Random Musings: The TLS didn’t ask but I’m answering anyway – Twenty Questions

I enjoy reading the Times Literary Supplement’s Twenty Questions, in which Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing their favourite books, writing habits and best advice. Many of those featured are playful with their answers. Some come across as generous and unassuming. Others appear a tad pretentious, or perhaps that is the nature of the questions. They encourage a particular shade of cleverness be revealed.

I read a great deal and have done for many years yet it is unlikely I would be regarded, by those who consider themselves the literary elite at least, to be well read. There are too many tomes I have not chosen to pick up, or readily admit to not enjoying. I sometimes ponder who decides on the intellectual worth of a book and why they value their personal opinion so highly.

As a little exercise I decided I would answer the TLS questions. I am a writer and a thinker, although not, perhaps, the sort the TLS had in mind.

I’m doing this for fun, because I want to, and it’s my blog so I can.

 

What is your favourite book published in the past twelve months?

Choosing favourites is hard. Also, what will be enjoyed and appreciated changes with circumstances. In my Books of 2018 post I narrowed my recommendations down to 15 books from around 160 read in that year. Since then, from 90 or so books finished, I would add: a short story collection, Witches Sail In Eggshells by Chloe Turner; a poetry collection, Vertigo and Ghost by Fiona Benson; a couple of translated novels, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel); and half a dozen other works of fiction – The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, Leonard and Hungry Paul by by Rónán Hession, The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

What subject have you found it most challenging to write about?

Men and how so many of them think about and treat women. Their apparent inability to interact with us as they would each other continually perplexes me and I find this disconnect difficult to articulate in any meaningful way. We are all human, with differences and similarities that cross the lines of gender.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

Have you heard of the authors listed in my favourite books list above? They each deserve your attention. The small, independent publishers are discovering many writers deserving wider acclaim – spread the word and read their work.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Dickens. I’ve read many of his novels in an effort to discover why he continues to be highly regarded and widely read.

I am, however, a strong advocate for readers choosing books they enjoy over books they think they should read because some self-appointed arbiter of literary taste tells them it is necessary if they are to be admitted to the high table of literary conversation.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Be yourself (it is incredibly stressful trying to be anything else).

This feeds into the best advice on writing I have been given – to find my own style rather than try to copy someone else. We can all improve by reading others’ work but if it already exists seek out the original.

To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?

Politics is about a person’s beliefs and actions. Writers wish to be read, to have their voices heard. Stories enable them to disseminate their views and thereby influence readers’ thinking. So yes, writing is political, although often in a subtle, cloaked manner.

Do you have any writing tics?

I expect so but until someone points them out to me I will remain unaware of them.

What is the first thing you wrote?

The letter A.

As a teenager I wrote poetry. In a little black book. Thankfully this was destroyed, along with my extensive collection of personal letters and souvenirs from my first 23 years of life, before I moved from Belfast to Wiltshire.

For reasons I can no longer remember I let my sister read one of those poems, one I was particularly pleased with at the time. She told me it would hurt my parents’ feelings. I still struggle finding the balance between expressing myself honestly, as I need to, and being mindful of the potential impact.

How, in your opinion, should we measure a book’s success?

Reader reaction, especially over the longer term. I dislike when new books are rated based on how they sell in the first few months after publication. Continuing reader recommendation over time is a more valuable measure.

What do you read on holiday?

I tend to take short breaks and cram as much activity into those few days away as I have energy for. Most of my holiday reading is therefore done on the journey. I choose books I expect to hold my attention but also be easy to set down without losing the thread. I may choose a thriller, or a story by an author whose work I have previously enjoyed – something to entertain.

I regularly seek out literature that challenges convention but not while on holiday.

Quick questions:

Toni Morrison or Philip Roth? Haven’t read anything by either.

Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick? Haven’t read anything by either.

King Lear or The Tempest? Lear. I haven’t seem The Tempest played and don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare.

Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin? Didn’t enjoy Kerouac and haven’t read anything by Baldwin.

Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson? Woolf. Only know Dickinson from quotes – which should actually have encouraged me to read some of her work.

Hamilton or West Side Story? Are these based on books? I’ve no desire to see either played.

Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? I’ve only read the first Game of Thrones book, which I enjoyed. I read everything I could get my hands on by Tolkien as a teenager but haven’t picked him up since. I seem to remember the plot of Lord of the Rings included numerous journeys – all that effort to get to the gates of Mordor the first time and then they decide to go elsewhere! I enjoyed both screen adaptations.

Gabriel García Márquez or Angela Carter? Haven’t read anything by either.

Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Haven’t read any Christie. Adored Conan Doyle.

Beyoncé or Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan, despite his terrible singing, although I still don’t understand why he was awarded the Nobel.

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Book Review: The Offing

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.

The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.

“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”

“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”

With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.

“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”

“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”

Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.

Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.

“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”

“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”

Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.

Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.

“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”

Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.

I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.

I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with the death of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, while on stage playing King Lear. The theatre is in Toronto and outside a snowstorm is approaching. Witnesses to the actor’s collapse, along with those close to them, form the cast of characters the story will swirl around as it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline spanning several decades. Arthur’s deathday is also the day the Georgia Flu arrives in North America, carried in by passengers traversing the world by aircraft. The known and accepted modern world is about to radically change.

Shakespeare lived in a London coping with recurring outbreaks of plague. The virulent illness that wipes out most of the population in the contemporary setting of this tale is even more devastating. Survivors are few and basic infrastructure soon fails. Systems taken for granted – tap water, electricity, mechanised transport, medication, long distance communication – are no longer available. Food must be grown or hunted locally. Items such as clothing and weapons are scavenged from the remnants of the lost civilisation.

Twenty years later a company of musicians and players travels between small communities in the Great Lakes area providing entertainment – mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. Their mantra is ‘survival is insufficient’ and they are usually welcomed as a distraction from the limited locality people now inhabit to stay safe. The dangers inherent in the early years, after the pandemic decimated North America’s population, have largely receded. Still, though, there are those who will kill to attain their own skewed agenda. Amongst them is the Prophet whose acolytes believe their names were inscribed in the Book of Life, and that those who died were being punished for their sins. This is not the only cult in the slowly recovering territory.

When the travelling players encounter the Prophet they do not heed the warnings until it is too late to avoid the effects of falling under his gaze.

The backstories to key characters are presented, weaving them together. Celebrity and success are explored alongside ambition and various relationships. An underlying theme is one of regret when one’s actions and life trajectory are considered with hindsight. What turns out to be important may not be that which demanded so much time and effort.

Although quite obviously dystopian, I found the story uplifting. Those living in the small communities mostly help each other, working for the common good. There are dislikes and transgressions – people remain flawed and some do terrible things. With man’s footprint on earth limited, however, nature thrives amongst the ruins of his former creations.

The writing is fluid and compelling. Moments of reflection and tension are well balanced, easily maintaining reader engagement. The story is immersive and consistent, with pleasing touches such as the recurring comic book motif. The denouement pulls key threads together whilst allowing for ongoing speculation.

With a more literary bent than many novels in the genre this could appeal to those who normally eschew fantasy fiction. I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read.

Station Eleven is published by Picador.

My copy of this book was given to me by my daughter.

Book Review: Starting Strength

The following review is for the 2nd edition of this book. An updated, 3rd edition was published in 2017.

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, by Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore, is a fitness book advocating safe and effective strength training. It was referred to in the book I reviewed last week: The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40. Both are published by the Aasgaard Company which also provides training seminars and educational symposia for athletes and strength and conditioning professionals.

Around two thirds of the text is taken up with explaining the correct technique for performing five core exercises: squat, bench press, deadlift, press, and power clean. These form the basis for workouts that should be performed by athletes two or three times every week.

Positioning, grip and movement are covered in detail alongside useful diagrams and illustrations. Of key importance is avoiding injury while making the body work as hard as it is able. These exercises are not intended to build particular muscles but rather to engage all muscles for improving strength.

To give an idea of the writing style, this is from the section on the squat.

“The bounce at the bottom of the squat is merely the correct use of the stretch reflex – a muscle contraction enhanced by the proprioceptive detection of muscle elongation immediately prior to the contraction – inherent in any dynamic muscle contraction, added to the rebound provided by the viscoelastic energy stored in the stretched muscles and tendons. Essentially you are bouncing off your hamstrings, not your knees.”

Technical descriptions of the effect of each exercise on the body are balanced by more down to earth explanations. There is also added humour, dropped in as nuggets for those paying attention.

After the extensive sections on each of the five core exercises, details are provided of useful assistance exercises. These work by: strengthening a part of a movement used in the core exercises; offering variations on the core exercises; or providing ancillary exercises which strengthen a portion of muscle mass in a way the core exercises do not. By varying the exercise program in this way the athlete allows their body to recover while still working.

Examples of assistance exercises include:

  • halting deadlifts
  • barbell shrugs
  • partial squats (not for novice trainers as potential for injury high)
  • variations on bench press
  • front squat
  • incline bench press
  • Romanian deadlift
  • chin / pullups
  • dips
  • barbell rows
  • glute / ham raise
  • lying tricep extension
  • curls

Of the last of these the author writes

“Since you’re going to do them anyway, we might as well discuss the right way to do curls.”

The popularity of muscle building machines in gyms, those that claim to work particular muscles, is acknowledged although the use of them is regarded as ineffective.

“Exercise machines have made people a lot of money, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they have been a very large diversion from more productive forms of training.”

This training requires individually tailored programming and a section is devoted to suggestions for developing efficient and effective workouts. The author explains that the body adapts to what is asked of it.

“To get stronger, you must do something that requires that you be stronger to do it, and this must be built into the training program.”

The suggestion is that an athlete starts simple and does not tax their body beyond what it can quickly recover from, that they do not overtrain. Individuals should work to a plan, warming up properly and completing sets, allowing adequate time for rest in between. Expect progress to be quick initially, although always the program should be sensible and safe. Developing muscle memory of the correct technique is more important than pandering to ego and pushing for excessive weight. Regular workouts should only be missed in extremis.

The importance of nutrition is given a brief mention along with changes in body weight and shape. This is not a weight loss plan nor a body building routine. It is strength training for active living.

The final section describes equipment needed for those who may want to build a home workout station. This includes: suitable flooring on which to place a rack, bench, quality barbell and weights. The most important item of clothing is appropriate footwear, although clothes should allow freedom of movement.

I read this book from cover to cover but recognise that its value will be as a reference for those willing to engage in the type of exercise program suggested. It offers a persuasive argument for the advantages of strength training, inspiring me to incorporate this alongside my other, regular exercises (with the assistance of my personal trainer). The core routines are not too time consuming. The improvements promised to the body – inside rather than visual – are well worth pursuing.

My copy of this book was given to me by my son.

Book Review: Witches Sail In Eggshells

Witches Sail In Eggshells, by Chloe Turner, is a collection of seventeen short stories, several of which have won awards. This does not surprise me. The prose is taut and often exquisite. Each story carries unassuming weight and depth. I have been taking my time over each tale as I wished to savour the experience. Writing this consistently good is rare.

The topics explored are pleasingly varied. The protagonists vary in age, situation and orientation. Background to characters and their actions are offered in just a few carefully constructed phrases. Although many of the tales cover just a few pages their plot and development will linger.

The collection has a strong opener in Hagstone which explores what would happen if we got what we wished for. There is an understated dark magic at play. If this isn’t your sort of thing be assured that it does not detract from the ordinary lives depicted that most will recognise and empathise with.

Next up we have Piñata, set around a child’s eighth birthday party. She is an entitled little princess whose mother is struggling to keep up with the wealthier school gate mummies – knowing she is failing. The father cannot see beyond his own needs and insecurities as he faces tries to avoid impending approaching middle-age.

“A passing child hears the profanity, giggles. Lou winces as the two men congratulate each other with back slaps and a half hug. At least the three wise women won’t have heard; they’re too busy casing the room. Divided for better coverage, they’re poking manicured fingernails, taking in the Primark prints and Stu’s vast telly, and the six-inch plastic flamingo dancer he brought her back from Marbella that time, which Lou’s forgotten to hide.”

Inches Apart introduces a couple whose marriage is under strain. Set in a hotel during winter season the imagery is evocative and perfectly reflects the faltering relationship.

Labour of Love tells of the progression of a pregnancy alongside the care of a fruit and vegetable garden. The sadness and hope of the prospective mother is reflected in a crop that is struggling to thrive.

While the Mynah Bird Watched is set in a doctor’s surgery, in a country where resources are scarce. Decisions must be taken about who to help, made more difficult in a small community where histories are shared. There is potential for revenge.

Other tales explore: toxic relationships escalating into violence; the effect of marital breakdown on the women affected when their children become friends; a working mother who harbours a dislike for her children’s nanny told from the younger woman’s point of view; the balance between love, irritation and thwarted dreams in long married couples; the power wielded by an intoxicating partner and the limits of friendship when damage is wreaked.

The House With Three Stories That Might Be Five features a young woman on the run having escaped a cult. The loneliness and almost regret ramp up with the unexpected denouement.

A Raft of Silver Corpses is a devastating yet all too believable reaction to man’s deliberate blindness to the damage caused by his unthinking behaviour.

Lobster Scissors looks at the unspoken pact of family secrets over many years and how these can leak when dementia hits.

The Wetshod Child is written in vernacular, not a style I usually enjoy but in this case works well, the sadness palpable.

The economy of words and quiet power of each story are impressive. Each is also thoroughly enjoyable to read. This is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Reflex Press.

Book Review: Only Ever Yours

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill, is set in a dystopian future where ice caps have melted, sea levels risen, and survivors are concentrated within three main zones: Euro, America and Chindia. In the early days of this new world order the people who survived wanted only boy babies. Potential parents purchased gender specific fertility drugs. Unwanted daughters were considered unworthy of increasingly scarce resources and were dumped in mass graves. With families unwilling to countenance raising girls, extinction loomed as a possibility.

“Genetic Engineers were forced to create women to ensure the survival of the human race. And since they had the opportunity, it would have been foolish not to make necessary improvements in the new women, the eves.”

These lab grown babies are placed in nurseries until they are four years old when they move to schools. For the next twelve years they are educated for their role in society. Some will become companions to the Inheritants – the boy babies born more naturally – and be required to birth and raise their sons. Others will become concubines, providing whatever sexual favours the Inheritants demand. A few will become chastities and help educate the next batch of girl babies.

The rules state that women must be beautiful, look youthful and weigh in at a target weight.

“Fat girls are disgusting. Fat girls are lazy. No one will ever love a fat girl. […] Fat girls should be made obsolete.”

Women must be calm, quiet and compliant, never crying or showing any signs of Unacceptable Emotions. Failure to follow the rules can lead to being sent Underground or to the Pyre. Those women who please the men sufficiently may continue to exist until their Termination Date. Even those who are granted a redesign to preserve their youthful looks are not permitted to live beyond forty years of age.

“All eves are created to be perfect but, over time, they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement.”

The story is told from the point of view of sixteen year old frieda as she enters her final year of school. Her best friend, isabel, has become distant over the summer break leaving frieda unmoored and afraid. She has a deep seeded need to be accepted, harbouring thoughts that she is not good enough or beautiful enough. She feels forced to try to befriend megan who oozes confidence and uses her acolytes to ensure she retains her power within their year. megan is ambitious and voices frustration when she is not provided with benefits she hears others are granted elsewhere.

“I can understand her wanting to leave the Euro-Zone, with its four thousand inhabitants and increasingly limited budget, but most of the world’s money is in Chindia now. It may have been the Americas who came up with the idea for the Noah Project, but it was the Chindians who funded the development and construction of the Zones. Np one else could afford it.”

Over the course of the school year the reader learns of life within the school and the limitations girls are required to accept. In the final few months, under strictly controlled conditions, they begin interactions with the Inheritants. These boys will then choose who they want as their companions, most of the remaining girls being transported to the Main Zone to become concubines.

The opening chapters set the scene and introduce this appalling world. Towards the middle of the book the pace slows, the daily activities and concerns growing repetitive. There are only so many descriptions of clothes, shoes, hair styles and make-up along with associated insecurity, jealousy and bitching that I wish to read – even though it is this preoccupation with female looks that is being addressed in the tale. The tension ratchets up as the Ceremony – when the girls will learn what their future is to be – is just a few days away. The denouement is devastating yet perfectly encapsulates the society that has been created.

The author writes in her Afterword

“It is the story of every teenage girl who secretly believes that she doesn’t belong and that she probably never will. It’s the story of every woman who feels under pressure to look a certain way, to conform to a certain behaviour, and who doesn’t even understand why she does so. It’s the story of what it even means to be a woman in a world that constantly devalues you just because of your gender.”

Written with young adults in mind this is a book that can also be appreciated by an older audience who may benefit from a reminder of the pressures faced by young women in our contemporary society. Despite my criticism of the pace, it is a story well worth reading.

Only Ever Yours is published by riverrun.

My copy of this book was given to me by my sister.