Category Archives: Historical novel

Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.




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Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.



holocaust memorial

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The Muse by Jessie Burton is the 2018 Cityread book

The Muse by Jessie Burton (Pan Macmillan) has been chosen as the book for Cityread London 2018. The title will be the centre of a month-long celebration of reading in the capital, starting on 30 April and running throughout May.  Cityread is a huge city-wide book group which aims to help Londoners explore and celebrate their city through its stories.

The Muse cover

The Muse opens in London 1967, where we meet Odelle Bastien, recently arrived from Trinidad and trying to make her way in a new country.  A new job at the Skelton Institute of Art brings a mysterious painting, and even more enigmatic colleague, into her life.  We are then transported to Spain, 1936, and meet Olive Schloss, and we begin to discover how the painting came into being, against the turbulent backdrop of Spain on the eve of civil war.

Taking Burton’s depictions of 1960s London and 1930s Spain as a starting point, a programme of events exploring The Muse’s themes of arrival, the creative process, art history and family secrets will take place in Brent Libraries (and indeed across London!) throughout May.  Highlights will include:

  • A life drawing art workshop on Tuesday 8 May
  • A Spanish cookery class on Thursday 10 May
  • A history talk about the Moors of Spain on Wednesday 16 May
  • An art history talk, Guernica and beyond, looking at the art of the Spanish Civil War on Tuesday 22 May

We will also be holding a competition for the best book review of The Muse with some exciting themed prizes!

For full details of our events look out for our special brochures, keep an eye on our online events lists or email

Jessie Burton

“I’m truly delighted that The Muse will be London’s Cityread for 2018. It’s a novel that celebrates the diversity, humour and spirit of Londoners – both those who were born here and those welcomed in to make it their home. It’s an honour to support our city’s libraries and to be reminded of their incomparable value, and I can’t wait for new readers to find my story of Odelle and Olive, and make it their own.”

Jessie Burton


Further details of all Cityread London activity can be found at the website: and at Facebook/CityreadLondon

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Book Review: If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If you go away

I’m afraid this book has gone on to my small life is too short pile of unfinished books.  The book was highly recommended to me by a friend so clearly not everyone feels this way!

It was just so humdrum and dull (IMO).  I gave it a fair chance, I got to page 233 before I decided that I had no interest in finding out what happened to these characters and would quite easily shut the book and never think of them again (obviously I’m thinking of them now – but only because I’m writing the review).

The book gives us alternate chapters following our heroine then hero over the same time period.  Our heroine is Vivian a very beautiful (we’re told this repeatedly) and slim (which we’re told over and over again) debutant.  Slim, beautiful Vivian is a popular girl who hopes to make a good marriage and help raise her family’s flagging fortunes but then when she fears she is losing the attentions of the man she has set her sights on she has sex with him in an attempt to seal their relationship.  This is a shocking thing for a high born young woman do to in 1914 and, although it is not clear that the details of her indiscretion are widely known, her reputation is damaged so her family rush her into a hasty marriage much more lowly than they had hoped for.  Her husband is not cruel or anything but he is cold and unaffectionate so their marriage is rather unsatisfactory.  It gets worse for Vivian when war breaks out her husband goes to war and it’s decided she should relocate from London to their relatively modest country home in the midlands where she is very lonely and isolated.

Our hero, Howard’s, story runs concurrently.  He a handsome (we are told this repeatedly), tall and manly (we are told this again and again) playwright who has a promising career ahead of him.  But then war breaks out and Howard is pressured to sign up, he resists because he does not agree with war and instead goes to the trenches as a journalist.  There he sees the horrors of war first hand and becomes even more convinced of the futility of war.  He returns to England just as conscription is introduced.  He becomes a conscientious objector and is imprisoned because of this.


Howard witnesses the horrors of life in the trenches

At this point I felt the time was coming for our heroes to meet as Vivian had befriended Howard’s mother in the country and she had started to talk to Vivian about the plight of her son.  That’s when I decided I just couldn’t go on.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this was so rubbish.  I guess in a way it wasn’t terrible just so so, it seemed to have nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better elsewhere.  There have been better books about lonely neglected wives and much better books about the horrors of war.  The characters were very two dimensional with nothing about them that drew you in or made you feel an emotional link to their journeys.  I just thought they both sounded fairly inoffensive but dull and I couldn’t imagine having an interesting conversation with either of them (even though I’m sure they would have been very nice to look at!)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees with me on this.  What is it about this that you liked so much?  Does something extraordinary happen in the second half to make it all worthwhile?!




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Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

This is a very good book but the plot took a direction midway through that I really wasn’t keen on.

The book set a little after the first world war and is about a well to do mother and daughter (Frances) who have fallen on financial hard times so decide to take in lodgers – The Paying Guests.  A young couple, Lilian and Leonard, move in and the first half of the novel is about this slightly uneasy living arrangement.


I found this first half of the novel utterly sublime, there is so much in there even though relatively little happens.  It’s riddled with tension around class, sexuality, the role of women, the generation divide.  The living arrangements form a fascinating dynamic, the mother and daughter are from upper society but now have no money, Lilian and Leonard are from working class backgrounds but Leonard has found a good job in insurance so have much more cash and better prospects than their well to do landlords, so where does the power lie?  Frances’ mother is old fashioned and is very embarrassed by her daughter doing housework, but they can’t afford servants any more so what choice do they have?  Frances, a formed suffragette, longs to embrace the new opportunities for independence that are becoming available to women but feels morally obliged to keep house for her mother, especially as her mother is still grief stricken by the lost of her two sons in the trenches.  There is tension between the young couple, they married partly because Lilian was pregnant but the baby died leaving them tied to each other with neither entirely happy in their marriage.  Like I say, there is so much going on and all of it subtly played out through little moments; an awkward conversation in the scullery, a passing on the stairs, an overheard hushed argument in the parlour.

The novel changes around the midway point.  Things become much more melodramatic and the subtlety is all lost.  I personally did not enjoy this change, the novel doesn’t become bad but I would have preferred it to continue as a story of human relationships amid massive social changes not a story of passion and violence.  I won’t go into detail of what happens as you may wish to find out for yourself, and I would still recommend this novel even though I found it somewhat disappointing.



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Book Review: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty

This is a novel about the real 15th century family: the Borgias.  Anyone who saw the TV series a couple of years ago with Jeremy Irons as the Borgia Pope may be familiar with much of the storyline.

The head of the family is Roderigo Borgia who is a Spanish Cardinal who climbs the ranks of the church to become Pope Alexander VI.  Like many churchmen in these times of corruption he has failed to keep his vows of chastity and has had mistresses and fathered children.  4 children, by the same mistress, form the nucleus of his family (although he also fathers 2 further children by a later mistress).  He shows no shame or embarrassment at having a family, in fact he showers them with positions and titles.  The family act as almost the royal family of the Papal States and this novel deals with their ambitions, love affairs and battles over the course of about 5 years.

Portrait by Bartolomeo believed to be of Lucrezia Borgia.

Portrait by Bartolomeo believed to be Lucrezia Borgia.

The novel is based on fact but much about the Borgia family is unknown although there are lots of rather scandalous unsubstantiated rumours (involving things like poison, incest and fratricide).  So Dunant has both factual details to guide her but exciting rumours to fully exercise her imagination!  This is where the novel failed for me somewhat, with an opportunity to write her version of events she chooses instead to remain vague about things.  She leaves it inconclusive as to whether one brother killed another or whether the family practiced incest – I would have preferred she choose to either make the family more heroic but maligned by history…or even worse and more scandalous than the rumours report!  She does neither, she instead writes a pleasing but rather bland tale.

The book is well written enough and easy to read but is not a gripping story.  The second half is a little more exciting as the family’s ambition grows and the eldest brother Cesare becomes ever more ruthless but overall it is not a page turner.

Jeremy Irons playing the Borgia Pope and the real Alexander VI.

Jeremy Irons playing the Borgia Pope and the real Alexander VI.

By Zoe


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Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This book is inspired by real people and events. Agnes Magnusdottir really was found guilty of murder in 1820s Iceland and the author uses known facts about her life but the bulk of the novel is fiction as Kent uses her imagination to fill in the gaps. Agnes hasBURIAL-RITES been found guilty of murder and is awaiting the date of her execution. While this is arrange the authorities have to find somewhere to keep her and also ensure she has access to spiritual guidance. The novel covers the following months as she is kept in the home of a family and slowly tells her tale to a young priest. We follow events as they happen while also finding out about Agnes’ past as she recounts her experiences from childhood up to her arrest for murder. The setting is really interesting. You may find it strange that a criminal is sent to live in a family home! However it is established early in the novel that Iceland is an unindustrialised nation of small communities and doesn’t have the facilities or institutions other European nations might have had at this period to properly detain prisoners. The way the people in the novel live sounds medieval rather than nineteenth century, they are basically peasants living off the land – of course many British people of this time would have had a similar existence but there would also have been large towns with factories and big institutions that Iceland did not have, nor did British people have to battle with the weather to the same extent as the Icelanders. The setting is a long way from the drawing rooms and balls that would have featured in an Austen novel of this same period! The unfamiliar setting is a definite asset for the novel. The characters, family and servants, all pretty much live in a couple of rooms, they all sleep in one room. The novel is mostly set in mid-winter when it is so cold that it is dangerous to travel or really go out at all. So criminal, family and priest are pretty much stuck together making a claustrophobic and often tense atmosphere which works well for this story line.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

Overall I liked this book very much. The story felt believable and the characters ‘real’.  Kent uses her imagination but doesn’t create a wildly over-the-top explanation as to why Agnes has found herself in such a terrible position, the tale she has concocted does feel like it could be true. What I didn’t always like was the writing style – Kent is a very descriptive writer, she can easily make a woman walking into the kitchen and getting a bowl of soup to eat last 4 or 5 pages! She likes to describe everything from the woman’s dirty finger nails to the smear of grease on the side of the saucepan to the slurping sound of the woman eating the soup – nothing wrong in this it’s just not to my taste. I particularly didn’t like the way Kent was constantly describing bodily functions! People seemed to constantly sweat, spit, chew, slurp, dribble, cough, vomit, wee, poo, sneeze etc. I know these things happen I just don’t like to be constantly reminded. I imagined the one room where everyone slept to be filled with bad smells and the sound of liquid noises – yuk! . A great story and well written (even if the writing wasn’t always to my taste) 4/5


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One year, 51 books

lots-of-booksI took up the challenge last year to read 50 books in 2014. I actually read 51, having just made it through the last one in time! It could have been more, as one of them was 800+ pages long… !!!

As you’ve probably guessed, I love reading, always have done and always will. My studies and career choices have always reflected that. Back when I was growing up, reading provided me with escape and respite from difficult experiences. As an adult, I find that the books I choose often help me to understand and bring compassion to those difficult experiences, assisting me on my healing journey.
Working for Brent Libraries brings me in touch with lots of books. New books, old books, even those falling apart ones, hold a deep fascination for me. Assisting, as I do, with customer reservations brings the added excitement of coming across books I might not otherwise have seen.

So I thought I’d share with you the highlights from my 51 reads of last year. I thought I would go for the top 3, and The One I Would Never Read Again.

TOP 3 –

Paris by Edward RutherfordParis
I really like this genre, historical fiction spanning generations. It conveys social history really well, and puts into context what I learned about political history at school – in a much more inspiring way. I discovered so much about the building of Eiffel Tower for example. Surprisingly, the Revolution wasn’t really covered as such, which was a bit of a disappointment, but there’re threads of it. On the other hand, I found that a fresh, unexpected approach. Yes, it’s 800+ pages long, and towards the end it dragged a bit, but as a whole, definitely an interesting and thought provoking read.

silver_linings_playbook_cover_book1The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I’m late to this book, which had a lot of hype with the film, I believe. I’ve never seen the film. The story I feel has a fragile and delicate structure that I found caught at my heart. It covers a lot of themes, including love and loss, and also the stigma that can be attached to having mental health issues. There was one particular well written passage conveying the pain of stigma with depth of emotion and empathy. The frequent American football scenes and references were tedious I found, as well as the main character’s somewhat unconventional relationship with his therapist, but it’s worth pushing through those for the core psychological issues covered in this book.

Refuge by Jenny Smith
This is non-fiction, a biography written by a woman who grew up, like me, in the early 70s, a period when the first women’s refuge was opened. I learned so much about the social milieu of the time, which put my own experiences into context. For me this was a very emotional, therapeutic read. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has lived through domestic abuse of any kind, or who is interested in women’s rights and social history. It also has the racial tensions of the era as a main theme.The RefugeNever Again! –

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
This was one weird book! Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with surreal, quirky fiction, I read so much of it when I did a Totalitarianism and Literature module at uni! But I didn’t expect this one to be quite so off the wall. It’s post-apocalyptic, packaged in a different way [orange and yellow cover, for example]. The blurb and the cover drew me in, but I found that it really wasn’t my cup of tea at all. But if you’re into zombies and girl with all the giftsall they entail, this is probably a book you would enjoy.

I write poetry, and am working on getting published. For a poet, I barely ever read poetry, so I plan to include some poetry books in my reads this year. I’m open to recommendations.
I also look forward to sharing with you on this blog some of my reading highlights as this year progresses.




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Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallance

An atmospheric tale of a young woman committed to a mental institution.


While locked away in the Lake House Anna sees a bridge, she thinks this is the only means of escape and imagines running over it, only to be told that the bridge is actually painted. There is no escape via that way as a young mother of two jumped off it holding both her babies leaving the home owner no choice but to knock it down. They decided to painted a mural in so much detail it matched the beautiful bridge because some guests were disturbed that it had gone and it was the most beautiful sight in a house full of sadness and gloom.

The book is set in Victorian London, the main character is Anna Palmer.  Anna is originally from Dover. Her father was a Annasailor and died at sea, her mother is a housebound widow living on the white cliffs. Anna was the youngest of her sisters and did not marry until mid-twenties. She married a Vicar called Vincent Palmer and moved to London with him to live in the vicarage. She is described as a beautiful young woman with soft white skin and beautiful long brown hair. Her husband’s reason for institutionalizing her is that he believes she is crazy because she claims to have dreamed of men drowning at sea calling for her, so she packed her bags and set out to help them. Her behaviour sounds a little bit absurd but is there a hidden agenda in Mr Palmer extreme reaction? Anna finds a letter addressed to a Miss Maud Sultan which suggests to the reader that he is hiding something.

Vincent Palmer comes across as a very cold and distant character who doesn’t involve himself in much conversation. He is devoted to his vicarage and is here on earth purely to do his godly duties. But putting his new wife in a mental institution is not done with pure motives, Vincent has been involved in an affair, in fact his whole marriage is an affair as he was with Miss Maud Sultan before he was married to Anna and he has a child with her! It is described that on the wedding night him and Anna made plain blunt love it was over in seconds and she felt nothing no emotions – when the book it talks of Miss Maud and Mr Palmer it sounds more electric you can read the passion and depth, they seem more suited together.  Later we discover the reason for his marriage, he is a vicar and it was required of him to set an example to his people and marry a clean young women. Hence why he chooses Anna, Miss Maud is a stripper so despite his love he is forbidden to marry her as his duty to god is much stronger.

asylumWhen we come to the Lake House mental institution the cast of characters is widely expanded:
• Querios Abse (owner) is a very dominant and in control man who has inherited the home from his father. He grew there as a boy and isn’t too bothered about traveling outside the walls of the institution. His business is going downhill as it is set in a time when government funded asylums began to blossom.
• Emmeline Abse ( his wife) is a woman who has devoted herself to her husband and sacrificed her life to stay in the grounds of the institution, she supports him and raises the children.
• Catherine Abse (his daughter) is very creative. She loves reading poetry and she longs to go out and travel instead of being stuck in the grounds of her dad’s institution isolated from society.
• Talitha Batt (longest resident) she was placed into the lake house by her family because she fell in love with an Asian man and her family disapproved so she eloped with him but was found and dragged to the asylum, they collect her for Christmases and New Year’s but have said until she no longer loves him or has any feelings for him she is insane.
• Mrs Lovely (ex patient/new staff) was once a patient at the lake house but showed good signs of recovery and now works for Querios Abse. She is very common in the way she speaks and sympathises with the patients a lot more than others.


Wendy Wallace

Wendy Wallace

Wendy Wallace is truly an amazing author, she seems to draw you in within the first few pages. The main feature that made me enjoy the book is her ability to describe. She goes into such depth about how the characters feel and look it’s almost like there’s a real person you can picture in your head and you can sympathise with their emotions and understand their actions. The way the book is written makes it so easy to escape to Victorian times and imagine yourself as a by passer hearing someone else’s story.  I usually find it hard to feel this captivating effect but it was easy with this story.

I would definitely  recommend it also followed by her other novel (Sacred River) which I’m reading now. I can’t think of a bad word to say about this book I loved every moment of it and felt she never got cross tracked or mixed up, it was easy to read and understand each character and their role in the story.


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Book Review: The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine

Warrior's princessPlot
The story begins with Jess suffering a traumatic event. Jess is a teacher in a London sixth form college, one night she is assaulted by someone she knows. To escape the trauma of this event she goes to stay in her sister’s empty, remote Welsh cottage. But rather than find peace she finds she is being haunted by the spirit of first century AD, Welsh Princess Eigon. Eigon’s tribe was defeated by the Romans and she and her family taken captive. The two women are linked by their trauma and find a connection across the ages.
The story splits between – Jess’ tale: pursued and tormented by her attacker she flees to Rome where her sister is staying and while there tries to uncover more of Eigon’s history. Eigon’s tale: after first being mistreated by her captors she is taken to Rome where she is treated with more respect due to her station and kept in circumstances somewhere between honoured guest and important captive, her tale covers many years of her life and she becomes a healer then gets involved with early Christianity. The stories also cross with hauntings, possessions and characters from the past and present using séances and mediums to contact each other.

Is there anybody there?  The subtlety of the early chapters was lost as the plot became more far fetched and extreme.

Is there anybody there? The subtlety of the early chapters was lost as the plot became more far fetched and extreme.

I really did not enjoy this book and was tempted many times to give up on it, although I did manage to struggle to the end. It’s a shame as I did like the concept of the story and quite enjoyed some of the early chapters but then, for me, it went off the rails for a number of reasons.
The first problem I had was that, when it came to dealing with the villain of the piece (I can’t say the name in case you want to read it as we don’t discover the identity of the baddie until a few chapters in) the behaviour of Jess and her friends did not seem believable for people living in modern Europe. When Jess is first attacked I can understand why she doesn’t go to the police, she is traumatised and also her memories of the attack are unclear as she had been drinking when she was hurt. I hope in her shoes that I would go to the police but I can understand why she doesn’t. But as the novel goes on her attacker reveals themselves beyond doubt, they stalk Jess, follow her across Europe, threaten to kill her, break into the places where she is staying and even physically attack her friends. Through all this Jess (and then her friends once they’ve witnessed the attacker’s behaviour) keep stressing that they can’t go to the police because there is no real ‘proof’, this goes on through the bulk of the novel until very near the end. I found it infuriating and more of a plot device from the author to enable the attacker to remain at large and a threat, than a realistic reflection of how real people might behave. I mean if I got home and found my house had been broken in to I would call the police, I wouldn’t start worrying that there was no proof as to who did the crime.

A novel set in such exciting time shouldn't be this dull.

A novel set in such exciting time shouldn’t be this dull.

The next problem I had was the character of the second protagonist Eigon. Her plot is rather more interesting than Jess’ especially as she becomes involved with early Christians under the reign of Emperor Nero. We all know the story, the fire of Rome while he fiddles, innocents thrown to the lions – I mean you can’t get much more exciting than that! But the excitement was rather marred by Eigon’s incredibly dull personality. She’s just so good. There seem to be no chinks in her shiny armour. She is described as physically very beautiful, then she learns to become a healer and treats the poor without charge out of charity and goodness, she loves her parents and then becomes even lovelier once she becomes a Christian and is prepared to selflessly risk her life for others and their shared beliefs. It’s like reading the adventures of ‘Little Miss Perfect’ (yawn!) If she were real I’m sure she would have been a lovely lady and nice person to know but in fiction I need a bit of edge. She didn’t need to be an all out sinner but a few flaws to make her more interesting would have made reading her journey a little less tedious.
Overall I felt the novel was too long, the author had a nice idea but didn’t have a strong enough plot or interesting enough characters to hold a reader’s interest for 500+ pages. The best bit was the beginning when the reader isn’t sure if Jess is really seeing ghosts or just suffering delusions because of stress – indeed there is doubt as to if she was really attacked or if she was, by whom, could she actually be going a bit mad? But these doubts and creepy tensions are quickly abandoned in favour of pure and unconvincing melodrama.


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