Book review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction has never really been my thing but, ever keen to push my reading boundaries, I included it as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge in October. It’s a genre I know little about, so picking an author or title might have been tricky, but I had in fact known for some time who I would select, having become aware of Le Guin after she died in January last year at the age of 88. The obituaries talked about how she had for years been under-rated, the inference being that as a woman she was overlooked in this male-dominated genre, but that she had a devoted critical following and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks.

She was prolific, producing nineteen novels, as well as short story collections, poetry and non-fiction during a writing career that spanned six decades. (I note that her first full-length novel was published when she was 37, which gives me some hope!) Many of her novels form part of her Earthsea series, so I chose The Lathe of Heaven as it is a stand-alone novel.

the lathe of heaven imgThe Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971, but was set in ‘the future’ – Portland Oregon in 2002. This future world is one in which the global population is out of control, climate change has wrought irreparable damage and war in the Middle East threatens geopolitical stability. The most alarming (and engaging) thing about the book, for me, was how prophetic it was; in 1971 did readers think this was some dystopian world? Worryingly, many of the problems envisaged by Le Guin are recognisable features of our environment in 2019.

The main character is George Orr who has an unusual affliction – he is able to change reality through his dreams. It is a difficult concept to get hold of, but when he dreams a new situation, all history is also altered to facilitate the revised present and no-one but he is able to recall how it was before. For example, in 1998, a nuclear war virtually destroyed life on earth, but George ‘dreamed it back’ and in the new iteration the nuclear war never happened.

George is disturbed by these dreams and turns to prescription drug abuse to stop himself from entering deep sleep when these ‘effective dreams’ happen. He has to break the law to get sufficient supplies, however, and when he is caught he is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr William Haber, to help him wean off the drugs. When George explains his problems to Haber, the ambitious but under-achieving doctor quickly sees the potential for using hypnosis to ‘suggest’ dreams to George which will organise the world the way Haber wants it. Haber’s intentions are not entirely malign; he wants world peace and widespread good health, for example, though he is careful also to ensure he benefits financially and in terms of academic status as a side-consequence. The problem is, Haber’s suggestions are not always interpreted by George’s brain in the way Haber intended. So, when Haber suggests a dream for the elimination of racism, the result is not, as Haber thought, that people become universally open-minded and accepting, rather everyone’s skin colour changes to grey, ie there is no longer any visible indicator of race.

Events become ever more bizarre and George, desperate and realising that Haber is using him for his own ends, which George is worried will have devastating consequences, ultimately, turns to a lawyer to try and get out of the therapy and stop Haber. The lawyer, Heather, becomes George’s ally and partner and he ultimately falls in love with her. But as realities keep changing, she is at times, farther and farther away from him.

It is a fascinating story and I enjoyed the philosophical journey, the question of the extent to which we are in control of our destiny, as well as the very relevant themes of global warming and the locus of power in society. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the ending lost me a little – at that point it felt more ‘of its time’, though I can also see where Le Guin was coming from. Don’t forget this was published not long after the moon landing so the concept of outer space, whether there was anyone else out there, were, I imagine seen somewhat differently than they are today.

Recommended, if you’d like to try something a little different.

If you are a fan of science fiction, what other authors would you recommend?

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Booker shortlist book review – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” by Elif Shafak

I posted last week about the events of my life over the last couple of months, the dominant event being the death of my mother in mid- September. So much has happened in that time and yet I have felt rather out of the loop, my attention having been on other things. It feels strange to be posting here again, to be writing my first book review in what feels like months – can you believe I have a few butterflies?!

Booker Prize 2019The Booker prize winner(s) were announced last week and for the first time in years, and against the explicit rules of the contest, the judges awarded the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I have not read either book yet, though I am currently listening to The Testaments on the excellent BBC Sounds and enjoying it enormously, though it is extremely dark. There has been so much publicity around Atwood and The Testaments that I was wondering how on earth the Booker prize judges were going to be able to not award it to her! So, I think the judges probably made the right decision. By now, I would probably have worked my way through at least two thirds of the shortlist (I’ve never managed all six in the period between shortlist and winner), but, for obvious reasons, I have not read that much so far this year.

10 minutes, 38 seconds imgIt is somewhat and sadly ironic that I was reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World at the time of my mother’s death, a novel about a woman, Leila, an Istanbul prostitute known as Tequila Leila, who is brutally murdered in a back alley by street thugs. Rather than death being an instant occurrence, however, the author explores the idea of it as a transition from the world of the living to the ‘other’ (with a duration, for Leila, of ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds) during which time her whole life flashes before her. Leila’s life story is told through a series of recollections about her five closest friends, how and when she met them and what impact they have had on her life. We learn that Leila came from a relatively affluent family. Her father was anxious for heirs, but when his wife proved incapable of having any he took a second wife, Binnaz, a much younger woman from a lowly family, who gave birth to Leila. Binnaz was forced to give up the child to the first wife to bring up as if she were her own, whilst Binnaz, who never recovered mentally from the trauma of that event, was thereafter known to Leila as ‘Auntie’.

Leila was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, ran away to Istanbul at the age of sixteen and, somewhat inevitably, was lured into a world of prostitution where she suffered many abuses, including being disfigured by a lunatic client who threw acid at her. She eventually found love in her life, with D’Ali, but he was killed soon after they were married and she found herself back on the streets again, just to survive.

We learn about the five friends in her life, people who crossed her path and whom she helped in different ways, and who became her family after her parents disowned her. Through these stories we learn about Leila’s humanity and warmth, her openness and kindness. After Leila’s death, with no living relatives willing to claim her body, the city consigns her to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’. Her friends have no rights to bury her so they set about stealing her body from the graveyard. The second half of the book is an account of how and why they do this and how eventually they give Leila the resting place they feel she deserves.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish national presently exiled from her country where she feels that with her liberal politics and as a free speech and human rights activist she would be in danger from the ultra-conservative government. It is clear, however, that she feels the present ruling party does not reflect the true culture of Turks, and in particular the ancient and multi-cultural city of Istanbul. The book is peppered with political messages and layered with historical references, particularly the Armenian genocide of 1915, a passion of Shafak’s, and the main topic of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.

I have been an admirer of Elif Shafak since I saw her speak at the Hay Festival last year; she is a woman of huge intellect and achievement, a true polymath. However, I struggled with The Bastard of Istanbul as I have also with this book – I just did not like either of them as much as I wanted to. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… is a really novel and interesting concept but I just felt like it did not deliver on its promise.

When my mother was admitted to hospital and was clearly close to death, I wondered whether to abandon this book; I thought I might find it too upsetting a read in the circumstances. But I’m afraid the book just did not move me. The second half even felt slightly slapstick.

I will keep admiring Shafak and keep trying with her books. Maybe I’ll find something I love!

What has been your favourite read from this year’s Booker shortlist?

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Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

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My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

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Book review – “To A Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron

It is some time since I posted a book review – pretty shabby for a book review blog, though I like to think my non-review posts are suitably bookish too! I posted last week about my challenges in getting much reading done at the moment; even Why Mummy Drinks, Gill Sims’s very light, asking-to-speed-read, novel that my book club chose, seemed to be taking me ages. It has been a very busy few weeks – my paid work has been quite demanding (as has my non-paid work!), we have been undertaking a big decorating project in the house, plus we are properly working on the garden for the first time since we bought this house four years ago, and I am on revision-watch as one of my kids is on study-leave for exams this summer.

To A Mountian in Tibet imgSo my reading time has been severely curtailed. I managed to finish Why Mummy Drinks just after the book club meeting, just as well it was a quick read and did not require too much mental investment. My other big read for last month, however, did. Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet was the April title for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was travel writing, not a genre I know very much about, so I did a fair bit of research before choosing Thubron. It came with some fantastic recommendations. At just over 200 pages, it is not particularly long, but it felt like a very slow read.

The author has written more than a dozen travel books (as well as eight novels), mostly about the East. In this book he crosses the border between Nepal and Tibet on foot, to follow a route taken by thousands of pilgrims each year to Mount Kailas. I confess I had not heard of it, but it is one of the holiest shrines on earth, important to both Hindus and Buddhists. Whilst I have not read much travel writing, I guess my expectation is that it should educate and inform the reader about the location (tick), consider some of the social and political conditions of the people living there (tick), and include the personal reflections of the writer (tick). After all, isn’t travel writing as much about an emotional and psychological journey as well as physical one?

Thubron’s book does all these things and does them well, and the writing is beautiful. I learnt a great deal about Buddhism, about pilgrims’ reasons for undertaking the perilous trek around Kailas, about the political tension between China and Tibet, and about the poverty and social problems in the region, particularly in Nepal. All of that said, I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about the book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but there was something languid about the book that at times failed to engage me. Some of the history was rather dry, while the account of the poverty, the terrible conditions in which some of the people in the towns and villages on Thubron’s route live, was brought vividly alive.

The ‘journey’ that Thubron himself is on, in a state of bereavement, all his family members now dead, reflects the motive of many of the pilgrims in whose footsteps he is following. He writes about his late parents, and his long-dead sister, but I feel this wasn’t covered in as much depth as I would have liked. The blurb on the book’s cover indicates this is a major element, but I would disagree and feel the content could have had a little more meaning if these passages had been included in a slightly less random way.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and I would like to read more of Thubron’s work. I imagine if you know a little more of the subject matter it might have greater impact.

Which other travel writers would you recommend?

 

 

Book review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Educated imgThis book caused something of a sensation when it was published last year. It is the extraordinary memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho, as part of a large Mormon family. Nothing too outlandish there until the author begins telling you about the father’s survivalist beliefs (he hoards supplies of food and fuel in their bunker for when catastrophe strikes, as he believes it inevitably will), his Christian fundamentalism (quite extreme beliefs about, for example, what women should wear, that even their fellow Church members find uncomfortable) and the obsessive control he exerts over the rest of the family. The unconventional nature of the family would be enough to make this a fascinating read, but what makes it shocking is the level of violence, of almost sadistic cruelty. Some of is quite hard to read and at times I found myself gasping out loud.

Tara, the author, is the youngest of seven children. The family lives in an isolated area, below Buck’s Peak mountain in Idaho, far from town and the influence of ordinary society. Her father runs his own business making money from scrap metal. He is a powerful patriarchal figure whose word must be obeyed and who has strong conspiracy theory beliefs. He distrusts all figures of authority and all institutions, including the police, doctors and nurses, public officials, banks and school teachers. His children are “home-schooled” (in the loosest sense of the term, since he also believes there is little need for an academic education), have no official records (neither of her parents can be sure exactly how old Tara is or of her birthdate) and never attend a hospital. Tara’s mother becomes a “midwife”; more accurately she is self-educated and self-appointed to attend births in other families with similar distrust of conventional medicine. (Later in the book she begins to develop her own homeopathic remedies which will make the family’s fortune.)

The book is a largely chronological account of Tara’s growing up and her increasing scepticism about her family’s views. She is an intelligent and curious child and inevitably questions some of the beliefs and assumptions underpinning her parents’ beliefs. As she gets occasional glimpses into the lives of others she determines that what she desires most of all is an education in a proper school or college. When one of her brothers manages to achieve this, and encourages her to seek it out for herself also, she makes the necessary arrangements. What seems to me to fuel Tara’s gradual withdrawal from the family, however, is not the desire for an education but an increasing intolerance of the violence experienced by her brothers, at the hands of their father, and that meted out to Tara herself by her brother Shawn, a deeply disturbed individual. The terrible ‘accidents’ that they all endure (even Tara’s mother sustains a head injury in a car crash that leaves her with unspecified brain damage) are the direct result of wilful neglect of normal standards of safety (her father removes all the seatbelts from the family car). Make no mistake, this level of violence and cruelty is all about control and ruling through fear.

Slight spoiler alert: Tara does eventually break free from her family, though it is a difficult journey for her, and she finds herself torn many times between her attachment to her parents and siblings, in spite of everything she has had to endure from them, and her academic ambitions which see her winning scholarships to Cambridge and to Harvard. Her achievements are extraordinary given her background and her lack of formal education. She realises how sheltered her life has been when she stuns a lecture room into dumbstruck silence by asking the teacher what is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’. Adapting to life ‘in the outside world’ is extraordinarily difficult and she often wonders whether it might just have been easier to stay where she was.

I found this both a shocking and a moving read. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the book; the family has closed ranks around itself and some members have contradicted Tara’s account of events. The author alludes to some of these differences in the notes section and also states at several points throughout that her memory of an event is vague and she is relying on others’ recollections. I felt at times uncomfortable reading the book, it felt voyeuristic. At other times I found myself disbelieving – how could Tara even think about going back to her family after all they had done. It was hard to imagine how she could not see through the lies and the control. But then, on the other hand, this is an account, you could say, of abuse, and of how the victim can be drawn back to the perpetrator. Especially where those perpetrators are her closest family. Without them she has no-one.

Recommended, but not the easiest of reads.

How do you rate Educated?

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Book Review – “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

I posted on here last week about my brain needing to have a little break from the Man Booker shortlist (especially as I have not found all the books particularly engaging so far). It is a rather bleak shortlist. I have also been unwell for a couple of weeks with sinus problems, and none of these books are exactly a ‘pick me up’! So, on a day when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself I lay down on the sofa with The Music Shop, my book club’s reading choice for November, and read the whole thing in one sitting. I loved it!

This book caught my eye last year, so it has been on my mental TBR list for some time. In September I attended a one-day conference run by the group that publishes the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook on how to get your book published (almost finished my novel), at which Rachel Joyce was a speaker. Rachel came to novel-writing relatively late in life, coming to prominence only in her late 40s (encouraging!) when her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) was widely acclaimed, and in fact found its way onto the Man Booker Longlist. Rachel came across as a lovely, down to earth human being, but with her own fascinating story to tell, and a warm and inspiring approach to all the novice writers in the room. I bought The Music Shop at that event.

The Music Shop imgThe books open in 1988 when the central character Frank opens a music shop in a rundown area (Unity Street) of an unnamed city. Frank is passionate about music, something that was instilled in him by his late mother, the eccentric Peg. It is probably the only the good thing that Frank got from her, and as the book goes on, we learn much about the lack of love and security in his childhood. This is important as it helps us to understand Frank’s actions later on. The other thing that Frank is passionate about is vinyl; he refuses to sell either cassette tapes or the new-fangled CDs in his shop, much to the chagrin of the salesmen who tell him he is a dinosaur and will have to change with the times. They gradually abandon him.

Unity Street is run-down and regularly vandalised. There are only a handful of businesses, all of them marginal and barely surviving, such as the small shop selling religious souvenirs, run by a former priest, the tattoo parlour run by the indomitable punky Maud, and the two brothers running the funeral parlour. It is a street of misfits and Frank, with his assistant Kit – clumsy, loveable, naïve – slots right in. It is the ‘80s, however, and Britain is changing. Property developers are anxious to get into Unity Street, for the residents in their run-down houses and the shop-owners barely making ends meet to leave and to bulldoze the whole area to make way for shiny new apartments.

One day, Frank meets Ilse Brauchmann. First, she faints outside his shop. The traders all rally round to help her. Frank is immediately attracted to her, which throws him into a tailspin as this is something he has never felt before. Frank has no self-esteem and does not believe she could possibly feel the same way about him. Ilse, however, leaves her handbag behind in the shop. Kit and the others make great efforts to track Ilse down, fascinated by her mysterious presence, though Frank is nonchalant. They find Ilse and draw her into their community.

Eventually, after some false starts, Ilse, on hearing how Frank has changed the lives of so many of his customers by bringing music to them, asks him to teach her about music. They begin to meet weekly in a café where Frank’s confidence gradually builds as he talks about the one subject he knows, that he feels confident about and which enables him to be his true self.

Their burgeoning relationship is destined to fail, however, as they stumble from one misunderstanding to another, because of Frank’s fear, but also because there seems to be something about Ilse that she is not revealing.

This book is a love story, but it is a roller-coaster of one, that will take you on twists and turns you cannot anticipate. It kept me absolutely gripped – I was at times so frustrated with both of them, but also deeply moved by their respective stories and the things I as the reader knew were getting in the way. The ending is not what I was expecting at all.

It is also a story about something softer and gentler which we lost when certain powerful commercial forces came and took over our towns. To that extent this book is much more than a love story, it succeeds on so many other levels too. The Unity Street traders are all lonely people who have had their troubles in life. They are all ‘the left-behind’ but they have each other and they are rich, nuanced, powerful characters in their own right and mostly have the last laugh.

I recommend this book highly. A great story which is truly uplifting. It will make you laugh at times and it may also make you cry.

Have you read The Music Shop? If so, what did you think?

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