Review: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

Title: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Author: Joanna Nell

Published: 27th October 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia/ Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a charming novel proving you’re never too old for a fresh start from Joanna Nell.

After 89-year-old Miss (never Mrs or Ms) Hattie Bloom breaks her hip from a fall in her backyard, she is dismayed to be told she must spend four to six weeks convalescing at the Woodlands Nursing Home. A recluse, far more more comfortable with birds than people, she is desperate return to the sandstone cottage she was born in, particularly concerned for the welfare of a pair of nesting owls in a tree her new neighbours are threatening to fell. When an ill-timed escape attempt is frustrated by a traffic jam, Hattie resigns herself to the temporary encroachments on her privacy and independence, agreeing to repairs on her home that might let her leave her sooner.

Ninety-year-old Walter Clements, recovering from a car accident, is also determined to return to his suburban home sooner rather than later. To that end, the former driver instructor agrees to humour his daughter and the DON (Director of Nursing) and undertake an assessment to show he is capable of safely managing a mobility scooter. Walter is outraged when a few small mistakes, which includes running over his examiner’s foot, destroying an antique table, and knocking over newcomer, Miss Hattie Bloom, scuppers his chances.

It’s not the most auspicious start to a relationship but nevertheless a friendship slowly blossoms between Hattie and Walter, despite their oppositional temperaments. Where Hattie is reserved and aloof, Walter is loud and gregarious, they actually remind me a little of my own grandparents (and coincidentally my grandfather was also named Walter). Both are well-developed characters, depicted with authenticity and warmth. Hattie, a naturalist and author, who has spent almost her entire life alone by choice, slowly opens up as she becomes enmeshed in the fabric of Woodlands. Walter is occasionally inappropriate, a little bewildered by today’s mores, fond of a glass or three of whiskey, and an incurable optimist, though not without regrets. Though he hopes to go home, he is making the best of his time in Woodlands.

Nell draws on her experience as a GP visiting nursing homes, to provide some insight into the routines, successes and failures of institutional care. Woodlands certainly seems better than many which have made news headlines due to abuse and neglect, however it’s still an institution and as such rules and regulations often override common sense practice. This is evident when night nurse Bronwyn is fired after her aged black lab Queenie, accidentally knocks over and injures one of the residents. Bronwyn is a favourite of many of the Home’s residents, not the least because of her unofficial night time ‘club’, the Night Owls, that provides and encourages activities for the sleepless.

Hattie and Walter’s antics are delightful, though not without a hint of poignancy. They bond over their plan to have Bronwyn reinstated, assisted by Murray, another resident who has become a close friend of Walter (men are severely outnumbered in Woodlands) but is bedridden. Nell doesn’t shy away from portraying the difficult realities of ageing, and Murray’s approaching demise, and his desire to go home one last time, is treated sensitively.

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a witty, charming, and heartwarming novel, recommended for the old, and not so old alike.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

Title: The Night Swim

Author: Megan Goldin

Published: 4th August 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2029 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

“The trial starts next week. We’re in this together. Let’s see where the evidence takes us. I’m Rachel Krall and this is Guilty or Not Guilty, the podcast that puts you in the jury box.”

To ensure the continued success of her popular true crime podcast, journalist Rachel Krall decides to broadcast a trial from small town Neapolis in North Carolina, where the town’s ‘golden boy’, the college-aged, only son of wealthy parents, destined for Olympic swimming success, stands accused of the assault and rape of a sixteen year old girl. Rachel is on her way into town in advance of the trial when she discovers an envelope under her windshield wiper. The letter within begs Rachel to help her deliver justice for another sixteen year old girl, Jenny, who was murdered in Neapolis twenty-five years earlier.

“…I don’t get how we can almost unanimously agree that murder is wrong, but when it comes to rape some people still see shades of gray”.

Unfolding from the perspectives of Rachel, and the letter writer, Hannah, The Night Swim by Megan Goldin is a harrowing read that explores issues related to sexual assault, and its impact on individuals and within communities. Goldin’s approach is compassionate and thoughtful, but pulls few punches, so readers sensitive to the topic should be wary, though this story is certain to stir a range of emotions in anyone.

“That’s how the criminal justice system works. Guilty or not guilty. His word, against her word.”

Goldin has us join Rachel in the courtroom as she hears the specifics of the case from the prosecution and defence, listening to the testimony of the alleged crime from evidentiary and expert witnesses, the day’s discoveries then related in her recordings for her podcast. I thought the procedural details of the trial seemed authentic, as did the observations about the difficulties faced by prosecutors in such cases, and the ways in which the victim’s trauma is compounded by the process. Rachel tries to remain objective but it’s clear her sympathies lie with ‘K’, particularly as her own investigative digging uncovers more information.

“This year we mark a milestone. Twenty-five years since Jenny died. A quarter of a century and nothing has changed. Her death is as raw as it was the day we buried her. The only difference is that I won’t be silent anymore.”

From Hannah, we slowly learn the circumstances of her sister’s life, and how she eventually met her tragic death. My jaw grew sore from clenching my teeth in fury, frustration and disgust as Hannah describes how Jenny was victimised not only by her rapists, but also the townspeople. Only a young girl at the time who hadn’t understood what was happening to her sister, Hannah’s guilt is palpable, and despite her desire to focus on the trial, Rachel can’t help but respond to her desperate plea for help.

“Similar descriptions. Two rapes. Twenty-five years apart. In the same town.”

Eventually Rachel realises that there is some overlap between aspects of the current trial, and what happened to Jenny, and uncovering the truth behind one event, unravels the secrets of the other. I liked the way in which Goldin drew the separate threads of the story together and weaved them into a whole in a manner that didn’t feel forced, or expedient. I do consider the book to have more in common with the suspense genre, rather than a mystery or thriller, which matters little in the scheme of things though.

The Night Swim is a thought-provoking, poignant and gripping read, and there is a hint that we will meet Rachel again. I’ll be looking forward to it.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Hermit by S.R. White

 

Title: Hermit

Author: S.R. White

Published: 25th August 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Hermit is a gripping crime fiction debut from ex UK police officer, now Queensland resident, S.R. White.

In the early hours of the morning, Detective Dana Russo is called to the scene of a murder. A suspect is already in custody, having been found standing over the body, but other than offering his name and declining the services of a lawyer, the man, Nathan Whittler, is reluctant to talk. While her team does their due diligence investigating alternate possibilities, Dana has twelve hours to get a statement from Nathan that she hopes will close the case.

Set in rural Australia, most of the action in Hermit takes place within a police interrogation room as Dana carefully coaxes information from a reticent Nathan. It results in a series of tense and unusual exchanges between the two as a tentative rapport develops, despite their nominally adversarial relationship.

Nathan is nothing like Dana expects as he confesses he has not spoken to another person in fifteen years. He has, the police learn, lived alone and off the grid in the surrounding bushland since walking away from his family and job in 1994. Sensitive to the possibility of past trauma, and Nathan’s obvious emotional fragility, Dana must tread lightly as she probes for information that will explain his disappearance, and what role he may have in the murder.

The give and take of the interview is finely crafted by White, and we learn as much about Dana as we do Nathan. When the novel opens, Dana is contemplating suicide, privately reminiscing on the anniversary of a past trauma, and as the interrogation progresses some of the details of that experience are revealed. At times Dana struggles to maintain professional distance, grappling with the reminders of her own tragic childhood, torn between her empathy for Nathan, and her role as his interrogator.

Dana’s colleagues provide some relief from the intensity of the scenes between her and Nathan. I enjoyed the banter with her unit, particularly Administration assistant Lucy and fellow detective Mike, who both obviously like and respect Dana, as does her boss, Bill. As Dana moves in and out of the interview room, they are kept busy investigating both Nathan’s past, as well as the life of the dead man – running down the possibility of his wife’s involvement in the murder, and a suspected connection to organised crime.

With its riveting narrative, and intriguing characters, I found Hermit to be an engrossing read. There are a few minor threads of the story that White leaves unresolved, which is mildly irritating, though I assume, and hope, the author has plans for a sequel.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Public Enemies by Mark Dapin

 

Title: Public Enemies: Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, Ray Denning and the Golden Age of Armed Robbery

Author: Mark Dapin

Published: August 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Public Enemies is a fascinating and unexpectedly entertaining true crime book featuring infamous Australian bank robbers, Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox and Ray Denning, from Mark Dapin.

Pieced together from various sources including personal records, news reports, legal documents and interviews, Dapin attempts to sort fact from fiction to present a comprehensive and realistic portrait of Denning and Cox, and the path that led to them being deemed Australian Public Enemies, Number One and Two in the 1980’s. He explores their difficult childhoods marked by poverty and abandonment, teenage years spent in and out of appallingly abusive reformatory schools, and their criminal behaviour, resulting in various terms of imprisonment (and repeated escapes), throughout adulthood.

For a time, Denning, Cox and other bank robbers like them, were considered ‘legends’, anti-heroes whose crimes and activities attracted newspaper headlines (to which author Michael Robotham, who was at the time a cadet journalist attests), female fans of all ages, and grudging admiration for their daring and cunning.

Of the two men, Denning was clearly the more colourful character. A walking contradiction, he was a hard, violent man, but also charming, with a great sense of humour. For years he espoused anti-authoritarian views, and used his notoriety while on the run to campaign against the regular bashing of prisoners meted out by prison guards, and the the practice of ‘verballing’, (the creation of unsubstantiated, fabricated statements), used by the police to secure convictions. Then suddenly in the late 1980’s, Denning became an unrepentant ‘supergrass’, informing on, and testifying against, many of his associates. Not that the police nor government were grateful, reneging on an agreement to provide him with witness protection services. He died a few weeks after his release from jail in 1993, officially from a self-administered heroin overdose, though that verdict is in doubt.

Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, whose real name was not Russell or Cox, nor Mad Dog (a nickname he despised) was both harder and more violent than Denning, suspected of being involved in at least three murders, but was also considered to be intelligent and even ‘professional’, arguably one of the more successful bank/payroll robbers of the era. Like Denning however, Cox had a knack for escaping jail, and once, incredulously, trying to break in.

Denning and Cox worked together only sporadically, but moved within the same criminal circles which stretched from Victoria to Queensland. Dapin exhaustively explores their milieu, introducing their associates, common enemies (like Roger Rogerson), and occasionally even their victims. Though it can be challenging to keep track of so many people and details, the additional context is compelling.

Public Enemies is provocative, gripping and entertaining, written in a personable tone, rife with Australian colloquialisms, I found myself utterly absorbed in the life and times of Ray Denning and Russell Cox.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Bush School by Peter O’Brien

 

Title: Bush School

Author: Peter O’Brien

Published: August 4th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

In his engaging memoir, Bush School, Peter O’Brien recalls his two years as the teacher of a one-room school in Weabonga, a tiny farming village two days’ travel by train and mail cart from Armidale.

In 1960, aged just twenty years old with barely more than year of teaching experience, Peter was asked to fulfil his rural teaching service requirement and encouraged by the Education Department Inspector, after a false start in Guy Fawkes, to select one of NSW’s remote regions on the western lip of the Great Divide. After an uncomfortable journey, and a worrying introduction to his lodgings, Peter found himself welcoming eighteen students, ranging in age from five years to fifteen, to Weabonga School.

I could not imagine, as a new graduate with limited teaching experience, being placed in sole charge of a schoolhouse, far from everything familiar, with children of varying grades (an experience my mother shared in early 1970’s, but thankfully I escaped in early 1990’s). Peter’s experience may not be unique, but it’s seldom shared and a pi

The first-person narrative is an easy and accessible read, and though I did find the tone slightly formal, there is also a genuine sense of warmth. Peter writes of the challenges and triumphs of his new environment. Professionally he has concerns about his limited experience, his inability to consult with colleagues or a mentor, and the lack of available educational resources, but luckily his pupils prove enthusiastic, and his instinct for a child centered, or ‘open learning’, approach to teaching, serves him well. Personally Peter’s living situation, a spare, paper lined single bedroom in the home of a student where he took his meagre meals alone exacerbated his homesickness, and he was on the verge of giving notice until he received an alternate offer of accomodation. The separation from his sweetheart, who later become his wife, also weighed on his mind.

Bush School is a winsome, interesting and entertaining memoir. As a teacher, I found Peter’s explanation of his pedagogical development interesting, particularly since his theories closely mirror my own, which is why I prefer to work in early childhood education. As someone interested in social history I appreciated his effort to contextualise his experience, and that of his students, amid wider Australian societal events and issues. As a generally curious reader I enjoyed Peter’s affectionate reminisces of unfamiliar people and places.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: When She Was Good by Michael Robotham

 

Title: When She Was Good {Cyrus Haven #2}

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: July 28th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

When She Was Good is the second intriguing thriller to feature forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven by bestselling author Michael Robotham.

When Cyrus consults on a retired detective’s suspicious death and learns of a possible connection between the murdered man’s activities and the mysterious past of a girl once known as ‘Angel Face’ and now called Evie, he ignores her plea to leave it alone, and begins an investigation of his own. Evie knows if Cyrus learns the truth of what she endured before she was found hiding in a cardboard box within the walls of a house as a half-starved twelve-year-old, neither he, nor she, will be safe from the men determined to ensure her secrets remain buried.

While Evie Cormac is introduced in Good Girl, Bad Girl, it is in When She was Good that we learn her real identity, and the horrifying secrets of her tragic past. Robotham leads us into a disturbing conspiracy among a vile subsection of society’s elite that exploits young children, one Evie was only able to escape when a driver took pity on her. His brutal murder led to Evie being found by a young special Constable, Sacha Hopewell, and eventually remanded to a secure children’s facility. Now seventeen, Evie has never trusted anyone with the truth of her experience but when Cyrus begins to investigate, he unwittingly exposes Evie to the man who held her captive and is willing to kill anyone to protect himself.

Robotham develops the tension well as Cyrus grows closer to discovering the truth. It quickly becomes clear that the ruthless leader of the paedophile ring has developed an extensive network he can manipulate to insulate himself, which even includes members of the police force. There are several action packed, heart stopping scenes as Cyrus and Evie are targeted by a contract killer.

The complex relationship dynamic, which blurs the line between the professional and personal, between Evie and Cyrus is unusual, but works well. I liked Cyrus, though given both his past and his profession, I thought him somewhat naive about the realities of facing off against a rich and powerful adversary. Evie may have limited experience with the world, but even she knows that men like her torturer are rarely held to account. Evie is cynical, brash and defensive, and I both pitied and admired her. I’d have liked to learn more about her gift for identifying lies, and think Robotham missed an opportunity there. I’ll be interested to see what role Evie plays in this series going forward, especially as there are elements of her life still unexplained.

Fast paced and absorbing, with a satisfying conclusion, When She Was Good is an entertaining thriller sure to appeal to crime fiction readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Also by Michael Robotham reviewed at Book’d Out

 

 

Review: State Highway One by Sam Coley

Title: State Highway One

Author: Sam Coley

Published: July 28th 2020, Hachette NZ

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

+++++

My Thoughts:

“They say you can never go home again, except here I am at nine in the morning, still a bit drunk, still in the suit I wore yesterday, gunning one-forty up Sate Highway One, headed north, headed for the Cape, home again and getting away.”

After three years working in Dubai, Alex Preston has returned home to New Zealand to bury his estranged parents after their death in a car accident. Reluctant to return to his childhood home in Auckland following the funeral, Alex, accompanied by his twin sister, Amy, impulsively decides to drive to Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s northernmost point. On reaching it he is reminded of a promise made to Amy to one day travel to Stewart Point together, and with only two weeks til Alex must once again leave, they recklessly decide to follow the State Highway One all the way to New Zealand’s southernmost point.

Sam Coley presents a poignant journey undertaken amid a miasma of grief, confusion and anger in his remarkable debut, State Highway One. It’s a story that explores the themes of home, family, identity, and dispossession as the close confines of the car gives rise to reminisces, recriminations and regrets.

Though the focus is on the emotional progress of the twins, as is common to many a road trip, particularly spontaneous ones, the siblings experience unexpected obstacles, unplanned detours, and breakdowns during their adventure.

Coley, it seems, knows New Zealand well. As the twins travel south, we are given glimpses of the island nation – sprawling cities and tiny towns, dense bushland and fallow farmland, rugged coast side cliffs, and raging oceans. Alex’s iPod provides a carefully curated virtual soundtrack (which you can listen to on Spotify).

With evocative writing, superb characterisation, and tender insight State Highway One is a deserved winner of the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland

Title: The Night Whistler

Author: Greg Woodland

Published: August 4th 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The Night Whistler is an impressive rural crime fiction debut from award-winning screen writer/director Greg Woodland.

Set in the summer of 1996/1967, in a small country town in the New England District of NSW, The Night Whistler begins when newcomer twelve year old Hal and his younger brother, stumble across a dog, with its skull crushed and throat slit, stuffed in a barrel near a derelict caravan. Situated near a creek Hal dubs ‘The Crack in the World’, the caravan is a source of fascination for the boy, particularly when he learns of its macabre history and the evil spirits said to dwell there from new friend Ali. But it’s not ghosts that worry Hal, it’s whoever is prowling around their yard late at night while his father is travelling for work, and making anonymous phone calls to his mother, whistling ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’. A mystery Hal, who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, is determined to solve.

Sharing the narrative with Hal is Constable Michael Goodenough (pronounced good-no), a disgraced Sydney homicide detective demoted and exiled to Moorabool, he is the only officer concerned by the violent death of several pets, and the incidents plaguing Hal’s family. His experience tells him the two may be connected but his lazy and venal colleagues seem determined to brush them off as harmless incidents.

Woodland takes his time to set the scene, his experience in film writing coming to the fore in creating a vivid sense of time and place. With broad but precise strokes he brings the town of Moorabool and its residents to life, before delving into its many secrets.

Hal and Goodenough work well as a team, the contrast between the fierce and idealistic boy, and the world weary Mick engaging. I’d like to see Goodenough again, though clearly struggling with the reason for the recent implosion of his career, an impending divorce, and separation from his daughter, he is a good man, and a good police officer, who can’t ignore his instincts.

As the violence escalates and the mysteries deepen, so too does the tension. My heart was in my mouth during the last quarter or so of the book.

Compelling and thrilling, The Night Whistler is a terrific read and I hope for more from Woodland.

 

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Poly by Paul Dalgarno

Title: Poly

Author: Paul Dalgarno

Published: September 1st 2020, Ventura Press

Status: Read August 2020, courtesy Ventura Press

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My Thoughts:

I chose to read Poly by Paul Delgarno primarily because I like to support debut Australian authors, but also because my curiously was piqued by the premise.

Chris Flood is a married father of two young children who hasn’t had sex with his wife more than a handful of times in nearly three years. Hoping to reignite her libido he’s reluctantly agreed to an ‘open’ marriage, and grits his teeth every time the love of his life trips off to make love with someone(s) who isn’t him.

I know little about the polyamorous lifestyle, but it seems exhausting. While Sarah flits from lover to lover, Chris surprises himself when he finds a younger partner willing to accept their unconventional set-up, but it’s all a little messy as they attempt to juggle dates, overnights, partying, work, and parenting. Help comes from new friend, Zac Batista, who quickly inserts himself into the household, but it eventually becomes clear that his motives aren’t as altruistic as they appear.

Chris and Sarah’s relationship is not one I’d aspire to, I am aware that such relationships generally don’t work in the long term without both partners being committed to each other, and Sarah makes several decisions that are blatantly disrespectful to their marriage. Chris is not exactly happy much of the time, secretly cyber- stalking Sarah’s lovers, worried that he isn’t meeting Biddy’s needs, and desperate for some ‘alone’ time. Actually very few of the adults in Poly seem happy, Chris’s brother is depressed, Biddy’s housemates are bitter drunks, and Zac, as it turns out, is a pathological liar.

The ending may suggest that they’ve found a way to make their new lifestyle work, complete with a ‘the kids are alright’ scene, but I’m left with the impression that it can’t be anything but temporary, particularly as the issues between Chris and Sarah remain largely unresolved.

While the domestic drama, general chaos, and black humour in Poly is entertaining, I just don’t see that the story has much of a point, and as such was left feeling underwhelmed.

++++++

Available from Ventura Press

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Review: In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare

 

Title: In the Clearing

Author: J.P Pomare

Published: July 23rd 2020, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hodder & Staughton/NetgalleyUK

++++++

My Thoughts:

In the Clearing is an intense and unnerving read from J.P. Pomare, whose debut novel, Call Me Evie, won the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel.

Divided into six parts and unfolding from two shifting perspectives we are introduced to Amy, a young teenage girl who knows only life in The Clearing, a tiny isolated community led by the charismatic ‘Queen’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Deity’ Adrienne; and single mother Freya, who is determined to provide love and security for her young son, Billy, in their riverside home on the outskirts of Melbourne, but is haunted by her past mistakes.

Examining the role of nature vs nurture in a manner that suggests we may never truly escape our past, Pomare draws inspiration from the doomsday cult known as ‘The Family’, active in Australia for roughly twenty years in the 70’s and 80’s. In the Clearing he presents a complex and unpredictable plot that is skillfully crafted and insidiously compulsive. From the novel’s first pages the author grows a sense of unease which intensifies as the story progresses. Though the pace is measured, Pomare builds to shocking twists, and yet never quite allays our anxiety.

I’m loathe to spoil the experience for readers, but it seems responsible to warn that In the Clearing has its dark moments, alluding to the abhorrent abuse of children, and the occasional explicit, but not gratuitous, description of violence.

Provocative, clever, and powerful, In the Clearing is a stunning and devastating novel which will be difficult to forget.

++++++

Available from Hodder & Staughton UK

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