“A Severed Head” round-up and “An Unofficial Rose” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s #IMReadalong update time – today I’m going to be sharing the reviews of “A Severed Head” that have come in so far (and will add more as they appear) and then have a chat about April’s read, “An Unofficial Rose”

“A Severed Head”

Excitement started building on this one as early as my introductory post at the end of February, so I knew a few people would be taking part.

I managed to get it reviewed earlier in the month than the last couple, and had some great comments on my review.

The cover images have been coming in again, with Peter Rivenberg submitting this really lovely image of the American Viking hardback:

Alice Libbey Griffith sent me this Penguin cover, which again I really like (I have some paperbacks in this edition, but not this one):

And both Peter and blogger Bookish Beck (more on her review in a moment) sent me cover images of this AWFUL film tie-in cover …

Isn’t it just HORRIBLE! Peter let me know some more details – I haven’t seen the film:

[This] is from a 1974 version with an image from the film based on the novel and play. It shows … Martin and Antonia (Ian Holm and Lee Remick) in the foreground with Palmer (Richard Attenborough) in the background. Not my idea of Palmer at all. And I’ve read that Murdoch was not happy with the film.I went back and reviewed scenes from my DVD of A Severed Head (I bought it from Turner Classic Movies out of curiosity about a year ago) and realized the book cover is not exactly a dream sequence but more an image that comes to Martin as he is contemplating his situation. The film is likely to be a disappointment to anyone who has read and loved the book. At times the characters speak lines from the book and at other times new lines have been invented that fall flat to my ear. Georgie, bizarrely, works at some kind of loom, perhaps an allusion to the Lady of Shalott. Necessarily the film needs to do away with a lot of the book’s complexity but the sequence of events is more or less intact.

Moving swiftly on to the reviews, there have been some great comments on my own review here. Bridget from A New Look Through Old Eyes (with whom I’m planning a sort of project on paper book / audio book reads) has posted this excellent review of her experience with the audio book (with the absolute perfect narrator). Bookish Beck has posted a great and funny review here. Liz talks on Goodreads about how the themes and the way they’re portrayed contrast, and Jo has a good meaty Goodreads review  which does contain mild spoilers but goes into a lovely lot of detail.

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“An Unofficial Rose”

Moving on to our April read, I have three copies of “An Unofficial Rose”. I thought I first read it when I discovered Murdoch and read my way through everything she’d written until then (this was in around 1986, so I would have had access to the paperbacks up to about “The Philosopher’s Pupil” but the note inside the front cover of my Penguin copy says I bought it on my 23rd birthday in 1995. I really don’t recall whether I’d already read it; I know I snapped up Murdochs with Christmas and birthday book tokens as I went. I know I read it when I went through them all in my 20s and again in the 2000s; I also know that I have never considered it a favourite, but I can’t explain why.

Here are my three copies: a Chatto & Windus first edition (not a first printing as it has a note that it’s a Book Society Choice), a Penguin edition bought in 1995 and very faded, and my new Vintage copy:

Here are the blurbs to entice you, from the earliest, talking about one of those Murdochian webs of love:

and do we have a potential Saint already in Ann, absorbing everyone’s strains and pains? Shorter and to the point with the Penguin:

and interestingly concentrating a lot more on Hugh and Emma. And the most recent one:

Well, here they’ve gone back to that first blurb in a lot of ways, haven’t they?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “An Unofficial Rose” along with me? What’s your favourite so far?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book reviews – Hazel Gaynor – “The Cottingley Secret” and Judy Leigh – “A Grand Old Time” #readireland18

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Well I hope I don’t get into trouble with the NetGalley police for posting two reviews together, but I’ve already really run out of month, as I do my Iris Murdoch Readalong update on the last day of the month, too.  So you’re getting reviews of Hazel Gaynor’s “The Cottingley Secret” (which also fits into Reading Ireland Month, given that a) the author lives in Ireland and b) the modern portion of the novel is set there) and Judy Leigh’s fun read, “A Grand Old Time” (in which the main characters are Irish and they start off in Ireland but the author’s from Devon and is still there – maybe Cathy at 746 Books (read all about the reading challenge here) can confirm for me!

Anyway, two NetGalley reads and light novels have been just the ticket as I’ve been struggling with a bit of a cold all week.

Hazel Gaynor – “The Cottingley Secret”

(NetGalley 03 December 2017; published 07 September 2017)

I don’t normally like or read novelisations of historical happenings, so I’m not quite sure why I picked this one up in the first place – I must have thought it just indirectly referenced that famous story where some girls ‘photographed fairies’ in 1917 and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book about them. Actually the girls and their fairy photographs take up the retro half of this dual-time (but not time-slip) novel, but it’s obviously carefully researched and beautifully written and it turns out the author is an expert in this kind of novel. She invents a whole side family, presenting the actual living people through one girl’s narrative which she carefully explains at the end is actually based on the historical record. The author was able to make contact with one of the girls’ daughter, and obviously took great care with her memory.

The modern and invented heroine is Olivia, distantly connected with the hoax, and we watch her stitch together a new life in Ireland after inheriting her grandfather’s bookshop. As in other books I’ve been reading recently, there’s a lovely sense of community as Olivia settles into the town, and resourceful and helpful older as well as younger characters. As Olivia tries to get the shop going, she finds manuscripts and photographs and gently probes the memories of her grandmother, confined to a nursing home with Alzheimer’s but, again, still proving of great emotional and practical value to Olivia, flashes of her old self shining through and her own legacy appearing at the end.

It’s really well done with some very practical elements (Olivia is trying to get out of wedding arrangements she can no longer stand; she meets a very real writer and his small daughter; she holds events in the shop and creates a website) and some fairy-tale ones (why does everyone dream the same dream and how do flowers bloom inside the bookshop window?) but these were not silly or laboured. I also liked a lot that Olivia has her own agency and practical skills, and the tentative hope for a future partner is not overdone; she’s allowed her own space. Oh, there’s also a bookshop cat who keeps in the background and doesn’t come to any harm.

I have to say this book is more modern and interesting than the cover would perhaps suggest, and it’s well worth a read, with the Yorkshire sections even giving a feel of The Secret Garden for the young heroine.

Thank you to HarperCollins for providing this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Judy Leigh – “A Grand Old Time”

(NetGalley 19 March 2018; published 03 April 2018)

Evie Gallagher is 75 and bereaved, and after a couple of incidents that left her with lost confidence, she’s allowed her busy daughter-in-law to have her installed in an old people’s home. However much she likes the Polish and Ukrainian staff, she’s not happy and starts to act up when son Brendan and this Maura visit her. Then, like all nursing home inhabitants these days, she makes a bid for freedom, dons a disguise and sets off on an escape route that takes her from Dublin across to France and through France, making new friends along the way. Brendan and Maura, their marriage souring, are in pursuit, but hampered at every turn.

I loved Evie’s adventures and spirit (although she was a bit sweary and I wonder if all readers will like this – the cover echoes the Dawn French ones so maybe that gives a hint of the slightly visceral bits). I loved how it’s not all presented as plain sailing, with hangovers and being pulled over by the French police, but that nice people tend to come out most prominently. I wasn’t so interested in Brendan and Maura and felt the author wanted to write about Brendan more and got a bit carried away (it is a first novel, so I will be forgiving, as it is fun and readable). There’s a bit too much detail about them which makes the book a bit long.

It’s an entertaining read – I’d have liked to maybe have seen a few of the earlier characters pulled in again at the end to draw the book together, but again that’s a minor point. Nice to have an older heroine and different types of characters, too.

Thank you to Avon Books for providing this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Sophie Green – “The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club” #NetGalley #Amreading @LittleBrownUK

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The attractive cover of this book made me think of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “And Ladies of the Club” and interestingly they’re both books about community amongst women forged in difficult circumstances. Of course it was the book club of the title that attracted me, too, as well as the interesting setting in late 1970s Australia, some of it in Sydney, but most in the Northern Territory.

We learn about the tiny town of Katherine, where we meet Sallyanne, raising three kids and dealing with a horrible husband. She’s born and brought up there and knows that nothing will change when the webs of male friendships work against her freedom. She forges a friendship with no-nonsense Rita, a nurse with the Flying Doctor service who lives in Alice Springs but visits her best friend Sybil when she can. Sybil moved to the Fairvale cattle station as a young bride, moving in with her in-laws, and now English Kate is in the same position with her. One more character is the Texan, Della, who is working with the cattle, a woman in a man’s world and dealing with all that means.

We see the women pull together in a knot of friendship and mutual support when Sybil starts a book club – only able to meet twice a year, and that in the dry season. This gives a framework for us to progress through a few years, catching up with the women as we go, a very good idea executed well. Close attention is paid to relationships with the Native Australians, with Fairvale operating as a sort of model of harmony and equality, while other places are not so decent – oh, and Fairvale still has its own family heartaches. I loved the gentle but careful discussion of the relationships between people of different ethnicities, and the gay character forging a life for himself in a natural way (he’s a character who happens to be gay; his sexuality doesn’t advance or affect the plot, which is nice, if you know what I mean).

I loved the descriptions of this strange and vivid land and its strangeness as seen through the eyes of the women from the US and UK (and we see each woman through the others’ eyes, too), and Sibyl’s green garden, which turns out to reflect her state of mind, and the themes of movement and adjustment which run throughout. Events come to some kinds of conclusions, but some ends are left untied and nothing seems false. It’s a lovely read.

There are notes by Sophie Green about the books she chose for the book club (starting, of course, with “The Thorn Birds”!) and also reading group notes for the novel as a whole.

Thank you to the publisher, Little, Brown, for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book Review – Felicity Hayes-McCoy – “The Library at the Edge of the World” #amreading #readireland18

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Another book for Reading Ireland Month, co-hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, and you can read all about the reading challenge here. Shockingly, I’m going to have to double-post today as I have another Reading Ireland Month book I’ve read plus another to review this month, before I even get to my Iris Murdoch round-up on the last day of the month! That’s what you get for having a reviewing lull but not a reading one.

Anyway, I was attracted to this book because it’s about a rural library, and what librarian hasn’t wanted to run a library in a small town or by the sea? OK, I’m not a librarian now anyway, but that kind of thing sticks. Read on to find out about a lovely feed-good book with a real sense of community and a range of characters – a bit like Cathy Kelly’s novel, actually!

Felicity Hayes-McCoy – “The Library at the Edge of the World”

(18 June 2017, possibly The Works)

Hanna ran away home to Ireland when her marriage went wrong: things are a bit better now her daughter’s living independently, but she’s still trapped in her mother’s garish bungalow and still pretending the divorce was amicable. Can Hanna reclaim her own life, possibly in the cottage her grumpy great-aunt left her, even though she, too, has distanced herself from the community? Will she and optimistic Conor the library assistant ever agree on what’s appropriate use of a library space?

When budget cuts and cronyism threaten her library and other services on the imaginary Finfarran Peninsula, the whole community does come together, but in a plausible and realistic way, and I liked this big most. There’s local youngsters and their fancy deli pulling together with young mums, incomers and old families, resourceful OAPs, glad to be useful again, and the odd nun. We get the full range from meddling priests with power to hold on to to the isolated lord of the manor and (yes) his giant nightmare boiler.

Not everything is tied up neatly, and there are a few hiccups along the way, but there’s the possibility of a new beginning for Hanna – especially when her intractable and exasperating builder, along with his horrible little dog, deigns to return her own house to her.

It took me a few chapters to warm to this book but the author, who lives in Ireland herself and has written non-fiction books about settling in and doing up her home, has a great feel for communities and the people in them and it’s a warm and positive book that ended up a joy to read.


One more book confession, which arrived from pre-order today. I follow Lynne Murphy’s “Separated by a Common Language” blog so I just had to order her new book, “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English” – useful for my work as a localiser, of course!

Book review – Julie Creffield – “The Fat Girls’ Guide to Marathon Running” and some book confessions #amreading @JulieCreffield @RunBookshelfFB

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A book read out of order? What’s going on? Well, I’m running my next marathon in, erm … eleven days’ time (hope my cold goes in time!), and I do like to read a running book or two in the run-up to a race. Under this review, some horrific book confessions from a NetGalley account gone very, very naughty … But first an inspiring book that talks about things no other book talks about!

Julie Creffield – “The Fat Girls’ Guide to Marathon Running”

(21 January 2018 – at the National Running Show)

I met life coach and running guru for the larger lady Julie at the National Running show and couldn’t resist buying this book – she was very engaging and is doing some genuinely inspiring work and activism. I’ll say straight off that I’m not the exact audience this book is aimed at – not because I’m some whippet myself, I’m definitely on the more solid side of the runner spectrum, but because it’s very squarely aimed at the new (marathon) runner and also speaks loud and clear to running mums about claiming their time and fitness. And that’s brilliant.

It’s funny, frank and a bit sweary, really like having one-to-one coaching or grabbing a coffee and a chat. Julie addresses the reader directly, helping her face her fears, reassuring her that everyone’s felt whatever she’s feeling at some time. She has quotes from famous and ordinary runners, and what’s brilliant is that when she says she’s a slow runner, she actually is – hooray! I get a bit tired of people saying they’re slow then talking of their 10 minute miles, something I can sustain for maybe a mile, but certainly not comfortably. I know that being relatably slow and middle-aged and non-whippety has helped me to inspire other people to believe they can run long, and Julie does the same but to a wider audience.

The book is packed with great advice for the marathon newbie, and I learned a great tip about weeing (honestly) and picked up an idea for fartlekking (speed play, behave!) where you pick a trigger like red cars or seeing a plane in the sky for your speedy bits. You can always learn from every running book! Julie also talks about chafing, being worried about having an accident in public and dealing with catcalls, something not many running books talk about in depth (Alexandra Heminsley and Lisa Jackson are similarly open, see my reviews of their books under the links, but it’s still rare). There are some great tips on using visualisation to help you when the going gets tough, and even though I’m famously The Runner Who Never Needs The Loo On the Way Round, I couldn’t help identifying with this quote:

Perhaps think about potential toilet stops on long runs, one of my friends says she can plot 18 miles around East London purely by Wetherspoons toilets.

We’ve all been there. Not to mention the Magic McDonalds at the top of That Hill.

One tiny point that I feel duty bound as an editor in the rest of my life to mention. Julie is quite upfront and clear about how she decided to write this book and got it out as soon as she could. A few editing issues got under the radar in the hurry to publish, and some of my friends who have read this book thought that would bother me. But you know what – if she inspired one more woman who was scared to pull on plus-size lycra and get out there to embrace the joy of running by missing a stage in the production process, then so be it. However, if Julie’s reading this and would like a donated line edit, because I REALLY believe in what she’s doing, then she should feel free to get in touch.

Frank as anything and like a friend holding your hand, this reminded me to be mindful of the fears the new runners I encounter face, and will inspire all sorts of people. Good luck to Julie in London next month, too!


Right, confession time.

First off, in “tree” books, my friend Sian has passed me Robert Ferguson’s “Scandinavia” – she’s a bit of a Swedophile (Swedenophile?) and runs a Scandi meetup in our city, and she rates this highly as being quite serious and full of good information, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

I’ve also had a flurry of NetGalley “wins” recently, so here goes …

“A Grand Old Time” by Judy Leigh is about an “elderly” lady who gets sick of being in a care home and decides to go on an adventure to France. There have been a few of this kind of book recently and I hope it’s not too sappy, but it looks jolly. (Published 03 April)

Paul Theroux’s “Figures in a Landscape” is a new (I hope) collection of essays and musings, including an encounter with Oliver Sacks. I was so hoping to win this and was thrilled to do so. (Published 08 May)

“Inner City Pressure” by Dan Hancox is a history of grime music – very useful in my other day job as a transcriber, part of the time for music journalists. (Published 17 May)

Yusra Mardini’s “Butterfly” is her story of her escape from Syria and dream to swim in the Olympics – which she did as part of the Refugee team in Rio. To be honest, I’m not sure how I got this one, I seemed to be pre-approved then it was there, and I fear I may have to skim a little at the start.

I’ve also had a (rare) Did Not Finish. NetGalley win “Something Like Happy” by Eva Green did not say in the blurb that it was about someone with a terminal illness – or that it was relentlessly positive and live every day as it comes-ish, like those Tuesdays with Morrie type books, and reading the reviews people were alternately uplifted and in big tears. I just couldn’t deal with that so put it to one side. Also it was set mainly in a hospital and I spent enough time around those at the start of last year. So even though it looked well done and well written and lots of people will probably love it, not for me.

What are you reading? Any confessions? Do you like to read a certain type of book before a certain type of activity, for example books set where you’re going on holiday or running books before a race if you’re a runner?

Book review – Angie Thomas “The Hate U Give” #amreading

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This is an important book and I wish I’d read it sooner. I hope it becomes the “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” of this generation. In my opinion, it should be required reading for all teens … for everyone. It’s also a blooming good story, and that matters (and makes it like those other two, too, right?).

I felt like I should maybe check my privileges before launching into a review, and then a friend of mine said I shouldn’t feel guilty for being born who I am and should just react to the book as I’ve reacted to it. Fair enough. In one almost insignificant way, I can feel a tiny, tiny bit of what the black characters in this book feel, and I know that’s unsettling enough to know that things need to change, and if a book like this can be shared by everyone and talked about, maybe that will help that change.

Angie Thomas – “The Hate U Give”

(22 May 2017)

This has been widely hailed as “the Black Lives Matter novel” and it’s right up to date and visceral and important.  It’s also a wonderful and big-hearted and ultimately positive novel about how people can change and about how doing the right thing can be scary but is vital. It’s full of strength and humour and wonderful characters, too. Top ten books of my year? I’d say so.

Starr, already living a conflicted life by virtue of having to live a double life, living in the poor, predominantly black neighbourhood her parents, for complicated but understandable reasons, don’t want to leave, but sent to a mainly white posh school in the suburbs, living in two registers, watching her speech, and having to be an example of each world to the other, which gets, frankly, tiring. She’s got a white boyfriend her dad doesn’t know about, and is living in a blended family with an older half-brother her dad had to be forgiven for fathering. Then she goes to a party for once and is the only witness to the death of her Khalil who, whether or not he’s been going off the rails a bit recently, is still her dear friend. He’s murdered by a white policeman, having not apparently been taught what you do when you get stopped by the police.

Yes, that’s right, some people in this world have to learn what to do in case they get stopped by the police, and that’s not just the don’t crack a joke when going through security at the airport thing. This is where I can feel some affinity and understanding – a tiny bit, I know, I know – which helped me into the story, because my husband and I, and indeed I on my own, get stopped and searched pretty much every time we pass through an airport, because we apparently look “Mediterranean”. I can only extrapolate the feeling of mild panic and worry (even last year, going on holiday with three friends, when I went through on my own, everything was brought out and checked) and dread. And it’s wrong (of course it’s wrong) but it’s right that this novel exists to explain how much more extreme this can be for so many people.

So, this is what novels – good ones – are for, isn’t it. You learn what someone else’s life is like, what you have to learn, what you live with every day. What are the nuances after a shooting and the social media campaign? How do you negotiate a friendship when you’ve worked hard to blend in and you’re suddenly “othered”? If you’re an ally of an othered group, how it is most appropriate to act? What do you do if you’re living between two lives – as both Starr and her uncle, a black police officer who lives in a gated community are doing? This novel looks at all these issues and more, but with grace as well as anger, humour as well as politics.

I loved the strong and positive role models of all generations, Starr’s mum and the activist lawyer, Ms Ofrah, the believable world, the relatable nature of the book even to someone a long way away from it physically and culturally. I loved Starr’s friend Maya, and Chris, her boyfriend, trying to do the right thing and understand (here I’ll say that some commentators have mentioned that the white characters in the book are one-dimensional and white culture is dismissed and mocked. I didn’t feel this. For a start, in a way, so what? Hasn’t that happened a LOT in other books the other way around? But Chris is a great, positive character, I loved his friendship with a black gang member, forged over video games, and when the young people have a laugh about white culture in the car, well, it’s funny and it’s good to see your own culture reflected back through a different lens, surely?).

I loved Starr’s raised consciousness, the fact that it’s HARD for her to be a hero, when she’s afraid to speak and knows she won’t be heard, but does it anyway. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s built on hard work and community, and that’s a brilliant lesson for anyone. I loved the clever unpicking of the media’s reaction to Khalil’s murder and how it addresses fake news and lies being spread without being didactic. Yes, there are some speeches about the background to people’s lives and the political ramifications, but even when they feel a bit didactic, this stuff needs to be said and it is in context.

There are lots of funny moments, for example around Starr’s younger brother and when her mum tries to friend her on Facebook. There’s a range of humour from friends teasing each other to savage irony, and the book is impeccably written, and is modern enough and with an exciting enough story to appeal to teenage – and all – readers while retaining the message it needs to share and not wavering from that.

As I said above, I think it should be required reading. This is a review from the heart, saying more than I said in my little journal with my fountain pen. If I’ve spoken wrong, I apologise, and I’d like to have why explained to me. I learnt so much from this book and it will stay with me for a long time.

Note: if you’re an audiobook reader, you may wish to read this review by Grab The Lapels, who experienced it in that version.

Book Review – Cathy Kelly – “Between Sisters” #amreading #readireland18

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Well, that was a good idea, to take a break from blogging right in the middle of Read Ireland month! I just had one of those slumps, and I’ve got behind on reading everyone’s lovely blogs, too, so I’m sorry about that and I will catch up. Here’s my first read for #ReadIreland18 – I’ve actually managed to read two books for the month, as I had two set in Ireland on my TBR, something that doesn’t usually happen!

Cathy Kelly’s a lovely writer, having inherited the dual mantles of Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes (I know Marian is thankfully still with us, but she can’t produce a million books a year so Cathy fills in the gaps). She’s more up to date than Maeve and less madcap and funny than Marian, so definitely has an interest and a place of her own, and she writes lovely stories about believable, interesting and often quirky people.

Cathy Kelly – “Between Sisters”

(3 June 2017, Oxfam Books)

The whole premise of this book can be summed up by a few sentences about 85% of the way in:

I didn’t do the right thing at all; it just seemed like the right thing at the time. But when you don’t tell the truth at the start, when do you tell it later?

Sisters Cassie (mum with a taxing career and a marriage that’s going dull) and Coco (free spirit, runs a vintage clothes shop, hasn’t had a man in her life since she threw Red out for cheating) were irreparably damaged when their mother disappeared when Coco was just a baby. They’re still seeing the repercussions today, quick to move away when things look like they’re going to get abandoned, but always relying on each other.

Can Cassie save her marriage from her mother-in-law? Will Coco ever trust a man again? Their grandmother is still around, with her ramshackle house and garden and her Thursday group of friends (I love how the characters span students to OAPs, all lively and with their own interests and needs) but she’s also full to bursting of secrets. When Coco ends up having to support her best friend through a trauma, it seems to trigger Cassie’s memories, and everything gets almost too much to bear.

While a rich cast of side characters (I loved Phoebe and her fashion course friend Ian) filling the squares of Dublin and lots of nice, satisfying detail, we’re still waiting for those secrets, which we learn about subtly and slowly, to burst out. And what’s this all got to do with a seemingly random woman in London who might be about to host a family reunion show?

The book is not afraid to go near Issues, with some quite hard-hitting stuff about addiction. But the great thing is that it’s full of pugs and one cat, and even the presumably long-gone pugs are there for comfort and nothing sad is mentioned, and the current ones do fine – thank you, Cathy Kelly, for that. A lovely warm read – you can guarantee you’ll get a good comfort read with this author.


I’ve read a few since then, including “The Hate U Give” which was AMAZING but I’m kind of struggling to review it, and of course a book on marathon running as that’s what I’m about to do. It’s good to be back and I’ll be back here more often again now. Wondering if any reader research institute will want my 20 years’ worth of paper reading journals … Oh, I’ve got some book confessions, but they’ll have to wait for another day. Will I get all my March reads in before my Murdoch project round-up on Friday?

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