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P. G. Harris

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The Stone Diaries
The Stone Diaries
Price: £6.36

5.0 out of 5 stars The meaning of a life, 21 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: The Stone Diaries (Kindle Edition)
The Stone Diaries is the story of a life in the twentieth century. To be specific it is the story of Daisy Goodwill, from her birth in 1906, during which her mother died, to her death in a nursing home in the last decade of the century.

In tone, to me, the closest parallel would be the works of Peter Carey, a family saga set against the backdrop of a young and growing country. The big differences would be, fairly obviously, that Carol Shields is a woman and Canadian.

This is not a huge, sprawling epic of extraordinary events and achievements. Even though Daisy's life covers most of, and is contained wholly within, the 20th century, the big historical events occur offstage, and have only peripheral impact on the central character's life.

To call this a small scale novel would, however, be to do it a disservice. Better words would be intricate and detailed. Shields takes Daisy through ten ages of woman, birth, childhood, marriage, love, motherhood, work, sorrow, ease, illness and decline, and death. At each stage she provides a touching portrait of an ordinary life, showing a deep understanding of the human condition.

This is not a romantic story, Daisy marries twice, but neither time is it the result of great passion. The first time, it is what is expected by society of a young woman, the second, an older Daisy, more in control, makes a very pragmatic choice about her own life. That is not to say that this is a dour, tragic or traumatic tale. Daisy's story is a happy one, which celebrates the beauty of an ordinary life.

Possibly the main enjoyment of the book is in the relationships, between Daisy's parents, between Daisy and her daughter, Daisy and her niece, but above all between Daisy and her friends, Fraidy and Beans, largely played out through a series of letters between the three of them.

The Stone Diaries is a book of strong symbolism, with its two main recurring themes being stone(unsurprisingly) and flowers. Stone is about solidity, permanence and remembrance, but it is also, stultifying, ossifying and entrapping. Flowers are Daisy's release, escape and freedom, and in the end as she declines she confuses her friends with flowers while she herself solidifies and returns to stone.

In summary, the Stone Diaries is a highly intelligent, insightful compassionate novel, but also very entertainingly and extremely easy to read.

Truth and Fear: Book Two of The Wolfhound Century
Truth and Fear: Book Two of The Wolfhound Century
by Peter Higgins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Alternative Siege of Stalingrad, 21 Aug. 2015
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Truth and Fear is the second novel by Peter Higgins set in an alternative Russia in an alternative 20th century. At the centre of the novel are two conflicts. One, between the parallel USSR, the totalitarian Vlast, and it's enemy the Archipelago, mirrors aspects of WWII . The other is between an alien fallen to earth, an "angel", which seeks to take over the Vlast as a prelude to returning to the stars, and the vast forest which lies to the east of the city of Mirgorod. This latter is seemingly an allegory for the battle between nature and industrialisation.

Truth and Fear is the most direct sequel to Wolfhound Century imaginable, in that it starts immediately after the events of the earlier book. The central character is once again Investigator Vissarian Lom, accompanied by the mysterious young woman, Maroussia Shaumian. Arrayed against them are the forces of the state, primarily in the Beria-like Chazia, and the self serving Josef Kantor, both of whom are influenced by the malign Angel.

The central story is Lom and Shaumian's quest to reach the Pollandore, a source of power aligned to the forest, which is in the possession of Chazia. The scenery this is played out against is an assault on Mirgorod, clearly drawn from the Siege of Stalingrad, and a deportation of citizens which includes elements of both Stalin's purges and Hitler's holocaust.

As well as the intended parallels with 20th century history, I found myself cross referencing the works of China Mieville. Wolfhound Century had a distinct feel of "The City and the City", as a detective noir set in a metropolis of overlapping realities. This, on the other hand felt closer to Perdido St Station as a supernatural fantasy, with vampires, werewolves and Lom's own unearthly powers more to the fore.

Truth and Fear is very much the second novel in a trilogy, or possibly longer sequence. It takes the story forward, and indeed reaches a denouement, but it's purpose seems mainly to be moving pieces into place for what is to come. Interestingly, the denouement is one which might have been expected to form the final resolution of the sequence, but then while it occurs, its consequences are not explained at all, hence things are left open for future novels.

As a result, this is slightly dissatisfying as a standalone novel, but then it's narrative strength can only really be judged when the whole story has been revealed by later works. What is genuinely less than satisfactory is the way in which. Two major players on the dark side of the novel are built up as major forces, but then easily disposed of in a rather perfunctory fashion by the heroes.

The major strength of Truth and Fear is the quality of the writing, and in particular the descriptive writing, far beyond what is normally found in science fiction. Particular examples are the lyrical opening passage, picturing dawn rising over the city, the horror of that city's near destruction in a bombing raid, and a seaplane flight over an icebound northern landscape.

So, in summary, this is an unusually well written novel of an alternative reality, but I reserve my final judgement until I've completed the sequence.

A Canticle For Leibowitz
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Timeless classic, 21 Aug. 2015
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The very best science fiction uses imagined worlds as a laboratory for exploring human nature and our contemporary world. The names which come to mind when making that statement are ones like Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K LeGuin. With a Canticle for Leibovitz, Walter M Miller earns himself a place at that table, and his novel rightly appears in many lists of the greatest works of science fiction.

A Canticle for Leibovitz consists of three linked novellas set in a catholic monastery over a period of hundreds of years. The first is set in a world plunged into a new dark age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The cataclysmic conflict was followed by a reaction against learning and a burning of books. In the monastery of the Blessed Leibovitz, monks preserve and copy relics written by a repentant weapons scientist, I E Leibovitz, with no understanding of their meaning or purpose.

In the second section, both a renaissance and a reformation are occurring with a tyrannical ruler displacing the pope as the head of the church, and natural philosophers seeking to mine the archives of the Abbey. In the outside world rulers of disparate small states fight each other in both political and military arenas.

In the final section, humankind has returned to and surpassed the pre holocaust level of technology with spaceflight now a reality, but nuclear weapons have also been reinvented and a familiar shadow hangs over the world.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is very much a novel of its time. It is a very clear child of the 1950s and the immediate threat of nuclear apocalypse. In its portrayal of a rejection of science by the mob, it is informed by growing anti-intellectualism of the Eisenhower/McCarthy era. However, unlike much older science fiction, it has not become dated. Firstly this is because there is not a great deal of technical foresight. There doesn't need to be, this is primarily about a society which has regressed. In the last section there are one or two things which don't ring true (an electrical rather than electronic translator), but these are unimportant in the overall picture. The second reason it hasn't dated is that the themes of nuclear destruction and anti-intellectualism remain completely relevant today. If the former became a less immediate fear with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is surely only a temporary reduction, the danger is still there and likely to grow again.

The third reason why Canticle for Leibowitz remains relevant is that it isn't really about the future, it is about the present. The central question it asks is whether the human race learn from past mistakes, or is destined by its very nature to repeat them? The answer it gives is, on the surface, a fairly dark one, but not one without hope, in the spark of light kept alive by the monks, and in a potential escape from the cycle of destruction at the end of the novel.

Alongside the central theme, Miller also explores other ethical dilemmas. Is the role of science simply to expand knowledge with no thought for how that knowledge is used by other, or should the scientist take responsibility for the technological uses to which discoveries are put? Very near the end of the book, there is a heartbreaking conflict between a very catholic espousal of the unequivocal protection of life and the use of euthanasia to prevent/end hopeless suffering.

I suspect that a lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine meant that I didn't get as much out of the book as a might have done. There are probably subtleties in the ways in which Miller modifies the monks' practices which I missed. There is also a Lazarus-like figure (is he indeed Lazarus?) whose significance I am still trying to come to terms with. At the end there is also a suggestion of a Second Coming.

This all possibly makes "A Canticle for Leibowitz" sound like a heavy and depressing work. Certainly it is dark, but it is told in smooth flowing prose, and with a constant wry humour, which make it eminently readable.

In conclusion, I am in full agreement with those who have listed this as a classic.

What a Carve Up!
What a Carve Up!
Price: £4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars Carry on up the 80s, 28 July 2015
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In 1961 the wealthy Winshaw family meet in the family home on the Yorkshire moors to celebrate Mortimer's 50th birthday. It is not a happy family, son Geoffrey was killed in the war and his apparently insane sister holds her brother Lawrence responsible. Mortimer's wife Rebecca cannot stand her in-laws, but her unruly children Harriet and Roddy seem to have inherited the family's ruthless streak.

Meanwhile, in Weston-super-mare, Michael Owen is traumatised on his ninth birthday by being dragged out of a screening of a sub-Carry On film, a murder mystery set in a mysterious mansion on the Yorkshire moors.

Switch to 1990 and the Winshaw family have done very well out of the economic changes of the eighties, while Michael has retreated from early success as a writer to become a recluse, failing to complete a biography/expose of the Winshaws. He sits in his flat, endlessly rewatching a scene of coitus interruptus, or rather coitus non initium from the aforementioned film, What a Carve Up!

Jonathan Coe uses this set up to write a massively entertaining, completely OTT, satire of the excesses of the eighties. Different members of the Winshaw family personify different aspects of the darker regions of the late Thatcherite period. Dorothy is, in a particularly stomach churning section, an unscrupulous proponent of factory farming (with dire consequences for Michael's father). Mark is an arms dealer, merrily equipping Saddam Hussein, and peripherally involved in the Westland and Matrix Churchill scandals(with dire consequences for the husband of Michael's friend). Henry is at the forefront of the commercialisation of the NHS. (With dire consequences for Michael's sort of girlfriend). Hilary personifies the Murdoch media, and is a remarkably prescient forerunner of the appalling Katie Hopkins.

Coe makes some serious points, many of the more dreadful acts of the virtually pantomimically villainous Winshaws are, according to the notes at the end, based on real events. However he also brings a massive amount of fun to writing his over-blown tale. The country house theme is a connecting thread throughout the book. It starts almost with a nod to the quintessential eighties TV drama, Brideshead Revisited with its location at Castle Howard. It then descends to the gothic setting for the titular film before shrinking to a game of Cluedo, eventually growing back to full size for the novel's climax in a real life maze of secret passages.

Coe's writing is full of references to other authors, at one point it feels like a Carry-on film scripted by Paul Auster as the ludicrous and seemingly unconnected story threads rub against and spark off each other. There are references on the way to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is also a strong whiff of a West Midlands childhood, bringing to mind Coe's other work, Sathnam Sanghera and even Nigel Slater's Toast. In a strange way, the other book this brought to mind was the History Man. While at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Winshaws are used to ridicule the faults of the 80s in the same way as Howard Kirk personified some unedifying themes of the 70s.

What a Carve Up is a masterpiece of outrageous plotting as Coe frantically ties together disparate strands with what appear to be ridiculous coincidences which turn out to be the result of heroically Machiavellian machinations.

Alongside the satirical barbs, and the narrative fireworks there is some good, old fashioned, straightforward beautiful writing here. A car journey with a fractious father law is a comedic delight. A scene in a broken down tube train is wonderfully claustrophobic. A death in a hospital is tear inducingly poignant.

If I had any criticisms, they would be firstly that Coe's satirical edge is a little blunt. The Winshaws are just a bit too stereotypically villainous. But then maybe that's just in keeping with the larger than life style of the book. Secondly at times it felt that Coe was trying a bit too hard, throwing so many different stories at the reader that it became rather fragmentary.

Overall though,the verdict has to be that this is great fun, whilst also carrying a bitter satirical edge.

Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
by Antony Sher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.39

5.0 out of 5 stars The theatrical knight in late summer, 26 July 2015
I have recently posted a review of Anthony Sher's "Year of the King", a book I first read in the 80's, shortly after it was first published. That was an account of playing Richard III, written by an actor still building his career. The contrasts (and similarities) with this work are interesting.

Here we see a fully established theatrical knight, confident in his place in the world, working on the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. That is not to say that Sher in without insecurities. He is in the favoured position of being married to the Artistic Director of the RSC and director of the plays, and yet this simply leads to concerns about perceived nepotism. In the Year of the King he worried about his physical ability to play the part, having ruptured his Achilles while playing the fool in Lear. Here he worries about whether a short Jewish South African can play the quintessentially English fat knight. This is despite the book opening with an endorsement from Ian McKellen.

At its heart, this is a similar work to Year of the King, but that is its strength. It is the portrait of a massively talented actor putting together a performance. It is a picture of a company gradually coming together (and Sher is a very generous writer in his appreciation of those around him, both on and off stage, there is no bitchiness or backbiting). It is an account of the mechanics of rehearsals, previews, press nights and openings.

The Year of the Fat Knight, like its predecessor, is illustrated throughout by the author's own drawings and paintings. These include a series of pictures of other actors playing Falstaff, which are both very recognisable, and also have a similarity, with the fat knight himself present in all of them. Amongst others, there is a touching picture of Sher with husband Greg Doran.

In summary, this doesn't have the raw energy and excitement of the earlier book, but it instead gives a much mellower, considered view of an actor working at the top of the profession.

Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Price: £179.99

4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best electric razors I've used, 5 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I judge all razors against my normal standard of wet shaving with a safety razor.

This is one of the best electric razors I've come across. It gives an even shave, without pulling, even when I've not shaved for a few days.

I like the tilting head, which can also be fixed and all of the controls are conveniently placed.

It's a bit on the large side for travelling purposes, but then the battery has a good long left

Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Price: £9.68

3.0 out of 5 stars No better or worse than their normal brand, 5 July 2015
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Not being a cat, I'm afraid I can't tell you what these taste like.

When I first put them down, my cats shunned them in favour of their normal brand, but when not given a choice, they trough away at them quite happily.

Now the two brands side by side go down equally quickly.

So I guess the verdict from my cats is "OK"

I Am Pilgrim
I Am Pilgrim
Price: £3.66

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wham bam, no thank you maam, 1 July 2015
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This book is a very definite piece of genre fiction. It is a politically right wing techno thriller. It doesn’t therefore fall within my normal choice of reading. It qualifies for one star, because I hated it, I nearly gave two stars because as a politically right wing techno thriller, it delivers to its audience after a fashion. That said, two things knock it back down. Firstly the inherent racism. Secondly the fact that the plot is entirely dependent on a single, utterly ridiculous, co-incidence.

I am guessing that the target market for I am Pilgrim is blokes on holiday. In fact this is a book so bloke-ish, it should be sitting on a lounger by the pool wearing swim shorts, working its way through a six pack of Carling while gradually turning pink with sunburn.

The story is that of a retired superspy who is now helping a friend in the police force but who is returned to active service to hunt down a brilliant but extreme Islamist who is plotting to destroy America.

Politically this ticks all of the neo-con boxes. The laxness of EU border controls are a threat to the free world. Globalisation endangers American Security, by exporting US jobs to Europe to be carried out by illegal immigrants. The only way of effectively delivering healthcare is through the free market with no government intervention. Workers’ rights are protected by philanthropic capitalism, not by unionisation. Attached to these Farage-esque economic views are the sadly predictably more offensive racial and gender politics. In the author’s world view, the words Arab and Muslim are entirely interchangeable, and are applied to people who are either evil schemers plotting to bring down the west, or are funny foreigners whose mangling of English is a source of amusement. Women basically consist of breasts. Virtually every time the hero meets a woman, her breasts are commented on. This reaches its apogee, or more accurately nadir, when he is interrogated by the CIA, and the female agent’s technique is to …… flash her boobs at him.

One of the most entertaining things for this reader was spotting the influences/other authors plagiarised by Hayes. One of the main reasons for this is that he has tried to throw as much as he possibly can at the book. So, this is a techno thriller with a near invincible loner hero. Hats off to Tom Clancy and Lee Childs. But then we have the gratuitously gruesome police procedural with a grizzled old detective. Say a big hello to James Patterson, and possibly Michael Connolly. In an article I read on the web, Hayes listed Frederick Forsyth among his three favourite thriller writers, and sure enough we get a post war escape route for Nazis a la Odessa file. Alastair Maclean appears in the form of the Satan Bug. There is even a nod towards Sherlock Holmes and the mysterious but elusive Irene Adler. A second of Hayes’ favourite writers (the third being Robert Ludlum) is John Le Carre. While there are nods to the master with references to spies coming in from or going out into the cold, it would be difficult to imagine a book further away along the thriller spectrum. Intelligent, nuanced, subtle are definitely not words which apply to this great big dumb high octane action adventure.

A few years ago while passing through a small Italian airport one of the few books in English on sale was by a British author called Patrick Robinson. That was an unashamed love story to the American Way, the hawkish end of the Republican party and the philanthropy of the US military. In it, a fiendish but brilliant lone Arab terrorist uses submarines to attack the Land of the Free. It is Robinson to whom Australian Hayes bears the closest resemblance.

The book’s strengths lie in its big set piece action sequences. In one particularly entertaining one, while escaping after being disturbed engaged in covert intelligence gathering, the hero is pursued through a nautical warehouse resulting in boats swinging through the air on giant cranes and squishing bad guys. However, in between the tension, I am Pilgrim is, at times, surprisingly dull. This arises from two sources. Firstly it goes into far too much detail. The sequence in which the villain is synthesising his virus is particularly tedious. Secondly, the writing is primarily in flat, short, staccato sentences with little variation or colour. For that matter, the chapters come at the reader in a similar machine gun fashion, with the constant ending on a mini cliff-hanger becoming rather irritating. Where Hayes tries to make use of imagery or metaphor, he often repeats exactly the same phrase which is either lazy, the result of poor editing, or both.

In conclusion, I won’t criticise this for being a violent techno-thriller. That is what it is, it’s not my thing, but that’s a matter of taste. I won’t criticise it for its economic politics, again, not a position I share, but Hayes stands by his views. I will criticise its racism and misogyny. I will also criticise it for not being a particularly good techno-thriller. Yes, the ending gathers pace well and it is a genuine page-turner, but the whole plot swings on a co-incidence so preposterous, that if there could genuinely be an attack on the Western world of this nature, we might as well head for the hills now.

Year of the King
Year of the King
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Unequivocally Brilliant, 25 Jun. 2015
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I was recently lucky enough to be given a copy of Anthony Sher’s latest book “Year of the Fat Knight” as a birthday present. Before reading it, I thought I’d reacquaint myself with this, earlier work. I first read it in the 80s, shortly after it was initially published, and I’ve returned to it on a number of occasions since. I have, over the years, on several occasions tried to list my ten favourite novels. Were I to list my ten favourite books, this would easily find a place on the list, and probably be in the top three.
Despite the familiarity arising from repeated reading, it has never lost its power to excite. For anyone with an interest in the theatre, this is simply one of the most thrilling and indeed inspiring books it has been my pleasure to read.
The basic structure is straightforward. As a youngish actor on the verge of a major breakthrough, Anthony Sher, after recovering from the agony of tearing his Achilles tendon while paying the fool in Lear, is offered the part of Richard the Third at the RSC. From there, Sher takes us through the agonies of whether to accept the part, and then once he has taken the plunge, the process of building a part. He takes the reader through the research, the psychological analysis, the building of relationships with the rest of the cast, and also the mechanics, the costume, make-up, set, and music.
One of the reasons the book succeeds so wonderfully is that Sher is an excellent storyteller. He starts slowly, with a languid holiday visiting his family in South Africa playing a major early part in his tale. Then on return, he gradually ratchets up the pace and the tension as the play goes into rehearsal and careers towards the opening night, and the catharsis of eventual success. Of course, the book wouldn’t be half as much as fun, and indeed probably wouldn’t have been published if the production hadn’t been a success. However, it was and that gives us wonderful moments such as Sher denying that he reads reviews, only for Michael Caine to suggest that he wrote them.
Aside from being a damn good story, one which had me staying awake far too long to get to the end, one of the other joys is the cast of other actors. Brian Blessed, who was seemingly as loud in the 80s as he is now. The now virtually ubiquitous Roger Allam as a young actor. The lately venerable Jonathan Pryce and Bernard Hill as dangerous young risk-takers. It also extends beyond the actors to a fascinating array of directors, costumiers, dressers, Fx people, and even drivers.
Sher’s talent goes beyond acting and writing. The book is illustrated with his own sketches, one of particular note portrays the author himself in a dream flying round a Laurence Oliver’s giant face. At the start of his journey he is thoroughly intimidated by “Sir’s” apparently definitive playing of the part. He is also feels oppressed by Shakespeare, railing at him for starting the play with such a famous line. “Now is the winter……”
To finish, I have one uncomplicated thing to say. If you are interested in the theatre, and in the art of acting, if you haven’t already read the Year of the King, do so. Now.

So You've  Been Publicly Shamed
So You've Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but insubstantial, 20 Jun. 2015
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The central tenet of Jon Ronson's "So you've been publicly shamed" is that the Internet has become the modern equivalent of the stocks, and public execution as a tool for the extreme humiliation of those who transgress societies norms. Amidst a number of examples, he spends most time on three cases. A biographer who is found to be fabricating material, two delegates at an IT conference whose puerile banter offends a fellow delegate, and a woman who makes an off colour tweet, which results in a global storm of abuse on social media.

In the first of these cases, there is a definite transgression, but the question is whether the consequent destruction of a career is a disproportionate consequence. The second is an exploration of the extremes of the "PC" debate as firstly the offended party brings the wrath of the on-line world to bear on two men making frankly school boyish jokes, resulting in their losing their jobs, but then the anti-PC brigade attacks the original complainant, and she loses her job.
The third case involves a woman making an arguably self depreciating but tasteless joke, getting on a plane, and when she lands, misunderstanding has resulted in desktop Dobermans destroying her career. This third case is backed by that of a woman who posts a stupid photo and suffers similarly.

It is probably the second case which is the most concerning. The first victim was in fact guilty of professional misconduct. To a generation X dinosaur there is the simple solution to the third (and fourth) case(s) - don't post stupid things on social media. In the second situation, two people suffer damage to their careers for the heinous crime of being a bit juvenile in a public place, and a third suffers similarly for objecting to it.

As he considers these situations and others, Ronsson takes the reader on a journey which takes in those who have survived public shaming by facing down their critics, companies which provide a service to bury negative on-line criticism with mountains of positivity, the tactics of the East German Stasi, and the place of shame in a confrontational justice system.

It is these last two which point to the main weaknesses of the book for me. It is an extremely interesting, easily readable, thought provoking and often deeply worrying book, but boy, is it shallow. Admittedly it is worrying that the English justice system often seems to be less dependent on fact than on the ability of a clever lawyer to discredit a nervous witness, but to fillet an institution which has endured for hundreds of years in a few short pages of widely spaced text doesn't really come across as a well thought out, robust argument. Equally, Ronsson seeks to distill the complex psychological network of observation and betrayal which existed in the East prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall into a single simple motivation. He is in danger of tripping over from simplification into superficiality.

In the way that book shops (real and virtual) are full of works of popular science, this is a work of popular social psychology. Intriguing and engaging, but ultimately it is a snack which left me wishing for a more substantial meal.

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