It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

May 25, 2015 What are you Reading 2

It’s Monday, What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted over at Book Journey. I thought I’d join in with this meme as a way to be more consistent with my posting schedule, the idea is to post regularly. As I treat this blog as a book journal I thought it might be nice to have this kind of information documented.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary ShteyngartThe Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook introduces Vladimir Girshkin, one of the most original and unlikely heroes of recent times. The twenty-five-year-old unhappy lover to a fat dungeon mistress, affectionately nicknamed “Little Failure” by his high-achieving mother, Vladimir toils his days away as a lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. When a wealthy but psychotic old Russian war hero appears, Vladimir embarks on an adventure of unrelenting lunacy that takes us from New York’s Lower East Side to the hip frontier wilderness of Prava–the Eastern European Paris of the nineties. With the help of a murderous but fun-loving Russian mafioso, Vladimir infiltrates the Prava expat community and launches a scheme as ridiculous as it is brilliant.

Bursting with wit, humor, and rare insight, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is both a highly imaginative romp and a serious exploration of what it means to be an immigrant in America.

Belle de JourBelle de Jour by Joseph Kessel (Translated by Geoffrey Atheling Wagner)

The startling and groundbreaking novel that inspired Luis Buñuel’s film by the same name is finally available once more. In a world that blurs the lines between feminism and female sexuality, Belle de Jour remains as vital and controversial today as it was in its 1960 debut.

Severine Serizy is a wealthy and beautiful Parisian housewife. She loves her husband, but she cannot share physical intimacy with him, and her vivid sadomasochistic fantasies drive her to seek employment at a brothel. By day, she enacts her customers’ wildest fantasies under the pseudonym “Belle de Jour”; in the evenings, she returns home to her chaste marriage and oblivious husband. Famous for its unflinching eroticism, Joseph Kessel’s novel continues to offer an eye-opening glance into a unique female psyche.

Check out my reading stats from last week thanks to Literally.

* Books part of my reading challenge for 2015; re-reads and more books in translation

What Are You Reading?

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It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

May 18, 2015 What are you Reading 1

It’s Monday, What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted over at Book Journey. I thought I’d join in with this meme as a way to be more consistent with my posting schedule, the idea is to post regularly. As I treat this blog as a book journal I thought it might be nice to have this kind of information documented.

The TestimonyThe Testimony by James Smythe

A global thriller presenting an apocalyptic vision of a world on the brink of despair and destruction.

What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words ‘MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID’?

Would you turn to God? Declare it an act of terrorism? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?

The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn’t.

The Testimony – a gripping story of the world brought to its knees and of its people, confused and afraid.

SmokeSmoke by Ivan Turgenev (Translated by Michael Pursglove)

One of the most celebrated novels by the author of Fathers and Children, presented with pictures and a section on his life and works

On his way back to Russia after some years spent in the West, Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov, the son of a retired official of merchant stock, stops over in Baden-Baden to meet his fiancée Tatyana. However, a chance encounter with his old flame, the manipulative Irina—now married to a general and a prominent figure in aristocratic expatriate circles—unearths feelings buried deep inside the young man’s heart, derailing his plans for the future and throwing his life into turmoil. Around this love story Turgenev constructs a sharply satirical exposé of his countrymen, which famously embroiled its author in a heated quarrel with Dostoevsky. A melancholy evocation of impossible romance, Smoke represents the apogee of Turgenev’s later fiction

The Courilof AffairThe Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky (Translated by Sandra Smith)

From the author of the bestselling Suite Française.

In 1903 Léon M – the son of two Russian revolutionaries – is given the responsibility of ‘liquidating’ Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education, by the Revolutionary Committee. The assassination, he is told, must take place in public and be carried out in the most grandiose manner possible in order to strike the imagination of the people.

Posing as his newly appointed personal physician, Léon M takes up residence with Courilof in his summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions. But over the course of his stay he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill – his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his Ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments.

Set during a period of radical upheaval in European history, The Courliof Affair is an unsparing observation of human motives and the abuses of power, an elegy to a lost world and an unflinchingly topical cautionary tale.

Check out my reading stats from last week thanks to Literally.

* Books part of my reading challenge for 2015; re-reads and more books in translation

What Are You Reading?

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

May 16, 2015 Historical Fiction, Martin Amis 2

The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisTitle: The Zone of Interest (Goodreads)
Author: Martin Amis
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2014
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Angelus Thomsen is an officer working at Auschwitz; on August 1942 he gains his first sight of Hannah Doll, the wife of the camp’s commandant. After a few encounters, their relationship becomes more intimate. Despite their attempts to be discreet, Hannah’s husband Paul becomes suspicious. He threatens a Jewish Sonderkommando into killing his wife. However things are not that simple and life is far more complex.

The Zone of Interest is Martin Amis’ fourteenth novel and the second to focus on the holocaust (his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow being the other). The novel is told from prospective of three narrators; Angelus Thomsen, Paul Doll and Szmul the Sonderkommando. This allows Amis to explore the three different sides of this budding romance and betrayal, however what it does not talk about is far more interesting. Thomsen and Doll are so focused on Hannah, while Szmul is unwillingly dragged into this complex situation.

I found the plot to be a bit flat and the ending of this novel anti-climactic but it was Martin Amis was not saying that really stuck out to me. The way Amis told the story allowed the reader focus on the melodrama of this love triangle but we have to remember this was set in Auschwitz. We can explore the indifference towards human suffering and the prisoner’s general psychology without the need to talk too much about this situation. Szmul’s narrative does focus more on the life in the concentration camp from a Jewish point-of-view but it is the Germans’ lack of interest that stuck with me. The more I think about this novel, the more I admire the way Amis wrote this book. I cannot think of another novel that explores an issue like this by actively trying to avoid the topic.

At the time of reading this book, I found this novel to be average. However, it was the post-reading experience that really stuck with me, and I really appreciate the satirical approach Martin Amis took. I am determined to try some more of his works; I need to find out if he uses satire consistently in his novels. I would love to know which novel I should check out next from Martin Amis.

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The Whispering City by Sara Moliner

May 15, 2015 Mystery, Sara Moliner, Thriller 2

The Whispering City by Sara MolinerTitle: The Whispering City (Goodreads)
Author: Sara Moliner
Translator: Mara Faye Lethem
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 2013
Pages: 416
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
My Copy: Paperback

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General Franco was at the height of his power in Barcelona, 1952. When a wealthy socialite is found murdered in her mansion, the police scramble to seize control of the investigation. An over eager journalist named Ana Martí Noguer is assigned the task of shadowing the lead investigator, Inspector Isidro Castro. However, Ana discovers a bunch of letters that dramatically contradict the official statement made by the police. Now she is in mortal danger; her information can expose a conspiracy of murder and corruption.

The Whispering City (originally title: Don de lenguas) is a Spanish novel written by Sara Moliner and translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem. Sara Moliner is the pseudonym of the writing duo of Spanish author Rosa Ribas and former German philosophy professor Sabine Hofmann. This is their first book together and, with their backgrounds and the premise, I went into this novel with high expectations. Sadly, this turned into a run-of-the-mill thriller novel which is not a bad thing; I just was hoping for so much more.

The back drop of a fascist government, known for their shadowing tactics, mixed with the philosophical background of Sabine Hofmann meant I was hoping for some interesting insights. I was hoping to learn about the cultural landscape and the political impact of Barcelona in 1952 but the main focus on this book was the murder and the conspiracy. Having recently read Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo (translated by Edith Grossman), which explored the political and cultural issue in Peru at the time, I was expecting something similar with The Whispering City.

The Whispering City is in no way a bad novel, and I found it incredibly entertaining and worked as a palette cleanser for me while I was reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis and The Stranger by Albert Camus. One of the main reasons I am drawn to books in translation is the insight into the cultural life and I did not get that with this book. The Whispering City reminds me a bit of The Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, with a journalist as a protagonist investigating murder and corruption. While it was not as dark as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found it a lot more enjoyable but still the same thriller formula.

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A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

May 14, 2015 Mikhail Bulgakov, Russian Lit Project, Short Stories 0

A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: A Young Doctor's Notebook (Goodreads)
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translator: Hugh Aplin
Published: Alma Classics, 1926
Pages: 155
Genre: Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

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A Young Doctor’s Notebook (also known as A Country Doctor’s Notebook) is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories published early in Mikhail Bulgakov writing life in Russian medical journals. Bulgakov was educated at the Medical Faculty of the Kiev University, though his interest lied in theatre. When World War I broke out, he volunteered with the Red Cross. He was sent directly to the front lines to work as a medical doctor and was badly injured on two separate occasions.

In 1916 Mikhail Bulgakov graduated and was quickly appointed as a provincial physician to the Smolensk province. He found himself performing procedures he had only seen once or twice while at medical school. The seven stories in this collection explore the ignorance or stubbornness of people towards medical treatment, an issue that is still very relevant today. While A Young Doctor’s Notebook was set in the small village doctor in revolutionary Russia, the stories were all written in the 1920s.

Like most editions of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, my copy of the book came with one extra story called ‘Morphine’. This was also published in a medical journal and is much different to the other stories. ‘Morphine’ is yet another semi-autobiographical story that explores Mikhail Bulgakov’s own struggles with a morphine addiction. His injuries in the war lead to chronic stomach pains and the easy access to pain relief quickly lead to a morphine addiction. Bulgakov did end up leaving the medical profession to pursue a career in writing stage plays and was able abandon the use of morphine.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate Mikhail Bulgakov’s humour and writing style. If you have seen the TV adaptation, you may notice some similarities to the story, blending the seven short stories and his other story ‘morphine’ together to deliver a fabulous dark comedy. I binge watched the show over a weekend and I was not ready for it to end, so I picked up this collection and this quickly started an obsession with the life of Bulgakov.

While Mikhail Bulgakov is mainly known for his book The Master and Margarita (a book I recently re-read), A Young Doctor’s Notebook may be a more accessible book. It allows you to get a taste of Bulgakov’s style and humour with the seven short stories. I read an edition that was translated by Hugh Aplin and he is quickly becoming a favourite of mine and I will be hunting down everything he has translated (he translated mainly Bulgakov and Dostoevsky). Learning more about Mikhail Bulgakov’s life does give me extra enjoyment and context when reading his books. I am slowly reading a collection of his letters and diaries in a book called Manuscripts Don’t Burn, so you may see a lot more about Bulgakov on this blog.

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Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley

May 13, 2015 Paul McAuley, Science Fiction 0

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuleyTitle: Something Coming Through (Goodreads)
Author: Paul McAuley
Published: Orion, 2015
Pages: 384
Genre: Science Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Aliens exist, and now they need our help. After Earth is ruined by nuclear and environmental disasters, it is puzzling that humanity has been given fifteen habitable planets to start a fresh. The Jackaroo assist with the move to the new planets, infrastructure is built and humanity is saved. Chloe Millar is mapping out the changes caused by importing alien technology when she stumbles upon a pair of orphaned children that appear to be possessed by an ancient ghost. On one of the new planets, Vic Gayle is investigating a murder in a remote excavation site that could lead to a war between rival gangs. Something is Coming Through is a new novel by prolific science fiction novelist Paul McAuley.

Something is Coming Through interlinks the story of Chloe Millar and Vic Gayle, all the while trying to understand why the Jackaroo are helping humanity. The premise of this book sounded too intriguing to pass up; think a science fiction crime novel that explores the concept of first contact. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work within the book; it tries to do so much but everything moves too slowly to make it enjoyable. Even the Jackaroo sound like they are an interesting race but there is no real exploration into their motivations which really hurt the novel.

I am not sure if I am no longer into reading science fiction; it has been a while since I enjoyed this genre (with the exception of Russian sci-fi). Or maybe I just need to stick to the classics, those novels from the 60s and 70s that explore sociology and philosophy. I just found Something is Coming Through to be a very bland novel that relied too heavily on dialogue. I have to accept the fact that I enjoy novels with substance that explore themes or ideas over plot; this is why Russian sci-fi is still great.

 I struggle to find anything positive to say about Something is Coming Through; it is one of those occasions where I should have abandoned the book. I honestly cannot even remember why I decided to pick this book up but I was intrigued by the premise. Sadly I found nothing enjoyable about this novel and I do not know if I will try Paul McAuley again. I would like to think I was willing to try authors again but at the moment, there is no way.

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It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

May 11, 2015 What are you Reading 0

It’s Monday, What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted over at Book Journey. I thought I’d join in with this meme as a way to be more consistent with my posting schedule, the idea is to post regularly. As I treat this blog as a book journal I thought it might be nice to have this kind of information documented.

Wolf TotemWolf Totem by Jiang Rong (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)

An epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols-the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world-and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf

Published under a pen name, Wolf Totem was a phenomenon in China, breaking all sales records there and earning the distinction of being the second most read book after Mao’s little red book. There has been much international excitement too-to date, rights have been sold in thirteen countries. Wolf Totem is set in 1960s China-the time of the Great Leap Forward, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

Searching for spirituality, Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen travels to the pristine grasslands of Inner Mongolia to live among the nomadic Mongols-a proud, brave, and ancient race of people who coexist in perfect harmony with their unspeakably beautiful but cruel natural surroundings. Their philosophy of maintaining a balance with nature is the ground stone of their religion, a kind of cult of the wolf.

The fierce wolves that haunt the steppes of the unforgiving grassland searching for food are locked with the nomads in a profoundly spiritual battle for survival-a life-and-death dance that has gone on between them for thousands of years. The Mongols believe that the wolf is a great and worthy foe that they are divinely instructed to contend with, but also to worship and to learn from. Chen’s own encounters with the otherworldly wolves awake a latent primitive instinct in him, and his fascination with them blossoms into obsession, then reverence.

After many years, the peace is shattered with the arrival of Chen’s kinfolk, Han Chinese, sent from the cities to bring modernity to the grasslands. They immediately launch a campaign to exterminate the wolves, sending the balance that has been maintained with religious dedication for thousands of years into a spiral leading to extinction-first the wolves, then the Mongol culture, finally the land. As a result of the eradication of the wolves, rats become a plague and wild sheep graze until the meadows turn to dust. Mongolian dust storms glide over Beijing, sometimes blocking out the moon.

Part period epic, part fable for modern days, Wolf Totem is a stinging social commentary on the dangers of China’s overaccelerated economic growth as well as a fascinating immersion into the heart of Chinese culture.

Let the Right One InLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Translated by Ebba Segerberg)

It is autumn 1981 when the inconceivable comes to Blackeberg, a suburb in Sweden. The body of a teenage boy is found, emptied of blood, the murder rumoured to be part of a ritual killing. Twelve-year-old Oskar is personally hoping that revenge has come at long last—revenge for the bullying he endures at school, day after day.

But the murder is not the most important thing on his mind. A new girl has moved in next door—a girl who has never seen a Rubik’s Cube before, but who can solve it at once. There is something wrong with her, though, something odd. And she only comes out at night…

Sweeping top honours at film festivals all over the globe, director Tomas Alfredsson’s film of Let the Right One In has received the same kind of spectacular raves that have been lavished on the book. American readers of vampire fiction will be thrilled!

black girl white girlBlack Girl / White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Fifteen years ago, in 1975, Genna Hewett-Meade’s college roommate died a mysterious, violent, terrible death. Minette Swift had been a fiercely individualistic scholarship student, an assertive—even prickly—personality, and one of the few black girls at an exclusive women’s liberal arts college near Philadelphia. By contrast, Genna was a quiet, self-effacing teenager from a privileged upper-class home, self-consciously struggling to make amends for her own elite upbringing. When, partway through their freshman year, Minette suddenly fell victim to an increasing torrent of racist harassment and vicious slurs—from within the apparent safety of their tolerant, “enlightened” campus—Genna felt it her duty to protect her roommate at all costs.

Now, as Genna reconstructs the months, weeks, and hours leading up to Minette’s tragic death, she is also forced to confront her own identity within the social framework of that time. Her father was a prominent civil defence lawyer whose radical politics—including defending anti-war terrorists wanted by the FBI—would deeply affect his daughter’s outlook on life, and later challenge her deepest beliefs about social obligation in a morally grey world.

Black Girl / White Girl is a searing double portrait of “black” and “white,” of race and civil rights in post-Vietnam America, captured by one of the most important literary voices of our time.

Check out my reading stats from last week thanks to Literally.

* Books part of my reading challenge for 2015; re-reads and more books in translation

What Are You Reading?

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Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham

May 6, 2015 Jennifer Graham, Mystery, Rob Thomas 0

Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas & Jennifer GrahamTitle: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Goodreads)
Author: Jennifer Graham, Rob Thomas
Published: Random House, 2015
Pages: 336
Genre: Mystery
My Copy: Paperback

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Veronica Mars is back, and this time she is investigating what might be her most challenging case. The Neptune Grand has hired her to investigate a woman’s claims of assault and rape in one of their hotel rooms. This is a high-profile scandal that has the potential to ruin this ritzy hotel. Mr. Kiss and Tell is a mystery that finds Veronica working for the ‘big guy’ investigating something she has personally experienced, how will she cope with this type of case?

Most may be aware that I am a big fan of the Veronica Mars series and I was so excited that they were continuing the story in book form. Now the books are slightly different, switching from first person to third, but the characters and setting are all there. If you have seen the TV series you know that sometimes Veronica can get involved in a case that can challenge her own values. The show and book have an interesting exploration into the class struggle and Mr. Kiss and Tell has Mars working for the people (this time Neptune Grand) with the money.

What I enjoyed about this book is the way that Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham explored that struggle between Mars’ own personal experiences and the nature of the case. Rob Thomas often did this in the TV show and it was nice to see this conflict returning for the book series. Veronica Mars is a strong independent woman and I love this about her but I like to see that little bit of vulnerability coming through in this book, it really helps humanise her.

It is hard to talk about mystery novels without giving away the plot but what I will say is that I did not enjoy this one as much as The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. This book does feature a lot more of Logan Echolls but I always ship Veronica Mars and Mac Mackenzie (who featured heavily in book one). I am so happy to read more about Veronica’s life and I will be anxiously waiting for the next book in this series.

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The Stranger by Albert Camus

May 2, 2015 Albert Camus, Classic 6

The Stranger by Albert CamusTitle: The Stranger (Goodreads)
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Matthew Ward
Published: Vintage, 1941
Pages: 123
Genre: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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The Stranger (also known as The Outsider or L’Étranger) tells the story of Meursault, an unsympathetic French Algerian, who after attending his mother’s funeral, finds himself killing an Arab man. The novel follows a first-person narrative that explores the events before and after this murder. Albert Camus said is best when he said “I summarised The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

On the surface The Stranger is the story of an emotionless protagonist; Meursault does not care about anything and could be considered a sociopath. However, this novel is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy on the absurd and existentialism. So in order to fully grasp the intent behind this classic novel, we must look into just what existentialism is and more practically absurdism.

The absurd is often referring to the conflicting philosophy that humans have a tendency to seek out value and meaning in life. However absurdism believes it is logically and humanly impossible to find any meaning of life. Philosophers may have very different doctrines but they generally believe that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject. Though existentialism comes from the disorientation or confusion that we are living in a meaningless (or absurd) world.

For Albert Camus, The Stranger is an exploration into the meaning of life and if life has no meaning what is the purpose of morality. Meursault’s detachment from the world is a result of his conclusion that life is meaningless; “The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell right away: his gaze never faltered. And his voice didn’t falter, either, when he said, ‘Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.” Paradoxically, it was only after being sentenced to death, that Meursault was able to obtain some sense of happiness.

Without an understanding of Albert Camus’ philosophical ideas, I do not think that the reader will have any hope in truly understand or appreciating this novel. However I have heard that The Stranger has been an option for high school students (especially in America) to study. I wonder how many students fall into the trap of picking this novel thinking it was short only to discover how difficult it is to analyse. I do not have enough of an understanding of absurdism or existential philosophy to full appreciate The Stranger. However re-reading this novel has helped me understand this enough to enjoy the Camus’ philosophical ideas.

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Monthly Kickoff – May 2015

May 1, 2015 Monthly Kickoff 0

Wolf TotemWelcome to May, hard to believe that the year is going so fast. I hope that your year has been going as well as mine, especially when it comes to reading. This month in the book club we are reading Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (translated by Howard Goldblatt) as part of our translated fiction theme. I’m excited to dive into this book and get a better understanding on Chinese culture and history. Just a reminder, the discussions of this book will be happening over on the threads at Goodreads.

Next month the theme is noir and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain has been picked for the group read. I am really looking forward to re-reading this book and seeing what I get out of it this time around. July’s theme has also been picked and we are reading a book about books, so if you have any suggestions, please head over to Goodreads and make sure you nominate as quickly as possible, because nominations are only open for a very short time and the first six-ten books will be picked. Don’t forget you can join in on all the other fun over at Goodreads as well as helping us pick our next theme and books by voting in the polls.

As for my reading this month, I am not actually sure what I am going to read with the exception of the following books I have on the go already; Anna Karenina, The Firebird, Get Shorty and Manuscripts Don’t Burn. I have a little bit of vacation time happening this month and I hope to take full advantage of this and get some reading done. Please let me know if you have any books planned for the month, and happy reading everyone.

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