Very Long Reads – Part Two: The Obvious Russian Ones

Something to do as we have more time.

Growing up there were always two books joked about when anyone wanted to hyperbolise a long text; War And Peace and Crime And Punishment. I always liked the symmetry of the fact that for two books to have the same reputation they always had the same concepts in their titles; something and something, each side balancing the other.

Firstly forgive me on this as I had planned to do a blog on Russian Literature in general, there is far more to it than just these obvious two (it probably will be a two parter) so I will look at it in greater depth elsewhere. But as frustratingly not everything falls neatly into separate categories, I realised when I was thinking about long books to read I had to include these.

Let’s start with War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Like a lot of literature in those days, this was originally serialised and in this case it was in The Russian Herald. In fact some sources state it took between 1865 to either 1867 or 1869 to do the whole thing. It was, however published as a book in 1869.

Once again this is a massive tome, and having been written in a foreign language it’s hard to be specific in exactly how long it is, as translations and formats will differ in word and page count. Instead we can say it is broken up into four Books and an Epilogue (of two parts).

It literally is about War and Peace. Starting in 1805 amidst the Napoleonic Wars that were sweeping across Europe it follows the course of the lives of five intertwined families, in both Peace and War times. Epic is the very word for its scale.

Tolstoy himself said it wasn’t a novel. As you read this you see he had a far greater ambition than just telling a story. The book includes various essays and philosophising on the part of the author. Some say this slows the plot, some say it adds more weight to it. Either way taking on this tome is no mean feat. Don’t be put off by hearing that, but it’s probably good foreknowledge to have so you know what you are taking on.

I read it years ago when I was living in London and was taking the Underground to work every day. I had the time and made use of it. I’d seen it for sale in a shop reduced in price and I decided that the amount of hours entertainment I was buying made this a very good deal. Also I’d always heard people joking “it’s like reading War And Peace,” about other things and since I loved reading, why not actually do it? I’m very proud to say I finished it, as gloating rights are automatic, but it did open a door to the world of Russian Literature as having enjoyed it so much the natural next step was…

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Fyodor Dostoyevsky has since become one of my favourite authors so you will be getting more of his other works later. But Crime And Punishment was such a game changer for me when it came to reading. In theory it was War And Peace that made me take on these big classic works, and whilst I enjoyed that, I LOVED Crime And Punishment.

As it was first published, once again as a serial, in 1866 and then as a book in 1867, it was a contemporary of War And Peace. However this was set at the time of publication and reflects St Petersburg as it would have been known to the author.

It is no way as long as War And Peace but it is deep. The premise is that Raskolnikov, a former student, decides that it is morally acceptable for him to kill someone, and then the plot follows the consequences of that judgement. It’s not exactly light reading, however the way it takes you into the thoughts of this man is a fascinating insight into the workings of conscience and paranoia. How does this choice affect him? Does he act on it? I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll recommend you find out by reading it for yourself.

I read it a couple of years after War And Peace. I’d concluded that having read both of the obvious very long reads that would be enough; but it just gave me a taste for Russian Literature and I’ve read a lot of it since, and plan on discovering even more.

Both of these novels are well worth the challenge. If you want an ongoing saga of family life amidst the historic wars of Europe read War And Peace. If you want a psychological thriller read Crime And Punishment. If you liked one, read the other.

Buy War And Peace By Leo Tolstoy
Buy Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Very Long Reads – Part One: Victor Hugo

Something to do as we have more time.

If you ask Google how long the average novel is, you get so many different lengths and ideas you could make a book out of them. There does seem to be agreement that generally they are somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words. How that transfers to page count is hard as it depends of size of text, number of chapters and format. But again a cursory search on Google seems to indicate somewhere between 200 – 300 is about average for a novel. None of this is law. It also depends on the type of story and who the audience will be, basically do what seems right for the tale you want to tell.

Having said that there are some whoppers out there. I mean books that you look at on the shelf and think “If I start to invest in this it had better be good,” or “That’s going to take a lot of time,” no matter what our reading speed. Both of these statements are true along with, “If I finish that it’ll look great on the shelf and I can feel a bit smug”.

For a writer to produce something of vast length they need to be incredibly confident, as with all books really but here even more so. To ask your readers to stick with you for that long is a big ask; sometimes it pays off, sometimes it really doesn’t.

All things being equal, it does always come down to opinion. Something I really love might not appeal to others and vice versa. Having said that, seeing as we all seem to have a bit more time on our hands as more and more restrictions are imposed worldwide due to the coronavirus, So, in this Part and in the next one, I’ve suggested some really long reads which I have enjoyed and that you might want to have a go at. Am I doing this to be helpful or just to show off I’ve read them?… Yes, you’re probably right.

Both my authors I’m going to list for recommendations are in the “classic” genre. They’ve been around for years and I really think they are worth reading. Let’s start with the brilliant Victor Hugo.

It’s hard to say how many pages long Les Misérables is, it depends on the edition and the language. The Penguin Classics in English is 1,232 pages. (You can get an abridged version, but what’s the point?) The book is set out as explained by its Wikipedia page:

“The novel is divided into five volumes, each volume divided into several books, and subdivided into chapters, for a total of 48 books and 365 chapters.”

Regardless of the language and the edition and format, it’s a long read! I have a version spilt into two volumes and that made the thing easier to hold if anything, and not so intimidating to start.

Someone demonstrating how it can be likened to a brick

Frankly I love it. I really enjoyed every page. I’d not seen the musical or any adaption, so it was all new to me and I think that is the best way of attempting this (if you have seen them it’s still recommended). I really had no idea what the story was before I picked it up so Jean Valjean’s uncertain future became mine.

Let’s make one thing clear – to be that length the writing is intricate, but you soon get used to it. At the start there is a very lengthy account of the life of Bishop Myriel. For those of you who know the story he’s actually an almost incidental character and this is the first stumbling block for many who just want to get to the action. It takes up a lot of pages and meticulously catalogues his life and ways. I can see why this would be irritating; but for me I didn’t know this so just went with it and enjoyed it as a result.  Later there are other very long histories and accounts that aren’t really necessary to the plot (the history of an old convent somewhere towards the middle for example), but by this point the reader is aware what is happening and if they’ve stuck with it this long they’re obviously enjoying it.

The book does build momentum and I genuinely didn’t know what would happen as it (despite length and side-tracks) eventually speeds on towards the conclusion. I was gripped. I really love this book and I still haven’t, and now won’t, see an adaption as I think it misses the point. Les Misérables is a book that you need to commit to reading to get the full enjoyment.

Just as an addition although shorter, sometime after I finished Les Misérables I read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Again I’d not seen any adaption of it but went into it blind. Once more I fell in love with it. The attention to detail is still there but not as intricate or overwhelming, however it gives fascinating histories of various parts of Paris as well and other interesting information as the plot goes on. Just like Les Misérables it manages to keep momentum and again I was engrossed by the time I got towards the end. I stayed up until 4am to finish it, I just needed to know what happened.

If you’ve seen an adaption, especially Disney’s, expect something totally different. Darker in tone and grim in plot, this still is a read will worth undertaking.

Buy Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Buy The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

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Swapping Reviews

Let’s work together

It’s hard to market a book. Reviews on Amazon and Good Reads help, but don’t entirely solve it. Therefore as we are all in the same boat, let’s work with each other. I’m not proposing a fake rising of statistics but a genuine support for one and other.

On my twitter, @ahofn I’ve set up a pinned thread, please list your book links that need support, but only once you’ve also stated which other book you are going to support – at least one other listed; more is great! Let’s try this until 22/03/20 but if popular we’ll see what happens.

Please don’t do it in the comments below as it could come up as SPAM and not show.

My ebook is free on 17th March (it’s set in Ireland and I have only just connected the date, it’s a coincidence and not a plan). It’s free from 0.00 PDT for some reason (not GMT – so it’s 7am GMT).

http://amazon.co.uk/dp/B07T91FR93 – UK
http://amazon.com/dp/B07T91FR93 – USA
Other countries are also available.

As this is my thread I’m going to impose some rules:

For fairness it should be either available free of charge or on Amazon Kindle Unlimited. Doesn’t have to be free from Amazon. If the review is not for Amazon please state where you want it, but be realistic. If we have to create the account just to review one book it doesn’t look right.

One book per author.

Just as I work this way: Keep it SAFE FOR WORK. (No “adult only” books as this is open to everyone, also I don’t want images which could be offensive on my blog or in my personal twitter replies). No gratuitous sex or horror or violence etc etc etc.

Nothing offensive – I have the right to decide it is, but we should all know what that means, things like racism (and other isms) are a big No No.

Can we also keep this politics free? So nothing complaining about certain people/ organisations/ beliefs – I don’t want to start arguments and I try and keep as far away from politics as possible. We are talking about writing stories here NOT pushing our beliefs – I think we should all know how to find a balance.

Please look out for works that don’t seem to be getting support. I’ve asked you to list “who” so we can try and equalise it.

I’m running this but I can not review/help everyone- nor can anyone else, so please don’t be upset if I don’t select yours, others may. I will be selecting books that sound like I can give them a good review, as in they fit my taste. We all have different tastes. – But as I said please keep an eye out for those who might not be getting the love that others are.

I can not make specific promises to any specific one author; as in “I’ll read yours if you read mine”, please don’t insist on this with others either. This is because your book might be about something that I’m just not into so I can’t then say I loved it. Likewise mine might not be your thing so you can’t either. If we did that it would just be back to artificially inflating statistics and that is not the point.

Positive reviews only. If you really can’t do that, don’t review the book. If it is just opinion because we don’t like that style, fair enough but then do try and pick something which that won’t happen with in the first place. If it is because the writer needs some help (most of us are indie and can’t afford an editor – so somethings WILL slip through) – help by DM-ing them privately what they need to change. “Lots of spelling mistakes” is not helpful. Point out specifics e.g. “you mix YOUR and YOU’RE up” – but only in private messaging. But don’t destroy them either, we are here to help. A few spelling mistakes shouldn’t stop you enjoying the book. You can give a good review of the things you have enjoyed and also help to point out issues.

DISCLAIMER: Having said all the above. I also just want to say this is us all working together so just because I’ve instigated this and the replies are to my thread it doesn’t mean I support all the views with in each book.

Reviews can not happen the same day, so be patient. I want this to be genuine and not a fake way of raising statistics. We need to read the work before we can review it.

I know that’s a lot above but hopefully this should work and we’ll get something positive from it.

Buy Framed Of Rathgar FREE E-BOOK (17th MARCH 2020)

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Why Dublin?

The Reasons For Setting A Novel In The City

As I state elsewhere I’m not Irish. However I have lived for many of my important years in Dublin. To me it’s the default city. I’ve lived in other places but the experiences I have had in the Irish capital are really what made me me. Therefore when I came to write my novel Framed In Rathgar, it wasn’t so much a choice to set the book there, I just did because that is the place I knew the best.

Dublin of course is steeped in literary heroes, enough in itself a reason to be inspired. To name a few you have James Joyce, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats; all with ties to the city. But these are the obvious ones. Just after I first moved to Ireland I found myself in a bookshop and decided it would be inexcusable not to buy some Irish books. Among the ones I chose was The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty (published in 1925). Set in the 1920s. it tells the story of a man who informs on his friend and spends the rest of the novel in fear of the repercussions. Set in a grimy, poor Dublin where men book themselves in to hostels for a place to stay the night only if they can afford it and roam the streets the rest of the time looking for any money they can spend, this was a very different view of the city I had, having come in the closing years of the Celtic Tiger.

The fascinating thing is with its Georgian buildings still intact this fictional world is still there, almost as if I had been reading a document from the city’s history. Just walking through Merrion Square and the surrounding streets, or on the Northside Mountjoy Sqaure, are enough to take in the grand buildings and let your imagination run wild. The fact is I’ve just taken two places I frequented, there is so much more, the city is full with this identity… and doors that tourists love to photograph.

The real Rathgar.

For others Dublin is a fast moving city of opportunity and learning, Trinity College, Grafton Street and Guinnesses, modern reasons to visit, but stretching back through the years in its urban soul. There are so many hooks to put a story on here, and so much of its own local myth you will never finish with the possibilities of creating a fiction in these streets.

Dublin is in some ways very different from the rest of the country’s open country vibe. But it’s still small enough to represent the attitudes of the rest of the nation. Dubliners are still Irish and keep the culture alive and strong (sometimes more so than the rest of land if you’ve been in Gogarty’s pub in Temple Bar – actually well worth a night if you’re a tourist for Irish songs and music, but expensive).

Brighton Square in the snow.

I, and a number of my friends, lived in or around Rathgar, what estate agents would describe as a “leafy suburb”. I never lived on the main Rathgar Road, but I did for a while have a place on Leinster Road (it’s almost compulsory to live for even a short time on either of the two streets if you are going to have a studio in the Dublin 6 postcode). Rathgar is a really good place to live, as the three protagonists keep saying. You can walk to the Liffey (the very centre of Dublin) in about twenty minutes; but full of cafes and bookshops, pubs and parks (along with Rathmines) makes itself a good location in its own right. There is the full sweep of human life in these roads; from the millionaires in the refurbished and stunning homes, to the students and others squashed in the houses that have been converted to small studios. There are many stories here told to large audiences, some talked about between friends, others still waiting to find their voice. I just wanted to add my tiny piece to the flow.

Buy The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty
Buy Framed Of Rathgar by Arthur Hofn (Me!)

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Children’s Literature

It’s not just for kids.

Generally I’m not a great fan of watching the film/ TV series of a book I’ve read. I don’t like how they miss things out or change parts. I don’t like being told that a character looks nothing like I had them in my head. This hasn’t always been the case, in fact as a child it often went the other way round.

A couple of blogs ago I mentioned a children’s book and it got me thinking; so much of good children’s literature has been adapted for television or for the cinema. Of course as a kid you don’t really realise that some of brilliant things you are watching was a book first. Well I assume that’s the case, I lost touch with children’s television a long long time ago. That’s not to say it doesn’t still hold an important position, I just can’t compare now with what I experienced.

The fact is all those years ago there were so many good adaptions of books on television, and if I enjoyed watching them, as this was before streaming or even (shock!) DVDs, I’d go and get the book. (You didn’t really buy many videos, it was mainly used to tape stuff off the telly which would invariably be taped over later.)

These were the days of CBBC and the broom cupboard (other children’s programming were available… well one other was which was on ITV or “the other side”). Each adaption would generally be six episodes long and you would have to wait the full six weeks to see the whole story… if you missed an episode, well the chances are you would never get to see it again – unless by some chance they repeated it in the next year or so.

Specifically there are two that I think of fondly and I do still have the books on my shelves… well in a box at the moment, but when the shelves come back they will be there.

Firstly in the eighties (Wikipedia tells me it was 1989), there was a very English serial made about a boy who looked at a clock and went back to the Victorian times. This was of course Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. Published in 1958 this won the Carnegie Medal which is a British award for children’s literature. As a TV programme I found it fascinating and as a book unputdownable, even though I remembered the story. The “current” era of the novel is set in the 1950’s (ish – dates are not stated) which was present when the book was written and only just over thirty years before broadcast, which is horrifying as we’re thirty years from broadcast now, going forward in time!

Set in Cambridgeshire and telling the story of a friendship between Tom from the fifties and Hatty, a girl from Victorian times, it’s a beautifully written tale which, although it plays with the concept of time travel, doesn’t feel sci-fi (because it isn’t). Whilst it has intrigue it keeps things simple enough for an adult to understand and complicated enough for a child not to get bored. There have been other adaptions, but I won’t bother with them (I’m sure they are good) the 1980’s one will always be the definitive for me, and of course the book tops that.

“I meant to ask Hatty questions about the garden,’ Tom wrote to Peter, ‘but somehow I forgot.’ He always forgot. In the daytime, in the Kitsons’ flat, he thought only of the garden, and sometimes he wondered about it: where it came from, what it all meant. Then he planned cunning questions to put to Hatty, that she would have to answer fully and without fancy; but each night, when he walked into the garden, he forgot to be a detective, and instead remembered only that he was a boy and this was the garden for a boy and that Hatty was his playmate.”
― Philippa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden

The other one I that I distinctly remember is almost as different as you can get but still be brilliant (although there are some concepts in the two that cross paths). Set in what was then modern day England this was a story that got increasingly bizarre but still managed to keep to a logical and comprehendible story. This really was thinking outside the box and when I discovered it was a book first I was delighted.

I’m talking about Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve not actually read anything else by her and I feel I should because not only are the ideas in this book very strange, they are written in a way that doesn’t put you off but makes you want to know more, and, as I’ve said, the logic works. Published in 1984 this was adapted in 1992.

This starts when a boy called Howard discovers that someone called Archer has sent a Goon to collect a tax of words his father has to write. As Howard investigates he discovers that within the real world is another more baffling one, one ran by a group of very odd types. And that’s as much as I’ll say, go and read it to discover exactly what is going on.

“You don’t give hired assassins supper, do you?” Quentin smiled. “No, but when a wolf follows your sleigh, you give it meat.”
― Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon

I still love both these books and recommend them to parents who want a good read for their children. I was never really aware of the expression YA Fiction until years later and I gather it is doing good things getting teenagers reading. I haven’t read a lot of it as there is just so much other stuff to read, but in what I would refer to as “the classic children’s literature” there is still a wealth for them to discover.

Contrary to what adults would tell me about what television was going to do, because of the two examples I’ve mentioned above and others, I was drawn to reading by it and not pulled away from it.

Buy Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Buy Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

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The Tragedy Of Queen Alexia… Available To Read

In full on The Writers Club

I love listening to Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics on BBC Radio 4. In the episode on Euripides she retells the play Medea and is amazing. Inspired by how miserable it is I decided to see if I could have a go at a short play based on Greek theatre. The Tragedy Of Queen Alexia is the result.

A woman late thirties (ALEXIA) is sitting on the ground centre stage. She has been traveling in difficult conditions for a long while and you can tell by the state of her practical but good quality clothes. She is staring into the distance. Behind her is a white screen.

Masked women (CHORUS) enter from behind the screen, briefly look at ALEXIA then stand beside her and turn to the audience.

CHORUS

The Kingdom is in ruins
It is so nearly rent
A war has broken out
Which the King could not prevent

His family were taken
A wife and his two sons
Only little children
And the woman he so loves

Somehow she escaped their hold
She knows she must return
To a King so enraged
He would let the whole world burn

The CHORUS takes a step back to the right of the screen and sit on a bench. A noise from the right. ALEXIA turns to look offstage to see who is coming.

ALEXIA: Who is that?

A woman late thirties (IRINA) enters from the left. She shows the signs of hardship, her clothes are not the quality of ALEXIA’s. She looks down to ALEXIA putting a cup down next to her.

IRINA: It is a little water, it was all we could spare.

ALEXIA: Where are my children?

IRINA : You will get your answers but first be assured that you are safe here. We are supporters of the King and your face is not one we would take in error Queen Alexia.

ALEXIA: (Relieved) You have my thanks in giving me your hospitality. But please where are my sons Rico and Dya? They are so young…

ALEXIA stands and IRINA follows.

IRINA: They are being looked after. Become calm.

ALEXIA : Who are you?

IRINA: My name is Irina. I no longer know who I am…

ALEXIA: Your answers are not reassuring me. How long have I been here?

IRINA: You have been here for only one day. Our spies found you on the edge of the forest, looking all but dead. You must have all been exhausted beyond your limits. It was a large risk.

ALEXIA: We had to travel at night. We are free now but I know the price on our head and the danger as it will not now be paid.

IRINA: I meant it was a risk for us. This village has been under siege for two years, from just after the war began. We took in your cousins for refuge and the enemy surrounded us. They would have been taken and executed. Our loyalty has cost us.

ALEXIA: When this is over you will be much repaid. My family are still here?

IRINA: We dug a tunnel under the barricade and they fled to other parts three months ago. It was only just in time. Soon after the soldiers made camp at the mouth of the passage, they do not know it is there. If they found it they would come and realise their prize was gone. We would then all be slain.

ALEXIA: Your noble sacrifices…

IRINA: Are more than you could ever comprehend in a nightmare.

Read the full play here at The Writers Club

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A Whole New Logic

It’s a universe in itself.

Each book is a world, thought out and destined by the writer. The author has full control over the lives and the events of the character’s lives. Therefore a bookshelf is many universes sitting side by side. In some we recognise something close to our actual reality; a true story or a book on a historical period for example. Some other books just slightly change the world as we know it to accommodate their tale.

It’s a well-known trope to set the novel in what feels like reality only to be said to be happening in a fictional town or country, but as if it were part of our geography. Of course in Science Fiction we have actuality plus, and in some cases plus plus. In Fantasy it is, of course, the whole point.

There are some books, however, that just throw all the laws of physics out the window and make everything bend to the story.

For example The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a universe in itself. While it’s a children’s book, there is a lot of clever devices and intelligent observations that make this enjoyable for any age. The concept is that a young lad finds the eponymous tollbooth in his room with a map to the Lands Beyond. Not realising what will happen he uses his toy car to drive through the tollbooth and soon ends in a completely different reality.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear he has a mission, but this doesn’t stop the tale and the author taking the reader to some pretty strange places (there are The Mountains of Ignorance where people therefore live in Ignorance) and introducing some strange characters (the Princesses Rhyme and Reason who were taken away, hence the land no longer has Rhyme or Reason).

“And illegal barking,” he added, frowning at the watchdog. “It’s against the law to bark without using the barking meter. Are you ready to be sentenced?”
“Only a judge can sentence you,” said Milo, who remembered reading that in one of his schoolbooks.
“Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge. Now would you like a long or a short sentence?”
“A short one, if you please,” said Milo.
“Good,” said the judge, rapping his gavel three times. “I always have trouble remembering the long ones. How about ‘I am.’? That’s the shortest sentence I know.”
Everyone agreed that it was a very fair sentence, and the judge continued: “There will also be a small additional penalty of six million years in prison. Case closed,” he pronounced, rapping his gavel again. “Come with me. I’ll take you to the dungeon
.
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

The whole point is a big wordplay, where idioms are true, and a commentary on our life. Therefore like a lot of stories that at first don’t seem to represent what we know as real, this eventually becomes a reflection of the points about society the author wants to make.

Elsewhere some novels are said to be set in our world but the events are so bizarre that there is no way they can be. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn is set on an island apparently off the coast of the USA. It is said to be the home of the man who invented the saying “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The concept is that a statue on the island commemorating this has the phrase on, however a tile falls off and the government decide to ban that letter. As the book goes on more and more letters fall from the monument and the alphabet decreases. Because the story is told as a series of correspondences between characters these letters also disappear from the actual book and the wording and spelling of words gets more inventive as the plot goes on to accommodate the new laws. It’s very strange but also clever and just the right length so the concept doesn’t become tiring.

“U” is gone. I suppose you’re aware. The 1st aeiouy to go. Up until now the other graphemes were not aeiouys. When the aeiouys start to go, Ella, writing to you turns exponentially more grueling. I will not throw in the towel, though. I trust that you won’t either. I truly relish our partnership.”
― Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

The fact is if you are a writer and you have that blank page you can do literally whatever you want, there is no need to stick to our logic if you want to invent your own. “Any story” means whatever your imagination can create, there really are no limits in fiction.

Buy The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Buy Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

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