the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Pan de mo nium: cover reveal

I love the stage in the writing process when all that hard work comes to fruition. There are steps along the way that cause angst or excitement but there’s nothing to replace that sense of ‘it really is going to happen’ when I see the final cover design for my publication. Here it is, ta-dah:

Welcome to the world of Pan de mo nium my children’s picture book. You can read more about the inspiration for the story here. I absolutely love this image as it captures the characteristics of giant pandas:

They’re fun: see that cheeky expression!

They’re shy: those eyes!

They’re a symbol of vulnerability: imagine it!

They’re peaceful: well, not so peaceful in the case of Pan de mo nium. That’s the point of the story!

The final draft has gone to the printers and I’ll receive proofs within the next week. A last read through and then these copies will be sent into the world headed for readers and book bloggers who have kindly agreed to offer early reviews.

Be sure to get a copy for young children in time for Christmas by placing a pre-order now at the Victorina Press website.

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Good company at Victorina Press

Established in 2017, Victorina Press believes in bibliodiversity. This is where small independent presses create a healthy publishing eco system by ensuring new and undiscovered authors reach an audience. I feel lucky to be published with Victorina Press alongside Rhiannon Lewis author of My Beautiful Imperial a Water Scott recommended historical novel, Chris Fielden author of Alternative Afterlives, fellow Dorset writer Vicki Goldie author of the cosy crime Charters Mysteries series and more recently Amanda Huggins, with her coming-of-age novella All Our Squandered Beauty.

I first met Amanda at a Christmas party celebrating our first flash fiction collections published in 2018 by Chapeltown Books. You can read more about Amanda’s Brightly Coloured Horses here. Amanda went on to have two further collections published by Retreat West Books and a poetry pamphlet which won a Saboteur Awards prize in 2020.

Now Amanda is an author with Victorina Press, I had the pleasure to receive an early copy of her novella for review:

All Our Squandered Beauty is a coming-of-age novella set in the 1970s where the protagonist, Kara, a fisherman’s daughter struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father. She rejects the prospect of early marriage that her best friend settles for and focuses instead on future studies in London. During the summer, she spends time on a Greek island where she learns more about herself and her relationships with others. Kara can’t see that she’s emotionally fragile but gradually she learns some mistakes can be rectified while others she has to live with. The sea provides a backdrop to the narrative, sometimes powerful ‘to see the water change from grey to ink and the sky deepen to fire’ and at other times benign, ‘millpond calm, a deep deep blue.’ This is a wonderful read filled with tenderness, charm and hope.

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You can purchase All Our Squandered Beauty now from the Victorina Press shop and it will be available from early 2021 through Waterstones, Foyles and Amazon.

 

 

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Welcome to Catherine Randall and ‘The White Phoenix’

This post celebrates the publication day of The White Phoenix for friend and children’s novelist Catherine Randall. She’s wanted to write since she was a child and now Catherine has fulfilled this ambition with a fabulous middle grade children’s bookI adore the feisty thirteen-year-old protagonist in this novel, Lizzie Hopper, who helps to run the family bookshop near St Paul’s in the year of the Great Fire.

“Catherine Randall brings the streets of 17th century London vividly to life… A heart-warming and skilfully told tale.” Ally Sherrick, Black Powder and The Buried Crown

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Welcome Catherine.

Can you start by telling us where your writing journey began?

My writing journey began when I was a six-year-old living in Lincolnshire and I wrote my first ‘book’, alarmingly entitled, ‘Catherine, Lucy and the Goat’. We moved to Shropshire when I was seven, and I continued to write ‘books’, mostly thinly disguised imitations of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, with a few Victorian melodramas thrown in. When I grew up I tried my hand at adult short stories, but realised quite quickly that my heart was in children’s books. The books I read as a child remain the ones that resonate most deeply with me, and now I love reading new children’s books, partly as research, and partly just because they’re a great read.

What inspired you to write The White Phoenix?

I’ve been fascinated by the Great Fire of London ever since I was a child. When I visited London from Shropshire at the age of ten, the first thing I wanted to see was the Monument to the Fire. When I moved to London in my early twenties, I loved walking round the City, with its ancient churches and old street names dotted among the modern glass and steel buildings. Much later, at a time when I was looking for a subject for a story, I caught part of a radio programme about the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, and it reawakened my interest. When I started researching I discovered that London in 1666 was a great setting for a novel, not just because of the Fire but because of all the other things that were going on – war, fear of invasion, the plague, as well as all the prophecies swirling round London about the year 1666. I was initially going to write about St Paul’s, but then I realised it would be more fun to write about the many bookshops that clustered round the cathedral, especially as it was possible for a woman and her daughter to run a bookshop by themselves.

I started writing some time ago, but many of the themes in the book have turned out to have more resonance today than I could ever have imagined.

What are the challenges of publishing your first book during a pandemic?

The first thing to say is that I am absolutely delighted to be having a book published, and the thought of publication has been a beacon of light in what has been a tough year both generally and personally. However, there’s no denying that there are significant challenges. I think the worst thing is that I’ve not been able to do any events with children at bookshops or libraries. I know authors are doing virtual school visits, but it’s quite daunting if you have to start like that. I’m used to going into schools to talk about the Great Fire, but not so used to going into schools to promote a novel as well. But it is something I would very much like to do so I’ll have to get my head round it!

And of course I can’t help being sad that I’m not able to have a proper launch party, because there are so many people who have shared in this journey with me and whom I would like to thank. However, I am having a series of very small parties instead, so that’s going to be fun.

Who is the ideal reader for The White Phoenix?

I really hope that children aged from about 9 to 12 or 13 will enjoy it. I suppose it is a cliché to say so, but I have written the sort of book that I would have liked to read at that age. However, I also know that quite a few adults have read and enjoyed it, so that’s very gratifying.

Is there a message in the novel that you want young readers to grasp?

Lizzie, the main protagonist in the book, refuses to give in to the prejudice of other people around her and makes friends with a Catholic girl at a time when Catholics were very much considered the enemy. I hope that young readers will take away the message that they should never let others tell them what type of people they can or can’t be friends with.

I also hope that young readers grasp the message that you should stand up for what you believe in, which is what Lizzie tries to do, though not always successfully.

Which children’s authors have influenced you?

From my own childhood – Gillian Avery who wrote wonderful, vivid stories about Victorian children such as The Greatest Gresham;  Penelope Farmer who wrote my all-time favourite children’s book, the time-slip story Charlotte Sometimes; and K.M.Peyton, author of the Flambards books among many others. I had the privilege of meeting her once and she was so lovely.

More recent writers who have influenced me include Eva Ibbotson, Hilary McKay (I just love her family stories) and Lydia Syson who has written some terrific historical novels for teenagers.

But I am discovering new children’s authors all the time, and they all have an influence.

What’s next, Cathy?

I’m very excited about my new historical novel set largely in the early nineteenth-century, so once The White Phoenix is well and truly launched, I’m looking forward to getting back to that. However, I have to say that quite a few people have asked about a sequel to The White Phoenix, so I might give that some thought too. I love the characters so much, it would be a pleasure to go back to them.

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The Blurb

London, 1666. After the sudden death of her father, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hopper and her mother take over The White Phoenix – the family bookshop in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

But England is at war with France and everywhere there are whispers of dire prophecies. As rumours of invasion and plague spread, Lizzie battles prejudice, blackmail and mob violence to protect the bookshop she loves.

When the Great Fire of London breaks out, Lizzie must rescue more than just the bookshop. Can she now save the friend she wasn’t supposed to have?

Purchase links

Foyles, Waterstones, Book Guild Bookshop, Amazon.

Social media

Twitter: @Crr1Randall

For children’s literature that is emotionally engaging, do give The White Phoenix a read. You won’t be disappointed.

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At the London Book Fair 2019

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Two in a row

I’m delighted to share the news that my debut novel The String Games has been shortlisted in another literary competition. This one is very close to my heart. As a resident of Dorchester I’m proud to be one of the final three in a competition founded by the Dorchester Literary Festival and sponsored by Hall & Woodhouse.

The aim of the competition is to continue Dorset’s literary tradition by investing in its homegrown talent. A judging panel, including professional writers and a leading literary agent compile the shortlist so this is a real chance to gain wider recognition for my debut novel. The awards ceremony, hosted by a leading writer will be held on 5 October 2020 (Covid-19 permitting).

I attended the previous two ceremonies, the inaugural competition was in 2018 and hosted by Kate Adie when Philip Browne won with his remarkable non-fiction book The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell about a shipwreck off the Dorset coast in 1786.

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Philip Browne receives his prize from Kate Adie.

Last year, my good friend Maria Donovan was on the shortlist and came runner-up with her moving story about loss and grief from a young boy’s perspective in The Chicken Soup Murderwhile Emma Timpany took the prize with Travelling in the Dark.

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Shortlistees from 2019 with Emma on the left, Maria on the right and centre is Minette Walters

I look forward to meeting the other shortlisted writers but the in meantime, I celebrate all those who were on the longlist:

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Although my name is on the cover of The String Games, there are many Dorset people who helped this novel reach its audience. Thank you to all those readers and writers who gave feedback and others who supported with proof reading and editing. Without you, my story may never have found a home with Victorina Press or gained recognition in writing competitions such as this.

 

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Posh frocks, presentations and prizes

Traditionally held at Stationers’ Hall, the eleventh annual awards ceremony for The People’s Book Prize was instead organised via Zoom thanks to Covid19. Finalists from the three categories were there, authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature, plus all the publishers. The evening was hosted by founder Tatiana Wilson and director Tony Humphreys. At one point I found myself virtually rubbing shoulders with prize patron, Frederick Forsyth.

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We wore our finest clothes to make the occasion special. While I drank a cup of tea, others sipped wine. Like all finalists in the fiction category, I was able to say a few words about my novel and then the winner was announced. Author of The Weighing of the Heart gained the the sparkling trophy and I was very pleased to celebrate Paul Tudor Owen‘s success. I’ve been following Paul on Twitter for some time and feel I know him from the podcasts and interviews he’s offered since his novel was launched in March 2019. The Weighing of the Heart is a contemporary novel set in New York where the English protagonist Nick Braeburn becomes fascinated by his landlady’s Egyptian art and a young artist who lives nearby. Paul was very gracious in his acceptance speech and highlighted the importance of small presses in bringing to market stories that are overlooked by the big five publishers.

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Who can you spot in this photo of fiction finalists and others?

Becoming a finalist in The People’s Book Prize has been a wonderful experience. It’s raised the profile of my coming-of-age novel The String Gamesprovided a platform for my publisher Victorina Press and has given me the chance to connect with lots of wonderful authors. And there are many of you reading this post who I have to thank for helping me reach the finals. Without your votes, I would never have come this far. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you very much for your support.

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Milking an idea

I posted information last week about Covid19 writing opportunities and since then I’ve had two Coronavirus stories accepted for publication. Out of the Box is about cutlery trapped in a canteen during lockdown and it was shortlisted in the Staying Home competition run by Hammond House Publishing. You can read the story here.

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Once I get an idea for a story, I figure it’s worth milking, so I wrote another Covid19 lockdown story this time related to the experience of a wedding ring confined to a jewellery box. This was published by Pandemic Magazine and you can read the story here. There’s a great illustration to accompany my story, so it’s worth popping over for a look.

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Pandemic writing opportunities

Coronavirus has inspired even more people to write fiction. This is a good  thing because stuck at home or venturing out, anyone can take a leap into the world of their imagination. I have long argued that as humans we all need a creative outlet, be it gardening or cooking or painting. Writing is one of the most accessible forms of creativity because the resources required are no more than a piece of paper and a pen. And, with only the hand moving across the page, it’s not physically demanding either (although some of us do complain about writer’s bottom!)

In Dorset, our local history centre started a project in early April requesting people keep diaries of their experiences during the pandemic. The aim is to ensure that future generations can look back on the present day’s experience and understand the impact of Coronavirus across the county.  I look forward to reading the Corona Diaries when they are published.

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Waterloo Festival 2020

The Waterloo Festival has been running for ten years and it’s a great celebration of community and creativity. St John’s Church is behind this venture and works with partners in the area to generate a variety of creative happenings during the festival month of June. I’ve entered the annual writing competition for three years in a row and I’ve been fortunate to be amongst the winners each time. In previous years there has been an opportunity to share our stories in the church and I love taking the opportunity for a trip to London. I have a particular fondness for Waterloo. Coming into the station by train, I catch sight of the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben between high rise buildings.

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Photo taken from the sky for Pixabay NOT the train!

During my London life, I worked for a charity with offices is situated in The Cut. After work I often met friends or went to one of the shows at the Old Vic or the Young Vic which are both nearby theatres.  Indeed the National Theatre is only around the corner and walking along the South Bank of the Thames is one of my favourite things to do. A scene for my novel The String Games is set there:

Where the path narrows, Imogen lingers watching the Thames. Waves of slate and mottled brown weave together like twine. It’s low tide and the river has shrunk, making a beach. Imogen leans against the railing and a glimpse of winter sun is a reward for leaving the office at lunchtime. A woman is standing by the water’s edge and in the shallows there is a boy in wellington boots …

This year the Waterloo Festival has gone online. At the launch of the ebook anthology  ‘Transforming Communities’, I met lots of fellow writers via Zoom. There was a chance for chat and some winners read their stories. Here we all are, spruced up for an online party.

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Thanks to Euchar Gravina director of the Waterloo Festival 2020 for hosting the event and Gill James for organising the competition.

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Global Day of Solidarity, 22 May 2020

To mark the Global Day of Solidarity returned VSO volunteers were encouraged to post an image on Twitter to convey a message of solidarity with the hashtag Stronger Together.

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This is the photo I shared. The picture was taken in Yumbe town where caregivers (teachers of young children) were receiving training on curriculum development. We were actually doing the Hokey Cokey which everyone loved and my colleague, Josephine, took the photo.

I’ve been back from Uganda for two months but my concern for the refugee families from South Sudan I worked with at Bidibidi refugee settlement grows as Coronavirus spreads. Although the Ugandan government has a strong track record of preventing outbreaks, such as closing the international airport on 20 March, the area in which I worked is particularly vulnerable. The settlement is in the district of Yumbe (also the name of the principal town) and is located in West Nile region in the far north-west of the country.  Borders with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are porous. Uganda has reported only 175 confirmed cases of Corona virus to date, but on 16 May there was a peak in reporting with forty-three new cases, all truck drivers.

In South Sudan there are fears for the spread of Coronavirus with reports that the virus has reached a UN refugee camp in the capital, Juba, where some 30,000 people have sought shelter and protection. One of the country’s four Vice Presidents, Riek Machar (read a little about Riek Machar and Emma McClune here) has contracted Covid 19. According to the BBC, ‘experts worry that decades of conflict has left South Sudan incapable of dealing with a surge in new infections’. There are also fresh outbreaks of violence with about 800 people killed in intercommunal fighting since a new treaty aimed at ending the country’s six-year civil war was signed in February 2020.

All this may have implications for Bidibidi where already the food ratio for refugees has been reduced by 30% which makes it hard for vulnerable families to maintain health and wellbeing. Further restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Coronavirus also impact on the host community. On 18 May 2020, President Museveni announced a further twenty-one day extension to lockdown but with the easing of some restrictions in the coming days and weeks:

  • Private transport with up to 3 people in a vehicle is allowed from 26 May, BUT NOT in border districts 
  • General merchandise shops can open from 26 May
  • Public transport at half capacity allowed from 4 June, BUT NOT in border districts
  • Education ministry to have an action plan by 4 June to restart school in some primary and secondary classes

There’s also published guidance on the use of masks:

In view of the restriction placed on all our lives due to this pandemic, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind the benefits of global solidarity and the message #StrongerTogether.

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Scratched Enamel Heart, Amanda Huggins

Here’s a treat for you. Amanda Huggins joins The Writer is a Lonely Hunter to answer a few questions about her latest (fabulous) short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart.

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About Scratched Enamel Heart

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

About Amanda

Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea, which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards, and a second collection, Scratched Enamel Heart, which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which is currently shortlisted for  a Saboteur Award.

She has been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

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Questions for Amanda

Your stories in Scratched Enamel Heart are set in different countries and locations. How do you decide on a setting for your story. What is the importance of the place in the development of your story?

It has always been important to me that my fiction has a strong sense of place – something I’ve carried over from my travel writing. Sometimes an idea for the setting comes first, and the story that follows is inspired and shaped by certain aspects of the location. The landscapes and cities in which the stories are set became important characters in their own right. They can reflect emotions or influence characters’ behaviour – such as the way the wait for the monsoon rains affects Maggie’s decisions in ‘A Longing for Clouds’, and the heat and desert landscape have an effect on Miranda in ‘Distant Fires’ – two stories set in the sensory overload of India. Closer to home, a snow-filled London becomes a major character in ‘A Brightness To It’, forming a soft-edged cocoon around the main characters. Two strangers bond in a soulless hotel room after a chance encounter, and are protected from the reality of the outside world by the beauty of their snow-changed environment – yet the city is only temporarily altered, and this reflects their own fragile situation. In ‘Red’, Mollie is trapped on Oakridge Farm with her mother and violent stepfather, and the vast spaces and relentless red dust of the American mid-west are a contrast to her confinement. The open plains and the endless highway offer freedom, yet the landscape is also hostile and bleak, holding up a mirror to her predicament. One of my favourite locations is Japan. My stories are often about displacement and alienation, trying to find connection, about lost characters in big cities. This can go hand in hand with the notion of things never being exactly as they seem, of them being a little off-centre, misunderstood, or lost in translation – and Japan is the perfect backdrop to reflect that.

The stories in Scratched Enamel Heart range in length from a single side to several pages. How do you decide the length of each story?

It’s not often that I set out to write a piece of fiction of a particular length. I’m usually exploring an idea without knowing where it will take me – it could end up being 300 words or 3000 words. Sometimes, when a longer story isn’t working, I find it can be pared right down to a one-page story that works much better. However, I am writing longer stories most of the time right now, and in doing so I seem to be going against the trend. As more writers are turning towards short flash pieces, I find I’m leaning towards longer fiction!

Congratulations on signing with Victorina Press for the publication of your novella. It’s good to have you onboard as a fellow Victorina Press author. You’ve also had a collection of poetry recently published, the wonderful The Collective Nouns For Birds. What’s it like being a writer of short fiction, long fiction and poetry? How do you manage your time?

Thanks, Gail! I’m already enjoying working with the Victorina team – and it’s lovely to share a publisher with writers I know, such as yourself and Chris Fielden. All our Squandered Beauty is my first novella, and is based around the title story from my first short story collection, Separated From the Sea.

The Collective Nouns for Birds began to take shape when I was snowed-in at a cottage in the North Pennines. I didn’t plan to write a collection – I was just feeling my way at first, as I hadn’t written any poetry since my late teens. However, I discovered I really enjoyed writing it, and the poems started to come together as a loosely themed body of work. A review by Amanda McLeod sums it up better than I can:  “Huggins explores…all the ways in which we lose things, the clarity and sometimes sadness that retrospection can bring. There is the transition from childhood to adulthood, the parting of lovers and friends, loss of life, of special places.”

I don’t think poetry and short fiction are always that different from each other. My prose style leans towards the lyrical/poetical, and I tend to write narrative poetry, so for me there is a real crossover between the two forms. Sometimes a poem will morph into a short story and vice versa – there are a couple of poems in my collection which also feature as flash pieces in Scratched Enamel Heart.

Longer fiction is a relatively new direction for me, and once again it’s something that has come about by accident rather than by design. Both my novellas have developed from short stories, and in each case it was because several readers wanted to know what happened next after those original stories had ended.

I sometimes find it difficult to manage my time – especially as I have a day job four days a week – but once I’m committed to a project then I always finish it before moving on to the next thing. I already have a ‘next thing’ in sight actually – and it may well turn out to be the longest writing project I’ve undertaken to date!

Wow, Amanda. You are so prolific. Good luck with your next project!

If you’re interested in learning more about Amanda, you can read a previous interview here.

Where to find Amanda

@troutiemcfish

https://troutiemcfishtales.blogspot.com/

Where to purchase Scratched Enamel Heart

Available from 27 May from Amazon 

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My review of Scratched Enamel Heart

This short fiction collection contains twenty-four emotionally-charged stories that take readers on a journey to households and communities in a range of countries. Through these stories, Amanda Huggins cleverly shows us the commonality of emotional experience. That feelings of isolation, love, grief, loss and regret occur in different backgrounds and cultures. And equally, that hope and the promise of a fresh start is possible. Amanda Huggins writes in a beautiful and empathetic way to immerse readers in the challenges and dilemmas she presents to her characters. As readers we care about these characters and learn from them. This is a truthful, authentic and essential read.

 

 

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