Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Under Pressure: Lucas Page #2
by Robert Pobi
Excellent crime fiction (3/22/2021)
Under Pressure is the second book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an explosion at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum incinerates over seven hundred people, while leaving the building largely intact, Dr Lucas Page is unsure what he can offer to the investigation. But FBI Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, Brett Kehoe, wants his expertise with numbers.

“No system — and that includes a series of crimes — is intrinsically random; the observer just has an imperfect understanding of how said system operates. If you see something that appears to be random, you’re missing data. And hidden inside larger seemingly organized structures, you can find smaller ones that look like they’re nothing—statistical noise — but they’re not. They’re just part of a different pattern.”

The device is apparently highly sophisticated and its design, ensuring maximum cruelty, zero survivors and the destruction of artwork worth a billion dollars, suggests several possible motives. A warning email sent to a CNN journalist, which denounces humanity’s reliance on technology, leaves Lucas unconvinced even when the next target, an internet hub, fits this motive.

Lucas firmly believes they need to look for the money: who would benefit? But is that the right question? Further explosions and victims don’t clarify the issue of motive, but are all linked to the high-profile company whose gala IPO launch at the Guggenheim was bombed. Horizon Dynamics is a company using nano-technology and AI driven solutions for rejuvenation and repair of eco-systems, and its directors are linked to each event on several levels.

As more bombs explode and more people die, some of them potential suspects, initial theories are challenged, but the sadistic aspect of the bombs leads Lucas to conclude there is a personal element. Lucas enlists the help of his post-grad students to analyse a mountain of data that has stumped the FBI, reasoning that: “The bureau’s people were fettered by both protocol and lack of vision.” Not so his clever students.

Another excellent dose of Lucas Page and Alice Whitaker that features land mines, a puppy, a confetti bomb, sniffer rats, an opportune pair of handcuffs, and a very large body count. Once again, Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. Entertaining dialogue is another hallmark of this series.

Will Lucas work with the FBI again? While he enjoys the stimulation it offers his mind, his wife and family certainly don’t appreciate that it takes him away from them and potentially puts his life (and theirs) at risk. Nor is this the first occasion that his involvement seems to be associated with unfortunate consequences for the Special Agent In Charge of the case. It will be interesting to see if Pobi gives fans further installments of Lucas Page. Excellent crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and St Martins Press
City of Windows: A Lucas Page Novel
by Robert Pobi
First-rate crime fiction. (3/16/2021)
City of Windows is the first book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an FBI agent is shot in his car on a Manhattan street during a snow-storm, Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, insists on analysis of the scene by Dr Lucas Page. But it’s been ten years since Lucas was part of the Bureau, and he’s wary. The victim’s identity draws him in; he works his magic and pinpoints the location of the shooter. And then Lucas hopes to walk away.

Within hours, another victim, another impossible shot, and Lucas again picks the spot from which the sniper took the shot. But while one of Bureau agents attributes it to random shootings, Lucas can’t dismiss it so easily: he is soon proven right when the victim turns out to be ex-FBI. By the time a third person is shot, under similar impossible circumstances, it is clear that someone is targeting law enforcement officers. But why?

Lucas Page is an interesting protagonist: an astrophysicist and college lecturer who is endowed with acute spatial awareness, making him a whizz at projectile geometry. The Event that ended his career with the Bureau, and his marriage, has left him with several bionic bits and, eventually, a new wife and a tribe of adopted kids. He’s devoid of tact, and shows no compunction about using his grad students to do some Bureau grunt work.

For this case, Kehoe teams him up with Whitaker, a female African-American, intelligent, formidable and with a delightful knack for anticipating questions. Their dialogue is very entertaining, and serves to provide some of Lucas’s backstory (the rest from flashbacks) as well as his strongly-held opinions and his intolerance of stupidity. The heroic Aussie double amputee also charms the reader.

His rant on terrorists is excellent: “Numbers don’t lie. And although everyone is allowed to have a position, not all positions are created equal. There are experts in any given field; one person’s ignorance is not just as valuable as another’s knowledge, and the fact is your average American has to worry about his neighbor more than terrorists by orders of magnitude.” And re gun sales “They weren’t buying protection – they were being sold fear.”

Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. More of this cast of characters is available to the reader in the second instalment, Under Pressure. First-rate crime fiction.
Raft of Stars
by Andrew J. Graff
An outstanding debut novel. (3/15/2021)
Raft of Stars is the first novel by American author, Andrew. J. Graff. Fish and Bread are on the run. Fish (sort-of-accidentally) shot Bread’s dad (a nasty, violent alcoholic), and they don’t want to go to jail or foster care. Bread leaves a note for Fish’s grandpa on his fridge to explain they are headed for the National Guard Armory at Ironsford to find Fish’s dad (who will know what to do).

The note promises to send money for what they have taken, and asks grandpa to please reassure Fish’s mom they will be OK: they have their bicycles, two cups, their fishing poles, some food, Jack Breadwin’s gun and five bullets, grandpa’s jackknife and sharpening stone, a flint, matches and a tarp. Please tell the Sheriff that Fish didn’t mean to kill Bread’s dad (he’s on the Breadwin kitchen floor).

Ten-year-old Fischer and his best friend Dale Breadwin are confident they can make their way through the Mishicot Forest to Ironsford, ninety miles to the north. They will build a cedar raft, follow the river, hunt and fish, poach if they have to.

Their plan does have a few small wrinkles: Fish hasn’t told Bread that his father died in the Middle East three years ago; both boys are likely discounting the danger of coyotes and bears; neither boy is aware that the forest harbours dubious characters running meth labs in riverside cottages; nor, perhaps most importantly, that there are dangerous, unnavigable rapids at Ironsford Gorge.

They soon realise that they have grossly underestimated the difficulty of raft-building with only a barlow knife, and when their food supply (Slim Jims, beans, tuna) runs out, they are dismayed to find not only that foraging and fishing less productive than they had anticipated, but also that killing a creature to eat it is not as easy or straightforward as they had believed.

Meanwhile, within hours, several people are on their trail. Fischer’s grandpa, Teddy Branson is a Korean War veteran who immediately understands the dangers these essentially good boys could face, and is determined to save them. Sheriff Cal is a newcomer to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, having departed Houston, Texas in disgrace to take up the post of interim Sheriff in Claypot. A year in Marigamie County has done little to take the city out of the man, and he’s unconvinced about such a trek on horseback.

Fischer’s mom, Miranda travels from Cedar to await news at Teddy Branson’s farm. Tiffany Robins, the purple-haired cashier at the Sit-And-Go Gas Station, was charged with caring for Sheriff Cal’s dog. The aspiring young poet, who is sweet on the Sheriff, joins Miranda when the blue heeler goes AWOL. But Miranda is a mother fiercely attached, a lioness who is single-minded about rescuing her boy, and cannot sit idle. These two women strike out in pursuit, proving themselves surprisingly resourceful.

As two boys on a raft face hunger and weather and wildlife, two men with horses, persistent mosquitoes and a machete slash a path north, while two women paddle a canoe towards those killer rapids. They face wild water, storms both physical and psychological, and discover untapped reserves of strength and courage.

As the story hurtles towards a dramatic climax, friendships are formed, loyalties are tested, truths are told and acts of true bravery are performed. Graff does it all with some gorgeous evocative prose: “Fish saw a stretch of river the length and width of a football field, marked by vertical cliffs on either side, with two or three craggy islands dividing explosive currents. The water seemed to fight itself. It tumbled into pits. It bellowed. It hissed and leapt. It beat against the faces of the islands in giant, upswept pillows of water. Downstream of the islands, the entire river disappeared again, presumably over another falls, sprays of water rising into the lightning.”

This is a tale of love and grief and valour which can favourably compare with William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Frequently funny (often blackly so), sometimes sad, and occasionally thought-provoking, this is a tale that would translate extremely well to the silver screen. An outstanding debut novel.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.
Prodigal Son: Orphan X #6
by Gregg Hurwitz
More please, Mr Hurwitz! (3/2/2021)
Prodigal Son is the sixth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Now retired from his Nowhere Man role, Evan Smoak is disturbed by a persistent caller: “Evan, it’s your mother.”

He’s highly sceptical, but ultimately, can’t resist verifying, so he heads to Buenos Aires where, indeed, he meets a woman he believes to be what she claims. Veronica LeGrande wants him to help someone, but when he makes a cursory investigation, he barely survives an attack by a Hellfire missile. And he begins to wonder if coming out of retirement will end up voiding his unofficial Presidential pardon.

Andrew Duran’s life has been no picnic, and now a series of bad luck incidents finds him penniless, estranged from his daughter and her mother, and on the run from people he believes are out to kill him. In his poorly paid position watching over an impound lot, he has witnessed a murder without seeing the killer, but he is certain he is now a target.

Having neatly escaped the missile, Evan’s next stop is his personal tech expert, Joey Morales, interrupting the “normal” life he’s insisting she try to live. Together they research the victim and gradually uncover a disturbing situation: they are dealing with someone powerful and dangerous.

When Evan tracks down the man he’s meant to be helping, the reception is hostile, but he soon realises that he recognises Andrew Duran from his youth. Before long, both are the target of a nasty pair of siblings employed to do “wet work”

In this instalment, Joey’s prodigious tech talents are useful in gaining entry to three secure facilities, for one of which she tags along. Crashing a party (and rescuing a teen from a sexual predator) are in the mix. And of course, TommyStojack comes up with some nifty hardware when needed.

The interactions between Evan and Joey are always entertaining, and as usual, the dialogue is often darkly funny:
“Evan said, ‘Is that a bread knife?’
Duran regarded it. ‘Steak knife, I think.’
‘No,’ Evan said. ’I’m pretty sure it’s a bread knife. That curved end is gonna give you problems unless you plan to saw me to death.’
Duran considered. ‘Maybe I’ll just nick you and let you die of tetanus in five months.’”

Flashbacks to Evan’s youth at the Group Home give the reader some more detail of his selection into the Orphan Program, and Hurwitz also challenges him with a raft of emotions he’s unaccustomed to dealing with.

If every book in this series is replete with hi-tech devices, this one, featuring AI, autonomous weapons and microdrones, is especially so. Evan gets a tour of an AI development lab and is witness to some jaw-droppingly scary tech adaptations, especially when there are glitches in ethical adaptor software. And the concept of “outsourcing the negative emotion associated with killing so our soldiers don’t have to feel it” is certainly unsettling.

Suspension of disbelief is needed, but once again, plenty of action, injuries too numerous to tally, a body count of eighteen, several exciting climaxes and one helluva cliff-hanger ending. More please, Mr Hurwitz.
This Tender Land: A Novel
by William Kent Krueger
a wonderfully uplifting read. (2/23/2021)
“Lying on my blanket beside Albert, I was happy to have him for a brother, though I had no intention of telling him so. I didn’t always understand him, and I knew that, more often than not, I was a bafflement to him as well, but the heart isn’t the logical organ of the body, and I loved my brother deeply and fell asleep in the warmth of his company.”

This Tender Land is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, William Kent Krueger. It’s 1932, and twelve-year-old Odie O’Banion, his older brother, Albert, his Sioux friend, Moses Washington and Little Emmy Frost are paddling a canoe down the Gilead River, heading towards the Mississippi. They’re on the run from the police, wanted for theft, kidnapping and murder.

The managers of their erstwhile “home”, the Lincoln Indian Training School, are also on their trail, and that’s a place they never want to see again, so they are doing their best to keep a low profile. Eventually they settle on St Louis as their destination, knowing it will take some time from Minnesota.

Why they are in flight, what and whom they encounter on the journey, and what happens at its end, is what fills this superb coming-of-age/adventure tale. They endure forced labour and corporal punishment, captivity and several narrow escapes. A still is built, a man is shot, a tornado devastates, a snake-bite is suffered, and Krueger demonstrates that dumpster-diving is no new phenomenon.

Group members join a Christian healing crusade, visit shanty towns, work in a restaurant, hop a freight train, and are on the receiving end of both the heartlessness and the kindness of strangers. Their experiences alter their beliefs in God, and teach them about love, trust, charity and loyalty.

“I did want to believe that God was my shepherd and that somehow he was leading me through this dark valley of Lincoln School and I shouldn’t be afraid… But the truth I saw every day was that we were on our own and our safety depended not on God but on ourselves and on helping one another.”

Krueger takes the reader to a time in the not-too-distant past when children had virtually no rights, especially if, as in this case, they were orphans or Native American children forcibly removed from their parents. While there were, of course, many genuinely good people amongst those in a guardianship role, a significant number of these children were at the mercy of unscrupulous adults who revelled in cruelty and to whom kindness was a foreign concept.

Krueger gives the reader a relatable cast of characters who are humanly flawed, neither wholly good nor evil, and endows some with insightful observations and wise words: “Albert, who was four years older and a whole lot wiser, told me that people are most afraid of things they don’t understand, and if something frightened you, you should get closer to it. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t still be an awful thing, but the awful you knew was easier to handle than the awful you imagined.” Subtly filled with fascinating historical detail, this is a wonderfully uplifting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
And Now She's Gone
by Rachel Howzell Hall
A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner. (2/20/2021)
“Gray knew firsthand about men who could turn charm on and off like a beer tap. Love letters and expensive sea salt caramels one day, spit-flecked lips and bugged eyes two weeks later.”

And Now She’s Gone is a novel by best-selling, award-winning American author, Rachel Howzell Hall. After two years behind the scenes at Rader Consulting, Grayson Sykes is finally given her first proper case (not a Chihuahua): she has a missing girlfriend to locate. “She’d always been the nosy kid, the Negro Nancy Drew.”

Isabel Lincoln has been gone for six weeks, and her boyfriend, a hunk of a cardiologist named Ian O’Donnell, wants Gray to find her. “Once she realizes she’s being stupid, yes, she’ll come back.” Ian pointed at her. “I just need you to help me help her accept that sooner rather than later.” Isabel also took his dog, which angers O’Donnell, and Gray wonders if he wants the dog back more than the girl. She also wonders why he wants Isabel back: is it really love or is he concerned for his image?

Even before O’Donnell has told Gray repeatedly what a nice guy he is, she has already decided that Isabel has gone “Probably because she smelled the crazy on him and didn’t want it to get into her favorite coat. Hard to get the stink of nuts out of wool.” Familiar alarm bells are faintly ringing. The more people she talks to, the more Gray feels that Isabel was lucky to get away, and Gray should know: she has her own history to draw on. But O’Donnell is the client so she at least has to go through the motions.

When she does, though, something strikes her as not quite right: she’s getting conflicting information and begins to wonder if O’Donnell is an abusive, narcissistic and possibly dangerous man from whom Isabel Lincoln needs to escape; or if O’Donnell is a genuinely nice (if narcissistic) guy and Isabel is a vindictive gold-digger.

And those disturbing texts to the number generated for her dating app: has Gray’s own personal monster finally tracked her down? Because Gray is heartily sick of looking over her shoulder, of checking the rear-view mirror on every drive. She’s armed and feeling dangerous.

Wow, what a tale! The plot has so many twists that the reader might want to pre-book a chiropractic appointment. There’s plenty of dark humour in the dialogue and Gray’s inner monologue, quite a bit of action with knives, and the body count builds with each jaw-dropping revelation.

Howzell Hall’s protagonist can’t fail to appeal: Gray is smart and sassy, gutsy and ready to stand up for herself. Her rotten past has firmed her resolve against being a victim and to help others “Especially cases that helped women get away from dangerous men.” A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan Tor Forge
The Survivors: A Novel
by Jane Harper
brilliantly-plotted piece of Australian crime fiction (2/1/2021)
The Survivors is the fourth novel by award-winning Australian author, Jane Harper. When Keiran Elliott returns to his small Tasmanian hometown of Evelyn Bay to help his parents pack up their house, not everyone is pleased to see him. While everybody knows what happened during the big storm, twelve years earlier, not all regard him with sympathy; blame radiates from certain eyes.

Mere hours after he and Mia and their baby arrive, though, a young woman is dead on the beach. The town is shocked at the loss of this sweet young woman: a temporary summer waitress and art student, she was well-liked. It soon becomes apparent that there are some parallels with the disappearance of a young girl during that fateful storm, with some of the same bystanders present in the town. The Evelyn Bay Online Community Hub is a hotbed of rumour and comment.

Over the next few days, as police from Hobart arrive to investigate, Keiran is not the only one whose thoughts go back to that awful time when his own brother and his best friend’s brother lost their lives. As well as the stress of his wandering, dementia-affected father and his frazzled mother, Keiran is being coerced by a friend into something he’s not quite comfortable with.

Harper easily evokes her setting: for anyone who has spent a summer in an Australian coastal town, this will feel familiar. The dialogue is exactly what one hears in such a place, and the characters are multi-faceted and believably flawed. Once again, Harper produces a brilliantly-plotted piece of Australian crime fiction, with red herrings and diversions that will keep the pages turning and the reader guessing right up to the final pages.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan Australia
Dear Child
by Romy Hausmann
A gripping and thought-provoking read. (1/14/2021)
Dear Child is the third novel by best-selling German author, Romy Hausmann. It’s a hit-and-run car accident that brings unconscious Lena and her daughter, Hannah, to the hospital emergency department in Cham. As Lena is treated, Sister Ruth talks to Hannah. What she learns from this poised, controlled young girl sets off alarm bells: within a short time, a late-night call is made to parents in Munich.

Matthias Beck and his wife, Karin immediately set out for Cham, near the Czech border: even waiting until morning is too long to find out if the woman is their daughter, their Lena, missing for almost fourteen years. Police are searching for an isolated cabin in the woods, and a boy called Jonathan: Hannah’s brother. Will Matthias and Karin finally have an answer?

There are three narrative strands: Matthias gives the perspective of the heart-broken father who has never stopped searching; Jasmin’s is a second-person narrative addressed to Lena and details some of her ordeal; Hannah’s words, with dictionary definitions, encyclopaedic facts, rules and schedules, but also glimpses of violence, succinctly illustrates the conditions under which Lena and her children lived in the cabin in the woods.

Of course, it quickly becomes apparent that Hannah is an unreliable narrator, including what are clearly fantasies, and not revealing all she knows. Some of what she says will leave the reader gasping. Nor can Matthias be completely relied upon, while Jasmin’s mental state after her escape also affects her perceptions.

What a brilliantly-plotted, twisty tale Hausmann gives the reader! There are plenty of red herrings keep the reader guessing until the final chapters, and even after the dramatic denouement, there are more surprises in store. Hausmann describes the power of the media to colour the public perception of an incident by questioning the virtue of the victim, and also demonstrates how powerlessness can drastically influence the choices one makes. A gripping and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Quercus
The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett
What a wonderful read!! (12/12/2020)
The Dutch House is the seventh novel by NYT best-selling American author, Ann Patchett. It had been Danny’s childhood home. Cyril Conroy had bought the incredible Dutch House, there in small-town Pennsylvania, in 1946 for his young family: his wife Elna, and five-year-old Maeve. It was just as the last Van Hoebeek, the original owners, had left it: furnishings, fittings, even clothing. Danny was born a few years later, and lived there until his step-mother threw him out at fifteen.

Danny’s mom had left when he was three; he was eight when Andrea Smith first came on the scene, but he and Maeve dismissed any idea of permanence. Andrea persisted, though; Andrea was fascinated with every detail of The Dutch House and Van Hoebeek family, who had made their fortune in packaged cigarettes.

Had Maeve and Danny paid more attention, they might have seen the signs, they might have predicted, but not prevented, it: just three years after she had first stood in front of the Van Hoebeek portraits in the drawing room, Andrea married Cyril, and took up residence in The Dutch House with her daughters. No longer were they the comfortable Conroy trio, lovingly cared for by Sandy and Jocelyn.

Danny had counted on following his canny father into real estate and construction; instead, Maeve insisted he study medicine at Columbia: their father’s trust, grudgingly dispensed by Andrea, was covering the not-inconsiderable cost. And on visits home, the siblings would park on Van Hoebeek Street, regard The Dutch House, and fume over their stolen inheritance, their self-made father’s fortune.

Maeve, aware Cyril’s humble beginnings, was the most resentful; Danny had “never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.” Not until a career had been gained and discarded, and a marriage and children made, some twenty-seven years after they had been ejected from The Dutch House, did Maeve and Danny finally acknowledge what their obsession had done to them: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long”

While Danny’s wife seems resentful of his close relationship with his sister, it is not until a certain, somewhat familiar old woman turns up at Maeve’s hospital bed that he realises: “I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen… ‘Danny!’ she would call up to me. ‘Breakfast. Move yourself.’”

This is very much a character-driven story, and it clearly demonstrates Patchett’s literary skill: her characters are interesting and allowed to grow and develop, to display insight and utter wise words. The bond between the siblings is so well portrayed, it’s impossible not to feel for them. Like Anne Tyler, Patchett manages to make the lives of fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things worth reading about.

Patchett’s prose is wonderful: “The madder Maeve got, the more thoughtful she became. In this way she reminded me of our father – every word she spoke came individually wrapped” and “Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundles together”. And that striking cover? It neatly ties the whole thing together, beginning and end. What a wonderful read!!
The Butterfly Lampshade
by Aimee Bender
a brilliant read (12/10/2020)
The Butterfly Lampshade is the third novel by NYT best-selling American author, Aimee Bender. Francie is just eight years old when her mother Elaine has a psychotic episode that lands her in hospital. Even at this tender age, Francie is ever-vigilant for the tiny changes that indicate a deterioration in her mother’s condition and suggest the use of the lock on her bedroom door. Not that Elaine has ever hurt her…

This time, though, it’s clear that the situation will be longer term, and Aunt Minnie, nine months pregnant, sends Uncle Stan to Portland to collect Francie and bring her to Burbank. Because Francie won’t get on a plane, her care is transferred (like a baton) from Stan (urgently flying back for the imminent birth) to Shrina (her babysitter) to Stan’s second cousin (for the train trip) to Stan at the other end. At the house she meets Aunt Minnie and her new cousin, Vicky.

Now almost twenty years older, and still carrying memories of that time, Francie feels the need to withdraw socially from almost everyone, to properly examine exactly what happened during this upheaval in her life. Because it was a strange few days, and it began at the babysitter’s with a butterfly lampshade, from which one of the insects materialised, floated in a water glass and was drunk down. A beetle that escaped a page, a besuited pair on a train and roses that fell from a curtain: these all need to be examined.

Up to now, Francie “could feel the memories there, wanting my attention, but I did not know what to do with them”, they “came to me in parts, in fragments and pieces, tugging at the corners of my thinking like a half-captured dream”. Her cousin talks of “sticky memories” and Francie enlists her help to create a place where she can concentrate her thoughts on remembering: “I liked the idea of giving the memories a place to emerge, like they had an inherent gaseous nature, and the tent would prevent them from floating away.” Remember she does, in intricate detail. What effect will it have on her?

What a magical story Bender has created! The narrative jumps back and forth to different times of Francie’s life, yet is easy to follow. Eight-year-old Francie is a wonderful character: clever, sensitive and insightful, with a pragmatism that guides her in protecting herself and those for whom she cares. These characters are easy to invest in, to care about. There’s a tinge of paranormal that adds to the fascination.

Bender has a marvellous turn of phrase: “my thought returned to its track, a train lining up synaptically that I could now get on and ride” and “Who would handle my mother’s clothes and perfumes? It was all spread in bits, like the trash we had left in Salinas, this life rubble” are examples. This is a brilliant read!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK.
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
a stunning read (12/7/2020)
“Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.”

Educated is a memoir by New York Times best-selling author, Tara Westover. Born into a Mormon family, Westover is raised in Buck Peak, Idaho by a father who has morphed from serious, physically impressive and independent-minded young man, to a man with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder and paranoia about the Government and the Medical Establishment, who are clearly “Agents of the Devil”. Formal education results in getting “brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies”.

Her mother is a talented herbalist and an unregistered midwife, who initially believes in educating her children but acquiesces to her husband’s demands for practical skills. Their father instils in his family a deep mistrust of phones, doctors, any type of government documentation or registration, and his determination to be prepared for when the Feds come to get them; the threat of the coming Days of Abomination require the family to bottle fruit and put up preserves, and each prepare “head for the hills” bags.

When the third of her older brothers abandons the family, to go to college (against his father’s will), ten-year-old Tara is drafted into working in her father’s junkyard, where safety is left to God: “I tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, ‘Don’t throw them here! I’m here!’ Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, honey,’ he said. ‘God is here, working right alongside us. He won’t let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is His will.’”

Where there are injuries, be they penetrative wounds or third-degree burns, the injured drag themselves to be treated with rescue remedy and herbals by their mother. “Mother always said that medical drugs are a special kind of poison, one that never leaves your body but rots you slowly from the inside for the rest of your life. She told me if I took a drug now, even if I didn’t have children for a decade, they would be deformed.”

As an adolescent, large in her life is a judgemental brother who revels in physical and mental cruelty, while an absent brother encourages Tara to take a qualifying exam for Brigham Young College, despite having never been to school. After she excels in academia, the former becomes the cause of a major rift in the family; the latter never fails to support.
While her father allows Tara to audition for musicals (love or pride?), his reaction to her decision to go to college is disapproval: “The Lord has called me to testify,” he said. “He is displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming” When she wins a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, he reminds her to credit her (non-existent) home schooling; as she boards the plane for England, his main concern is that he will be unable to bring her home to safety “when the End comes”.

Once she has gained academic qualifications, she comes to realise: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

It’s said that truth is often stranger than fiction; sometimes, what Westover described is so shocking, it is blackly funny: Having had a major motor vehicle accident during an all-night drive, causing his family multiple injuries, the following year, her father insists on another late-night interstate drive: “’Shouldn’t we drive slower?’ Mother asks. Dad grins. ‘I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly.’ The van is still accelerating. To fifty, then to sixty” with the inevitable, identical result.

Westover’s book will leave some readers incredulous that such families exist in modern times, and may beg the question: Given that public education is freely available, and that most would consider the provision of basic education the responsibility of every parent, and the right of every child, then is preventing one’s child from gaining this not child abuse? What Westover has achieved is nothing short of inspirational. A stunning read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House.
The Goodbye Man: A Colter Shaw Novel
by Jeffery Deaver
action drama (11/9/2020)
The Goodbye Man is the second book in the Colter Shaw series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. In Washington State to track down a pair accused of hate crimes, Colter Shaw easily outsmarts his trigger-happy rival, some similarly-minded law enforcement officers and finds the young men on an isolated road near Snoqualmie Gap. As he disarms and secures them, one escapes and unexpectedly suicides.

He understands they were en route to a retreat, the Osiris Foundation, and what he observes as representatives arrive at the location of the death set his internal alarm bells ringing. Following some research and a bit of inventive online profile creation, Carter Skye pays the fee and registers for a three-week stay in their secluded enclave.

Shaw is alert for any scent of the Foundation being a cult but, despite seeing an undercover reporter assaulted and banished, he’s not entirely convinced the whole deal isn’t fairly benign. But within days, what he witnesses has him concerned for the safety of fellow attendees. And when he fails to prevent an outspoken young man from being murdered, the stakes get higher.

But what can one man, with no phone and no weapons, in an isolated compound with high security, do? Unless, of course, he has been brought up by a paranoid survivalist, that is. Unless he’s Colter Shaw.

While much of the cult-related material is interesting and believable, and quite a few aspects of the cult leader will likely remind readers of a certain recently-deposed president, some suspension of disbelief at Shaw’s abilities and activities will be needed. The story drags on for rather too long, and the unresolved issues from book one (the story behind Ashton Shaw’s death, Margot Keller, Russell Shaw) are only touched upon in the final forty pages. Perhaps they will be addressed in the next book, for those who can be bothered reading on.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harper Collins Australia.
Dear Miss Kopp: Kopp Sisters #6
by Amy Stewart
excellent historical fiction (11/4/2020)
Dear Miss Kopp is the sixth book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. By mid-1918, the Kopp sisters find themselves apart, with Constance and Fleurette on separate missions travelling the country, while Norma and her pigeons are in France. Letters (some unsent), short notes and telegrams flow between them and others, carrying news of their lives and glimpses at happenings and conditions in their far-flung locations.

Constance upbraids Norma for the brevity of her missives: Norma is reluctant to enumerate her problems with her commanding officer, and too modest to detail her triumphs, but her roommate in their poor, cramped accommodation has no such qualms; Nurse Agnes Bell, stationed at the American Hospital in their unnamed French village, is so pleased to borrow this Kopp sister (especially when Norma helps to prove her innocence on a theft charge), she writes in detail to Constance; Norma pours out her exasperations to General Murray back home.

Fleurette’s reticence in letters to her older sisters is absent in missives to her best friend, Helen Stewart, to whom she describes to the accommodations and chaperoning arrangements for the entertainment troupes sent to boost the morale of army camps full of soldiers about to go to war, and run-ins with overzealous Women’s Protective Committee members, apparently blinkered to culpability of men, resulting in stints in “girl jail”.

To her sisters, as she resides in female boarding houses in between assignments for the Bureau of Investigation, Constance describes the torture of families and sweethearts awaiting any word from sons, brothers, beaus, the dispatch of comfort items in parcels, the often-unhelpful American Protection League activities, book drives, support of French war orphans, and the bartering that produces miracle meals from meagre supplies.

Norma’s problems include Army superiors who consider the whole pigeon program, intended to save the lives of runners, a frivolity; and soldiers who see it as a waste of time and are so poorly informed the birds are mistreated and sometimes end up as pigeon pie. Not to be daunted by orders, Norma takes the initiative and gets her birds to the front under the radar, an exercise that includes madeleines and love poems.

Constance tries to boost her morale: “We can only do our part. We cannot, as individuals, put a stop to crime or mayhem or even war. (Especially war.) We won’t, in any final sense, ever win. There will always be a police department, or a sheriff’s office, or an Army and Navy, because there will always be another criminal, another battle, another belligerent nation. All we can do is to get up every day and to stand on the side of justice and fairness.”

Fleurette somehow ends up doing a solo performance: a hit with the troops but it infuriates their spoiled, moody star, May Ward. Her letters describe the mood of soldiers about to risk their lives, feeling that naming war insurance beneficiaries is virtually a bet against oneself. The acquisition of a feathered companion spurs Fleurette to write to Norma.

Meanwhile, Constance infiltrates networks of German saboteurs, goes on slacker raids, investigates propagandist publications and engages in anti-unionist espionage (much to her distaste). Her reports entertain Bureau director, Bruce Bielaski, who gives her free rein, and Constance eventually recruits and trains a female BI agent, then enlists the help of Fleurette in an important covert operation.

Stewart’s Historical Notes are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvelous tale. Once again, excellent historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Miss Benson's Beetle
by Rachel Joyce
Once again, Rachel Joyce does not disappoint. (10/31/2020)
Miss Benson’s Beetle is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Rachel Joyce. When, at the age of forty-six, Miss Margery Benson comes to truly understand the low regard in which she is held at the school where she teaches a class of ungrateful girls home economics, she makes a snap decision: she will fulfill the vow she made back in 1914 when she was a girl of ten.

She places an ad in The Times: “Wanted. French- speaking assistant for expedition to other side of the world. All expenses paid.” The right applicant will help her find the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, to prove its existence to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum.

She’d been shown it in a book, Incredible Creatures, by her beloved father, just before he died: “’Do you think they’re real?’ she said. Her father nodded. ‘I have begun to feel comforted,’ he said, ‘by the thought of all we do not know, which is nearly everything.’ With that upside-down piece of wisdom, he turned another page.”

The favoured candidate pulls out at the last minute, leaving Margery no choice but to accept the one she considered most unsuitable, Enid Pretty, a dyslexic, over-made-up, endlessly chatty bottle-blonde with a talent for charming her way through obstacles (sometimes via cash and cleavage). An observer describes her as a trickster.

Enid, keeping a tight hold on her red valise, is very eager to join in Margery’s expedition, but clearly harbouring a secret or two. “Enid was still anathema to Margery, like trying to read a map upside down. She rushed through life as if she was being chased. Even things whose whole point was slowness, like waking up, for instance, after a heavy night’s sleep, she took at a lick.” Yet, when Margery really needs her help, she freely gives it.

Margery and Enid arrive, but will they find their beetle? “She hadn’t a clue why she was lying in a hammock on the other side of the world, already half crippled, looking for a beetle that had never been found – she could die out here, under these alien stars, and no one would know.” And quite unbeknownst to then both, a rejected candidate, a former POW with a severe case of PTSD is hot on their trail, his intentions a little vague.

What a wonderful story Joyce gives the reader! Quirky characters who can irritate and endear; a setting so well rendered that the heat, humidity and foreignness are palpable; and several secrets gradually revealed. Laugh-out-loud (almost slapstick) moments are balanced with lump-in-the-throat occasions and wise words: “We are not the things that happened to us. We can be what we like”.

Central to the story is the unlikely friendship that forms: “The differences between them – all those things she’d once found so infuriating – she now accepted. Being Enid’s friend meant there were always going to be surprises” but also explored are grief and guilt, independence and self-worth. Once again, Rachel Joyce does not disappoint.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Transworld Publishing.
The Never Game
by Jeffery Deaver
A page-turner. (10/26/2020)
The Never Game is the first book in the Colter Shaw series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. Some people call Colter Shaw a mercenary. Not the fight-for-money kind. Colter makes a living by finding missing people for the reward offered. And he’s good at it. From a young age, his parents instilled into their children survival skills unlike any most parents would select. It’s stood him in good stead.

His latest case takes him to Silicone Valley, where a nineteen-year-old student, Sophie Mulliner, has gone missing. The local cops aren’t doing much, convinced she’s a runaway, so Frank Mulliner offers a reward. Colter gets the information, works out the probabilities, finds the evidence of kidnapping, doing everything the police should have. And he finds the girl. Job done. Except…

There are some strange aspects to this case. And there was a murder committed during the rescue. And then, hours later, there is another kidnapping. And another. It’s starting to look like the killer is playing a game, enacting a particular computer game. By this time the police actually want Colter’s help.

Colter Shaw is an interesting protagonist: highly skilled, always calculating the odds, assessing the probabilities, and usually making only informed decisions, even when faced with a mountain lion. The reader learns about his unconventional upbringing via flashbacks that intersperse the present-day narrative. There’s also an unresolved thread underlying Colter’s current cases, which is gradually revealed in those flashbacks, relating to a shocking event that occurred fifteen years earlier.

While the story does include quite a bit about gaming, this is fairly subtly done. There are plenty of twists and red herrings and, as well as setting up the case Colter will next be dealing with, Deaver leaves enough unanswered questions in Colter’s background for future instalments. A page-turner.
Just Like You
by Nick Hornby
entertaining and thought-provoking. (10/19/2020)
Just Like You is the eighth novel by award-winning British author, Nick Hornby. When Lucy Fairfax and Joseph Campbell embark on their relationship, neither is looking too closely at the reasons, or the likely outcome: they are acting on mutual attraction, and find that they enjoy each other’s company.

Lucy, a separated mother of two, is Head of the English Department at the local high school, forty-two years old and white. Joseph does various part-time jobs including, football coaching, baby-sitting and working in the local butcher’s, is twenty-two years old, and black. When they are together, they are happy. Despite their quite disparate backgrounds, they are interested in each other’s lives, enjoy their conversations (the coming Brexit vote is on everyone’s lips), and have great sex.

Lucy’s young sons love spending time with Joseph, although there’s less of that now that he comes to spend time with Lucy instead of baby-sitting them. Because this is a covert relationship: they don’t go out. It is when the result of the Brexit vote is announced that they realize just how closeted their lives have become, and how different they really are. The relationship ebbs fairly swiftly if amicably. Joseph still babysits. They both date others. But is it really over?

The insecurities that need to be soothed with reassurances in any relationship are a little different here, taking in race, age gap and level of education: “He was just a kid. He could see that now. It was because everything was new that he was embarrassed and raw. He wasn’t established in any field, really. He’d be bringing her stuff, like a puppy, for a long time to come, and she could only rub his belly and call him a good boy until he was an old dog with no new tricks.”

The Brexit referendum backdrop allows Hornby to explore the effect of such an issue on everyday life: “Lucy understood it now. The referendum was giving groups of people who didn’t like each other, or at least failed to comprehend each other, an opportunity to fight. The government might just as well be asking a yes/no question about public nudity, or vegetarianism, or religion, or modern art, some other question that divided people into two groups, each suspicious of the other. There had to be something riding on it, otherwise people wouldn’t get so upset.”

There are plenty of (sometimes darkly) funny moments in this tale, including kids who are much more aware than their mother thinks, a mother who twigs to her son’s activities via Find My Phone, and a confession by text. As well as heading in an unpredictable direction, Hornby’s latest is entertaining and thought-provoking.
Anxious People
by Fredrik Backman
Wise, insightful and blackly funny. (10/3/2020)
“…you should always be nice to other people, even idiots, because you never know how heavy their burden is.”

Anxious People is the sixth novel by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman. It is translated by Neil Smith and consists of (approx):
11 Comedy of Errors
11 Locked-room mystery
33 Social Commentary
11 Love Story
11 Slapstick/Keystone Cops
22 Philosophy
1 Farce
And 100 Backman
A small Swedish town. The young cop is frustrated. The hostages have been released unharmed, but the hostage-taker is missing, and the cop is certain that some, if not all, of the hostages are telling less than the whole truth. The big bosses from Stockholm will soon be there to take over.

The older cop worries for the young man, who obviously wants to solve the whole thing before they arrive. But the puzzle is defeating him. Hidden by a ski-mask and wielding a pistol, the robber made an unsuccessful attempt to rob the bank, then fled into an apartment open for viewing, taking the potential buyers hostage.

After a thorough search of the apartment, however, there was no sign of the failed robber. Interrogation of each of the hostages yields little useful information. Of course, the reader, privy to the bank robber’s thoughts, has it figured out pretty quickly, right? Sure.

In characteristic Fredrik Backman fashion, he gives the reader a cast of people, all with their own individual anxieties, but all easy to identify with, throws them together and gradually reveals how they got that way. If all are initially strangers, there are definitely less than six degrees of separation between some of them.

There’s a gun, a fair bit of blood, a large rabbit, a bowl of limes, several pizzas, and someone ends up with a lump on their forehead, but no animals are harmed in the making of this tale. Patience with the initial silliness is amply rewarded with an intriguing mystery, astute observations and sage comments, and lots of laugh-out-loud moments: “The bank robber stamped the floor in frustration. ‘No one’s listening to me! You’re the worst hostages ever!’” Wise, insightful and blackly funny.
Utopia Avenue
by David Mitchell
Another excellent dose of David Mitchell magic. (9/29/2020)
Utopia Avenue is the seventh novel by award-winning British author, David Mitchell. In early 1967, due to a pickpocket, bass guitarist Dean Moss finds himself, in quick succession, homeless, jobless, almost penniless and still owing the final payment on his guitar. Levon Frankland appears at the critical moment with a proposal, and shortly thereafter, Dean’s on stage at the 2i’s club, playing with a dazzling lead guitarist and a talented drummer. Frankland has big plans for them.

Not much later, Jasper de Zoet, Peter “Griff” Griffin and Dean are listening, spellbound, as Elf Holloway, the remaining (and better) half of the Fletcher and Holloway duo, sings her compositions solo. It’s these four that will comprise the band soon to be known as Utopia Avenue, which Frankland hopes to promote to fame and fortune.

It takes a year of hard slog, practice and travelling to gigs, not all of which are well-received, before they have a single and an album on the market. This eclectic mix of singer/songwriters, each with established roots in distinctly different genres, produces a unique sound. Elf has proven her popularity in folk; Griff drums jazz; Dean’s style is blues; and Jasper’s, acid rock; music critics struggle to classify them, but the public likes what it hears.

If Dean comes across as an angry young man with father issues, Elf’s background epitomises family support, while Griff’s anarchic persona belies a loving family; Levon tries to stay under the homophobic radar that typifies the times.

Jasper is different: a youth spent commuting across the channel between his maternal English and paternal Dutch families, he describes himself as emotionally dyslexic, and that’s not all that’s going on in his head. A problem that has plagued Jasper since he was fifteen seems to be re-emerging and the band’s visit to Amsterdam allows him to seek help…

“A brain constructs a model of reality. If the model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labelled “Sane”. If that model is different, you’re labelled a genius, a misfit, a visionary or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labelled a schizophrenic and locked up”

Three main narratives, with some flashbacks, trace the band’s trajectory from inception to (relatively short-lived) fame and the aftermath, detailing incidents and life events that inspire the songs on their three albums. The chapters are headed for the LP track titles, with the narrative perspective denoted as the artist’s credit, in parentheses.

This is not a quick read, but it’s hard not to invest in these characters and worry about their fate and feel indignant at what befalls them: love and loss, grief and guilt, plagiarism, blackmail and false imprisonment. Mitchell easily evokes the era, with plenty of star cameos dotting a soup thick with sixties names, drug use, free love, and song titles that are bound to cause earworms (some quite annoying).

While this novel can probably be read as a stand-alone, and will appeal especially to readers of a certain vintage, having read Mitchell’s previous works will certainly enhance the reader’s enjoyment, as there are quite a lot of references (characters, events, objects) to earlier works: Mitchell fans are more likely to “get it”. There are also significant spoilers for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Another excellent dose of David Mitchell magic.
The Book of Two Ways
by Jodi Picoult
interesting and thought-provoking (9/7/2020)
The Book of Two Ways is the twenty-fourth adult novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Jodi Picoult. By some miraculous quirk of fate, Dawn Edelstein is one of a handful survivors of a plane crash. During the crash, her thoughts go, not to her family, but to Egyptologist and former lover, Wyatt Armstrong, last seen fifteen years earlier, and the dissertation she never completed. Instead of going home to her husband and daughter, Dawn flies to Cairo, heading for the dig where she believes Wyatt will be. Her sole intention is to complete her dissertation.
Or:
By some miraculous quirk of fate, Dawn Edelstein is one of a handful survivors of a plane crash. During the crash, her thoughts go, not to her family, but to Egyptologist and former lover, Wyatt Armstrong, last seen fifteen years earlier, and the dissertation she never completed. Dawn returns to Boston, to her job as a death doula, to a marriage strained by a recent incident and to a teenaged daughter unsettled by self-image and hints of tension between her parents.

Dawn in Egypt recalls her childhood with her superstitious Irish mother, her three seasons in Egypt, and the thrill of discovery: a new tomb and a new lover. As she once again works a dig, her earlier time shared with Wyatt is uppermost in her mind: how their relationship, both professional and personal, began, developed into a fiery passion for work and each other, and then was cut short in a mercy dash back to Boston.

Dawn in Boston is reminded of her sudden return from Egypt to a dying mother, a hospice, guardianship of a teenaged brother, and the overwhelming responsibility settling on her shoulders. With her marriage now a little wobbly, she thinks back to meeting Brian Edelstein and their shared life. At the same time, Dawn attends a new client, a dying woman of her own age with some parallels to Dawn’s life.

As chapters alternate between Egypt and Boston, yielding certain pieces of information, it seems Picoult is taking the reader on two of many possible future life paths of a woman whose thoughts, feelings and emotions have been distilled by a near-death experience. Or, at least, that’s how it looks for most of the novel, until Picoult throws the reader for a loop.

This is a very cleverly constructed story, although mixed ratings indicate that not all readers appreciate the ride. Picoult has patently done a mountain of research. Some of the Egyptology is a little heavy going: the brain tends to skip over tongue-twister Egyptian names and the photographs are indistinct but hieroglyphs are clear; the stories, myths and legends are captivating, as are the Irish superstitions and the death customs. The role of the death doula is fascinating and if the quantum mechanics is quite involved, the concept of parallel universes and alternate potential futures is intriguing.

As usual, Picoult’s characters are larger than life, if not always entirely endearing. Dawn seems to have some double standards and readers may not find her apparently easy switch between lovers easy to forgive. As always, interesting and thought-provoking.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: UK Title: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton
Original and very clever (9/6/2020)
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the first novel by British freelance travel journalist and author, Stuart Turton. When Aiden Bishop wakes, inhabiting the body of Dr Simon Bell, on the floor of the forest, he has no memory. He does not know his own name, nor that of the body he’s occupying. He has not a clue how he came to be there. And he doesn’t realise that he is destined to spend the next eight days reliving the same day, over and over, hosted in different bodies. Some will be hale and hearty; others elderly and frail, or suffering injury; some are cowards, some intelligent, some malicious, others fools.

What Aiden is certain about is that Anna is in danger, if not dead: he has seen a woman flee through the wood, chased by a man, then hears a gunshot. Finding his way to a country mansion in disrepair, he learns he is a guest at Blackheath for a party celebrating the return, from Paris, of the daughter, Evelyn Hardcastle. And he is subsequently told that the only way to escape Blackheath is to discover the identity of the person who murders Evelyn at 11pm.

What an interesting closed-room mystery! As Aiden cycles through his hosts, he gains a new perspective on the day’s events, and gathers clues that may help him escape. Adding an element of surprise and danger is the fact that Aiden is not the only person trying to solve this murder. And because there are so many characters, so many facets to the day, so many intrigues, so many secrets, and so many (in excess of ten) murder victims, the reader will do well to take notes. And even then, many things are not what they first appear.

The plot is quite complicated, with plenty of twists and tricks and intricate details. There is quite a lot of blackmail, a 19-year-old murder not entirely solved, impersonation, and a footman who likes to use a knife on people. There is an array of interesting and sometimes quirky characters. While the jumps between days are clearly marked, the convoluted nature of events requires a good memory. The map of the house and grounds, and the character list, are essential. Original and very clever.

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