Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Stolen Book of Evelyn Aubrey

The Last Book of Evelyn Aubrey
Title:
  The Stolen Book of Evelyn Aubrey
Author:  Serena Burdick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2022. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778333108 / 978-0778333104

Rating:   ★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This will go on forever, life and death, stretching out over the expansive body of water, chill and slick and seductive against my skin."

Favorite Quote:  "Those are the moments that make up a life. You choose what you look at and there is always something beautiful. That is your beginning. Notice the moments and you will find, that you are no longer waiting for your life to begin. You will find that you were there all along. That you had already arrived."

The book description tells you the story of this two time line book.

The Past:  Evelyn is a writer. She marries a writer. He suffers from writer's block. He steals her book and markets it as her own. Evelyn decides to find a way out.

The Present:  Abigail lost her mother at a young age and does not know who her father was. She finds a photograph that suggests that Evelyn Aubrey was her great-grandmother. She goes to Godstow, England to find the answers of the past.

The Conclusion:  Was Evelyn Aubrey murdered as London society believed? Or did she have "another plot up her sleeve?" Given that the information Abby finds states that she is descended from Evelyn Aubrey further clarifies the answer to this question.

The book description does a disservice to the book. The fact that the book description lays out the story and its eventual conclusion means that there is no surprise to the book. There is no mystery as to Evelyn's outcome, just the journey of how. The description would be more effective if the book then introduces a surprise or a twist that stems from the descriptions but adds an unexpected element. This book does not. It proceeds exactly as you might surmise from the description, leaving me as a reader unsatisfied.

In the story of the present, Abby is a challenging character to invest in. She is thirty one years old and able to walk out on a job. "In her head she had good reasons for doing things, but as soon as she started explaining herself, they didn't seem logical anymore. She was uncommitted, bad at making decision, bad at her jobs, at her relationships." She lives with her grandparents and yet walks out on them to begin this search. "Not telling them where she was going was a heartless thing to do, but she wasn't going to risk being reasoned with." Yet, somehow, in this search, things seem to go her way from the ability to drop everything and fly to England to instant invitations to stays in people's homes.

Evelyn's story begins as a surprise. Evelyn walks out on an engagement based on a whirlwind romance with William Aubrey. Her parents agree to Evelyn's marriage to William and endow them with property. William's betrayal, his theft of her work, and society's acceptance that the work had to be his follow the social paradigms of the time. For the historical relevance, for the journey of an author, and for the struggles of a woman asserting her rights, Evelyn's story is the more interesting one of the two timelines. However, as I seem to know the ending before I begins, it loses something. I wish there had been a surprise.


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Sunday, June 9, 2024

Lessons

Lessons
Title:
  Lessons
Author:  Ian McEwan
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2022. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0593535200 / 978-0593535202

Rating:   ★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This was insomniac memory, not a dream."

Favorite Quote:  "A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson. That could be for later."

Ian McEwan is an author who has long been on my to read list. The rave reviews his books receive. The awards he has received. His involvement in issues on a world stage. Recommendations from friends. Lessons is the first of his books I am reading.

Unfortunately, I struggle with the book from its very beginning. The book begins with a boy at boarding school. A teacher, an individual in a position of authority, propositions him. The book then jumps to the boy as an adult, and his wife has abandoned him and their young child.

These two events at the very beginning of the book are shocking, not because such things don't happen. They do. However, they are shocking because there should be an intensity of emotion that accompanies the occurrence of these events, the telling of this story, and, for me, the reading of this story. Yet, for me, there is not. In fact, my reaction is to want to look away. I put down the book and don't pick it up for days. I pick it up and then put it down again. It is a challenge for me to get through.

The book description states, "Epic, mesmerizing, and deeply humane, Lessons is a chronicle for our times—a powerful meditation on history and humanity through the prism of one man's lifetime." The book does indeed cover a lot of history - time and place from the end of World War II to present day. Unfortunately, the main character - the lens through which the history is narrated is not one I find I can relate to. His life and hence the book seems to meander through this history, sometimes with no purpose and no sense of direction. As it meander, many characters - too many - float in and out of the story, making it even more of  a challenge to follow. I do not find myself engaged in the main character's story to want to see how it turns out for I am unsure it even does "turn out" into a cohesive, satisfying conclusion.

Certain books leave a feeling that perhaps the reader is not "clever" enough to follow or understand the depths the author is trying to reach. To me, that is not a fault of the book but an indication that I am not the reader for the book. Perhaps, I will try a different book by the author. Perhaps not. This one was not for me.


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Saturday, June 8, 2024

Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder by Caroline Leavitt
Title:
  Days of Wonder
Author:  Caroline Leavitt
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 320 pages.
ISBN:  164375128X / 978-1643751283

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ella stepped through the prison gate, blinded by the sun and the hard blue of the sky, frantically searching the crowd for her mother."

Favorite Quote:  "Her mother used to tell her the the most important forgiveness was God's, but to get it you had to first get the forgiveness of the person you had wounded. You had to ask once, then twice, and then a third time, and if you weren't forgiven by the person, then God, at least would forgive you."

***** BLOG TOUR *****



Review

"I still look back in wonder at that summer." The "days of wonder" in this book are a summer in which young love begins, a family forms, a dispute occurs, and it all ends in tragedy. Fast forward several years. A young woman is released from prison. A mother tries to hold on and define who she is without the family unit. A young man discovers truths he has long not seen. 

Ella and Jude meet in school. Young puppy love or something much stronger? Either way, they both create a world onto themselves. Jude's father does not approve. Ella's mother somewhat does not or does in an effort to be part of the glow of their relationship and to maintain the family she longs for. She has her own history, having been disowned by her Hasidic Jewish family for what they considered an unforgivable sin. It has always been Helen and Ella. Now, she thinks it is to be Helen, Ella, and Jude.

As the book description states, Ella is accused of attempted murder of Jude's father. She is sent to prison. She is pregnant, and the baby is given up for adoption. What truly happened that night? Where did Jude go? Why did he never return?

Six year later, Ella finds herself out of prison and heading to Ann Arbor, where she thinks her daughter may be. Ann Arbor brings the baby's adoptive family and the issues there that Ella finds herself involved in. In addition, the shadow of her past haunts her. In addition, her relationship with her mother shifts as they both navigate this world.

Ultimately, this melodramatic story is about the women - Helen, Ella, Marianna, and even Angie (you have to read to find out who Angie is). It is about the sacrifices and the struggle to define a life, each for themselves. Helen, who now has the opportunity to define herself beyond the scared single mother abandoned by her family. Ella, who went to jail as a child and emerges as a women haunted by the past but looking for a future. Mairanna, whose marriage is not what she thought it was. Angie, who finds her love to have a past buried in secrets. It is also the story of a young man, who makes a tragic mistake as a child which is then exacerbated by abuse from an unforgiving father. As a result, the boy grows into a man who perhaps cannot forgive himself.

The book is melodramatic. However, the relationships, particularly of mother with daughter, are explored with care and ring true. The grief Helen, Ella, and Marianna suffer at the hands of the "system" and of the people in their lives rings true. The idea of forgiveness - for others, from others, for ourselves, and from ourselves rings true. For me, this is a memorable story.

About the Book

New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt returns with a tantalizing, courageous story about mothers and daughters, guilt and innocence, and the lengths we go for love.

As a teenager, for a moment, Ella Fitchburg found love—yearning, breathless love—that consumed both her and her boyfriend, Jude, as they wandered the streets of New York City together. But her glorious life was pulled out from beneath her after she was accused of trying to murder Jude’s father, an imperious superior court judge. When she learns she’s pregnant shortly after receiving a long prison sentence, she reluctantly decides to give up the child.

Ella is released from prison after serving only six years and is desperate to turn the page on a new life, but she can’t seem to let go of her past. With only an address as a possible lead, she moves to Ann Arbor, Michigan, determined to get her daughter back. Hiding her identity and living in a constant state of deception, she finds that what she’s been searching for all along is a way to uncover—and live with—the truth. Yet a central mystery endures: neither Jude nor Ella can remember the events leading up to the attempted murder—that fateful night which led to Ella’s conviction.

For fans of Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace and Allegra Goodman’s Sam, Caroline Leavitt’s Days of Wonder is a gripping high-drama page-turner about the elusive nature of redemption and the profound reach of love.

About the Author

Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of twelve novels, including the New York Times bestseller Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. A book critic for People magazine, her essays, articles and stories have been included in New York magazine, “Modern Love” in the New York Times, Salon, and The Daily Beast, among others. The recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction and a Sundance Screenwriters Lab finalist, she is also the co-founder of A Mighty Blaze.


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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Library Thief

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenje
Title:
  The Library Thief
Author:  Kuchenga Shenjé
Publication Information:  Hanover Square Press. 2024. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1335909699 / 978-1335909695

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The story starts with a scandal that I thought would end my life."

Favorite Quote:  "Wherever I ended up, I would survive. The shame of my former sins couldn't hold me down. I just wanted to live free from everything that had been done to me."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

I choose to read this book because, well... library! Add to that the potential of a thief and a mystery and the book becomes even more promising. This book, however, is not much of a mystery and not very much about the actual library or the books except perhaps for the monetary value of the books.

The very end of the book description provides a better indication of what this book is really about. "A striking exploration of race, gender and self-discovery in Victorian England." 

In 1896 after being kicked out of her home by her father, Florence talks her way into a job to restore old books at an estate. The job comes with room and board solving another of Florence's problem. However, she seeks this job not just for the income and but for other reasons that are slowly revealed through the book. These motivations bring in the element of race. As the book description indicates, Florence is Jamaican born with hair that had to be "hot-combed to make her look like the other girls" in England.

The book brings in the conversation about gender through secondary characters in the book. It is presented through the lens of Florence's acceptance and the potential consequences if it is to become public in a Victorian England setting. Sadly, the plot uses this conversation as a way to bribe someone to do something. You do this for me. I keep your secret. The conversation is not as much about gender but about the use of that knowledge about someone for another's gain.

The self-discovery I suppose occurs both for Florence and for some of the secondary characters. For Florence, it is about acceptance of her past, acceptance of what has been done to her, and the ability and confidence to make the decision as to what comes next. She has helpers and detractors along the way, but ultimately the journey is hers. That being said, parts of her "self-discovery" come in horrific ways (trigger warnings!).

More than Florence's journey, I am intrigued by the stories of the other characters, one of whom dies before the book begins but nevertheless is a key character. Her story, the story of her family and their sacrifices, and the eventual death would make a fascinating story.  Perhaps, more fascinating than the one in this book.

Florence's story is interesting and ends in an unexpected way. However, I do wish a book that has library in the title was more about the library and the books!

About the Book

The library is under lock and key. But its secrets can't be contained.

A strikingly original and absorbing mystery about a white-passing bookbinder in Victorian England and the secrets lurking on the estate where she works, for fans of Fingersmith and The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

1896. After he brought her home from Jamaica as a baby, Florence's father had her hair hot-combed to make her look like the other girls. But as a young woman, Florence is not so easy to tame—and when she brings scandal to his door, the bookbinder throws her onto the streets of Manchester.

Intercepting her father's latest commission, Florence talks her way into the remote, forbidding Rose Hall to restore its collection of rare books. Lord Francis Belfield's library is old and full of secrets—but none so intriguing as the whispers about his late wife.

Then one night, the library is broken into. Strangely, all the priceless tomes remain untouched. Florence is puzzled, until she discovers a half-burned book in the fireplace. She realizes with horror that someone has found and set fire to the secret diary of Lord Belfield's wife–which may hold the clue to her fate…

Evocative, arresting and tightly plotted, The Library Thief is at once a propulsive Gothic mystery and a striking exploration of race, gender and self-discovery in Victorian England.

About the Author

KUCHENGA SHENJÉ is a writer, journalist, and speaker with work on many media platforms, including gal-dem, British Vogue and Netflix. She has contributed short stories and essays to several anthologies, most notably It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and Other Lies), Who’s Loving You and Loud Black Girls. Owing to a lifelong obsession with books and the written word, Kuchenga studied creative writing at the Open University. Her work is focused on the perils of loving, being loved and women living out loud throughout the ages. The Library Thief is the ultimate marriage of her passions for history, mystery and rebels. She currently resides in Manchester, where she is determined to continue living a life worth writing about.

Excerpt

Excerpted from THE LIBRARY THIEF by Kuchenga Shenjé. Copyright © 2024 by Kuchenga Shenjé. Published by Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The story starts with a scandal that I thought would end my life. Fortunately, my scandal didn’t kill anyone. In fact, it pales in comparison with what I went on to discover at Rose Hall.

Thus far, the way I see it, in any good life you need to die several times to really lead a life worth living. There are little deaths and there are big deaths. My tale has both—and the real tragedy would be if this story were to die with me.

I was lying when I swore I would take this secret to my grave. I had no right to promise that.

***

Granger’s Bookbinders,
143 Long Millgate,
Manchester,
Rose Hall,
Lancashire,

November 20, 1896

Dear Mr. Granger,

I trust this note finds you in good health and that business is as steady as when last we met some years ago.

I write to you with an unusual commission. I will not trouble you here with the details of my current circumstances. Since the untimely death of my beloved wife, Lady Persephone, it seems the fates are in conspiracy against me. Suffice it to say that I find myself now in need of your excellent services and on a far grander scale than before.

The library at Rose Hall is, as you are aware, extensive. I am proud of the rarity and quality of the books it now houses, a collection that I have painstakingly curated over many years. I now find myself in the unhappy position of seeking a buyer for my collection. Many of the books, due to their age and mishandling by less cautious owners, are badly in need of restoration. There are perhaps some two hundred such artifacts. The nature of my circumstances make it necessary that this work be carried out to the highest quality and with the greatest rapidity. Since no bookbinder in the North West possesses skills equal to yours, I thought of you at once.

Please inform me as soon as you are able whether it is within your means to accept such a commission.

Your obliged and affectionate friend,

Lord F. Belfield

1

I fell in love with the feel of the cotton before I fell in love with the books. Leather felt too masculine and reptilian. Cloth was so much warmer and didn’t slip out of my hands as easily. As a child I played underneath the tables and made toy families from the scraps that fell at my father’s boots.

He would never talk to me about where the cloth we used came from, nor the contents of the books we worked on. There were a lot of things my father wouldn’t tell me, and rather than keeping me ignorant, his silence made me more curious. And fortunately, I was surrounded by the means to nourish that curiosity.

Most of the time we spent together as I grew up was in silence, folding, beveling and smoothing. I sometimes wished my fingers could be as thick as his; he didn’t grimace when schooling leather and cloth into precise lines under his digital tutelage. I tried to be like my father, but all the books he left lying around gave me opinions.

* * *

I arrived at the front door of Rose Hall looking more ragged than I would have liked. My breath was far from fresh, and the hair pins and clips I had used to imprison the frizzier strands had been loosened by the bumps of the rickety carriage. I had been dropped at the top of a tree-lined drive that was at least a quarter mile long, if not more. The December mists obscured my vision, and I could only just make out the shape of a grand house, the likes of which I had only really seen on biscuit tins in the windows of Manchester’s new department store, though I had imagined them as I read Brontë, Austen and Radcliffe. Even with the curls of mist in the air, I could tell this was a very English dwelling. As I approached it my feet slipped and shifted on the gravel, unused to navigating such terrain after only walking on cobbled streets and across wooden floors.

Lord Francis Belfield of Rose Hall had been my father’s long-standing customer. He was the only man I’d ever seen look luxurious without any air of pomposity. The men of Manchester were not known for wearing velvet, so the sheen of his jackets always marked him out as distinguished. It felt completely fitting that Rose Hall was an ode to symmetry and a more tasteful example of the grandiosity of the mid-eighteenth century. It was an early Georgian home of Lancashire sandstone. Even though my father hadn’t mentioned it, the period of the building’s erection and the mercantile success of Lord Francis Belfield were all I needed to know to deduce that the building and its grounds had been purchased with plantation wealth.

I knocked on the forest-green door and left my suitcases on the ground, hoping that looked more elegant than being strained down by the weight of my clothes, books and binding tools. In my pocket, my fingers found the folds of Lord Belfield’s letter. I inhaled, recalling once more the story I had so carefully rehearsed.

The door opened and a pair of prominent blue eyes glared at me through the crack. “Well?”

“Miss Florence Granger for Lord Francis Belfield, please.”

I took in the lines, too many for the face of someone who was still clearly a young man. The hand holding the door open was rough and calloused.

“He is expecting me,” I added.

“No ’e is not.”

I blinked, having not expected resistance this soon.

“I assure you I arrive here at the request of Lord Belfield himself. I am from Granger’s of Manchester.”

The door widened and there stood a long-limbed boy of no more than twenty. His movements were almost feline. The way he handled the door without effort despite its apparent heaviness was quite a marvel.

“We are bookbinders. I’ve been sent to care for your master’s collection.” I retrieved the letter from the pocket of my coat and held it out.

He made no move to take it, but instead chewed his bottom lip, realizing there was truth to my words but clearly unconvinced by me. A female tradesperson at the door to Rose Hall was probably not a common occurrence.

“Young man, I excuse you of your impertinence, but I have been traveling for some hours and would like to rest,” I told him, trying a sterner approach. “Please fetch your master.”

“’E don’t rise before midday most days anymore. You can wait in the kitchens, if you like.”

Now it was my turn to falter. I had no way of assessing how appropriate this was. Should I be seated in the parlor? If I allowed myself to be taken to the kitchens, was I aligning myself with the downstairs staff? I was an artisan, not a servant. But a sharp ripple through my stomach made the decision for me.

“Very well, so long as your offer comes with a cup of tea.” I sighed and crouched down to pick up my suitcases.

“No, m’lady. I’ll tek those.”

He ushered me into the reception hall, lifting my bags up to his sides as if they weighed nothing at all. The door chuffed itself closed behind us with a low groan. The darkness of the perimeter indicated that there was no draft coming through, nor a single sliver of light. A curtain hung to the right of it and the man gave it a sharp tug. It concealed the entrance entirely once pulled across, an odd choice. It gave the sense of being sealed into the house somehow—not being able to see where one could escape.

Stepping into the hall, I was compelled to look up. It was a huge atrium, with dark green textured walls and candles placed at regular intervals which gave the illusion of a warm, close space. He led me over a black-tiled floor, underneath a vast yet delicate brass chandelier aglow with coppery bulbs. At the back of the hall, under the bifurcated staircase, he opened a hidden door which led down to the kitchen. Before I had reached the bottom the herbaceous and deeply woody smells of the kitchen came wafting up to greet me. It was divine. But when we reached the flagstoned room I saw there was nothing on the stove; I could only imagine that months of cooking in a room with such small windows had baked the scent into the walls.

I was seated at a wooden table facing an array of copper pans and white jugs with the high windows behind me. It was clearly a kitchen intended for many staff, but there was none of the expected bustle. Where was everyone? I shifted uncomfortably as I cast about for something to say, before realizing that I didn’t know the young man’s name.

“What is your name?”

“Wesley.”

“Wesley what?”

He gave me a strange look. “Bacchus. Wesley Bacchus. I’m the footman.”

He was telling me that as a footman, his surname did not matter. Of course there was no reason that I, as a craftswoman, should know the intricacies of these hierarchies, but I sat in silence, not wanting to betray myself further by speaking again.

I was grateful when the cook came in some minutes later—from a pantry, I imagined—but she barely looked in my direction, merely banging a pan of water onto the stove. My stomach growled something fierce when she entered, almost as if my belly knew that I was meeting the person in charge of feeding the house.

I waited for her to acknowledge me, while Wesley continued to look on with a smile playing about his lips. But she only retrieved a mug and a caddy, before placing a steaming tea in front of me with a snort. My shoulders slumped. I hadn’t expected to be treated as a lady, but had hoped for at least some respect. Would my father have received such a poor greeting? I sipped the tea, grateful for its sweetness and warmth as the cook clattered about with her back to me. As I finished, she returned to the table with a thick slice of ham sandwiched between two slices of bread. There was also a large apple on the plate and in her other hand was a pewter cup of water. She’d clearly heard my stomach. But her face showed no compassion as she laid the blessed offering on the table.

With one last assessing glance at me, Wesley left, and the cook returned to the stove, making it clear she had no intention of speaking to me. I decided I could forget my manners just as she had hers, and devoured the most delicious meal I’d had in weeks. Salty ham on pillowy bread, with a delightfully sour apple and water that tasted like it came from the purest spring to cleanse my palate. After greedily wiping the crumbs off the plate with one of my fingers, I took out A Christmas Carol from my coat pocket and started reading until the words on the page began to blur. The beast of a carriage I had traveled in overnight had creaked with the strain of being drawn up even the slightest incline. Combined with the cold that jolted me from slumber, I had only been able to sleep in fits and bursts.

I awoke, suddenly, with my head on my crossed arms in front of me and my wrist soaking wet from my dribble. The plate and pewter cup had been taken away and Wesley was standing above me, a mocking smile about his thickish lips.

“I’m sorry to wake you, Miss. Lord Belfield says he’ll see you now.”

Wesley led me back upstairs, and down a corridor. As we passed a tall, gilded mirror, I stopped, horrified by my reflection. My hair, after only days left to its own devices, was now once again completely untamed. My eyes were bloodshot with fatigue and my skin was pale, making my freckles stand out. Hastily, I tried to force my frizzed hair back beneath its pins as Wesley stopped too. He watched me with amusement until I had done the best I could, and we continued on our way.

I thought back to the last time I had seen Lord Francis Belfield. His best features were his long fingers, which were always encased in tight kid gloves that he never took off. Oh, and the smell of him! Rich pepper with a botanical soapy undertone, which always impressed me. Not in a way that would make me swoon. He’s not the kind of man a girl like me is meant to fall in love with. No, what I felt was awe. A man of his fortune had surely seen more of the world than most. He’d have tales of Saint Petersburg, Constantinople and Siam. If only I could ask him. The need to convince him of my employability made doing so inappropriate.

The door opened onto the parlor, and immediately I could see that the man I remembered from our shop was very different from the man who sat in front of me. He was wearing a turmeric-colored silk waistcoat embroidered with indigo plants, paired with dark trousers. He had clearly dressed hastily, and a thread toward the bottom of his trousers was loose and trailing on the floor by his feet. I inhaled deeply but could not catch the spiced vegetal scent that usually accompanied his presence. He was much thinner than when I had last seen him, and his eyes drooped as if he had suffered many a sleepless night. He stood up from his seat to shake my hand but returned to it quickly as if he couldn’t bear to hold himself up for too long.

“My name is Florence Granger, sir,” I began, but he waved a hand.

“Yes, yes, I remember you. But why has your father sent you all this way without an escort? It must have been a frightful journey.”

“Oh, no, Lord Belfield. The journey was fine.” I cleared my throat to make space for the bigger lie. “My father sent me to complete the work on your collection that you requested.”

He looked at me aggrieved. Offended, even. The way his forehead crumpled made me more aware of the thinning hair at his temples. Even disheveled, he was no less handsome. However, I pondered whether he might feel a sense of loss for the way he used to look. On my previous viewings of him, he looked like someone who was used to being seen and spoken of as a very handsome “young” man. Although he wasn’t superbly weathered, he now had the face of a man who had endured. A sad wisdom brought the tops of his eyelids a little lower. His jawline was a bit less tenderly set because his teeth were more used to being gritted together from stress. I supposed it was grief. He had lost his wife less than a year before, after all, leaving him with only his son.

“Why on earth would he do that? This hasn’t even been discussed. Had he accepted the commission, I would have had the books sent to Manchester.”

Ah. This I had not considered. I remembered the words on the letter. I was sure that it was an invitation to stay and restore the library. My mouth was dry as I prepared my next lie.
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