Adult Fiction Mental Health Novel “In Two Minds”…and I am.

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in two minds

I couldn’t resist the lure of a new novel featuring mental illness and its effects, from one of Australia’s leading psychiatrists, no less, and so here we are today with In Two Minds by Gordon Parker, founder of the Black Dog Institute.  We received our copy from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dr Martin Homer is a GP with a naturally sunny disposition. Honourable, attentive and trusted by all of his patients, Martin has only ever loved one woman – his wife, Sarah.

When his mother dies suddenly, Martin’s comfortable life is thrown into complete disarray. After sinking into the black dog of grief and depression, he ascends to new heights in a frenzied, manic high. Now, he’s never felt better!

In between riding his new skateboard around the streets at night and self-medicating from his stash at work, the artificially elated and self-entitled Martin crosses paths with Bella, a beautiful and sexual young woman profoundly damaged by trauma of her own.

In Two Minds takes you on a quirky, rollicking journey that unveils the complexities of mental illness with wit and warmth. Gordon Parker’s impressive career in psychiatry reveals itself through extremely rich descriptions of depression, bipolar and borderline personality characteristics.

It must be said that when you’ve read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, featuring mental illness of one form or another, things do tend to get a bit samey.  This is one of the reasons I am in two minds about In Two Minds – if this had been the first novel I had read in which the protagonist has a breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit, I may have been more interested in the outcome.  Indeed, if I had not had the pleasure of spending some time in a psychiatric hospital myself, I may have been more entranced by the ins and outs of what happens when you are deemed no longer able to manage your own affairs without cocking things up in spectacular fashion.  If you have not had such an experience yourself, and you aren’t elbow deep in the back catalogue of “books about people losing their marbles in various painful and unexpected ways” then you should find In Two Minds to be compelling reading.

Martin Homer is an all-around good bloke.  He loves his wife, is wholeheartedly devoted to his work as a GP and generally sets the standard for good behaviour and personal growth everywhere he goes.  Bella is a woman with a past and a borderline personality disorder (**I’ve always wondered why the “borderline” part is added to the “personality disorder” part of that description, because there ain’t nothin’ “borderline” about Bella’s crazy, vitriolic antics**).  When Martin’s self-medicating after the death of his mother leads to a manic episode, the trajectories of Bella and Martin cross and Martin’s prior grip on his identity, his marriage and his work is shattered.

The story is told in alternating sections between Martin and Bella, with Martin’s story taking the primary position.  Really, this is a story about Martin and Bella is a bit player, albeit one whose back story is essential to the plot for her actions toward Martin to be in any way believable.  The author mentions the Madonna-whore complex early on in the story and all of the women presented here in any detail are indeed Madonnas (Edina, Martin’s mother, and Sarah, Martin’s wife) or whores (Bella, the Trophettes).  Bella’s early history, which the reader discovers at the end of the book, even indicates that she was a literal whore, working as a prostitute.  There was something unsettling about this for me, and I would have liked to have seen a few chapters written from Sarah’s point of view.  It seemed a little unfair to have such a focus on the man-slaying Bella and the existential crisis of Martin (post-mania) and so little focus on the woman who chooses to “stand by her man” as it were, despite the fact that he’s just undergone a major change in personality and behaviour.  In fact, had there been more of a focus on Sarah, this would have been a point that set this novel apart from the multitude that have gone before it; as important as the perspective of the sufferer of mental illness undeniably is, it would be instructive to read something from the point of view of the supporter – the spouse, significant other, family member – of the sufferer.

One thing that really does set this book apart is that it isn’t focused on talking therapy in any way.  Much is made in the early chapters of Martin’s past and the various tragedies and triumphs that shaped who he is.  I was expecting that this information would be somehow revisited later in the book as part of Martin’s recovery, but this wasn’t the case.  Instead, the section of the book dealing with Martin’s recovery is focused almost entirely on the various medications he is treated with, their side effects and the way they interact.  This may explain the slight disconnect I felt between the early parts of the story, in which Martin’s family and Sarah play such a strong role, and the latter parts, in which all of the key stressors and factors that almost certainly factored into Martin’s illness are glossed over in favour of his response to medication.  Even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, this certainly was a point of difference that makes this book stand apart from others on a similar topic.

The author may have even not-so-subtly inserted himself into the story by means of Saxon Marshall, Martin’s treating psychiatrist.  The name of this character struck me as interesting, and this may just be me receiving coded messages through the TV and novels here, but Saxon is the surname of the Master as played by John Simm in David Tennant’s run of Doctor Who, while Marshal is the given name of one of a psychiatrist character in Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch (see below).  I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious choice of character moniker and if so, what does it say about ol’ Gordon Parker, eh?  (**Probably not much because it’s probably not a conscious naming device, and just me projecting.  It should have been though – mashing the two characters together is quite evocative, imo**).

I was a little confused at the ending of the book.  There is an ambiguous ending for Martin, which I think worked well given we, as readers, leave him so soon after his diagnosis and early recovery.  It was a clever move to end his story at this point and leave us wondering what became of him.  More curious however was the ending of Bella’s narrative trajectory.  Toward the very end of the book, we are privy to even more of Bella’s backstory and the introduction of a new key character in Bella’s life.  I couldn’t get a grasp on why this was included, unless it was only to set up Martin’s ambiguous departure, because it certainly didn’t heighten my empathy for Bella in any way and felt like too much of an information dump after the climax of the story.

Having finished up the book, I had a quick flick through some similar books of my acquaintance and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, books featuring mental illness of one kind or another do tend to blend together after a while.  I definitely experienced shades of The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence (female protagonist with bipolar disorder), Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy (professional male protagonist coming to terms with a change of identity concept and mental trauma), and most obviously, Irvin Yalom’s, Lying on the Couch (multiple psychiatrists go through various psychiatrist-y problems and as in all of Yalom’s work, boobs are mentioned a lot).

If you are looking for a truly original story about the whirlwind of depression, mania and psychosis, then I would suggest trying Kathleen Founds’ brilliant When Mystical Creatures Attack!  If you are an entry level journeyperson regarding novels about mental health or you have an interest in bipolar disorder, depression and mania generally, definitely give In Two Minds a go.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 in category #51: a book about a difficult topic.  You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

A Top Book of 2016 YA Pick: You Were Here…

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Bruce's PickI know, I know! It’s only February and already I’ve thrown out three Top Book of 2016 picks.  You should probably count yourself lucky that there is so much excellent reading material being brought to your attention by your friendly neighbourhood shelf-dwellers.

Today’s offering is a YA contemporary novel with an unusual format and some of the best, most authentic characterisation of teenagers on the brink of starting their adult lives that I have seen for a while.  We received a copy of You Were Here by Cori McCarthy from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Grief turned Jaycee into a daredevil, but can she dare to deal with her past?

On the anniversary of her daredevil brother’s death, Jaycee attempts to break into Jake’s favorite hideout—the petrifying ruins of an insane asylum. Joined by four classmates, each with their own brand of dysfunction, Jaycee discovers a map detailing her brother’s exploration and the unfinished dares he left behind.

As a tribute to Jake, Jaycee vows to complete the dares, no matter how terrifying or dangerous. What she doesn’t bargain on is her eccentric band of friends who challenge her to do the unthinkable: reveal the parts of herself that she buried with her brother.

you were here

So here are some of the features of the book that I thoroughly appreciated:

  • Abandoned sanatoriums, shopping centres, train tunnels and fun parks
  • Alternating points of view between the main five characters – Jaycee, Natalie, Zach, Mik and Bishop
  • GRAPHIC NOVEL formatting within the novel itself – woo!
  • The aforementioned excellent characterisation of young people dealing with grief, identity, growth and changing friendships
I was surprised at how engaged I became with this story to be honest with you.  I requested it for the themes of grief and identity that are touched on in the blurb, but I was heartily impressed with the way that the author deftly handles five main characters in alternating perspectives, each with different – though intersecting – flaws and secrets.  While each of the characters could be defined as typical characters one might find in a YA contemporary – the wild child, the man-child, the brooding artistic type, the overachiever and the strong, silent type – the depth with which the author explores each of their stories is beyond the ordinary for books pitched at this age group.  Similarly, while some of the themes in the book have been done to death in contemporary YA, McCarthy’s treatment of the characters’ growth seems extremely authentic, so I never had the feeling that I was reading characters that could easily be swapped into any old YA story.
I loved the inclusion of urban exploring – seeking out and visiting abandoned public buildings or spaces – and the way in which it neatly tied in with the reader’s slowly unfolding picture of who Jake might have been, as a brother and friend.  The graphic novel elements,used to tell Mik’s part of the story, were a wonderful, novel inclusion, but I really wanted to see more of them throughout.  Similarly, the single-page artworks attributed to Bishop seemed far too thin on the ground (or the wall, as the case may be), although I understand that, apart from showcasing Bishop’s state of mind at various points in the story, it would have been difficult to include more.
If you’re looking for a deeply absorbing, authentic examination of a group of friends trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, before launching themselves into the big, wide world, then I recommend this book to you.  If you’re looking for a riveting and sometimes disturbing examination of grief and the impact of a young person’s death on a community and family, I recommend this book to you.
And if you’re just looking for a bloody good contemporary YA read with action, adventure, romance, break-ups, pain, friendship, humiliation, growth, graffiti, secrets, graphic novel interludes and a whole swathe of abandoned buildings to explore, then you should just go out and acquire You Were Here by Cori McCarthy.  Then let me know what you think.
Until next time,
Bruce

Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge: A Historical, First Nations MG Epic…

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imageToday’s Oddity Odyssey selection I am submitting in the categories of Odd Title and Odd Subject Matter.  In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall and illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk is an absorbing journey into the history of the Lakota people – an indigenous tribe of North America – and their struggle to prevail and maintain their traditional lands and culture in the face of advancing white folk.  The oddness in the title is the “Crazy” part – which is a synonym for “odd ” – and the oddness of the subject matter relates to the fact that I have never read a book so focused on North American First Nations people.  Thanks to Abrams Kids, the book’s publisher, from whom I snagged a review copy through Netgalley, for the opportunity to extend my knowledge in this subject area.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge for 2015, feel free to click on the challenge button at the top of this post.  There’s still time to join in!

But back to the book.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jimmy McClean is a Lakota boy—though you would not guess it by his name: his father is a white man and his mother is Lakota. When he embarks on a journey with his grandfather, Nyles High Eagle, he learns more and more about his Lakota heritage—in particular, the story of Crazy Horse, one of the most important figures in Lakota history. Drawing inspiration from the oral stories of the Lakota tradition and the Lakota cultural mechanism of the “hero story,” Joseph Marshall provides readers with an insider’s perspective on the life of Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse. Through his grandfather’s tales about the famous warrior, Jimmy learns more about his Lakota heritage and, ultimately, himself.

crazy horse

If you know any middle grade boys who are ripe for an action-packed, rite-of-passage adventure with a difference then this is a book you definitely want to get into their hands.  While I by no means wish to deter young ladies from reading this book, it has a definite male skew and has many aspects, including riding, fighting and learning from older mentors that will especially appeal to young boys.

The story begins with young Jimmy discussing with his grandfather the ways in which some boys at his school try to make him feel different.  Jimmy’s grandfather, a proud Lakota man, takes it upon himself to teach Jimmy some of his history and culture, and point out that one of the Lakota’s most famous warriors, Crazy Horse, also found life as a young man less than smooth sailing.  The tale alternates between conversations and interactions between Jimmy and his grandfather in the present day as they travel to sites of historical significance for the Lakota people, and a narrative following the snippets of the life of Crazy Horse, as he grows from a lad of about Jimmy’s age, to a man and a leader of his people in a time of upheaval.

While not being from North America, or having much knowledge of the First Nations people of that area of the world – outside that dubiously provided by watching Dances With Wolves and the like – many of the situations in which Crazy Horse and his loved ones found themselves felt eerily similar to the historical incidences of genocide, oppression and discrimination levelled against Australia’s own indigenous people since the arrival of European settlers.  I imagine the stories of many First Nations groups across the world share themes of destruction of culture and loss of land, accompanied by an inexplicable astonishment from the oppressing forces as to the audacity of various indigenous populations in fighting against impending death and displacement.  This book will no doubt open up important discussions for North American readers, but could also be used in Australian schools and families as an oblique way to introduce our own history of indigenous oppression, which remains a contentious topic for many.

In terms of the narrative, the writing felt a little didactic to me as an adult reader at times, but overall I found this to be a highly accessible story that addresses issues such as finding one’s identity, the social impact of civil conflict, and coping with difference.  It’s also a reasonably quick read with plenty of action and this is aided by the switching between present and past.  I’d highly recommend this as a class read-aloud to engage reluctant male readers in discussions about history, identity and ethics.

Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Challenge Total: 15/16

Until next time,

Bruce

An Unconventional YA Double Dip: Goldfish and Geriatrics..

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Grab a snack and assume a comfortable semi-reclined position and let’s dip into a pair of YA titles…well, actually one is upper middle grade… featuring teen girls and their relationships with their fathers. I received both of today’s titles from the publisher via Netgalley and having looked at some of the early reviews on Goodreads, it appears I enjoyed these quite a bit more than the average punter. Let’s dive in though, shall we, starting with the more conventional of the two of these unusual stories.

Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart by Jane St. Anthony is the gentle and understated tale of a young girl working through grief. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In Milwaukee, Isabelle Day had a house. And she had a father. This year,Isabelle Day on Halloween, she has half of a house in Minneapolis, a mother at least as sad as she is, and a loss that’s too hard to think—let alone talk—about.

It’s the Midwest in the early 1960s, and dads just don’t die . . . like that. Hovering over Isabelle’s new world are the duplex’s too-attentive landladies, Miss Flora (“a lovely dried flower”) and her sister Miss Dora (“grim as roadkill”), who dwell in a sea of memories and doilies; the gleefully demonic Sister Mary Mercy, who rules a school awash in cigarette smoke; and classmates steady Margaret and edgy Grace, who hold out some hope of friendship. As Isabelle’s first tentative steps carry her through unfamiliar territory—classroom debacles and misadventures at home and beyond, time trapped in a storm-tossed cemetery and investigating an inhospitable hospital—she begins to discover that, when it comes to pain and loss, she might actually be in good company. In light of the elderly sisters’ lives, Grace and Margaret’s friendship, and her father’s memory, she just might find the heart and humor to save herself.

With characteristic sensitivity and wit, Jane St. Anthony reveals how a girl’s life clouded with grief can also hold a world of promise.

Dip into it for…

… a leisurely pace and an authentic representation of a grieving young person trying to adjust to loss and a new environment. Nothing really bad happens in this story and there aren’t really flashpoints or dramatic upswings in action, but Isabelle certainly experiences some significant growth over the course of the book. This really reminded me of the impactful and gentle stories in Glenda Millard’s exceptional Kingdom of Silk series, that deal with difficult topics in an accessible way, but pitched at slightly older readers.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for an upper middle grade book that features familiar tropes and episodic action. This has neither. In the early reviews I’ve read for this book, a number of reviewers have noted the lack of action as a negative feature, and I agree that there is something that does feel lacking in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be a discernible climax.

Overall Dip Factor:

I suspect that this is going to be a bit of a niche read, appealing to those who prefer relationship-driven tales to those featuring lots of action and the usual YA tropes of cliques, bullying and boys. I was quite impressed with the warmth and hope of the ending and while I wanted there to be more development in Isabelle’s relationship with her elderly neighbours, the ending sort of made up for that. I think the author has done a good job of authentically relaying Isabelle’s feelings of grief and disorientation and as this is at the crux of the story, younger readers who haven’t had these life experiences may find it hard to relate to Isabelle and the importance she places on milestones such as making a new friend.

Overall, I have to say I enjoyed Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart and found it to be a solid upper middle grade choice for those young readers who are ready to explore a difficult life experience in narrative.

Next up we have a supremely unconventional YA story that also features some startling conventionality. I immediately related to the main character of Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher, and I’m still dissecting the layers of this book. Like a good trifle. Anyway, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Tess Turner – at least, that’s what I’ve always been told. I silence is goldfishhave a voice but it isn’t mine. It used to say things so I’d fit in, to please my parents, to please my teachers. It used to tell the universe I was something I wasn’t. It lied. It never occurred to me that everyone else was lying too. But the words that really hurt weren’t the lies: it was six hundred and seventeen words of truth that turned my world upside down.

Words scare me, the lies and the truth, so I decided to stop using them.

I am Pluto. Silent. Inaccessible. Billions of miles away from everything I thought I knew.

Tessie-T has never really felt she fitted in and after what she read that night on her father’s blog she knows for certain that she never will. How she deals with her discovery makes an entirely riveting, heart-breaking story told through Tess’s eyes as she tries to find her place in the world.

Dip into it for…

…a selective mute with an imaginary talking goldfish for an ally, weathering the storm of family drama, cyberbullying and teenaged identity confusion. I related to Tess straight away and reading of her solitary, passive, silent protest made me wish I’d thought of it as a young gargoyle going through various mental health dramas. Pitcher has written Tess as an incredibly authentic 15-year-old: immature, naïve, self-focused, struggling with issues outside her control and desperate for connection. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Tess grew throughout the story, eventually claiming her appearance and existence and using this knowledge to achieve her ends.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t think you can relate to a rendering of a teen as immature, naïve and self-focused. I suspect that some people will find Tess to be just irritating, particularly if they have never experienced any kind of major mental upset. Also, as Tess becomes a selective mute for much of the book, there is a fair bit of monologue here…or at least, dialogue between Tess and her imaginary fish friend…which some might find tedious after a bit. I’m not the greatest fan of monologuing and I did feel there was a bit of a sag in the middle of this tale.

Overall Dip Factor:

Admittedly, there were a few things that I didn’t love about this book, including the oft-used clique of three popular bitch girls (why is it always three?!) and the quick change in friendship fortunes early on, which seemed unlikely to me. On the other hand, one of the strengths of this book is that Tess is clearly naïve in that she wants her imagining of certain relationships to be real, and it is clear that while she knows that some people may not be working in her best interests, she prefers to rely on what she would like to be true than to accept the signs that are pointing to reality.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it will be obvious to the reader where the wind is blowing, so to speak, with many of the plotlines in the book, but knowing what is likely to happen didn’t dampen the satisfaction I found in going along with Tess toward the inevitable discoveries that were going to be made. It was like reading an interesting case study: because I already knew (or suspected) what the outcome would be, I could better observe Tess’s actions and appreciate her journey through denial to acceptance – of herself and the circumstances.

Clearly, this book isn’t going to be for everyone. But it was for me. I think I shall reserve a special place for Tess (and Mr Goldfish) on the shelf should they ever wish to visit.

That’s it from me for now.  I’m off to find out if they sell Eccles cakes in Australia, so I’ll be prepared for the next double-dip outing.

Until next time,

Bruce

Jawbreaker: Unlock the (U)niverse….Read it if….

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Afternoon friends and hangers-on! Today’s offering is a little bit different to my usual fare – a concise non-fiction book for the young adult crowd.  Jawbreaker: Unlock the (U)niverse by Jolene Stockman is a short motivational book dealing with those tricky issues of adolescence (and let’s face it, beyond), identity and personal power.  I was drawn in by another blogger tipping us off about copies for review, and was promptly and enthusiastically rewarded by Ms Stockman herself speedily supplying me with an e-copy.  And so, to my end of the bargain – an honest review!

Stockman is a clever little Kiwi cookie as evidenced by her bio:

bio1 Jolene is an award winning writer, speaker, and an expert for Girlfriend Magazine Australia. She is a Master of Neuro Linguistic Programming, and one of the youngest in the world to achieve the Distinguished Toastmaster Award. Jolene is the author of Jawbreaker: Unlock the (U)niverse, The Jelly Bean Crisis, and Total Blueprint for World Domination. She lives in New Zealand and is currently workingon two new books. Learn more at www.jolenestockman.com ”"

I must admit I was a little intimidated in launching into Jawbreaker, but I was happily reassured after the first page or two that I was in safe hands for my journey into the oft-tangled thicket of personal insight.  I was also afraid that the motivational speaker-ese language of the introductory chapter would continue throughout the book, triggering my jump onto the first step of an escalator spiralling downward toward my own personal hell.  But it didn’t! Huzzah! Instead, I was treated to a highly readable and actually motivating tome that provided food for thought and practical suggestions across a range of personal circumstances, as opposed  to the many faux-motivational tomes out there  that are thinly veiled attempts to make you purchase the author’s DVD collection, week-to-a-view illustrated diary, essential oils travel kit and line of motivational lingerie.

Essentially, the book hinges around the analogy of the Jawbreaker – the idea that we all have a unique, special centre that is the essence of who we are, and that around this centre, by chance, habit or design, we build layers that become our identity.

3Djawbreaker

Read it if:

* you much prefer your many-layered, multi-faceted personality to be represented metaphorically as a tantalising, colourful, mouth-watering Jawbreaker, rather than a stinky, tear-duct burning, halitosis-inducing onion

*you are, or ever were, a young person who suspects that one’s position in the schoolyard social hierarchy will have little to no bearing on your life once you pass through the school gate for the final time

*you like your self-help to be palatable, easily digestible within one sitting and with a side order of sass

One of the great strengths of this book is the concise format – it really can be read in one sitting.  It is also divided into handy little chapters for those with short attention spans, or for those who are looking for an encouraging word in a particular area.  Another helpful thing about the book is the practical exercises that are offered with various topics – these are simple, quick activities that illustrate the points being made and allow the reader to apply the information as superficially or deeply as they wish.

For example, Stockman discusses “anchoring” positive emotions to particular objects, places, or smells as a means of easily recalling those emotions when you need a boost.  I found this a particularly helpful tip and immediately got down to some practice:

imageHere I am anchoring the feeling of comfort and calm to a beanie that Mad Martha kindly made for me. Now whenever I feel a bit out of sorts, I can don my beanie and immediately benefit from its association with positive feelings of peace.  Thanks, Ms Stockman!

Another concept discussed in the book is the idea of a personal Fuse, or the knowledge of a particular activity or pursuit that really speaks to your passions and connects you to that part of your identity that is most important and essential to who you are.  Again, the shelf denizens found this intriguing and began reflecting on the activities that light their own fuses….

mad martha crochet

Take Mad Martha for instance, who is particularly enamoured with the art of crochet.  Here she is making Christmas stockings for the mini-fleshlings in the dwelling.  See how she glows with happiness at the ability to express love and warm regard through the medium of yarn.  Clearly, this is her Fuse!

The whole book is chock-full of little snuggets of useful information, like those that got the shelf-denizens so worked up.  Really, this book would make a fantastic graduation present for older teens as they prepare to venture out into the world of “being a grown-up”.  Alternatively, I think there’s a lot here that would excite those in their early teens who have a certain level of personal insight and could benefit from a guiding hand in the form of some encouraging and challenging home truths.  And as evidenced by our enthusiastic participation, there’s also plenty in there for adults looking for a supportive nudge and someone to say, “Hey! You’re super!” (preferably in a Kiwi accent. I found it greatly enhanced the authenticity of the experience).

If I’ve whetted your appetite for personal development, you can purchase Jawbreaker, along with Jolene’s other books, here.

And may I casually point out, to those considering partaking of the Small Fry Safari KidLit Readers Challenge, 2014, that Jawbreaker: Unlock the (U)niverse, would make the perfect choice for category eight (a book with some form of wordplay in the title)?

Until next time,

Bruce

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