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Parfums Week! Day 5: Prison

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kissa trip to the barber, suntan lotion on a summer’s day and a Sunday morning in church. Our final entry is both melancholy and sublime – the smell of imprisonment.

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Prison is an enclosed cauldron in which bodies, souls, dreams, remorse and anger all stew. Weeks, months and years of detention. People eat there. They sleep there. They learn there. They forget there. They brood there. They do away with themselves there. They come to grief there. They recover there. They defecate there. They masturbate there. Sometimes they sodomise each other there. They try to kill time there.

But, for all that, prison is not a vile place. We have created it. It is built in our image. It is to mankind, in short, what quintessence is to fragrance: a concentrated absolute.

For almost twelve years, I used to visit a prison several times a week to give lessons. Up until 2000. Ever since, it has dwelled within the depths of my being, my awareness, and my judgement as well, and it won’t leave them. I don’t have any intention of trying to get rid of it either.

Prison is one of those places that possesses its own odour: the hospital – something slightly refrigerated; the old people’s home – clear soup and inert bodies; the gym – perspiring feet, sweat, the rubbery foam of floor mats. Prison is just such a place. To be witty, an idiot might say that it smells of mould. He would not be entirely wrong. Let us say, instead, it smells of confinement, of being shut away. That state that is totally inimical with the human species, which by definition is nomadic, explorative, itinerant and free. Prison life – and the very principle of imprisonment – produces behaviour that is specific to it, pathologies that you encounter nowhere else, and distinct odours. Everything there is lacklustre, subdued, paralysed and things which, in the outside world, can be indulged in freely stagnate within the thick walls, beneath the high glass roofs, and in the wretched exercise area behind bars.

Restrained, reduced, diluted, the fragrances of life are an octave lower in prison. They fade away and are unable to resonate as they should. Scarcely have they come in, than they decompose and dissolve. They take on the patina of old walls, the grime of floors that are nevertheless constantly washed, the weary sadness of paint that is reapplied in vain every spring. Like the people who live alongside them, the smells no longer make any effort to show off or dress themselves. They surrender their distinctive features, resign themselves and become uniform. And that is probably what most characterises the stench of this place, which is at once a part of our world while at the same time not part of it: the smells refuse to be what they are and to stand out from one another. They let themselves slip into a state of neglect. They give up. The smell of prison is one of surrender.

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | MacLehose Press

Parfums Week! Day 4: Church

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kissa trip to the barber, and suntan lotion on a summer’s day. Our penultimate entry is a meditation on the scent of a childhood Sunday in church, and the intangible “odour of unshakeable belief”.

 ************

We always try to create keys even when there are no locks.

I have always loved churches. I used to visit them a great deal, when I believed in God, and I still do today, when I no longer believe. I like the curious etiquette of their silence. Their withdrawal from the world too, even in the heart of the noisiest cities. Their walls take you out of yourself, out of time, away from the madness of objects and human beings.

I’m a child again, a choirboy, stirred by the beauty of the “theatre of the Mass”, as Jean Giono described it, inhaling the warm wax that falls in slow tears down the sides of the large candles in the silver branches of the candelabra, and the fumes of incense, acrid, thick, spiralling upwards as they escape from the thurible like the visible soul of some sacrificed Satan, but becalmed later when they rise in a timorous haze to defy the impassivity of the stained-glass windows. Albs, cassocks, stoles, scapulars, lacework, belts made of satin or rough cord. The starched vestments are stored in a tall cupboard in the sacristy, shining with polish and smelling of eau de cologne and lavender. The fabrics are impregnated with the fragrance. We put them on in silence beneath the pious gaze of a thin-lipped, churchy woman who is our sergeant-major: Mother Julia.

Candle, polish, incense, demure materials woven by devoted hands, stone tiles washed in plenty of water by women on their knees, between two “Our Fathers”, the priest’s winey breath after the Eucharist and, above all, the faith of millions of human beings over the centuries who exude that very particular smell that is one of dogged, profound and enduring piety. The odour of unshakeable belief in a marvellous illusion that has lasted for two thousand years, and which has sustained many, and killed many others.

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | MacLehose Press

Parfums Week! Day 3: Suntan Lotion

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kiss and a trip to the barber; today is the turn of a childhood visit to an outdoor swimming pool, and the inimitable scent of suntan lotion.

 ************

My mother mistrusts the sun as though it were a hostile enemy that never lowers its guard.

I’ve been brought up in this constant fear that a body, if overheated, runs the risk of agonising pain if it is brusquely plunged into cold water. A fear of burns, too, of injuries to the skin that risk damaging it irreversibly.

I have to wait until mid-afternoon before going to join my friends at the swimming pool. Actually, it’s a simple bathing area with fresh, peaty-brown, running water – rather slow-running, in fact – that is none other than that of the River Meurthe. A few decades earlier, on one of its tributaries, upstream from the weir, some concrete partitions were put in place to create pools. On the bank, there is a row of solid-looking cabins in which you can get changed. There is a till where you buy your ticket, some lifeguards, and also perhaps – I am no longer certain – a refreshment bar. Large trees, poplars and ashes, the tops of which rustle as they stroke the sky, shade the entire area.

I am itching to go since it’s already late. My mother has forced me to have an unbearable siesta during which I didn’t sleep a wink. Outside, it’s mid-July, there’s a hum of grasshoppers and crickets, and the holidays stretch on endlessly. I’ve slipped on my swimming costume, which she has pulled up to my navel and which accentuates my thinness. I’ve put on my plastic sandals.

From an orange aerosol canister, she squirts out a large white dollop that has the consistency of shaving foam. She sprays this dollop onto my skin. It’s smooth. She rubs it in and it soon becomes invisible, miraculously dissolving all over my body. I read the label on the bottle. Ambre solaire. It sounds like the title of one of those poems I learn every week, written by Emile Verhaeren, Maurice Fombeure, José-Maria de Heredia, Paul-Jean Toulet. I close my eyes. I breathe in.

A rather greasy substance, faintly musky, a scent of Turkish gynoecium. Like an extension of the heat of the day, the warmth of intimacy, a caressing arm. Later on, I shall discover the elderly Ingres’ Turkish bathers. I shall associate this smell with them.

I am ready at last. I get on my bike. I set off. I sniff the wind. I’m ten years old. The present is a wonderful gift.

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | MacLehose Press

Parfums Week! Day 2: Barber

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

After yesterday’s charming opening installment – a first kiss – we have another wonderfully recollected memory: a trip to the barber.

 

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Père Hens’ salon is on the corner of rue Jeanne d’Arc and chemin des Prisonniers. To get there, I simply have to take rue Saint Don and follow it as far as the crossroads. I go on my own and, as soon as I arrive, I give the barber the warm five-franc coin that I have been clasping tightly in the palm of my hand for fear that I should lose it on the way.

I sit down on one of the four chairs, awaiting my turn. Père Hens smokes and prances about as he trims. He’s an ageless man, dressed in a grey nylon smock, small, slim, with brushed-back silvery hair that he frequently combs, his eyes constantly creased by the smoke of the Gauloise that never leaves the right-hand corner of his lips. He circles around his customer, bouncing about with the gracefulness of a boxer whose strong point is his footwork. He talks a great deal, to men of course. That’s all there are. Old men mostly.

He doesn’t seem to see me until it’s my go: “Your turn, lad!” He makes me sit down on the revolving chair, raises it to its maximum height by activating it with his foot, as though he were blowing up an inflatable mattress with a hydraulic pump. With the flamboyant action of a toreador or a magician, he swirls a flimsy cape around me and, apart from my head and my neck, I disappear under it. Putting a finishing touch to the preparations, he pulls from a large roll on the dressing-table a length of white crêpe paper edged with pink and wraps this elastic collar, which is both soft yet rough and tickles my chin pleasantly, around my neck.

For half an hour, I am left to the mercy of his scissors, which he likes to make chatter and sing as he snips the air here and there as though, at the same time as me, he were cutting the transparent locks of tousle-haired ghosts. The smoke from the hand-rolled and ready-made cigarettes of the customers, thick and acrid, forms a moving ceiling that shifts as he hops around. I like being left to his mercy, just as nowadays I still like being left in the hands of often wonderfully talkative female hairdressers, masseuses, osteopaths, chiropodists and physiotherapists. As my light brown hair falls around me, my bird-like skull is revealed.

The best moment is still to come. The haircut over, Père Hens tears off the crêpe paper that has disguised me as one of Charles IX’s courtiers, rubs it between his hands, tosses it into the dustbin and picks up a bulbous metal flask, with a long slender spout, at the other end of which hangs a large pear of slightly cracked red rubber. Then, still very lively, he skips around me as he squeezes the pear and sprays a cloud of cold water that smells of roses and brilliantine and also, a little, of his old dog. This microscopic rain deposits its refreshing shower in tiny droplets over my close-cropped hair, my eyebrows, my forehead, my closed mouth and my neck. A secular monthly baptism.

You smell nice. You look lovely, my mother says to me when I get back home. I believe her. It’s an age when we always believe what our mothers tell us.

 

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | MacLehose Press

Parfums Week! Day 1: Girlfriends

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

First up, a particularly charming extract – the unforgettable sensory experience of a first kiss.

***********

So what is this fragrance our petites amoureuses, our first girlfriends, have, when our lips initially find theirs for the first time, and then, awkwardly, don’t really know what to do?

I am twelve years old. Girls don’t look at me and boys tease me for being skinny. My over-eager heart beats madly whenever dark-haired Natalie or blonde Valérie walk past me. I write poems that I slip into their hands at eight o’clock in the morning when I arrive at the Collège Julienne Farenc. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Athene, Aphrodite, Diana, Nefertiti: I recycle the history and mythology syllabus. And, shamelessly, I plunder the authors in our French textbook: Valérie, sous le Pont des Voleurs coule le Sânon, Et mes amours, Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne or else Demain dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne, je partirai à l’école Nathalie, je sais que tu m’attends, je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps. But Nathalie does not wait for me.

As though to prove the intensity of my passion, I invent, in honour of Valérie, the verb radadorer, the repetitive superlative of “to adore”. Valérie, je te radadore! All I am allowed in return is a shrug and a disdainful pout. My poems end up as scrunched-up balls of paper in the gutter. They’re thrown there right in front of me. To be sprayed on by dogs and cats. Playing the role of the sentry, that’s all I’m good at, warning François, who is kissing Nathalie, or Denis, who is doing the same with Valérie, whenever an adult approaches and they risk being caught in the act in the narrow alleyways that connect rue Jules Ferry to rue Jeanne d’Arc. I’m the willing little sucker cuckold, keeping watch over the love affairs that others are having with my girlfriends. I ask them afterwards what they taste like and smell of, these kisses mimicking those that can be seen every Sunday on the screen of the Georges cinema, film kisses that are as ardent as they are motionless, and which could pass as advertisements for superglue. They call them patins. But the only patins I know are the slippers we wear at home to polish the floors. They’re old, with a tartan design, and they stink.

A few months later, I learn how it’s done: it won’t be with either Nathalie or Valérie, but with Christine Frenzi. Fat Frenzi. A birthday tea party at the Waguette twins. We eat cake. We drink Sic orangeade and Sic lemonade with psychedelic colours. Someone puts on some music; it’s slow, easy-listening stuff, as syrupy as the drinks. Couples team up. They shuffle around as best they can. Many of the dancers are in shorts. There are only two people still sitting down, her and me. She comes to fetch me, she takes me by the hand. I dare not refuse, and here I am pressed up against her. My arms can barely reach round her body. I feel slightly ashamed. What will Nathalie and Valérie think, both draped over my friends, so near, yet so far away? I close my eyes.

It is she, too, who puts her face against mine, who seeks out my lips, finds them, kisses them. Silky hair washed in the same Dop shampoo as mine, but smelling of something else too – something vegetable and sugary, candied, a whiff of confectionery, of home-made cakes, of plant stems and open fields – that I can’t identify, but which takes hold of me and which I breathe in happily, on her neck, on her lips, those lips that I kiss again, and this time I’m the one who wants it. Nathalie is forgotten, Valérie is forgotten. Their loss. And when, after the dance, Fat Frenzi does what the other girls have done with the boys and comes to sit on my lap, and the pain crushes my bare thighs and the few muscles I have on my bones, I say nothing. I grit my teeth. I inhale her neck, her cheeks, her mouth. We kiss again and for years afterwards these kisses, which are scented with the green smell of angelica – at last I’ve succeeded in naming it – impel me to go and open the jar of crystallised fruit which my mother uses to make cakes and decorate rum babas and which she keeps in the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. I grab a handful of sticks of this sweet and sticky candied umbellifer, pass them under my nose, close my eyes, and munch them as I sit on the linoleum floor, thinking of Fat Frenzi and her kisses – but also of Michèle Mercier, whose delicately erotic adventures are shown on television each summer – while at the same time humming the sickly sweet tune that brought us together: On ira, où tu voudras quand tu voudras, et l’on s’aimera encore, lorsque l’amour sera mort.

Thanks be to Joe Dassin for having helped me far more than Apollinaire and Hugo combined ever did.

 

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | MacLehose Press

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel – Free extract

The Investigation is the latest novel from the effervescent Philippe Claudel, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Brodeck’s Report. Read a free extract from the start of the novel below (translated excellently by Daniel Hahn), or don’t even bother and buy it at once, from us or from Amazon

The station square was identical to countless station squares, with its distribution of impersonal buildings all pressed against one another. Running along the top of one of them, an advertising billboard bore the photograph, disproportionately enlarged, of an old man who fixed on whoever looked at him, an amused, melancholy gaze. It was impossible to read the slogan that accompanied the photograph – perhaps it did not even have one? – as the top of the billboard was lost in the clouds.

The sky crumbled and fell in a sodden dust that melted on shoulders and seeped right into bodies without being invited. It was not really cold, but the dampness acted like an octopus whose thin tentacles managed to find their way into the tiniest gaps between clothes and skin.

The Investigator was there, quite still, for a quarter of an hour, standing very straight, his suitcase on the ground beside him, as the raindrops and the snowflakes continued to die on his head and his raincoat. He did not move. Not even a little. And for this long moment, he thought of nothing.

No car passed. No pedestrian. They had forgotten him. It was not the first time. Finally he turned up the collar of his raincoat, gripped the handle of his suitcase and decided – before he got utterly soaked – to cross the square and go into a bar that already had its lights on, even though a clock attached to a street lamp a few metres away from him was showing not even four in the afternoon.

The room was strangely deserted and the Barman, who was half-asleep behind the counter, distractedly following the results of the horse racing on a television screen, threw him a somewhat unfriendly glance, then, while the Investigator had already had time to remove his raincoat, to sit down and wait a little, asked him glumly:

“What’ll it be?”

The Investigator was not very thirsty, or very hungry. He just needed somewhere to sit before getting himself where he was meant to be. To sit and run through it all. Prepare what he was going to say. In a sense to make a gradual entry into his character as Investigator.

“A grog,” he said at last.

_________________________________________

The InvestigationThe Investigation by Philippe Claudel, translated by Daniel Hahn

Buy Paperback ¦ Buy Ebook

The Investigator is despatched to a provincial town to find out the truth behind a disturbing spate of suicides amongst employees of The Firm. But from the moment he steps off the train, he finds himself in a world that is alien, unrecognisable, and diabolically complex.

From the hostile weather and the fickle hospitality at Hotel Hope to the town’s bewildering inhabitants, everything seems to be against him to the point where he wonders whether he is trapped in a recurring nightmare, or has passed into the realm of death itself.

Cold, hungry and humiliated, and always one step behind, he nevertheless remains determined to find the only man he can hold to account – The Firm’s legendary but elusive founder.

‘Written with such relish, inventiveness, imagination and brio, that it is consistently entertaining’ Allan Massie, Scotsman

‘A complex novel of ideas … [Claudel] has managed a rare trick’ David Annand, Daily Telegraph

 

Philippe Claudel: First Reviews

It is unfortunate that the cover image to the left cannot begin to do justice to the physical object you will hold in your hand if you purchase or simply thumb in an indulgent bookshop a copy of The Investigation by Philippe Claudel. In real life, it’s very shiny, and while it stops short of reflecting your features or the windows of your soul it should be enough to keep you looking over your shoulder should you read it in the open in magpie country.

Two presumably proud owners of this most iridescent of everyday objects are David Annand and David Mills of the Telegraph and Sunday Times respectively. Because there’s a cracking story inside, too, of course, one that is based on the France Telecom suicides scandal of 2008–9. Mr Annand is the more effusive of the two:

“Claudel achieves something close to the truly Kafkaesque. By which I mean not the lazy shorthand for any encounter with a seemingly irrational bureaucracy, but the deeper, scarier encounters with ourselves, the ones David Foster Wallace described as a process of knocking agonisingly, plaintively on a door our whole lives, only to discover we were inside the whole time . . . In creating a complex novel of ideas without the safety net of an obvious allegorical reading he has managed a rare trick, and for that he should be applauded.”

Mr Mills meanwhile notes that “the twists develop with venomous imagination and the wider themes are elegantly explored” before wondering just how absurd the novel’s world really is:

“Then again, when the starving Investigator finds a vending machine full of delicious sandwiches, which get stuck just as they are about to fall, or when he finds himself at the right desk with the wrong documentation, or when he’s trying to get someone on the phone to listen to him, you think, actually, this is a work of documentary realism.”

Tempted? The Investigation is available in hardback. You can buy it direct on the Quercus website, and soon you’ll be able to do the same from the MacLehose site too.

Live Translation Slam

At 14.00 today, as part of the Norwich Writers’ Centre’s Showcase, translators Daniel Hahn, Frank Wynne and Ros Schwartz will be taking part in a translation slam that can be streamed live from the Writers’ Centre Website.

The event is of particular interest to us because the chosen text is an extract from a novel we will be publishing in January 2013, The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, whose best-known novel, Brodeck’s Report, was the winner of the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

You can watch the slam unfold by following this link and keep with the chat on Twitter using the hashtag: #LitShowcase12

Monsieur Linh and His Child gets Guardian thumbs-up

The Guardian review Philippe Claudel’s Monsieur Linh and His Child:

This novella, by an award-winning French writer (the author of Brodeck’s Report, winner of last year’s Independent foreign fiction prize) who is also the writer-director of the Bafta‑winning film I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), would be extremely difficult to make into a film – not only because it features a narrative “trick” that would translate awkwardly to the screen, but also because the author takes pains to avoid pinning down the story to one particular decade or location. The side-effect of this deliberately non‑specific narration is to give the story a hazy, romantic quality, like Vaseline on a camera lens or the sepia tint of an old photo…

It does not matter if you see the final “twist” coming a little sooner than the author may have wished, because the twist is more than a gimmick. It has a symbolic meaning that is integral to the two men’s story: about how the will to keep moving forward is deeply connected with the impulse to love and care for others, and about how that impulse is an end in itself, inherently precious, regardless of whether its object really reciprocates or communicates love in return.

Read the whole review over on the Guardian website.

Return of the Mac (Once Again)

In 2011 MacLehose Press are releasing six titles by authors who are publishing their second novel with us. Translated from French, Spanish, Arabic and Dutch, two have won Independent Foreign Fiction Prizes while all have been extremely well received by reviewers.

In November of last year we previewed the first three: The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy, The Goldsmith’s Secret by Elia Barceló and Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel. Now its time to turn attention to the three to be published in the second half of 2011, new novels by Elias Khoury, Evelio Rosero and Otto de Kat, translated by Humphrey Davies, Anne McLean with Anna Milsom, and Ina Rilke, respectively.

Yalo, by the great Lebanese author Elias Khoury, was first published by MacLehose Press in 2009. Earlier this year the translator, Humphrey Davies, won the Banipal Prize for Arabic translation for his rendering of the novel into English. It was the second time that this partnership had won the prize, and who would bet against there being a third success?

“This novel is a tour de force for both author and translator, an ambitious work which deals magnificently with the violence of history and the loss and uses of language, with torture and rape and sexuality. An important and complex book, which brings the history of Lebanon vividly, painfully and colourfully to life.”
Margaret Drabble, Banipal citation

As Though She Were Sleeping, the winner of the first Arabic Novel Prize, is in every respect a worthy follow-up. Focusing on the life of young Lebanese woman who takes refuge from reality in sleeping and dreaming, it is richly and powerfully symbolic of the human cost of the ongoing troubles in the Middle East. Jilted by a suitor, Meela marries a Palestinian man many years her senior and leaves her family to live in a city far from home in a country that is soon to be plunge into chaos by the arrival of Jewish settles and the creation of the state of Israel.

Colombian Evelio Rosero won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – the second of three international literary awards – for The Armies, a beautiful but harrowing novel about a remote rural village destroyed by remorseless violence.  The opening paragraphs offer startlingly lyrical prose, and what follows serves as a faithful and unflinching account of the evils that blight an otherwise forward-looking and creative nation.

Evelio Rosero has dipped his pen in blood and written an epic in 215 pages. If anyone has wondered if there is life in the Colombian novel after magic realism, this is the evidence of the extraordinary power of that country’s literature. Linda Grant, Independent

Good Offices is a mischievous and  surreal satire on the role of the Catholic Church in Colombia. Tancredo is a hunchback in virtual servitude to the parish, who is relentlessly pursued by the sacristan’s goddaughter. His life takes a turn for the bizarre when a stand-in priest is brought in at the last moment, whose mesmerizing sung mass and unquenchable thirst for aguardiente elicits very strange behaviour from the denizens of the church.

Man on the Move is a poetic and heartbreaking tale drawn from the often overlooked Dutch involvement in the Second World War. Rob, the son of a provincial mayor leaves his home country in pursuit of less restricted life and, after a stint in the mines outside Johannesburg, joins up to fight and is subsequently captured by the Japanese.

“This is a novel of extraordinary power and moral beauty, executed with a poet’s intricate artistry. Between its opening and closing departures, we proceed according to some deep psychic logic, ever further into a life not well-lived but, even so, strangely exemplary.” Paul Binding, Independent

Otto de Kat returns to the Second World War period with Julia. His spare, impressionistic prose is the perfect vehicle for conveying the sense of purpose that gripped Hitler’s Germany in the pre-war years. The story is told from the perspective of a naive young Dutchman who falls in love with a brilliant, vivacious engineer. Yet her irrepressible, libertine spirit puts her on a irrevocable collision course with the Nazi authorities, and Chris’ courage, forever undermined by his shaky self-esteem, will be tested to its limits.

You can read an extract from Man on the Move here. And by the way, if you can tell us who it is that adorns the cover of Julia, you will win all three of the new novels profiled here.

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