Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Heaven's Shadow left me in the Doldrums

Heaven's Shadow (Heaven's Shadow, #1)Heaven's Shadow by David S. Goyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It makes a wonderful and frightening tale to think that if aliens wanted to attack and cripple us it wouldn't be that hard: all you'd have to do was put a few rocks 50 km or so on a trajectory for our major cities, then sit back and watch the fun begin. The idea certainly has a lot going for it. That's a pretty 'primitive' way of achieving your goal, but at least it should work. Still when you think about it these aliens can't be expected to possess this aim of : "If it moves, shoot it! If it's stationary, keep it in your sights!" Extraterrestrial life would surely have far more subtle ways of going about this. Still, even this chucking missiles idea does have a lot going for it, and it can make an engrossing read, especially if their real intentions are far more subtle, and far more disturbing than a gang warfare in space.

    And yet engrossment was the last thing I found with this book. In fact I struggled like anything to get through it. To start with, the cast of characters is huge. Most of them are quite unmemorable in fact, and I found I had to keep referring to the dramatis personae to remind myself who was who. Already I was sighing and giving it the nick name of Heaven’s Flaming Shadow before picking it up and wading through another chunk. I really struggled with it and had to push myself to finish it because the sight of it lying around was just too irritating.

As I said, a wonderful idea but such a shame it was executed this way. It muddled and it lumbered, and really I felt this collaboration just wasn't really thought out. For one example, take Harley, the ex-astronaut. Around page 45 we learn that Harley uses a wheelchair, which is fine. But the Wheelchair is an important prop in a story, and the reader, who can only work on words - not visuals- does need the occasional reminder of this important logistic. Yet  we're not reminded about this until we're into the final 100 pages, and the last lap is in sight. Add to this the fact that the book could do with a good proofread - I kept on having to decode ‛wed’ as ‛we'd’ and ‛shed’ as ‛she'd’ - and I found I had a cluttered tale that I'm now really glad to see the back of.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013


Anushti ~ A Hard Working Girl

Two days ago I had no idea who or what Anushti was. Yesterday I knew. And tomorrow, and in the coming days I'll continue to remember her, just when others in the village are starting to forget her. I can't remember anything about her because I never knew or saw anything of her apart from her playing over my wall; so what I have to remember is just little scraps of other people's memories. And what people remember is this.
      Anushti was a very independent and rather clever little miss. As soon as she'd grasped the essentials of things like walking and speaking simple words, she had set her eye to watching Mum and copying simple tasks. Anushti noticed that Water was about the first and foremost necessity of family life. After watching her Mum and other elders trooping daily to the village tank and filling their pitchers, she must have started calculating in her small, exquisite mind, that there was some way she could help. Her tiny, practical life must have realised that it would be a very long time indeed before she could carry a water pot as heavy as Mum's, yet the other end of "Can't" is "Can" and Anushti's business-like way of going about things made her realise that she could help by carrying her own load. She called for a small water pot and as soon as it came to her hand she began to queue when the water was switched on. The grown-up women, immediately charmed by the independence of the little mite, allowed her straight to the front. So in no time at all, the lass was back home, tidying and folding up her clothes. Tidiness was Anushti, and a bright and industrious future awaited her.
      This was her problem : the little girl became so independent and capable that parents, aunties and uncles left her to what she enjoyed, and was so very good at. Warnings not to go near the underground water tank may not have been given. It's not my place to inquire. Perhaps a day came when it was raining, or perhaps for some other reason the mind of Anushti had decided not to go all the way to the village pump. Perhaps she thought she could figure out a way of getting water from the family underground tank. In any case, she had tried something, which caused her to fall in. With full confidence in her capabilities, aunties had been indoors, watching a soap-opera on the telly.
      Anushti was about three years old. She was drowned yesterday, buried at noon today, and all I hear from my veranda now is the occasional stifled sob.
               Good-bye, little girl.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

There's a man here called Sambath who fifty years ago would have to live some distance away from this village in the out-caste settlement. He would have only been allowed onto these lands for his labouring skills and for hard-grafting in general. His pay would have been pitifully inadequate, and medical skills would only have been available from his own people, illiterate folks who nonetheless had some remarkable internal healing skills. These days things are happily different. Sambath still lived in what is now called the 'Colony' settlement until very recently, but now he has a little house on the edge of the village, and many people holla and hi to him in passing and if he's at home he'll greet them back with a wave and a smile. In the three-score plus years that I've been fiddling around with the inhabitants of this planet, I've met many hominids who have been described as the Salt of the Earth and rightly so. Yet no-one has ever told me that the phrase could easily have been used to describe our Sambath. I can't say 'mine' because Sambath is too big a man to belong to any body. When he greets you he is so often fresh and sweaty from toiling in the fields. I know. I have tasted him. It's a thing I can do here where nobody minds. When he puts out his hand for me to shake, I take it to my mouth and have a little sniff and lick, ever so gently with the end of my tongue. Straight away I am flooded with images of the Earth, and with my sensations of earthiness and elements I fancy I can taste a selenium rush and a molybdenum tang. Here my imagery expires and all I can recommend is that the reader reads the ingredients of her favourite bottle of multivitamins. The sort with plenty of trace elements in it. Apart from the worship of muscle and rude strength, that is the limit of my measure of this man.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Moving in Frozen Frames

Such Fine BoysSuch Fine Boys by Les Brookes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I felt myself pulled into this story right away. So many of the scenes and situations resonated with similar events which had occurred in my own life. It was, for me,  a painting which moved when looked at closely, or it or at least it appeared to. Or was what I saw just the flicker of shadow seen from the corner of my eye? Stretched on the frame of the 1960’s, the canvas so tight you can see the strands and colours of daylight peeping through the pin-prick holes, the author has then painted a broad wash of faun across the hempen fibres and without letting it dry out fully he’s gone on to apply a broad coat of the ’seventies with its yellows and golden browns. On top of all this, Brookes has laid the pattern of the ’eighties with its greedy shades of green, profit and spite.

    Because he hasn’t let the colours completely dry, the chemistry of the picture is still active, or so it seems, because it’s one of those pictures where you stare fascinated at one corner of colour and activity and see the Pub, the Black Horse, with its northern bon homie and mateyness. Billy the cheerful young barman is one of the main attractions with his banter and his nimble pulling of pints and halves, his smile and his sexy bum. Move your eye to another area of the painting, and the colours look twisted and Gothic; what started as a skilled attempt at the pointy noses and ears of hobgoblins has melted and run into a sickly dark smudge. That’s Arthur.

    Billy and Matt strike up a relationship, which seems to work, in different ways depending on whose point of view you’re considering. Matt comes over to me as pushy and selfish, verging at times into the mind-set of a spoilt brat, with poorly educated Billy tagging along behind as the sexy victim. It was at the beginning of Part Two, seen through Billy’s eyes, that I shouted with joy, realising that I was being given a dose of the Rashomon effect. This had become my favourite literary form when I first viewed it in the TV Series Talking to a Stranger, way back in 1966. Sad it is that this form has suffered so much neglect. So my spirits rose as further I realised, leafing my way through the pages of Part Two that I now found myself drawing parallels with the classic tale A Case of Knives by Candia McWilliam, fine mistress and purveyor of matters literary that she is.

A Case of Knives, however, is a Rashomon work which winds you up in an ever-tightening spring, whereas Such Fine Boys coils you up in Part One and Part Two before releasing its tension and letting its latent energy bleed and wash back into the picture. It’s as if the artist had decided that something wasn’t quite right with the painting yet, so he’d sprayed it with a fine mist to encourage the hues to blend some more. Part Three tells the tale from another point of view, from someone we hardly know. Another of Matt’s pick-ups, he’s lucky that he’s even had the mention of a name. He ends up feeling used, feeling that Matt is a complete shit in his handling of matters of the heart, and here I have to agree with Clint (that’s his name!). If the tale is seen as driven by narrative, then it slowly starts to run out of steam in this section, and if judged on those criteria the story would deflate.

    Yet for me, it was deeper than that. Even though the story had almost petered to a complete halt (and I must confess I was hoping that things were going to tighten up from now on), the book was seen in yet a different light by Part Four. From an individual's perspective, we had moved to becoming the all-seeing eye. If the novel has been freshly sprayed with water mist in Part Three to slow the drying, in Part Four, in sunny Greece, we see the entire painting put out to dry and harden, to freeze the frames and the cameos of the characters. We can see that Billy really is beautiful and despite his promiscuous actions he’s little more than an innocent boy at heart who didn’t, and shouldn’t grow up to be a man. The canvas is hardening nicely now. The murky smudge in the corner is all that remains of Arthur, the wet character of Matt is starting to gain grain and substance as he leaves his brattish traits in the past. As it dries to a hard nail-tapping finish, the author has frozen time. Nothing can happen now, and we are glad, knowing what the end would be, were the story to continue to run.

   I found the synopsis  disappointing: it told me too much of what I'd rather have found out for myself yet left unsaid the factors which would entice me into a book which turned out to be a fascinating and unusual experience. It would be great if the author had another story in him, waiting to break out.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Some Are Different. Some Are More Different than Others.

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought DifferentSteve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These days if someone told you to “Think Different” you'd probably get no raised eyebrows, but if you'd said the same thing ten or twelve years ago you'd have raised quite a flock, and probably gained a few admonishments as well. It was bad grammar in those days because you were supposed to think different-ly.
Yet this article isn't about grammar books or anything like that : It's the advertising slogan launched by a computer company called Apple. And it was in Autumn 1997. The educationalists threw up their hands at the incorrectness of it all, never once pausing to take a closer look at how cute and clever the phrase was.

I didn’t know this, and now I know it I’m really glad I do, along with all the other factoids about Steve Jobs and his Apple Company. I have never owned any Apple product, and after reading this book I think I’m less inclined to go in for one than I was before starting it. Chiefly because almost every one of his products had some glaring fault, each of which happened to work against me — and my disability — in a direct way.

For some reason Mr Jobs hated the CD drawer on computers, so he removed it, to outcries from Apple owners. The same had happened earlier with the floppy disc drive (at that time users were heavily dependent on them). Then later on he then decided that he didn’t like cursor keys (arrow keys) on Apple keyboards. They are the keys which enable you to nudge your cursor up or down the lines, or left and right within the line so you can position it exactly where you want. They were removed without so much as a ‘by your leave’ with even greater outcries from faithful users, all on Mr Jobs’s whim. So far all the things he detested have been things which make my life far easier.

So why did a man’s products, which went so much against the grain against much of what customers wanted become the owner of one of the wealthiest corporations in the world with a customer loyalty base which verged and often over-tipped into the devotional?* And why did I find the Steve Jobs story so riveting, to the extent that I completely lost track of time?

As the tale moved on, my own and Jobs's visions drifted further and further apart. Jobs envisaged phones and electronic gadgets becoming intimately interwoven into our personal lives until their presence separate from the body-mind complex lost all distinction. The final step was his conviction that Apple gadgets should be built with no on/off switch. As the gadgets should be woven into the warp and woof of our life pattern, so too should their 'consciousness' never fall deeper than slumber.

Steve Jobs developed symptoms of pancreatic cancer which he initially tried to bully away in typical autocratic style, (initially with a shot of pethidine in the bum). At one point he'd lie about his condition by informing share holders that it had been cured, a story which aficionados and the markets must have swallowed whole. Certainly the lie prevented Apple stock from taking a nose-dive. The tiny Islets of Langerhans are, however, immune to bluster, genius and deception. Despite the best which modern medicine can do, carcinogenic spores infiltrated every cell of this phenomenal, maddening and brilliant billionaire. In the final weeks of his life, Steve receives a visit from his old friend and colleague Bill Gates and the two spend 3 hours reminiscing on old times.

Towards the end Mr Steve debated, deep within the labyrinth of his madcap genius mind, whether God existed or not, deciding that the odds must be 50:50. On balance though he thought it was more likely that it was like an on/off switch and that at the end we simply winked out of existence just as we’d once winked in. Maybe that’s why I never wanted an off-on switch on any of my devices, he chortled, and I had a little laugh too, even if it wasn’t for quite the same reason.

I found this a rivetting read, without being sure why.

*Because Windows' operating system is so awful?

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Yes I Was Haunted

The Last Talk with Lola FayeThe Last Talk with Lola Faye by Thomas H. Cook

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes I was Haunted ~ The Last Talk with Lola Faye

Just when I was congratulating myself that I no longer had anything to do with Kindle's Daily Deal I took a wee peek and saw that today's offering was the usual waffle-and-maple-syrup fare. Nice when you bite into it, but then you read the label more closely and see that it's only 10% real maple-syrup and the waffle mix had far too much bicarb in and you swear you're never going to eat one of those again.
   What I didn't suspect was that the label to this packet had a little Alice Door in it. The book didn't interest me really. I could easily prove it by downloading the free sample just to prove how right I was. The sample arrived, remarkably quickly too considering it was Kindle PaperWhite with its 'free 3G' which is so grotty it's almost a Con.

The Haunting ~
Hauntings are sneaky, let's not mince our words about this. They target the unwary. They're worse than that little old aunty who's no trouble to anyone, and whom you'd hardly know was there - at least that's the line she feeds you when she's touting for somewhere to stay.
   The second line such aunties feed you is that they don't eat enough to keep a little bird alive. It's true, unfortunately. They don't. They Nibble. They nibble at the the tastiest bit of pie which you were saving for later; they pull off knobs of cottage loaves and start into fresh blocks of cheese. They eat so many corners off rectangular food items you're left with little but curves and sculpted sweeps. You never really see them at it, until you could swear you're going to the shops far more often than you used to, and your weekly total food bill has crept way above inflation.

Double Disguise
Imagine that you'd dressed for an evening out at The Theatre. You're going to see Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and it's going to be your fourth time. You've selected your fondest, wistfullest, yeah bestest outfit in your wardrobe as you've heard it said that the new actress playing Blanche Dubois is Something Else. That's why you've gone to so much trouble trouble dressing.
  When you get to the Stage you find you're right. Spot on..
   Except that in this tale, Blanche isn't quite Blanche, is she? This lady who's described as drab, humdrum, shabby, a mere redneck girl, seems to have got a remarkably pointed mind, even if she gets it from the boring show Dragnet, or the magazine article she half read while waiting to see the doctor.
   If Lola Faye backwater education makes her perception little more than a rusty blade, it's evident to me at least that one one of those hicks sure got the knack of brewing poky cider vinegar to use in knife sharpening. When Lola Faye's blade is dipped in this acerbic brew, the knife becomes insidious. Yet she always remains the shabby, dowdy stacker girl who just asks a question or two. To clear things up, considering it's going to be their Last Talk.

Columbo Niggles
Before I knew it, I found that Lola Faye was creeping under my skin. Like chiggers*, it was hell to live with, but Heaven when I scratched it. And I did plenty of that. Lola Faye made her shabby entrance into my slumber, dropped a few words and made to leave. "Come Back!" I called. "Read on then!" came the rejoinder. Which was exactly what I did. At 4.10 am, with my cup of hot Darjeeling and my cooling fan, I read on, sipping until daybreak when I heard a voice through the window telling me my hot water was ready and it was time to bathe.
   My day's schedule was full and there'd be no time for Lola Faye today. Except after bathing and being swadled, there seemed little harm in slipping out a hand to peek at the Kindle. Especially when it tells you you've got 10 minutes remaining until you reach the end of the chapter, when she jacks out that there's 'just one more thing.'

*Chiggers don't really get under your skin. They just itch, making sure it's you who does the scratching. As well as the blame for the ensuing sepsis.

Home Sick
Dammit, I'm going to miss her, the shabby backwoods girl who educates herself from magazines and TV shows. Never has a humdrum character with such an exotic name made so much impression on me; without revealing too much of her own story, Lola Faye manages to expose ever increasing piles of evidence against the protagonist Luke.  Luke whom we're supposed to sympathise with. Our taste buds somehow grow against him and we warm to Lola, even as we also admit that we don't know why.
   It all seems so complete, so done-and-dusted, until we're almost convinced we had a peek of Lieutenant Colombo's tatty overcoat under that frumpy dress of hers.

This little review was written using the Android App called "NoteStacks" I'd been trying to use it for months now and felt perplexed because I didn't really understand it. I only had that unshakeable "This-Is-Good" feeling. By the time I'd reached the 'use or chuck it' stage I wrote to its developer in frustration. He replied very quickly with a few hints which got me up-and-running straight away. After I'd written 100 lines on This Is Yet Another App I thought "Time to do Something Proper with it".
    Yes, it passes muster. The Android App, and The Book too.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Liked by Many — Adored by Me

People Like UsPeople Like Us by Doug Cooper-Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life is nothing if not full of extremes, and at the beginning of the scale, what can beat the painful smelly business of being born? An early memory for me is white-coated men carrying tinkly trays of little bottles. Motley smells would waft along with them as they marched past. Some of those phials contained ether, and if I leaned towards them, provided the corridor draught was in my favour I’d feel my soul ascending on its path to Cloud Nine, all sweet and echoey, even if it wasn’t long before another man, this time carrying badly-stoppered phials of human waste pulled me back down to the scatole-laden vapours with a snap.

Yet no lasting enjoyment is ever truly known by ups or downs. Let’s wind the clocking forward to a time when the aromas carry a far more gentle hue, softly tinted with ochre browns and chestnut golds. Autumn is the time which greets my eyes and ears these days. The earlier tantrums are mostly over and the other kids have stopped laughing at my toilet jokes. The tang of hormones, love and crushes is making its entrance and I mopily empathise with Jane Eyre or Richardson’s girl-servant Pamela.

I mooch about in bookshops, touching and sniffing the books I can reach, and yearning for the ones I can’t. And there’s always that smell, of brown and gold and August, or the fusty waft of churches. Village bookshops were the first to arrive, then David’s in Cambridge for second-hand volumes, or even the palatial Heffers. They say it was all started by a Reverend with a loan of just fifty quid. They also say Bowes and Bowes is far better!

Then bones and muscles grew older as the books gained years and weight and before too long the reading habit declined with the burgeoning weight of paper books, only to rise again in 2010 with the birth of the Kindle — that magic grey ingot which sucked any number of books out of the ether and placed them on a screen for me to read. They whispered in feather-like and whether they were a Mills & Boone Romance or the Complete Shakespeare, they all weighed exactly the same. They all weighed nothing, that Magic Number which is both the marvel of mathematicians and refuge of the mystics. Kindles don’t really have a smell but if you were to dip a joss stick in water and light it while it’s wet, the smouldering sandal-and-cow-dung powder would give you a pleasing aroma not far off from the old leather-bound tomes, or at least they’d give an idea of what a Kindle would smell like.

Samples are downloaded. I take a look the publisher to see if a table of contents has been included, or whether any images are recalled. Canongate is good — but do watch out for the odd wasp in the ointment there; Icon Books — not bad; Bloomsbury — pretty safe as long as it’s not Harry Potter or other kids’ stuff—Mr Creecher was painful; Faber — not bad at all, and they’ve got a nice thick medical tap root in their soul. Gollancz: Even though they’ve lost that plain yellow dust jacket, I’m pretty much a fan, even if the new stuff does get pretty scary. If there’s no publisher, then I’m very wary indeed. Why ever not? If they’re that good, you’d’ve thought they’d’ve been picked up by now.

This was the factor which initially prevented me from purchasing This Place of Men by Doug Cooper Spencer. I felt its price was steep. Yet never have I been so pre-judgmental, never so cautious in making my purchase, and never have I been as delighted as when on that unforgettable morning I pressed the download button for this book and began to read it. I didn’t warm to it gradually, I didn’t find my protective shell of withering ice gradually softening ….what happened wasn’t even some mid-point between these extremes. For me, it was... Well let’s say that were this book a pavement and I was taking a stroll on its cover, a crack opened between the flagstones and I suddenly fell right down into the gap. I was Alice in Fiction Land, except that the roles were reversed. It was all so very real for me. The lovely Terrell with his good wife Karen and her spiteful sister Tess, their huggable kids Kenya and Abassi. Karen with her Director of Studies and the beautiful troubled student Luther — all were people I felt as if I knew. Even though they all bore their own weight, I continued to feel, on my second visit, welcome to be the invisible budgie perching on their fictional shoulders, even if the problems they were undergoing were private, painful and nothing to do with me.

It’s a world of heart-break and pain. Terrell is a thoroughly good man and an excellent Dad to his children Kenya and Abassi and his wife Karen is caring and full of love too. Yet all this is spoiled by their church’s attitude to homosexuality. Somewhere in the murky past, the community church has worked its malice by splitting up the love between Terrell and his teenage chum Otis. Lovers in their mid- to late-teens with Terrell just six months younger, the Community Church hierarchy waits for Otis to reach the age of majority before pouncing on Otis who is taken to court where he serves a prison sentence for having an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Terrell is deeply programmed into changing his sexual orientation, and introduced to Karen, who’s to become his wife. I dropped into the world of the character and the Kindle disappeared, as did the mundane domestic chores I needed to attend to.

In an agonising sequence which sees Terrell chucked out by his wife (I know what that’s like!) he ends up renting a room in a poorer part of town, among the down-and-outs, hustlers and drug pushers. Bleak indeed compared to the plush home which he and Karen had built up over the years, with the cream filling of the children holding the sponge cake of the marriage together. Gone are the Sunday roasts with Terrell carving at the family table, gone the land line telephone and gone the car. In comes the draughty room with its bed-bugs and and their acrid whiff, the flickering shadeless light and the moody money-meter, economy buns, tinned baked beans and just-pour-hot-water snacks.

Memories of hardship always bring their smells back to me: Damp bedding, stale cigarettes and rotting tomatoes when the Soho veg market sweeps up its peelings at the close of the day, sparring with the thrill of the monthly cruise where the under-whiff of males in rut contrasts sharply with the sudden ammonia tang of the unzipped fly. The following day Terrell rises to survey the street from his window. Opposite doors are opening in other houses as commuters prepare to go to work, most by ’bus or tram and a few by car. Others like Terrell don’t go anywhere. He doesn’t have a job now. His three weeks of 50% compassionate retainers have now expired and he doesn’t have a job any more. Winkling a hermit crab out of its very own shell will have that effect. With no job and no respect any more his home diet is now one of scorn and ridicule, his new digs are unhappy and ill-fitting. The door opens opposite and an old lady lets out a middle-aged man and waves him good-bye. She doesn’t shut the door behind him but scans the street with her ancient X-Ray eyes. The street and its doors having passed her scrutiny she levels her gaze up a plane and inspects the windows. A friendly wave is made to Terrell who cautiously returns it.

What a nosey old so-and-so I think to myself, wondering what business it is of hers logging everybody in and out as they come and go about their own affairs, never thinking that in this new arena of loneliness there have to be events apart from the interminable telly, the arranged fortnight of being allowed to take your own kids and the occasional street prowl when hunting for a mate for a few moments of ersatz affection and mutual sperm release. Returning home with cold bones and a starved heart, Terrell is seduced near his own front door by an aroma of something cooking. It sure smells good. A car comes home and parks and another wave is given to Terrell. Introductions take a little loner than usual. The smell of cooking increases as the door opens. It’s the nosey old biddy again, who is making something and seeing the two men in conversation she invites them up. Just stew and dumplings with a bit of leftover veg, she says, but she’s made a bit too much and would he like to join them? Who feels the cut of a sharp pang of guilt at writing off the lady opposite as a ‘nosey old biddy?’? It certainly isn’t Terrell who hasn’t got that kind of blood in his veins, so it must be he reader and the reader is me, I only am the one who needs to learn to tread far more carefully through the story, even if the author writes it and the reader gives it life.

15/11/12 Many days now have passed since I first read this tale. At some point I dipped in again to note the beginning. As the story unfolded I noticed little details, marvelling at how I’d missed them the first time. Before I knew, again I’d reached the end. I saw details I’d never noticed before, felt sad yet also there was hope. Before I knew it I had reached the end again. Now the final volume waits for me. I think I’ll begin it when I’m settled back into my nest in India, stretching in the warmer mists, a bag full of electronics and reading material at my side. I think it could be rather painful, yet pain is something which I’ve come to know, is not a thing to be avoided or welcomed. It has to be taken as it is. If any weight can be lightened by helping to carry Terrel’s burden I, the humble reader, will gladly take my share.

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