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Darker Fables

Writing and reviews. Adventures, maybe? Exciting, definitely.

Review: Andy McDermott’s ‘The Valhalla Prophecy’

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I have been pleasantly surprised, because I was expecting this book to be truly awful, and it turned out to be not quite so bad. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, but it has lingered in my to-read pile for several years, awaiting a godforsaken, desperate hour in which I would find myself without an alternative.

The Valhalla Prophecy is actually book nine of the Wilde and Chase series, but there is nothing to stop it being read as a stand-alone novel if you’ve read a few formulaic action/adventure stories. This is a cheap cut of Indiana Jones, and not dissimilar to the work of Dan Brown.

It’s not a stellar work of literature, but it’s not trying to be. This book is like a McDonalds meal in a motorway services. Nothing special, but it does the job. It’s a book. You can read it. Your eyes probably won’t bleed.

‘…And I’m still in exactly the same shape I was in when I left the SAS.’

Nina eyed his midsection sceptically. ‘Uh-huh.’

I’m struggling to find anything really worth quoting, but the childish one-liners in this book are not all terrible.

The main characters are quite annoying, however. On one hand we have Nina Wilde, a feisty redhead archaeology expert who makes a lot of noise without actually saying anything. On the other we have Eddie Chase, Nina’s ex-SAS/mercenary chump of a husband, who, if this book became a film, would be played by Bruce Willis.

I don’t know if it’s just the ninth-time-we’ve-repeated-this-formula itch, but their chemistry is off, amounting to the exchanging of smutty jokes. The author has attempted to shoehorn some depth in by making them discuss having children, but there is no development.

Really, we are only saved by the secondary characters. Or, by one secondary character. Tova, the Swedish Norse mythology expert is just sort of there, and the bad guys are stereotypical goons, but Kagan, the grumpy Russian ally, is kind of cool, and only thing saving this book from a two-star review.

‘Are you okay?’

A pause as the other man sat up with a grunt. ‘I am not worse than I was,’ he concluded. 

The main problem with this book is that the main characters (mostly Eddie) are guilty of too much posturing. The secondary cast are there to make them look cool, and this results in the heroes being unflawed bores who steal the limelight.

Also, it’s way too long. 550 pages for this kind of novel is ridiculous. Maybe if the plot was a bit less predictable, and the characters a bit more rounded, I would be willing to wade, but this is just overkill. There wordcount allows for too much action, and not enough tension.

But for all the flaws, I read The Valhalla Prophecy in two days. The ending was a bit disappointing, but I finished it. The themes were not uninteresting, the writing didn’t make me grind my teeth.

If I had to sum this book up in one word, I would say that it’s alright.

Review: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘Fall On Your Knees’

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Hmmm… I’m leaning towards a 2.5 here.

This is a difficult novel to review, because I wanted to like it, and it started out so wellMacDonald’s writing is mesmerising, and her initial setup is fantastic.

We start out with James and Materia, a Canadian piano tuner and a Lebanese child. One controversial marriage later, we begin their unhappy life together, and follow the lives of the actual protagonists – their four unhappy daughters.

This is a big book. If you’re looking for a theme, it’s probably here, from religious fervour to war and racism, from incest to queer sexuality, prostitution and the jazz scene. There are themes of sisterhood, of sacrifice. Ghosts, family feuds, language barriers and revenge. Some Macdonald tackles with great skill and great sensitivity. Others less so.

‘He knows Materia will pray, she’ll pray her fool head off. He’s right, she does. She prays so hard that her head really does seem to get a little wobbly. She prays he’ll be killed quickly and painlessly in Flanders.’

Hats off to MacDonald’s ambition, because every page sings with what this novel is trying to be. For a debut, Fall On Your Knees is a real testament to this author’s ability to tackle complex storylines. The writing quality is excellent, but there’s a big question mark hanging over whether it all comes together.

I’m inclined to say no.

Multiple protagonists is always a risky move, especially in long, third-person narratives, and this book is a clear example of how not to do it. MacDonald seems to have really struggled with who to focus on, because the tension is all over the place, and consequently, lacking.

loved Frances, and Mercedes showed the makings of a great character in places, but Lily is just sort of there, and Kathleen I will never understand why MacDonald left telling her story so late in the novel. After disliking her for 400 pages, it didn’t do to have this girl’s issues fixed in the final fifth. The transformation, though lovely, occurs without any evidence of internal conflict. It’s as though she becomes a new person in the space of a scene, and for no reason other than MacDonald wanted this girl to wind up a good person.

‘Tonight, Frances extinguishes her candle before she steps into the attic. It’s the moon. Four rectangles of light have swooned through the latticed window onto the floor. The moon may drive men mad but it can calm a savage girl, for it is cool, precise, it is lucid. Especially in such an empty room.’

The writing I’ll stand by. But what it writes about…?

So much flitting and so many characters making life-changing decisions with little to no motivation. Overall, a mess, and the ending is weak.

This book has more flaws than can be forgiven, but the truth is I still want so much to say that I liked it, because it is a sharply-defined shadow of what it could have been, in the hands of a better editor.

Review: Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ‘The Descendants’

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I don’t usually go in for first-person narratives. In general, I prefer a handful of main characters as oppose to a clearly defined protagonist whose story is the story. The Descendants is, on this and many other levels, not the kind of book I usually read.

Matt King, a rich attorney, lives in Hawaii, and has two daughters with his beautiful wife, Joanie. The sun sets in paradise, however. Joanie is in a coma, and it’s time to shut off the machines.

And there’s one other thing. Matt loved Joanie, and loves her still, but Joanie was having an affair.

‘What do I want? Just to see him? To humiliate him? To measure myself against him? Maybe I just want to ask him if she ever loved me.’

There are a lot of things I adore about this book, though I’m surprised. I was expecting something like Me Before You when I went in, but this is something much more nuanced than a romance novel. It’s about harder, subtler types of love. Loving someone after they have stopped loving you, loving someone who is difficult to love, and loving someone who you didn’t ask the right questions, when you had the chance.

It’s also a really funny book which, despite its subject matter, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Matt loves his daughters, however wayward they have become, and Matt’s unwilling, comedic transition into the role of sole parent is one of the main themes.

The Descendants is, on one level, the story of a man wondering, not without cynicism, ‘how am I going do this?’

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The Descendants (2011)

There’s a lot of pain in this book, not just in Matt, but in Scottie, his ten-year-old who copes with the situation with by fantasising, and in Alex, his older daughter, who hasn’t forgiven her mother for anything.

The backdrop of the Hawaiian islands makes for a strangely picturesque background to the difficult situations the family must endure, and acts in sharp contrast to the serious, stormy task of tracking down the man who Joanie really loved.

This novel is one of the more mature I have read about modern family life. It’s sensitive without being soppy, kind without being over nice, and very real in its portrayal of just how hard it is to love someone whose betrayal must go unexplained.

Really, I can’t praise it highly enough. Easily my best read of the summer so far.

‘Go,’ she says, and even though I’m on the verge of either snapping or bawling, I go. I take this strange detour and hope for the best.’

Review: Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

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I set myself a challenge to read 100 books this year. Easy, you’d think, for a woman who once refused a man a second date because he didn’t ‘get the appeal’ of literature.

It’s going spectacularly badly, however, and I’ve fallen so far behind schedule that it’s going to take a reading frenzy to get me back on track. The only way now is to find short books and consume them like a fat, hungry man devours a ten-piece bucket in KFC.

I do like short books. I think there’s something very satisfying about finishing a book in general, but short books finish a hell of a lot faster, and if they’re bad, at least they have the decency not too waste so much of your time.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book I know I should have read a long time ago, but late as I am to this party, at least I’m here now.

Arthur remained very worried.

‘But can we trust him?’ he said.

‘Myself, I’d trust him to the end of the earth,’ said Ford.

‘Oh yes,’ said Arthur, ‘and how far’s that?’

‘About twelve minutes away,’ said Ford. ‘Come on, I need a drink.’

This edition of the book features an introduction by Russell T Davies, which states that Hitchhiker’s is a children’s book.

This is probably true. It is also probably true that the best age to read this book is somewhere around twelve, because funny books that are funny in an inneundo-free way are, I think, not best appreciated by adults who’ve heard enough jokes to become cynical of the whole clean laughs business.

Usually, I don’t laugh unless there’s some sex or a grisly death thrown in, and that is a sad reflection of my corrupted mind. But that’s not to say I didn’t laugh at all reading this novel. Hitchhiker’s is a two-jokes-every-page text, full of whimsical, child-like humour and acidic sarcasm (something I can definitely get on board with).

‘Ford,’ he said, ‘there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.’

Basically, for the few of you who don’t know, this book is about the end of the world, and the comic misadventures of the last human man and his alien best friend. Also featured are: the last human woman, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, and a manically depressed robot.

It is an unapologetically strange tale in which nothing reasonable happens, resembling instead the author’s curious brain vomit after a very strange dream.

It’s one of those books that, before you die, you just have to read.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Songs to Write to

Progress is slow for me at the moment. I’ve been doing quite well with regular blogging, but my novel is moving forward with all the speed of a legless zombie in the mud (I’ve been watching too much of The Walking Dead).

I had a new idea, for a short story, however, so I’m going to have a stab at that tomorrow on the coach home.

I’ll go in armed with a few new tunes for inspiration, and here they are.

1. Allie X – Paper Love

A super-catchy, zesty piece. I think it makes an ideal soundtrack for badass ladykillers, or badass killers, doing what they do best.

2. Rebecca Ferguson – We’ll Be Fine

Considering what an amazing voice this woman has, she is so underrated. You can find both jazz and pop in her albums. Often her songs have a mellow quality, but this is among her more energetic pieces. I find it very uplifting.

3. Porter Robinson & Madeon – Shelter

Given the monster view count on the official video of this song, I think most people have heard this one, but sometimes the mainstream isn’t all about the money, and jewels break through the surface of mediocrity to be recognised. The official video is also a real treat, if you like having your heart broken.

4. Kronic (Feat. Leon Thomas) – Rendevouz

I’ve had this song on repeat for two days, so it would be unfair to keep it to myself. I really wish I knew places where music like this was played, because this is one for dancing. I’ve been using it to imagine chase and fight scenes.

It’s time I went and packed, but hopefully I’ll soon have a story to share. I’ll keep you posted!

Years

Oh, sweet land in the hills
of memory.

Do you remember me?

I have returned with my horses,
wearing finer raiment.

A raven flies ahead
to tell my people of my coming,
like news of a loved one
buried abroad.

I arrive glittering in the sun,
helmeted silver, with gauntlets,
cuirass and greaves.

Do I frighten you?

I have done the things I said I would,
only that, though my world has changed
and I am not who you thought.

Chevalier, I, though I wear the colours
with an apology.

Your loyalty meant so little to me.

I saw you in the blood of dragons,
the ones that I had slain,
and wanted to pillow my head
on your shoulder.

I have no mother now, besides the moon.

My father forgave me, but forgot
everything,
including my existence.

Every mile had only your name,
and in all my battles
you were with me.

My misery, my joy,
tell me it has not been so long
that I shall never see your face again.

Standing here, with my squire,
standard, and baggage train,
I have come washed clean.

Purgatory is behind me.

You, among the willows,
in your brocade gold,
look up.

Tell me that I am finally home.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

Review: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’

Carmilla
Illustration from The Dark Blue by D.H. Friston

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I love vampires. The classic, predatory type in combination with a historical setting and a nuanced undertone of rampant sexuality.

The genre has changed beyond all recognition over recent decades, and I seldom find gems among the hordes of new bloodsuckers. Sometimes there is nowhere to go but back to the classics, and it doesn’t come more classic than Carmilla. This novella predates Dracula by more than twenty-five years, but its age is actually quite hard to believe. For one thing, the language, as compared with other classic texts (I’m looking at you, Ivanhoe) is not challenging.

Also, this is undeniably a lesbian vampire story.

‘It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”

A quick summary: Laura and her father live with their servants in a backwater castle. Following an accident, a passing carriage leaves a mysterious young woman in their care – the ravishing Carmilla.

Young, friendless and naïve, Laura is quickly drawn under the spell of this secretive stranger, who is quite different from the sweet invalid she appears to be. As Laura begins to sicken, questions are raised about the kindly attentions of her new companion.

Really, if you’ve read any book about vampires, you’ll go into this one knowing what to expect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good read. In fact, compared with many a vampire novel, this short text is refreshing, and deserving of its legacy. I think when it comes to the crunch I still prefer Dracula, but it’s not difficult to see what a debt Stoker’s masterpiece owes to Carmilla. 

‘Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, “drawn towards her,” but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.’

The vampire of this novella is the original incarnation of Lucy, and I think without her the legions of seductive vampiric noblewoman in Gothic fiction would never have been.

Stoker certainly took what Le Fanu had written and bettered it, but in some ways Carmilla is the more groundbreaking text. Unlike many of his Victorian contemporaries, Le Fanu does not shy away from the sexual undertones. They are so heavily present that it’s difficult to honestly label them as something entirely below the surface.

The interactions between Laura and Carmilla are charged with sexual energy, and there is a lascivious, visceral quality to Carmilla’s behaviour that contrasts with Laura’s waxen, slightly limp temperament. As ever in the Gothic, the two women represent the extremes of femme fatale and innocent virgin, but this is one of few Gothic texts which I have read in which the two types of women interact on a basis so fundamental to the plot.

“But to die as lovers may–to die together, so that they may live together.”

Overall, Carmilla is something of an enigma, since despite a little research I can find no satisfying answer as to what inspired it, but it is a good read. (Also, at just over 100 pages, it’s nothing resembling a commitment!)

It’s undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the Gothic genre, and deserves more credit than it has received in the mainstream for being a precursor to Dracula. So go on. It won’t bite.

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Van Helsing (2004)

Summer in Paris

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As I mentioned in my Amsterdam post, I’m going home in a few days. It will be the first time I’ve been in the UK for more than a weekend since I moved to Paris. I anticipate that it’s going to be one of the strangest experiences of my life.

I have a friend who emigrated when she was younger, and she says that the oddest thing for her was not the going away and finding a new country different from her own, but the fact that for all that her experiences abroad changed her, she arrived home to find the place where she grew up completely unaltered.

My family and my homeland are certainly not vacuum-packed, and I’m sure that there are things which have shifted since I’ve been gone, but not my room at my parents’ house, or the old streets of the city where I studied and worked, and which is so familiar to me that I can close my eyes and walk the high street from end to end.

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I’m going home to a city which has started to forget me, but which remains stamped on my character like a iron-wrought brand. I think if there’s an appropriate time to reflect on my first four months of Parisian life, this is it.

It’s nothing original to say, but I’ve learnt so muchI’ve made a friend not just from another culture, but another continent. I’ve danced by the Seine under the light of the moon. I’ve worked with children, some of them terrible, one of them the loveliest little boy, who made me feel better about everything. I’ve had my first date with a foreigner, and I did it in French. I was misread, and got fired, something I never imagined would happen to me. I left my friends in the UK behind, and in doing so I found out just how much I am loved. I forgot who I was, but then I started writing again. My life in Paris has not been perfect, but it has been my life, to live selfishly, with passion, and in complete freedom.

The most important lesson has been one about myself: I am stronger than I thought.

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Paris, like all big cities, is a place where dreams are made or broken, where every day someone finds inspiration, and another person gives up. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum during the past four months.

It’s really difficult to admit that you’re on the wrong path. Harder still when you’ve spent time and money, and made greater sacrifices, just to get so far. But I was not where I was meant to be, and I see that now. I wanted to become a writer because I thought that would be enough for me to express myself. I know now that it isn’t, and I know also that before I wasn’t brave enough to admit what I really wanted to do.

Of course I’m going to continue writing until I’m dead or dribbling, but my aspirations have changed. No longer is writing my be-all-and-end-all goal, and my motives for lifting the pen have changed. These day, I want to use my writing to humanitarian ends, by writing serious novels that aren’t just about action and romance, and by making a switch from a creative career into the hard, analytical world of law.

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I’ve been slow off the mark. I know that. 22 is not the ideal age to discover what it is you really want to do. The next couple of years are going to be tough, not just in terms of catching up academically, but also adjusting to exams instead of coursework, providing for myself financially, and proving myself as worthy of a law career as those who knew it was what they wanted from the get-go.

But it won’t be impossible. Paris has given me the confidence that comes with independence. It might take me a while to get there, but in a few years I will be working in London, and hopefully around the world. I just have to maintain my conviction, work hard, and see it through.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m grateful, for being here, living this life, and having the chances I’ve had. My French is getting there slowly, and though I’m still as useless as I ever was when it comes to men, I am freer than I ever was. I have managed, at last, to ‘find myself’, and experience all that cliché gap year personal growth that has made some for cringey writing, and a better relationship with my own soul.

The Water Town

City of vice Amsterdam may be, but it is also a city of tulips, painters, boats and bicycles. It’s a place I was always curious to visit.

Amsterdam is smaller than Paris, and far quieter. There are only a handful of metro lines, and the inner city is connected by a series of trams. The expected bedtime is earlier than you would think, since both these forms of transport stop running at 00:30, but there are night buses which will get you home if you came to party hard.

I didn’t visit for the drugs, or for the prostitutes in any carnal sense. I took the trip with a friend, and considered it something of an intellectual venture (albeit with drinks). I wanted to see, and to learn, and to fill my head up with something new before going home for the summer.

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One of the many canals, at midnight

We stayed in a hotel at Bullewijk, which is about twenty minutes from Centraal Station by metro. A word to the wise: don’t try to find decent accommodation in Amsterdam on a budget. Unless you’re willing to share a room with ten teenagers who stink of weed, you’re not going to get anything cheap.

Financially, we were pretty much ruined before we even arrived in the city, but after eight grueling hours on the coach we scraped together enough to buy our 72 hour passes. Transport here is charged by the hour, rather than by distance, or destination. (The price is more expensive than Paris, but still a slashed reduction compared with London).

Our first night out was spent at Leidseplein, a picturesque square which houses an assortment of bars and restaurants, as well as the ever-present Irish pub and McDonald’s which no city I have ever visited seems to be without. Food in Amsterdam can be quite pricey, but there are good deals, including unlimited spare ribs for less than €10, which appeared to be something of a local favourite.

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Bullewijk Station

Another note on food is that bakeries, which are situated on just about every street, make a good port of call. There are a variety of European and specifically Dutch fancies, like walnut pretzels, goat’s cheese pizzas, and tartlets in every flavour.

On our first morning we navigated our way to the Van Gogh Museum with a pastry sitting in just the right spot to see us through to lunchtime.

It started to rain. We’re talking a torrential downpour, for which I, sans umbrella, was woefully unprepared. Our plans to visit several museums during the day were quickly scuppered when we realised that there are no admission concessions for young people and students in The Netherlands. In fact, after reluctantly parting with €17 each, we resolved that some serious accommodations would have to be made.

Expensive as it was, however, the Van Gogh Museum is an impressive place, featuring not only a selection of the artist’s masterpieces, but those of his contemporaries, his inspirations, and those who have followed his artistic legacy. There is also a large collection of Van Gogh’s letters, and the museum provides deep insight into him as a person, as well as his growth as an artist over the years of his short, brilliant career.

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Section from Van Gogh’s The Courtesan (after Eisen)

It was also our first introduction to Amsterdam’s sexual side, since Van Gogh was himself a frequent purveyor of ladies of the night, and they are featured in several of his paintings, including the Japanese-inspired picture above. Van Gogh’s infamous ear even wound up in the hands of a prostitute, when he gave it to her.

Somehow I doubt she appreciated it.

We decided to make a better attempt at having a night out on the Friday, and after traipsing about a variety of clubs we settled in Escape, at Rembrandtplein, and danced the night away, together with a multitude of international tourists and a handful of the elusive local youth.

It’s quite sad to admit, but I think at the mere age of 22, the discotheque has lost its intrigue for me. It was fun, and I won’t deny that I love to dance, but I find it hard to understand how I once thought nightclubs could be gateways to romance. I think as you get older you start to realise what a gulf there is between sex and love. Nightclubs are a good place to go with friends, to dance and let loose, but they are full of bad behaviour, and in Amsterdam most people you find out after dark are, unsurprisingly, stoned.

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Amsterdam at dusk

After a late start on the Saturday we took a boat tour around the city’s picturesque canals (A UNESCO World Heritage site) with a jolly South African captain, and then made our way to the famous Red Light District to see what there was to be seen.

It is a strange place. Really that’s the only way I can describe it. The openness of it is in such sharp contrast to the conservative values of my native England that I found it quite shocking to see the women at their windows, dressed to the nines in their latex and seven inch heels. I can’t imagine what people in my grandparents’ generation must make of it.

There’s a small interactive museum, styled as the brothel it once was, which offers a frank, honest appraisal of Dutch prostitution, as well as an overview of the situation in different countries around the world. I came away not sure what I thought, but with a newfound respect for these women (male prostitution does not seem to be a matter of such open discussion).

They clearly take some pride in their work, and maybe legal prostitution isn’t the most morally upright thing in the world, but I don’t believe it’s that wrong, either. Certainly there is something extremely admirable about the Dutch and their commitment to eradicating trafficking and the other, often unspoken, horrors of the sex industry.

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Confession wall at The Museum of Prostitution

Ruminating on the day’s experiences and unusual sights, we took the metro back to the hotel, freshened up, and decided to make the most of our last night in the city. We went out to a bar near Leidseplein, and discussed the weekend over an obligatory Heineken whilst other tourists danced around us.

In the morning there was time only for one last pretzel before we arrived at Sloterdjik and boarded the coach for the long drive back to Paris.

I wish, I think, that I had visited Amsterdam when I was eighteen, instead of 22. It’s a delightful city, in which the old brushes up against the new in the most elegant fashion, but these days I’m not as wild as I used to be, and I no longer have an adolescent’s rent-free disposable income. Certainly there’s a lot to see in Amsterdam that I didn’t get chance to – the Anne Frank Museum and Rembrandt’s house to name but two.

I think one day I’ll go back to Amsterdam and investigate it further. Certainly it would be no challenge to spend a whole week there and explore the pretty little streets and the dark canals, but not yet.

For now, I have to get ready for my next adventure – after four months living in Paris, I’m going home next week. But that’s a topic for another post.

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