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Earlier this year I finally finished the Narnia series. I never read them as a kid and as I got from one book to the next I kept thinking that maybe I ought to have. By Last Battle it was clear that no, adulthood is exactly the right time to read Narnia, because at least now I’m aware of the heavy-handed indoctrination (Susan’s fate in The Last Battle, the Middle-Easterns Calormenes – urgh!) If in the future my son decides to read them, I know I’ll want us to discuss them together. (Actually, I’m curious about the general fascination with Narnia. Is it the plot or characterization? I found them rather weak. Childhood nostalgia?)
So after Narnia, I picked up another children/young adult fantasy – Fly Trap (Twilight Robbery in the UK) – and it was such a palate cleanser!
I loved Frances Hardinge’s first in the series, Fly by Night, and this one was even better. I’d also argue it can be read a stand-alone. It’s set right after Fly by Night, when the 12-year-old heroine Mosca Mye, her travel companion Eponymous Clent and Saracen, the goose, are looking for greener pastures after (accidentally) triggering a revolution. They end up in Toll, an apparently perfect town… until night falls.
Without giving too much away, in Hardinge’s world words and names have power. Each person is named according to the Saint (or Beloved) responsible for their birth day, but in Toll this has serious consequences. In Toll, all Beloveds have been divided into the bright, good ones and the villainous, dark ones. If you’re born under the right Beloved you’re allowed to live in Toll-by-Day, where life is well-organized and comfortable. Otherwise you’re banished to Toll-by-Night and for all intents and purposes you no longer exist. Mosca you see, was born under Beloved Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. According to tradition, Palpitattle children are “judged to be villainous, verminous, and everywhere that they’re not wanted”.
Part of the plot is about how Toll go into such a society, and the rest is how Mosca deals with her status and her attempts to challenge it. And thus, once again our nomad trio find themselves entangled in new schemes and winding politics.
If I had just one word to describe Fly Trap it’d be “rich”. Rich in plot, that’s almost baroque in its twists, turns, leaps and layers. Rich in characterization, Mosca in particular is an amazing young female character, someone creative and independent, who’ll to survive at all costs, but also capable of great generosity and altruism. It’s rich in content and food for thought: the world building is the perfect basis to write about superstition and critical thinking. Or, if you want to go deeper, theology, crowd mentality and human nature. But, especially, the writing is rich. Hardinge continue to write her “gushy Valentine to the English language“. Here’s a taste:
“Revenge is a dish best served unexpectedly and from a distance – like a thrown trifle.”
“A couple of expressions pulled Clent’s face to a fro between them, like puppies trying to fight their way out of a bag.”
“I generally find,’ Clent murmured after a pause, ‘that it is best to treat borrowed time the same way as borrowed money. Spend it with panache, and try to be somewhere else when it runs out.’
‘And when we get found, Mr. Clent, when the creditors and bailiffs come after us and it’s payment time…’
‘…then we borrow more, madam, at a higher interest. We embark on a wilder gamble, make a bigger promise, tell a braver story, devise a more intricate lie, sell the hides of imaginary dragons to desperate men, climb to even higher and more precarious ground…and later, of course, our fall and catastrophe will be all the worse, but later will be our watchword, Mosca. We have nothing else – but we can at least make later later.”
A great read overall and I agree with Teresa 100%: it’d make the perfect Miyazaki movie!
(The formatting of the blog is temporarily out of sorts, I’m trying to fix it, hopefully it will go back to it’s usual self soon.)
You guys, shame on you! What conspiracy is this? How come I’m only finding out about Shel Silverstein now? Everyone on the internet seems to have a memory associated with his poems and stories and I only heard of him because of Amy’s comment on my previous post (I’m not American, so I guess that might have something to do with it).
After Amy’s recommendation I got curious and the samples I found online hooked me so much that I immediately ordered his three poetry books: Falling Up, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.
All three are wonderful and perfectly capture what I remember about being a kid: the slightly gross and wacky humor, the rebellion combined with pure tenderness, the uncontrolled imagination. They are the perfect read-aloud material, not only for the poems but also for Silverstein’s own illustrations, which often add something to the meaning of the text. I’m only sorry his play on words must be really hard to translate, which limit his audience.
My favorites poems are the “no-nonesense funny” ones, like EARLY BIRD
Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early early bird-
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.
But I also love the ones about exploring the world and its endless possibilities, like LISTEN TO THE MUSNT’TS
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’Ts
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
Don’t you just get a little knot in your throat reading this? I can’t wait for David to be big enough for me to read it to him. Some poems have subtle lessons that will also be fun to explore with little D. What will he make of this (and the one with the masks below)?
The little fish eats the tiny fish,
The big fish eats the little fish-
So only the biggest fish gets fat.
Do you know any folks like that?
I don’t usually go for surreal poetry or literature (really didn’t get into Alice in Wonderland, for instance), but there was something about Silverstein’s writing that hit a cord. He created characters who eat the universe, who write poetry from inside a lion, who invent a light that plugs the sun and a boy who watched so much TV he turned into one. The kind of stuff a child would actually come up with, so t’s a real gift for an adult to pull that off.
Shel Silverstein’s books are often challenged and banned exactly because of this tongue-in-cheek humor. There is also an undeniable leftish, anti-system, free-thinking, rebellious vibe to his work. One poem instructs kids to kill themselves so that parents will feel guilty about not doing what they want, another called “MA AND GOD” ends with “Either Ma’s wrong or else God is”. It does teach defiance and questioning dogmas, but I suspect the parents who get offended may have forgotten what it’s like being a kid.
Thanks once again Amy for the tip. I’m sure these books will become a family tradition.
As of the moment I read The Maze Runner’s blurb I needed to know the ending. I still approached it with caution because in my experience, the biggest danger of dystopian novels with a mysterious premise is that nothing the author produces ever tops my expectations. I’m happy to report I got hooked from the first minute up to the very end, the solution was unexpectedly satisfying, and, extra brownie points, I wasn’t able to figure it out for myself.
A taste of the plot: when Thomas wakes up, he’s inside a lift and doesn’t remember anything except his name. The lift brings him to a glade in the middle of a huge maze, where about 50 boys live. Thomas is the colony’s most recent newbie and he needs to be taught the rules of the Glade and about the boys’ efforts to find out who they are, what’s the Maze and who built it. Think Lord of Flies meets Lost meets The Hunger Games.
But to both Thomas’ and the Gladers’ surprise (and suspicion), after his arrival strange things start to happen, the strangest of all is the appearance of another newbie – the Glade’s first girl.
The Maze Runner is a quick read, the pace expertly and tightly controlled by Dashner, with a good balance between fast action scenes and slower ones for character-development.
I didn’t have many qualms about the book, but unfortunately my biggest one was about the only female character. Teresa spends most of the book in a coma and even afterwards becomes one the only main characters not to have a distinguishable personality. Her physical description was also a bit cringe-worthy: she was (as expected but disappointingly) extremely beautiful, with flawless skin, fabulous hair, etc, etc. I was hoping she’d be a kick-ass heroine, that would go with Thomas on his maze runs, but alas, it was not to be (I suspect Katniss ruined all future YA dystopian female characters for me). I can only hope Teresa will come into her own during the next books in the series.
Still, The Maze Runner is really addictive and I’m not surprised the movie is already on the way, to be directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight. I can’t wait to see how the Maze will look like.
Other thoughts: Devourer of Books, Life in the Thumb, Books and Movies, My Friend Amy, The Cheap Reader, Presenting Lenore, Rhapsody in Books, Beth Fish Reads, That’s What She Read, Muggle-Born, Thrillers, Horror and Comics, Books with Bite, The Book Bind, The Geeky Beach Babe (yours?)
Penelope Lumley was a student at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females when the following ad caught her eye:
Wanted Immediately: energetic Governess for Three Lively Children Knowledge of French, Latin, History, Etiquette, Drawing, and Music will be Required – Experience with Animals Strongly Preferred.
At Ashton Place she discovers the three children were found in the woods by Lord Ashton (an avid hunter), and had been raised by wolves. But Penelope is an optimist, and it takes more than wolf-children (or having to teach them schottische for a Christmas Party) to discourage her.
My audiobook was read by Kathryn Kellgren, and although I was sorry to miss Jon Klassen’s, Kellgren does an amazing job with the satire, the madcap humor and the occasions howl. It’s a very original book and I had to laugh out loud by myself several times:
“In this way Penelope’s happy and sad feelings got all mixed up together, until they were not unlike one of those delicious cookies they have nowadays, the ones with a flat circle of sugary cream sandwiched between two chocolate-flavored wafers. In her heart she felt a soft, hidden core of sweet melancholy nestled inside crisp outer layers of joy, and if that is not the very sensation most people feel at some point or other during the holidays, then one would be hard pressed to say what is.”
“Clearly, being anxious is a full-time and rather exhausting occupation.”
“There is no alarm clock like embarassment.”
And my absolute favorite:
“If it were easier to resist, it would not be called Chocolate Cake.”
It’s a short book, with several of characters, but Wood give us enough to make each distinguishable and memorable. I found Penelope particularly likable, with her no-nonsense and practical approach to challenges.
The Incorrigible Children is funny, endearing, intriguing, and any book lover will revel in the clever references to Dickens, Longfellow and other literary personalities. I just can’t help but wish it wasn’t part of a series. I wish it would be a stand-alone little pearl of a book, enough in itself.
It’s a very short book, around 180 pages, and indeed, we quickly jumped from one topic to another, from the constant removal of parents in children’s books (Mary Poppins, Narnia, Harry Potter), to the art of taming lions or the legality of burying people outside cemeteries in different countries.
The story is about Bertie, who grew up in an isolated farm in Africa. There he rescues an orphaned white lion cub, who becomes his best friend until Bertie turns eleven and is sent to school in England. The lion is sold to the owner of a French circus, who promises to take good care of it, but Bertie vows that they will meet again.
It’s a perfect book to discuss in a class of 7-12 year-old, and will enter my especial list of Recommendations For Boys Who Don’t Like Reading: there are lions, a circus, a War and vivid descriptions of exotic African landscapes. But what makes The Butterfly Lion stand out from other children’s book is the melancholy that seeps through.
There’s this bitter-sweet feel to the book that grabbed me immediately (à la Up), and made me prepare for an unhappy ending that never materializes… or does it? I don’t usually deal with kids at work or socially, so I wonder what they’d make of the book or of the big twist in the end. Do they (even if intuitively) feel the sadness and longing, or do they get caught in the adventure of it all?
The Butterfly Lion is wonderfully written and for the first time it made me curious to pick up Morpurgo’s other famous book, War Horse. I’ve heard it in audiobook, spotlessly narrated by Virginia McKenna and Michael Morpurgo himself.
Can any book be more quintessentially English than The Wind in the Willows? I blame it for my early stages of Anglophilia, but I’ve only very recently realize it was originally a book. I knew it first through the Thames Productions adaptation.
I have fond memories of not only the show, but also, strangely, of Thames’ intro. When it came up you knew you were in for a treat, and although I know it was also the intro to other shows, in my memory it’s forever attached to The Wind in the Willows.
Ah to be a kid in the 80s in Portugal! I’ve no idea why, but on top of the ones dubbed in Portuguese, we got a huge mix of cartoons dubbed in other languages (originals were usually Japanese) and then subtitled in Portuguese. I can still sing parts of the generic of Alice im Wunderland and Ferdy the Ant in German, Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or in French, Captain Planet (We‘re the Planeteers, you can be one to!) in English and Boes Boes in Dutch. Others were left in their original language and only subititled, like the soccer cartoon Tsubasa (Japanese – do you remember the Japan vs. Brasil game? A classic!) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Russian).
But I digress. The Wind in the Willows was very different from I was expecting. The biggest surprise was that Grahame alternates the adventures of Toad, Mr. Badger, Ratty and Mole with slower chapters that, although still involving the characters, are more lyrical and focused on things like love of home, friendship and the wonder of small things. In theory, these changes in mood could become contrived, but Grahame does it so naturally that you can’t help feeling that all works wonderfully.
It was a great and beautiful discovery, these thoughtful and happy sections. More nostalgia-happy than puppy-happy, and some parts got me all teary.
My favorite moment was when Mole, who had lived with Ratty a long time and was having too much fun to notice time fly, noticed a familiar smell while walking in the forest. The smell of his long-forgotten home.
Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.
Also loved the descriptions of food, in particular of Mr. Badger’s winter storage. Could his home be a better safe haven, especially after you were lost in a cold, unknown and dark forest? Grahame’s descriptions of domestic bliss can only compete with those by Mrs. Gaskell.
Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.
I understand the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is the general favorite and I can well understand why. This is the moment when The Wind in the Willows really goes beyond “children’s book” and becomes, simply, a “Classic”. Still, my favorite, the one that really made the book for me, was “Wayfarers All”. It’s about how the Water Rat gets seduced by the nomadic lifestyle of his friend the Sea Rat. It appealed to my wanderlust streak and rang true in many moments. It starts:
The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why.
I read this in a tattered second-hand copy but want to get a beautifully illustrated edition for my collection, to read to any future children.
I’ll leave you with the gang singing The Open Road:
Other thoughts: Just Books, The Literate Mother, somewhere i have never travelled, Rebecca Reads, Books ‘N Border Collies, A library is the hospital of the mind, Books Under Skin, Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner (yours?)
Second and last part, again in no order of preference.
7. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge (England, UK)
It’s not a complete unknown (its sequel is on the shortlist of the Guardian children’s fiction prize), but I only know three other people who’ve heard of it.
As I’ve mentioned in my review, someone in Goodreads said that Fly By Night was “written as a gushy Valentine to the English language” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better description.
Fly by Night is the story of 12-year-old Mosca Mye. She loves words and it’s her favorite treat to find new ones to play with. Before her father died he taught her how to read, a dangerous skill in a world where education is feared and books are distrusted. When a travelling storyteller passes through town, she sees her opportunity to explore the world.
It’s a children’s story, but adults will appreciate it as well (even more?). It has many layers, it’s too subtly political, full of dark humor and clever sarcasm. I’m glad there’s a sequel because, as Mosca said, “True stories seldom have endings. I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”
8. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (USA)
The Mists of Avalon (39,925 ratings on Goodreads) is very popular, but Firerbrand (only 2,911) doesn’t have the recognition it deserves. While I agree that The Mists is the better of the two, Firebrand is a (very) close second.
I’m a sucker for Greek mythology, so that might be the source of my amazement. Firebrand is the re-telling of the Trojan War and Homer’s Illiad (that “boys story”), seen through the eyes of Kassandra, the priestess cursed with seeing the future, but never being believed. She’s also the twin sister of Paris, the Prince who brought Helen to Troy.
Great historical detail, a nice dose of magic, a strong female heroine and a wonderful love story. What more can you ask?
9. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (Scotland, UK)
Is it possible to be in awe of a book, to obsess about it, put it in your top-3 best of all time, and at the same time be afraid to recommend it? Yes. This might also be why The Lymond Chronicles are probably the most under-rated books in this whole list.
So here’s a warning: The Lymond Chronicles might be some of the most challenging books you’ll ever read, but also become the best and most rewarding.
They are a series of six novels set in mid-sixteenth century and telling the story of a young Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Renaissance man through and through: polyglot, philosopher, military strategist and musician. We follow him from Scotland to the deserts of North Africa, from Istanbul to Moscow.
The detail is exquisite and the plot extremely intricate, readers are never spoon-fed, but you’re constantly in awe of Dunnett’s genius. You won’t find a staggering amount of reviews online, but notice the high average rating and praise.
10. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Un viejo que leía novelas de amor) by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile)
Like Captains of the Sands, this book is very popular in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, but never made the jump to the wider world. I’ve heard it talked off as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Amazonian deforestation.
António Proaño is a simple man. He lives in El Idilio, an isolated village in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon forest. The dentist comes only twice a year and brings with him the romantic novels that António started to love after his wife died.
He wants a quiet life – his hammock, his monkey meat, his rum, his novels – but all is disrupted when gringos start hunting ocelot cubs and push the animal into a killing spree. António respects the ocelot, but is asked by the El Idilio’s nasty mayor to kill it.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a beautiful tale about the jungle, man’s impact and Nature’s response when threatened.
11. The Royal Game (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
While Dr. B is in a Nazi prison, he keeps a fragile grip on sanity because of a book he stole from a guard. The book is about chess, a compilation of the games of past masters, so Dr. B starts playing chess in his mind, endlessly, voraciously. After learning every single move of any variation in the book, and having nothing more to explore, Dr. B begins to play the game against himself, developing the ability to separate his mind into two: I White and I Black.
After the war, a traumatized Dr. B has given up chess, until on a cruise he’s challenged by an arrogant world champion…
Don’t really remember how I came to read this, suspect it was a book-ring organized by Bookcrossing, but I’m glad I did. Zweig was a friend of Freud and you can see his influence in the way Zweig writes about blind passion, obsessive, over the top, all-consuming, Id-type of passion.
12. Os Olhos de Ana Marta by Alice Vieira (not translated yet, but would probably be something like The Eyes of Ana Marta) (Portugal)
Nymeth over at “things mean a lot” actually offered to translate this book and buy copies to give away through her blog. I’d do the same in a heart-beat, so Editorial Caminho, if you’re listening: we can help promote it, just make it happen!
A girl called Marta thought she didn’t belong to her family. Her mom is “fragile” and her father distant because of The Great Calamity, a mysterious event that happened long ago and no one in the house speaks about. Marta is raised by the house-keeper-come-nanny, in a house with rooms that are always closed and questions that can never be asked.
I had the same thought after finishing it as I did after To Kill a Mockingbird: I’ve just witnessed perfect storytelling. I’m only sorry most of you won’t be able to enjoy it too 😦
So this is it! Hope I’ve increased my karma by spreading The Joy and that I’ve persuaded you to at least try some of them. I’d really like to hear about your own hidden-gems!
Most bloggers have difficulties in writing reviews of books they really loved, but I find the “ok” ones much more challenging. The Amulet of Samarkand is a good example. I had fun with most of it, at points wished the story would go faster, didn’t feel particularly attached to any character and its biggest lasting impression is that after Googling Samarkand I’m set on visiting it.
The story is about Nathaniel, an apprentice magician that is clearly more talented than his mediocre master. When his master doesn’t protect him from undeserved humiliation at the hands of one of Britain’s greatest magicians, Nathaniel vows revenge.
This alternative Britain is set in the present time, but somehow I kept imagining it in a typical fantasy landscape, with horse and castles. There are fun foot-notes that give you extra insight into this world and show that the author did his homework. Because of them I can’t help thinking of The Amulet of Samarkand as a Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris for children.
The book’s highlight is by far Bartimaeus, the daemon Nathaniel summons to help him in his quest. He is hilarious, with just the type of sarcasm and aloofness you’d expect from a 5,000-year-old djinni that’s forced to serve a 10-year-old.
The down side of this is that in the chapters that focus on Nathaniel (where we lose Bartimaeus’ first-person voice), there’s a sudden lack of sparkle. It’s not by chance the series is called The Bartimaeus Trilogy…
I’ll mentally file this book under “Books I Wish I’d Read When I Was 12″.
According to Wikipedia, Miramax is preparing an adaptation, directed by John Philip Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) and written by Hossein Amini (who did a great job with The Wings of the Dove). Overall very promising!
Word on the street is that Larklight is a steampunk must-read. It’s also on Goodreads’ Trippy Books list, so my curiosity was spiked.
The book has a great premise: in Victorian England, Sir Isaac Newton discovered that alchemy could power spaceflight, an event that accelerated human exploration of space by centuries.
Her Majesty’s Empire now stretches across several parts of the solar system, an ideal setting for this epic Victorian space-opera. 12-year-old Art, 15-year-old Myrtle and their father live a quiet life in a boat/ship called Larklight, until a mysterious visitor throws them into an adventure across space, where they must fight against evil forces to save the universe.
I was completely in love with the story until impossibly wacky things started to happen. Of course you can argue that steampunk itself is impossible, but it’s still based on some sort of reality and partly grounded on the laws of physics. On the other hand, walking and talking fungi inhabiting the Moon is less than likely…
The language of the book is enjoyably Victorian and Art is a fun (if clueless) first-person narrator, but I quickly get bored with books where anything can happen, as was the case with Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t even finish. I’m afraid my lack of appreciation for surrealism in paintings, sculpture and film also applies to literature.
However, I might have ignored the lack of boundaries if Reeve had included an interesting female character. Unfortunately we’re left with a choice between whinny Myrtle who while escaping from certain death refuses to run across the villain’s lawn because of a “keep off the grass” sign, and a blue she-lizard pirate who decides to dress up like a lady to get the attention of the human boy she’s in love with.
If you don’t mind a stereotype or two, and if you think you might like something that a tripping Verne might have written, this is the book for you!
Book read for the Steampunk Challenge.
Other thoughts: Book Clutter (yours?)
Although it’s a children’s book I would recommend it to everyone, including people who get entranced by a Chagall or Klimt, people who can’t help thinking “I could do that” when looking at a Miró or Mondrian, and those like me, who do both.
Dylan is a young boy living in the small Welsh town of Manod (population: very few and rapidly decreasing). So small that Dylan becomes the only boy in his school. He’s fervently proud of Manod, but his family might be forced to move to greener pastures. They own the only gas station/copy shop/coffee house around, but as people leave town, business is dangerously slow.
But Manod’s lethargy is about to be challenged: because of floods in London, the entire art collection of the British Museum is moved to the inside of Manod Mountain’s abandoned mines. As townspeople start to interact with the paintings, the whole village slowly comes to life once again.
There are few things that I love more in literature than a British village full of eccentric characters, and Manod has its fair share. It’s fascinating to see their reaction to art’s strange new world: Nice Tom, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ #1 fan, is inspired by Meléndez’s “Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts” to create unique window displays, while the bitter Mr. Davis, the butcher with a phobia of liver, after seeing Monet’s “The Bathers at La Grenouillère” takes a decision that will astonish the whole town.
After reading the amazing The Monuments Men last year I needed to know more about art preservation during WWII and Framed caught my eye because it’s based on a true story. During the blitz the paintings of the British Museum were hidden in a vast mine, a mile underground, in the remote town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. The whole thing was supposed to be top-secret, but we’re talking about a small town after all… Once a month one of the paintings was sent back to London’s National Gallery and people would queue up just to look at that one painting.
Stuff like this makes me all fuzzy inside.
In an interview, Cottrell Boyce mentions another story that inspired him: during the war the Hermitage in St. Petersburg still offered tours to visitors, even though the pictures were all stored away. The guides would point to empty spaces on the wall and describe the wonders that used to hang there.
This book is worth a try, promise: it’s funny, slightly ironic, touching AND the BBC produced an adaptation, which is always a good sign.
Other thoughts: The Tired Reader (yours?)
Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 5: Art business/restoration