Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Title: First Frost { Waverley Family #2}

Author: Sarah Addison Allen

Published: St Martins Press  January 2015

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from January 19 to 20, 2015 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I adored Garden Spells and was delighted to renew my acquaintance with the Waverley family in First Frost.

As the first frost approaches, the Waverly women are growing increasingly restless. Claire, who is running a successful candy business, is starting to doubt herself, Sydney is yearning for a baby as her hair gets redder every day, her daughter, fifteen year old Bay, is struggling with unrequited love, and all the while a silver haired stranger is lurking about town.

The plot is a little predictable yet it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed the hint of mystery, the family drama and the light touch of romance. And of course the story is enhanced by the magical whimsy of the Waverley gifts. Claire’s candy evokes happiness and contentment, Sydney’s haircuts give people luck, and Bay simply knows where things, and people, belong.

Written with warmth and heart, First Frost is an enchanting story of family, forgiveness, acceptance and love. It can be read as a stand alone but I recommend reading Garden Spells first.

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Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Title: The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

Published: Transworld Jan 2015

Read and Extract

Status: Read from January 15 to 17, 2015 — I own a copy   {courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A tense and twisty thriller, The Girl on the Train is garnering plenty of well deserved attention for debut author, Paula Hawkins.

After a slightly bewildering start I was gripped by this chilling, tangled tale of love, hate and betrayal. Revealing much more than the back cover hints at risks spoilers that will ruin the surprises in store for the reader. I think it’s important to unravel the secrets and lies as the author intended and to allow yourself to become caught up in the twists and turns of the plot.

Astute readers may solve the mystery before the final pages but its unraveling is compelling. The conclusion may be a little neat but should also satisfy.

Clever and disturbing in equal measure The Girl on the Train is an engrossing read, don’t be fooled by the brevity of this review – I just don’t want to spoil anything for you!

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Review: Behind the Gates of Gomorrah by Stephen Seager

 

Title: Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: Life inside of one of America’s largest hospitals for the criminally insane.

Author: Stephen Seager

Published: Allen & Unwin January 2015

Status: Read from January 07 to 08, 2015 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah is a fascinating insider’s view of life inside the Napa State Psychiatric Hospital in California by physician/psychiatrist, Dr Stephen Seager.

Napa State is a low to moderate security facility, housing around 1300 men and women committed to the hospital by both civil and forensic (court mandated) referral. The patients suffer from a range of serious mental health problems including mood, personality and anxiety disorders, a proportion of whom have been declared criminally insane.

Dr Seager spent a year working in ‘Unit C’ amongst some of the state’s most frightening men convicted of serious crimes including multiple murders and violent rapes of both women and children. This is the eye opening account of his time at the facility, the people he met and the lessons he learned.

“You can’t be a hospital and a prison at he same time.”

Treated like hospital patients instead of prison inmates, these violent criminals have frightening freedoms. The ‘Patients Right’s Charter’ means they cannot be compelled to take medication to treat their illness, they are free to roam the ward, and there are no guards on the unit despite the fact that serious assaults between patients occur on a regular basis. On his first day Seager witnessed a patient almost beat another man to death with a chair and received 10 stitches to his head when he tried to intervene. The offender, a high functioning sociopath with a tattoo reading HELL across his forehead, was never charged with either assault.

“I realized that the sickness of Gomorrah was violence but the symptom was denial.”

I have nothing but admiration for the staff who work in Unit C. Despite the high level of stress and very real risks to their safety – staff have been brutally injured, and even killed by patients- Seager portrays them as being committed to the care and well being of their charges. I share Seager’s contempt for the administration and bureaucracy that fails to protect them, I don’t understand how they can ignore the realities of dealing with violent offenders, essentially fostering an environment of “…overwhelming impotence”.

“And then nothing. Nothing ever changes.”

Seager wrote Behind the Gates of Gomorrah not only to expose the flaws of the facility, and the other 200 like it, but also as a plea for something to be done. His suggestions for dealing with forensic patients are sensible and practical – implementing mandated treatment, creating a housing environment that maintains safety and order, providing a law enforcement security presence on every ward/unit and encouraging staff to assert their right to safe working conditions. Something has to change.

Written with compassion, humour and purpose, Behind the Gates of Gomorrah is a compelling read of mental illness, monsters and madness.

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Review: The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

 

Title: The Zig Zag Girl

Author: Elly Griffiths

Published: Quercus November 2014

Status: Read from December 13 to 14, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Elly Griffiths popular Ruth Galloway series has been on my to-read list for sometime but I’ve been loathe to start a new series given my current reading commitments. I pounced then on the opportunity to read her first stand alone, The Zig Zag Girl.

When the head and legs of a young woman are discovered in two black cases at Brighton train station, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens doesn’t have to wait long to discover the whereabouts of her torso when a third box is delivered to him at work. Curiously the box is addressed using his military rank, Captain, and the state of the woman’s body reminds Edgar of a magician’s trick, known as the Zig Zag Girl, performed by an old army buddy, Max Mephisto. Assuming the coincidence is unlikely, especially when the girl is identified as Max’s pre-war stage assistant, Edgar tracks down Max, a popular theater magician and then the rest of the men he served with, a group known as the ‘Magic Men’ – recruited for a top secret special assignment during World War II. After another death, another gruesome magic trick gone awry, Edgar realises that the Magic Men are being targeted and he must race to unmask the killer before they perform their final deadly trick.

The Zig Zag Girl is set largely in Brighton, England during the 1950’s and Griffiths skilfully evokes the post war era and the shabbiness of the neglected seaside town. Griffiths is said to have drawn on her own family history – her grandfather was a music hall comedian and her mother grew up ‘backstage’ – to authentically recreate the variety theater scene of the time.

Edgar is a likeable character, a little reserved and weary but thoughtful and steadfast. Max is more flamboyant, befitting a magician, and the two make a good team. The world of the theater allows Griffiths to introduce some additional colourful characters, and the ‘Magic Men’ are a quirky lot too.

The mystery is well thought out, using several red herrings to distract the reader from identifying the murderer too quickly. A little humour and a touch of romance lighten the more gruesome criminal elements of the story, and the background of the Magic Men provides added interest.

A clever, entertaining mystery, I really enjoyed The Zig Zag Girl, I think I need to make room in my schedule for The Crossing Places sooner, rather than later.

 

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Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Title: Still Alice

Author: Lisa Genova

Published: Simon & Schuster AU: December 2014 (Reprint)

Read an extract

Status: Read from November 27 to 29, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A poignant and moving novel, Still Alice is the story of a Alice Howland, a fifty year old wife, mother and renowned linguistics professor at Harvard University. She is gratified by her professional success, content in her marriage and while she has some doubts about the ambitions of her youngest daughter, Alice is proud of her three children. When Alice begins to experience memory lapses she feels they are readily explained by the combined effects of her busy, often stressful, lifestyle and the approach of menopause, until one morning when she becomes disorientated during her daily run. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s professional and personal life begins to unravel as her mind deteriorates.

What ensures that Still Alice is so affecting is that it is told from Alice’s perspective. As the story unfolds, Alice desperately tries to hold on to her sense of self. Her occasional memory lapses slowly become more frequent, at times Alice is heartbreakingly aware of her deterioration, at others she is blissfully ignorant. The shifts between lucidity and disorientation are skilfully written illustrating the terrible toll the disease takes.

“I often fear tomorrow. What if I wake up and don’t know who my husband is? What if I don’t know where I am or recognize myself in the mirror? When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘meness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is.”

I have never given much thought to the idea that I could be risk at developing Alzheimer’s. My grandfather was in the disease’s early stages when he passed. In the moments when his mind slipped away he forgot that his wife of 63 years, my grandmother, had died two years earlier and it was heartbreaking to witness his fresh grief each time we had to remind him. As far as I know there was never any genetic testing done while he was alive but the possibilities are terrifying.

Still Alice was originally self published by Lisa Genova, a Harvard trained Neuroscientist, and Meisner-trained actress. It was eventually bought at auction by Simon & Schuster US and has since won numerous awards, been translated into more than 25 languages and has been adapted for film, due for release in January 2015 (starring Julianne Moore, Kirsten Stewart, Alec Baldwin and Kate Bosworth).

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****

 

 

Review: Believe No One by A.D. Garrett

Title: Believe No One { DCI Kate Simms and Professor Nick Fennimore #2}

Author: A.D. Garrett

Published: Corsair: Constable & Robinson UK November 2014

Status: Read from November 23 to 24, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Authored by A.D. Garrett, the collaborative pseudonym of award winning author Margaret Murphy and renowned forensics expert Professor Dave Barclay, Believe No One is the second gripping crime fiction installment to feature DCI Kate Simms and Professor Nick Fennimore.

UK Detective Chief Inspector Kate Simms is on a six month ‘method’ exchange with the St Louis PD when her cold case team uncovers evidence of a serial killer dumping bodies along a 600 mile stretch of the I-44. For Professor Nick Fennimore, touring the Midwest promoting his latest book, it is a convenient coincidence that a case he has been invited to consult on in Oklahoma, concerning a murdered woman and her missing child, links with Kate’s investigation.
As the ad hoc task force involving Simms and the St Louis PD, Fennimore and the Williams County Sheriff’s Office, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and an FBI Behavioural Analyst get closer to identifying the killer, they discover a link to a crime that happened more than two decades before, and a world away. Fennimore is stunned by the possibilities given his own tragic loss, and with another body of a young mother and her child missing, he isn’t about to let this killer get away.

Part police procedural, part thriller, the third person narrative exposes the perspectives of the investigators, the killer and a young boy running scared.

I really enjoyed seeing the case come together through the hard work and persistence of the officers despite political maneuvering from a boorish local sheriff and the occasional inter-agency skirmish. I felt Kate got a little lost within the cast though I did like her colleagues, particularly the gruff Ellis. Abigail Hicks was an interesting character as well, and I was surprised to learn that deputy sheriffs receive so little training or support for their role.

The killer is suitably creepy with an interesting pathology and surprising motive. Some of the scenes involving the torture of his victims are disturbing, but thankfully are mostly light on details.

‘Red’ is the nine year old son of one of the victims who escapes the killer but is too afraid to go to the police. I felt both sad and afraid for him and I’m still not sure how I feel about the unusual situation he winds up in.

The personal lives of the feature protagonists, Kate and Nick, matter within the context of the story too, though it is Fennimore’s history that is more relevant. Five years ago Nick’s wife and daughter were abducted and while his wife’s body was recovered in a marsh, his daughter has never been found. Fennimore is convinced she is still alive and the similarities between this case and his own tragedy has him on edge. Meanwhile Simms accepted the exchange in part to escape Nick and their complicated dynamic so she isn’t thrilled when he involves himself in the investigation.

With a complex plot and interesting, well developed characters, Believe No One is an entertaining and exciting novel. Though it conceivably works as a stand alone I would recommend reading Everyone Lies first.

 Available to Purchase from

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Review & Giveaway: Wife on the Run by Fiona Higgins

Title: Wife on the Run

Author: Fiona Higgins

Published: Allen & Unwin November 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from November 10 to 12, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

In Fiona Higgins’ Wife on the Run, Paula McInnes has been married to her husband Hamish for 17 years and is the mother of two teenage children, fourteen year old Caitlin and thirteen year old, Lachie. The family lives an ordinary, comfortable life in the Australian suburbs which is irrevocably changed when first Caitlin is the victim of a Facebook ‘sex’ scandal, and then, when Hamish is injured in an accident, Paula discovers what her husband has really been doing during his late nights ‘working’ from home.
Shocked and angry, Paula makes a snap decision to pull her children out of school and, along with her father Sid, embark on a three month caravanning tour around Australia, leaving Hamish behind. Freed from their structured routine, and with a ban on technology enforced, the family quickly embrace the pleasures of the journey – beautiful scenery, friendly locals, ‘drinkypoo’s’ at sunset and for the teens, a growing sense of independence thanks to Grandpa Sid’s ‘life lessons’.
With her guard down, Paula is surprised to find herself susceptible to the charms of a charismatic Brazilian they meet on the road. Meanwhile, after a ten day bender, Hamish decides his life is empty without his wife and children in it, and sets out to catch up with them, but ends up making a detour or two along the way. Both Paula and Hamish are on the run, but neither of them are exactly sure if it is from or to one another.

Told from the dual perspectives of Paula and Hamish, Wife on the Run unfolds at a quick, entertaining pace. Part social commentary, part ‘road trip’ farce, Higgins tempers the serious themes of the novel – the perils of social media, marital breakdown, aging and self discovery – with some slightly absurd plot twists including an ever obliging tour bus operator, an illicit rendezvous, a Brazilian (of both types), and a lucky bet on the Melbourne Cup.

Strong but flawed characters, and the complicated dynamics between them, should resonate in one way or another with most readers. There is no denying that Paula is a bit of a control freak but she is largely a sympathetic character despite the mistakes she makes. Hamish is often a boorish sleaze but not entirely irredeemable, Sid is a treasure, and the children are fairly typical teens. The supporting cast is rich and varied, including ‘Doggo’, Marcelo, ‘Farken’ Frank, and Lisel17, all whom offer surprises you probably won’t see coming.

Natural, if often earthy, language and dialogue is spiked with ‘Australian-isms’ and more than one surprisingly explicit sexual scene. There is plenty of humour, both overt and sly, but also astute and serious observations. The landscape, as the characters travel through South Australia, Western Australia and up to the Northern Territory, is familiar with a hint of the exotic.

Provocative, sharply insightful and wildly entertaining, Wife On the Run is not what you may expect from the synopsis but it is an engaging journey through love, heartbreak and self discovery.

 

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*****

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Review: Outback Ghost by Rachael Johns

 

Title: Outback Ghost {Bunyip Bay #3}

Author: Rachael Johns

Published: Harlequin Au October 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from October 03 to 04, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Outback Ghost is the third book in Rachael Johns’ loosely linked Bunyip Bay series, following on from Outback Dreams and Outback Blaze.

Readers familiar with the previous books will recall being introduced to Adam Burton, a former underwear model and third generation farmer, and the whispers about the unresolved disappearance of his seven year old sister when Adam was ten years old. Twenty years later, Adam’s mother is still mired in her grief, and his father suddenly announces he has had enough, leaving Adam to take care of their sheep and wheat property, and to welcome their new farm-stay guests.
Stella Reynolds, a waitress, author and single mother is looking forward to spending two months on the Burton farm with her seven year old daughter, eager for Heidi to experience the joys of country living that characterised her own idyllic childhood, before the estrangement with her parents caused by her teenage pregnancy. Within hours of their arrival, Heidi has charmed their landlords, the gorgeous Adam, and his wan mother, adopted a pregnant cat, and even made a new imaginary friend, whom she calls Lily-Blue. Stella should be delighted that her daughter has settled in so well but instead she feels slightly apprehensive about the weeks ahead. At first she attributes her anxiety to her undeniable attraction to Adam, Stella hasn’t had so much as a date since Heidi was born, but she is also spooked by the unexplained noises she sometimes hears in the cottage and her discovery that her daughter’s imaginary friend shares the same name as Adam’s missing sister.

While at its core Outback ghost is a contemporary rural romance featuring the development of the relationship between Adam and Stella, the plot includes an interesting element of mystery and a hint of the supernatural. It is a heartwarming story about love, family and belonging but with a bittersweet twist when it reveals the fate of Lily-Blue.

It’s a delight to revisit the community of Bunyip Bay, and glimpse familiar characters from previous stories. Johns protagonists are always well developed and I enjoyed getting to know Adam and Stella. Adam doesn’t flinch from the responsibility of the farm, and caring for his mother. He carries around a fair bit of guilt over his sister’s disappearance, and for the aftermath, yet he hasn’t let it consume him entirely. Stella is a likeable, capable and admirable heroine who deals with challenging circumstances with determination and grace. She is a little guarded, understandably so, so I really liked watching her open up to Adam and form tentative friendships with Frankie and Ruby. Heidi is a definite scene stealer, affectionate, sweet natured and lively, she is an adorable character. Few authors manage to portray child characters realistically but I think Johns does so perfectly here.

Outback Ghost is my favourite novel of the Bunyip Bay series, and was supposed to be last, however I believe Johns has decided to revisit the town eventually and give Frankie an opportunity to find love… I can’t wait.

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Review: Rachael’s Gift by Alexandra Cameron

 

Title: Rachael’s Gift

Author: Alexandra Cameron

Published: Picador:Pan Macmillan September 2014

Read an Extract

Status: Read from September 20 to 22, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

An intriguing story about love, ambition, manipulation and betrayal, Rachael’s Gift pits husband against wife as they disagree about what they think is best for their child.

Rachael’s Gift unfolds from the alternating perspectives of husband and wife, Camille, a high-strung art historian who investigates the provenance of artwork, and once dreamed of being a famous painter, and Wolfe, an easygoing Aussie bloke who surfs every morning and shapes surfboards in his garage, who are the loving parents of Rachael. Fourteen year old Rachael, precocious and charming, is a gifted artist and Camille is determined to protect the future she has envisioned for her daughter at any cost. Wolfe is proud of Rachael’s talent but is increasingly concerned about his daughter’s gift for lying, especially when she accuses a teacher at her prestigious private school of sexual misconduct.

“She shook her head in disbelief, ‘You’re going to ruin her. Don’t you realise? I can’t let you do it.’ Her chest heaved and then some kind of realisation dawned in her face. ‘Oh my god, you don’t love her. You wouldn’t do this if you did.’
I felt as if my veins were bursting, ‘Of course I love her,’ I shouted, ‘It’s because I love her!’
‘This is not love.’
I stabbed my finger in her face, ‘You love her too much.'”

Unwilling to compromise, Camille flees with Rachael from their Sydney home to Paris, ostensibly to attend a family memorial service for her recently deceased mother, and to further investigate the provenance of a painting at the center of a dispute, but also with the hope she can wrangle Rachael an interview at the prestigious Beaux-Arts Institute. In Paris, Camille is faced with truths she would rather ignore and lies she has forgot she has told, but her focus is Rachael and she must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the chance of her daughter’s success.

Meanwhile Wolfe, who arrives home to find his wife and daughter have fled without a word of warning, is left to cope with the fall out as word leaks of Rachael’s allegations. Wolfe is reluctant to believe his daughter would go so far as to ruin a man’s life with spurious allegations, but he can no longer ignore the evidence that suggests it is not only his daughter is a liar, but his wife too.

The protagonist’s of Rachael’s Gift are skillfully drawn and developed. Rachael is not unlike a modern day Lolita, whose age belies her innocence. Cameron portrays Camille’s and Wolfe’s emotional upheaval with authenticity. I sided with Wolfe in his arguments with Camille but as a mother I also understood her instinct to support her daughter.

Cameron also raises some of the modern concerns of parenting such as cyber-bullying, sexual predation and the narcissism of youth, and questions the choices parent have in an era where they are expected to protect their children from the consequences of their own behaviour and to support their ambitions without censure.

The pacing is perfect. There is increasing tension as the situation in Sydney spirals out of control and as the relationship between Camille and Rachael begins to fracture in Paris. The conclusion is startling in its honesty.

Part domestic drama, part psychological suspense this is a compelling read and an impressive novel from debut Australian author, Alexandra Cameron.

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Review: Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

 

Title: Zac and Mia

Author: A.J. Betts

Published: HMH Books for Young Readers September 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from September 11 to 13, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A.J. Betts won the Text Prize for YA and Children’s Writing in 2012 for her unpublished manuscript of Zac and Mia. Set in Western Australia, it is the story of two teenagers who meet while receiving treatment for cancer.

Seventeen year old Zac Meier is partway through an enforced period of isolation after a bone marrow transplant to treat his second re-occurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. Stuck in the adult oncology ward, with only his mother and the nurses asking about his bowel movements for company, when a blast of Lady Gaga penetrates the thin adjoining wall of his hospital room, Zac is intrigued by his new neighbour, Mia.
Before her diagnosis of osteosarcoma Mia gave little thought to the future but she could never have imagined she would face it as a ‘one legged freak’. Furious with everyone and everything, including herself, and desperate to deny the reality of her situation, Mia tries to run as far away as she can from her old life.

The narrative is shared between the perspectives of Zac and Mia. Betts characterisation is credible and I felt her portrayal of her protagonist’s emotions and behaviours was realistic.

Zac is an easy character to like, he is sweet, thoughtful and deals with the indignities cancer treatment forces upon him graciously. His family is supportive, with his mother rarely leaving his bedside. He has a sense of humour about his situation, and remains hopeful even despite his bleak odds of long term survival.

“I don’t moan about treatment because what’s the point? The way I figure it, this is just a blip. The average life span for an Australian male is currently seventy nine years or 948 months. This hospital stay, plus the rounds of chemo and the follow up visits, add up to about nine months. That’s only 1.05 percent of my life spent with needles and chemicals, which, put into perspective, is less that one of the tiles of the eighty-four on the ceiling. So, in the scheme of things, it’s nothing.”

Mia is a seemingly less sympathetic character, she is bitter, angry and absorbed by her own misery after her diagnosis, however I never held that against her. In truth, Mia is simply terrified and, completely overwhelmed, lashes out indiscriminately.

“Lucky?
While my friends were dancing at Summadayze, I was kept in observation with intravenous morphine. I pitched in and out of the world, visited by shrinks who attempted to talk about change and perspective and body image and luck. Then they hooked me up to more chemo. I couldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk, didn’t watch when the wound was unbandaged or the staples taken out. I tried to trick myself beyond my fucked-up body, slipping between vivid dreams until the morphine was taken away and I was left to live like this.”

The relationship that develops between Zac and Mia is well crafted and believable. Despite their differences, the pair form a tentative friendship, starting with a few taps on the hospital wall dividing them. It isn’t until Mia unexpectedly turns up on Zac’s doorstep once he is home though that the pair really begin to get to know one another.

While there is a touch of romance, it is important to note that Zac and Mia isn’t a love story. This is a story about friendship, understanding, family and finding the strength to face life’s difficult challenges. It is poignant and sweet, though Betts doesn’t gloss over the darker realities of battling cancer.

The comparisons between Zac and Mia and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are almost inevitable given the similar premise, so I think it is important to point out that author interviews have them drafting their novels at about the same time and published only months apart (Text publishing 2012) . I loved The Fault In Our Stars but of the two, I think Zac and Mia is the more genuine story.

Zac and Mia is available to purchase from

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