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Happy 100th Birthday, Roald Dahl! 

 

I grew up in a house with no books. There were, of-course, a very small selection of baby books in our room, and the obligatory Dictionary, French Dictionary, and Medical Dictionary in the living room drawer, never opened. Aside from that; nothing. My parents, although possessing many wonderful qualities, are not academic. They read the redtops, if anything; never pushed me to do homework, and were only ever concerned when I was in trouble for not handing it in. 

It is remarkable then that I started school being able to read, and read well. This was thanks to one shining light in the darkness; Roald Dahl, and one stark exception to our bookless house. Each night, my mother would read to get me to sleep; a few chapters from three battered old books; The BFG, The Witches, and Matilda. I think the copies had come from a mixture of an older cousin, and those shelves in library doorways, selling dog-eared books for 50p.

It didn’t take long for me to reach that moment. I can’t remember precisely how old I was, or even when it happened, but I know distinctly that there was one night, when I’d started reading Matilda back to my Mother, instead of her reading it to me, that I realised. I realised it all. I had, without knowing, been learning the very important fact that you can be different to the people in your house, and it doesn’t make you bad, or wrong, just different. If your parents read The Sun, you don’t have to. If your parents think that books are irrelevant, and lofty, you can still love them fiercely (the parents, and the books).  

That was the moment when I understood. I am not alone. There are hundreds of shelves, in hundreds of buildings, with millions of words on pages, written by people who know how I feel, and what I think, because they thought the same thing. They may have thought it two hundred years ago, but they thought it. And I knew I would never be alone again. As soon as I could read, I belonged to a rich and limitless world full of people, and places, and thoughts. I belonged to them, and they belonged to me.
There are children who have never discovered Matilda, who believe that because they are different to their parents and siblings, and because they want to read The Famous Five in a corner with a lamp, instead of watching quiz shows with their family, it makes them stupid, odd, and abnormal. I wish I could tell those children how special they are. I wish I could shine the light for them. 
Shining that light is precisely what Roald Dahl does. Like the BFG’s long golden trumpet, blowing dreams through children’s bedroom windows, Roald Dahl, with his words, and characters, and help from Quentin Blake, reaches through the darkness of children’s lives, and shows them that they are normal, and crucial, and noble. He makes children see the nobility in their everyday actions.

What makes Dahl remarkable, for me, is that he did it all without really intending to. Roald Dahl was not a saint-like messiah, setting out on a selfless mission to do honourable deeds, and save children from awful lives. He was a battered old RAF pilot, who nearly died when his fighter jet crashed in the desert, who spent his childhood away from his family, being beaten and caned at boarding school, and lived his adult life as a spy, passing messages in the Second World War directly between presidents and prime ministers. He was an unsuccessful writer, writing books for adults without much notice, and the odd screenplay here and there, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, managed to bring extraordinary magic into children’s lives, and arguably changed the world, and the way we think.

Who else was brave enough to tell children that their parents and teachers might actually be catastrophically wrong, and even unintelligent? Who else told children that the monsters and dangerous things they’ve been warned about for their entire young lives might actually live in their own home, or school, in the next bedroom, or classroom, or down the street? And he gives children the bravery to fight them. For so many children, myself included, Dahl’s words give them the strength to fight back; to stand up. He lifts their chin up.

Owing solely and unequivocally to Roald Dahl, our bookless house is now full of books. Downstairs is filled with crammed bookshelves, and in my own tiny bedroom, the walls are covered in shelves, filled to drooping, and the room is filled with bookcases, and piles of books on the dressing table, chair, and floor; piled just high enough on every surface that they won’t fall over. All of them are mine. My parents still read the redtops. I can pay no greater respect or thanks to Roald Dahl than that. 

Learn Your Parents’ Music

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I grew up with a Mum that taught me about David Bowie, and Marc Bolan, and a Dad that played The Smiths in the shower as loud as the stereo would go. I spent a large portion of my childhood being physically forced to transcribe James lyrics so he could learn them for the Karaoke. There was never any question in our house about what real music was. 

I did buy the Number 1 single every week, and knew the lyrics to Take That, and The Spice Girls, because I had to fit in at school, but I always knew, at the back of my mind, that that wasn’t the real music.  The real music was what my parents played at full volume when they were getting ready to go out.  The smell of hairspray, and perfume; the twist of lipstick, and the creak of leather jackets, will always be married to The Style Council, always The Style Council, and Rod Stewart.

My parents didn’t forbid me anything musically, but neither did they need to tell me that modern music was trash, because they demonstrated by example. For my sixteenth birthday, I was given a Motown compilation, not because I needed educating, but because I needed more.

 The same applied to comedy.  I was recently discussing comedy with some work colleagues between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, who sited ‘old comedy’ as The Fresh Prince of Bell Air.  When I mentioned Blackadder, Steptoe, Fools and Horses, The Young Ones, Pete and Dud, Rising Damp, I was met with a room full of blank faces.  Similarly, when I returned from Glastonbury in the Summer, full of excitement that I had just seen The Rolling Stones, I was greeted by a room that was silent for half a beat, and the dissection of Miley Cyrus and Rhianna singles then resumed.

These blank faces of the young people, particularly the teenagers, lead me to wonder what their parents are teaching them.  I wonder, when I see one of these “Directioners”, or “Beliebers”; a new generation of technologically fuelled obsessives, why their parents aren’t teaching them that there is more to life than One Direction.  Why is no-one in their life teaching them what real music is?  Because it sure as hell isn’t Justin Bieber.

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Mania has always existed, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, right through to Take That.  Teenage girls have always been frighteningly obsessed by popstars.  For my Mum, before she fell irrevocably in love with Marc Bolan, it was The Bay City Rollers.  She sewed tartan into her jeans, and slashed her lip with a razor so she’d have a scar like Les McKeown.  Unfortunately, because she made the cut in the mirror, it ended up on the wrong side of her face.  However, whereas Beatlemania was on a certain level; girls screaming at airports and concerts, and then going home for their tea, happy and safe, the recent documentary about Directioners proved that this new generation of fans have taken things to a whole new level.  Aided by the internet, teenage fanatics can now devote their whole day, every day, to their chosen subject, and the hours spent online are proving extremely unhealthy.  The level of obsessiveness has already reached life-threatening depths.

Taste is very personal, and the kind of music, books, and comedy a person likes is what defines them, and what kind of person they choose to be.  These things are part of our identity, and how we signify to the world that were are angry, happy, goth, metalhead, pill-popping clubber, classically refined, jiver, swinger, crier, harmer, mod, rocker, romantic, new-wave, dubstep, rapper.  What we listen to is who we are, and there are no two people the same.  However, nowadays, that idea is already almost extinct.  The idea that no two people are the same is being rapidly extinguished by a generation of people who wear the same, listen to the same, watch the same, say the same, think the same, do the same.  Everything they do is the same, and the pictures they post of it on Instagram are the same.  What makes it dangerous is that they have no comprehension that there is an alternative.  For these young people, there is nothing else.

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Whilst recently browsing Twitter, I saw the hashtag #10songsthatmakeyoucry.  Bored, I clicked on the hashtag, hopefully expecting perhaps REM, The Smiths, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Jeff Buckley, Jonie Mitchell, maybe Adele.  After scrolling for a good ten minutes, I didn’t see a single song listed that wasn’t by One Direction, Rhiana, Beyonce, or Justin Bieber.  No exceptions.  That was it.  There were no other artists listed, just hundreds and hundreds of people listing the same handful of songs by those four artists, perhaps with a Lady Gaga thrown in.  Where is the autonomous thought?  Where is individuality? 

I’m from a generation which, like those before us, take immense pride in the individuality of our musical taste.  When I was eighteen, at sixth form college, when questioned on your taste in music, what you listened to absolutely had to be completely different from anybody else in the group.  If you mentioned an artist or song that was mentioned by somebody else, instead of solidarity, you’d be labelled generic, and mainstream.  Your musical taste had to be eclectic, individual, authentic.  You had to actually like music for specific reasons, not just because everybody else did.  What has happened to that world?  From what I’ve seen, it’s slipping away.

If I have children, I won’t forbid them any music, but I’ll make sure I educate them well enough that they can choose intelligently, and find music that brings them to life.  Music should make you feel  so many things, and I want my children to have the power to choose from anywhere in history, rather than the top 10.

I want to grab these teenagers by the shoulders, each and every one of them, and scream into their faces that Lady Gaga is not the most inspirational artist ever to have lived, and play them some David Bowie, or T-Rex.  I want them to lose their breath as Nina Simone ends Feeling Good.  I want their throat to catch, as Bowie’s does, I want them to feel their heart quicken as Marc Bolan takes a sharp intake of breath, and they hear his words; ‘Take me.’  I want them to know what’s out there.  There is so much out there.  I want them to hear Bowie cry ‘Oh no, Love, you’re not alone’ in Rock and Roll Suicide, and feel a far greater solidarity than the one they get from having the Twitter Username ‘1DirectionFan32545223’.

Please, know that there is so much out there.  Your life can be enriched.  You can be so moved by people who play instruments, write their heart and blood into the words, and sing their entire soul out into the microphone.  Listen to somebody singing their own words, and you won’t even call Justin Bieber music. 

Listen to Alex Turner, if you want to be modern.  Music sung and performed by the people that wrote and lived it is completely different to the plastic, mas-produced, computer-produced pulp and trash that floods the world as music nowadays.  Listen to Mick Jagger.  Listen to Bob Dylan.  For God’s sake, listen to David Bowie.

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In Flabbergasted Suspicion of Samantha Brick

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“I fainted with hunger on one occasion – a minor hitch, eclipsed by the fact that I was being asked out on lots of dates.”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2310797/Samantha-Brick-Joan-Collins-right-Any-woman-wants-stay-beautiful-needs-diet-day.html#ixzz2QoqeA3bc 

I’m not entirely sure what Samantha Brick is.  Sometimes I think she might be the secret Nom de Plume of some subterfuging comedian, probably Steve Coogan, or Sacha Baron Cohen, who has created a comedy alter-ego, and at any moment will unveil the coup to much commendation and hilarity.  Other times, I think there is a very deluded, damaged woman sitting somewhere in a flat in London, hammering her wrung-out soul into a laptop keyboard, and frantically, greedily absorbing the massive amount of ensuing attention; enjoying her moment in the centre of a media commentary storm. 

There is, of-course, the third possibility that the Daily Mail are actually, in fact, happily and proudly publishing the kind of dangerous bile that has been produced under Samantha Brick’s byline, and flourishing it with genuine good faith.  If this is the case, then the Daily Mail are as unsavoury as they are incendiary and bigoted. 

The first time “Samantha Brick” was a trending topic was when The Daily Mail published a piece which was essentially Samantha Brick explaining to the reader just how beautiful she is, how she can’t turn around without a man offering to buy her a drink, and how this entitles her to a charmed life, but slightly annoys her.  That was the crux of it; she is astonishingly beautiful, and so never has to lift a finger because of the special service she receives everywhere she goes, and that she is mildly irritated by the abundance of suitors banging down her door, and clinging to the spindles of her barstools.  Aside from feeling slightly bilious, and embarrassed for her, I wasn’t particularly enraged by this particular piece.  I just felt that it was the voice of a pathetic, egotistical woman, writing a solipsistic sonnet to her own physicality, in a cheap, barely literate anger-monger of a newspaper.  Laughable, irritating, but powerless.

Her latest pontificatation, however, is in a whole other toxic stratosphere.  “Samantha Brick” has once again been lifted from ignominy to Twitter trending topic and international point of discussion.  The difference this time is that far from being impotent, Brick’s article, with the opening sentence in bold; “Joan Collins is right.  Any woman who wants to stay beautiful (like me!) needs to diet every day of her life” is destructive and predatory.

The basic point of principle at the centre of the piece; that women must spend their lives watching what they eat if they don’t want to become obese, is one that all women know to be starkly true.  There is no woman, alive or dead, so miraculous that she can eat capriciously without exercise, and remain svelte and beautiful.  Being sensible, and cautious about calories is part of every woman’s life, whether they are actively trying to slim down because things have been let go, or just being careful to maintain a healthy weight, we must all bear the cross of careful calorie management. This much I completely agree with.  I even began to read Brick’s piece on the basis that I felt recognition in her basic principle. 

However, within a few words it all turns much darker, and spirals into some kind of macabre and eerie vortex, which becomes a window into the mind of a seriously disturbed individual.  For me, the first indication that I was heading down a dark road was in the first paragraph, as Brick describes how a dinner guest brought some very expensive French chocolates as a token gift to their host, Brick, and how she waved them off down the path after dinner with one hand, whilst the other hand was tossing the expensive chocolates into the bottom of the bin, and purposefully covering them with coffee.  “So when one friend arrived and thrust a hefty box of chocolates into my hand, I rewarded her with ice-cold contempt rather than the grateful smile she was clearly expecting.  At the end of the evening, that very expensive box of hand-made French chocolates was consigned to the bottom of the kitchen bin, the contents ruined by the coffee dregs I had deliberately poured over them.”

Turn a tolerant cheek for a moment to the fact that this person is being paid a large sum of money to publish in a national newspaper the arrogant and selfish workings of their mind, and boastfully display an unnecessarily hurtful attitude.  One person’s black and ugly interior monologue is not enough to bring about the Raptures. 

What is most shocking, and wilfully detrimental, however, is the progressively explicit endorsement of starvation, deprivation, and punishment, which unfurls in a thick smoke of congratulatory venom as the article continues.

No girl, or vulnerable woman of any age, should be exposed to such outright encouragement to starve.  There are websites that are condemned and shut-down for the promotion of eating disorders, and much public time has been spent in trying to prevent the media presenting any kind of positive viewpoint when it comes to an unhealthy relationship with food.

The fashion industry, and every corner of the media, has been forced to update its ideals, and to consciously encourage healthy weight in young girls. It might not always happen in reality, but the general consensus, at least in intention, is that an unhealthy attitude towards weight in any form should not be encouraged. 

Why then is it not acceptable for popular women’s magazines to promote skeletal celebrities as model ideals for women to aspire to, but a national newspaper can unquestionably brandish such unashamed dripping stimulus to starvation?

There is an underlying virulence in this woman’s words that, for me, suggests a long-term battle with personal issues.  Reading the article back again, in order to write this blog post, it is even more apparent to me that Samantha Brick is obviously struggling, but instead of being transparent about it, even asking for help, she is using the energy in a destructive way, rather than a positive way.  Instead of writing an honest, vulnerable piece about the struggle it would appear she is facing with body image, food, and self-esteem, she is instead writing aggressive, admonitory bile which will urge many teenage girls who read it to immediately embark on their own struggle.

Brick’s words are underscored with an edge that implies greater personal investment than merely being annoyed by the overweight.  There is an aggression behind every phrase like ‘any self-respecting woman’ that betrays an inability to attain the objectiveness, and removal of personal emotion that all self-respecting journalists are bound to strive for, and observe.  This isn’t even journalism, let alone good journalism.  It’s barely a GCSE essay. 

“The logic is simple and irrefutable: any self-respecting woman wants to be thin, and to be thin you need to spend your life on a diet.”

The use of insulting overtones portrays the writer as a playground bully, making hurtful comments about the other girls in a sickly-sweet voice, to crudely cover-over their own insecurities.   Likewise, ‘modicum of self-respect.’  The prose is absolutely adolescent.

“I have no intention of letting my body slide flabbily into middle age. I believe that any woman with a modicum of self-respect should watch her figure with the same vigour.”

She tirades angrily, sweeping the entire British public under her umbrella of scorn with reductive generalisations.  “I was glad to see the back of Easter this month, as it seems to have been hijacked by the greedy masses who regard it as a free pass to gorge on chocolate.”  And then the puerility really stretches its limbs, in this nationally published piece.  Brick is arrogant, self-congratulating, boastful, and inflated. 

“Not a morsel passed my lips. Chocolate, cakes, sweets and any other calorie-rich, fat-laden ‘foods’ are banned in my home.  For three decades, self-denial has been my best friend.”

Generations of hard-work, blood, and sweat in the name of feminism and women’s liberation are undone in the work of a few sentences.  All of the endeavor of hundreds of women for over a century to be taken as equal, and treated fairly, is pissed up the wall in the name of vanity;

“One of my biggest incentives is that I know men prefer slim women. In the workplace, male bosses will always give the top job to a woman who looks fit and in control, rather than one who looks like a bulging sack in danger of imminent cardiac arrest.”

Who is this benefiting?  It isn’t tough love and a caring nudge to being healthier.  This is downright malice, and the undoing of good by someone with an agenda.  Eventually, she does give a glimmer, and hints very slightly at the personal agenda this piece is evidently serving;

“I have some insight here, as I was overweight until I was 14 years old. Bitter experience taught me that the world pays no attention to dumpy girls.”

‘Dumpy girls.’  So what about any woman reading this article who happens, by some misfortune of fate, to not be six foot, six stone, with a face like Kate Moss, and the breasts to match?  What does this woman care for the thousands of ordinary women, size fourteen, bodies that reflect lives and shelter children, who are reading this vitriol and slowly crying, looking down at scars, and bumps, feeling that they, their bodies, and their lives mean absolutely nothing to the high-flying, high-intelligence of the likes of a beautiful national journalist?

Fear not, she does benevolently offer advice, but ever with back-patting self-promotion;

“Little wonder that in my mid-teens I decided to lose my puppy fat, transforming myself as I lived, for the best part of a year, on Marmite on toast (no butter)…The Polo diet paid off: I could wear whatever I wanted and looked fantastic. I stopped only after a stern lecture from my dentist about the damage I was doing to  my teeth.”

Chortle.  Then, however, it turns darker.

“I fainted with hunger on one occasion – a minor hitch, eclipsed by the fact that I was being asked out on lots of dates”.

That, for anyone not able to read the whole thing, is the very nearest you get to a capitulation, or entreaty for compassion, or help.  ‘I fainted with hunger on one occasion.’  That’s it. 

She’s immediately back to dangerous bile, picking off the weak like a sniper, with bullets of pure arrogance, and hurtful insult.

“I am 5ft 11in and slimmed down to a size 8. One of my lecturers was so worried she pulled me aside to voice her concern. I put her intervention down to jealousy, as she was a size 16”.

Towards the end it reaches another level.  As someone who has fought through their fair share of devastating teenage eating disorders with best friends and sisters, it’s easy to recognise a certain quality in someone’s words.  The final paragraphs of Brick’s piece are naked, exposed pain, visible to all but Brick.  She is displaying her own personal difficulty.  She just won’t admit it.

“My 20s were dominated by dieting, and I managed to stay a steady size 8/10. If I put on a pound or two, I simply skipped a meal. I actually enjoyed – and still do – the hunger pangs. I see them as a reminder that I am not pigging out on pizzas and fast food.   I’d have a large black coffee for breakfast, so strong the caffeine would make me tremble. For lunch I’d eat a bagel with the bread inside scooped out and replaced with salad. Evening meals were either sushi or egg-white omelettes.

To avoid culinary temptation, I even made a point of renting a house without a kitchen. Of course, constantly denying myself food was not and is not easy, but it has always brought enough rewards to make it worthwhile.  In Los Angeles, for example, where I worked as a television producer, I was never out of work and never without a boyfriend”.

It’s at points such as this that it is almost possible to feel compassion for a woman so clearly struggling.  The one or two moments of vulnerability, which I do suspect are inadvertent, do let you see the woman underneath the brassy sensationalism.

“Luckily for me, there is no better weight-loss incentive than a Frenchman. Pascal would not tolerate a fat wife and has told me that if I put on weight, our marriage is over. What more motivation do I need?  Today I am a size 12 and I never eat between meals. Elevenses isn’t an excuse to gorge on carbs – it’s just another hour on the clock.  I maintain a food diary. I never shop when I’m hungry, I always read the packaging, and I weigh myself every other day”

The reader is never far away from more dangerous motivational poison, however, even when wrapped so intimately with the unwitting self-confession.

“Like my female French in-laws, I follow an extreme low-calorie diet four times a year – one each season. I lose at least half-a-stone each time, though the side-effects mean that I don’t have the mental or physical fortitude to work. 

The world admonished Kate Moss for claiming that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ but I’d go further. As I see it, there is nothing in life that signifies failure better than fat.”

I think Samantha Brick should not be allowed to write publicly.  I think she should be taken into counseling to address whatever issues she has.  I think the Daily Mail should be abolished, or taken over by somebody sane.

The question to ask ultimately is how this has been published in a national newspaper.  I imagine that every other soul-destroyed writer who has spent years hammering keys from morning until night for absolutely no money or gratitude will want to know why someone like Samantha Brick is able to write like this, and be paid presumably large amounts of money to be published in a national newspaper, when there are so many wonderfully talented people writing their souls for no money, who dream of the chance to write nationally. 

There isn’t an answer, really, other than the state of the British tabloid press.  For, we must ask, would Samantha Brick be published anywhere else than The Daily Mail?  Would she get into The Times, Guardian, or Telegraph?  The answer is most definitely not.  Thank god.

 


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Sylvia Plath said; "Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences". My aim in life is to find things and people to love, so that I can write about them. Putting words together is the only thing I can see myself doing. This blog is an outlet, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Please feel free to comment on posts, or contact me by the special e-mail I've set up (vikki.littlemore@live.co.uk) with your thoughts.


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The New Remorse, Oscar Wilde.

The sin was mine; I did not understand.
So now is music prisoned in her cave,
Save where some ebbing desultory wave
Frets with its restless whirls this meagre strand.
And in the withered hollow of this land
Hath Summer dug herself so deep a grave,
That hardly can the leaden willow crave
One silver blossom from keen Winter's hand.

But who is this who cometh by the shore?
(Nay, love, look up and wonder!) Who is this
Who cometh in dyed garments from the South?
It is thy new-found Lord, and he shall kiss
The yet unravished roses of thy mouth,
And I shall weep and worship, as before.

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Music I Love (In no particular order, except that The Smiths are first)

The Smiths,
The Libertines,
The Courteeners,
Nina Simone,
Oasis,
Pete Doherty,
Gossip,
The Kills,
Amy Winehouse,
Arctic Monkeys,
Rod Stewart,
The Doors,
The Rolling Stones,
Etta James,
Babyshambles,
T. Rex,
The Jam,
Morrissey,
Guillemots,
The Kinks,
Jack White,
The Deadweather,
David Bowie,
The Winchesters,
The Cure,
Kaiser Chiefs,
The Kooks,
The Twang,
Kings Of Leon,
Pulp,
Blur,
The Housemartins,
The Ramones,
James,
Robots in Disguise,
The Klaxons,
Kate Nash,
The Raconteurs,
Regina Spektor,
Aretha Franklin,
Stereophonics,
The Contours,
Dirty Pretty Things,
The White Stripes,
New York Dolls,
Yeah Yeah Yeahs,
The Clash,
Style Council,
Velvet Underground,
The Horrors,
The Cribs,
Reverend and The Makers,
The Subways,
The Wombats,
Foals,
Elle S'appelle,
The Troggs,
The Beatles,
Echo and the Bunnymen,
Florence and the Machine.

Olive Cotton, Tea Cup Ballet, 1935

Olive Cotton, Tea Cup Ballet, 1935

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Will it ever be alright for Blighty to have a Queen Camilla?

One less tree from our window each day


Vikki's bookshelf: read

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
1984
Twilight
Of Mice and Men
Pride and Prejudice
The Hobbit
The Da Vinci Code
Lolita
Tipping the Velvet
Wuthering Heights
The Picture of Dorian Grey and Other Works by Oscar Wilde
Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde
The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
Moab Is My Washpot
The Bell Jar
The Other Boleyn Girl
On the Road
Brideshead Revisited
Revolutionary Road



Vikki Littlemore's favorite books »

Share book reviews and ratings with Vikki, and even join a book club on Goodreads.

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