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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

A very long song

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is about Peter and Bea, husband and wife, separated by billions of miles of space. It’s a beautiful story that left me thinking deeply about it long after I read it. Although the plot is straight-forward and the prose itself satisfyingly plain, Faber managed to fit in so many different themes – miscommunication on a monumental scale, biological inequalities, faith, the end of the Earth, hope. And loss. At the start, in fact, during the opening chapter, all I felt was loss – poignant, yet uncomplicated. But as the story unfolds the emotions become increasingly confused, a whirlwind of frustrated feelings, and all the while each chapter heading tells in advance the last sentence of that chapter, so I felt as if I was being propelled forwards towards some horrific, yet unavoidable conclusion.

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Peter is a missionary who has been sent to Oasis, a geographically dull yet habitable planet that a multinational corporation (USIC) has been developing. Bea was not invited by USIC to join Peter in his mission. Their separation is a shock to them both, as they’ve barely ever spent time apart since they first met. They are devout Christians however, and trust that since they are doing His work nothing could go terribly wrong.

Oasis’s local inhabitants (the ‘Oasans’ as Peter calls them) trade food for medical supplies. They had already learned of Jesus Christ from a former missionary, and are extremely eager to hear more. Peter’s work with them is easy – stupidly so. The Oasans are a peaceful folk (dressed in full body cloaks, gloves and boots), and their thirst for Christ is a pastor’s dream. Although the USIC base is within driving distance of the Oasan settlement, Peter chooses to spend two weeks about (Earth time) at both the Oasan settlement and the base. He would sooner not travel back to the base at all if the apparatus with which to contact Bea was not back with his human colleagues. The story is told through Peter’s eyes and experiences, but through Bea’s letters to him we see snapshots of what is going on in their life back home.

Snapshots. Pools of electric light in the darkness. Windows. Car headlights illuminating a thin band. The imagery throughout the book creates the feeling of being utterly confined by our own meagre viewpoint of the world. We come to conclusions without knowing the full story. We only ever see part of the picture, and only ever from our own perspective.

At the start it just seems a shame that USIC didn’t allow Bea to come along, but as the story progresses it begins to seem like a terrible mistake. His time alone with the Oasans beings to change Peter. Firstly, he’s terrible at looking after himself (Bea is a nurse, she’s the practical one) and allows himself to become underfed, dehydrated, exposed to the sun, which leads to unclear thinking. But it’s not just that. He doesn’t fit in at the base. He’s a pastor so his world revolves around philosophy, thought, the human struggle. USIC has chosen particularly unimaginative scientists and engineers, fit to survive a bland alien landscape far from home. They don’t question why they continue to follow Earth time when Oasis has a perfectly good sun to set time by; they aren’t disturbed by the sterility of their environment, the constant air conditioning to mimic Earth’s atmosphere. Peter becomes further and further alienated from the humans, drawn to the Oasans who live naturally from the land, who desire to think and learn. Only one other at the base stands out from the rest – Granger, but she has problems of her own.

As Peter becomes lost within his work in this whole new world, his life and Bea’s drift apart. Experiences are unshared; vital details from Peter’s day are not recorded for Bea, who is desperate for any news she can get. But mostly, Peter doesn’t hear what Bea is saying. Things are falling apart rapidly for her. She faces struggle after struggle, and Peter seems hopelessly incapable of truly realising how badly his wife is suffering (or how quickly things are deteriorating back on Earth), so certain is he that his mission had been sanctioned by God, so stuck is he within the path they’d chosen. Their tightly knit whole begins to break apart into separate pieces because he’s unable to properly communicate with his wife or see things for what they truly are.

And if Peter is unable to properly communicate with Bea, his love, the person who knows him best in the world, what hope does he have with an alien species? Oasis is mostly just dirt and ground-hugging plants. It’s devoid of trees, rocks, mountains, crags, branches (sharp things barely occur naturally). The Oasans have evolved into biological beings quite different from humans. Their facial expressions, their tones of voice – unrecognisable. Their history, unknown. Their symbolism (if they have any) entirely different. How can he know if the word he is using means the same thing to both species? A word like ‘pain’, for instance, has layers of complexity. And if ‘pain’ is difficult to explain, what about the Bible passages? Why do the Oasans sing Amazing Grace, when they appear to live sinless lives? What does it mean to them? When an Oasan hears Peter crying, she mistakes it for a song.

It’s a sad story. I found myself guessing all the way through (“the Oasans don’t like sharp things because they are unnaturally occurring shapes”, “they are hiding something under their long cloaks”, “they are using the USIC medication for nefarious ends”, “they have killed the old pastor”). Maybe it’s because I’m human that I think that way, or that being human allows me to think that way. The truth is that those peaceful folk who sing sweetly to their Lord are afflicted by a biological disadvantage that Peter could not have fathomed. They simply wanted to be able to self-heal like they’ve seen humans do. Even the smallest injury to their body causes them to rot, and die. They weren’t seeking eternal life after death – the abstract concept probably didn’t register with them at all – but probably presumed that this miraculous gift had been bestowed to believers by God. And this realisation – when it hits Peter – the unfairness of it (if God loves every creature equally..?), and the hopelessness of his cause, shakes him like nothing ever has.

Too late, it feels, Peter decides to travel back home, to find Bea, wherever she is in a world gone swiftly to ruin. It ends with him waiting to leave, and you can only presume that USIC will let him. But who knows? Everything is left up in the air. Left to hope. Peter’s hope that he’ll find Bea. The Oasan’s hope that the ‘Technique of Jesus’ will help their people live longer; my own hope that science eventually will. I knew before I started reading The Book of Strange Things that Faber had written it while his wife was dying, and so, maybe because of that, the beautiful story felt like a very long song.

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Book Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is another classic book that is difficult (and possibly pointless) to review. But I’ve just read it for the first time, and it’s worth a review in any case. My grandmother sent me the book a couple of years ago, and every time she’s seen me since she’s asked, “have you read it yet?” And so yes, Sylvia, yes I have!

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In her eagerness for me tor me to read it, my grandmother actually sent me two copies of the book. With one of them she included this article about Jane Austen – not sure what the relation was.

It was first published in 1950, and is set in that post-war period. It has an old-fashioned tone, narrated by a lawyer named Mr Strachan, an old man and widower who appears to have plenty of time on his hands. His story describes the life of his client, a Miss Jean Paget, between the years of her twenties until her early thirties. It begins with probably the longest flashback I’ve ever come across in a book, as he recounts what occurred to her while she was a prisoner of war in the ‘East’. She and a band of women and children were forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia in search of a prison camp. Each Japanese commander they came across, too busy to really care, turned them away. It was during this time that she witnessed something truly horrific, which changed her life.

From Malaysia, to England, to the outback of Australia – this is a love story at its heart. Good things can come from horror, or at least this book would have you think. Good things also come to people who have plenty of money. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the message, but it rang loud and clear all the same. Miss Paget had dough, and with it she eventually got everything she ever really wanted (nice eh?).

The vastly different terrains covered in this book are interesting to read about from a geographic point of view at the very least. When in Malaysia, I could feel the sticky heat, hear the insects, smell the decay. In the Outback (in which the second half of the book is set – ‘Alice’ is in reference to Alice Springs) I could see the men and their horses outside the old wooden hotel, taste the cold beer, feel the baking sun. The fact it was written about seventy years ago does mean there were times I squirmed a bit as people of different ethnicities were described (basically anyone not white). It’s also quietly sexist – again, a product of its time.

Despite this, it’s an easy read and reasonably enjoyable. I didn’t feel there was anything ground-breaking about it – I wasn’t at any point blown away by what I read – but it’s a solid story. Like many older English books it’s all very proper and restrained. By the end I quite liked the narrator, Mr Strachan, and felt a little touched and saddened by the fact he felt he had to write it all down.

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My grandmother included this letter with the other copy she sent.

Interestingly, this is what my grandmother (born 1931) had to say in the letter she sent me with the book:

Here is a book that I have always enjoyed and is probably a good representative of its time – which of course is no guarantee that you will find it easy to get through. At least I have worked out its appeal for me – it’s because it covered my ERA and I can understand the MORES & MORALS of the time.

I remember the war years and the horror stories, plus the austerity that still prevailed at the time when we left England. Then – the time that Dot and I went to outback Australia (1952) would be virtually the same time as the heroine first went there and became aware of how hard life was – the climate, the isolation and the womens’ lot.

I can also identify with the money value at the time because when we left England tradesmen in the building trade were earning between 2/6d and three shillings per hour – roughly $13 for a 45 hour week, and a labourers wage was roughly $9 or $10 per week – from which tax was deducted. Working in the office I earned $2-50 per week, which was good for that day and age. I have added the above information to show that her legacy, which doesn’t sound much these days, really was a fortune at that time.

Anyway, give it a go – and if you don’t like it blame it on how times have changed.

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Book Review: Ghosting by Jennie Erdal

Ghosting, by Jennie Erdal (2004), is an intriguing, somewhat unsettling glimpse into the lives of a ghostwriter and her employer. It’s a true story – her story – and spans nearly twenty years of her life. During this time she loses love, finds love again and her kids grow up, but all the while her relationship with her employer deepens into something increasingly complex and binding.

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She calls her boss “Tiger”, due to the Tiger head he proudly displays on his wall. A prominent member of the British elite and publishing industry, he’s also one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. He’s extravagantly wealthy, flamboyant, a romantic extrovert driven by whims and fancies, but he’s also anxious and obsessive to point of being compulsive. A collector of nude art, a gracious host, a cook, a clean-freak, the owner of murderous dogs – I think you could read this book purely as a character study and get a lot out of it.

Erdal, on the other hand, comes across as being an analytic, systematic, studious type. An expert in Russian language and literature, she was first employed (above the table) as a translator and editor of Russian books. I don’t think Tiger ever set out to employ a ghostwriter. It seemed to me that he started finding extra jobs for her to do out of kindness, as her situation had become difficult. But one job led to the next until she was eventually writing novels for him, and the voice the world knew of as his was actually hers and he couldn’t let her go.

Ironically, she probably wasn’t the best fit for him. His tastes were far different from hers. He wanted graphic sex scenes (“poetic” ones). He wanted her to put down on page extraordinary – hell, supernatural – sexual techniques, which she struggled to write about convincingly. She had no prior experience in writing fiction, and no real inclination either.

Despite all that, she’s obviously a good writer, so Ghosting is a good read. It’s reasonably light, yet full of insightful observations about childhood, relationships, and also the act of writing. About divorce she writes:

Yet when a marriage falls apart, every memory is threatened, and the good times can be blackened overnight. There is nothing that cannot be reinterpreted. Divorce violates the present, but it also slithers backwards on its filthy tentacles and desecrates the past.

Nice. And so very true.

I did feel, however, that she often relied on other people’s quotes to make her point (and maybe that’s the academic in her). Many times throughout I wished I could speak French.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the relationship between Tiger and Erdal. Before I began reading this I imagined the life of the ghostwriter to be a secretive, secluded thing. There would be midnight phone calls and code words, the whole affair steeped in dirty guilt. But Erdal played a prominent part in Tiger’s life – she was in and out of his London office, vacationed with him in France, travelled to foreign book fairs with him. By the end, their lives had become so horribly entwined that I felt suffocated just reading about it. Strangely, it was like Tiger never properly admitted to himself that he wasn’t actually writing his own work. It was like he believed that he was the muse, and she simply his pen.

This is a good read. I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I finished this book at least a month ago, but have been putting off writing a review. To review it seems almost condescending – like rating Beethoven’s fifth symphony or deciding how many stars you’d give Michelangelo’s “David”. This book is a masterpiece.

Which is exactly what I’d heard, actually. I’d been told on numerous occasions that I must read it, that it would be an unforgivable crime for a speculative fiction writer to have not read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series. It took me a while, I have to admit, before I brought myself around to actually sitting down and concentrating on what I could see (by casually flicking through the pages) would be some pretty dense pre-1950s literature. It seemed like it would be a bit of a slog, though why I thought that then I now don’t know. Because once I started reading I was thoroughly hooked.

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Titus Groan is set in Gormenghast: a crumbling fortress of ancient stone, with precarious towers, gardens, and clusters of patchwork buildings built between and among its decaying walls. It is also the seat of the family Groan. Seemingly oblivious to the world outside their small sphere of everyday events, the lives of the people who live within the Keep (and even those “mud dwellers” who live huddled against its outer walls) are dictated by rules and rituals put down as lore too long ago to remember. Everything must remain the same (no matter the consequence). The rituals must be adhered to (no matter how ridiculous and irrelevant). Change is sacrilegious.

The story covers the first few years of Titus Groan’s life, the new heir to the Earldom. I am certain he’ll play a more central role in the two following books, but as he’s just a baby, it’s those around him that we get to know well – his parents, his older sister, his nanny and aunts, and the few key servants who are close to the ruling family.* Each character is as downright mad as the next, from Mr Flay, the Earl’s tall and angular personal servant whose joints are so dry that he crackles each time he takes a step, to Ladies Cora and Clarice, identical twins whose facial muscles, so under-used, are unable to muster a single expression. As you meet each one they begin by seeming simply ludicrous, but by the end of the book you feel you know and understand each intimately. Central to the overarching plot is Steerpike’s story, and we watch him ascend (through intelligent manipulation) from lowly kitchen boy to an esteemed servant; so too is the feud between loyal Mr Flay and Swelter, the wildly obese and sadistic chef.

*As an aside: about halfway through the book I stopped and counted the characters and was happily surprised to realise there was an equal number of men and women.

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The beauty of this book is not actually in the story or plot (I could sum that up by simply saying “change does occur”) but in Peake’s beautifully poetic writing. Really, he’s a literary master. Every paragraph contains at least one exquisite description, or a way of portraying something (even just the play of shadow and light) that seems so very right. Even the mundane, like the weather, is captured so correctly:

A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast feathers and leaving a trail as of glow-worms across the still lake. A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex. And as it clung its body was titanic. It burgeoned the vast summer. Leaves, lake and sky reflected. The hanger was stretched across it and the heat swayed in the pendant. Each bough, each leaf – and as the blue quills ran, the motion of minutiae shivered, hanging. Plumply it slid and gathered, and as it lengthened, the distorted reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry beyond them, pocked with nameless windows, and of the ivy that lay across the face of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip of the edge of the ilex leaf.

Yet even as it fell the leaves of the far ivy lay fluttering in the belly of the tear, and, microscopic, from a thorn-prick window a face gazed out into the summer.

This particular paragraph is a favourite of mine, showing Swelter’s hatred towards Flay:

Swelter’s eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl’s door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred – broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must have surely fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets.

Really I feel I can’t add anything further. If you like fantasy (there’s not much magical about the world, but it is a different  world), then I’d recommend reading this. If you like good literature, then I insist that you really must read this. And if you like neither of these things, well… then don’t. See if I care.

Interestingly, Peake is not just known for his writing, but for his illustrations too (he’s Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amongst other things). The version of Titus Groan I own is speckled throughout with the odd sketch, adding to its overall charm.

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Book Review: The Secret Life of Trees, by Colin Tudge

This book is one of the many books I’ve stolen from my mother (technically “borrowed”, but I’ve had it so long now she’s probably forgotten I ever took it). I picked it up one time I was visiting her house, intrigued by the name, intrigued by the Financial Times quote on the cover: ‘A love-letter to trees’.

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I, myself, feel I have an ongoing love affair with trees. I’ve never met a tree I didn’t like, and when I travel somewhere new it’s the trees I first want to get to know. I love their greenness. Their shade. Their solidity and endurance. Their diversity. Not to mention that they spew fresh oxygen into the atmosphere (thanks trees!). Where I live now, in humid subtropical Auckland, the trees are enormous. During the spring and summer months they’re dripping with bright, fleshy flowers. Where I was born, in the colder southern regions of New Zealand, dry and stunted trees hug the coastline, bent sideways by the wind. When I was a child I was told that hugging a tree gave you energy, and I believed it to be true wholeheartedly. Even now, when no one is looking, I’ll give a passing tree a surreptitious squeeze. Really – I have always loved trees.

This book made me love trees more.

But even if none of that was the case (and trees were just something to have a picnic under), I think I would have gotten a lot out of this book. Having never studied biology past the mandatory first years at high school, my knowledge of plants and their processes was rather simplistic. This book is absolutely jam-packed with incredibly interesting information – about how trees differ from other plant-life, how they’re named and categorised, how they began, how they evolved, how they breed, where they live and why, their relationship with insects and animals… I could go on. In the hands of another (more boring) author all of this could have been delivered as dry facts. Colin Tudge, however, is a storyteller. He has an easy-to-read talkative style, even throwing in the odd joke. With headings such as “What is a tree?”, “Why be a tree?”, “Plants come to land” and “How trees know what to do,” he also manages to merge philosophy, history (up to a few billion years worth) and even sociology with biology.

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The illustrations are awesome, too.

The only downside to this book that I can think of (and for many a plant-lover this will be a positive attribute) is that about half of it is dedicated to specific orders of trees. Personally, I’m happy with a general overview without going deeper into the specifics of leaves, wood and sap. However, it’s easy enough to skip over these parts – once you get over the guilt of not fully reading a book. The latter part of the book, titled “Trees and Us” talks about the importance of trees and the benefits of utilising trees more in human industry and life. So it’s absolutely worth fast-forwarding to that part if you get stuck somewhere in the middle of the book.

This book is very much worth reading – it will make you look at trees in a whole new way.

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Concerning ‘Excerpts from a Natural History’ by Holly Painter (A Book Review).

This slim white book, Excerpts from a Natural History,

contains 2 introductions and 53 poems,

on 80gsm acid-free paper,

hand bound by Atuanui Press, Mangatangi, New Zealand

and published by Titus Books in 2015.

 

Along with page 9’s sub-title, the intoductions make clear

that the collection contained within the book’s 67 pages

are the field notes submitted by a poet-researcher

working for the Natural History project,

now in its 392nd year.

 

The project’s aim is to record all that is true –

“a series of taxonomies… structures, operations,

functions, situations, relationships of every occurence” –

with the goal of one day being able to, given all the facts, properly

speculate and hypothesise (as philosophers tend to do).

 

Life leaning towards the mostly mundane, the poem topics

include titles such as “Concerning Buttons for Sale

at the Ryde Hospice Shop on the Isle of Wight”.

But the poet’s creative flare cannot help but burst through,

much to the annoyance of their supervisor, comparatively nonpoetic.

 

First-name and gender undisclosed, the poet and supervisors’

changing relationship is made evident by the supervisor’s notes

at the side of every poem save only two:

“Concerning the Bridport Railway Stations (disused)”, and

“Concerning Los Angeles: Rush Hour on the 405.”

 

As their relationship progresses, the poet cannot help but show

their feelings inappropriately, expressed as flowing words

unfitting for the project (after all, they are a poet).

The word “history” refers to a record or narrative of past events,

thereby also implying that something that once was, is now over.

 

Speaking entirely subjectively, and thus describing a relation

between myself and this book, of which the cover image

exhibits two types of basil and the African marigold:

I much enjoyed reading it, as I have enjoyed all the poems

written by the author, the one (but not only) Holly Painter.

 

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Book Review: Under the Skin

“All that lying that people had been doing since the dawn of time, all the lying they were doing still. The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust. It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach each other like two animals.” 

 

Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a story about Isserley, an alien woman whose job involves picking up muscular, stray, male hitchhikers and bringing them back to the farm to be processed as a delicacy meat for the rich back on her home planet. Her life and job (which is her life) is physically demanding, tiring and lonely, yet she is able to convince herself that she’s doing the right thing by imagining the alternative life she would have had back home, and by taking pride in the fact that she out of anyone can perform this difficult task. Things change when the the rich, famous son of her boss comes to visit the farm.

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The story is set in the highlands of Scotland during the bleakness of winter, and the adjectives “cold”, “desolate” and “beautiful” could describe not only the setting but also the book as a whole. Although Isserley is not of our species, and is everyday purposefully seeking suitable humans (or “vodsels” in her language) to place in horrific conditions to be eventually processed as food, you can’t help relate to and sympathise with her. Her loneliness is profound, as is her self-loathing and confused sense of identity. She has been mutilated to look like the very dumb animals she is capturing, an irreversible surgery that has left her unable to express herself naturally, or even sleep in a proper, respectable way (curled up on the floor, snuggled into her tail – not lying on a mattress, tangled in old linen like a dirty animal).

Isserley has learned the language of humans, and has learned to imitate their customs and behaviour, but she does not understand humans, nor even try to. She relates much more to four legged animals – sheep and cows – entirely due, it seems, to how similar they look to her own species. Speciesism – a word not often used in our everyday language, meaning when one believes that a particular species has more or less value than another – is a clear theme of the novel. I believe that Faber draws an analogy to how we treat our own animals. We generally hold ourselves as superior, we often don’t take the time to properly understand other species (except on a superficial level), and, obviously, we factory farm animals just as the aliens are factory farming humans in the book. In fact, Faber has chosen very similar factory farming methods to what we use: the “vodsels” are neutered, kept in small, dark pens, and are fattened unnaturally over a very short period, before being killed, cut up and packaged in plastic.

I have often heard people say that humans won’t start treating other species better until we first start treating our own species better. We create weapons and start wars. We torture. We take peoples’ land. We expect people to work long hours for little pay. We create unfair disadvantages for people then stick them in prison when they do something wrong. We let people starve.  On Isserley’s planet, the air is so polluted that the majority of people live in vast underground estates, with only the rich living in lavish, sealed complexes on the surface. In the estates, the poor are forced to work terrible jobs in horrific conditions, with no hope of escape, and no prospects other than slowly failing health. At the same time that Isserley hates the rich with a passion, she despises the “estate trash” workers that man the farm. She doesn’t see the contradiction.

Faber is a brilliant writer. He dishes out the information bit by bit, filling in the greater picture slowly as the story unfurls. I’ve since picked up a copy of The Fahrenheit Twins, a collection of his short stories. I’ve read two of them already and enjoyed them. I get the sneaking feeling that I’ll read all of his work, eventually.

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