Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: THE CHOCOLATE TOUCH by Laura Florand

the chocolate touch cover

Dominique Richard is one of the best Master Chocolatiers in Paris (or actually THE best, if you ask him). But despite his beautiful salon lined with rose wallpaper and his charming staff, Dom's past makes him feel like a monster who will never deserve love. Then a mysterious woman starts showing up in his salon every day, a woman who clearly enjoys his chocolate. A lot. Dom wonders if she'll enjoy more of him than just his chocolate—IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN—but will Dom and his lady of mystery ever be able to overcome their pasts in order to create a future together?

The Chocolate Touch is not the type of book I would normally pick up, but when Kelly from Reading With Analysis recommended it over Twitter, I decided give it a try. I'm so glad I did because I loooooooooved this novel. LOVED IT! I stayed up past five in the morning reading it. It's a very emotional (I love emotional books, they give my parched desert of a soul all the feels), romantic novel that captures both the tourist and local sides of Paris. And, the chocolate element isn't a gimmick to get you to buy the book—it's a major part of the story and plays a big role in all the characters' lives.

The Chocolate Touch is pretty obviously based off of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, although not slavishly so, just enough to give some framework to the story and characters. Dom was raised in the banlieue, one of the suburbs of Paris that's actually more like a ghetto. His home life was so miserable he started working at an abattoir, or slaughterhouse, as a teenager. Apparently slaughterhouses frequently employ child slave labor, even in so-called first world countries like the US and France, something I was completely ignorant of. With no family support and only a middle-school education, Dom worked his way out of the banlieue to become a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and the one of the most famous chocolatiers in the world.

So Dom is an admirable character. But he's also THE SWEETEST YOU GUYS. Like the scenes where he's working up the courage to talk to Jaime are too adorable and funny and awkward. And he quotes poetry! *swoooon* I'm a sucker for romance novels where poetry is quoted. J'adorée.

The other characters are really great, too. Jaime has a whole mess of secrets she takes her time telling Dom, including who she actually is. Normally the dragging out of this information would annoy me, but with Jaime I understood why she wouldn't want to talk about it. I also loved the minor characters: Jaime's curmudgeonly grandfather, so-called perfect sister, and Dom's sous-chocolatière, Célie, who reminded me of Colette from Ratatouille.

As The Chocolate Touch went on, I started to worry the story would descend into one of those annoying misunderstanding plots. You know, the ones where if the hero and heroine just had a freaking conversation all their problems would be solved. There are some big misunderstandings between Dom and Jaime, but they were more than just skin deep. They had to do with Dom and Jaime's perception of themselves, as well cultural and language issues.

Speaking of the culture and language, the city of the Paris and the French language were beautifully incorporated into the story. I absolutely loved how when Dom first hears Jaime's name he thinks she's saying, "J'aime," I love. TOO ADORABLE YOU GUYS. And Paris is perfectly captured in this novel, especially the street life and romance of the city. I also really liked the ending, even if it wasn't the traditional HEA, because I thought that was a very French way to settle into a serious relationship. If they had run off and gotten married, I wouldn't have found it very realistic, especially in the context of the book.

J'en raffolée, adorée, et aimée this book to itty bitty pieces. I want just want to cuddle it, it's such a delightful read. I definitely recommended this book to anyone who's a romantic, foodie, francophile, or all of the above. And now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Paris to find my own chocolatier (I wish).



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Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: PORTRAIT OF A SPY by Daniel Silva

portrait of a spy cover

Gabriel Allon is RETIRED, dammit, and living in Cornwall when jihadists launch coordinated suicide bombings in major cities all across Europe. After running across one said jihadist in London and trying—and failing—to kill him, Gabriel is politely deported to the US, where the CIA demands his help. They want Gabriel to search out the mastermind behind the attacks, and Gabriel agrees. But will his perfectly laid plans survive the vagaries of American politics? I think we all know the answer to that question.

Things I learned from this book:

  • There are over 200,000 people working for the CIA, not counting independent contractors. Holy cow, people! With that kind of staff, it shouldn't be too hard to get a job there, right? Call me, Langley (NSA, you can keep your dirty nose out of my blog).
  • Somewhat related: 'Merica is the worst secret-keeper in the world. We're like that gossipy neighbor you only tell things to if you want the entire block to know about your biznas.
  • US "intelligence" policies when it comes to the Middle East could use a liiiiiiitle work. Example: the CIA director says to Gabriel, "We recruited this one Muslim imam who was all peace-this and harmony-that to spy on jihadist cells for us, and then it turned out he was a jihadist all along! Do you believe that shit?" Gabriel: "Ummmmm, no comment."


Bullet points aside, I thought Portrait of a Spy told a great story, probably the best story of the three Gabriel Allon novels I've read so far. It also reads "lighter," if that makes sense. I had the feeling like I was eating candy during this book: tasty and fun, but not very filling. Maybe I'm just getting used to Daniel Silva's writing style, or maybe the subject matter isn't as heavy or serious as in The English Girl or The Fallen Angel, but either way it seemed like an easy read.

I pretty much had no problems with this book aside from the one that's a major spoiler, so if you care avert your eyes.

In Portrait of Spy, Gabriel uses the daughter of a billionaire who supported jihadists to gain access to their bank accounts. You know pretty early on in the novel that she's going to die (because defiant women are killed, that's just the way it be), but the way she died really annoyed me. Instead of being outright murdered by her misogynist oppressors, she leaps in front of an AK-47 to save Gabriel's life. I'm aware that Silva was comparing her martyrdom, which proves to be genuinely inspiring, to that of the jihadists who blow themselves up (JWBTU? There has to be an acronym for that, the CIA loves acronyms) for essentially their own glory. But a self-sacrificing martyr seemed a little much. Actually the whole situation with her helping out the Mossad seemed a BIT unlikely, even if she did grow up in France and was a feminist, but whatever.

Other than that, Portrait of a Spy was a really good read. I think I'm starting to burn out on reading the series backward, though, even though it's been an interesting experience so far. There's a very brief mention of a character here who plays a major role in The English Girl, something I'd never have noticed or remembered if I'd read all the books in order (and which makes me wonder just how far in advance Silva plots these novels out). I do have book ten on my Kindle, but after I finish that one I might go to the first novel and read the books in proper order like a normal person. Wait... NORMAL? What am I thinking?


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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Movie Review: PAPRIKA




Originally Released: 2006
Starring: Megumi Hayashibara, Katsunosuke Hori, Tōru Furuya
Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Based on: the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Chiba is a psychologist and ice queen, but she's not a stone cold bitch—she's just sleep deprived. Every night she uses an experimental device called a DC Mini to traipse through other people's dreams as a manic pixie dream girl named Paprika. It's all in the name of therapy, of course, but unfortunately someone else at her corporation has also decided to misappropriate a few DC Minis. And unlike Chiba, they're not using their newfound abilities for good. Will Chiba (or Paprika) be able to restore the balance of dreams and reality?

chiba from movie paprika
Don't mess with me, bud.

I first heard about Paprika from Bridget at Portable Pieces of Thoughts. I was intrigued by the premise right from the start, mainly because I love animé and am always looking for good animé recommendations. But when Bridget described Paprika as making the movie Inception look like child's play, I knew I HAD to see it. I'm glad I did, because Paprika is an awesome movie—and it is a film, not a cartoon. I would not recommend parking your little kids in front of this one.

As Bridget said, Paprika has definite similarities to Inception: In both films, there are dreams within dreams within dreams, the characters are in danger of having a psychotic break between reality or even dying in the dream world, and people with DC Minis can implant ideas into someone's subconscious mind while they're dreaming. Yet for me, Paprika was more reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. Just as in Spellbound, you have a beautiful but royally uptight psychiatrist with an awesome old guy mentor, who uses dreams to help solve a mystery. Whereas Inception was an epic journey hidden inside a caper plot, Paprika is a coming-of-age story framed in a suspense plot. With, obviously, crazy-ass dreams.

paprika gif
Not the bendy floors!

The execution of Paprika is flawless. Not only is the animation gorgeous and hallucinatory, but I've seen movies with human actors that convey emotions less eloquently and have less chemistry than these animated characters do! For example, almost as soon as Chiba and Osanai appear on screen together you KNOW he has a thing for her. How I don't even know. And the moment Konakawa, a detective Chiba is treating, meets Chiba IRL for the first time and realizes she's Paprika is priceless.

I also thought the use of art in Paprika was interesting. Normally one would expect filmmakers tackling the subject of dreams and the subconscious to reference surrealism in some way, like in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Paprika doesn't, at least not overtly, and I applaud them for it. Not only is surrealist art in movie dream sequences practically a cliché at this point, but that would be redundant considering the film animation as a whole is very surreal. Instead, the filmmakers give a nice shout-out to the symbolists, who helped inspire the surrealists.

oedipus and the sphinx paprika
Paprika and Osanai entering Gustave Moreau's Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Other things I loved about Paprika:

  • The soundtrack for this film is awesome. I immediately downloaded it.
  • Points for creepiest use of a doll EVER.
  • The fact that the film touches on the similarities between dreams and the internet and movies, and then LEAVES IT AT THAT. I wasn't repeatedly hit over the head with it.
  • The ending! It was so unusual and sweet and happy-making, not to mention the type of conclusion that Hollywood would NEVER, not in A HUNDRED MILLION YEARS have the balls to put out there.


So, yeah. I enjoyed this one and recommend it. If you're a Prime member, you can stream it on Amazon for free. Thanks to Bridget for letting me know about it!

chiba/paprika running
Rush out and see it!



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Monday, March 10, 2014

Novella Round-Up: APPLES SHOULD BE RED, THE TIME TUTOR, and YOUR WICKED HEART

*Scroll down to the end of this post for a chance to win a paperback copy of The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway!*

apples should be red cover
Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson

Beverly and Tom are in-laws whose children are married, and they HATE each other (Bev and Tom, that is, not their children). Tom hates how uptight Bev is, Bev hates how Tom swears and smokes and pretty much only cares about his backyard garden. When the two of them are forced to spend a few days alone together before Thanksgiving, their kids joke that they might wind up killing one another. Well, you know what they say about there being a fine line between love and hate...

This was a cute and funny romance. Tom reminded me of Mr. McGregor from the Peter Rabbit books ("This garden isn't some pansy-ass annual border with mari-fuckin'-golds. This is war. We're at Defcon One." <-best line of the entire book) and Bev was cartoonishly uptight, like Alison from Orphan Black in about 30 years. The "twist" on the traditional romance here is that the main characters are 62 and 59, respectively, instead of the usual 104 and 16 (haha! Twilight references FTW). Anyway, despite the unconventional set-up, Apples Should Be Red is actually very traditional in its promotion of community, family, love, and second chances. A feel-good romance with lots of foodie and gardening references. And who doesn't like that??

your wicked heart cover
Your Wicked Heart by Meredith Duran

Amanda finds herself in a nightmare situation: broke, unemployed, and abandoned in a foreign country by a man who SAID he'd marry her. Turns out that's not the only thing he lied about, either—instead of being the Viscount of Ripton, he was an imposter. Now the real viscount is in Turkey and he is determined to drag both Amanda and her so-called fiance back to England to answer for their crimes.

I thought Duran told a great story with Your Wicked Heart. From the beginning it was non-stop twists and turns. Very exciting! I also really liked the three main characters—Amanda, Ripley, and Amanda's fiance, Charles. That said, I didn't feel any romantic chemistry between Amanda and Ripley, and didn't really care if they got together or not. The romance portion was just so predictable and cheesy, what with the smelling and the stupid misunderstandings and the smelling and the uncontrollable bodily reactions, etc. etc. Boring. But overall this novella evened out to an okay read.

the time tutor cover
The Time Tutor by Bee Ridgeway

Note: the publisher provided me with a copy of this book for review consideration. To find out more about my review policies, please see my full disclosure page.

In this prequel to The River of No Return, Alva is a favorite in the Guild, a society of time travelers. She's ambitious, hungry for both knowledge and power, and the only person she knows who can give her what she wants is the vampiric Hannelore. Then she meets Lord Dar, the leader of the Guild's enemies, the Ofan. They fall in love, but can they remain together and still defeat Hannelore?

I loved The River of No Return, so I was more than willing to read The Time Tutor, even though prequels are not my favorite. And this definitely reads like a prequel—there's no real ending or resolution, it's all basically a set up. That annoying fact aside, before I got to the end of The Time Tutor, I was really enjoying it. Whatever gift or skill is required to pull a reader into a story and make them care about the characters, Ridgway has it in spades. I loved the meet-cute between Dar and Alva and thought they were amazing together. I also liked the hints of an Arthurian tale running through The Time Tutor, with Dar mentoring the young "Arthur," yet betraying him with Alva. I wouldn't recommend The Time Tutor to people who haven't read The River of No Return yet; but for those of us who have read it, I think it's a nice appetizer for Ridgway's next novel. Which hopefully will be released soon!



GIVEAWAY

The publisher is offering a lucky reader of this blog one paperback copy of The River of No Return (US and Canada only). To enter, just fill out the form embedded below or click here. The giveaway will run from March 10th to March 17th.



Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: THE DARK HORSE by Craig Johnson

the dark horse cover

Mary Barsad confessed to killing her husband, Wade, after he set fire to their barn and burned all her horses to death. And who can blame her! But for some reason Sheriff Walt Longmire doesn't believe she did it. So he goes undercover (read: people start figuring out who he is within five minutes) in the town of Absalom, Wyoming, to find out who did kill Wade, and why they framed Mary for his murder.

You know that town from the movie Unforgiven, Big Whiskey? Well, Absalom is kind of like that. It is godforsaken. No one wants to be there, even the people who live there. It's like the gate to hell ("Abandon hope, all ye who enter here"). Not the greatest place to live, but a REALLY great setting for a novel. Combine that with Walt's flashbacks of Mary Barsad's stay in his jail, and The Dark Horse definitely has the feeling of a western noir. It's very dark, but balanced nicely by Walt's trademark self-deprecating humor.

So basically, I really liked The Dark Horse. The regular gang—Henry, Vic, Lucien, Rose, etc.—aren't in this volume very much, but the new characters Craig Johnson introduces are full of personality and interesting. There are also flashbacks, and as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I'm not a fan of the flashbacks and backstory. I usually skim over them, which is exactly what I did in the previous Longmire novel, Another Man's Moccasins. However, the flashbacks in The Dark Horse actually aren't unnecessary backstory; they're where about 90% of the detecting happens, and I really wanted to find out why Walt was convinced Mary didn't kill her husband. I can also see where breaking up that section into small segments throughout the novel told the story more effectively than if Johnson had written the book with a more linear timeline. So this is one of the few times where I can wholeheartedly endorse flashback scenes.

Another aspect of The Dark Horse I found really interesting is that Johnson kind of takes a What If scenario with modern medicine. Usually his mystery plots are pretty straight-forward and based on things that everyone already knows is a problem: human trafficking, drugs, etc. etc. But in The Dark Horse, Johnson lays out a scenario where zolpidem is used to commit a murder. Kinda creepy.

Unfortunately, the last fifty pages of the book were a major drag. It seemed like Walt just rode around on a horse for a reeeeeally long time. And the conclusion was a joke—the book just abruptly ends, after which there's an annoying epilogue.

But overall The Dark Horse is a good novel with one of Johnson's more twisty mysteries. Can you imagine the type of person who would set fire to a barn and just let the horses inside it burn while he watched? That's a bad un.



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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Movie Review: CHERI



Originally released: 2009
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Based on: The novel of the same name by the inimitable Colette.

Review by the lovely Bridget of Portable Pieces of Thoughts.

Synopsis:

France, the beginning of 20th century, just before the WWI. Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a beautiful but ageing Parisian courtesan, currently without court. She doesn't complain. As she’s been very successful and quite business-savvy, she managed to put a lot of money aside. Now she is financially independent, able to live like an aristocrat; still she is almost completely friendless. Small wonder, a prostitute, rich or poor, doesn’t really belong anywhere. Lea feels she is condemned to a company of her colleagues and former colleagues – not exactly friends, rather uneasy allies, like inmates. One of them, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) a one-time competitor and shameful gossip, has a young son, Fred nicknamed Chéri (“darling” in French). Charlotte and Lea have known each other for years as their careers have been very similar; that’s why Lea was constantly in the life of Chéri, being even his godmother. One day, Madame Peloux comes to her and asks her to take in the boy as a lover and teach him about life.

Chéri is far from being a virgin, but it is obvious he needs some reining in or he’ll turn into a blasé addict or worse. He also has to know how to treat a woman. Lea agrees to be his tutor without much reluctance – the boy is handsome enough to tempt even a courtesan. Despite the age disparity Cheri accepts Lea’s saddle quite willingly. What begins as simple lovemaking, no strings attached, quickly becomes a six-year long love affair. Lea and Chéri float in a perfumed world of opulent comfort, with the older woman paying all the bills so her darling boy has no worries in the world. Still the clock is ticking. How will it end? Not well – you might bet on it.

cheri movie poster

My impressions:

I wanted to see that movie so much and, even if I know it is not wise, I expected a real feast. How not to? Stephen Frears reteams with his Dangerous Liaisons (1988) screenwriter Christopher Hampton and supporting actress Michelle Pfeiffer for an adaptation of two novels from Colette, the famed French author I adore for her intelligence and sense of humour. What’s more, it’s a Belle Epoque drama set in Paris. Was I left disappointed? Not really but the movie was hardly brilliant.

The movie is based on two novels Chéri and La Fin de Cheri written by Colette, known for the air of describing familiar lives with detached regret and a good dose of humour. Her books seemed to reflect well the real-life experience of the author herself. After leaving an unfaithful first husband, Colette, already a successful novelist, supported herself also as a music hall performer because being a writer was never quite a profitable job. That’s how she knew many courtesans in the era of La Belle Epoque , being sometimes close to them. She had affairs with both men and women, shocked tout le monde with the first onstage kiss between two women like any demimondaine worth her salt. Then she married the editor of Le Matin and was divorced at 51 after she had an affair with his 20-year-old stepson. I bet she wrote Chéri as a kind of therapy - a confession and an explanation. In those times an older woman taking a younger lover was not unheard-of but much frowned upon. Enough about Colette and her problems, let’s asses the film itself.

In short I could say the success of Stephen Frears’ "Chéri" begins and ends with its casting. Near the beginning of Colette’s novel Lea gives her young lover a necklace with 49 pearls. We can imagine there is one pearl for every year of her age. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Lea de Lonval, is still a great beauty, but nearing that age when a woman starts counting her pearls if she is fortunate enough to have them. Her lover is 24 years younger than she. Six years pass and, in a way, the whole movie is about how 25 and 49 are not the same as 31 and 55, especially if a woman is the older part of that inequality Lea is much more intelligent than her friends and also tragically self-aware: while enjoying afternoon tea with some former colleagues, which tends to be an amusing, banter-filled affair, she shudders with revulsion at the sight of a portly woman of about her own age — although less well preserved — clutching what looks to be a teenager to her décolletage. It is obvious she doesn’t wish a similar fate but she can hardly fight her own heart.

cheri film still


Rupert Friend, playing Lea’s lover, the title Chéri, is 27 and looks younger. They are both accomplished actors, which is important, because "Chéri" tells a story of nuance and insinuation, concealed feelings and hidden fears. If you look for action, well, look elsewhere - it is not a rollercoaster movie. Kathy Bates as Charlotte, the robust mother of Cheri, delivers a performance that's almost exaggerated, but her spark and jibes are much needed and appreciated throughout – without them the movie would turn into a boring melodrama.

Lea knows sooner and Chéri later that what they had was invaluable and irreplaceable. Cheri is about learning to love and accepting one's age and the consequences of both once realization truly sinks in. However, I couldn't help but feel like the story was simply going through the motions, never really surprising me or moving me one way or another. I would have thought Frears would play up the romantic angle a little more, especially considering we are talking about the city of lights here.

Of course the point of the film is not necessarily about the romance between the two leads per se, but giving the audience a stronger emotional connection to the two of them would have only made the final minutes that much more effective, not to mention the rest of the movie on a whole. I also caught myself wishing to see more of the Belle Epoque settings. Lea’s residence was nice, but it was really strange that I never saw her go out and enjoy herself; I understand she wasn’t invited to private balls and official functions but what prevented her from going, for example, to a theater or an opera or even a cafe de nuit? When I come to think about it she never even went shopping. I suppose it was influenced by the budgetary limits and costs of preparing appropriate sets and it is a pity - in my opinion the movie would be better, more interesting to watch, if it included some of those scenes, as expensive as they go.

Final verdict:

Overall, Cheri is a perfectly enjoyable film, but one you probably won't take much away from or lose much sleep over discussing. Still I don't regret watching it - what does remain is an overall sense of beauty, both in the film and the face of Michelle Pfeiffer, a woman seemingly shot, at times, without a trace of makeup and still looking at least 10 years her younger. I kept thinking the director was definitely kinder to Lea than her creator, Colette – in her books the heartbroken prostitute aged with less grace, getting soon overweight and ugly to a point that, in the end, her beloved Cheri didn’t recognize her anymore.



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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: FALLEN ANGEL by Daniel Silva

fallen angel cover

Gabriel Allon, the most famous retired spy in the world, is restoring a Caravaggio for the Vatican Museums when a museum employee is found dead, an apparent suicide, in St. Peter's Basilica (there's blasphemy for you). Luigi Donati, the Pope's secretary, asks Gabriel to look into the matter on the DL, and Gabriel agrees even though Luigi obviously knows more than he's telling. Soon Gabriel isn't just investigating a woman's death, but an art crime ring, the mafia, Hezbollah, and sundry threats against Israel.

Fallen Angel is the novel preceding immediately preceding The English Girl. I didn't know this when I started it, and I didn't mean to read this series backwards, but apparently it's happening. In any case, I wasn't as impressed with Fallen Angel as I was with The English Girl, although the novel was still entertaining and I'm increasingly fascinated by the character of Gabriel Allon.

Fallen Angel has the same basic structure as The English Girl: the story starts with a very specific, localized mystery, then expands to international threats. I loved the beginning of the book—it had the flavor of a Dan Brown novel, only really smart and well-written. I thought Fallen Angel was going to be all about art crime and I was super excited! (Side note: I always thought it would be awesome to be part of the FBI Art Crime Team.)

Unfortunately, I started having trouble with Fallen Angel in the transition from Rome and the art crime mystery to Allon and his team moving against Hezbollah. There basically was no logical transition, it was just like, "Oh Hezbollah's behind everything somehow (???), and we have to stop them RIGHT NOW!" I am still unclear as to what exactly one had to do with the other, and how the characters arrived at this conclusion. Because the change was so abrupt, I was thrown out of the story. It felt like the Rome section of the book and everything else belonged in two separate novels. Good novels, mind you, but narratively they didn't fit together.

I also found myself very annoyed with Chiara, Allon's second wife. She wasn't in The English Girl much, and apparently that was all for the best, because in Fallen Angel I found her to be whiny, clingy, and a bit pointless. The scene that really made me roll my eyes was when she nobly waited in the hotel room while Gabriel bounced off to assassinate terrorists, and strained to hear the sound of sirens so she'd know he was alive. Because that was what Gabriel told her to do. EYE ROLL.

Even when Chiara was annoying me or the story was jumping around, though, Allon was such a compelling character that there was no way I would have even considered not finishing this book. And the climax in Jerusalem was perfectly done: intense, suspenseful, and completely over the top—but in a really fantastic way.

Bottom line: this is a very solid, intelligent thriller; it just doesn't have the epic scope that The English Girl does. It's quieter, less ambitious. Allon is a man haunted by his past in every city he visits, not so much fallen as trapped in Purgatory, but Fallen Angel isn't the novel that gives him a new start.

I will definitely be continuing with the series and am looking forward to spending more time Gabriel Allon.



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