Tag Archives: Fiction

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Penguin Classic, New York, 2006

From my book shelves.

As an adolescent I watched The Haunting on television several times.  It gave me nightmares.

Welcome to Hill House, a place with a reputation for being “unwelcoming”, if not haunted.  Dr Montague, an academic doing research on the paranormal, has invited Eleanor, a young woman who had some experience with poltergeists as a child, his assistant Theodora and Luke, a young man set to inherit the mansion, to spend some time is this unusual house hoping to find scientific evidence of a haunting.  Unfortunately the house doesn’t seem all that welcoming.  The haunting is not so much generated by spirits as it is generated by the house itself.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. From page 34.

The four of them stood, for the first time, in the wide, dark entrance of Hill House.  Around them the house steadied and located them, above them the hills slept watchfully, small eddies of air and sound and movement stirred and waited and whispered, and the center of consciousness was somehow the small space where they stood, four separate people, and looked trustingly at one another.  From page 58.

These four stay in the house and wonder at its strangeness.  Doors close by themselves, rooms seem to move about and there are places that are very, very cold.  It doesn’t take long for them to discover what they are searching for  It is the atmosphere in, and around the house and the often strained dynamic between the characters, that heightens the creepiness as we read.  We learn early on just how psychologically and emotionally  fragile Eleanor is.   It is no surprise that Hill House chooses to seeks her out.

     Eleanor felt, as she had the day before, that the conversation was being skillfully guided away from the thought of fear, so very present in her own mind.  Perhaps she was to be allowed to speak occasionally  for all of them so that , quieting her, they quieted themselves and could leave the subject behind them; perhaps, vehicle for every kind of fear, she contained enough for all.  They are like children, she thought crossly,daring each other to go first, ready to turn and call names at whoever comes last; she pushed her plate away from her and sighed. From pages 98/99.

I had never read this book before, am in awe of Jackson’s writing and find it one of the most chilling, psychologically unnerving novels I’ve read in a long time.  It is Jackson’s subtle sense of menace that makes this a scary read, along with her ability to worm the reader in to her characters’  heads.  Absolutely lovely, in it’s way, and perfect for my final R.I.P. VII read.

     Sipping, not warmed, Eleanor thought, We are in the eye of the storm, there is not much more time.  She watched Luke carefully carry a glass of brandy over to the doctor and hold it out, and then, without comprehending, watched the glass slip through Luke’s fingers to the floor as the door was shaken, violently and silently.  Luke pulled the doctor back, and the door was attacked without a sound, seeming almost to be pulled away from its hinges, almost ready to buckle and go down,leaving them exposed.  Backing away, Luke and the doctor waited, tense and helpless.  From page 201.

Thanks to Carl V. and all the participants of RIP VII. The links to other reviews are here.  R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril is one of my very favorite reading experiences of the year.

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Filed under Books, Horror, R.I.P. VII, Thoughts

The Calling and The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

Harcourt, New York, 2008

Borrowed from my local library.

A well-written mystery/thriller whose main character is a sixty-one year old female Detective Inspector who suffers with a bad back, a dependence on pain-killers and a mother who keeps her on a strict diet.  Her small town office, threatened by budget cuts, is suddenly over-whelmed by the murder of a local elderly women, a murder that turns out to be connected to a string of murders that take place all across Canada.

D.I. Hazel Micallef is a winner.   Short-tempered, with a caustic tongue, she is smart as a whip and facing the same troubles at work as many woman run into, politics and an old boy network that won’t quit.

     Her head was swimming with details.  Everything they knew now had a relationship with everything they did not know.  What they’d learned stood like a range of trees on a lakeshore, reflected in reverse on the water below.  Hazel dreaded the journey it would take to get to those dark shapes.  A dead woman, a dead man.  A pact of some kind.  What was being kept? Were these deaths, at least, part of something longed for.  As she got older and acclimatized herself to her own failures, she had begun to understand death’s draw. From pages 100/101.

The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  This is the second Hazel Micallef mystery.

Following on the heels of her last case, D.I. Hazel Micallef has had back surgery and must recuperate in the home of her ex-husband and his second wife.  Detective Constable James Wingate , who is running things while Hazel is on leave, calls for her help after someone fishes a body from one of the local lakes.  Things start to get really strange when Hazel discovers a mystery story running in the local paper.  The story sounds surprising like their drowning case.

I think these are great mysteries, smart and beautifully written.  I love Hazel, and her colleagues.  This is a great series and I hope my library orders the newest book, A Door in the River, as soon as possible!

“I’m reading between your lines”

“Yes, yes, you are,” said the voice.  “I’ve been very pleased, I think we are doing very well together.  Maybe the story will have a different ending than the one I’ve been planning.”

Wingate spoke.  “What ending have you planned?”

“Now, now, Detective Constable.  Do you read the end of a book before its beginning?”  She began to write again.  “I knew someone who used to do that.  Couldn’t stand the suspense of not-knowing.  Let’s just say the trajectory of the story has a natural end-point.  We’re wired for it, did you know that?  The shape of our lives imposes itself on the way we tell stories: a welter of possibilities at the beginning narrows and narrows and instabilities appear that obligate us to take certain turns.  And then the end is a forgone conclusion.  However, twists are possible in such stories as the one we’re telling.  Unexpected outcomes.  In my experience, it happens only  rarely.  But we can see.”  from page 235.

Inger Ash Wolfe is a pseudonym.  People have been  wondering (and guessing at)  who the mysterious author is since The Calling was first published.  At the end of last month the mystery was solved when The Globe and Mail published this essay.  Turns out my library has several books by the culprit and I have added them to my TBR list.

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Filed under Canadian, Fiction, Mystery, Thoughts, Thriller

The Dark Side….

I’ve been reading a bit on the dark side lately.  One book was a true crime book, one a mystery by a favorite French author and the last is being called a “breakthrough” novel by an American author known for dark, twisted tales.

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry.  From my TBR pile.

I read about this one in the British press a while back and was so intrigued I ordered it from the Book Depository.    The story of the disappearance and murder of of Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one year old British citizen and  former flight attendant, was front page news in Japan and around the world.  The solving of that crime is a tale built of a combination of incompetence, willful ignorance and cultural crossed wires.

Richard Parry is a bureau chief for the Times of London, based in Tokyo.  He has written a masterful book.

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.  Borrowed from my local library.

I’ve been enamored of Northern European mystery authors for a while.  Henning Mankell, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Karen Fossem, Arnaldur Indridason.  I could go on.  When I discovered Fred Vargas several years ago I was  delighted by her novels and didn’t understand why she hadn’t become an international phenomenon.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team of quirky detectives get handed all kinds of bizarre cases. The newest one involves a grotesquely mutilated murder victim.  If this series intrigues you I’d suggest starting with the first book, The Chalk Circle Man, which was translated into English after several of the others.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Borrowed from my local library.

I read Flynn’s earlier works and was surprised at myself for enjoying them so.  Sharp Objects and Dark Places are both deal with dark themes, violence, dysfunctional families, serial killers.  Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone wrong, and then some.  Flynn’s portrayal of her protagonists, and the lengths they go to creating and compartmentalizing their different personas, is nothing short of amazing.

All Flynn’s books take serious jabs at the media, celebrity and American pop culture, which is fascinating because she work  as a reporter for Entertainment Weekly for 10 years.

Have you read any books on the dark side lately?

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Filed under Murder, Mystery, Short Reviews, Thoughts

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

Simon & Schuster, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Vincent, an awkward, bird-watching teenager treated badly by his father, lives in a town a few miles from the place where he was born.  That place, Blackmoor,  no longer exists.  As Vincent grows curious about his family history he discovers deeply buried secrets, about himself, his Mother, and the village of  Blackmoor.  The story,  told by an unnamed omniscient narrator,  moves back and forth in time and slowly reveals the truth.

This is a book I devoured.  The sense of mystery and menace grew to a point where  I just couldn’t put it down.  At its heart is the fate of British coal mining during the Thatcher years, the devastation wrought on a place and its people.  And Hogan writes beautifully.

Vincent sits in the rain-speckled ocher dirt and Leila joins him among the broken teeth of the bridge. The indigo rain clouds have tinted the sun and improved visibility.  With the enduring drift of rain, the light has taken on a sourceless clarity, and from this height Vincent can see the brown whorls on the underside of Piano’s light wings.  Her colours make it seem like she has been peeled from the rock of the quarry.  She does not move those long straight wings, or the elegant `fingers’ at their ends.  Instead, she tips dips and tilts as her two charges swoop clumsily down on her like pieces of tumbling flint.  From page 50.

In 2009 Blackmoor was awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction.  As far as I can tell this novel has not been published in the United States.  I hope that is remedied soon.  I am now waiting for Hogan’s second novel, The Hunger Trace, to be published in paperback in the UK.  It is on my wishlist.

5 Comments

Filed under British, ContemporaryFiction, TBR Double Dare, Thoughts

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my local library.  Winner of the 2010 Story Prize.

I am not really much of a short story reader.  I might read the latest story published in the New Yorker, or link to a story someone has sent to me, but I much prefer novels.  There are a few exceptions.  This author is one of them.

I discovered Anthony Doerr by accident.  While browsing the shelves at my local library the cover of his first story collection, The Shell Collector, caught my eye. 

I brought it home and was captured by Doerr’s writing, his depth of feeling and the places time and nature take in his work.  I put his newest collection on hold at the library thinking I would get to it right away.  Things kept pushing it aside until I finally carved out the space to read it.  I will not let that happen with his next collection.

From Afterworld:

We return to the places we’re from; we trample faded corners and pencil in new lines.  “You’ve grown so fast,” Robert’s mother tells him at breakfast, at dinner.  “Look at you.”  But she’s wrong, thinks Robert.  You bury your childhood here and there.  It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.  From page 242.

The stories in this new collection are about memory, how it connects us through time, how it haunts us and changes us.  These stories read like novels, full of care and tenderness.  Somehow Doerr’s stories each hold a universe of  space and time, a sense of distance and the knowledge that life goes on around us whether we are aware of it or not.

From The River Nemunas:

     It’s not a fish.  I know it’s not a fish.  It’s just a big lump of memory at the bottom of the River Nemunas.  I say a prayer Dad taught me about God being in the light and in the water and the rocks, about God’s mercy enduring forever.  I say it quickly to myself, hissing it out through my lips, and pull then crank, pull then crank.  God is in the light, God is in the water, God is in the rocks, and I feel Mishap scrabbling around the boat with his little claws and I can even feel his heart beating in his chest, a bright little fist opening and closing, and I can feel the river pulling past the boat, its tributaries life fingernails dragging through an entire country, all of Lithuania draining into this one artery, five hundred slicing miles of water, all the way to the Baltic, which Grandpa Z says is the coldest sea in Europe, and something occurs to me that will seem obvious to you but that I never thought about before.  A river never stops.  Wherever you are, whatever your doing, forgetting, sleeping, mourning, dying – the rivers still keep running.  From page 182.

I love these stories and highly recommend this collection.

Other reviews:

Reflections from the Hinterland

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Filed under Fiction, Review, StoryCollection

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Dorothy, Urbana, 2010

I own this, ordered it from Dorothy, a publishing project.  I have Sarah to thank for writing about this unusual book.

Barbara Comyns’ short novel is the story of the Willoweed family, cranky and forceful Grandmother Willoweed, her unemployed  son  Ebin, and his three children.  Along with their servants and the citizens of the small village where they live, they cope with a disastrous flood and a series of strange deaths.  People die and people change.

In the garden Old Ives was tying up the flowers that had been damaged by the flood.  While he worked he talked to his ducks, who were waddling about hopefully, as it was almost time for the red bucket to be filled with sharps and potato-peelings. Emma dawdled up to him and said:

“Don’t you think, Ives, that we should send a wreath to Grumpy Nan’s funeral?  It’s tomorrow and people seen to be making a great fuss about it.”

“Of course they are making a fuss, her being drowned and all.  It’s a long time since we’ve had a drowning by flood;  it’s an important event in this village.  And don’t you worry about the wreath neither.  I was just telling my ducks as you came along about the pretty wreath I’m going to make this evening.  White Peonies it will be made of, Miss, and little green grapes.  There won’t be another to touch it, will there my dears?” and he turned to the ducks who agreed with him in chorus.  From pages 21/22.

Comyns’ ability to strike a balance between light and dark, in a way that appears effortless,  is somewhat disconcerting.  That is what, for me, makes this little novel so fascinating.  She was clearly a master of  observation, both of human behavior and human relationships, and these observations are expressed in such a clear and direct way that what should be painful and ugly appears almost whimsical, much like a fairytale, not Grimm’s but Disney’s.

I think it is the voices of the Willoweed children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, that give Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead its light and fanciful tone.  That is the only explanation I have for not being completely creeped out by all the dead animals and the butcher’s suicide, but you’ll have to read it yourself to determine if I’m right.

Please check out Dorothyproject.Com.  This is a quote from their website:

Dorothy, a publishing project is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.

This very small press deserves our support.

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Filed under Fiction, Review

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Canongate, New York, 2010

I own this one.

Philip Pullman is a favorite author, His Dark Materials is a favorite trilogy.  I looked forward to reading this book, part of the Canongate Myth Series, a retelling of the story of Jesus.  I now find it difficult to write about for it brings up old feelings, so I am just going to give a brief outline and leave it at that

The story is based on the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.  By splitting Jesus Christ into two characters, twins born to Mary, Pullman allows us to see the paths that diverge at this point in human history.

There is Jesus,  a brilliant and often tormented preacher and storyteller.  He is loved by his followers, a problem for the temple elders and a threat to those in power.  And there is Christ, hebrew for “Messiah” who, at the urging of a “stranger”, begins to record what his brother says and what people see, or believe they see, him do.

It is the “stranger” who directs Christ to record what is happening around him, to give that record a certain tone, and each time they meet he guides Christ, tells him to write in a certain way, to add a bit more to the story.

…There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the  Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor.  What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was

…There is time and there is what is beyond time.  History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time.  In writing things as they should have been you are letting truth into history.  You are the word  of God.  From pages 98/99

These writings will, eventually,  plant the seeds of the gospels and the Christian church.  Pullman never makes it clear who the “stranger” is, is he acting on his own?  Is there some power behind him?

This book is part of a series of myths, and myths are narratives that explain how we came to be and how we got to be where we are.  Pullman shines a light into a corner, revealing things about power and coercion, about the formation of belief. It is always about the story and about who tells it.

He says:

The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ.  But what I do with it is my responsibility alone.  Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history and parts like a fairy tale;  I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.

I think I am going to have to step away and then come back and reread this one.

Other reviews:

Bookphilia

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The Captive Reader

things mean a lot

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The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Random House Canada, Toronto, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This is another Canadian title I couldn’t wait for. Thanks to Amazon.ca, I own this one.

Linden MacIntyre is an investigative reporter with the fifth estate, a news show broadcast on the Canadian network, CBC.  After reading The Bishop’s Man I would love to see his news stories.

This is a novel about the Catholic Church and sexual abuse. It is a novel about power and the abuse of power.  Father Duncan MacAskill, the narrator, has been his bishop’s clean-up man,  sent to visit priests, those who have crossed boundaries with their young parishioners.  His job?  Send the priest away and quiet any parish rumblings.  Cover things up.

I’ve often tried to remember how it started, how I became his..what?  What am I?  I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.  Let me put it this way: for other priests, I’m not a welcome presence on the doorstep.

The first summons by the bishop had seemed innocuous enough.  The particulars are almost lost now, obscured by far more troubling memories, but I remember what her said: “I’ve asked you to come here because you have a good head on your shoulders.”  From page 9.

When the bishop hears of an impending media scandal he ships Duncan off to his a parish on Cape Breton Island,  to get him out of harms way.  This church is very close to where Duncan grew up.  Memories, family and local connections prove too much, causing Duncan to revisit his past.  Eventually he turns to alcohol and, in the end, realizes he must make a choice.

MacIntyre approaches this difficult topic by giving the reader a compelling narrator and a fast-paced story, almost a mystery.  Cape Breton Island, and the sea that surrounds it,  offer a refuge from disturbing events and support  for a man facing his past.  This is a courageous book,  gentle and clearly written, surprisingly deep.  It allows us to consider Father Duncan’s dilemma with compassion and without judgement.

Other review:

an adventure in reading

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Fiction, GillerPrize

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker

Vintage International, New York, 1995

Borrowed from the library.

This novel, set in Osaka during the years leading up to World War II, tells the story of the four Makioka sisters, members of a wealthy merchant family now in decline. In gentle prose Tanizaki gives us a picture of each sister and of the struggle between traditional, aristocratic Japanese culture and the  modern influences filtering in from Europe and America.

A main theme that weaves through this novel is the strict and appropriate behavior for young women in  Japanese.  Each of the sisters is different but all are expected to follow the same path, learning the arts of women, marriage and children.  The family is trying to find a husband for Yakiko, the third sister.  They have been trying for years.  Each candidate has had his faults and, as the years go by, the offers of marriage become few and far between. The men become less and less “acceptable”.

The youngest sister, Taeko, known as Koi-San, is rebellious and struggles for independence.  In the end she suffers great loss.  Possibly Tanizaki’s idea of what women will suffer as punishment for turning away from traditional culture.  Then again, the staid and honor-bound behavior of the family as not brought about the best outcome either.

I found the best parts of the book to be the quiet times, bits of daily life gently painted like sumi-e, with soft strokes.  Tanizaki was wonderful at creating a sense of place and of ritual events.

The house was built in the old Osaka fashion.  Inside the high garden walls, one came upon the latticed front of the house.  An earthen passage led from the entrance to the rear.  In the rooms, lighted even at noon by but a dim light from the courtyard, hemlock pillars, rubbed to a fine polish, gave off a soft glow. Sachiko did not know how old the house was – possibly a generation or two.  At first it must have been used as a villa to which elderly Makiokas might retire, or in which the junior branches of the family might live.  Not long before his death Sachiko’s father had moved his family there from Semba; it had become the fashion for merchant families to have residences away from their shops.  The younger sisters had therefore not lived in the house long.  They had often visited relatives there even when they were young, however, and it was there that their father died.  They were deeply attached to the old place.  Sachiko sensed that much of her sister’s love for Osaka was in fact love for the house, and, for all her amusement at these old fashioned ways, she felt a twinge of pain herself – she would no longer be able to go back to the old family house.  She often enough joined Yukiko and Taeko in complaining about it – surely there was no darker and unhygienic house in the world, and they could not understand what made their sister live there, and  they felt thoroughly depressed after no more than three days there, and so on-yet a deep undefinable sorrow came over Sachiko at the news.  To lose the Osaka house would be to lose her very roots. From page 99.

**********

They turned off the flash lights and approached in silence.  Fireflies dislike noise and light.  But even at the edge of the river there were no fireflies.  “Maybe they are not out tonight,” someone whisperd.  “No, there are plenty of them.  Come over here.”  Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in the delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies, gliding out over the water, in low arcs like the sweep of grasses.  On down the river, on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again, sketching their uncertain tracks of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses.  In the last moment of light, with darkness creeping p from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched- and infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly… From page 342.

The book is dense and slow in places.  At times I found myself bogging down and wanting to skim.  That may have to do with the translation, or it may be Tanizaki’s way of portraying the distinctions between the traditional way of Japanese life and the struggle with modernity.  This is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge.  I enjoyed it and am excited to discover other Japanese authors.

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Filed under Fiction, InTranslation, Japanese Literature Challenge 4, New Authors 2010

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Arthur A. Levine Books, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

From the author of Marcelo in the Real World.

Seventeen-year-old Pancho Sanchez is on his own.  After the death of his father and what Pancho believes was the murder of his sister, he is placed at St. Anthony’s until he turns eighteen.  There he meets Daniel Quentin, a young man his age, diagnosed with cancer who, when not taking about things Pancho doesn’t really understand, spends his time writing the Death Warrior’s Manifesto.

“Okay, the answer to the question “Why You?” has no answer at this time.  I don’t know exactly why you.  We’ll find out soon, I’m sure.  But I do know that you’re the one.  I knew you were the one when you drove in yesterday.  The hard part to explain is how I knew.  Let’s just say that one of the benefits of this illness is the increased power to recognize a gut feeling and take it seriously.  I knew someone would come to help me.  It had to be the right person.  You are it.”

“Help you do what?” Pancho leaned backwards and the stool wobbled.  He grabbed onto the wall.

“Help me with…the preparations.  Help me and I will help you.”

“I don’t need help with anything.”

“I can read it in your eyes.  There is something you want to do.  No.  I’d say it’s more like there’s something you feel you need to do.  It’s eating you.

“How do you know that?”  He sounded more alarmed than he wanted to.  From page 40.”

Pancho is filled with anger, on a hunt for his sister’s murderer and planning revenge.  Meeting D.Q., spending time with him and other wonderful characters, forces him out of himself, forces him to look at his life in a different way.  Stork uses wonderfully clear and direct story telling to create a fine novel for young adults.  I believe he wrote this before Marcelo, and even though it is not quite as polished as that book, I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Other reviews:

Alison’s Book Marks

My Favorite Books

TheHappyNappyBookseller

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