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Gregory S. Buzwell "bagpuss007" (London)
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Marnie (BFI Film Classics)
Marnie (BFI Film Classics)
by Murray Pomerance
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars For the love of Marnie, 12 Nov 2014
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For me, personally, Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock's best film. However, if someone were to ask me to name my favourite Hitchcock film then, well, that would result in an entirely different answer. My favourite Hitchcock film will always be Marnie.

I can see that Marnie has its flaws - the blatantly unreal backdrops for example, and the fact that it's a touch on the slow side in places - but I love it with a passion. I love its muted colour palette (muted that is aside from those briefly appearing vital reds); I love its staged theatricality; I love its complex range of characters and I love its two lead actors: Sean Connery at the height of his powers and Tippi Hedren, arguably the most complex and intense of Hitchcock's famous blondes. Marnie, for all its flaws, appeals very much to the heart rather than to the head. So, with a considerable bias in favour of the film firmly in place it was with a mixture of fear and hope that I read Murray Pomerance's book discussing this obscure object of my cinematic desire.

The book undeniably does a good job in drawing out the key themes from the film. There's a good analysis of motivation, both for Mark (the character played by Connery) and for Marnie (Tippi Hedren). There are some terrific stats such as the one stating that of the film's 528 scenes, Hedren appears in 517 of them, something which proves conclusively that (a) it is very much her film and (b) that she must have possessed considerable ability and stamina to bear the weight. There is also a sympathetic analysis of the notorious honeymoon scene and a convincing defence of those unrealistic backdrops. The ship that dominates the end of the street where Marnie's mother lives always fascinated me: it is so obviously fake, so fake in fact that surely its inclusion in the film must have been a deliberate ploy by the director. Pomerance's book looks into this, and other seemingly wayward backdrops and the occasional use of apparently amateurish back-projection with terrific insight, providing convincing arguments and theories as to why Hitchcock made the decisions he did. This part of the book in particular makes for a fascinating read.

I think what is slightly less successful about the book is some of the language. For the general reader and the interested fan alike the language is sometimes wearily academic. For example one sentence includes the phrase 'spaces of normative heterosocial relations' which is about as ugly a sequence of five words as you'll ever hear. As a phrase for describing the office where Marnie works it is hard to think of anything more pretentiously academic or anything less elegant. All of which is a pity. I often feel that academic language is sometimes simply a means of veiling the fairly obvious and dressing it up with an air of deliberate obscurity. It's a minor point though, and the occasional burst of academic language didn't detract from my appreciation of the important points the book makes about the film.

In conclusion, then, if you have an interest in Hitchcock in general or Marnie in particular then this is definitely worth a look. It's well argued and it contains an excellent selection of photographs; it makes several interesting points and it breaks down some of the key scenes so you can see how Hitchcock worked his magic. Marnie may not be Hitchcock's best film, but it is certainly one of his most enigmatic, intense and fascinating pictures. Marnie the film, like Marnie the central character is troubled and beautiful in equal measure. I for one absolutely love it.


After Me Comes the Flood
After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.38

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curious, 1 Aug 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The premise for After Me Comes the Flood is intriguing. John Cole drives out of London heading for Norfolk and becomes lost on the way. Needing water for the radiator of his car he visits an out-of-the-way house and finds himself inexplicably expected. He has never met the people in the house before, and they're an odd bunch to be sure but somehow they seem to know all about him. They even have a room prepared for him and, apparently, his possessions are already in the room just awaiting his arrival.

Sadly, for me, the premise of the book was the most interesting thing about it. Somehow the progression as the plot moves forwards, and the conclusion when it arrives, left me rather underwhelmed. Also I began to find the prose frustrating. Every noun seems to have two adjectives attached to it - for example a pebble cannot just be a pebble, it has to be a 'small white' pebble. If this happened from time to time I wouldn't have noticed but it happens pretty much all the time. It might add to the atmosphere, perhaps, but it slows the pace of the novel to the positively snail-like. After a succession of long, narrow tables, old, worn chairs and broad, ugly faces I was longing for something, anything that allowed my imagination a bit of freedom.

I guess, unfortunately, the book just wasn't for me. As I say the premise is intriguing and I suspect Sarah Perry could go on to become an excellent novelist but, with its ambling narrative and frustratingly opaque characters I felt After the Flood fell a little flat. Promising yes, but not the finished article.


Dark Entries
Dark Entries
by Robert Aickman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegantly Twisted, 28 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Dark Entries (Paperback)
Robert Aickman is an author perhaps known more for his influence upon other writers than for his own work. His stories - dark, disturbing, elusive and brilliant - have for many years been difficult to obtain. In the past if you wanted to read Aickman you had a choice between raiding the second-hand bookstores and hoping for the best or else shelling out for a deluxe edition of his tales. Hopefully this new series of publications by Faber and Faber will return his work to the limelight it so richly deserves.

Dark Entries contains six short stories, each one different to the last but all equally strange and dazzling. What I love about Aickman's tales is the way he sets up an intriguing situation and then adds layer upon layer of rustling unease. In 'The School Friend' for example, Mel finds herself looking after the house of an enigmatic friend, Sally, and wondering why all the rooms are kept locked and why the library appears to have been bizarrely reinforced to keep something out. Or is that rather to keep something in? Other stories are similarly odd. In 'Choice of Weapons' a man goes to dinner with his girlfriend only to become besotted with a young woman at another table - so much so that he dashes after her when she leaves and, upon visiting her house, finds himself strangely expected. In 'The View' a weary civil servant finds himself in a strange house, painting the landscape he sees from the grounds which, oddly, appears to alter every time he looks up from his canvas. 'Bind Your Hair' has an air of pagan mystery and the creepiest pair of children since Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw' while 'Ringing the Changes' tells of newlywed visitors to an off-season seaside town where the church bells ring loudly enough to wake the dead. Possibly literally.

Aickman was a great stylist, his prose elegant, clipped and measured. The stories abound with striking images - my favourite being in 'The School Friend' where heavy rain running down a window is described as having the appearance of melted wax. The characters are enigmatic and the settings endlessly intriguing. Occasionally I was reminded of Daphne du Maurier's short stories - Aickman and du Maurier both had a gift for portraying the commonplace suddenly wrong-footed by the surreal and the macabre.Also both were blessed with a prose style that positively purred.

In conclusion if you were interested enough to read this review I really would recommend you pick up a copy of Dark Entries straight away. If you like the delicious thrill of the supernatural, the haunting and the unexpected Aickman is most definitely for you. As this collection demonstrates he really was one of the very best when it came to disturbing, macabre, brilliant tales.


The Ballad of a Small Player
The Ballad of a Small Player
by Lawrence Osborne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superstition and Addiction, 13 April 2014
Lord Doyle, not a lord at all but rather a corrupt lawyer who sponged funds from a client and then went on the run, finds himself in Macau, haunting the gambling dens and casinos, playing baccarat and, like most gamblers losing more money than he wins. When he meets Dao-Ming, a beautiful and enigmatic woman, his luck takes a turn for the better and suddenly the cards begin to fall in his favour. The stakes become ever higher, and the money floods in but is there, at the end of the line, a price still to be paid?

As several reviewers have mentioned Osborne's writing style, and indeed his central character in The Ballad of a Small Player, are reminiscent of Graham Greene at his finest. There is much of Greene's clipped elegance about the prose together with that sense of desperation and futility being an almost tangible part of the landscape. Lord Doyle with his strangely likeable air of cynicism and his ability to remain a gentleman (almost) no matter what fate throws in his direction also owes something to Greene's whisky priests, over-looked bureaucrats and faded gangsters. Everything in the book is narrated from Lord Doyle's perspective and as the story progresses we genuinely grow to care what happens to this, at heart, rather shabby individual.

There is, as you would expect from a novel with gambling at its core, a great deal in the book about luck and addiction. In particular the inability of the desperate gambler to leave a table either when he is winning or when he is losing is brilliantly highlighted. When she's against you Lady Luck has to be charmed and pursued; when she's with you there is an obligation to make the most of her affections. Either way you can't leave her alone. There is also, at its core, a beautiful, enigmatic ghost story in the book. Just who is Dao-Ming? What are the secrets of her past and what is the relationship between luck, fate, chance and the supernatural?

The Ballad of a Small Player is only just over 200 pages long but it is far from a simple tale about one man and his fascination with gambling. There's a real depth to the characters, situations and ideas as well as a real elegance to the prose. It is, I suspect, a book that would reward repeated re-readings. It's terrific stuff, and one of the most fascinating books I have read for quite a while. Recommended.


Frog Music
Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Curious Tale of Old San Francisco, 25 Feb 2014
This review is from: Frog Music (Hardcover)
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Frog Music tells the tale of Blanche - a charismatic and free-spirited burlesque dancer - and Jenny Bonnet who first encounters Blanche when she careers her penny farthing bicycle into her on a busy San Francisco street. Blanche is not impressed, but fascinated by Jenny's taste for men's clothes and her work as a frog catcher supplying the local restaurants with tasty amphibians the two become friends. Jenny finds herself taking up residence with Blanche, Blanche's lover Arthur and Arthur's friend Ernest. The latter are both low-life gamblers. All well and good until a shooting leaves one of them dead and Blanche in fear for her life.

There's a lot to like in Emma Donoghue's latest book. San Francisco in 1876 makes for a colourful location, and the oppressive heat wave and smallpox epidemic lend the city a haunted air of the macabre. Blanche in particular with her career as an exotic (and erotic) dancer at the House of Mirrors is a fascinating creation but somehow I struggled to get into the story. The style of the writing jars a little and the narrative becomes fractured in places. There were times when I felt the story could have benefited from a little more space in which to breath. Perhaps the full-on pace was a deliberate ploy to capture the heady frenzy of life on the moral outskirts of the city but, for me, it didn't quite work: many of the book's best moments became somewhat crammed and cluttered.

I've loved a couple of Emma Donoghue's previous novels - both The Sealed Letter and Slammerkin were terrific reads - and she writes beautifully but Frog Music, for all its obvious verve and style, didn't quite work for me. I wanted to like it, but while I was occasionally bowled-over by the quality of the prose the story itself, sadly, left me a little flat.


The Reptile (Blu-ray + DVD) [1966]
The Reptile (Blu-ray + DVD) [1966]
Dvd ~ Noel Willman
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nightmare in Green, 27 Jan 2014
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Films like The Reptile encapsulate everything I love about Hammer. I only have to see the heightened-colours, the gorgeous interiors and the cranky day-for-night filming (did they ever get that right?) to be transported back to youthful days of horror double-bills on late-night TV. They don't, more's the pity, make them like this any more. All Hammer films are worth watching, even the bad ones have a charm and quirky beauty all their own, but The Reptile has long been one of my favourites. In The Reptile Hammer attempted something a bit different, just as they did with the film they made in parallel and using many of the same locations and actors - The Plague of the Zombies - and the result is a very fine, and sadly neglected, piece of horror.

The plot is relatively straightforward with Harry Spalding and his wife, Valerie, moving down to Cornwall when the former's brother dies in mysterious circumstances, leaving them a property in the area in his will. Upon arrival the locals behave in a distinctly unfriendly fashion, aside that is from Tom, the landlord (played to perfection by Michael Ripper), while the lord of the manor, Dr Franklyn, is cold, aloof and odd. Only Dr Franklyn's daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce at her most fragile and hauntingly beautiful) appears genuinely friendly although, as soon becomes clear, she is emotionally damaged and perhaps not all she seems. Add to this some excellent location-filming in Cornwall and some beautifully rendered interiors (both Harry and Valerie's cottage and the corridors in the manor house make excellent use of the colour green which saturates the sets like a beautiful, poisonous fog) and you have not only a visually engaging spectacle but also a cast of characters you come to know and care about. The Reptile also contains one of those crazy moments which once witnessed is never forgotten - namely the scene where Dr Franklyn smashes his daughter's sitar when her playing becomes somewhat too intense and hypnotic. It's insanely over the top and yet deeply disturbing at the same time. As Harry and Valerie become ever more entwined in the mysterious goings-on, and as the number of deaths increase (the effects of the reptile's bite are visually some of the most disturbing Hammer ever created - there are no little fang marks and trickles of blood here but rather ghastly green and black skin discolorations and a repellent frothing at the mouth) the sheer mystery and bizarreness of the events become ever more unsettling.

The restoration on the Blu-ray is excellent with the blacks and reds and greens (particularly those nightmarish greens) coming across in beautiful clarity. It's great to see such care being lavished on one of Hammer's less well-known movies. In a sense it's a shame Hammer became synonymous with the Dracula and Frankenstein films. They are, of course, often brilliant but it has always been the quirky and less well-known Hammer films that I have loved the most - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, for example, or the above-mentioned Plague of the Zombies. Somehow, when away from the Count and the Baron Hammer could perhaps stretch the accepted boundaries a little further. The Reptile contains some arresting visuals, some colourful plot twists and some terrific performances (watching this film always leaves me wishing Jacqueline Pearce had been given a major Hammer role - she would have been, I suspect, superb and then some). It may be neglected, but it is brilliant all the same.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2014 8:45 PM GMT


Hangsaman (Penguin Modern Classics)
Hangsaman (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Shirley Jackson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange and Addictive, 12 Jan 2014
Shirley Jackson always had the ability to portray a dark sense of unease in her work. In Hangsaman, that sense of the odd, the baffling and the out of kilter is turned up a notch, becoming if anything even more apparent than in her later, better-known novels such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The other quality Jackson always possessed in spades was the ability to write beautifully balanced prose and Hangsaman shows the elegance of her writing-style to full effect. In places the book positively purrs like a well-fed cat curled by the fireside, or a well-tuned Rolls on an open road.

Natalie Waite, the central character, is the daughter of a pompous author who isn't quite the great thinker and stylist he would like to believe. Even more problematic for Natalie her mother is terribly neurotic and always haunted by the life she might have lived had marriage and drudgery not intervened. Natalie's brother, very sensibly, keeps his distance from his parents and attempts to do his own thing, quietly and beyond the dead-hand reach of his parents. Natalie is perhaps less fortunate. Her mother ropes her in with all the preparations for her father's parties when various local worthies are invited to dine, and her father, when not entertaining, sets her curious writing tasks so he can check on the progress of her prose. Natalie, one suspects, isn't having the most comfortable of childhoods. Jackson always keeps the main events in Hangsaman slightly opaque but there is a strong suggestion one of her father's friends forces himself on Natalie after one too many drinks. What had been a strange childhood becomes, afterwards, positively a broken and disturbed one.

The book follows Natalie to college where she runs the gauntlet of prettier, spoilt girls forcing their brand of weird humour onto their less attractive, and often more intelligent counterparts. Natalie suffers the strange rituals of female college life; not quite fitting in and yet being clever enough to avoid the worst potential embarrassments. She befriends the wife - scarcely any older than she is - of her English teacher and then finds herself unintentionally aiding his affair with one of her friends (either Vicki or Anne, we never quite know which but both are beautiful, spoilt and trying it on for all they're worth); and then she meets Tony, who becomes a new and very odd friend indeed from which point on Natalie's world - real or imagined - becomes disturbingly off-balance.

Hangsaman is a brilliant but odd book (especially in its last third). There's a sense that 'reality' as it really is (if there is such a thing) and 'reality' as perceived through Natalie's increasingly disturbed consciousness do not quite match up. The prose is gorgeous, the characters fascinating and the situations by turn comic, baffling and disturbing. Quite what it all adds up to at the end of the day, however, is a difficult question to answer. There is something very dark at its heart, but also something profound, elusive and moving. It's different - very different - but it rewards the effort required to untangle its elusive strands. It's probably not a book for everyone but personally, well, I absolutely loved it.


The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and The Curse of Byron
The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and The Curse of Byron
by Andrew Stott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poets and Monsters, 25 Dec 2013
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The events at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 read, appropriately enough perhaps, like something from a Gothic novel: a mad tale of brilliant poets, ghost stories, violent storms, sublime mountainous landscapes and heated sexual intrigue. The focal point for the events, somewhat inevitably given his fame and reputation, was Lord Byron who had rented the villa after fleeing certain marital difficulties at home. Travelling with him was his physician, John Polidori and in hot pursuit was a former lover, Claire Clairmont, travelling together with her step-sister Mary Godwin and Mary's lover Percy Shelley. It was all unavoidably, as they finally met up on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, going to end with something of a bang.

The Vampyre Family is a fascinating book, not least because it provides a new angle on a familiar story. Anyone with an interest in the Romantics will know that the events at the Villa Diodati - with the fireside discussions of galvanism and ghost stories on the one hand and the intoxicating mixture of sexual tension and incessant thunder storms on the other - ultimately led to the writing of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein and Polidori's short story The Vampyre; two works which have fascinated and influenced subsequent generations ever since. What The Vampyre Family does brilliantly however is address in detail the events leading up to the summer of 1816 together with the aftermath for those who were there. Byron, as is always the case with Byron, steals the show but Polidori and Claire Clairmont in particular emerge from the book as rounded, passionate, flawed and very human characters. Giving such prominence to Claire in particular adds considerable depth to the tale itself and allows for a fresh perspective on the behaviour of Byron (usually fairly bad); Polidori (star-struck, jealous but with character and passion); Mary Shelley (not always the saint) and Percy Shelley (likeable, brilliant, but not always of much practical use).

I loved this book. It is well-researched and beautifully written (in particular I liked all of the little character sketches which brought to life even the most peripheral characters - the hack writer John Mitford for example, an alcoholic so derelict he apparently only ate cheese and onions, washed his clothes in a pond and regularly spent the nights asleep in a field). Also by giving John Polidori and Claire Clairmont equal billing with their more famous contemporaries the book achieves a beautiful balance between dazzling literary endeavour and human pain, regret and suffering. The events at the Villa Diodati form a familiar tale of course but I have never before seen them given such an elegant and insightful rendering as they have received here. Highly recommended.


The Mummy's Shroud (Blu-ray + DVD) [1967]
The Mummy's Shroud (Blu-ray + DVD) [1967]
Dvd ~ André Morell
Price: £14.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shockingly Entertaining, 9 Dec 2013
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The first of Hammer's Egyptian outings, 'The Mummy' (1959), had style and panache on its side while the last, 'Blood From the Mummy's Tomb' (1971), had glamour, originality and wit. The two Mummy films in between however, or so the theory goes, are somewhat underwhelming. That's partly true in that The Mummy and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb are the best films in the cycle but all the same The Mummy's Shroud (1967) is still a terrifically enjoyable film and much more original than its reputation implies. It is also, perhaps, the best ensemble piece Hammer ever made.

The plot, you won't be surprised to hear, concerns a group of Egyptologists being bumped off one by one after they discover the tomb of the boy Pharaoh Kah-to-Bey. What makes the film a success, however, is the quality of the cast (especially the ladies, who are all superb); the wit of the script and John Gilling's inspired direction. As the excellent accompanying documentary on the disc points out the biggest problem with the Mummy films is that you are always left with the same basic scenario, namely a bandage-swathed monster acting as a lone serial killer. Gilling's solution was to turn this into a virtue by making the Mummy's attacks brilliant set-pieces and by giving the victims sufficient character to make you care about their fate. Add to this an original twist and a dash of subtle depth in that all the women in the film, from Catherine Lacy's brilliantly creepy fortune teller Haiti to Maggie Kimberley's cool and intelligent linguist Claire de Sangre and Elizabeth Sellars' character Barbara Preston, long suffering wife of the boorish Stanley who finances the expedition, all have, to one degree or another, genuine second sight. The men, meanwhile, can barely see what's in front of their noses. Also it is worth noting that this film sees Michael Ripper's finest hour as he plays the character of Longbarrow, Stanley Preston's long-suffering secretary and perhaps the most put-upon and miserable character in any Hammer film. He's a poor old chap and no mistake, but he steals every scene in which he appears.

The opening ten minutes which consist of a bit of historical background from ancient Egypt are, admittedly, rather tedious and uninspired (they're none too convincing either with what is clearly an English quarry standing in for a supposedly heat-drenched Egyptian landscape) but after that the film takes flight with some excellent acting and inspired direction (in particular the way the Mummy is filmed - looming in a crystal ball in one instance and being viewed by a character wearing broken glasses in another) and the script is great fun with heroism, shabby behaviour, comedy and drama all being played to great effect. It might be 'minor' Hammer, but it is still entertaining and not without some superb set pieces. The quality of the restoration for the blu ray is also superb with the reds, greens and inky blacks all shining through. It's great fun, and better than its general reputation suggests. In short, if you have seen the other Hammer Mummy films then you really should see this one too.


Knots And Crosses
Knots And Crosses
by Ian Rankin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Where it all began, 3 Dec 2013
This review is from: Knots And Crosses (Paperback)
Knots and Crosses comes right at the beginning of the run of Rebus novels and it sets out many of the character traits, themes and locations that recur throughout the series. Perhaps foremost among these recurring themes is Edinburgh itself with its seedy underbelly of lowlife enclaves the tourists never get to see. Edinburgh is as important to the Rebus novels as late-Victorian London with its fogs and its hansom cabs is to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Next up is John Rebus himself who is a brilliant creation - so flawed and human and yet so likeable at the same time. You get all the character traits you expect such as the hard drinking and smoking; the way he simultaneously attracts and scares women and the dysfunctional family background but you also get those lovely little quirks that make him believable, his love of books and jazz for example, and his all too plausible rundown flat with its dodgy heating and its stairwells smelling of cats. In some ways John Rebus is just your average guy, and that's what makes him so easy to relate to and admire, even when he's behaving in a slightly shabby fashion (perhaps especially when he's behaving in a slightly shabby fashion).

Coming so early in Rankin's career Knots and Crosses is a remarkably assured piece of writing. The plot involving a serial killer and the abduction of young girls is stylishly handled and yet sits behind the events in Rebus's own life, it's almost like a film clip playing in the background until events push it shatteringly to the fore. Similarly the whole weary drudgery of police work and the endless checking of files and facts and details is well handled.

In his introduction to the latest edition Ian Rankin mentions that in the book as he originally planned it Rebus was to die at the end. Fortunately he changed his mind which is good news for us (and for Ian Rankin as well I suspect given that the profits from the Rebus books must have helped pay a fair few bills over the years). There's definitely something quite comforting about the Rebus books, even allowing for their gritty settings and grim cast of lowlife criminals. You know you're in the hands of someone who can really write, and who can tell a rattling good story. If you have dipped in and out of the series in the past then it's worth going back to Knots and Crosses to see how it all began, to pick up on those recurring motifs from Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and to see Rankin learning his craft. It's a good novel, and it paved the way for even greater heights to come. Recommended.


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