Book Addiction: A Song of War

I just finished reading a fabulous anthology of stories of the Trojan War. With seven chapters by seven different authors, A Song of War skillfully weaves multiple perspectives into a vivid portrayal of the decade-long war and its many heroes. Sometimes the point of view is Achaean, sometimes Trojan, but it always engages the reader’s empathy for that character. I could barely put this book down. I fell seriously behind on my housework because I kept reading instead of vacuuming, but it was worth it. I think we can all agree that reading is much more fulfilling than cleaning.

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One of my favourite aspects of A Song of War is the way the authors have infused a well-known tale with lots of excellent little twists, giving each character or tale a fresh spark. Kate Quinn’s Hellenus and Stephanie Thornton’s Cassandra, are biracial, twins of King Priam of Troy and a Nubian concubine. Hellenus isn’t the most well-known figure from the Trojan War, but he should be, especially because he’s one of the few Trojans who gets a somewhat happy ending. I love the way Cassandra, of the doomed prophecies, has a correspondingly dark interest in death, and knows things like how to preserve an eyeball in honey. And even though she’s often seen by her fellow Trojans as crazy, she has the affection and support of her twin, Hellenus, and some of her other brothers. It’s nice not to see her completely shunned by everyone, as is sometimes the case in other adaptations of the Trojan War. In fact, Hellenus and Cassandra are both a little bit distant from the rest of the family, being illegitimate offspring of Priam, but are loyal to each other.

Libbie Hawker’s Penthesilea, the Amazon warrior, seeks not only glory but absolution in her duel against Achilles. Another of Hawker’s characters, Philoctetes, nurses a secret love for Achilles, whose dark, troubled portrayal throughout various viewpoints within the novel wrenches your heart even when you sometimes want to slap him. Agamemnon, usually portrayed rather villainously, becomes far more nuanced under Russell Whitfield’s hand, scarred by his sacrifices for the war, and I soon found myself pitying him. Odysseus is just as clever as one would wish, but Vicky Alvear Shecter also gives him a delightful sharp impatience as he has to form his schemes around some of his more bumbling compatriots. Odysseus also has the most (welcome) appearances in the book. Christian Cameron’s Briseis, instead of merely being Achilles’ concubine, is a woman strong and skilled enough to leave her own mark on the battlefield, and to seize her own future. The novel closes from Aeneas’ point of view, written by SJA Turney. Aeneas is the perfect character to end the story. Through the point of view of other characters, he can seem like a bit of a snob at times, often referring to his divine heritage, but when he gets his own feature, he’s brave and loyal, and while you might not necessarily want to sit beside him at a hypothetical banquet, he is the kind of person you’d want fighting at your side.

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This is such an intricate novel that I haven’t done all the characters justice. My ‘Book Addiction‘ posts are meant to share books that I recently read and immensely enjoyed, and that I hope others will discover, too. Definitely check this book out if you are looking for a book with: troubled heroes, noble heroes, good fight scenes, and of course, good death scenes.  Oh, the authors’ notes are fun, too.

 

From the jacket description:

Troy: city of gold, gatekeeper of the east, haven of the god-born and the lucky, a city destined to last a thousand years. But the Fates have other plans—the Fates, and a woman named Helen. In the shadow of Troy’s gates, all must be reborn in the greatest war of the ancient world: slaves and queens, heroes and cowards, seers and kings . . . and these are their stories.

A young princess and an embittered prince join forces to prevent a fatal elopement.

A tormented seeress challenges the gods themselves to save her city from the impending disaster.

A tragedy-haunted king battles private demons and envious rivals as the siege grinds on.

A captured slave girl seizes the reins of her future as two mighty heroes meet in an epic duel.

A grizzled archer and a desperate Amazon risk their lives to avenge their dead.

A trickster conceives the greatest trick of all.

A goddess’ son battles to save the spirit of Troy even as the walls are breached in fire and blood.

Seven authors bring to life the epic tale of the Trojan War: its heroes, its villains, its survivors, its dead. Who will lie forgotten in the embers, and who will rise to shape the bloody dawn of a new age?

 

Book Addiction: The Rivals of Versailles

I didn’t know a lot about the Marquise de Pompadour before reading The Rivals of Versailles (she’s a few decades before the time period I focus on in The Wardrobe Mistress) but with my love of French history, I was immediately drawn to this book and enjoyed it immensely. The Marquise only gets one brief mention in my book, as one of the characters is a watchmaker who was commissioned by the king to design a ring with a watch mounted on it for her, and likes to reminisce about it, but she’s a woman deserving of her own story and well worth reading more about.

The Rivals of Versailles is the second in Sally Christie’s wonderful ‘The Mistresses of Versailles’ trilogy. The first one (which I also read and would recommend) follows the scandalous lives of the Mailly Nesle sisters, all four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV.

rivals of versailles

Marquise de Pompadour is the central character of The Rivals of Versailles. Born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, she rises far above her humble origins and rather unfortunate last name, reaching a position of considerable power and gaining the title of the Marquise de Pompadour after Louis XV bestowed it upon her. From 1745, she was his principle mistress for about six years, and afterward remained his close friend and confidant, even advising him on political matters, until her death in 1764.

Jeanne is a delightful narrator to spend time with. Clever and kind, she nevertheless gains the edge required to thrive in the conniving court at Versailles. One of my favourite elements of the book is that Jeanne, who is unfailingly courteous in public, has a sharp little habit of dropping a gemstone, engraved with the initials of her enemy, into the fishbowl every time she successfully vanquishes one of them. It that sounds cruel, it should be noted that her enemies were usually other courtiers who tried to ruin her first. One of them even uses the tragedy of her miscarriage to write cruel poems referencing it. I have to admit, I cheered a little when she managed to get that particular person sent from court.

Louis XV was quite the libertine, and it’s a testament to Jeanne’s intelligence and political astuteness that she remained one of his closest companions even after they ceased being lovers. Sally Christie does a wonderful job of bringing such a fascinating historical figure to life.

From the jacket cover:

And you thought sisters were a thing to fear. In this captivating follow-up to Sally Christie’s clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles.

The year is 1745 and King Louis XV’s bed is once again empty. Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a beautiful girl from the middle classes. As a child, a fortune teller had told young Jeanne’s destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King’s arms.

All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals—including a lustful lady-in-waiting, a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters—she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.

Told in Christie’s celebrated witty and modern style, The Rivals of Versailles will delight and entrance fans as it brings to life the court of Louis XV in all its pride, pestilence, and glory.

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And if you enjoy this book as much as I did, don’t forget there’s still one more in the trilogy!

Book Addiction: Ithaca

This month’s Book Addiction feature is Ithaca by Patrick Dillon. The novel is based on Homer’s Odyssey, but from the point of view of Telemachus, his son.

As soon as I saw that hook, I snatched this book up. I love Greek legends. Far too many random books on Greek mythology are stacked on my bookshelf, and I once startled everyone in a meeting at my decidedly non-writing-related day job by being the only one who could not only pronounce Sisyphus, but knew exactly who he was. (I like to think it was impressive but it was probably just weird). Since I am quite familiar with The Odyssey, I didn’t expect a ton of surprises in this story. Rather, I thought it would be like running into old friends. And it was. Every time a familiar character entered a scene, I excitedly gripped the book tighter, enjoying the happy flash of recognition. New characters won my affection too, including Nestor’s daughter, a clever and fierce girl who’s skilled with a sword. Indeed, she is the first to teach Telemachus to fight.

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I was also drawn to this book because I thought Telemachus’s side of the story would be interesting. In The Odyssey, much of the focus is on Odysseus and his exciting adventures. Telemachus’s trials are less wild and thrilling, but not easier, by any means. Growing up without a father, he never learned any of the warrior’s arts, and struggles the condescension and occasional abuse of the suitors and his helplessness to protect his mother.

Ithaca richly illuminates the complicated relationships between the characters, particularly providing depth to the one between Odysseus and Telemachus. It goes beyond a father-son bond – after all, they hardly knew each other – and their arcs provide a certain symmetry. Odysseus’s prolonged voyage home, and Telemachus’s disordered journey to manhood mirror each other in some ways. They both struggle to fit into the roles required of them, to find where they fit. It’s difficult for them to coexist, in fact. Even though Telemachus spent years dreaming of his father returning to evict the callous suitors, his return displaces Telemachus as the potential leader within the household, and Ithaca. The tension between the two of them kept me turning the pages feverishly.

Telemachus with Mentor

Telemachus with Mentor

Fortunately, Telemachus is not without resources or options. During his travels through Greece, searching for news of his father, he grows into a greater sense of confidence and skill. Away from the violence of the invasion of the suitors, he begins to flourish. It’s a satisfying character arc.

I also enjoyed the interpretation of the relationship between Menelaus and Helen, whose legendary beauty is still evident. After the Trojan War, to say it would be complicated is an understatement, and their dialogue is full of nuance.

Give this book a read if you share my love for Greek mythology, or if you’re looking for a story that combines equal parts action and rich characterization.

From the jacket description:

In the tumultuous aftermath of the Trojan War, a young man battles to save his home and his inheritance. Setting out to find his father, he ends up discovering himself.

Telemachus’s father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born … and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father’s house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family’s wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge?

Telemachus’s journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer’s famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus’s extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus’s own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home … and his father.

Book Addiction: The Girl from the Savoy  

I’m kind of obsessed with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, so when I happened across Hazel Gaynor’s latest book, The Girl From The Savoy, I snatched it up with great excitement. It’s not a murder mystery, and it’s set in London, not Melbourne, but the time period of the 1920s is the common theme between the two, and it’s one of the things I love best about Miss Fisher. It’s an exciting time period, full of change and glamour.

Also, the cover is gorgeous.

Also, the cover is gorgeous.

The Girl From The Savoy tells the story of two women with very different backgrounds, but a similar dream. Dolly Lane dreams of dancing under the stage lights while she works as a chambermaid at the prestigious Savoy hotel. Loretta May, a famous actress in the West End, has already achieved that dream but carries a burden of her own.

Their paths cross when Dolly replies to an ad for a composer’s muse. The composer is Perry, the brother of Loretta May. As Dolly’s vibrant and kind-hearted company helps Perry begin writing music again, after struggling with inspiration since the war, she also comes to know Loretta May, and becomes her protégé for the stage. It’s a dream come true for Dolly.

PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34600000

Alice Delysia, pictured here, was a famous French actress and singer of the time period and she has a small role in the book, too. 

I loved the characters in The Girl From The Savoy. With her daydreams and her determination to follow her goal of making it in London’s West End, Dolly still makes time for her friends and thinks of small kindnesses for others. I felt like she was a friend as I fell into each page. In the wake of the Great War, none of the characters remain untouched, and Dolly in particular has to deal with some distressing events, but she handles them with admirable common sense and inner strength.

Perry is a bit of a quirky character, as evidenced by his decision to post an ad for a muse to help him with his music. It was such a delightful way for him and Dolly to cross paths again (they met briefly once before). I enjoyed his relationship with his sister, too, especially how the two of them meet at Claridge’s for tea every Wednesday. With her cool elegance, Loretta almost had the potential to feel distant, too sophisticated to connect to, but that wasn’t the case at all. Her deep affection for her brother and her determination to forge her own path

One of the things I most admired about Hazel Gaynor’s writing is her masterful skill for layering hints about the pasts of each character in a natural, unforced way. Dolly and Perry and Loretta all carry baggage from the war, but it isn’t revealed to the reader right away. Neither are the hints dragged on, or left as ostentatious cliffhangers. Experiencing each secret slowly being revealed as the book went on was like watching a rosebud unfurl. I didn’t realize how just how often foreshadowing tends to be heavy handed until I found the opposite in The Girl From The Savoy.

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One of the fascinations of the 1920s as a historical period is the dichotomy between its glamour – the sleek haircuts, red lips, satiny fashions, glasses of champagne – and the stain of the Great War – shell shock, lost loved ones, survivor’s guilt. The Girl From The Savoy captures both vividly.

And I’m not the only one who enjoyed it – I saw on Twitter that John Cleese’s wife thought it was a very fine book.  If not from me, take the advice from her and read The Girl From The Savoy. You can’t disappoint John Cleese’s wife, now, can you?

 

Already read this book? Check out my other Book Addiction recommendations here

Book Addiction: A Taste for Nightshade  

 

This month’s Book Addiction feature is A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey. I had no idea what this book was about at first, and freely admit that I picked it up purely on the fascinating title. The cover is quite appealing as well. When I read the jacket description and realized the book is described as a ‘culinary crime novel’, I was hooked.

taste for nightshade

A Taste for Nightshade is written in alternative viewpoints of two immensely different characters. Grace is an artistic, gentle, and rather timid heiress who is infatuated with her new husband, Michael. As the story unfolds, his selfishness becomes more apparent, and it’s little surprise that he married Grace for her money. Together, they live in a shadowy, run-down house called Delafosse Hall, a setting which enhances the distinct Gothic flavour of the novel.

This is the creepy old house from Crimson Peak. Delafosse Hall reminded me of it a little, except without the tragic ghosts.

This is the creepy old house from Crimson Peak, but Delafosse Hall reminded me of it a little, except without all the tragic ghosts.

The other main character is Mary Jebb, also known as Peg, whose nerves of steel, flair for trickery, and rough background provide a vivid contrast to Grace. Mary is also a talented cook, especially for delicacies like pastries and cakes. Mary has her own reasons for taking on the job of cook at Delafosse Hall; she has a dark past with Michael, whom she once swindled, and she was subsequently shipped to Botany Bay as a criminal upon his testimony. Before leaving, she sends him a ‘Penny Heart’, a smoothed copper penny engraved by convicts for messages for loved ones to remember them by. The book was apparently partly inspired by Penny Hearts, which were commonly sent by convicts at the time. Mary’s Penny Heart carries a hint of a threat:

Though chains hold me fast,

As the years pass away,

I swear on this heart

To find you one day

 

Example of a Penny Heart

Example of a Penny Heart

As Mary’s horrific experiences as a transported criminal are gradually revealed, the reader can easily understand her desire for vengeance, and admire her fierceness and tenacity, even while being fond of Grace and pitying her for not knowing the deception going on in her kitchen.

At first, I hoped Mary and Grace would team up against Michael. Instead, I read, enraptured, to the discovery of a plot twist that I didn’t see coming. I should have, perhaps – all the clues were laid carefully, but with enough subtlety that I didn’t pay proper attention to them. I enjoyed the surprise.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the contrast between Grace and Mary. They’re utterly different, and yet I didn’t find myself favouring one over the other in the story, and I genuinely hoped they could both have a happy ending. I also loved the Gothic feel of the story, and the historical recipes that mark the beginning of each chapter.

From the jacket description:

 Manchester 1787. When budding young criminal Mary Jebb swindles Michael Croxon’s brother with a blank pound note, he chases her into the night and sets in motion a train of sinister events. Condemned to seven years of transportation to Australia, Mary sends him a ‘Penny Heart’-a token of her vow of revenge.

Two years later, Michael marries naïve young Grace Moore. Although initially overjoyed at the union, Grace quickly realizes that her husband is more interested in her fortune than her company. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she turns to her new cook to help mend her ailing marriage. But Mary Jebb, shipwrecked, maltreated, and recently hired, has different plans for the unsuspecting owners of Delafosse Hall.

A Taste for Nightshade is a thrilling historical novel that combines recipes, mystery and a dark struggle between two desperate women, sure to appeal to fans of Sarah Waters and Carolly Erickson.

 

I also came across an interesting interview with the author, if anyone is interested in further reading. Definitely check this book out if you like stories with elegant prose, complex female characters, a Gothic feel, and reading things with such good food descriptions that they make you hungry.

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Book Addiction: The Vatican Princess

My ‘Book Addiction’ series continues this month, where I share a book I devoured recently in hopes that you might enjoy it, too. April’s feature is The Vatican Princess by C.W. Gortner.

vatican princess

This beautifully written novel is told from the point of view of Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of the infamous Pope Alexander (Rodrigo Borgia). Lucrezia is probably the most likable of the whole notorious Borgia family, and Gortner’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of her will immediately spark a connection with the reader. The novel begins just as Rodrigo assumes the papal throne, when Lucrezia is twelve. As a narrator, she demonstrates a depth of maturity and intellect that makes it a pleasure to follow her story.

The Borgia family is well-known, even to casual historians, the name conjuring dark whispers of poison and incest. Even for readers who are well-acquainted with the historical facts, The Vatican Princess may still surprise. Gortner’s polished prose brings the characters vividly to life, giving them a fresh perspective and new dimensions. As the people must have been in real life, to be remembered so well several hundred years later, each of the Borgias is charismatic and fascinating. Even when Juan or Cesare or Rodrigo make your skin crawl with their ruthless, amoral actions, you can’t help the compulsion to keep reading, to see what they will say or do next, and how it will affect Lucrezia, who is often a pawn in harsh family politics.

Often, one of my criteria for a Book Addiction selection is the gripping readability of the book. If I couldn’t put it down, I’m excited to tell everyone about it. Full disclosure: I had to put The Vatican Princess down, briefly, but not for the usual reasons. Rather, it was so intense that I needed some time to compose myself. Seriously, that’s how close I felt to Lucrezia after reading most of the book. Also, as a self-avowed history nerd, I knew of a couple spoilers that I dreaded seeing come to fruition. I paused, girded my loins, as they say – in this case, it meant drinking a glass of wine – and read on. The historical events in question were viscerally executed and I was swept away by the emotional turmoil, which I think we can agree is the ideal reaction to a story, or Game of Thrones wouldn’t be so popular.

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This goes for getting invested in historical figures, as well.

The Vatican Princess has all the scandal, betrayal, and heart-wrenching drama you would expect and want from a tale of the Borgias. Expect to stay up all night, feverishly turning pages.

From the book jacket:

For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?

With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children—his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia—each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.

Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.

Book Addiction: America’s First Daughter

I’m posting in Book Addiction a little early this month because I’m joining in the release week blitz for this book. America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie just came out on March 1st. I’m very excited about this one, because I internet-know Stephanie and love her trilogy about Cleopatra’s daughter. Also, since I’m Canadian with a decided lack of knowledge of the specifics of early American history, there aren’t going to be historical spoilers for me! Often, I know when a historical figure is about to die, so if that happens this time, I will be completely shocked and heartbroken. I’m looking forward to the surprises, even if they are painful.

As you may have guessed from the title, this novel is about the daughter of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Martha, known as Patsy, was Jefferson’s eldest daughter, and became one of the most influential women in American history. Not only the daughter of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (and keeper of his secrets), Patsy also played a significant role in shaping the nation’s history.

I’m not well read on American history, as you’ve probably gathered by now, but I could still tell right away that I was going to enjoy this book. I’m halfway through it, and gently cursing my other commitments because I just want to curl up with a cup of tea and read forever.

America’s First Daughter has a whole bunch of things I love in a gripping read – a strong heroine with a story not yet well known, historical surprises, writing by one of my favourite authors, and rich, well-researched historical detail. The authors were able to draw upon thousands of letters and original sources to tell Patsy’s story. As a history buff, this excites and daunts me; I can only imagine all the hours that Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie spent reading and studying the letters, but it’s also such an amazing opportunity to have original sources. That’s my one complaint about my pirates – they did not write things down much.

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From the book jacket:

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

 

Check this one out if you’re looking for something new to read. After all, that’s the point of my Book Addiction category. I like to share books I’ve enjoyed recently in hopes that other readers will find them just as gripping.

 

tea