Saturday, April 18, 2015

Beth Kephart in Conversation: ONE THING STOLEN (Blog Tour Guest Post)

I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on Beth Kephart's new novel, One Thing Stolen, with you soon, but today I get to share Beth herself with you. The book's blog tour is stopping here today, and I have a guest post from the author recounting a recent conversation about it.

ONE THING STOLEN Blog Tour facilitated by Chronicle Books

On April 10, just a few days ago, I found myself at St. Albans, a remarkable private school located on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The boys assembled before me were fourth through eighth graders. They wore ties and jackets, cardigans and shorts, curls and cowlicks. They were polite. They were engaged. They were adorable.

We had a lot to talk about, the boys and I. About research. About the imagination. About the joy of digging deep into history and facts. I’d have given anything to have friends like these boys when I was their age. Friends of whom I might ask big questions, and get big answers back.

Toward the end of my presentation (which was really more like a conversation peopled
Beth Kephart author photo
by 250 students and teachers), I showed them the cover of One Thing Stolen and asked them what they thought the story might be about. Up went the hands. Dozens upon dozens of them.

Stolen identity! Stolen personality! Stolen heart! Stolen brain! A single stolen thing! The boys shouted out their theories. I stood on the stage smiling back. Yes, indeed. I said. Yes, all of that—that’s what this book is about. About a young girl who is losing parts of herself—and who, as she is stolen from, attempts to steal something meaningful back.

But how dare I write about such thievery? How is that young adult fare? Who is the reader for this book, Kephart? Why can’t you behave?

My answer to that question is this: One Thing Stolen is for any one who has ever misplaced a word or a set of keys or the name of someone she once knew. Anyone who can’t quite remember or who knows someone who can’t quite remember or has seen—in herself or in another—inexplicable eruptions of new character traits. One Thing Stolen is about, and therefore for, all of us, for our minds are unreliable, our truths are dicey, our obsessions are strange, and it’s really exceedingly difficult at times to draw the line between healthy and not.

I know this book doesn’t follow a script. I know it’s hard to brand. But as I engaged in conversation with the boys of St. Albans, I also remembered this: In the right hands, on the right day, in the right auditorium, stories like One Thing Stolen can be the start of something wonderful—a conversation, a dialogue, about how we define and hold onto ourselves.

I've read just about all of Beth Kephart's fiction, and I don't think "hard to brand" is anything new for her--she's a brand of her own. Her gorgeously written, thematically adventurous novels feature teenage protagonists, but there's nothing adolescent about these stories or how they're told, and that's a big part of why I love reading them.

ONE THING STOLEN Beth Kephart Chronicle Books
One Thing Stolen
Beth Kephart
Fiction (YA, ages 14+)
Chronicle Books, April 2015

Something is not right with Nadia Cara. While spending a year in Florence, Italy, she's become a thief. She has secrets. And when she tries to speak, the words seem far away. Nadia finds herself trapped by her own obsessions and following the trail of an elusive Italian boy whom only she has seen. Can Nadia be rescued or will she simply lose herself altogether? Set against the backdrop of a glimmering city, One Thing Stolen is an exploration of obsession, art, and a rare neurological disorder. It is a celebration of language, beauty, imagination, and the salvation of love.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

(Audio)Book Talk: FUNNY GIRL, by Nick Hornby, read by Emma Fielding

Audiobook read by Emma Fielding
Riverhead Books (2015), Hardcover (ISBN 1594205418 / 9781594205415)
Fiction, 464 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Penguin Audio, February 2015, ISBN 9780698195653; Audible ASIN B00RC52GMQ)

audiobook discussion FUNNY GIRL Nick Hornby 3Rs Blog

In my opinion, Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl has a somewhat misleading title. Calling this novel Funny Show might reflect its premise a bit more accurately, because it’s not so much about a comedienne as it is the team and the television sitcom that made her a star.

Before Sophie Straw rose to fame playing “Barbara from Blackpool” on the popular 1960s BBC comedy Barbara (and Jim), she actually was Barbara (Parker) from Blackpool…and she wanted to be Lucille Ball. She struggled to convince London casting directors to look beyond her blonde-bombshell exterior and see her comic gifts until one fateful audition, where her particular combination of naiveté, outspokenness, and timing made such an impression on the producer and writing team that they revamped the premise of their comedy pilot to make her character its star.

The pilot’s success led to several seasons (“series” in British TV terms) of stories about the odd-couple marriage of Barbara and Jim. While some episodes presented classic sitcom scenarios, like the bathroom remodel gone horribly awry, it was the 1960s; the times were changing, and Barbara (and Jim)’s writers, Tony and Bill, and its BBC producer, Dennis, wanted to push a few boundaries and try to mine comedy from social commentary. Sophie, their star and their muse, eagerly participated as the show paved the way for far more daring comedies to follow.

I often laughed out loud while reading Funny Girl, and I while found Hornby’s cast of characters largely appealing, I felt that his title character was somewhat underdeveloped. I would have expected the “funny girl” to be a stronger presence, but I frequently sensed we were seeing Sophie more through others’ eyes than via her own sense of herself. Given that she’s an actress and television star, perhaps that’s fitting, but I was a little disappointed by it.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the depiction of Britain in the 1960s. The novel conveys the sense that the country was finally emerging from the effects of World War II, nearly twenty years after it ended, and that gave me the impression that the decade was an even more dramatic time of change there than it was in the USA. Funny Girl also hit my sweet spot for behind-the-scenes entertainment-industry stories; descriptions of the making of Barbara (and Jim) often reminded me of parts of An Adventure in Space and Time, the BBC dramatization of the origins of Doctor Who.

British actress Emma Fielding was a delightful narrator for this audiobook. Funny Girl contains many dialogue-heavy scenes, and her voice characterizations were distinct enough for me to avoid confusion over who was speaking at any given time. It’s been a few years since I read Nick Hornby; Funny Girl was a fine reminder of why I’ve enjoyed him in the past, and why I shouldn’t go so long without reading him again.

Rating: Book, 3.75 of 5; Audio, 4 of 5

Set in 1960’s London, Funny Girl is a lively account of the adventures of the intrepid young Sophie Straw as she navigates her transformation from provincial ingénue to television starlet amid a constellation of delightful characters. Insightful and humorous, Nick Hornby’s latest does what he does best: endears us to a cast of characters who are funny if flawed, and forces us to examine ourselves in the process.

Opening Lines:

"She didn’t want to be a beauty queen, but as luck would have it, she was about to become one.

“There were a few aimless minutes between the parade and the announcement, so friends and family gathered round the girls to offer congratulations and crossed fingers. The little groups that formed reminded Barbara of licorice Catherine wheels: a girl in a sugary bright pink or blue bathing suit at the center, a swirl of dark brown or black raincoats around the outside. It was a cold, wet July day at the South Shore Baths, and the contestants had mottled, bumpy arms and legs. They looked like turkeys hanging in a butcher’s window. Only in Blackpool, Barbara thought, could you win a beauty competition looking like this.”

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Reader's Journal: SCREENING ROOM: FAMILY PICTURES, by Alan Lightman

Audiobook read by Bronson Pinchot
Pantheon (2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0307379396 / 9780307379399)
Nonfiction: memoir, 272 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio, February 2015, ISBN 9781481504881; Audible ASIN B00STZ9WLQ)

Reader's Journal for SCREENING ROOM Alan Lightman 3Rs Blog

“I will always live here, but I cannot live here,” Alan Lightman reflects near the end of Screening Room: Family Pictures, having just spent nearly a month back in Memphis, Tennesssee—the longest visit he’s made to his hometown since going north for college forty years earlier. The American South is well-known to be a problematic place. Part of its problem is that some aspects of it are easily romanticized. Most of the episodes recounted in Lightman’s memoir occurred in a segregated, pre-civil-rights Memphis, and so many of the problems are out in the open, but the allure is never far below the surface.

As members of Memphis’ Jewish community, the Lightman family had a somewhat peculiar place in the segregated city; while not particularly religious, their ethnic identification kept them out of certain social circles. But as the founder of Malco, the region’s most successful chain of movie theaters (and still run by the family), Alan’s grandfather M.A. Lightman commanded a degree of power and respect that both opened doors for and cast a long shadow over subsequent generations of the family.

The death of Alan’s Uncle Ed has brought more Lightmans together than the old family homestead on Cherry Road has seen for years, and the family elders are full of stories about the past, many of them concerning M.A. After so many years away, Alan finds himself devouring these stories, and as his stay in Memphis extends into the long, painfully hot and humid summer, he reflects on questions he hasn’t thought about in ages, and on a city that has both changed greatly during his absence and retained many of the markers of the place and time when he last knew it well.

The aunts, uncles, and cousins who convey tales of the Lightman family’s past play roles in Screening Room that are almost as large as their stories. However, Lightman notes in the book’s afterword that several of these colorful storytellers are themselves fictional devices for the conveyance of the family’s checkered past. While this may be a problem for some readers, it didn’t particularly bother me. For one thing, several of them, notably Cousin Lennie and her fifth husband, Nate, are quite delightful. More importantly, though, this is memoir—creative nonfiction—a form I approach armed with what I learned from Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth:
The essence of memoir is “experience and truth, shaped by insight into art.” It is a distinct literary form from both fiction and autobiography, although it draws on the facts of the latter and often shapes them with the forms and devices of the former.
With that in mind, I can accept a few invented storytellers, if their invention enhances the telling of real stories. It does here. It's also worth mentioning that Lightman, a physicist by training, is also a well-regarded essayist and novelist, best known for Einstein's Dreams and The Diagnosis. Screening Room is his first truly personal work, and his fiction skills are effectively applied to making it impressionistic, episodic, and often lovely, with a solid sense of the people and place at its core.

I have some idea what Lightman means about always living in Memphis but being unable to live there, although I don’t have his deep roots in the Mid-South. I lived and worked in Memphis for just over a decade. I knew of the Lightman family, and I saw many movies in the their Malco Theaters. I didn’t grow up in Memphis, but my son did. The fact that it’s Chris’ hometown makes it one of mine. I’m reasonably sure neither of us will never live there again, but part of me remains connected to the place. Some people leave their hearts in San Francisco; I left part of mine in Overton Park.

I snapped up Screening Room because of the Memphis connection. I suspect that made me more responsive to it than a reader without that affinity might be, but I do think it would appeal to those drawn to evocative portraits of place and stories of complicated families. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Bronson Pinchot read this, and I especially appreciated the voices he gave to Lightman’s people, both the real and the fictional.

Rating: Book and audio, 4 of 5

From the acclaimed author of the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, here is a stunning, lyrical memoir of Memphis from the 1930s through the 1960s that includes the early days of the movies and a powerful grandfather whose ghost remains an ever-present force in the lives of his descendants.
Alan Lightman’s grandfather M.A. Lightman was the family’s undisputed patriarch: it was his movie theater empire that catapulted the Lightmans to prominence in the South, his fearless success that both galvanized and paralyzed his children and grandchildren. In this moving, impressionistic memoir, the author chronicles his return to Memphis in an attempt to understand the origins he so eagerly left behind forty years earlier. As aging uncles and aunts begin telling family stories, Lightman rediscovers his southern roots and slowly recognizes the errors in his perceptions of both his grandfather and his father, who was himself crushed by M.A. The result is an unforgettable family saga that extends from 1880 to the present, set against a throbbing century of Memphis—the rhythm and blues, the barbecue and pecan pie, the segregated society—and including personal encounters with Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr., and E. H. “Boss” Crump. At the heart of it all is a family haunted by the memory of its domineering patriarch and the author’s struggle to understand his conflicted loyalties.

From Chapter One:

"It began with a death in the family. My Uncle Ed, the most debonair of the clan, a popular guest of the Gentile social clubs despite being Jewish, had succumbed at age ninety-five with a half glass of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. I came down to Memphis for the funeral.

"July 12. Midnight. We sit sweating on Aunt Rosalie’s screened porch beneath a revolving brass fan, the temperature still nearly ninety. For the first time in decades, all the living cousins and nephews and uncles and aunts have been rounded up and thrown together. But only a handful of us remain awake now, dull from the alcohol and the heat, sleepily staring at the curve of lights that wander from the porch through the sweltering gardens to the pool. The sweet smell of honeysuckle floats in the air. 
Somewhere, in a back room of the house, a Diana Krall song softly plays.

"I wipe my moist face with a cocktail napkin, then let my head droop against my chair as I listen to Cousin Lennie hold forth. Now in her mid-eighties, Lennie first scandalized the family in the 1940s when, in the midst of her junior year at Sophie Newcomb, she ran off to Paris with a man. Since then, even during her various marriages, she has occasionally disappeared for weeks at a time.

“’With due respect to the dead,’ Lennie whispers to me, ’Edward trampled your father. Always.’”

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Quick Note to Say I'm Not Here

If you follow me on Instagram, and/or Twitter, and/or Facebook, you'll most likely see what I'm doing instead of blogging this Sunday. Paul and I will be costumed up and making the rounds at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and I expect we'll both be taking and posting photos along the way.

I've gotten some decent reading done this week, but not much writing. I finished reading Being Mortal on audio and am reading three other books right now. I'm also juggling audit prep and monthly reporting at work right now, but I'll be prioritizing book reviews when I do get time to write during the next week or so. In short, this is a good week for me not to be here, since I don't have a lot to report to you today.

Meanwhile, Winchester will keep watch on the books while I'm out. Hope you're having a good weekend!


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Celebrating Poetry and Libraries With a Special Guest

I hate to admit how long it's been since I visited a library, but I have some family members who are covering for me. One of them is my sister Teresa, an elementary-school librarian. I have admitted on several occasions that poetry doesn't do much for me, but my sister has been writing it for decades.

April marks the annual observance of two literary events, National Poetry Month and National School Library Month. To commemorate both, Teresa wrote an original poem celebrating reading and posted it to her Facebook feed. I am honored that she graciously agreed to let me share it with you here.

from A Poem Celebrating Reading, for National Poetry Month & National School Library Month

There are stories and adventures,
Classic tales for young and old;
Books about space and rattlesnakes-
A girl who weaves straw into gold.

A giving tree, a cat, a hat,
Engage both old and young.
A wimpy kid, a Demi-god, 
Some mysteries and fun.

The treasures in each book read,
Escape as pages turn,
We keep some characters in our heads,
We process and we learn.

Sometimes characters become like friends,
We care about their paths, their end;
Even when a series’ final book is done,
We simply cannot help it, we want another one.

Some authors write so lyrically, 
Some charm us with their wit;
Some challenge us to reassess
If the jury should acquit.

Some keep sleep from coming,
With their twists and turns of plot.
Some make us laugh out loud
At a very funny spot.

There are so many stories, 
I wish I had more time.
To curl up and read for hours,
It would be (sigh) sublime.

-Teresa A. DeGagné 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Talk: KEEP THE ENDS LOOSE, by Molly D. Campbell

Keep the Ends Loose
Molly D. Campbell (Twitter) (Facebook)
The Story Plant (March 3, 2015), Trade paper original (ISBN 1611882044 / 9781611882049)
Fiction (YA), 294 pages
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Book discussion KEEP THE ENDS LOOSE The 3 Rs Blog

The search is over for several of Molly D. Campbell’s characters—they have found their novel, and they’re in for a very eventful summer in Keep the Ends Loose.

Ohio teenager Mandy Heath is anxious about her upcoming freshman year of high school, but other than that, her life seems rather short on drama. Since she aspires to be a screenwriter, this feels like a problem—where is she supposed to find material? Mandy’s about to discover she needn’t worry about that; as it happens, her family abounds in drama, and there’s more to all of them than fifteen years in their company has ever hinted at.

Granted, Mandy was aware of her Aunt Iris’ brief, long-ago marriage to the traveling musician Frank Fletcher…but she had no idea that the marriage is technically not over yet, and she’s befuddled by her mother Winnie’s sudden, all-consuming interest in locating the man. Winnie insists that she just wants to help her sister move on; the rationale sounds a little weak, but Mandy, her brother Adam, and Mandy’s best friend Barley are roped-into helping Winnie with her plans. When they do find “Fletch,” the kids also find out that Winnie’s rationale sounded weak because it was rather far from the whole truth. Mandy and her family are about to spend the rest of the summer unraveling, and then reassembling, that truth.

I read and enjoyed Campbell’s self-published collection of sketches, Characters in Search of a Novel, and found similarities in tone and structure in the early chapters of Keep the Ends Loose. That made me a little concerned about how this was actually going to grow into a full-fledged novel; I noted extensive passages of physical description, and hoped they weren’t there at the expense of deeper character and plot development. However, as Campbell expands on Mandy’s own writing ambitions and increasingly frames the action with the screenplay Mandy envisions writing about it later, the use of “tell” over “show” begins to make more sense in context.

Keep the Ends Loose is classified as YA fiction, and my feeling is that it’s because of the tendency to assume that “teenage protagonist/narrator=YA novel.” This doesn’t feel YA to me, partly because so much of what happens in the story happens to, or is caused by, the adults in Mandy’s life, and partly because Mandy’s so interested in the adults in her life. Noting that, Campbell makes it interesting to see these adults through eyes of a perceptive, observant, and remarkably uncynical fifteen-year-old girl. Having said that, my feeling is that Keep the Ends Loose will appeal more to adults who read YA than to young-adult readers—and it does have genuine appeal. Light and comical in spots, and with genuine warmth throughout, this novel ultimately works because Molly D. Campbell creates some very engaging characters.

Rating: 3.75 of 5

(Parts of this review were cross-posted at Amazon.com, at the author's request. The author did not contribute to the review's content, and all opinions are my own.)

Book description, from the publisher’s website
Miranda Heath is a quirky fifteen-year-old with cinematic dreams and a safe, predictable family. That is until she decides to pull at the loose end that is the estranged husband her aunt never divorced. What seemed like the best way to allow her aunt to get on with her life sets off a series of events that threaten to turn Mandy’s world upside down. Suddenly, she’s embarking on adventurous road trips, becoming the center of an increasingly unstable household, meeting surprising strangers, and seeing everyone she knows in new ways. Sometimes loose ends just want to stay loose. But what happens if they want to unravel completely? 
Warm, funny, and uniquely perceptive, Keep the Ends Loose is an irresistible novel filled with characters you might recognize – and will not forget.
Opening Lines (a Kindle screencap)

screencap Chapter One KEEP THE ENDS LOOSE


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sunday Slowdown: Let's Play "20 Questions"

Sunday Slowdown, weekly on The 3 Rs Blog
I’ve seen Ti, Jen, and Bryan tackle this “20 Questions About Me” thing recently, and I thought I’d play along today. I rarely do this meme-type stuff here any more, and it was a fun change of pace. Feel free to take these questions with you and answer them for yourself—I’d love to know what you have to say about them!

"20 Questions About Me" on The 3 Rs Blog
  1. HOW TALL ARE YOU? My driver’s license says I’m 4’9”. This is an exaggeration, since I usually have shoes on whenever I have reason to show my driver’s license. I’ve told my doctor I’m 4’8.” That may also be an exaggeration, but not as much. Let’s just say that if I shrink too much as I get older, I’ll be the size of a very tall hobbit.
  2. DO YOU HAVE A HIDDEN TALENT? If I do, I haven’t seen it yet, so it must be very well hidden! I do have this weird ability to know what day of the week a particular date will fall by visualizing a calendar, but I’m not sure I’d call that a “talent.”
  3. WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST BLOG-RELATED PET PEEVE? Partial feeds. I realize that forcing people to click through to read a post gets more eyes on ads, if your blog has them; it may make them more likely to comment, too, since they’re already there. It’s weird that this still bugs me, since I don’t mind following a link on Twitter or Facebook, but it does—if you’re going to send your post to my feed reader, that’s where I want to read it.
  4. WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST NON-BLOG RELATED PET-PEEVE? Being forced to choose only one pet peeve. Seriously, it depends on the context, and the day. Most of my pet peeves concern people’s lack of consideration for one another, with Los Angeles drivers having their own special subcategory.
  5. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SONG? I have had many favorite songs over the decades. Some are associated with particular times, places, and/or people. Some are just songs that appeal to me—I have a weakness for smart lyrics, strong melodies, and high-energy power pop. I don’t have a current favorite song, but my favorite group of the past decade or so is Fountains of Wayne. 
  6. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE ETSY SHOP? I’d have to shop on Etsy to have one,
  7. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WAY TO SPEND YOUR FREE TIME WHEN YOU’RE ALONE? Reading, or writing, or alternating between both. (Those are also some of my favorite things to do when I’m not alone.)
  8. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE JUNK FOOD? I don’t eat a lot of true “junk” food—but I don’t always eat what’s best for me, either. Depending on whether I’m craving salty or sweet, my favorite bad choices are Chex Mix (traditional) and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
  9. DO YOU HAVE PETS? If you haven’t already met Winchester, please see below. We went almost five years without a dog before adopting him last November, and we’re very glad he’s with us. His name was "Chester" when we got him, but we soon altered it in homage to our favorite pair of hunters, Dean and Sam Winchester of Supernatural.
  10. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE FICTION AND NONFICTION BOOKS? What is my least-favorite question OF ALL TIME? When one has read literally hundreds of books, the books one identifies as “favorites” are unlikely to stay constant, so one sets conditions: favorite books of this year, of the last five years, when you were a kid, for reading to your kids, for escapism, and so on. Despite that grumbling, I will not dodge this question entirely; I’ll limit my choices to the last decade, and single out two books from the pre-blog years:
    • Fiction: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
    • Nonfiction: Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  11. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE BEAUTY PRODUCT? Flawless Beauty Primer from Pixi by Petra. I’m also a big fan of their eyeliners.
  12. WHEN WERE YOU LAST EMBARRASSED? I can’t tell you. It’ll bring it all back, and I can’t go through that again. Honestly, I embarrass myself daily—I put my foot in my mouth, I spill things on myself, I act carelessly and cause trouble for someone else. Fortunately, most of these incidents are minor, forgivable, and probably loom far larger in my mind than in anyone else’s.
  14. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE? The Princess Bride.
  15. WHAT WERE YOU IN HIGH SCHOOL? PROM QUEEN, NERD, CHEERLEADER, JOCK, VALEDICTORIAN, BAND GEEK, LONER, ARTIST, ETC? I was the self-christened “Chief Nerdette” of my high-school class. Since my high-school experience took place sometime between when the dinosaurs walked the earth and the geeks inherited it, this was not exactly a badge of pride—I am very happy that times have changed for my people!
  16. IF YOU COULD LIVE ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, WHERE WOULD YOU LIVE? I’ve lived in a range of places, all in the USA: New York, City and (up)state; New England; Florida; Tennessee; and California. My ideal place to live would combine the best of all of them, which means it doesn’t exist in the real world. I’d actually be happy to stay here in coastal Southern California, but I’d probably be happier if fewer other people lived here.
  17. PC OR MAC? Both, out of necessity—Mac, if that necessity is gone.
  18. LAST ROMANTIC GESTURE FROM A CRUSH, DATE, BOYFRIEND? I don’t have any of those. I do have a husband, however. His most recent romantic gesture was dedicating last weekend to doing whatever I wanted, in celebration of my birthday.
  19. FAVORITE CELEB? It tends to depend on what I’m into at any given time—what I’m watching and reading, mainly. Working Hollywood-adjacent has actually made celebrities less interesting to me.
  20. WHICH BLOGGER DO YOU SECRETLY WANT TO BE BEST FRIENDS WITH? I’m not-so-secretly friends with quite a few bloggers, including a good number I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with offline. They are a huge part of why I keep doing this.

If you have a question to add to this list, drop it in the comments, and I’ll probably answer it!

The Weekly Winchester

I took this during a walk last Sunday afternoon, but didn't include it in my #birthdayphotoanhour posts.

Winchester on a Sunday walk www.3rsblog.com

And how are you spending this Easter Sunday?