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Spellbound by Story

By Shelah Miner

Yesterday afternoon, kids occupied, house relatively picked up, I crept into my bedroom and sat down with a drink and the book on the top of my reading pile, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Published in English in 2004, I’d had friends rave about the book and look at me incredulously when I admitted I hadn’t read it yet. “Oh, you’d love it, Shelah. You should go out and buy it right now.” With those recommendations in mind, I kicked up the footrest on the recliner, popped the top of my soda, and before the introduction was over, came across this passage:

The minutes and hours glided by as in a dream. When the cathedral bells tolled midnight, I barely heard them. Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations, peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my room. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters yet.

It’s now the next afternoon, and I’ve read 300 pages. The house is a mess, defrosted pork chops sit neglected in the fridge, waiting for me to pull myself from the armchair and figure out Sunday dinner, the girls went to church this morning without cute hair, because I waited until the last possible second to put the book down and start getting ready. I’ve fallen hard, and all I want to do is read. Unlike Daniel, The Shadow of the Wind‘s protagonist, I have a family and responsibilities to drag me away from the novel. Otherwise, I would have holed up in bed with a huge bottle of water and a box of granola bars for survival and read until I turned the last page, sobbing, as much for the end of the experience as for the conclusion of the story.

I read a lot of books, and once or twice each year, I get so swept up by a story that everything else in my life falls by the wayside. The first time I had the experience I was in first grade, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and even though I didn’t understand a lot of what happened in the later books, I fell into a depression when I came to the end of the last book. I was so sad that these characters, who had become friends and intimates, were going to return ghostlike to the bookshelf. As a teenager, I stayed up late  with Mitch McDeere as he gained maturity and evaded the bad guys in John Grisham’s The Firm. While in grad school I set aside boring textbooks to dream of eating oysters at Delmonico’s and seeing menacing street urchins carrying Derringers with Lazlo Kreizler’s gang in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. As a young mom, I got bitten hard by Stephenie Meyer’s vampires, and my husband knew that every time a new book was released, he’d need to command the troops until I finished consuming the text.

I know what you’re thinking– John Grisham and Stephenie Meyer? Those aren’t great books. And I agree that sometimes both authors could use an editor who employs the red pen more liberally, but both Grisham (at least in the early days) and Meyer know how to tell a story that captivates. I’ve read plenty of beautiful prose that doesn’t leave me hungry for what happens next. Ruiz Zafon seems to combine both good writing and great storytelling, at least so far. I still have two hundred pages (and then his next book, also waiting on the nighstand) until I can give you a definitive answer.

Until then, you tell me: What makes a great story? What are some of the most engrossing stories you’ve read lately?

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

38 thoughts on “Spellbound by Story”

  1. I love multiple things – I love that I get engulfed in fiction-as-candy like Dan Brown, and I love slowly working my way through meat-and-milk like Dostoevsky. I'm completely engulfed right now in The Woman in White, which is a, 1800's mystery. It's every bit as compelling as a nail-biter, but the writing is gorgeous.

    A great story, for me, is not always the plot. Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, has almost no plot (seriously, nary a plot to be found), but it is still a powerful story somehow. McCullers is another writer that somehow weaves a story out of nothing at all. But I also love stories that are emotionally complicated, feel like something real, and I'm ashamed to say it…have happy endings.

    ok, ok, so I really loved Ethan Frome, and that's not a happy ending, but I just really want everything in the world to turn out ok, and sometimes it's just painful when it doesn't — especially when I've poured my heart into a character or a storyline. It makes me weak, I admit it.

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  2. Justine, it is so funny – I hated Ethan Frome 🙂 To each his own! Along that same line, I loved Shadow of the Wind but other women in my bookgroup hated it. Just picked up Zafon's newest book, The Angel's Game at the library.

    One of my new favorite authors is Wallace Stegner. Love Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, need to read more of his.

    A book that didn't necessarily make my heart soar, but did suck me in throroughly was The Glass Castle. I read it in 3 days. On my blog I made this comment about it, "It hits me in a personal way, but it's more tragic. It's like seeing a girl wearing a shirt just like yours and then watching her get hit by a bus. It messes with your head."

    There are times when real life is too much, I need to escape and books are a way to do it. Movies are too short and on vacation you still think about your problems. Books are a REAL escape, and as long as everyone cooperates, with my once-in-a-while obsession, no one gets hurt.

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  3. I have gotten carried away with my delight in books. When one of the new Harry Potter books came out, I parked my two boys in front of the t.v. with snacks for an entire day while I devoured the story.

    But alas, I don't find as much pleasure from those binges. Resurfacing to the mess, chaos, unhappy kids, unhappy spouse and feeling slightly "hungover" have lessened the delight of the binge. My reading life literally changed when I discovered Books on tape and cd. Now I check out piles of audio books, go about my housework and prepare food and we're all happy. I still consume many wonderful stories, but I'm not neglecting my family.

    One of my favorites and most moving books was The Kite Runner. I also recently discovered Willa Cather and fell hard for her writing. But like others, I also enjoy "candy" books. And right now, toward the end of my pregnancy, I want to read, but cannot understand the weightier tomes. So I lean toward light and funny.

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  4. Lately I seem to be falling hard for books that have a common theme of some type of cowboys and outlaws, and a good love story too. 🙂
    My 3 recent favorites were: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, and These is My Words by Nancy Turner.

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  5. Jendoop, The Glass Castle seriously messed with my head, too. I just kept telling myself, "This can't possibly be true. This can't possibly be true." Because if it is, I have a seriously charmed life, and can never ever complain about anything in my life ever again. (And I love Stegner, too!)

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  6. Ginger, I loved These is My Words, too. And jendoop, I also loved The Glass Castle—I hear they're making a movie. Loved The Kite Runner, too (and A Thousand Splendid Suns). And Justine, I'm in charge of selecting the November book for our book club, and it's going to be The Woman In White—I read it years ago and was spellbound, and I've been wanting my book club ladies to read it for some time.

    When I was younger, I got caught up regularly in a good book and would happily escape for days into another world while I was devouring my latest literary find. I hardly do that anymore, as I always seem to be busy with other preoccupations since having children. But, when the 7th Harry Potter book came out, I decided I'd better see what all the hype was about. I'd read the first HP book, but that was it. So I started with the 2nd book and for two weeks I did nothing but read, eat, and sleep (when it was absolutely necessary) as I worked my way through the series. Let's just say it was a good thing it was summer and my children all knew how to feed themselves and had friends to play with. By the time I got to the 7th HP book I even skipped Sunday School (gasp!) one Sunday to read the book in my car. It had been years since I'd been fully engrossed in a book like that—and it was heavenly. I felt like a child again.

    Of course, I've read lots of other engrossing books (lately, my favorites include The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and right now I'm finally reading Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace), but I still manage to put the book down when it's time to make dinner or a child needs help with homework. But oh, to be a child again and have a whole afternoon ahead with nothing but a good book, a blanket, and a shady tree.

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  7. So… I'm a fairly new reader and commenter here, but I had to tell you how much I loved this post. I could have written it myself because I am the exact same way. And, even though I was an English major and should like the more "mature" and "deep" literature, I find myself drawn to popular, NY Times Bestseller-type books. I just love a good story! Dan Brown is one of my favorites, as are John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark. Kite Runner is one of the best books I've ever read, but I also found myself devouring Harry Potter and Twilight.

    There. My confession is out. I'm one of the millions of conforming masses that can't get enough of popular literature. 🙂

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  8. I love all sorts of books for all sorts of reasons, but lately the story that's really captured me has been the YA novel series _The Hunger Games_. When I came to the last page of book two I had that sense of mourning–where have my characters gone? And when is book three coming out so I can find out what happened to them, dang it! My kids have loved those books too.

    I zip through novels like The Hunger Games. But I also like to wallow. My favorite "wallowing" book of the last year has probably been _Olive Kitteridge_. Such lovely writing, so many keen insights into human nature.

    And audio books? I've discovered them, too, and LOVE how they make me more interested in cleaning or exercising (because then I have an excuse to pop the earbuds in and ignore everybody. :-). Right now I'm listening to _The Girl Who Played With Fire_ and loving it. As a matter of fact, I'm off to the gym right now so I can keep listening while I huff on the treadmill!

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  9. I am 3/4 of the way through "The Book Thief" right now. Normally, I would have read the whole thing in 2 days or less, but I've had a busy schedule this last week, so it's taken a lot longer. I am loving the book. The writing style and narration are so clever and captivating. The story is good as well. It is about WWII, so it is not a happy story, but it is beautifully crafted and unique.

    I read a lot of non-fiction, which is easier to pick up and put down, but generally, if I find a fiction book that's good enough to read, then I will just storm right through it in a couple of days.

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  10. Wow ladies – talk about finding a new list of books to read! Thanks for the inadvertent suggestions. 🙂 It's too bad that I also go through reading binges and neglect everything and end up with a headache, because reading is just so fun. I've been reading my way through _The Wheel of Time_ books and made myself stop at book five. They are just so long and make my husband feel so neglected – too bad they are so much fun. Though i hear they get lame by the end. I've been needing to get back into books with more substance. Once I graduated from college 18 months ago, I was just done with books that made me think further than plot. Now I'm ready. Thanks again for listing your favorites, everybody!

    I guess I'll add a few. _Jane Eyre_ is a must if you've never read it. If you haven't, go get it NOW. And please re-read _Great Expectations_ because it's actually very funny and ironic. Bless that Dickens and his subtlety! And if you like feeling like you want to be kicked in the face, read anything by Thomas Hardy. I personally cannot handle his inability to let his characters ever be happy, but some people like that kind of thing. Good writing, terrible stories. Oh yes, in addition to _Jane Eyre_, a good Charlotte Bronte is _Villette_. It's haunting and piercing. I sometimes can't get it out of my head. (I was an English major with emphasis on Victorian Lit, in case you didn't guess.)

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  11. I love a good story, but it has to be REALLY good if the writing is just so-so. I'm a slow reader (conditions have to be just right for me to absorb the material) so I have to make my choices carefully if I am going to sacrifice time to read. I feel guilty enough sitting at the computer…

    I'm also the type to get obsessively engaged so I try to research my options and limit them to worthy specimens that won't take over my brain for too long. I probably miss out on a lot of great literature because of this, but I don't know how else to handle it. I usually rely on my sister to recommend a good read (she was reading Isabel Allende in middle school) but even she seems to have slowed down lately. I also can't take anything too dark. Your list looks wonderful Shelah. I'm thinking of starting a book group to force myself into at LEAST one book a month. I really need external motivation, but I can't stand the stress of finding a group with similar ideas about the nature and purpose of a good book club. I've tried and failed a couple times before moving here so I find myself wondering if I'll ever find like-minded people.

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  12. Oh, I know that feeling!!! There are some books that bring me to love the characters and storyline so deeply that, when the book is finished, I have a hard time getting into another book for several days. The two (very different) books that have done that most recently are Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (beautifully retold fairy tale with wonderful characterization) and The Poisonwood Bible.

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  13. Angela—Olive Kitteredge—yes!—I absolutely loved the writing. And Strollerblader, I loved The Book Thief, too. And I was thinking about The Poisonwood Bible, as well, cindy baldwin—that's a book I keep coming back to. I was excited when I got on Amazon this morning to order some books and discovered that Barbara Kingsolver is coming out with a new novel! I've already preordered it. 🙂

    And now I'll stop commenting. As you guys can tell, the topic of good books is one of my favorites.

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  14. Oooh, I second Jane Eyre. It is one of very few I have read more than once.

    I also recently read The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. I had to suspend disbelief about platonic friendship, but I just loved the characters and the story. It was unusual in that it made me really just love my life just the way it is, and when I was done I was happier for having read it rather than disappointed that it was over, as I often am.

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  15. I define a good book as one I can't put down. I've had many experiences where I've thought, "just one more chapter" only to have my next thought be to wonder why it's 6 in the morning. I absolutely love reading and have a hard time understanding those who don't.

    At my last move I had roughly 25 boxes of books, and the young men who came to help me unload my truck couldn't think of 3 books they'd read in their entire life.

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  16. Tay, isn't Great Expectations a great book! I realize we should have teenagers read it, but it seems so utterly wasted on them – re-reading it in my thirty's made me realize how much of the beauty I missed. It was like a completely different book.

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  17. I love reading like no other, and I have to be very careful not to overdo it, though that isn't as much of a problem now that my kids have flown the nest. The last books I read and enjoyed were:

    The Forgotten Garden: A Novel, by Kate Morton;
    The Guernsey LIterary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows;
    The Last Dance at Jitterbug Lounge by Pamela Morsi; and
    Twenties Girl: A Novel by Sophie Kinsella (I usually don't like her, but this one is different).

    I also love everything ever written by Georgette Heyer and Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Stewart.

    And way too many others to mention…

    =)

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  18. Did you love The Help, Melissa? I was crazy about it. I'm giggling about all of your classics, Justine. Maybe I really do need to reread them in my thirties. I think I got burned out on them in my teens, but it's been a few decades, right?

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  19. Oh, Shelah! I'm the only woman on the planet that hasn't drooled over The Help! But that's what I love about reading books — you take 10 different people and give them one book and everyone is going to enjoy/dislike/revile/adore it.

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  20. Shelah, all those classics that were so droll in High School really were great books. I've been on a classics bend for almost 8 years, and I think it just took a few decades of life experience to really appreciate how beautiful so many of them are.

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  21. Am I the only one here that gets lost in nonfiction? OK, maybe not in the same way as I might get lost in fiction (I couldn't put These is My Words down, for example), but still.

    I'm not a big fiction fan; it's why I go to book group — to expand my horizons a bit.

    And it's why I love posts like this — to get ideas from other smart women.

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  22. Corktree, I know what you mean about finding like-minded people for a book club. The first book club I was in had women who suggested books like _Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants_ and _The Notebook_, which are books that I couldn't stomach.

    Now I belong to two book clubs, and they are the two social functions that I look forward to more than anything else. One thing we all have in common is that we love classics like Jane Austen and we LOVE Harry Potter. So we sometimes read classics, sometimes Young Adult. Every month there are some women who like the book, and others who don't. No one is obligated to read the book if they don't like it, but it's always interesting to hear others' opinions, especially when they are different from your own.

    We have made interesting discoveries along the way, especially when comparing different translations of _Dr. Zhivago_ and _The Count of Monte Cristo_. The translation can make a BIG difference in the enjoyment and understanding of the book!

    Each bookclub I belong to is different in style, and I enjoy them both. One is more formal, where the person who chooses the book also hosts the next book club and comes prepared with questions to discuss. The other is completely informal where we end up talking about the book for no more than 15 minutes, and then spend two hours talking about other books and movies (and life in general).

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  23. I'm in the last 50 pages of Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. LOVING.IT.
    Strollerblader, The Book Thief was the one (back in January) that stunned me by leaving me sobbing on the sofa on the last page.
    The Help is on top of my to-read pile.
    Justine, I heartily agree with your assesment of the classics. I hurried to squeeze in a literature class before I graduated from college, so I would have a valid excuse to sit down with a half dozen books that I knew I wouldn't make time for in the busy life post education. Now I pick one up every so often and feel like I'm nibbling at an exquisite and decadent dessert.
    I had to leave book club in an effort to simplify, but this thread makes me feel like I'm right there again!

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  24. "Little Women" literally changed me as a woman, wife, and more importantly, a mother. I read it for the first time in January of this year. It was difficult for me to get into. The language of the 1800's and what I thought was the unrealistic love between 4 sisters was hard for me to grasp. I have sisters who I love dearly. They are my best friends, but growing up we were worlds apart. I couldn't quite relate. As I read on, I learned that I was a lot like the mother, Mrs. March. She described herself as short-tempered and selfish, but knew that she needed to keep those in check if she was going to raise upstanding daughters. I am a mother of only girls. I lose my cool far too often and find myself apologizing and regretting my actions not long after. If I can raise my daughters to be respectful, caring, and charitable like those March girls, I will be very happy. Along with those qualities, if I can raise them to love each other like those sisters do, I couldn't ask for a better life.

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  25. Steph E. I agree on the wonderful merits of bookgroups. Right now I belong to two – one with women from church and one at the library. They are so different but both enriching.

    Justine – I guess I should be more specific about what I felt in common with The Glass Castle. **spoiler alert** We grew up poor, I knew what "unemployed" meant at a young age, moved many times, and so got teased and pushed around for my worn clothes and being the new kid. Things like that I found in common with the main character. But thanks to my parents' testimonies of the gospel, even if imperfect & Dad being inactive, I did not have to deal with the most intense issues in the book. That is what I meant by my previous comment.

    I didn't like going back to "relive" that time of my life (recalling my desire for a playdate so I could fill my tummy) by reading The Glass Castle but at the same time it made me appreciate my parents' faith and work ethic – that they perservered and didn't give into temptation even when things were so tough.

    The things we can learn from books is immeasureable. Sometimes I even feel that I don't properly examine/appreciate my life unless a book puts it into context for me. (The scriptures being the ultimate example, if I want to go all churchy on you.) Similar to how Morgan learned from Little Women.

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  26. Everyone has different taste–I really didn't like The Glass Castle, but I'm still not sure why. I do love 'classics' like Ethan Frome, and especially Victorian English literature (Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite authors–although he's not everyone's cup of tea).

    I also liked Shadow of the Wind, but it felt weird to me because I read it in English; my MA is in Spanish with a focus on contemporary lit from Spain, so reading a book in translation was a little weird. Anyways, I'm always embarrassed to talk about books with people because I'm a voracious and fast reader. I read about 10 books a month, both fiction and nonfiction (for the last two years I've been reviewing them on my blog, so if anyone is looking for recommendations just go there and click the label 'books'). I go through periods in my life when I read a lot and other times when I don't. Right now I'm in one of those times, since I'm six months pregnant and only have my three-year-old home with me during the day. Many days I spend 2-3 hours just reading. My most recent favorite was Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet; it was fabulous.

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  27. I was recently introduced to Michael Chabon and I love him. If you have an interest in Jewish themes or like noir, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is for you.

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  28. The characters, the characters, the characters. That's what makes the story for me. Fiction or non-fiction, classic or new, when the characters are interesting, complex, reflective, learning, then I am pulled into their stories. Beautiful language (sometimes lyrical, but mostly just perfectly well-said) coupled with those characters puts the book into my favorites category.

    A smattering of my most beloved: A Town Like Alice, Silas Marner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Anne of Green Gables, The Glass Castle, All Creatures Great and Small, and almost all things Austen or Gaskell.

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  29. Yes, a Segullah Book Club!

    I love giving in to a book's spell. It had fewer consequences when I was younger (I hear you, Tiffany, on the consequences when I reemerge!) but I still love to find a great book & submerge myself in the story's world. Sometimes I can't stop thinking about the story even when I'm not reading and feel a loss when I'm finished–signs of a really good read for me.

    I love Stegner…I re-read Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose every few years (Big Rock Candy Mountain also a good one). Also To Kill a Mockingbird and Madeleine L'Engle's Austen family series (YA). Right now I'm reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and The Book Thief and I love them both.

    Recent favorites: The Welsh Girl (Peter Ho Davies), anything Barbara Kingsolver, The Lost Garden (Helen Humphreys), The Middle Place (Kelly Corrigan). Olive Kitteridge. The Hunger Games/ Catching Fire. Thanks for all the great reading suggestions!

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  30. A Town Like Alice-ooh, one of my all-time favorites! I read so much and so quickly that I finally had to start writing down titles after reading them. More than once I've checked a book out of the library, brought it home, gotten a few pages in, and realized I'd read it before. Does this happen to anyone else? I also find myself on genre kicks- nonfiction, Western, classic, mystery, or whatever.

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  31. m&m I get lost in non-fiction too. This year a friend challenged me to read 26 non-fiction books, one topic for each letter of the alphabet. I'm absolutely loving it! I've read about the Boston Tea Party, the history of corsets, folklore. I have planned to read books about zero, rockets, the Sermon on the Mount. It's amazing!

    My grandpa would never read fiction. He said there was too much non-fiction in the world to read and learn about to spend his time reading fiction. I don't go that far with it, but non-fiction is amazing!

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  32. For me what makes a great story is that I forget my own name reading it – it has sucked me so completely in that I can't remember here because I am so fully there. That and almost mentioning characters in conversation like they are real people you know. And a great story has people you would love to have around for dinner and/or serious time with.

    Yay for A Town Like Alice! (Though I have to ask, did you know anything of Australia/Australians before reading it? I am so curious to know!) Actually, most of Nevil Shute's books suck me in. Rose for the ANZAC boys (Jackie French) did too.

    Old Man's War (John Scalzi) was the latest in my Read-to-OHNONONO-it's-so-late-okay-early-but-I-HAVE-to-finish memories. Glorious, funny scifi.

    Karyn, I'm a speed reader too so the sheer number of books I go through means I have borrowed the same book without realising – then been grumpy with myself for wasting my precious reading time =)

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