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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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Young Bond: Shoot to Kill
Young Bond: Shoot to Kill
Price: £6.17

4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal, but Wonderful, 15 Dec 2014
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Charlie Higson has a worthy successor in Steve Cole.

I admit to having been slightly depressed when Higson decided to end the Young Bond series when James was expelled from Eton. It seemed to me that the Fettes years and beyond could provide material for more splendid adventures. But Higson had clearly concluded that enough was enough. It seemed the stories were at an end.

But I discovered that a new author had been found to continue the series. At first, in my cautious way, I assumed that Cole would be no good. I decided not to buy Shoot to Kill. Curiosity then got the better of me (and I also saw some good reviews here and in real newspapers). I bought the book.

I am so glad i did. Cole, sensibly (bearing in mind his target readership), has based his young Bond on the films, rather than the Fleming books. This is a story which has all the surrealism of a Bond film. We start with the preposterous idea that, before he goes to Fettes, James is sent to Dartington Hall, a progressive school with no uniforms, no punishments, no organised sports and no real requirement to take part in any lessons. It all gets even weirder when, on James's arrival, he discovers he is to join three other pupils on a trip to Hollywood, travelling in an airship, so that he and his new friends can be analysed by a world-famous educationalist who runs various progressive schools throughout the world. But nothing is straight forward in Bond's life. Another Dartington pupil, a girl, is infuriated that the new boy is to go on the trip, rather than her. She takes extreme steps to prevent that happening: James comes close to being murdered.

It's not giving too much away to say that the girl's efforts fail. James joins the airship and heads for the west coast of America. The trip is being funded by an American film mogul. He has various sinister employees. He also has a positively psychopathic son. One of the Dartington pupils happens to have come across a film reel which, when projected onto a sheet at Dartington, seems to show someone being tortured. It soon becomes clear that there are people who will stop at nothing to get that film reel back.

I have said enough about the plot. All I can properly say now is that the book is packed with action and has a finale which one can easily imagine in a Bond film. There are also some gloriously humorous moments. This is a novel which will go down very well with teenage boys, but it will also appeal to many older readers who have a fondness for the Bond films.

I just have a sneaking feeling that James will feel more at home at Fettes than he can have done at Dartington. Roll on the next book.

Charles

P.S. Honesty requires me to reveal that the clever twist came as no surprise to me at all, but others may not spot it coming and, even if they do, it will not ruin the story.


Blood Family
Blood Family
Price: £3.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Not a Misery Tale - and all the Better for that., 13 Dec 2014
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This review is from: Blood Family (Kindle Edition)
As I started to read this novel I feared I was embarking on one of those awful misery stories which are so unaccountably popular these days. But I had no need to worry. There are many dark moments in the story, but there is also humour and there are wonderfully moving episodes which will bring tears to many an eye.

Eddie is, as the story begins, a seven year-old boy who has spent four years imprisoned in a horribly sordid flat with his mother, Lucy, and a thug of the worst order called Bryce Harris. Harris goes out. Lucy and Eddie are not allowed to leave the flat. They are required to stay in behind locked doors and instructed never to allow anyone in. When Harris returns to the flat he assaults Lucy, treating her as a punch bag. But, rather cleverly, he resists the temptation to beat the boy.

A neighbour realises that a child is imprisoned in the flat. She writes to the Social Services. They ignore her early letters but, eventually, notice is taken. The police raid the flat, sensibly waiting for Harris to be out. Eddie and his mother are rescued. And so we start to follow Eddie's life away from Harris.

By a remarkable stroke of luck a previous tenant of the flat had left thirty video tapes of an old Canadian children's television programme featuring a man called Mr Perkins. Eddie and his mother watched them avidly, whenever Harris was away. Mr Perkins provided Eddie with endless information about the outside world. When Eddie escapes his dreadful ordeal he is not nearly as damaged as one would expect. All the credit for that must be given to Mr Perkins.

But life is not all perfect for Eddie. Those horrific four years have left their mark on him. Anne Fine takes us through the next ten or so years of his life in a beautifully sensitive way. It would be quite wrong of me to tell you how things work out in the end. But, on the journey, we laugh and cry with Eddie. We come across several fully formed characters, real people with virtues and faults, who play their part in making Eddie what he finally becomes.

The book was a delightful read, and has the enormous advantage, these days, of not being too long.

I recommend it.

Charles


No Man's Nightingale: (A Wexford Case)
No Man's Nightingale: (A Wexford Case)
Price: £3.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Rendell does it again - not brilliant but fun, 11 Dec 2014
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Ruth Rendell is stuck with having retired Wexford. She probably regrets that. He is a very popular character, deservedly. She has therefore decided (this is not the first book in which she has done so) to bring him back as the retired policeman who is called in to help his former junior officer (a remarkably stupid though very well dressed man called Mike Burden) to solve major crimes. The artificiality of all that doesn't really matter. We Wexford fans are simply delighted that he goes on.

This is not a bad story. It starts with the murder of the female Vicar. Burden is in charge of the investigation. He jumps to all sorts of ludicrous conclusions. He allows his prejudices to take control, with the inevitable result that he pursues obviously innocent people. But Wexford comes to the rescue.

This novel is a bit slap dash. Portraying Burden as being almost certifiable in his refusal to pay any attention to the evidence strikes me as being slightly silly. Then, a little way into the story, Lady Rendell invents a new criminal offence called "unlawful killing". It apparently comes lower than murder and manslaughter in the rankings of crime. But the fact that it doesn't actually exist as a crime doesn't ruin the story: it is just a bit irritating.

This is a rather good yarn. Overlook Burden's idiocy and Lady Rendell's ignorance of the law and you will be bound to enjoy the story.

Charles


The Escape (John Puller Series Book 3)
The Escape (John Puller Series Book 3)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Yarn, 5 Dec 2014
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David Baldacci is a highly accomplished writer of splendidly escapist stories. His latest novel is a wonderfully easy and enjoyable read.

This is a John Puller story. For those of you who haven't met Puller I should explain that he is a military policeman, packed with integrity, whose father, suffering now from dementia, was a heroic general and whose brother (another senior officer), rather mysteriously, is serving a life sentence for treason. John Puller has, until recently, refused to be commissioned. But he is now an officer (though at the lowest rank).

In previous stories there have been many mentions of Puller's brother and his prison sentence. But we have never been told what it was the brother was alleged to have done, neither has there been any indication of whether the brother was really guilty. At last, thank goodness, Baldacci is prepared to answer our questions.

The story starts with Puller's brother's extraordinary escape from a high security prison from which no one has ever escaped before. The body of an unidentified man is found in his cell. A major search is started.

Slightly unbelievably, John Puller is brought in to track down his brother. He starts by assuming that the escape demonstrates his brother's guilt (the logic of that is not immediately apparent to the reader), But then things start to happen (lots more dead bodies) which lead him to doubt his first assumption.

I must tell you no more. But what I can tell you is that this is a jolly good yarn. No, it won't last long. Baldacci is not a great author. But he tells a good tale and he grips the reader.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read and an escape from reality.

Charles


This Thing Of Darkness
This Thing Of Darkness
Price: £4.31

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best Historical Novels Ever Written, 5 Dec 2014
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What a tour de force!

Truth is stranger than fiction. Though Thompson's novel is, indeed, a novel, the most extraordinary events which it depicts all actually happened. The dialogue and the insights into the main characters' minds are provided by Thompson, but the astounding basic facts are provided by history.

The book is very long. It runs to well over 700 pages. But every one of those pages will be devoured with greed by all but the most unimaginative readers.

This is the story of two amazing men. Robert Fitzroy, a young lieutenant in the Royal Navy, is given command of HMS Beagle after its former captain commits suicide. His appointment takes effect about half way through the Beagle's first voyage, the purpose of which is to survey parts of the South American coastline. Part One of the book tells of that voyage. Those readers who have discovered that Thompson's novel is to be compared with those of Patrick O'Brian will wonder, as they read that first part, where Fitzroy's Maturin is. But they don't have to wait long. Back in England, Fitzroy prepares for the Beagle's second voyage. He is worried that, without an intelligent companion, he may go the way of his predecessor. Naval commanders are not permitted to fraternise with their junior officers. The voyage is to last for at least two years. Fitzroy decides to investigate the possibility of finding a civilian, a natural philosopher, to join the ship's company. An even younger man, just about to start his preparation for ordination, is recommended to him. That young man's name is Charles Darwin.

After a few temporary setbacks, the Beagle's second voyage sets off. Fitzroy is captain, though still in the rank of Commander. Darwin is his companion and natural philosopher.

As is well known, no spoiler this, the second voyage of the Beagle lasted for more than five years. During that time there were many amazing adventures. And, throughout, young Darwin was absorbing information about natural history which gradually led him to doubt the literal truth of the old testament scriptures. But Fitzroy, though sticking firmly to his belief in that literal truth, was also learning a great deal. In particular, his conviction that it should be possible to foretell (or "forecast" as he later put it) the weather became firmer and firmer.

For most of those five years there was no serious disagreement between Fitzroy and Darwin. There were moments of tension as Fitzroy realised that his young companion was beginning to espouse dangerous, radical opinions about the origins of species. But the two men remained firm friends.

Sadly, all changed when they returned to England. Though they persevered with their original intention to publish a book about the Beagle's two voyages (Fitzroy writing about the first and he and Darwin both writing about the second), they hardly ever met. Fitzroy was terrified by Darwin's strange new theories. Darwin was far too pleased with his new fame (some of the discoveries he had made, about which he had written home, had already been published) to waste time on his old friend. They drifted apart. Their three volumes were published, but only the one written by Darwin became popular.

Then Fitzroy, now a full captain and with a short period as a Tory MP behind him, was appointed as governor of New Zealand. He was given practically no support by the British government. He had to keep order with only 75 soldiers. The crooked owners of the New Zealand Company hated him because of his desire to respect the rights of the natives. They managed to arrange his dismissal.

In the meantime, Darwin wrote and published The Origin of the Species. Fitzroy was appalled. He wrote furious letters to The Times denouncing his former shipmate. He went to public meetings in order to express his hatred of the theories espoused in Darwin's book.

I think most of us will rank Fitzroy as being the real hero of this novel. He was treated in the most extraordinarily shabby way by the government and the Admiralty. But, despite all they threw at him, he was, by the time of his tragic death, a Vice Admiral and the first head of what has since become known as the Meteorological Office. His invention of weather forecasting, and his determination to put it into practice, directly led to many thousands of lives being saved. True, shortly before his death, the government gave in to pressure from the owners of shipping companies (who objected to their boats being kept in harbour when storms were forecast) and closed down the forecasting service. But pressure from seamen led to its resurrection not long after its inventor died. And, though he died almost bankrupt (he had used his own money to support the public service), public subscriptions were raised to provide support for his widow and children and they were given a grace and favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace by Queen Victoria.

Both names, Fitzroy and Darwin, live on. Throughout Australia and South America there are places and natural features named Fitzroy and Darwin. But perhaps the most satisfying use of one of those names was the one which has only recently been applied. The sea area formerly known as Finistere is now known as Fitzroy. The only sea area to be named after a person.

You really will, if you are vaguely intelligent, adore this book.

Charles


Time and Time Again
Time and Time Again
Price: £2.85

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in Parts, 4 Dec 2014
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This book starts with a slightly amusing fantasy about Isaac Newton having worked out that there will be a moment, in 2025, when that year and 1914 will sort of bump into each other. At that moment anyone standing in a particular place in Istanbul (the cellar of a building bought by Newton) will emerge in the same place, but in June 1914. Newton gave particulars of his discovery to the Master of Trinity College Cambridge with instructions that they should pass from Master to Master, without being examined, until the year 2024. In that year the then Master of Trinity should read Newton's documents and decide what, if anything, to do about the knowledge they reveal.

In 2024 the eccentric female Master of Trinity reads the documents. She shares what she discovers with various other elderly academics. They decide that they should send someone to 1914 in order to stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and to bring about, instead, the assassination of the Kaiser. The aim, of course, is to prevent the Great War and thereby make twentieth century Europe a better place.

A former undergraduate of Trinity, Hugh Stanton, is chosen for this bizarre mission. He read history when he was at Cambridge. He speaks German. His parents are dead and his wife and children have recently been killed in a road accident. But, best of all, he is a former member of the SAS. He is the ideal man to be sent back 111 years (with no possibility of getting back) with a brief to change history.

And so starts a story which is both very silly and not nearly as bad as that introduction makes it seem. The silliness doesn't need to be explained. Pretty well all novels about time travel are silly. This one is no exception. Indeed, especially at the end, it must be in the running for the title of silliest of all.

But there is a lot which is good in Elton's latest novel. The descriptions of Britain in 2024 are delightfully depressing (Cambridge colleges' porters are all required to wear "high-vis" coats, smoking within 50 metres of anyone else is an offence etc. etc.). Elton now lives in Australia, the bossiest country in the world, and I suspect he had no difficulty in finding examples of ghastly laws of that sort.

The real achievement of the novel, though, is in its descriptions of life in 1914, and particularly of Sarajevo, Vienna and Berlin. What bliss it must have been to have been rich and able to travel in that glorious summer before the world went mad. Stanton has the great advantage of having been given vast amounts of well-forged bank notes. He stays in the best hotels. He travels by trains such as the Orient Express (fresh lobster served for dinner). He lives a life of luxury which disappeared a long time ago.

The account of the plot to kill the Archduke is very well done, and highly accurate. The fictional account of Stanton's own plans for killing the Kaiser are almost as credible.

And there is love interest as well. Stanton has a romantic meeting with a fiery Irish suffragette on a European train. For the first time since the death of his wife he can contemplate living with another woman.

Elton also, yet again, demonstrates his ability to write wonderfully funny prose. The humour in this novel is delightful.

But, sadly, the silliness of the plot does rather mar the book. That is a shame, especially after the brilliance of his previous book, Two Brothers. Of course, there will be readers who don't mind the silliness, but most will find it constantly intruding on their enjoyment of the story. Let us hope Elton's flirtation with science fiction has now ended.

Charles


Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5
Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Very Damp Squib, 21 Nov 2014
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I vaguely remember the fuss when Dame Stella Rimmington's autobiography was published. There were two camps. The defenders of freedom of speech insisted that she had a perfect right to tell all about her time as Director General of MI5 whatever damage that might do to national security. The old guard were furious that she had turned her back on the secrecy which ought to be paramount in a decent intelligence service. I suppose, on balance, I was on the side of the old guard. It seemed rather seedy of Dame Stella to seek to make money out of her secret public service. But I hadn't read the book and wasn't really qualified to judge.

I have now read it. I realise I was wrong to side with the old guard. Nothing damaging to the security of the state is to be found here. Indeed, this is an extraordinarily dull book which tells us absolutely nothing new about MI5, though it does, I think, tell us a little about Dame Stella herself.

We start with an incredibly banal account of her childhood before, during and after the war. All the usual stuff is there. Children were much freer to roam around enjoying themselves. Parents didn't think twice about allowing young children to make their own way to and from school. Bananas were very exciting when they appeared after the war. It's all there, everything we've read endlessly in other memoirs. The only difference is that it is told in a very wooden way. Then there is all the dreary nonsense about how clever she was to get into Edinburgh University to read English, despite being a girl, and come out with an almost unheard of second class degree (her assumption, unstated, that women were not capable of doing better than a second doesn't really fit with the main theme of the book, which is that women are vastly superior to men).

We move quickly on to follow Dame Stella's early career as an archivist and then get to her marriage to John Rimmington (plainly a long suffering man). She and her husband go to India, where he has a junior diplomatic posting. While there, she is asked to perform some minor tasks for the resident MI5 man. When they return to England she decides to offer her services to MI5. She is taken on, but is frightfully cross because women are given the most menial jobs. She is all too conscious that she is vastly superior to all the men in the service. But she sticks it out.

Finally, she persuades her bosses that, despite her sex, she can be promoted. But, even then, there are lots of tasks which she is not allowed to perform because she is a woman. In between all these rather tedious attempts at feminism we are given startling information such as that MI5 spent a lot of time on the cold war and, later, fighting Irish and international terrorism. Quite what they actually did is never revealed.

There is an illuminating (and slightly defensive) passage about the awful Peter Wright (author of Spycatcher). He is portrayed as the devil incarnate for writing a book about his time in MI5. She is, of course, right to be so cross with Mr Wright, but her assertion that all whistle-blowers are evil is plainly quite insupportable.

By the time we get to her period as Director General we are told almost nothing of any interest at all.

This really is a very dull book. I suppose I can understand why the authorities were so upset that it was published. They will have been concerned about the precedent being set. But there is nothing in it of any concern.

Dame Stella's novels, I suspect, give a much better picture of MI5 than is to be found in her autobiography.

Charles


Sandel
Sandel
Price: £5.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Celebration of Paedophilia - but Quite Good, 18 Nov 2014
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This review is from: Sandel (Kindle Edition)
This is a novel of its time. I doubt very much whether any major publishing house would take on anything like this today. Written in 1968, as we were approaching the age of the Paedophile Information Exchange, when the conventional intellectual left-wing view was that there really wasn't a lot wrong with "pure" sexual relations between adults and children, it tells, sometimes rather movingly, of a male undergraduate's love for a thirteen-year-old choirboy. Today, of course, we understand a great deal more about how damaging such relationships can be. And, yes, there is probably an element of puritanism in our approach to the subject matter of the book.

Nevertheless, even to a 21st century readership, Stewart's first novel has some charm. He suffered, I suspect that is the right word, from being the son of J.I.M. Stewart (also known as Michael Innes), an exceptionally distinguished academic who also wrote many wonderful novels (the more serious ones under his own name and the delightful detective stories under his pseudonym). I think one can detect, in Stewart Junior's novel, an attempt to emulate his father's achievements. Sometimes he slips into what one can only term self indulgent efforts at "literary" writing. When that happens I would guess that he loses the attention of most of his readers. But then he snaps back into a better, clearer style of writing (actually more akin to his father's) and he has us with him again.

What the modern reader finds uncomfortable in this book is its attempt to convince us, not only that there is nothing wrong with a love affair between a young adult and a pre-pubescent boy, but that that is actually something to be admired and encouraged. But I do think it worthwhile to try to overcome distaste at that theme and to enjoy the many gems to be found in the story.

For my own part, I particularly enjoyed the gloriously funny portrayals of eccentric dons and even more eccentric choir school masters.

This is not a great novel, it is occasionally distressing (at least to this puritanical reader), but it has many merits.

Charles


The Dead (The Enemy Book 2)
The Dead (The Enemy Book 2)
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars These books are not meant to be read by anyone other than disagreeable teenage boys., 14 Nov 2014
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I see that giving a book 4 stars means "I like it". I think I have broken the rules. I don't much like these books (I have read the first one as well). But they are not written for me. I assume they are written for rather anti-social teenage boys (I have two sons who come into that category). They are relentlessly depressing to an adult readership, but I understand that boys will not mind that. The endless descriptions of diseased adults, their disgusting bodily fluids oozing from every orifice as they lurch around in search of children to eat are extraordinarily gruesome, but I do know that most teenage boys will adore that sort of thing. And, I assume, they will not be at all put off by the dreadful deaths of many of the child heroes. I do wonder, though, whether even those uncivilised teenage boys will really want to stick with a series of novels in which no end ever seems to be in sight.

I have seen others comparing these books to the Lord of the Flies. But the comparison is not accurate. The Lord of the Flies had a satisfactory ending. These novels offer no prospect of that. The nastiness is just going to go on for ever.

No, I do not like these books, but that doesn't mean they are bad. They are very well written. There are some very moving moments in them, The children are real characters with easily recognisable faults and virtues. And, above all, teenage boys, who generally never seem to read anything, clearly love them.

Higson is to be congratulated, but his older fans will probably join with me in praying he will have another go at writing less revolting adventures.

Charles


Drift (School Story Book 1)
Drift (School Story Book 1)
Price: £4.64

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Very Nasty Book, 7 Nov 2014
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I thought long and hard about how many stars to give this book. There are good things to be said about it. The writing is excellent. There are moments of humour. Once or twice we are even treated to uplifting accounts of honour and decency. But it does have to be said that the overall picture given to the reader is bleak and, to be frank, rather nasty and disgusting. In the end I decided that I really had no choice: only one star could be awarded.

I had better explain. This is the first of three books set in an English public school during the second world war. Seven new boys, all thirteen years-old, arrive in Ansell's House in Cranchester School. Our hero is the smallest and most innocent of them. His name is Christopher Angus. We follow him and the other six through their first year in the school. The author suggests, in his introduction to the story, that it is largely autobiographical. What is more, he urges us to believe that it is all true. He tells us that he has done his best to disguise the school and the main characters. But the events he describes, he assures us, actually happened.

The school is certainly very well disguised. It is, we are told, one of the dozen top public schools, not a sort of Dotheboys Hall. The impression we are given is that it is ranked with Eton, Harrow and Winchester, though its is plainly a lot lower down the list than those establishments. Mackenzie-Blair has effected the disguise by making the boys use a combination of the jargon of a great many public schools. The rather ludicrous result is that no boy in Ansell's House is capable of speaking in plain English. But that probably doesn't matter a great deal. Much more distressing are the graphic descriptions of the sort of depravity which, in the popular mind, is associated with boys' boarding schools.

There is not much in the way of a plot. Instead, we are treated to endless accounts of small boys being savagely beaten by prefects, obviously called "praefaectors", for such heinous crimes as having failed adequately to warm the praefaectors' beds by lying in them for a sufficient time before the praefaectors retire for the night.

And then there is sex. All your assumptions about boys' boarding schools and homosexuality are confirmed in this rather disagreeable story. The boys, of course, are told, by the captain of the house, that they will be thrashed within an inch of their lives if they are ever caught masturbating. But then it transpires that they are required to indulge, on certain special nights, in mutual masturbation with the praefaectors whose beds they have to warm. This practice, we are assured, is an old tradition in Ansell's House.

Most of this is, as you have worked out, a complete nonsense. Of course, I acknowledge that, until surprisingly recently, many public schools allowed prefects to beat younger boys. Indeed, my own school (which I went to between 1965 and 1970) entrusted most corporal punishment to the head boy and the house captains. It may well be that, in the 1940s, the exercise of that power was not as rigorously controlled as it was twenty years later. But the idea that top public schools allowed prefects regularly to beat boys for not warming their beds properly is plainly ludicrous.

And the sexual depravity portrayed in this book could never have taken place. Oh, I know (I am not as naive as you think) that older boys in boarding schools used sometimes to do evil things to younger boys, But Mackenzie-Blair's contention that every prefect (I can't go on using his pretentious term for that office) was required to indulge in sexual relations with younger boys is wholly incredible.

This is all rather sad. Mackenzie-Blair can write very well. There were parts of this book, when he forced himself to stop describing masturbation and beatings, which were amusing and even moving. But the book, as a whole, is revolting. I fear I cannot bring myself to read books two and three.

Charles


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