December Reflections 6: best book of 2018

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It’s been another year of ‘reading what I happen to feel like reading‘, an approach which I recommend. Ceasing to feel guilty about the books that I have or haven’t read has been one of the best decisions of my life. Before I set off on my InterRail trip, I asked people to recommend me books that they had enjoyed, and then loaded up my e-reader with the results. I also downloaded a lot of free stuff from Project Gutenberg. More recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading books with particularly convincing imaginary locations, for my Reader’s Gazetteer series.

I’m amused to note that my top three this year have strong f/f themes, which in some ways is very representative of my reading habits, and in other ways leaves a lot out. But there we go.

I’ve already written about Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series, and why I enjoy it so much. In fact, I have read the three main books twice within the space of this year, a habit which I thought had gone the way of long school holidays. I’ll repeat what I said before –

If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. –

– and add that I’m very grateful to the person who recommended it based on my enthusiasm for The Prisoner of Zenda.

The King of a Rainy Country (Brigid Brophy) is a book that I’ve had on the bookcase for ages (I was almost certainly drawn to the Virago green spine in a charity shop) and hadn’t got around to reading. It turns out to be a wistful, regretful, funny novel with moments of sheer beauty, in which a young woman drags the young man she isn’t really in a relationship with around Italy in search of the girl she had a (reciprocated) crush on at school.

But I think my favourite book of 2018 was Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. It was one of the ‘InterRail recommendations’ acquisitions – in fact, one friend recommended it, and another chipped in to say how much they had liked it. This was a short book based in San Francisco in 1940, with a convincing evocation of the lesbian scene, and magic applied with a very light hand. I loved it.

My least favourite book, incidentally, was The Way We Live Now, in which I hated everybody except the American adventuress, and was horrified by the anti-semitism. I only kept reading to see who was going to end up marrying whom.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: D

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D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan

The Reader’s Gazetteer: C

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Thomas Hardy makes it easy.  Casterbridge, Christminster, you’ll find them on the map inside the front of every Wessex novel. And you can lay the map of Wessex down over the map of south-west England and work out how to get to any of these places. At least, you could, if they were real. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t. Hardy calls Wessex “a merely realistic dream country”, or so Wikipedia tells me.

There’s a lot of travelling in Hardy’s books, whether it’s emigrating to Canada or going to market. People come from places and they go to places; they pass through places on their way. And the landscape is vividly described, and feels coherent:

So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.

Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’ – the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

From this, and other passages through the Wessex novels, one might almost be able to put the map together without knowledge of the real-world equivalents or a sight of the map of Dorset and Hampshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Oxfordshire and Devon.

Here are Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard approaching Casterbridge:

‘What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!’ said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. ‘It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.’

Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge – at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs – in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.

From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of cornland and coomb to the distance of a mile or so.

And then we enter the town itself, and the impressionist bird’s-eye view resolves into detail, and the plot gets going. The social geography is slotted into the physical geography; we learn who drinks at which public house. Durnover; the market place; Mixen Lane: Casterbridge is very credible.

I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever been to Dorchester and, if so, whether it looked like that. (Although the narrative explains later that Things Have Changed between the date of the action and the date of writing, so it probably wouldn’t have.) I thought I had, but on reflection I suspect I was thinking of Bridport.

I have, however, definitely been to Oxford. Here’s Jude Fawley’s first sight of Christminster:

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

Even without the map, even without the clue of the name (Oxford’s cathedral – ‘minster’ – doubles as the chapel of Christ’s College) it’s easy to make the connection with the ‘dreaming spires’ of cliché.

How to get there? A little find+replace, together with traveline.info, makes it easy enough. For Casterbridge, take the train direct from London Waterloo (ultimate destination Budmouth); alternatively, go from Paddington and change at Castle Cary or Westbury (again to a train heading for Budmouth). For Christminster, take the direct train from London Marylebone – or go from Paddington again, changing at Aldbrickham this time.

Other Cs on the map of Wessex are Chalk Newton, Chaseborough, Cliff Martin and Cresscombe, but they’re only bit players, mentioned in passing if at all.

You might ask why I’m using Casterbridge and Christminster now, rather than waiting for W for Wessex. The truth is, I’m not really convinced by the whole of Wessex as an entity, even broken up into North and Upper and Mid and South and Outer and Lower, but I can believe in the individual towns and villages, and the landscapes around and between them. Plus, C comes a lot earlier in the alphabet…

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That ammonite came from Charmouth, which does not have a Wessex equivalent, but is the right neck of the woods.

Books referred to in this post

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

and the other Wessex novels

The Reader’s Gazetteer: B

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Of course it has to be Barchester. Other fictional Bs that come to mind are bit-part players: Borduria in Tintin, or Belsornia in the Chalet School series. But Barchester is one of the big ones. In terms of its significance, that is; the whole point of it is that it isn’t exactly a bit city.

Anthony Trollope is a little bit vague about the precise location of Barchester at the beginning of The Warden:

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s all we need to get the story going. In The Warden, it’s the personalities and politics that drive things: the close, the clergy, the councillors.  Trollope shows us a city that’s been minding its own business, getting along quite happily in its own way, sorting out or ignoring its petty troubles and corruptions – until someone comes in from outside and shakes it all up. And ‘outside’ means, of course, ‘London’. John Bold, the reformer, is a Barchester man, but he has been away to London and come back again with ideas:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

In very broad terms, Barchester just has to not be London, and to be influenced by the events and people (Tom Towers, for example) that happen in or come from London. Nothing more than that is necessary, and, broadly speaking, that’s all we get. There is, however, one mention of a London terminal, and that terminal is Paddington.

As we work our way through the series, the location stabilises. We travel further afield around the city of Barchester. The internal geography of Barsetshire emerges, and is sufficiently consistent for the folk at Penguin to have produced the map on the endpapers of the Penguin Classics edition in the photograph. We learn in Framley Parsonage that Exeter exists in this universe, and so can’t be Barchester. Then, in The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames also goes to London, and also arrives at Paddington. That puts Barchester firmly on the Great Western Railway, and certainly rules out Salisbury.

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(These were library copies, and it took me a while to realise that the disintegrating Gothic tracery on the cover of The Warden was down to wear and tear, rather than a comment by the cover designer. One could certainly read some symbolic significance into that…)

In my head Barchester lies south of the Severn rather than on it, but that might just be because I first read The Warden when I was at university in Exeter. Hereford just feels far too far north. The real-life scandal that inspired the plot of The Warden happened, of course, at Winchester: Hiram’s Hospital bears a remarkable similarity to the hospital of St Cross (where, oddly enough, I was baptised rather more than a century later). The reader will notice that Winchester is not mentioned at the beginning of The Warden. Then again, it’s even more hassle to get to from Paddington than Salisbury.

Later in this series I’ll be examining other cathedral cities, and I’ll be speculating just what it is about the West of England that makes it so attractive to the constructors of fictional towns. In the meantime, however, it’s only right to salute Anthony Trollope and the one that, in many ways, started it all.

Books referred to in this post

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

King Ottakar’s Sceptre, Hergé

various Chalet School titles, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

 

The Reader’s Gazetteer: A

When I first started thinking about writing this series, I imagined that I’d be ignoring fantasy altogether. I wouldn’t be able to locate Narnia on a map of the world; at least, I couldn’t point to where it should be, so was it worth my while considering the genre at all?

But I realised pretty quickly that dismissing fantasy would rule out one fictional nation that definitely deserves its place in this gazetteer.

I’m talking about Alpennia, from the series by Heather Rose Jones.

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If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. Which is why we’re here.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. Alpennia is made distinctive by physical geography, by history, by religious practice, and, perhaps most obviously, by language. Where some authors would have let matters carry on in assumed French or German, Jones gives Alpennia a language of its own, and it works remarkably well.

How do you get there? How do I get there? Because that’s my main criterion for including a place in this gazetteer. And if getting there had to involve magic, it wouldn’t make the cut.

In Daughter of Mystery, Alpennia’s location is established in relation to Switzerland:

Chalanz was well out of sight around a curve of the hills behind her but in the other direction, to the south, she could see all the way to where the mountains rose, snowcapped, on the southeastern border of Alpennia, guarding the roads to Switzerland and places beyond.

In The Mystic Marriage we get a fix on it from the other direction. Antuniet travels from Heidelberg to Rotenek, the country’s capital, via Basel.

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As it happens, magic in these books might impede travel, but it doesn’t seem to enable it in any meaningful sense. They’re set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and people travel on foot, or horseback, or coach. I imagine that there’s a railway line these days, and perhaps even an airport.

Leaving the realms of fantasy – or, since I’m now turning to Anne of Green Gables, perhaps not – and crossing the Atlantic brings me to Avonlea.

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I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot over the course of this series about how characters enter and leave fictional places, about outsiders and insiders are identified, and about how the established community is set up.

Anne of Green Gables does all of those things within the first few chapters. A typical opening would see the orphan Anne arriving on a train, to be met by Matthew Cuthbert and escorted into Avonlea.

And in fact that’s what happens. But it doesn’t happen until Avonlea has been introduced to us. The novel opens with Mrs Rachel Lynde seeing Matthew leaving Avonlea, and wondering why. It’s a clever move to get the best of both worlds: Avonlea may never have seen anything like Anne, but we can’t understand the significance of that unless we understand a little bit about Avonlea.

In passing, we get a geographical clue:

Mrs Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window… keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond. Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs Rachel’s all-seeing eye.

Then we follow Matthew out of Avonlea. There’s a little hint of the lyrical descriptive note that the narrative voice shares with Anne, but it’s nothing to what hits the page when we meet Anne herself and she meets Avonlea:

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley, and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless south-west sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

This alternation continues throughout the book. Marilla Cuthbert takes over the more prosaic point of view, while Anne keeps the descriptions. (Matthew continues not to say very much.) It’s effective: in the reader’s mind, Avonlea becomes a very beautiful place, but one that’s the creation of a very human community.

How to get there? I refer you to this thoroughly evidenced page matching the locations in the books with real-world settlements. Find your way to Charlottetown, and off you go. Actually, I’m not sure whether, growing up, it ever occurred to me to doubt that Avonlea was real.

Books referred to in this post

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

The Mystic Marriage, Heather Rose Jones

Mother of Souls, Heather Rose Jones

Anne of Green Gables (and, obliquely, much of the rest of the Anne series), L. M. Montgomery

Charity vs piracy: my take on the second-hand books question

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As usual, I’m late to the controversy. As usual, I only have a hazy idea of what actually went down. But I think it was something like this:

  1. A site went up which shared pirated ebooks in PDF format
  2. Authors and publishers protested
  3. Users of the pirate site protested in turn
  4. Conclusions were jumped to (authors do not want people to read their books for free!)
  5. Assumptions were made (authors do not want people to read their books in any way that doesn’t involve buying the book new!)
  6. Somewhere in the middle of this, the site was taken down
  7. But the controversy kept running

If you happened to look at Twitter at the wrong moment, you might well be forgiven for concluding that authors disapprove of: libraries, charity shops, jumble sales, second-hand bookshops, those shelves you find in cafés and staff rooms and railway stations.

(Although if you looked a bit harder you’d find plenty of authors who’d disagree.)

There simply aren’t enough hard copies of my books out there in the wild for this to affect me. If there’s somebody currently scouring the charity shops of Britain in the hopes of picking up a paperback of Speak Its Name, then all I can say is, good luck to them. They’ll spend more on the petrol or the train fare than they would just buying the thing new.

So really, I’m talking as a reader here, as a browser, as a purchaser.

I’m talking about charity shops here, and about libraries, and about bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookshops. I’m talking about places with actual shelves. I’ve spent a lot of time in that sort of place over the years. And I have picked up books by authors I’d never heard of. My eye has been caught by a title, a cover picture, a half-remembered name.

And I wouldn’t have spent nine pounds ninety nine on this whim, but fifty pence, two pounds, seems like a decent gamble. Because it is a gamble. I might abandon it after one chapter. On the other hand, I might end up devoting the next five years of my life to finding everything else that author wrote and buying it – yes! perhaps even new!

And I have never felt remotely guilty about any of that; nor do I intend to start now. I am pleased to support a small business or a charity. (Well, most charities – but that’s another story.)

If I like a book, I might keep it and re-read it. If I don’t like it, am I expected to throw it away? Because I certainly don’t want it around my house. No. I will pass it on to a charity shop, or leave it on a swap shelf, or BookCross it, and if someone ends up selling it for fifty pence or five pounds, then they’re welcome to it. And, if I’m honest, the implication that all books should be new books (because that’s where the other way of thinking leads leads) appalls me on ecological grounds, quite apart from anything else.

Many of my clothes came from charity shops, and many have gone back to others. I don’t see the difference when it comes to books. Nobody apart from me can wear the dress that I am wearing. (They can wear a dress very like it, but that’s another story.) But I can lend, give, or sell it to somebody else without the manufacturer having any reasonable grounds for complaint. Likewise, nobody except me can read (for example) the particular copy of The Birthday Party (Veronica Henry) that’s currently on top of my chest-of-drawers. But I could lend, give, or sell it to you, and then you could read it.

And I don’t think that’s depriving Veronica Henry of any income that she could reasonably have expected, because I’d never heard of her before a BookCrosser sent me that book. On the other hand, if I were to start making and handing out copies of it to anyone who asked – people who were actively looking for her book, say – then that would be illegal and immoral. And that’s what the PDF distribution site was doing.

But the existence of any physical copy of any book implies that at some point, perhaps way, way back in the dim and distant past, the author (or the author’s estate, or whoever managed to get the rights off the author**) has been paid for that copy of that book. That is what makes the difference for me between the second-hand trade and piracy.

Incidentally, if you do happen to want a free ebook, then my Speak Its Name is free on Kobo, the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu until the end of September. And if anyone tells you off for downloading it, well, you can tell them that I wrote it and I published and I’m the one who gets to set the price. My apologies to Kindle users: I’m waiting for Amazon to catch up. If you don’t want to wait, you can get an EPUB copy and run it through Calibre with my blessing.

 

* I also make extensive and enthusiastic use of Project Gutenberg, on the grounds that the authors represented there are far too dead to care, and for the most part, so are their heirs.

 

Report from the Book Bus: new friends and old friends

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I am back on the mainland and back at my own computer, after most of a week at the Ventnor Fringe Festival, most of which I spent hanging around at the Book Bus.

I sold a few books. I wrote a few lines. But mostly I sat in a deckchair and chatted to Tom and Jen, who are in charge of the book part of proceedings (my father and brother look after the bus side of things), and to various family members and friends who were around for the week. I listened to poets and musicians. I bought some books I didn’t know I needed (a leather-bound copy of Prince Otto, which I finished in the form of a Project Gutenberg ebook a few weeks ago; an account of the Oberammergau Passion Play by Jerome K. Jerome; a Val McDermid so early it was published by the Women’s Press; a guide to the Offa’s Dyke long-distance trail).

And I reread my own book. I’m just beginning to work on the sequel to Speak Its Name, which will pick up on the action three or four years down the line, and I wanted to remind myself of what actually ended up in the book.

I knew most of what happened, of course, but I discovered that I’d got Colette’s brothers mixed up, and had given her a niece that I’d completely forgotten about. I discovered that the family dog appeared to be alive and well. I managed to distinguish the two separate parts of the Mel-and-Rose combination. I learned that Colette reads Trollope. I reminded myself of the names of all the churches in Stancester. I found that I’d already sown the seeds for one of the themes that I’m intending to develop in the sequel.

And I found myself filled with an unexpected affection for all my characters, but particularly for Colette and Lydia, who I put through hell and brought out the other side. I have found that all my major characters continue to sit in my head, and quite often I stop to think about what they would make of current affairs that affect them, but this felt rather different. This was more like sitting down with them for a long old gossip than following them on Twitter. It was lovely.

The next book will come from Colette’s point of view. I’m not planning any more Stancester books after this, but, you know, I said that last time. Either way, I’m looking forward to getting to know Colette and Lydia (not to mention Georgia, Will, and Peter) again. And it was great to have a week on a bus full of books to get things going.

Next time I’ll try not to bookend the week with the Discworld convention the weekend before and a wedding the weekend afterwards. But it was great fun, and I’ll definitely be back, so long as the bus is.