A Box of Books for 2015

Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close.

I have always loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. And so I approach things a little differently.

I assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books.  And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, with my thoughts when I read it, to remind me why that book was in my box.

I try to pick my favourites; and I also try to pick a cross-section of what I’ve read, so that when I look at a box I know where I was in my life as a reader that year. This hasn’t been my best reading year, but I’ve come to realise that my tastes have changed a little and I think I have a clearer idea now of what I want to read in the future.

This year’s box holds twenty books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, though I have to say I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …

Books that I re-read aren’t there, because of course I know I will find them in the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time. And I only allow an author one book a year, because I have to draw a line somewhere.

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

* * * * * * *

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The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska..

“This was the beginning of a very real love story, complicated because each had their own history and complications in different parts of the country.

That story was told beautifully, with sensitivity and understanding. These people and their lives were real; they were fallible and they were fragile.

I was so very taken with that story that I was disappointed when I realised that it was going to be told with another story, set on Garve many years earlier. But I was soon every bit as interested in that story.”

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

‘Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, was Prime Minister! He headed a coalition government, and he had risen not so much as the result of his own charisma and ambition, more because there was no other candidate acceptable to all of the parties and willing to do the job. Now to rise to such a position is a great thing, but I feared for the new Prime Minister. He was too honest, too sensitive, and too unwilling to compromise his principles. Wonderful qualities in so many ways, but qualities you would want in a right-hand man, that would make you want to pick him for your team or hold him up as a role model; but not qualities that would make him a great leader of men.’

Weathering by Lucy Wood

“The world that Lucy Wood creates lives and breathes; and it’s a world where nature is very, very close. I could feel the rain; I could hear the river. The river and all of the life in and around it has much of a place as the people who move through the story.

The story ebbs and flows, it moves backwards and forwards in time, and it works beautifully. One every page there’s an image, an idea, or a memory, and this is a book to read slowly, so that you can pause and appreciate every one. And so that you can appreciate how profoundly this novel speaks of mothers and daughter, how our relationships and the roles that we play evolve, how our understanding of each other and the world around us change overtime.”

The Luminaries by Eleanor  Catton

I loved this book – the story, the structure and the writing – and I meant to write about it, but I never did. I plan to read it again, and to write about it them. For now though, here are its opening words:

“The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

Such was the perception of Mr. Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the twelve men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.”

Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey

“This might be the most astonishing, the most beautifully written memoir that I have ever read.

Anna Lyndsey was a civil servant when light began to affect her. What began as irritation when she worked in front of a computer screen grew into a condition where she had to live in darkness, in a room completely and utterly blacked out, wrapped in dense, heavy clothing, because even the faintest hint of light – natural or artificial – would cause her agonising pain.

As her sensitivity increased she tried different things – an indoor job as a piano teacher, any number of therapies – but the progress of her condition was inexorable.”

* * * * * * *

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The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp

“Margery Sharp’s 1933 novel – her fourth – is light, bright and witty, and it’s thoughtful, emotional and profound too. Not many authors can do all those things, and I don’t think anyone but Margery Sharp could wrap them up in a book as engaging and readable as  ‘The Flowering Thorn.’

‘The Flowering Thorn’ tells the story of Lesley Frewn. She was a Londoner, and you could probably call her a bright young thing. She had private means – not enough to make her fabulously wealthy, but more than enough to give her a very nice lifestyle. She had a lovely flat, her wardrobe was full of the latest fashions; she loved, art, music and theatre and partying with her circle of friends and suitors. But one day something went wrong.”

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Though Broken Harbour is a classic police procedural, the quality of Tania French’s writing and her depth of understanding of her characters make it much more than that. I might call it a state of the nation novel. I might call it a wide-ranging human drama. I might call it a psychological study.

But maybe I should just call it a very, very good book.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

‘In 1898 a widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Her claim was that he had faked his death 1864 death, because he had been the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, who had chosen to live a different life under a different name.

Under that name the Duke had worked as a furniture dealer, married, and raised a family. Eventually he decided to end his double life and return to the ducal seat, Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire until his death some fifteen years later.’

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

“Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will keep her their for several months. Bored, she starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her grandmother’s workbox.  She draws a house, with a garden, set in rough moorland.

When she falls asleep she dreams that she is standing outside the house she drew. She goes to the door but she finds that she can’t get in, because she didn’t draw a door knob. She adds that the next day, and after the next night’s dream she adds a staircase, so that she can go upstairs to meet the boy she drew looking out of a window.”

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

‘The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.’

* * * * * * *

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Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

‘This is a beautifully written story, it speaks profoundly, and I know that I am going to go on thinking about it for a very long time.

It begins in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a girl child who lives on the streets. She and her brother had only their wits to live on, stealing what ever they could to survive from one day to the next. I was captivated by this child, by her life and her spirit, by her utter reality, before I even knew her name. And I knew that I had to follow her story before I understood why.’

Jam Today by Oriel Malet

‘Oriel Malet was a success in the literary world at a very early age. She was just twenty when her first novel, ‘Trust in the Springtime’, was published and she was only three years older when her second book, ‘My Bird Sings’, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her prize money bought her a motorcycle, and a trip to Paris.

‘Jam Today’ tells the story of the six months that the author spent in that city, with her good friend Flavia. The pair had no need to work or to study – though they take a few art classes and do a good bit of reading, for their own amusement and to impress their families – they were there to enjoy life, to explore the city, and to meet the people.

It’s a lovely book; light as air; made buoyant by youth, love, and charm.’

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

‘This story is beautifully and intricately crafted, and it’s clear that attention has been paid to every little detail of character, setting and plot. It rewards slow careful reading, because all of those details are important, they work together, and they draw you right into this finely wrought world.

The plot so cleverly constructed. Sometimes I could see where it was going, sometimes I couldn’t, but in the end it all made wonderful sense.

This is a book that asks questions about life; about how predictable, how predetermined, how comprehensible it might or might not be. You might chose to consider those questions, or you might want to simply enjoy the journey through this lovely book.’

The Usurper: An Episode of Japanese History by Judith Gaultier

‘I saw echoes of other stories in this one; some older stories and myths and some literature from closer to the authors own era. And though the setting is seventeenth century Japan there is much in her story that is timeless and universal. This is a very human story; a little predictable in places but well thought out and constructed.

I have to say though that the story was secondary to the world and the culture that the author wanted to illuminate. My own background in her subject is minimal, but I felt that she used her knowledge well, and that it must have been quite wonderful for her contemporaries, who didn’t have the possibilities for travelling and acquiring knowledge that we are blessed with now, to learn of history and culture on the other side if the world like this.’

Doctor Serocold: A Page from his Daybook by Helen Ashton

‘I found that this is one of those books that captures the story of a single day in the life of its protagonist, and that in doing that illuminates his whole life and the world around him. It’s one of those books for people like me who marvel at the fact that every person they see, every person they pass in the street, has a whole life story; and wonder what some of those stories might be.

Doctor Serocold is an elderly doctor in a small country town. His day begins early, when he is called to the deathbed of his partner, the man who had been his mentor and who has become a dear friend; and it ends late as he watches over the birth of a child, and the start of a new life. The events of the day, and his awareness of his own mortality as he waits for the results of his own medical tests, draw out a rich seam of memories and emotions’

* * * * * * *

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The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

”The Fountain Overflows’ was Rebecca West’s first book in twenty years; and it was to have been the first volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of her century. She didn’t live quite long enough to complete that story, but after reading this book I am eager to read the next book and to read the final, unfinished work.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it tells of growing up in a creative, musical family, from the perspective of one of the children of that family; a girl named Rose.’

 Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland

It’s lovely to be living in a golden age for reissued golden age crime fiction, but sometimes it’s tricky to decide which books to choose from so many lovely possibilities.

I found many reasons to pick up ‘Knock, Murderer, Knock!’ by Harriet Rutland, and it proved to be an excellent choice. It was a very well told story, and so many things were done so very well that I would have quite happily read on – and looked for the author’s other books – even if there hadn’t been a mystery to be solved.

The writing is witty and literate; the characters and the settings are acutely observed; the plot is very well managed; and the author balances an understanding of convention with a distinctive style of her own to make this country house murder mystery – set in a run-down spa resort – one of a kind.

 The Golden Age of Crime Fiction by Martin Edwards

The discussion of specific titles told me that the author had a wonderful depth of knowledge of subject; and he made me want to read any number of books again in the light of what I had learned as well as reading many others for the first time. I was fascinated as I learned how the authors used their books to refer to each other,  and so many interesting details that I really don’t know where to start.

The narrative moved slowly and steadily through time, but I was so caught up with everything in this book, with the interplay of true crime, social history, lives lived and crime fictions, and with the wealth of wonderful detail, that I hardly noticed. That speaks volumes for the author’s depth of knowledge, for his love of his subject, and for the craftsmanship he deployed in the building of this extraordinary book.

The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric

‘A wonderfully wide-ranging plot, rich with details, taking in European and Latin American history, art and culture, religion and convent life, and a wonderful cast of supporting characters, each with their own story, twists and turns so cleverly until every one of those five narrators has told their story.

That story was theatrical; it was utterly believable – on its own terms – but it was just a little bit larger than life. The shifts between characters who stood for the light and characters who stood for the dark were very effective, and it was only when  the narrative stayed with one side or the other for too long that it lost its hold, just a little.’

 Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson

I have to think about this a little more before I start to write, but I can say now that I am so taken with the new way of writing that Dorothy Richardson found and I am eager to continue my journey with Miriam trough the thirteen volumes of ‘Pilgrimage’.

This is how her story begins:

“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels. She would have time to think about the journey and decide what she was going to say to the Fraulein.

Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.”

* * * * * * *

Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2015?

And what do you plan to read in 2016?

39 thoughts on “A Box of Books for 2015

  1. I love the way b you summaries your reading. It makes me want to gather the books up and read them now. You have so much enthusiasm for your characters, they seem like real people. I have put my plans for 2016 up on a post today,. I do love a new year. It is like a clean slate with new adventures to come. Here’s to 2016 and the boxes of books ahead.☺

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  2. A fantastic box of books there Jane. I loved The Luminaries when I read it too just such a brilliant novel. I would love to get hold of Doctor Serocold, I recently read a book by Helen Ashton called Yeoman’s Hospital and I have two others; Half Crown House and Parson Austen’s Daughter waiting to be read. I also have The Fountain Overflows. Happy reading to you in 2016.

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    1. I am lucky that my library held on to many of Helen Ashton’s books, and it really is time I worked out which one to order next. Half Crown House is most likely, as I see Scott @ Furrowed Middlebrow has just named in in his year-end favourites, I am quite sure that you will love The Fountain Overflows – I’ve the sequel already and the writing is just gorgeous,

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  3. What a great idea for a list, Jane. I love Trollope but haven’t yet read The Prime Minister. I, too, would put The Luminaries into my box for 2015, plus Jane Gardam’s Stories, This is Sadie (picture book by Sara O’Leary), Sidewalk Flowers (picture book by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith), The Book of Negroes (by Lawrence Hill), Sweetland (by Michael Crummey), Girl Runner (by Carrie Snyder), Astray (by Emma Donoghue), What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (by Haruki Murakami) and, of course, Jane Austen’s Emma. And probably a few more, but those are the first ones that come to mind.

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    1. Oh, I do like the look of your box. I’ve been meaning to read Jane Gardam for ages, and I see one or two interesting names that are new to me. Though I can’t say The Prime Minister is Trollope’s very best I loved it. Ferdinand Lopes is such a wonderful villain, and though Plantagenet Palliser wasn’t cut out for the role of prime minister I can’t help thinking that he would be so much better that the one we have now.

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  4. What a lovely box of books, Jane. I plan very llittle as you know, but I do intend to read the Richardsons! Apart from that, I think the only commitments I have are the 1938 Club whenever it happens, and a Herman Hesse reading week. I like to keep my reading fluid!

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    1. That sounds eminently sensible. I aim to read more from my own shelves, more classics and more in translations. I’ll find books for themed events where I can – and I have some good ones for 1938 – and you may spot a few more one-day author events after Margery Sharp Day.

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  5. Ooh, what a great box. I shall come back and have a rummage from time to time. I got very hard on myself and my books for this year, and there were a couple from this year’s top ten (which refused to be 10, and insisted on staying 11. All will be revealed tomorrow. What got, in the main, knocked out was some amazing reads of this year – Rebecca Mascull’s Song of The Sea Maid would have been in there for sure if I had done a ‘Top Ten of books published in 2015’ And she would for sure have been there had I done a ‘top ten fiction’ anyway, rather than a ‘top ten’. I didn’t have quite enough .extraordinary non-fiction reads to warrant a separate non-fiction category, so the 4 amazing NF’s in my list squeezed out some brilliant fictions

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      1. I was, but I’ve also surrendered to the retrospective bingo card, which has enabled me, on another post, to add 24 books, some of which broke my heart to exclude. One book naughtily came in twice, which possibly means it was THE book

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  6. I always wonder (and admire) how you find such a wonderful (amazing!) range of books to pack into your box. I would put The Watchmaker into my box. too… before I started it, I would never have expected it to captivate me as much as I did. Plus, a lot of Trollope this year. Wishing you a lot of wonderful reading in the new year…and looking forward to hearing all about it!

    PS I have a little bit of bookish trivia for you… on Fleur Fisher, you once told us about a charming book by Alice Duer Miller, and I made a note to look for it (found it online, but haven’t read it yet). But I have been reading another book, about the early days of The New Yorker, and she pops up as as the aunt of one of the founding editors — he was drifting around and she encouraged him to become a writer. (And threw great parties, apparently…)

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    1. Well, I scan my library’s fiction reserve, I pull books from the shelves that have been waiting for some time, and I pick up so many ideas from lovely bloggers and librarythingers ,,,,

      Thank you for such a lovely piece of bookish trivia, and for reminding me that I meant to read more of Alice Duer Miller.

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      1. I have a few that have been on the shelves for years.My excuse is that i keep borrowing library books that have to be read quickly.

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  7. I really must get round to reading ‘The Luminaries’. i downloaded a copy when it first came out because I knew the ‘real’ book would never fit on my reading stand. Maybe that is why it is still languishing unread. If I was falling over a hardback copy every time I stood up I would do something about it! I read ‘Marianne Dreams’ way back when and thought it was superb, but far too scary to give to the children it was then being marketed for. I should go back and have another look, perhaps.

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    1. My copy sat for a long time, but eventually I read it in parallel with a very good audiobook. And I have to say that it’s as well I discovered ‘Marianne Dreams’ as a grown-up. When younger I would have loved the idea but I would have had nightmares too.

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  8. I like this box concept 🙂 I would like to read The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell and The Golden Age of Crime Fiction by Martin Edwards. I have created a Top 10 reads of 2015 post (scheduled for later this week) it was hard to dwindle down all the great reads to just 10 though!

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  9. A diverse and fascinating list! I knew exactly which book from your list I need to go back and give another try…the Fountain Overflows. I don’t think I appreciated it as much the first time, but after reading your review it intrigues me again! My reading list for 2016 closely resembles my list for 2015; since my eyes are cooperating better now I am making up for lost time. I am still working through some Margaret Kennedy books–just finishing Outlaws on Parnassus,(that took awhile!) and have two more Kennedy books at the ready; plus there is my George Eliot rediscovery goal, which involves re-reading my faves and reading for the first time Daniel Deronda, Felix Holt. Getting back to my Nan Fairbrother collection–‘The Cheerful Day’. Plus, I am working hard to finish the reviews for my Margery Sharp website, which means reading books again for a fresh viewpoint before I can review them. The trouble is…when you are trying to be really selective in what you read–i.e. conserving precious optic nerve use!–it is difficult to read books I didn’t truly care for the first time around. So I have saved my least favorites (The Faithful Servants, In Pious Memory, Summer Visits) for the very last…and that makes writing an unbiased review all the harder. I just finished writing the review for Summer Visits, and actually appreciated more things about it this time around. I still don’t love it, but could at least see the merits in the always excellent writing style of Ms. Sharp! Next up is Britannia Mews, which I find fascinating for a number of reasons. Thank you, Jane, as always for your lovely lists and inspiration!

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    1. Should you want to rest your eyes, I can recommend Harriet Carmichael’s readings of Rebecca West. I listened in parallel with the book for The Fountain Overflows and though I’m reading This Real Night without audio accompaniment I can still here the voices.

      I loved Daniel Deronda, and I want to progress with my chronological reading of Eliot next year. I need to get Margaret Kennedy, because I was shocked when I put my box together that I’d read nothing of hers all year. Margaret Kennedy Day should be along not long after Margery Sharp Day. But, for now, Cluny Brown is waiting at the other end of the sofa ….

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  10. Lovely inspiring box, Jane. Particularly would like to read Ashton. Trollope’s Barchester Tales are on my 2016 list. Can’t wait to dive in!

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  11. What a wonderful collection Jane! thank you for sharing with us…I know like always, I owe you a debt of reading some of best works, which I would have missed, had you not shown the way! Happy Reading in 2016!

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  12. Thanks for sharing the box of books! Great idea. You don’t say which books you plan to start filling your next box – any ideas yet? I am intrigued by The Luminaries on your list and really hope to get to this huge book next year. Happy New Year to you and happy reading in 2016.

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  13. What a box of delights and some fabulous reading there. How do you think your reading / tastes changed this year? I know I tended towards the longer, the more involving and the Trollope this year, myself. I loved “The Curiosity Cabinet” when I read it a few years ago – I was given a copy by a writer friend of the author, which was a pressure, but did really enjoy it.

    I haven’t quite picked my 2015 books, as there’s always that chance that the book of the year will be the last book I read, and there are still two days to read through. 2016 will be full of the books I have photographed in the last few days, plus all the others acquired from January last year onwards (oops). It will have more time for reading, as I’ve loved the last week or so where I’ve made room for more reading time, and it will include Dorothy Richardson (I’m also mulling over what to write about her!) and Virginia Woolf.

    Happy reading for 2016!

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    1. It’s hard to say just what’s changed, but I think I’m now that I’ve read more I’m looking for more, and that I want to read more books that offer something new. Works in translation and unread classics are calling me at the moment.

      I wish you a Happy New Year, with lots of reading hours.

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  14. I think I’ll just tip my top 12 into a box, and my project is finished! And certainly lighter than any box which contains Martin Edwards’ brilliant but enormously heavy book…

    But on top of my box I will put the Provincial Lady, which needs to be in any box I pack.

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    1. I’d probably need a sturdy box that I could push along the floor, because I am not good at narrowing things down and because I like to have a range of books for different reading moods. I believe I have a Persephone edition Provincial Lady in my 2014 box, and it’s quite possible the Virago omnibus edition could go in a box yet to be packed.

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  15. What can I say, a real mix of a box! You have reminded me that I have yet to read The Luminaires and it still remains on my shelf.

    I like the sound of The Dead Duke and have added it to my wishlist for perhaps a 2016 buy.

    I have been a bit lacking in blog writing of late, but slowly but surely I hope to go through the books that stood out for me in 2015.

    Thank you for all your recommendations. Happy New Year.

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  16. That’s a lovely box of books! I haven’t quite finished my own 2015 list yet, but I did enjoy both The Luminaries and The Dead Duke this year so maybe they will get a mention. I like the sound of the Michelle Lovric book (I loved The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters) and I’m planning to finish the Pallisers next year too, so will look forward to The Prime Minister.

    I hope you enjoy whatever you choose to read in 2016!

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  17. What a great way to sum up your year of reading; I just do boring lists. 🙂 Hope you have a happy and fun new year…and lots of wonderful books to read in 2016!

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  18. I always love unpacking your boxes, Jane 🙂

    The Piu Marie Eatwell book is high on my list, but our libraries still don’t have a copy. I think I should be able to request an inter-library loan in 2016 (our libraries won’t ILL newly-published books, which makes some sense I suppose). You’ve also reminded me to look again for Helen Ashton.

    Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

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  19. I understand that, but it is maddening when you have to wait. Cornwall used to keep a ‘one week no renewals’ stock of new books that worked pretty well, but they seem to have given it up now.

    I’m sure you’d like Helen Ashton too, I found many of her books in my library’s fiction reserve, and hopefully there will be copies for you to order in too.

    Happy New Year!

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