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Tag: fiction

The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach

The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach, book cover

In American film director David Dobkin’s 2005 movie Wedding Crashers, we see Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, known as John and Jeremy respectively, getting a kick out of showing up at strangers’ weddings. They’re both outgoing and personable, and quickly ingratiate themselves with the bridal party and their guests. Their charade is so convincing, everyone believes John and Jeremy are somehow part of the family.

It could be Prudence, the protagonist in The Black Dress (published by Hachette Australia, July 2021), the sixteenth novel of British author Deborah Moggach saw John and Jeremy in action, and decided to take a leaf out of their book. Instead of weddings though, seventy-something Pru, having purchased a black dress from a charity shop, goes to funerals. It’s not so much that she enjoys funerals, but you know, there’s bound to be a well-off widower or two in attendance.

Right about now you might be wondering what Pru is thinking. But consider: her husband recently left her, her adult children are busy with their own lives, and her friends are also otherwise occupied. What then is wrong with going to a funeral here and there? While Pru’s plan to hook-up with eligible widowers seems like a good idea, she soon discovers, to borrow the words of William Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth…

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Seven and a Half, by Christos Tsiolkas

Seven and a Half, Christos Tsiolkas, book cover

The premise of Seven and a Half (published by Allen & Unwin, November 2021) by Melbourne based Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, reminds me a little of the concept of the Metaverse. In short, an array of technologies, many that are currently still in some form of development, will allow us to live in one world while we inhabit another, or maybe even several, as the case may be.

You could be in Sydney, but sitting in on a meeting of colleagues in London, and feel like you were in the same room. Later you could be “present” at a concert in Los Angeles, again feeling as if you were really there. But back to Seven and a Half. An author has travelled to a small coastal Australian town. Free of the distractions of city life, he begins to write. His novel is about an author trying to write a novel. Here we have meta-fiction, rather than Metaverse though.

The protagonist of Tsiolkas’ “written-author” story is a retired porn star named Paul, who has been offered a chance to make a comeback. The “written-author” seeks to write sensual prose, drawing on the author’s present proximity to nature and the ocean, without becoming sordid. A challenge perhaps, as Paul becomes immersed in the dubious merits of the world he is returning to.

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Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, book cover

Not that it’s my intention to traumatise you with the workings of my subconscious, but the premise to Piranesi (published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2021), by British author Susanna Clarke sounds like the sort of dream I might have. The setting is an old, dilapidated multi-level building, and is home to the titular protagonist known as Piranesi, who refers to the enigmatic structure as the “House.”

And dream-like is the best way to describe the dwelling. An ocean floods the lower levels of this labyrinth, providing food and fuel – in the form of seaweed – for Piranesi. The sprawling hallways of the house’s mid-section stories are lined with statues, while the upper floors are shrouded in clouds. Save for an old scholar, whom Piranesi calls the “Other”, who makes brief appearances a few times a week, the building is otherwise deserted.

But one day Piranesi begins to notice messages chalked onto walkways around the House. Do they point to the presence of a third person within the building? The Other sees them a portent of bad things to come. In order to discover the identity of this mysterious third person, and what they want, Piranesi will need to learn more about the House and its history.

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The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, book cover

The Sentence (published by Hachette Australia, November 2021), written by Minnesota based American author Louise Erdrich, is a book set in a bookshop. A bookshop with a difference though. The independent bookshop, also located in Minnesota, is haunted by a ghost. And not any old ghost either. No, the shop has become the afterlife abode of Flora, who happened to be the store’s most irritating customer during her (regular) lifetime.

Now she’s back, and back to stay, unless a way can be found to get rid of her. To this shop comes Tookie, a new employee, who’s recently been released from prison after serving a ten year sentence. She’s looking for stability and normality in her life, and has even gone so far as to marry, Pollux, the now former police officer who originally arrested her many years earlier.

Set during a turbulent chapter in the city’s recent history, with Black Lives Matter protests, and the Covid pandemic, Tookie learns she has one year to somehow extricate Flora from the shop. But Tookie has her work cut out for her. The intentions of Flora, who must have a few scores she wants to settle, soon move from the annoying to the sinister…

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The Deep, by Kyle Perry

The Deep, by Kyle Perry, book cover

A rugged coastline. A treacherous, turbulent, ocean. An air current so deadly locals call it the black wind. A remote village, home to the Dempsey family for generations. A family who has a made a name and livelihood for themselves as fishers and drug dealers. And then there are the names. Mackerel. Ahab. Blackbeard. It’s a nautical blend of ingredients indeed.

Such is the setting for The Deep (published by Penguin Books Australia, July 2021) the second novel of Burnie, Tasmania, based Australian writer Kyle Perry. But the inhabitants of Shacktown, on the Tasman Peninsula, wake to a troubling mystery one day. A young relative of the Dempsey’s, Forest, who disappeared seven years earlier, aged six, and long assumed to be dead, along with his parents, Jesse and Alexandra, has inexplicably appeared on a nearby beach.

A cross tattooed onto Forest’s back suggests he has been in the captive custody of Blackbeard, a rival drug lord who is intent on muscling into the illicit Dempsey family operation. But Mackerel and Ahab are reluctant to help the family deal with Blackbeard. Mackerel is on prison release, and any misstep will see him incarcerated again, while Ahab wants to turn his back on the family’s shady business ventures…

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Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, book cover

Sometimes I find the synopsis of a book so intriguing I feel compelled to write about it for that reason alone. Cloud Cuckoo Land (published by Simon & Schuster, 2021), written by American author Anthony Doerr, is such a novel. The first point of interest are the settings. Constantinople, now Istanbul, in past times the capital of several large empires, is one.

Here a teenage girl called Anna lives, in the lead up to the fateful 1453 siege of the city, and final remnant of the Byzantine Empire. In her spare time, she reads a book, the story of Aethon, a man who yearned to become a bird, so he could fly to a better place. The next setting is five hundred years later, in Idaho, where Zona, a woman in her eighties, is preparing a group of children to take part in a play based on Aethon’s story. The final setting is somewhere in interstellar space, where Konstance, a resident born on a generational colony ship, is transcribing the story of Aethon, after he father recited it to her.

And here we come to the second point of interest, an ancient story that links people living centuries apart, people keeping – in their own way – Aethon and his story alive, many centuries after its original telling. While the nature of the story appeals to me, like any book, it’s not for everyone, if the comments of some GoodReads members are anything to go by.

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Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu, book cover

Willis Wu imagines he is an extra in a TV crime show. But he aspires to be more than an insignificant figure lurking in the background, he has his eye on a lead role. Kung Fu Guy would be ideal, but he can’t seem to break out of the part he has become typecast in, that of Generic Asian Man. Is it possible his Taiwanese Chinese ancestry is working against him?

The TV show, named Black and White – the lead characters are police officers, one is black, the other white – plays out in a restaurant called Golden Palace, located in the Chinatown of an American city. It might be though Willis is actually a restaurant worker who imagines he is part of a TV show. But in Interior Chinatown (published by Allen & Unwin, January 2021), the fourth novel by American author Charles Yu, the distinction isn’t really relevant.

Behind the screenplay, or the would-be cop-show, is a story of immigration and assimilation. Of people who leave their homeland and relocate to a new country. A place where their appearance, and the language they speak, may set them apart. See them sometimes relegated to the fringes of society. This may not be a TV show many of us want to be cast in…

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The Quiet at the End of the World, by Lauren James

The Quiet at the End of the World, by Lauren James, book cover

The title of The Quiet at the End of the World brings to mind the line here at the quiet limit of the world, from a poem called Tithonus, written by Alfred Tennyson in the nineteenth century. In my mind the words take me to any deserted stretch of coast bordering the Mediterranean, and carefree summers spent ambling around Europe.

Tennyson’s verse, on the other hand, is about an immortal man yearning for death. Go figure. Needless to say, I decided to learn more about The Quiet at the End of the World (published by Walker Books, March 2019), by British author Lauren James, before choosing an inclination inspired by the book’s poetic title. That turned out to be a good idea. A devastating virus has rendered the population of the planet infertile, and Lowrie and Shen are the last remaining teenagers in the world. They live with a small group of elderly survivors from across the globe congregating in London.

Aside from the fact humanity faces an inevitable extinction, Lowrie and Shen lead exceedingly comfortable lives. But that all changes one day, when a new mystery disease begins striking down the older people around them. The teenagers need to figure out what is happening, and find a way to save the remaining residents of their community, before there they are the only humans left on Earth.

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Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles

Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles, book cover

Deep Wheel Orcadia (published by Pan Macmillan, October 2021), written by Leith based Scottish writer and performer Harry Josephine Giles, is a science fiction story with a difference. For one, it is written in the Orkney language, and is said to be the first full-length book published in the dialect in fifty years. And then there’s the poetic verse with which the story is told.

The setting is a space station called Deep Wheel Orcadia. The station has seen better days, but it continues to function, as it trundles its way through space. To Deep Wheel comes Astrid. She’s an art student on her way home, having recently finished schooling on Mars. She’s also searching for inspiration, but is a space station, somewhere in the interstellar voids, the place to be looking?

But it is here Astrid meets Darling. Darling cannot find acceptance, and is looking for somewhere to hide. Perhaps Deep Wheel is the perfect place for her to be? Deep Wheel Orcadia, with its poems written in Orkney, and translated into English lower down the page, has the makings of an incredible story. I’m also intrigued by the enigmatic space station. I’d like to visit. Anyone know how I might get there?

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Love Stories, by Trent Dalton

Love Stories, by Trent Dalton, book cover

Don’t we all love a great love story? Especially when it’s ours? (I walked into a bar one night. That was lucky because I hardly ever walk into bars…) But walking is what Brisbane based Australian journalist and novelist Trent Dalton did as well. He walked the streets of Adelaide and Brisbane, looking for stories: stories of love.

He’d set up a portable table somewhere, place an old typewriter – left to him by the late mother of a friend – on it, and then stop passers-by to ask them to tell him a story. Maybe you saw him. Did he ask you to tell your story? Would you, if he’d asked? Of all the things you could ask a total stranger at random, I get the feeling it’s a question a lot of people would be happy to answer. Because who doesn’t like telling a story of love? The fruits of this labour, which sometimes saw Dalton at his mobile workstation for eight hours a day, is Love Stories (published by HarperCollins, 27 October 2021).

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I could only imagine how wondrous, raw, inspiring, and even heartbreaking this collection of stories is. Dalton was recently a guest on Words and Nerds, a podcast show hosted by Dani Vee, where he talked about Love Stories, and what prompted him to write the book. It’s a heart-warming discussion well worth listening to.

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Rock Paper Scissors, by Alice Feeney

Rock Paper Scissors, by Alice Feeney, book cover

Amelia and Adam have been married ten years. Each year, on their anniversary, they exchange gifts in accordance with the occasion. Paper, leather, sugar, what have you. But there’s one gift Amelia has made for each anniversary that she never gives to Adam. Every year she writes him a letter, describing her feelings about him, and their marriage. Without giving too much away, Adam is a workaholic, more devoted to his screenwriting job, than his marriage to Amelia.

On the occasion of their tenth anniversary, being tin, Amelia wins a holiday to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, in a workplace raffle. By this point, both partners recognise the marriage is struggling, and both see the holiday away from the distractions of home and work as an opportunity to revive their flagging relationship. But something doesn’t quite feel right. Might it be their accommodation, a chapel of all places? Or might it be the power failure just as they arrive?

And why have their phones suddenly stopped working? On top of that, a snowstorm traps them in the old chapel. And then there’s the minor detail about the holiday itself. Winning it seems not to be as random as it looked… Rock Paper Scissors (published by Harper Collins Australia, August 2021) is the latest novel from English author Alice Feeney, and if you’re a fan of domestic thrillers, with what seems like a touch of things going bump in the night, this might be the book for you.

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The Other Side of Beautiful, by Kim Lock

The Other Side of Beautiful, by Kim Lock, book cover

A traumatic workplace incident several years earlier has left Mercy Blain, a former doctor, housebound, in The Other Side of Beautiful (published by HQ Fiction/HarperCollins, July 2021), the fourth novel of South Australian based author Kim Lock. For two years she has not left the safety and security of her home. But when the house burns to the ground one night, Mercy has no choice but to step out into the world.

Her first port of call is her former husband’s place. But he is living with someone else, and Mercy is on the move once again. This time though she goes all out. She buys an old – an incredibly old – campervan, and leaving her hometown Adelaide, in South Australia, with Wasabi, her sausage dog, Mercy makes her way north to Darwin.

But then things begin to change. As Mercy continues towards Darwin, she begins to experience a catharsis of sorts, and she starts to see a way around the anxieties that have kept her shut away behind closed doors. All seems to be going well until she is required to return to Adelaide to resolve a legal matter, where even the mere thought of being back causes to her anxiety to come to the fore again.

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Loner, by Georgina Young

Loner, by Georgina Young, book cover

It’s a difficult path to walk, the journey to becoming the person we want to be. There’s the frequent self-doubt, and the sometimes futile attempts to appease those around us, who expect our lives to take a direction more in suiting with their preferences. How many of us have been in, or are in, such a place? At least Lona, the twenty year old protagonist of Loner (published by Text Publishing, August 2020), written by Melbourne based Australian author Georgina Young, knows what she doesn’t want.

But then the arts student decides one day a life in the arts isn’t for her. Nor the dead-end jobs she calls work. Lona goes from having some direction, to having almost none. All that seems to fulfil her are books, a part-time gig as a DJ, and photography, an interest that requires her to sneak into her old art school to access the dark room to develop her pictures.

Loner is one of the titles shortlisted in this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and in addition to her other woes, it seems to me Lona also has to grapple with being an introvert. Choosing to be in her own company, or perish forbid, enjoying being in her own company, is another source of self-doubt for Lona, since some of the people around her probably feel she is lacking as a result. It’s kind of difficult then. Trying to find out who you are, while others are expressing disapproval at what you are.

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The Younger Wife, by Sally Hepworth

The Younger Wife, by Sally Hepworth, book cover

The Younger Wife (published by Pan Macmillan Australia, October 2021) by Melbourne based Australian author Sally Hepworth, has been popping up a lot recently on the Oblong Obsession Instagram feed, and yesterday I finally decided to take a closer look. The title screamed the suggestion older person marries younger person, leading me to think I might be reading about an older person perhaps making a new start in life following a divorce, or the death of their last spouse.

Not quite. And nor could the mid-life crisis label be applied either, despite appearances. Stephen announces his engagement to his adult daughters, Tully and Rachel. But the two women have little regard for his wife to be, Heather. For one thing, she’s practically their age, to say nothing of their suspicion that Heather is a gold digger. But the main point of contention is Pam, their mother, who is neither dead, nor divorced from Stephen.

But Stephen has an answer to that. Pam is afflicted with dementia, and resides in a care facility, and he figures she’ll offer little resistance to a divorce. The idea enrages his daughters, and I’m hazarding a guess things will not end well. But in learning more about Heather, Tully and Rachel discover she indeed has secrets. As does their father. But that is only the beginning. Tully and Rachel, it seems, have a few things to hide themselves. I get the feeling this will not end well for all involved…

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In the Time of Foxes, by Jo Lennan

In the Time of Foxes, by Jo Lennan, book cover

I can’t say I’m thankful for everything the Australian Prime Minister may do, but the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards I can place in the positive category. Not only do the awards send some much needed recognition the way of Australian writers, they’ve also put some titles I was previously unaware of before my eyes.

In the Time of Foxes (published by Simon & Schuster, May 2020), by Sydney based Australian writer Jo Lennan is one such example. Somehow I seemed to miss seeing this title on the bustling Bookstagram, but it has been shortlisted for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Foxes are perceived to be devious yet shrewd, traits the characters featured in this thirteen short story collection share. But each of them needs more than street-smarts as they attempt to navigate the places and circumstances they find themselves in.

Places ranging from Hackney, in London’s East, Tokyo, and a cafe in Sydney. In nearly every story foxes make an appearance in some way, though perhaps they are absent in the tale set on Mars, as in the red planet. Here a journalist seems to be in trouble of some sort, and in the absence of a nearby fox, possibly needs to think like one, if he is to survive.

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Marilou Is Everywhere, by Sarah Elaine Smith

Marilou Is Everywhere, by Sarah Elaine Smith, book cover

Fourteen year old Cindy leads a brutally unhappy life. Her parents are elsewhere, leaving Cindy in the care of her older brothers, who have little interest – to say the least – in looking after her. But when another local teenager, Jude, goes missing, Cindy perversely sees an opportunity to improve her lot, in Marilou Is Everywhere (published by Penguin Books Australia, 28 September 2021), the debut novel of American author Sarah Elaine Smith.

Jude’s mother Bernadette, afflicted by alcoholism and mental illness, seems unaware her daughter vanished on a camping trip with friends, and unwittingly accepts Cindy as a surrogate. While Cindy is fully aware her charade is all shades of wrong, her longing for the presence of a loving parent, and a happy, stable, family life, is far more compelling.

Michael Schaub, writing for NPR, describes Marilou Is Everywhere as “a novel of stunning emotional intelligence, and Cindy an unforgettable character, but it’s Smith’s writing that’s the real star of the book. Her language is hypnotic and enchanting, with lines that read like poetry.” Sometimes it’s not so much the story, as the way it’s written, that draws me to a book, so this is a title I look forward to reading.

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I Give My Marriage a Year, by Holly Wainwright

I Give My Marriage a Year, by Holly Wainwright, book cover

If there were an award for book cover of the year (actually there’s the Australian Book Designers Association, and the Academy of British Cover Design, for quick starters), then I’d nominate I Give My Marriage a Year (published by Pan Macmillan, August 2020), by Australian content producer and writer, Holly Wainwright. I’d do likewise if there were also an award for book title of the year.

But I Give My Marriage a Year is more than eye-catching cover design, and a pithy title, it’s like having seats centre stage while you watch two sports teams you know nothing about, go head to head. Sydneysiders Lou and Josh have been married for fourteen years. They have two children, and live in the city’s inner western suburbs. But their marriage has lulled into a void.

Lou decides it’s time to take action. Or more to the point, to make a plan to take action. For twelve months she will subject her relationship with Josh, who works as a carpenter, but would rather be in a band, to a number of stress tests. At the end of the year, she will assess the outcomes and make a final decision, does she leave Josh, or does she stay?

That leaves the reader to decide who they’ll back. And the choice may not be all that simple. Both players will break rules and land low blows. But the best in both Lou and Josh will also come to the fore. Will there be only one winner, or can the spoils of victory be shared? And without any further delay I shall add I Give My Marriage a Year to my to-be-read list.

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The Housemate, by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate, by Sarah Bailey, book cover

Hands up anyone who misses living in a share house. No, I didn’t think I’d see many hands up in the air. After all, what’s to miss about co-inhabiting with strangers, aside from maybe the parties? The conflicts and politics? No. The person who leaves the kitchen and bathroom perpetually messy? No. The someone bringing noisy “friends” in and out at all sorts of weird hours, usually when everyone else is trying to sleep? No.

The self-appointed head of the house who… but I’ll stop right there. I’m here today to write about the newest addition to my to-be-read list, The Housemate (published by Allen & Unwin, August 2021), the latest novel by Melbourne based Australian author and advertising executive Sarah Bailey. Olive, an investigative journalist in Melbourne, is sent out by her boss to write about the suspicious death of a woman in rural Victoria.

The deceased turns out to be the former flatmate of another woman, murdered in the so-called “Housemates Homicide”, a story that had gripped the nation ten years earlier. While the third housemate was eventually jailed for the crime, the circumstances surrounding the horrific killing were never fully understood.

Working with Cooper, her colleague podcaster, whom she doesn’t always get along with, Olive begins delving into the killing again. In doing so, Olive discovers other deaths may be connected to the original murder ten years ago. She also learns she might have a previously unknown personal connection to case, one that may pose a danger to her and her family.

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The Shadow House, by Anna Downes

The Shadow House, by Anna Downes, book cover

It might be a story we’ve heard before, but there’s something about The Shadow House (published by Affirm Press, September 2021), by Sydney, Australia, based British author Anna Downes, that’s snags at my curiosity. First, there’s the prospect of starting a new life in a beautiful house, in a remote, yet welcoming, community, surrounded by a lush forest, far from a previous, unhappy existence.

But then it comes. Slowly at first. A gnawing doubt, that perhaps it’s all a little too good to be true. But by the time that happens, it’s too late. Alex, with her children, Ollie, a teenage boy, and baby Kara, have left Sydney, and moved to rural Pine Ridge, a fictional town on the NSW Central Coast of Australia. She left an abusive partner, and despite Ollie’s misgivings at leaving the city, Alex feels she made the right choice.

Until that is the strange, disturbing parcels, begin appearing on her doorstep, and Alex thinks she sees shadowy figures moving about in the dense woods enveloping the house. Six years earlier, meanwhile, Renee, had lived on a farm that became the site of the community Alex moved to. Like Alex, Renee also had a teenage son, Gabriel. But Gabriel went missing one day, and was never seen again.

Is there a connection between the odd things happening to Alex, and the tragedy that struck Renee’s family? Who is leaving bone fragments outside Alex’s house, and what’s with the spooky carry-on in the nearby forest? But Alex has cause to be alarmed, Renee reported the exact same happenings just before Gabriel disappeared…

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Scary Monsters, by Michelle de Kretser

Scary Monsters, by Michelle de Kretser, book cover

Scary Monsters (published by Allen & Unwin, October 2021) the latest novel from Sri Lankan born Australian writer Michelle de Kretser, literally leaves readers wondering where to begin. With two covers, and telling two stories, what would you do? The first story, set in 1981, centres on a woman named Lili. Her family immigrated to Australia when she was young, but now she works as a teacher in France.

Lili is alarmed by the treatment meted out to immigrants from Northern Africa, who have come to France looking for a new life. Lyle, the central character of the second story in the book, lives in a dystopian near-future Australia, which is still recovering from a recent pandemic. An area of the country is perpetually on fire, casting a smoky pall over the region. Islam has been banned, and anyone who doesn’t “fit in” is deported.

Lyle is also an immigrant, but does his best to act as Australian as possible, lest he garner scorn from the authorities. Despite the dark, ominous, premise of both stories, Michael Williams writing for The Guardian, described Scary Monsters as “both devastating and very funny.” But the question remains, whose story should we read first? Lili’s or Lyle’s?

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