Review: Before & Laughter by Jimmy Carr

 

Title: Before & Laughter: A Life Changing Book

Author: Jimmy Carr

Published: 28th September 2021, Quercus Publishing

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

I ‘discovered’ Irish comedian Jimmy Carr when I stumbled upon the panel show ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’ on YouTube only a year or two ago. The show opened up an entire collection of British comedy programs I promptly binged, and given the incestuous nature of the business, Carr had a role in many of them. Whether acting as a host or  panellist, he often makes me laugh out loud, even if his humour tends to be more on the deliberately offensive, smutty side.

Billed as a memoir and self help book, I was somewhat surprised to find Before & Laughter leans far more into the latter than the former. There are glimpses of Carr here as he touches on his relationship with his parents, shares the story of throwing in his corporate job at Shell to take a chance on comedy, offers a mea culpa for his ‘tax thing’, and speaks of his partner and child, but largely this is a book of advice on how to find your purpose and be true to yourself.

Before & Laughter is funny as expected, with Jimmy sharing plenty of humorous anecdotes, but it’s also surprisingly sensible and insightful. There isn’t anything particularly unique about the essence of Carr’s advice, but his frame of reference – stand up comedy – is something different. Carr has an interesting perspective on life informed by the nature of his work, which involves more intense labour than you would expect. Though I don’t care much for self help blather generally, I think Carr offers some sound advice for anyone looking to enhance or change their life.

Whether you buy into the motivational message or not, Before & Laughter is an entertaining read.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital by Joanna Nell

 

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanne Nell

Published: 29th September 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is an endearing and entertaining novel from bestselling Australian author Joanna Nell.

Though the decor is tired, the menu uninspiring, and the coffee bland, The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has served the visitors and employees of St Jude’s Hospital nobly for fifty years, its profits funding a variety of projects to benefit patients. Staffed by volunteers, septuagenarian Hilary Halliday has held the position of manager for a decade and runs a tight ship, but with her personal life recently upended, her role at the cafeteria has become a life raft, which is why she is rocked to discover that management is contemplating closing the cafeteria in favour of a popular ‘whole food’ cafe franchise.

The storyline of The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is told through three characters – Hilary; probationary volunteer Joy, with a penchant for blue eyelash falsies and bright clothing, of similar age to Hilary; and seventeen year old student Chloe Foster-Pearson, reluctantly volunteering at the behest of her surgeon mother. Each slowly reveals their private struggles as they face uncertain futures. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these well drawn characters, very different from one another, who become united by their determination to save the cafeteria.

The themes of family, friendship, change, and identity are prevalent in The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital. Nell also sensitively explores issues related to ageing, particularly for women. There is a little dig at the commercialisation of hospital care, and the Millennial folly of style over substance.

Written with warmth and humour, The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is a charming and cheerful read.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

 

Title: Treasure & Dirt

Author: Chris Hammer

Published: 28th September 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Though there are loose links to his bestselling Martin Scarsdale series (Scrublands, Silver, Trust) Treasure & Dirt is a standalone crime procedural from Australian author Chris Hammer.

“Maybe this is it. The sky is too big, the land is too big. Too many places for secrets.”

When the body of Jonas McGee is found crucified at the bottom of his opal mine in Finnegan’s Gap, Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic is sent to the remote town in north western New South Wales to investigate. Paired with Detective Constable Narelle Buchanan, who served the town in uniform, it seems prudent to first consider the rule of proximity placing a handful of suspects in the frame, but it’s not long before the suspect pool widens as their investigation exposes old grudges, new rivalries, and buried secrets.

“The body is stinking, leaking, a horrible parody of Christ.”

Taking place over a period of about a week, Hammer develops an intricate but coherent plot in Treasure & Dirt. Lucic’s murder investigation starts with McGee’s neighbouring claim owner and his son with whom McGee shares a tragic past, the dead miner’s former offsider, and an unidentified team of ‘ratters’, men who steal opals from unattended mines, as suspects, but rapidly expands to assess if a desperate daughter, members of a local religious cult, or a pair of warring billionaires, may have played a part in the man’s demise. The story twists and turns as Lucic and Nell try to reconcile the past with the present to solve the murder, and make sense of the additional crimes they uncover.

“This isn’t an opportunity, he realises, this is a test.”

Lucic is a methodical investigator, inclined to follow every possible lead to its end. He presents as an introvert, self contained and thoughtful, but also determined and dependable. With his partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore, under investigation by Professional Standards, and his own vulnerabilities due to a gambling habit, Lucic feels the weight of the case, and its implications for his own career.

Similarly Nell, an inexperienced but ambitious investigator, is determined to prove her worth, a goal that may be made difficult by her history in Finnegan’s Gap. I liked Nell a lot, as a police officer she is smart with good instincts, though her personal life would suggest otherwise.

“It’s not your average town. Too many men, not enough women. Too much grog, too many crims, too much opal lust. Too bloody hot.”

Hammer deftly captures the starkness of the outback landscape, scarred and barren, seared by the relentless heat, beset by flies. Finnegan’s Gap is a hardscrabble town, slowly dying as opal finds become rarer, its population increasingly made up of an antisocial element. We are introduced to a handful of rough country old-timers and some eccentric characters, however I noticed a lack of racial diversity amongst the cast.

“Time we went to town. Time we started to set things right.”

Skilfully evoking a sense of place, offering realistic characters, and an intriguing storyline, Treasure & Dirt is a brilliant, engrossing read.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert

 

Title: The River Mouth

Author: Karen Herbert

Published: 1st October 2021, Fremantle Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Fremantle Press

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In Karen Herbert’s accomplished crime fiction debut, The River Mouth, a mother resumes her search for answers to the unsolved murder of her teenage son when the decade old case is reopened in the wake of the death of her best friend.

Sandra Davies is stunned when the police advise her that not only has the body of her best friend, Barbara Russell, been found in the Pilbara desert, but that routine tests discovered Barbara’s DNA matched a sample taken from the under the fingernails of her late son. Darren was shot dead by an unknown assailant while swimming in the river with friends ten years earlier, but what possible motive could explain Barbara killing a fifteen year old boy?

As Sandra tries to make sense of this unexpected development, convinced Barbara is blameless, Herbert unravels the past from the perspective of Barbara’s son, and Darren’s best friend, Colin. Darren is a high-spirited teenager, full of teenage bravado, with a sharp tongue, while Colin is more reserved and thoughtful. When Darren is not helping out his dad, a successful cray fisherman, the boys spend much of their time together, at school and on weekends, often joined by Tim, and occasionally Amy. While they occasionally cause mischief, and push against their parents’ rules, the group are fairly typical teenagers. I thought Herberts characterisation of the teens was realistic, and felt that she deftly captured their dialogue, attitudes and behaviours.

It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the insular Western Australian costal community in which Sandra lives harbours more than one secret that could have led to Darren’s murder, and Herbert uses these red herrings to good effect. The novel is well paced, with the suspense managed effectively across both timelines. Though the ambiguous circumstances of Barbara’s passing remains an irritant to me, I think the mystery of Darren’s death is satisfactorily resolved, even if the aftermath is somewhat non-traditional.

The River Mouth is an impressive debut, and a fine addition to the growing oeuvre of rural Australian crime fiction.

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Available from Fremantle Press

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Review: The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

 

Title: The Woman They Could Not Silence: Elizabeth Packard’s incredible fight for freedom, and the men who tried to make her disappear

Author: Kate Moore

Published: 28th September 2021, Scribe Publications

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Scribe Publications

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My Thoughts:

 

“I, though a woman, have just as good a right to my opinion, as my husband has to his.”

The Woman They Could Not Silence is the remarkable and inspiring story of Elizabeth Packard’s fight to be recognised as more than her husband’s property, and against the laws that allowed it, by Kate Moore.

In June of 1860, Elizabeth Packard, a wife of 21 years, and a mother of 6, was forcibly committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois by her husband, Theophilus Packard, a Presbyterian preacher. In recent months 43 year old Elizabeth had begun to object to being silenced by her husband whenever she dared to venture a thought or opinion of her own, behaviour “so different from her former conduct,” that Theophilus claimed she was suffering an “attack of derangement….the result of a diseased brain.” Furious with “his newly outspoken wife, with her independent mind and her independent spirit”, he made plans, as was his right by law, “to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement”, arranging for Elizabeth to be committed to an asylum for the insane. No doubt Theophilus expected Elizabeth would quickly repent and return home throughly chastened and made docile, but instead her incarceration became the catalyst for a life long campaign for the rights of women, and the mentally ill.

“It shall be one of the highest aspirations of my earth-life, to expose these evils for the purpose of remedying them,” she announced. “It shall be said of me, ‘She hath done what she could.’”

Drawing upon varied resources, including Elizabeth’s journals written on, “tissue paper, brown paper, and even scraps of cotton cloth”, during her time at the asylum, correspondence, reports, court documents, and news articles, Moore details Elizabeth’s revolutionary challenge of a society permitted to declare women insane upon the whims of their husbands or fathers. She provides insight into the operations of asylums in the late nineteenth century, the understanding of and treatment (or more accurately the lack of) for mental health conditions, and how Elizabeth not only survived but thrived in an environment designed to break her.

“It is hereby ordered that Mrs. Elizabeth P. W. Packard be relieved of all restraint incompatible with her condition as a sane woman.”

By the time of her death in 1897 Elizabeth could claim responsibility for the passage of at least thirty-four bills in forty-four legislatures across twenty-four states resulting in law reform, and widespread, long-lasting change, related to the operation of Insane Asylums, including granting married women the right of jury trial before being commitment. Her legacy should not be underestimated nor forgotten, especially as the battle is still far from won given outspoken women are still labeled ‘crazy’ in an effort to silence them.

Meticulously researched with a readable narrative, The Woman They Could Not Silence is a fascinating expose of history and powerful biography of a courageous, noteworthy woman.

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Available from Scribe Publications

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Review: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Title: The Last Graduate {Scholomance #2}

Author: Naomi Novik

Published: 28th September 2021, Del Rey Books

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Penguin /Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

A cross between Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, The Last Graduate is an imaginative, exciting and darkly funny fantasy, full of magic and monsters.

The Last Graduate picks up where A Deadly Education left off with Galadriel ‘El’ Higgins now a senior. In just a few months she and her fellow classmates will leave Scholomance, a sentient school built in the void to educate the children of the magical community, forever – assuming they survive the traditional attrition of graduation day.

I was delighted to rejoin El, her allies, and enemies, at Scholomance, where navigating every activity, from bathroom visits to classroom assignments, is a matter of life and death. As a member of the graduating class, El’s focus should be on passing finals, building manna, and shoring up her alliances in preparation for graduation, but Scholomance seems determined to make her life difficult, throwing mals (monsters), and hapless freshmen, in her path. It’s some time before El recognises the school’s motive for what it is – not a curse, but a plea.

While there is plenty of action as the students prepare for the graduation day gauntlet, the lulls allow for character development. El, once friendless, now has a strong pact with Liu and Aadhya, and the support of the New York enclave, thanks in part to her somewhat complicated relationship with Orion Lake, but is still reluctant to trust others, or her self. I really like El, but I was glad to see some character growth. She remains a pessimist with a quick temper and a sarcastic wit, but also proves resourceful, determined, loyal, and a little less guarded.

I felt there was more emphasis on the themes of privilege, inequality and competition vs cooperation in this novel. The latter is of particular importance as the events in The Last Graduate suggest a twist to the prophecy that warns El, with her prodigious magical strength, will be responsible for the destruction of the enclaves.

There is no denying that the cliffhanger ending is hugely frustrating, and as it will likely be another year until the third book is released, it’s going to be a long wait, so I hope the pay off will be worth it!

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Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

 

Title: Apples Never Fall

Author : Liane Moriarty

Published: 14th September 2021, Macmillan

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

Unfolding from multiple viewpoints, Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is an engrossing, intimate domestic drama.

Sixty-nine year old Joy Delaney hasn’t been seen or heard from for a week before her four adult children, Amy, Troy, Logan and Brooke, notice. Their father, Stan, has no good explanation for her absence, or the scratches on his face, and the siblings, aware things have been tense between their parents for some time, struggle to defend him when the police suspect he has murdered her.

As the timeline moves between the present and the past, Moriarty unravels the complex dynamics of the Delaney’s, it’s disruption by a mysterious interloper, and the puzzle of Joy’s absence.

Though the intrigue regarding Joy’s disappearance is central to the story, Apples Never Fall is a very much a character driven novel. I always appreciate how authentic and grounded Moriarty’s characters are, each with distinct and nuanced personalities. I found Joy’s frustrations, worries and hopes to be relatable, while Stan is more of a traditional patriarch. Their children, despite a rather extraordinary childhood, are fairly ordinary adults, with an interesting mix of strengths and flaws, accomplishments and regrets.

As with most family’s, the Delaney’s relationships are a mix of love and rivalry, secrets and lies, resentments and guilt. I really liked the way in which Moriarty shows how each member has differing perspectives on the same incidents, and how that plays into how they define themselves, and each other. It’s with keen insight that Moriarty also explores a wide range of issues from empty-nest syndrome and domestic violence, to the pressures of elite sport, and the weight of family expectations.

This is not a fast paced story, but there are plenty of surprises in Apples Never Fall. I’ve read more than a few complaints about the ending(s) of the novel (especially with its reference to the pandemic) but I thought there was a subtle and clever implication in it.

Offering compelling characters, authentic emotion, and sharp wit, I found Apples Never Fall to be an entertaining, incisive and absorbing novel.

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Available from Macmillan Australia

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Review: The Whale in the Living Room by John Ruthven

 

Title: The Whale in the Living Room

Author: John Ruthven

Published: 14th September 2021, Robinson

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“The ocean is by far the largest liveable space on Earth, and hugely exceeds our conception of life’s abundance. It’s average depth is about 3.5km, or 2 miles, and, as is often mentioned, the ocean covers nearly three-quarters of the world.”

It’s unlikely that you’d recognise the author of Whale in the Living Room by name, but you, and millions of others, have likely seen his work. A television producer, John Ruthven is in part responsible for the extraordinary footage seen in almost fifty ocean  life documentaries, including the groundbreaking series’, Blue Planet and Blue Planet II narrated by David Attenborough.

The Whale in the Living Room provides the reader with a behind-the-scenes look at how documentaries like the Blue Planet series is filmed. Ruthven shares his journey’s all over the world to gather footage for what may only be a minute long sequence of television. It takes a huge amount of hard work, risk, money, luck and patience to bring ‘whales into our living rooms’, exposing the amazing variety of life to be found in the ocean, from the enormous to the microscopic, the sublime to the ridiculous, we would otherwise likely never see.

I found Ruthven’s stories to be fascinating, related in a personable tone with flashes of humour. He provides insights not only into the complex logistics of a shoot, but also the subjects themselves, from cuttlefish to blue whales. The only producer to have worked on both Blue Planet I & II, he also touches on the changes he, and others, have witnessed, due to issues such as global warming and plastic pollution.

As I’ve been reading The Whale in the Living Room I’ve been re-watching the Blue Planet documentaries with new appreciation. Available on a multitude of streaming services, if you haven’t watched these, you really should. The images are particularly stunning on a large screen, with the room darkened (though I find Attenborough’s voice can have a somewhat soporific effect). The author also has a YouTube channel (search for Indoona) where you can view some short clips he has captured.

A well-written, informative book, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in marine life and ecology, travel, environmental issues, ocean diving, wildlife photography/videography, or television production. The Whale in the Living Room is fascinating, compelling reading.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan

 

Title: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova

Author: Ruth Hogan

Published: 21st September 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy WilliamMorrow /Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova is an engaging novel from Ruth Hogan about family, friendship and identity.

Billie is shocked when a letter from her father, passed on by the family solicitor, informs her that she was not the biological child of her late parents, but a ‘foundling’ discovered on the Brighton promenade, whom they adopted when she was just weeks old. Reeling with unanswered questions, a second letter follows from a Imelda Burova, purporting to have information for her. Though she suspects the woman, a fortune-teller with a booth on the prom, is just touting for business, Billie agrees to a meeting.

After more than forty years telling fortunes from her booth on the Brighton prom, as did her mother and grandmother before her, Madame Burova has recently retired but still keeps many of her clients secrets, amongst them is a gift for the infant she found abandoned in front of her booth. Sworn to secrecy, she can’t tell Billie who her mother is, but is willing to support her in her search for her father.

The story is told through two timelines, the early 1970’s and the present. The earlier timeline centers around Imelda and the entertainment employees of a Brighton holiday park, Larkins, where Imelda spends part of her time giving readings for guests, while the latter has Billie searching for information about her biological parents.

Unfolding at a good pace, there is a pleasing balance of drama, romance, tragedy and humour in the story, along with just enough tension to encourage interest. While the mystery surrounding Billie’s parentage is the main focus of the novel, Hogan also touches on issues such as racism, workplace sexual harassment, grief, and prejudice.

I liked both of the main characters well enough. Imelda is lovely, proving to be kind, thoughtful and loyal in both timelines. Billie’s upset at discovering her adoption so late in life is understandable, as is her desire to know more. I’m not sure where her affection for bowler hats comes from though. The larger cast of the novel is quite varied, with a handful having role in both timelines. Dog lovers will also appreciate Imelda’s relationship with her loyal and much loved canines.

I found The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova to be a pleasant, entertaining read with an uplifting ending.

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Available from HarperCollins US

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Review: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer by Ilsa Evans

 

Title: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer

Author: Ilsa Evans

Published: 1st September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a heartfelt, thoughtful and witty novel from Ilsa Evans.

Shirley Conifer has given her youngest son Daniel the benefit of the doubt as he struggles with single parenthood, but on discovering deep bruises on her four year granddaughter’s body she makes the snap decision not to return Avery to her father until he commits to making some changes. Worried that she won’t have the fortitude to follow through, Shirley seeks the support of Beth Patterson, Avery’s maternal grandmother, knowing that even though they agree on little, Beth will be similarly motivated to protect Avery.

Beth thinks Shirley should call the police, but with Avery’s mother, Cleo, serving a three month sentence in prison as a result of the couple’s tumultuous marriage, neither want to run the risk of Avery being placed in foster care.  Shirley is confident Daniel will do the right thing but to prove they are serious, the women, with Avery, Shirley’s 89 year old mother, Winnie, and Beth’s beloved schnauzer, Harthacnut, in tow, decide to leave the city for the week.

Daniel is furious when he learns of his mother’s actions, and refusing to accept any blame for the situation, demands Avery be returned or he will report them for child abduction. Determined to protect Avery no matter the cost to themselves, Shirley and Beth reconsider their plan, and go on the run, intending to stay ahead of Daniel, and the police, until Cleo is released from jail.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer, is a complex family drama that primarily explores issues around parenting, mother guilt, domestic violence, relationships, family dynamics, and ageing. Evan’s writing is sensitive and thoughtful, but there is plenty of humour too.

Though the police are confident the women will be found quickly, Beth, Shirley and Winnie prove to be craftier than anyone expects. While Beth lays careful plans to keep them all off the grid, Winnie reveals a surprisingly useful grasp of tech and social media, and Shirley ensures Avery is entertained. I enjoyed the dynamics at play, it’s not easy for the three very different women to spend 24/7 confined in the same space however, and the mood is often tense between them given Beth’s judgemental attitude, Shirley’s love of wine, and Winnie’s bluntness, but they also have the opportunity to learn from each other as they progress from reluctant allies to friends.

While the Grandmothers keep a low profile, Shirley’s very pregnant daughter tries to manage the situation at home, and Cleo is forced to face her mistakes. We’re also given some insight into the lives of the two female police investigators on the case, and a behind scenes look at a tv panel show following the abduction story. While personally I didn’t think the latter two perspectives added much value to the story, they do work within the themes of the novel.

As a fan of Ilsa Evan’s Nell Forrest Mystery series, I was especially delighted that the women ultimately took refuge in Majic, and that a character I had the fortune to win naming rights to in Forbidden Fruit (Grace June Rae) made a cameo appearance!

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a thought-provoking, emotive and entertaining novel offering a wonderful mix of drama, adventure and comedy.

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Available from Harlequin Australia

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