My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Two

Day Two – we’re barely getting started!  Plenty more to come this week, including at least one more blogger who correctly identified their mystery partner…

Claire lives in Canada and writes one of my absolute favourite book blogs, The Captive Reader.  It’s hard to believe her blog has only been around since 2010 – she’s definitely a fixture of the blogosphere now.

Colin and I first met sometime before we were born… yes, he is my twin brother.  Younger twin brother.  He is also a blogger, although books are not the main focus of his blog (which long predates mine, having been going since 2003!) Colin’s Only Diary.  You’re more likely to hear about football, politics, or sitcoms – but books get an occasional look-in.  Get ready to see how different twins can be…

Qu.1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you?  Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Claire: My parents had both been avid readers but, with busy careers and two children to take care of, I don’t remember them reading a lot when I was little.  Still, their books were all over the house and I had unfettered access to them, something I took gleeful advantage of.  My grandparents were all devoted readers and they were the ones who really set the example for me.  My maternal grandmother volunteered in my school library and was my constant escort to the public library while my paternal grandparents, who I only saw once or twice a year since they lived so far away, used to take me to their library whenever I visited them.  My first press appearance was a photo in their local paper of me, as a toddler, listening attentively during story time at the library.

Even though my parents did very little reading on their own, reading before bed was an important family ritual.  My mother took charge of fairy tales, which she loved even more than I did, and my father covered everything else.  He introduced me to Tolkien, to Enid Blyton, and to Roald Dahl.  But before all that, he introduced me to A.A. Milne.  I had received The World of Christopher Robin (which unites When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six in a single volume) as a christening gift and for years it was the most important book in my life (I showed my sincere affection by scribbling in it with crayons).  My strongest memories of childhood bedtimes are of chanting “Disobedience” alongside my father and tearing up when he read “The Dormouse and the Doctor”.  That poor dormouse!

Colin: I remember a questionnaire in a school English class that asked how many books we had in our house, and the maximum answer was “Lots (20 or more)”. Even as a schoolchild I was astounded by the idea that 20 books was a lot – or even that any household could hold fewer than that – because our house had walls full of books. The ones in Dad’s study were somewhat beyond my ken (commentaries on Nahum were not my standard fare as a child; nor are they now) but there were plenty to suit my tastes, including bundles of Famous Five books and sundry other Enid Blytons. The first ‘proper’ book I read was a Famous Five (Five On a Secret Trail, I think) and – if you don’t count the Mr Men – that series was probably my favourite when I was about 7 or 8, although a couple of years later I would have chosen The Silver Sword or Cue for Treason. And yes, my parents did read to me – I particularly remember Mum reading me and my brother The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Qu.2) What was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that you really enjoyed?  

Claire: Growing up, I was remarkably unaware of the distinction between children’s and adult’s books.  At home, I could try anything and there really didn’t seem that much of a difference between children’s authors Hans Christian Anderson and Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘grown-up’ authors Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier (all grouped together at one point in our distinctly unorganized bookshelves).  They were annoyingly shelved in different sections of the public library but, as far as I was concerned, a book was a book.  If it sounded interesting, I wanted to read it.  What did my age have to do with it?  Sadly, the librarians disagreed and continually denied me access to what I wanted most.  When I was ten, there was a battle to check out volume one of The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery.  By that point, I had read all of her novels and short stories, had visited Prince Edward Island, and was completely obsessed with Montgomery.  I wanted to know everything about her and the juvenile biographies were not cutting it.  I needed the journals.  I forced some adult family member (most likely my grandmother) to convince the librarians to let me take out it for ‘work on a school project’ (a blatant lie) and rushed home with my prize.  And then I started reading.  This was even better than her novels!  This was Montgomery herself!  She was vivid and conflicted, always interesting even though I didn’t have much sympathy for some of her dramatics.  Getting to read her thoughts, to see her speak for and about herself, was an amazing revelation.  I discovered a passion for diaries and, perhaps more importantly, learned that an author could be completely fascinating without being someone I would necessarily like if we met in real life.


Colin:Between the ages of about 12 and 15 I read little other than Agatha Christie, having been introduced to her through Murder On The Orient Express. I don’t remember being so captivated by a book before, and even now I am reminded of it if I hear snatches of the Spice Girls’ debut album (which my brother was listening to on the other side of the bedroom wall while I was reading). I followed it up with Murder On The Links, and over the next few years read and re-read another 70 or so of her novels – I’ve always been very happy to re-read, even when I can remember exactly how the plot-line will pan out; and, to be honest, I often can’t remember.

Qu.3) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood – especially if it’s one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Claire: I had nothing but contempt for romance novels growing up.  Without ever having read one, I condemned them all as poorly written and an awful waste of time.  It was the one area of the library I never ventured into.  Then, while visiting my grandmother one summer while I was in university, I picked up These Old Shades from her sizable Georgette Heyer collection.  I had spent so many years sneering at Heyer’s books without ever having taken the time to learn what they were about that I was shocked by how much I adored it.  The experience may not have precisely set me off in a new direction but it did make me much less snobbish about my book choices and far more likely to browse through libraries and bookstores without prejudice, changes which have certainly enriched my reading and my life by leading to some wonderful discoveries.


Colin: Early adulthood? I’m not sure when that is, but it must be around the time that I read Are You Dave Gorman?, a hilarious book about a chap called Dave Gorman trying to find other people called Dave Gorman. I hadn’t read a great deal of non-fiction up until that point, but this paved the way into other travel/humour type books, including Round Ireland With A Fridge, Yes Man, Googlewhack Adventure etc. Whilst the books cannot be described as great literature (or, indeed, literature) I have rarely read anything so amusing in fiction (Wodehouse is, of course, the most notable exception) and this not only opened up one genre to me, but persuaded me of the merits of non-fiction. Up to that point I had read one or two autobiographies – including Agatha Christie’s, which is excellent – but rather more since.

Qu.4) What’s one of your favourite books that you’ve found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?

Claire: Blogging has made me a much more analytical reader, since as I’m reading now I’m always thinking of what I want to touch on in my review.  Whereas before I might only have considered the story and characters, I’m now much more sensitive to a writer’s style and to my personal preferences as a reader.  And of course my favourite bloggers have introduced me to so many wonderful books and publishers that I would otherwise never have discovered!  For instance, I had never heard of Angela Thirkell but I kept coming across the most intriguing mentions of her books on various blogs.  Finally, in early 2011, I picked up one of her early Barsetshire books for myself and was absolutely delighted by what I found.  I’ve loved all of her books that I’ve read, but my favourite has to be Summer Half, an energetic comedy that is the perfect blend of sharp wit and affection. 

Colin: The Wheel of Time is a superlative fantasy series written by the late Robert Jordan, with the final volume due this year (writing duties having been taken over by Brandon Sanderson) and whenever a new volume comes out I am very eager to read it. However, given that it is a series that I started about ten years ago, it’s probably cheating to include it in this question. Instead, I’d have to say that the most interesting books I’ve read have been the autobiographies of Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Michael Palin. It’s been a sadly long time since I’ve read a novel that I really loved: probably not since Northanger Abbey, which I read about three and a half years ago.

Blogging has not changed my reading habits at all! My own blog touches only lightly on books, and the only book-related blog I read is this one… despite your best efforts to persuade me of the wonders of Miss Hargreaves, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and Orlando, I have not especially enjoyed any of them and would be as wary of taking your literary advice as you would be about taking mine!

Qu.5) Finally – a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!  

Claire: I think some people would probably be surprised by my love of survival fiction.  Fiction is the key part of that.  I want a slight element of fantasy and distance, even though the real pleasure comes from imagining what you would do in the same circumstances.  My father was the one who initially put me on to these books, beginning with the excellent My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, one of his childhood favourites. The only book that has ever come close to challenging my affection for it is Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, though, as an adult, I also adore survival-focused post-apocalyptic science fiction novels (like Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).  Details are important in these books and survival fiction writers seem to  be almost as obsessed with them as I am, with the best books reading less like novels than ‘How To’ guides.  Half the fun of My Side of the Mountain comes from trying to make the traps described in the book. 

Colin: My student days are behind me now, but at the time I found Trev & Simon’s Stupid Book absolutely hilarious (and I’m not sure I wouldn’t still find it funny now…), but since it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a novel, it probably doesn’t count. If we are still supposed to be guilty about Harry Potter it would have to be that, or my Cliff Richard autobiography.

And… I’ve told you the other person’s choices, anonymously.  What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Colin, on Claire’s choices: Right then. I know the game here is to draw vaguely pleasant conclusions from the books listed (“they sound very interesting, and I’d love to talk to them about books”) but that feels a bit too easy to me, so I’m going to make some proper guesses. L.M. Montgomery makes me think my guessee is female – I’ve not come across the selected journals, but Anne of Green Gables gives me a clue – and, given A.A. Milne’s involvement, I would hazard that they started reading keenly as a child and had a very happy childhood. I’d not heard of My Side of the Mountain, but given that it was a book for young people that was first published in 1959 (thank you, Wikipedia) I reckon that my guessee is aged 50+… and possibly likes birds. Finally, according to an Amazon review from 2004, Summer Half conjures up a pleasant world and is amusing, so I would say that my guessee has a gentle sense of humour. They would probably prefer pooh-sticks to poker.

Claire, on Colin’s choices: From this selection, I’d guess that this person reads primarily for pleasure, letting their broad range of interests guide their choices.  They seem to have a good sense of fun and enjoy being well-informed.  Happily, it seems like the reader has retained the curiosity and desire for adventure that no doubt made Enid Blyton’s books so attractive in childhood.  My first reaction was that this is someone I’d love to sit next to at a dinner party, knowing that any conversation would be sure to be entertaining and wide-ranging, able to touch on anything from current affairs to Golden Age mysteries. 

45 thoughts on “My Life in Books: Series Two: Day Two

  • March 6, 2012 at 1:02 am
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    How funny that Claire mentioned survival fiction when I mentioned survival (or not) nonfiction yesterday. The idea of needing that distance makes sense, but I like knowing that it's really real, or else I just roll my eyes and think no one would actually do that!

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm
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      I did think that was a very amusing coincidence! Especially since it's the last sort of book I would read… I'm always interested in what people will pick alongside 'our' sort of books – the classics, and the early 20th century novels. Mine would be theatrical biography…

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm
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      Ahhh I borrowed "Hatchet" from the library when I was about 9 or 10 and I've never known who it was by… I remember it hugely sticking in my mind for some reason – it must have been really well written since I still hazily remember it out of the entire contents of the children's section that I read through. Maybe I'll look it up again one day.
      I guess I still enjoy a good disaster movie.

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  • March 6, 2012 at 1:14 am
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    Well that explains why I could not for the life of me figure out which book blogger you'd matched me with, Simon! Colin, aside from the age (26 not 50+) and affinity for birds (terrifying, beady-eyed things), your guesses are quite accurate! And bravo to you for having actually guessed – I wussed out on specifics but do stand by the opinion that you'd make an entertaining dinner partner, especially since you'd be able to tell me more about The Wheel of Time, which I've only recently found out about and can't wait to start.

    Thanks so much Simon for asking me to participate! I had a lot of fun coming up with my answers.

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm
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      Yes, you definitely got a tricky one to guess, Claire!
      Hopefully Col will be along to talk more about Wheel of Time at some point…

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  • March 6, 2012 at 3:52 am
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    Simon,

    Thank you so much for doing these posts, I know a lot of your time and effort went into sharing these authors with us. I am so happy to have found your blog and Claire's blog as well.

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm
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      Thanks, Michelle :)
      And if you've just found Claire's blog, then you're in for a treat!

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  • March 6, 2012 at 7:06 am
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    It's Oxfam bookshop day, and I must stop reading today's 'My Life in Books', get dressed, and go and catch the bus to Lichfield… I'll get some strange looks if I head off in nightie and dressing gown…. but I will be back later…

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm
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      Haha! Yes, going to town in your nightwear would be impressive dedication…

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  • March 6, 2012 at 7:43 am
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    I can't believe the librarians stopped Claire from checking out books! :o And Colin & I started reading Christie around the same age. :)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm
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      I think my early experiences with those librarians are probably the reason that I've never really considered becoming one myself! Though I would clearly be the rule-breaking librarian, helping children check out 'inappropriate' materials :)

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  • March 6, 2012 at 8:22 am
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    This is a great series Simon, I'm really enjoying it and look forward to the next ones too.

    Like Eva I'm horrified about the librarians, I mean L.M. Montgomery's journals are hardly American Psycho…

    Claire, These Old Shades was the first GH novel I read too, I think it's actually quite a disturbing novel now I think back on it but great fun too.

    helen (gallimaufry)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:21 pm
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      Helen, I have to admit to having very little memory of the specifics of These Old Shades, certainly not of any disturbing elements! I liked it but it is not one of my favourite Heyer novels and I'm not sure I've ever reread it!

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    • March 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm
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      Heh, well, 'disturbing' is perhaps too strong… But there's an enoooormous age difference between Justin and Leonie, not that that in itself is disturbing, but there's an element of cruelty in his treatment of her and he definitely subjugates her. Not that I noticed any of that really the first time I read it!

      Helen

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    • March 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm
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      Bad librarians. Claire's choices are some of my favourite books too, especially These Old Shades which was lent to me by an English Teacher. Helen's right, Justin isn't the man you'd want your daughter to run off with…

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  • March 6, 2012 at 8:31 am
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    So glad I've come across your new Life In Books series, Simon, just as I've got a wee bit more time for reading blogs again! Not that I don't love your 'normal' posts… It's fascinating to read about other people's experiences in the book world and, as recommended in the comments on Day One, I read Day Two with a mug of tea clutched in my hands (-2 here at the moment). L.M. Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie – I was nodding my head so much I was in danger of suffering a soggy keypad! Thanks! No really… :)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm
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      Lovely to have you back, Penny, and I hope all your electronics stay safe!

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  • March 6, 2012 at 9:25 am
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    I, too, am horrified that Claire was stopped from checking out books by librarians. It really bothers me that adults often determine 'children can't handle…' They end up talking down to kids and consequently limit their imaginative ventures.

    I recently discovered the joys of Georgette Heyer novels. I've only read three of her novels so far, but I find myself turning to them when I want to escape to the dazzling social world of Regency England. Such a treat!

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm
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      I wish I'd had Claire's interest as a child – I was all too content to stay with the rubbish teenage books that I read!

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:26 pm
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      Happily, though the librarians continued to censor my reading material until I reached the magic age of twelve (when you were granted an adult card and full access), I still had unlimited access to all of the books at home!

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  • March 6, 2012 at 9:56 am
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    Oh great — Claire is another of my favourite bloggers. I am amazed she was so into those journals at such a young age — obviously a born researcher. As for Colin — how can a pair of twins have such different tastes?

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  • March 6, 2012 at 10:57 am
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    Absolutely fascinating, and loved hearing from Colin! Claire, I love how you started reading L M Montgomery's journals at the age of 10 – how wonderful. I don't think I even thought about the 'real' life of authors until I was about 14 or 15. And your mention of Angela Thirkell yet again has made me think I really should pick up one of her books next time I see one – I see them so often! Incidentally as I see them so often, every time I see them I think of you, and wonder whether you have a copy of the one I've found – if you're looking for any specific titles do let me know as I genuinely never fail to see a Thirkell every time I walk into a book shop! (I'll never see ANY again now I've said that!!)

    However the best part of this post was the image of Simon rocking out to the Spice Girls in his teenaged bedroom – priceless!! :)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm
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      !!! I toyed with, ahem, 'editing' that bit, but then I thought I should leave it in… I'm not ashamed! (Well, I am…)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm
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      I was highly amused by the fact that Simon rocked to the Spice Girls, too!

      Rachel, I can't remember if I've told you this before, but I picked up about two dozen Angela Thirkells in a secondhand furniture (!) shop MANY years ago. Later, when I HAD to clear some book space, I gave them all away to a charity shop. :o( Big mistake! I wonder if any of them have landed up in your neck of the woods? I've managed to find only one since, to replace them…

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:31 pm
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      The Spice Girls comment made my day when I read it. Simon, it takes a brave man to resist the urge to edit that out!

      Rachel, be warned: I may take you up on your generous offer one of these days! But for now, please try reading Thirkell for yourself! I'd love to hear what you think of her.

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  • March 6, 2012 at 11:19 am
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    I am enjoying this new series of posts so much, Simon – what a brilliant idea it was! And it's all the more fun because it includes so many bloggers I follow…

    I'm afraid I burst out laughing at Colin's guess at Claire's age – sorry, I really couldn't help it! I guess that makes me 50+ too!

    The difference in reading tastes between Simon and Colin is fascinating and I enjoyed all the brotherly banter that went on. What intrigued me most, however, was Colin's mention of Northanger Abbey. I would have loved to hear more about that: why Jane Austen? And why that particular novel??

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm
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      So glad you're enjoying it! I'm having great fun this week too. Col does like all of Austen's novels, I believe, it's just that NA was the last one he read. But Austen does seem to fit in with my tastes more closely than his, it is true!

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  • March 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm
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    Am really loving this series! Thanks for doing this, Simon. Now we can all have a better idea of how our favourite bloggers came to be the reader they are today.
    Claire, can't believe you were already devouring L.M Montgomery's Journals at the age of only ten! At ten, I was probably just getting started with my Magic Faraway Tree and other Enid Blytons, hahah. Now, I think I would be very interested in those journals. :)

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm
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      You're welcome, Michelle – I am so delighted that so many bloggers agreed to take part!

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    • March 6, 2012 at 7:37 pm
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      At ten, I would read just about anything I could get my hands on! Yes, that meant I read wonderful things like the journals but I was also reading completely silly, age-appropriate things (there were a lot of Sweet Valley High books, I definitely remember that).

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    • March 6, 2012 at 9:37 pm
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      Oh gosh, Sweet Valley High were another of my guilty pleasure reads when I was about 12…

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  • March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm
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    Back home again, and finished reading, and what a lovely eclectic collection of books the two of you name. Claire, Now We Are Six was the first book I was given, when I was just a few months old – like you, I scribbled over the pictures… and certain activities had to be carried out while a poem was recited,especially eating rice pudding. I had every sympathy for Mary Jane!

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    • March 7, 2012 at 7:51 am
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      Claire, these days I love rice pudding – it's one of those great British comfort foods. But even now, whenever I eat it I think of Mary Jane!

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  • March 6, 2012 at 11:04 pm
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    Ah, there's nothing like siblings to keep us humble. :) Loved learning more about Colin from his life in books, and Claire is one of my all-time favorite bloggers. I've been getting around to blog-reading "late" this week, but I'm loving all the comments/conversation that follow each of these. Thanks, Simon!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm
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      Ain't that the truth, Susan! Siblings never put us on pedestals, do they?

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  • March 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm
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    Thank goodness I wasn't enjoying a sip of tea when I read Colin's bit about Agatha Christie and the Spice Girls, Simon! And let me tell you, I am not beyond admitting that a dust cloth and a Spice Girls' album makes for a great cleaning session.

    Claire, the Angela Thirkell has been duly noted!

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    • March 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm
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      Ha! Yes, I'm so grateful that Colin decided to share that…

      Have you not read Thirkell read, Darlene? I'm beyond confident that you would love her.

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  • March 10, 2012 at 12:36 pm
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    I think "Gaudy Night" is my favourite Sayers, which I feel an urge to re-read every so often. While I won't give away the ending for anyone who has not read it yet, I do think it has that delightfully snobby sense of intellectual elitism that is so very DLS, and which had me reaching for my Latin dictionary when I first read it.

    Reply

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