“Black Coffee” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1998)

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“Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions.”

Since lock down kicked in, I’ve realised I’m really missing the theatre. I’m not someone who goes particularly regularly – a few times of year at most – but I love it. Musicals, plays, comedies, dramas – what’s not to love? Theatre is second only to books for me as a way to tell a story. It’s there and vivid and right in front of you. If you’ve been on my blog before, you almost certainly know that I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and while people may know her for her novels and be aware that she is responsible for the longest-running play in history – The Mousetrap has only been halted by this bloody lock down – she wrote many other plays. In fact, she is the only female playwright to have three plays on at the same time in London, and she was so revered that when she died, all the theatres in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour in her memory.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to say that in the 1990s, three of her plays were adapted into novels by Charles Osborne. The other two, Spider’s Web and The Unexpected Guest are already on the blog, so it’s time to complete the set. It’s time to enter her first play, Black Coffee.

Notable inventor Sir Claud Amory calls his family into the library after dinner with an announcement. In his safe he had a formula for a powerful new explosive that would change the face of war forever, but now it has gone. The thief, he knows, is in the room. He has already called Hercule Poirot in who will be arriving imminently. Amory offers up a simple option. He will turn the lights off in the room for a short while, the thief can place the stolen formula on the table, and no further questions will be asked. However, once the lights come back up again, the formula – or at least the envelope it was in – has appeared on the table, but the darkness brought death, and now more questions arise, just as Poirot and Hastings turn up on the doorstep. Now there are two puzzles to solve, and a lot of tangled familial relationships to unwind before the answers can be found.

So, it’s a Christie story at her peak. Obviously it’s good. But like with the others, it still lacks something. Reading an adaptation makes you realise quite how much difference there is between prose and scripted story. Most of the action here takes place in a single room, as it would on stage, but here that seems a little unnatural. Quite often you feel like you’re simply reading stage directions, and the mind’s eye can’t help but envision the whole drama unfolding on a stage. In those terms, it still works. The mystery is also particularly engaging, and I only remembered the solution as it drew closer. Christie uses Poirot’s obsession with neatness to assist him once more in solving the plot, but it’s done remarkably well. Unfortunately, because of the stage direction elements of it, some actions are deliberately pointed out to us whereas, in the theatre, we might not have seen them.

The characters are perhaps not quite as fully rounded as some of hers, but with a play you have more limited time to get things across. There’s a deft touch of humour throughout the story, too, as there is in all the best Christie’s. It’s a satisfying solution, with Poirot proven his talents once more. A quick, charming read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Rules For Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson (2020)

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“The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat.”

Some books fit you better than others, but once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes you think it must have been written for you and you alone. As soon as I saw the premise of Rules for Perfect Murders a few months ago, I knew that this was one of those times. I had to have it. Expectations were high as I made my way into the novel and settled in for the fun.

Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s famous Old Devils mystery bookstore, has had a call from the FBI, and soon meets Agent Gwen Mulvey who wants to ask him a few questions. In 2004, Malcolm wrote a list for the shop’s website about what he declared fiction’s eight most perfect murders. Now it seems that someone is using the list to perform the murders for real. The evidence is at first slim, and the deaths seem unrelated, but when it turns out that Malcolm knew at least one of the victims, it seems that maybe Mulvey is on to something.

As Malcolm gets more involved in the case, we find out more about his past, why he still sells crime fiction despite having long given up reading it, and which murder the killer will use as inspiration next. It becomes increasingly clear that he is being taunted, but he has no idea who would want to do this. The killer must be stopped before they managed to reenact all eight murders, but how can one predict such a thing?

Firstly, if you intend to read this book, I would suggest you go in blind and don’t read any further. I will try and avoid spoilers, but some are inevitable to discuss it. Secondly. Well. What a phenomenon. Swanson throws us right into the story, with a number of the murders having already happened, and the sense of dread – helped along by the chilling and bitterly cold Boston winter that the story is set in – immediately ratcheted up high. Malcolm is a fascinating narrator, somewhat unreliable at times, but he knows full well what he’s doing. Quite early on you think you know exactly where it’s going, especially if you’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, but the rug is pulled out from under you as soon as you think you’ve got it, leaving you fumbling for clues once more.

The choice of using real life murder mysteries as the basis is inspired, and it’s not a new concept. On a few occasions, murderers have be caught and later discovered to have Agatha Christie novels on their shelves with passages underlined. The eight books selected intrigued me too, and I think had I not read any of them, I would have been less inclined to read the book. Of the eight, I’d read four, and it’s just as well because the book does not go easy on spoilers, and outright ruins the twists of several of the greatest murder mysteries of the last hundred years. The four I had read are The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie), The Red House Mystery (A. A. Milne), The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith). The four I hadn’t were Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley Cox), Double Indemnity (James M. Cain), The Drowner (John D. MacDonald) and Deathtrap (Ira Levin). It’s a good list, but for me, I think you’d have to include the likes of Quick Curtain (Alan Melville), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, again) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley Cox, again). I appreciate the mix, though, and it’s great to see a wide variety, as well as a good selection of murder methods and the disparate motives that seem to be set up. Like all the best murder mysteries, it plays out like a macabre game of Cluedo. This is a perfect example of how to play with the genre, explore it in depth, and do the whole thing knowingly. Swanson is a master.

Absolutely incredible stuff from someone who completely understands the genre.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Deadly Dance” by M. C. Beaton (2004)

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“The thing that finally nudged Agatha Raisin into opening her own detective agency was what she always thought of as the Paris Incident.”

Any prolific writer is bought to have a few stinkers. Stephen King gave us The Tommyknockers. Toni Morrison gave us Jazz. Even my beloved Agatha Christie managed to write Passenger to Frankfurt. M. C. Beaton has never been one of the world’s finest writers, unlike the other three, but her stories are entertaining enough to keep your interest up. As I’ve said on others from her though, she does have a habit of cramming a few too many plots into a single book, which comes into full force here.

Agatha Raisin has had some success in solving crimes in and around her village of Carsely, so has finally decided to take the plunge and open her own detective agency. Taking on her new neighbour, Emma Comfrey, as a secretary, the two do not rub along together quite as nicely as either would hope, perhaps because of differences or maybe because they’re a bit too similar. The detective agency deals for a while with missing cats and divorces, before Catherine Laggat-Brown gives them their first real case.

Catherine’s daughter has been threatened with murder, but the family are determined to go ahead with their family party. Agatha attends, and soon discovers that there was a sniper at a window of the house, managing to save the lives of Catherine and her daughter. Now the hunt is on for who wanted her dead, and why. Things become even more complicated by Agatha’s feelings for a number of the men in her life, and the fact that someone seems very desperate to have her removed from the picture entirely. Maybe the killer is closer to home than she thought.

First up, the title. There’s absolutely no reference to this in the plot. Yes, the key murder plot takes place at a party, but there’s no dancing in particular, so one must assume that the title is meant metaphorically to describe the actions the myriad characters perform around one another. If so, everyone’s got two left feet. The characterisation is thin, and people appear with simple descriptions and then vanish again as quickly, still somewhere in the background but with little justification for their existence. This is most strongly shown with Agatha’s detective agency. She originally hires Emma to be her secretary, but when she discovers that she’s a good detective (although how this can be proved from finding one cat and one teenager, neither of which required much brainpower), she is promoted and another secretary is drafted in. This one, Mrs Simms, too shows her skills with one case and so becomes another detective, with a temp filling in as secretary from then on. By the end of the novel, neither of these detectives are working for Agatha anymore, and we’re left wondering almost what the point of them was. Everyone also has a strange tendency to fall in love – and obsessive love at that – at the drop of a hat.

I also wonder that by this point in her career if editors are scared of questioning Beaton too heavily. There are so many places where superfluous sentences linger, dodgy descriptions and bad dialogue haunt the sloppy paragraphs, and the point of view jumps around with dizzying frequency. There’s also an epilogue tacked on that is clearly only there for light relief, but adds absolutely nothing to the story, simply shows Agatha as being a bit ridiculous once more. While I’ve read more of the Hamish Macbeth novels and this is only my second time with Agatha Raisin, I’ve already tired of her as a character somewhat. A middle-aged Bridget Jones, with a venomous personality.

The plot is shaky at best, and it wouldn’t really be possible to solve this one yourself. Yes, I can see where the clues are being clumsily dropped, but they come together in such an unusual shape, and definitely with some things that we should have been told sooner. The reason for the crime is somewhat flimsy, and there are far too many coincidences for anything to be entirely satisfactory.

Don’t write off Beaton entirely, but this is not a good one to start with.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Thirteen Problems” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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“Unsolved mysteries.”

I keep thinking I’ve reviewed every Agatha Christie on here by this point, but given I started reading her four years before I started the blog, some have definitely slipped through the net. The second Miss Marple, The Thirteen Problems, is one of them. Time to rectify that.

On Tuesday evening, a group of acquaintances have come together and before long the conversation, as it so often seems to, turns to unsolved crimes. The group is diverse – a lawyer, a retired police officer, an artist, a writer, a priest, and a village gossip – and they ponder which of them has the better background for solving crime. Thus forms the Tuesday Night Club, where each member must share a mystery that they know of and the rest must try and solve it.

The thirteen riddles are certainly challenging. There’s the story of the woman who was told that a blue geranium would mean death, the girl poisoned by foxglove leaves accidentally mixed in with the sage stuffing, a case of disappearing bloodstains, and the case of the missing bullion from a shipwreck. With every puzzle, the armchair detectives are stumped. There is however one exception. Miss Marple, dismissed by the others at first for being a slow old woman who has rarely left her village, is the only person to correctly solve every single crime, always able to relate each case back to an incident of village life. Thus her capability is proven time and time again, in a couple of places even bringing justice herself.

Although the second Marple book, this is the one where we see what she is really capable of. She is a little cattier in the first, and readers could have been led to assume that her solving of the case was just a fluke. As with Poirot’s Early Cases, this establishes our hero as being a rank above everyone else when it comes to detection. Whereas Poirot is more interested in psychology, with Marple we see that she just has a good memory and that humans are, broadly speaking, more alike than they care to acknowledge. As she herself says, perhaps it’s better that people don’t realise this. While there is an underlying arc of the characters telling one another stories, they can each be read individually and don’t necessarily follow on.

Christie’s real skill here is in having the narrators all have their own way of telling the tale. One is very conscious to go into detail on the atmosphere of the crime’s location. Another is not a natural storyteller at all and, after giving the basics, answers questions from her companions instead. One tries to tell a tale about a friend that is actually about herself, and Marple herself is prone to going off on tangents that seem to serve no purpose at all.

Most of the stories would have worked as an extended novel, if you threw in more detail, but by condensing them, Christie once again shows that length isn’t everything, and you can have a perfectly serviceable mystery set up, deconstructed, twisted and solved within twenty pages. Few are capable of doing this well, and none better than she. A genius collection.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Diabolical Club” by Stevyn Colgan (2019)

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“Joan Bultitude’s poodles were noisy, prone to biting and indiscriminate in their toilet habits, which meant that they were disliked by almost everyone who had ever had the misfortune of encountering them.”

If there are two things the English seem to manage better than anyone else (in my humble, and hyperbolic, opinion) it’s comedy and murder mysteries. Fortunately, the universe gifted us Stevyn Colgan, the love-child of Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Adams. The Diabolical Club is his second novel, and it’s as much of a riot as the first. Come with me to South Herewardshire.

As the novel opens, we find several disparate threads to deal with. First up, headmistress Joan Bultitude has just uncovered a skeleton on the grounds of Harpax Grange School, an exclusive girls’ school in the village of Nasely. Her new secretary, Phoebe Kingshaw, is actually working for Sir Giles Luscott-Whorne, an MP with whom she is also having an affair. Giles has sent her there to find any dirt she can on Bultitude, as Harpax Grange is his family’s old home and he wants it back. This is complicated enough, but there’s also been a resurgence lately in sightings of the Shaggy Beast, a wolf-like creature with an engorged penis that is said to stalk Black Dog Woods.

When Phoebe does find something at Harpax Grange that she considers to be “dynamite”, she begs Giles to come and meet her, but before she can pass on what she’s found, she is murdered for her knowledge. The police are called in and with Giles the prime suspect, his standing in society plummets. He recalls a retired detective, Frank Shunter, who solved the crime the last time Nasely had a murder, and hires him to prove his innocence. As the village works itself up into a frenzy, secrets are bound to come spilling out. It seems that village life isn’t as quiet and parochial as one would expect. Some of the locals are also planning on finding the Shaggy Beast once and for all, but will have to contend with the other residents of the woods – namely the doggers and the animal rights activists currently plotting to save Gertie’s Plash, a local pond, from being drained.

Colgan is a master of witticisms, almost rivalling his hero Douglas Adams in the way he slips in perfectly formed jokes at rapid fire speeds. He has a beautiful and effective way with words and metaphor, and isn’t afraid to give something a long set up for a killer punchline. He’s also a master at naming characters. In these pages we meet Oberon Tremblett, Janus Gugge, Gerry Waxleigh, Len Youlden, Raif Clyst and Charlie Barnfather. I’m not sure how many of them are real surnames, but if they’re not they all sound like they could be. The characters are complex and vibrant, and each name suits them perfectly. I don’t know how he does it, but in the same way that Trunchbull is the perfect name for a stern headmistress, so is Bultitude.

The murder mystery element of the story is also fun, although I admit I’d taken a guess early on and was proven to be right, so my journey was one of just waiting to find out how the murderer was caught, rather than who it was. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, however, as there are other things here that I could never have begun to guess would have happened, and it’s a rich tapestry of a world. It also feeds back into the first novel about reclusive crime writer Agnes Crabbe, but never entirely lets her dominate, meaning the story is clearly set in the same universe, and some elements will mean more to the reader if they’ve already read the first in the series, but is just as enjoyable without.

As a fun bonus, too, if you take a look at the page at the front of the book that showcases praise for Colgan’s previous novel, you might come across a quote taken from a very familiar blog, right there beneath quotes from Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig. I found it quite the honour.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Busy Body” by M. C. Beaton (2010)

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“Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.”

The rise in M. C. Beaton novels on the list this year is entirely down to my grandfather. Having discovered a few of her early ones on my shelf, he became obsessed and started buying up others he found and then passing them on to me when he’d finished. The Hamish Macbeth ones I’d got used to, so I decided to try an Agatha Raisin.

It’s Christmas in the little village of Carsely, but not everything is merry and bright thanks to health and safety inspector George Sunday. Zealous and tediously officious, he seems to have a grudge against everyone in the area having any fun. He bans the vicar from putting the tree on the church roof as ever, forbids the putting up of Christmas lights without a proper cherry picker, and even disallows people to put decorations up around their own homes.

A meeting is called to decide what to do about him, but it gets interrupted by George himself when he falls against the window, stabbed. Any number of people have a motive, but few seem to have had the opportunity. Agatha Raisin decides she must bring the killer to justice and give herself a PR boost. Elsewhere, one of the key witnesses thinks she’s remembered something fishy about the night Sunday died, but she too is killed before she has a chance to tell anyone. As the villagers turn on one another, Agatha must work out who hated Sunday most – and it’s a very long list.

These books have much the same flavour has the Hamish Macbeth ones, just moving the action from the Highlands to the Cotswolds and having the main character be a private detective instead of a policeman. One of the issues here is entirely on my side, in that I’ve thrown myself down in the middle of the series, and while the crimes appear to be independent, there is evidently a through-line with the secondary characters that I need to know about. Hell, one of them actually dies in this one, and I didn’t feel the emotional impact one presumably does if they’ve got to know the people.

As ever with Beaton though, and this is surprising given how prolific she is, there is an awful lot going on in this novel. The main murder gets overshadowed fairly quickly by another that (no real spoiler) turns out to be entirely unrelated. It’s like the novel got invaded by a second one and only when that’s been cleared up can we return to the main story line. The whole novel takes place over the course of a year which, in fairness, does add realism to the police work and doesn’t see everything wrapped up in a week (trials and DNA tests don’t work like that), but it means there is a lot of time to kill. During the time, Agatha has major surgery and develops swine flu, and neither of these seem to affect the story at all, instead being glossed over in a few short paragraphs. Heaven knows, there are stories to tell here. Agatha Christie one had Poirot solve a murder while he was in bed with a cold – surely giving Agatha Raisin one of these handicaps to battle against adds further jeopardy?

All in all, the titular mystery itself is good, but it feels like three novels’ worth of stuff trying to happen all at the same time and it ends up all being a bit cluttered. Sure, I’ll return, but I may have to head back into the series for some earlier stuff to work out a few of the motivations. Still a good example of what happens to people when they get a little bit of power or fame and it all goes to their head. People will stop at nothing to get the happiness they think they deserve.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

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