Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Adventure (page 1 of 4)

One from the pre-blog archive

GoldingAt school yesterday, we had a visit from the children’s author Julia Golding to do writing workshops with the boys. I wasn’t involved with this, but she was having a cuppa in the staff room in between sessions, so I introduced myself and told her how much I’d enjoyed reading one of her books when my daughter was younger.

Back in spring 2008, pre-blog, I was busy devouring children’s books in preparation for applying for a job as Librarian at my daughter’s school and I read the first in Julia’s ‘Cat Royal’ sequence of Victorian adventures.  Consulting my trusty spreadsheet, here’s what I noted about it:

The Diamond of Drury Lane

200px-TheDiamondOfDruryLane-JuliaGoldingFabulous rollicking adventure set in Victorian London with a feisty young heroine, rival gangs, theatre, boxing, and much more.  Great well developed characters who get into all sorts of scrapes in the hunt for the ‘Diamond’ of the title. Perfect for 8 or 9yrs +, and I loved it too. There are now several sequels,  which I’ll look forward to. (10/10)

I do remember really enjoying this book, but never had time to read any of the sequels.  I was wrong about the period it was set in though – 1790 – it’s Georgian!  (History was never my strongest suit).  My daughter is older now of course – and Julia did mention to me that she also writes YA novels under the pseudonym Joss Stirling which, she suggested, might be up her street!



Such good cheesy fun

Emperor Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

emperor-fu-manchuBeing a huge fan of adventure and James Bond type novels, you might expect me to have read the Fu-Manchu books too, but somehow I never did. Until now – and having read this one, which happens to be the penultimate book of the series, I want to go back to the beginning and read the lot.

Sax Rohmer was the pen-name of a former civil servant from Birmingham called Arthur Henry Ward. He turned to writing in his twenties and published his first Fu-Manchu story in a magazine in 1912 becoming very popular in the 1920s & 30s.  He wrote fourteen Fu-Manchu books in total, from that date until his death in 1959. Emperor Fu-Manchu is the last full novel, the final book in the series being a collection of shorter stories previously published.

Dr. Fu-Manchu is the archetype of the evil genius, and is surely the inspiration behind Dr No.  Fu-Manchu is an Oriental megalomaniac scientist who uses fantastical means to achieve his ends. He was created as a response to the perceived threat to the West of Chinese domination, which as you may imagine was controversial even at the time, and by our modern standards quite politically incorrect.

As the books go on, the political stance changes, and by Emperor Fu-Manchu he shares a common enemy with West – the Communists. Of course Fu-Manchu’s way of going about ridding the world of them, with his organisation the Si-Fan, is more akin to the aims for global domination of SMERSH/SPECTRE in the Bond novels and films, than that of the Western establishments.

Of course every evil genius has to have the authorities constantly on his tail. The British spymaster in charge is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, who despite getting on in age in the later books, appears to have lost none of his faculties and be as sprightly as ever he was. Nayland-Smith is clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and has his own version of Watson in the early novels.  In this late novel, as it starts he is instructing an American agent born in Hong Kong named Tony McKay that he will work with about his role in the mission. McKay, who can pass for Chinese is to penetrate the ‘second Bamboo Curtain’ to confirm that ‘The Master’ deep in the province of Szechuan is Dr Fu-Manchu.

“There’s some number one top secret being hidden in Szechuan. Miltary Intelligence thinks it’s a Soviet project. I believe it’s a Fu-Manchu project. He may be playing the Soviets at their own game. Dr. Fu-Manchu has no more use for Communism than I have for Asiatic flu. But so far all attempts to solve the puzzle have come apart. Local agents are only of limited use, but you may find them helpful and they’ll be looking out for  you. You’ll have the sign and countersigns. Dine with me tonight and I’ll give you a thorough briefing.” (p12)

No sooner does McKay infiltrate his way towards the Russian ‘leprosy centre’ posing as a fisherman looking for his missing fiancée, than he ends up in a Chinese cell. While nearby, the new governor of the province is meeting his old friend, ‘The Master’…

The man seated there wore a loose yellow robe. His elbows rested on the desk, and his fingers – long, yellow fingers – were pressed together; he might have reminded an observer of a praying mantis. He had the high brow of a philosopher and features suggesting great intellectual power. This aura of mental force seemed to be projected by his eyes, which were of a singular green color. As he stared before him as if at some distant vision, from time to time his eyes filmed over in an extraordinary manner.
The room, in which there lingered a faint, sickly smell of opium, was completely silent. (p18)

I’m not going to expound on the plot much further, suffice to say that Nayland-Smith’s local agents free McKay who escapes to a nearby moored sampan only to discover a girl on board, also hiding. At first he’s not sure he can trust Yueh Hua – but of course he falls for her. There’s lots of back and forth between various safe houses of friends of Nayland-Smith, who pops up all over the place, as they try to find out more about the army of ‘Cold Men’ that Fu-Manchu has working for him as his private army. Essentially frozen zombies, this introduces the mad scientist with a fantastical process to reanimate corpses element to the story. There is spying, fighting, capture, escape, romance and more as Nayland-Smith and colleagues try destroy the top secret Soviet centre before Fu-Manchu can get his hands on it.

Fu-Manchu and Nayland-Smith made fascinating adversaries – and the strangest thing was that both were men of their word, neither will lie to each other. This means that some things cannot be said and McKay has to keep Nayland-Smith in the dark on one matter, because McKay knows that Nayland-Smith would feel compelled to tell Fu-Manchu if he knew. Honour amongst thieves and spies eh!

These books were written in English by an Englishman. The new editions are global but made in America, and some Americanisms have crept in to spellings, e.g. color, etc. While this is annoying, you don’t really notice it once hooked by the plot. It is great to have the full set nearly back in print (one more to come), and I enjoyed the fun cheesiness of this adventure a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Sax Rohmer, Emperor Fu-Manchu (1959). Titan books paperback, 2015, 240 pages.

Classic Children's Literature Month

2015_childrens_lit_originalThe blog Simpler Pastimes is hosting a month-long Classic Children’s Literature Event. Given that I’m only reading from my TBR piles and have plenty of children’s classics, it was ideal to join in with. But which one should I read?

Should I revisit a much-loved tale that I loved as a child?  Or one that I’d missed reading before?

After some perusing of my shelves, I came up with the choice below – by an author I don’t think I ever read as a child, but whom I know is highly regarded after all the reviews of new reprints of The Runaways (formerly Linnets and Valerians) by her, not least the one in Issue 1 of Shiny New Books – always good to get a plug in! So what did I choose? …

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Little White HorseIt was first published in 1946, but I had bought my copy only a few years ago (with my daughter in mind I expect) because it is a film tie-in one. They had to go and change the title to ‘The Secret of Moonacre‘ too for the film for some reason. This edition also includes a section of colour stills from the film with its great British cast – Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone, Juliet Stevenson. Tim Curry and, as the young heroine, the over-named Dakota Blue Richards.

My daughter bypassed this book in the end but I kept it for a rainy day to read myself. So, what did I think?  Well, I’ll save that for after a little resumé of the story…

Maria Merryweather is newly made a poor orphan and as the book starts she is in a carriage on her way to Moonacre, where she is to live with her Uncle Benjamin as they had to sell the London house to pay off her late father’s debts. Accompanying her is her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins.

Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.

So, from page one, we know that Maria is used to the finer things in life. Miss Heliotrope is long-suffering and bookish, and we think Wiggins might be a dog – he is.

They eventually arrive in the valley of the Moonacre estate, coming through a tunnel in the hill which was opened for them.  They meet Uncle Benjamin, who is large and jovial, and are shown to their rooms in the manor-house.

No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. …

The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars.

It’s all too lovely.  A small four-poster bed, sheepskin rug, and silvery-oak chests finish off this dream interior.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

Everything about Moonacre seems perfect. But it isn’t long before Maria starts to find out about the legends surrounding her ancestors, who had stolen lands and sheep from the other local squire and engendered long-lasting bad relations with the fishermen in the bay. There is much talk about how Moon Princesses never stay long at Moonacre, of which of course, Maria is the latest and last of the line.

Maria being more than a little bossy sets out to put things, by which I mean everything, right, and we never doubt that she’ll succeed for a minute … and that is where my problems, reading this book as an adult, lie.

Maria is just too good!

She does have her good points though – she listens, but she uses what she hears to her advantage – she shamelessly manipulates everyone – thank goodness she only does it in their best interests. I’d hate to think what she’d be like crossed!

She and village boy Robin, do have an adventure when she goes to bargain with the wicked decendant of Black William, wronged by her own antecedent. But although chased by the men in black, you never feel that they’re in any real danger. To me, it felt as if it already had a Disney-type of gloss. Maybe the film stills insert gave me the wrong picture (it was Warner Brothers by the way). Everything was too easy for her and too obvious for me.

I did like the animals though. She rescues a hare from a trap and calls her Serena, and then she is kept safe in her escapades by Wrolf, who is essentially a lion pretending to be a giant hound. Trusty little steed Periwinkle the pony, and of course, Wiggins the spaniel complete the menagerie.

Underneath the sweetness of the narrative are themes of atonement, redemption, and a strong reminder that pride is a sin and will do its best to get in the way of true love (nearly made me choke saying that), and they all lived happily every after. To saccharine for me, however, it’s perfect fun for eight-year old girls who like a fairy-tale adventure. (6/10)

Am I being too harsh?
Have you seen the film?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (via affiliate links), please click below:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Lion books paperback, 224 pages.
The Secret Of Moonacre [DVD] [2008]

John Buchan meets Umberto Eco via Dan Brown

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

P1010976 OK – so I put Dan Brown into the title of this post to grab your attention!

While I totally agree with the rest of the world that the Da Vinci Code is not great literature, there is no denying that however silly the whole thing is, it is a rollicking fun adventure. I will nail my colours to the mast and say that, back in the day when I read it on holiday in the sunshine on the stoop of a New England clap-board cottage on Cape Cod – I enjoyed it a lot.

The reason I mention it, is that Antal Szerb’s 1934 novel, The Pendragon Legend, does share that definite sense of fun, and also has a plot that goes at breakneck speed involving manuscripts and ancient rituals etc.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar in London who is on the search for a new project. When he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd at a salon, he finds a fellow scholar with a large library of rare manuscripts in the family mansion in Wales and an invitation to visit follows. Tagging along is Maloney, an Irishman, whom Bátky met in the British Library, who turns out to be a friend of the Earl’s nephew Osborne.

‘Doctor, you’re a hoot. We certainly hit the jackpot when we met. But this Osborne … I’d be so happy if Pat could seduce him. These English aren’t human. Now we Irish … back home in Connemara, at his age I’d already had three sorts of venereal disease. But tell me, dear Doctor, now that we’re such good friends, what’s the real reason for your visit to Llanvygan?’
‘The Earl of Gwynedd invited me to pursue my studies in his library.’
‘Studies? But you’re already a doctor! Or is there some exam even higher than that? You’re an amazingly clever man.’
‘It’s not for an exam … just for the pleasure of it. Some things really interest me.’
‘Which you’re going to study there.’
‘And what exactly are you going to study?’
‘Most probably the history of the Rosicrucians, with particular reference to Robert Fludd.’
‘Who are these Rosicrucians?’
‘Rosicrucians? Hm. Have you ever heard of the Freemasons?’
‘Yes. People who meet in secret … and I’ve no idea what they get up to.’
‘That’s it. The Rosicrucians were different from the Freemasons in that they met in even greater secrecy, and people knew even less about what they did.’

Bátky is beginning to feel as if Maloney is interrogating him – a feeling that won’t lessen over the days to come, as he gets an anonymous message telling him not to go.

So our scene is set for action to transfer from London to Wales.  Llanvygan, the new ancestral home of the Earls of Gwynedd, since they abandoned the nearby Pendragon Castle is a typical country house, creaking and groaning at night. Its staff have to patrol the corridors to protect the Earl – for it transpires that someone is trying to kill him.

The plot gets ever more complicated as Bátky, Osborne, and the Earl’s niece Cynthia, get involved in a old feuds between the Pendragons and the Roscoes over a legacy, plus the Rosicrucians mystic alchemy and ultimately black magic.  Add secret passages, ghostly figures and scared villagers into the mix and there’s almost too much adventure!

Bátky rather reminded me of John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps (which I reviewed here). He’s a little less dashing, but by virtue of being European, like Hannay returning from Africa, he’s an outsider in London.  Combine Hannay with the learning of Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose and you’re just about there.  Of course, Szerb may well have been familiar with Buchan’s book which was published in 1915.

This book has been on my shelves for a year or two, and I’d been putting off reading it, expecting Szerb to be another serious European author.  How wrong I was!  It was a joy to find that a rich vein of comedy runs through the entire novel, and I laughed a lot.  The swaggering Maloney was hilarious; Bátky’s statuesque German friend Lene trying to seduce the effeminate Osborne had me chortling away, and the whole bonkers plot was a running joke in itself.

However, the primary theme is that of a philosophic adventure, and adventure requires characters to be placed in danger.  That they are – it’s amazing that some of them come out alive. Yes, some, for there are deaths along the way too.  You mess with the ancestors of the Rosicrucians at your peril, as Eco fans will know.

Len Rix’s new translation for the Pushkin Press is sparkling.  Bátky of course is a delight – a European that knows English better than the English themselves. He has translated three other Szerb novels, of which I own two and won’t put off reading them now I’ve made his acquaintance. I loved it (9/10).

I read this book for Pushkin Press Fortnight, hosted by Stu of Winston’s Dad.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, published by Pushkin Press (2006), paperback 236 pages.
Also mentioned:
– The Complete Richard Hannay Stories: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep (Wordsworth Classics) by John Buchan
– The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco.
– The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

A charming adventure inside fairy tales …

goodbye yellow brick roadMost of you will know Ian Beck’s work without even realising it. He is an illustrator of renown and amongst many other things designed the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

In the early 1980s, he started to write and illustrate picture books for young children, and later moved into writing children’s novels. I read and loved his book for older children, Pastworld (reviewed here), which featured London reinvented as a Dickensian theme park.

I’d bought a copy of Tom Trueheart, his first children’s novel, back when it was published. My daughter had enjoyed many of his picture books, yet somehow it stayed on the shelf until I rediscovered it the other day …

The Secret History of Tom TrueheartBoy Adventurer by Ian Beck


I do love it when authors find an original way of using old fairy tales and that’s just what Ian Beck has done in this charming novel for children.

Tom Trueheart is nearly twelve. He comes from a celebrated family of adventurers – he has six brothers all called Jack (or variations thereon).

They are all employed by the Story Bureau who devise adventures and send the Jacks off to play the roles in ‘The Land of Stories’ and finish the tales. When it’s over the Jacks tell the Bureau what happened and they write it up into the story books that everyone reads.

The basic plots are thought up by the Story Deviser at the Bureau – Brother Ormestone, who is to present his latest ideas at their meeting:

‘If I may, Master,’ said Brother Ormestone, ‘I have been completely redrafting the ideas for the story which we discussed at our last meeting. “The Adventure of the Fair Princess Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs”.  During the second half of the story, by allowing the young Snow White to escape the hunter and his knife, she can then be found in the woods and sheltered by the seventeen dwarfs. Or she could even find them in her panic to escape. We will use the north-eastern area, the deep woods in the mountains, if our Brother Treasurer could supply a nicely turned-out bright cottage, able to house eighteen, well hidden away, for them all to live in.’

‘The cottage will not be a problem, there are several we can dress ready,’ said the treasurer, a severe bearded figure in grey, who sat at the other end of the table. ‘The seventeen dwarfs, now that is your problem: I can supply a maximum of seven for any story.’

‘Seven,’ said Brother Ormestone in his most chilling voice. ‘Seven. Dear me, dear me no. I have worked long and hard on this story and it definitely involves seventeen dwarfs of varied and, I am afraid, somewhat twisted character.’ He emphasized the word ‘twisted’ in such a way that it caused the Master’s skin to crawl, …

… ‘In any case, Ormestone, we have heard enought for now. You have, as usual lately, gone too far in the planning of these stories,’ said the Master shaking his head. ‘There is nothing left for the adventurers to actually do. Your story plans have got longer and longer. It is almost as if you are tying to get rid of the adventurers’ role altogether. You know the rules as well as the rest of us. We suggest the beginning of things only. We set things up for the adventurers, and they carry out the adventure. It is not up to us to wrap it all up for them and tie a ribbon round it with our name on it.’

Thus embarrassed again, Ormestone in his jealousy of the adventurers hatches a dastardly plan to have his vengeance on the Trueheart family.

Over the next days, one by one, the brothers Jack get sent off on new adventures, one to be Prince Charming, one a frog prince, another to rescue the sleeping princess and so on – you get the picture.  They all swear to be home in time for Tom’s twelfth birthday, the age at which he can become an apprentice adventurer – but one by one they don’t return.

Tom has to celebrate his birthday with just his mother. The next day a letter arrives for him by sprite-mail with an adventure.  As the last adventurer left, it will be Tom’s job to find his brothers and get all the tales finished.  He bravely sets off, accompanied by a talking crow called Jollity (a sprite in disguise who is to keep an eye on him).

Young Tom will have the adventure of a lifetime.

I was captivated by this story.  It touches upon all those fairy tales we know so well, but which are held in hiatus by their missing princes. Tom passes through each of the tales in turn and stops them from collapsing in on themselves, keeping them alive for the return of his brothers.

This is done with surprising subtlety and gives each of the classic tales in their basic form some added depth, as we see how the cast are actors playing parts. (At some subterranean level, I wondered whether Beck’s ‘Land of stories’ is a satire on Disneyland?’ – theme parks seem to be a fixation of Beck’s!)

Ideal for those children who aren’t quite ready for the small print of Harry Potter, they will love spotting the familiar tales, and thrill along with young Tom as he finds himself in peril from the evil machinations of Brother Ormestone. The book is also full of Beck’s lovely silhouette illustrations as on the hardback’s cover which make it a pleasure to read.

Beck has since written two more volumes of Tom Trueheart’s adventures, and I must say I’d love to read them. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck, (2007) OUP Oxford, paperback 320 pages.

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