groff gives you her thoughts on fiction and what she wants to do with it through Mathilde. She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off. I won’t say it was quite like a bomb, however the way in which Groff delivers Fates and Furies is quite unusual, and you just have to work at it sometimes. This is no bad thing and actually I think this is why it has stayed with me and grown on me since.

Sometimes the perspective of the narrative will shift in Lotto or Mathilde’s narrative, not to the other person in the marriage but to an ominous third person or indeed one of their many ‘friends’ or relatives, it might only be for a sentence or a paragraph and it’s done with such a deft sleight of hand you don’t notice until a little while after. As Lotto becomes a famous playwright some of the sections are summed up with the title of the play, an excerpt of it, a review or glimpse of the writing process which mirrors or says something about the place the marriage is at. In one part of the book we jump from month to month or year to year from party to party to get a glimpse of where Lotto, Mathilde and those around them are at. Nothing is done randomly here, Groff always has a reason, and you just don’t instantly see it. You could string together the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.

Not only is Groff quite something stylistically, which makes the book a challenge but over all a joy to read, her prose is wonderful. In a sentence she can set the scene within a few words or lines. Sunset. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto. She also has an incredible ability to make things so vivid so effortlessly that sometime you forget that the memories are of the characters rather than your own for the emotions they evoke. The place smelled of her, talcum and roses. Dust a soft gray skin over the chintz and Lladro. Also mildew, the sea’s armpit stink.

Another aspect that I thought was great was that fairytale and myth, in particular Greek tragedy, play a huge part in Fates and Furies resonating and rippling through the book. Mermaids, witches and goblins are often referenced or show up in some way, soon turning out to be nothing magical at all, linking into the whole idea of facades and the fantasies we build in our heads versus the reality, just as Lotto and Mathilde seem the perfect fairytale romance. The Greek tragedy elements (apt as I will be surrounded by Greek ruins when this goes live) appear both in the plays that Lotto chooses to adapt and then Mathilde’s storyline as it unfolds, hints of which lie in the title of the novel. I loved all this; some might even say I revelled in it.

There were a few niggles along the way that I should mention. I found the first half of the book overly long, whilst I understood why after finishing the novel I actually think Lotto’s story could have been a third of the book and Mathilde’s two thirds and remained just as visceral, intricate and poignant when all becomes clear. Two literary tropes which I am never keen on, even with writing as wonderful as Groff’s, touched a slight nerve; the writing about the cultural world and theatre and art was a tad overegged as was the poor rich boy who fails then becomes famous, but these get on my nerves as tropes in general and in the hands of other authors would have severely ticked me off rather than slightly bothering me. Also on occasion the switch in style would throw me, only to then reward me a little later on so I soon forgave it. Oh and I could have done with a little more fury towards the end, only a sprinkling more in the direction of one character who you will undoubtedly love to hate as much as I did. These were minor moments though within a fantastically large and larger than life (and all the better for being both) novel.

I would highly recommend Fates and Furies. It is a novel that intricately and intelligently looks at how you can only hazard a guess at what people are thinking or only hope that those closest to you are telling you what they really feel or are experiencing in their heads/lives and yet you’ll never really know. The story and characters are compelling, the style exciting, the prose second to none and the questions around secrets, when they are bad and when they work for the good, really thought provoking. It will also punch you in your emotional weak points, make you laugh and remind you to cherish what you have and be honest with those you love.

See, it just keeps on growing and growing on me the more I think about it. I have to hunt down Lauren Groff’s other books, any suggestions on where to start next? I would also love your thoughts on Fates and Furies if, or once, you have read it.

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The Tomb of the Kings, Paphos

I was a huge, huge fan of the Indiana Jones films as a kid (not so much the last one as an adult, it’s probably best if we all forget that it happened) and have always quite liked the ice of going off for an adventure into some old caves, ancient sites or tombs investigating and finding old relics. It was possibly this side of me, along with the gothic elements to, that lead me to take up a role as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery. So when I discovered that there was a necropolis in Paphos that looked like an Indiana Jones film set I had to go.

 
It’s is quite surreal as you enter the park that within metres you realise that you are not surrounded by natural caves but by tombs. From the outside they look like a rocky natural cavern and then you go inside and discover there is much more than meets the eye. Who knows what might be lurking in them.

 
These are not actually tombs of kings but really a series of tombs built by the rich and aristocratic of the area. As you get towards the centre it all gets more and more showy. The more tombs you go in.

 
Until you get to the centre and possibly the grandest tomb I have ever seen, and believe me there are some corkers in Highgate, nothing quite on this scale though.

 

Quite something indeed and actually quite spooky when you get down there and there is just you and all that space…

 
The spookiness (and stillness and quiet) was part of what I loved about it all. As you descended or ascended each staircase you were never quite sure what you might find.

 

Bar a few small incidents of some Cyprus Lizards (which are pretty big) a pair of unsuspecting pigeons and a pair of fellow tourists popping their heads out when I least expected it I was very brave. (I did almost scream in the couples face when they suddenly appeared.) So maybe there is still time for me to become an intrepid explorer…

 
…Maybe! Or I could move here and become a cave/tomb guide. I do now really fancy some tales of adventure in the Indiana Jones style though. Know of any series or novels like that? I fancy getting lost in a few jungles, tombs and forgotten/hidden valleys, any recommendations?

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A Cove of Ones Own, A Perfect Reading Retreat

So on our adventures after visiting one of the archeological sites, which I will talk about later in the week in bulk so you aren’t overwhelmed by ancient stuff, we accidentally came across a place which may be the closest thing to my idea of seaside heaven. A cove with caves and a shipwreck and stunning blue waters. Best of all with no one there but us, a picnic and some books. So I thought I would share it with you.

 
  

It felt like a Famous Five adventure might take place at any point and was the perfect place to read in the sun in silence. Wonderful. If you’re ever in Cyprus head to the Edro shipwreck and the coves around it, perfect hidden reading retreats.

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