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Mat looked each of the five men in the eyes, nodded, and started toward the tent flap, but paused beside Talmanes’s chair. Mat cleared his throat, then half mumbled, “You secretly harbor a love of painting, and you wish you could escape this life of death you’ve committed yourself to. You came through Trustair on your way south, rather than taking a more direct route, because you love the mountains. You’re hoping to hear word of your younger brother, whom you haven’t seen in years, and who disappeared on a hunting trip in southern Andor. You have a very tortured past. Read page four.”

Mat hurried on, pushing his way out into the shaded noon, though he did catch a glimpse of Talmanes rolling his eyes. Burn the man! There was good drama in those pages!

Generally speaking I select a quote from the early section of a book, illustrating  a particularly descriptive event that captures the overall style of the book. For this latest entry in Robert Jordan‘s long-running The Wheel of Time saga I made an exception. Having passed away after a long illness in 2007 many fans assumed the series itself would remain unfinished. Then word was received that Brandon Sanderson had been chosen to complete the books. I will explain below why I chose the quote, but let me add, as I mentioned in my review of Sanderson’s Mistborn series linked to above, that I began reading Robert Jordan a long time ago.

In fact it occurs to me that I only continue to read this series because I need to know how it ends, after spending most of my early adolescence pouring over the series.

As such, a quick note on The Wheel of Time itself. Initially starting out as a fantasy novel in the Tolkien-mode, with three young men from a village being hunted by the evil forces of a satanic presence known as The Dark One, the series developed by giving greater focus to court intrigue and war. Rand al’Thor, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are all ta’veren, which relates to the mystical underpinning of the books, each of them capable of influencing what is referred to as The Pattern, the fabric of creation itself. Not only is Rand the most powerful of the three ta’veren, he is also the reincarnation of an enemy of The Dark One named The Dragon. Certain men and women in Jordan’s fantasy universe, like Rand, have magical powers, relating to two counterbalancing sources known as saidin and saidar.

As he has accepted the role of Dragon Reborn, Rand has been declared a messiah by some and a force of chaos by others. For the majority of the series he has been attempting to unite the various kingdoms to fight against The Dark One, who is destined to be freed in an event known as Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.  Enemy agents, referred to as Darkfriends, monsters and religious bigots have hunted and harried Rand throughout, as well as conspiring to prevent the kingdoms from joining forces.

Sanderson ably maintains the tone of Jordan’s previous novels and concludes a number of subplots that had been dangling for some time. Rand’s grasp on sanity is becoming increasingly perilous, which he has been forced to acknowledge to some of his allies. Perrin and Mat are finding themselves pulled by the Pattern against their will to join their childhood friend as the date of the Last Battle approaches. The Aes Sedai, an order of women who practice saidar, are forced to defend their base of Tar Valon from a foreign invasion. The speed of events has certainly picked up considerably in this book.

However, I chose the above quote because that is one of the few moments when I feel Sanderson’s voice entering the writing. For the most part he imitates Jordan, who sadly had increasingly begun to rely on tiresome clichés and stock situations. There is a very slight critical tone to the proceedings, as Sanderson clears out the accumulated plot-dross of nineteen years.

The Wheel of Time has been mocked for its depiction of the battle between the sexes, its repetitive prose and inflationary cast, but I am going to finish this series despite my embarrassment at having read it for so long! The devoted fanbase has waited a long time and while the occasional rock album raised a chuckle – take a bow Blind Guardian – the Last Battle is long overdue.

Wait,  today is the Rapture? Dammit!!

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

The next day, we were married.

I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.

Apparently I was wrong.

Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.

Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.

The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.

The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.

Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.

My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.

Deliciously wicked and very funny.



‘Granny Weatherwax is going to hear about this, and you’ll wish you’d never been born…or un-born or reborn or whatever you are!’

‘We look forward to meeting her,’ said the Count calmly. ‘But here we are, and I don’t seem to see this famous lady with us. Perhaps you should go and fetch her? You could take your friends. And when you see her, Miss Nitt, you can tell her that there is no reason why witches and vampires should fight.’

Pratchett and vampires? Oh you do know how to make me happy.

I have always liked the Discworld take on vampires, which is essentially that they are pathetic poseurs (which is how you spell ‘posers’, in this instance). However, the Discworld also happens to be a fantasy world where racial pluralism is a reality (take that Tolkien!) so there are vampires who are members of the Black Ribbon society in Ankh-Morpork. Sure they are undead, but do they have to live as monsters? – is their creed and it is a very amusing take on the traditional fiend.

With Carpe Jugulum Pratchett returns to oldschool vampires, with a slight twist. No more talk of temperance. Just systematic murder, organised under the simple principle of their being superior to humans and all the other ‘low’ races of the Discworld.

The story itself is set in the kingdom of Lancre, the setting for most of Pratchett’s Witches novels. Now some folk like Rincewind, others Vimes, but my personal favourite Discworld protagonist has always been Granny Weatherwax, the witch who will brook no nonsense (needless to say I am also a big Nanny Ogg fan). At the start of the story Granny is feeling her age once again, as well as a sense of isolation. She abandons Lancre in a fit of pique, believing that she was snubbed by her fellow witches and Queen Magrat when she does not receive an invitation to the royal baptism. Of course her departure comes at the worst possible juncture. King Verence, the former court fool who was revealed to have royal blood, is once again trying to be modern and extends an invitation to a very important family from the Überwald region.  Except of course they are vampires and by inviting them, Verence has literally just handed them the keys to the kingdom.

Only Agnes Nitt seems to be immune to the glamour of the vampires. The youngest of the Lancre witches, Agnes literally has a thin girl inside her trying to get out – which is to say, she hears this voice in her head making a running commentary on everything that she does wrong. This ‘Perdita’, allows her to resist the influence of the vampires, enough for her to realize what is happening to the rest of the citizens of Lancre. Her only companion is a young priest from the theocratic state of Omnia, last seen in an early Pratchett novel Small Gods (which happens to be one of my favourites). Mightily Oats suffers from profound religious doubt about his vocation, so like Agnes he too is of ‘two minds’, about everything. Together they try to organise the people of Lancre to rise up against the racial supremacist vampires and find Granny Weatherwax before it is too late.

Pratchett is simply too clever by half at times. Yes on initial inspection this book seems like a merging of Small Gods and that *other* book about Lancre falling victim to an invasion Lords and Ladies. It is a brilliant combination of themes though. The crisis of faith suffered by Mightily Oats allows the writer to expound on his humanist beliefs to great effect.

What’s more the book also addresses the limits of tolerance in multicultural society. This is something of a bugbear with me, the notion that ‘multiculturalism has failed‘ continues to gain traction in political circles, which is absurd as the definition of what it means seems to change all the time. Different races living together is nothing new. What has changed is that now there is this expectation that races should be treated with equal respect, under a shared national identity, which is where politicos come grinding to a halt. How can a statesman exploit class and racial divisions in a multicultural society? The very idea.

Pratchett wittily dispenses with all of this in a book about vampires, little blue people with Scots accents and a dwarf highwayman. This is why he is the master.

Wonderful book.

What happened to the boys who walked inside those doors? No one knew. But the white pony’s eyes reminded me of the cold, strange eyes of the wizards. I stared at the cliff’s edge. It was high enough ten times over. If I ran straight out and jumped, I would die. I glanced at my father. I would never again have to hear how I disappointed and shamed him, how fortunate he was that Aben was the older of his sons, the one who would inherit. My mother would weep, but she would understand, I thought. Surely she had thought about it at least once, about escaping from my father forever.

Well this is it. Tomorrow I fly out of Sydney back to Ireland for a short visit. Let my folks now I’m a-ok. And, of course, look up some much-missed friends. Still it feels unusual to be sitting here in Bulli, typing up this review. It’s been a long trek to get to this point.

On the plus side, as I am continuing with the blog, many of the old rules no longer apply. Such as my (occasionally broken) ban on reading the same author twice. So I will be attacking Stephanie’s latest challenge – to read as many books as posible on the flight to Dublin – aided and abetted by my trusty Kindle, with its collection of my favourite writers. As well as a few indie books too.

It’s been fun people.

Skin Hunger is told from the points of view of two characters. Hahp, a boy from a wealthy family starved of love and living in fear of his father; and Sadima, whose birth led to the death of her mother and crushed her own father’s heart. Both grow up to become emotionally wounded and lonely adolescents, but their fates could not be more different.

Hahp is sent to join a secret academy for wizards. Magic itself was stamped out centuries ago and the practice of it was made illegal by royal decree. In effect Hahp has vanished from the surface of the earth, as no one can know where he is or what he is doing. This new wizards for their own part deprive the young academy applicants of all comforts and sustenance, seemingly intent on starving the boys to death. It becomes clear that Hahp is little more than a guinea pig in this new push to rediscover the source of magic itself.

Sadima escapes the drudgery of life on the farm after her father passes away. Having run his household for him from a young age, filling the domestic void left by her mother, she has always dreamed of running away. For most of her life she has been different, having the ability to communicate telepathically with the various animals on the farm. One day she meets a man from the city of Limòri who recognizes her talent and invites her to follow him to the newly founded academy. When her father passes away, Sadima finally chooses to go and enters the household of Franklin and Somiss, the founders of this underground academy.

As time passes Sadima develops a strong affection for the gentle Franklin and is puzzled by his subservient relationship to the taciturn Somiss. However, she discovers her domestic skills ease along the work of the two wizards quite well and comes to enjoy her life in the bustling city. Meanwhile Hahp is trapped in a cold cell, accompanied only by fellow starving young boys fighting to survive, covered in filth and sores.

There is some initial confusion in the first half of the book as the behaviour of Somiss and Franklin to the young charges of their ‘academy’ seems to contradict Sadima’s perception of them both. Slowly author Kathleen Duey draws out the reasons behind their unusual project. The majority of the novel is concerned with the sufferings of Hahp and Sadima’s growing romantic interest in Franklin. At first I did admire Duey for introducing a vision of such cruelty to the young adult fantasy stable.

However, at times the book resembles fantasy misery lit, turgid and callous. It feels like the story was pitched as ‘The Dresden Dolls enroll in Hogwarts’! As the book is the first in a series it ends with the story unfinished, but I really cannot muster up the interest to continue with it.

Initially interesting in its depiction of the dark side of human nature in a fantasy setting, but ultimately exhausting.

“How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”

“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”

But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other ophans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did – of how he screamed! – but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.

A month ago I put out a general call through Twitter for book recommendations. As fast as fingers could type I got a series of great recommendations, including Franny Billingsley‘s Chime (which unfortunately my library did not have a copy of), so I tracked down this other title by her. If folks out there have any other Young Adult fiction books to pass on, please drop me a line here, or on Twitter.

Corinne is the Folk Keeper of Rhysbridge, disguised as an orphan boy (absent the last two letters of her name). The role is of extreme importance to the community. The Folk are an implacable species of carnivorous phantoms, that can only be appeased by the provision of certain sacrifices by a ‘Keeper’. Corinne has tricked and deceived her way into learning the trade of the Folk Keeper and through her status is enabled to maintain the pretence of being a boy. While she was never apprenticed and directly taught knowledge of how to protect the inhabitants of Rhysbridge, ‘Corin’, has talents of her own. Her hair grows to an extraordinary length during the night and she can call to mind the exact time to the minute.

Then one day the Lord Hartley Merton arrives at Rhysbridge and changes her life, even as his ebbs away. Corinne is adopted by his family and made the Folk Keeper of their estate Cliffsend – much larger in scale, with many secrets in its long history, including that of the Lord’s first wife, the tragic Rona. The Folk who reside there are also much savager. Corinne’s simple tricks will not be enough to hold them off and for all her stolen insight into the business of Keepers, she finds her skills are not sufficient.

In order to survive she will need to learn more about the Merton family. She develops a friendly relationship with the son of Hartley’s second wife, Finian, but as her feelings for him change, the Corin persona becomes harder to maintain. Also Sir Edward, the thwarted heir to the estate, seems to be plotting a coup that somehow involves Cliffsend’s new Folk Keeper.

Billingsley book is filled with subtle magicks, dark supernatural presences and hints of Celtic folklores. The Sealfolk in particular resemble Irish myths about selkies – in fact, a friend of mine was told growing up that she was a selkie by her brother. There is even a personification of death referred to briefly named Soulsucker, who is said to be warded off by black satin. I really enjoyed how the author introduced these local folk tales into her fictional world, adopting a darker hue with the blood sacrifices offered up to the Folk to prevent the bespoiling of crops.

The slow thawing of Corinne’s worldview is also delicately portrayed, which builds to a gentle romance with the perceptive Finian. In fact midway through this book, the high concept finally hit me between the eyes – this book is Yentl with added murderous ghosts!

Thoroughly enjoyable, with a neat line in supernatural horror and an entertaining mystery. I must follow up on Twitter recommendations more often.

This is one of the greatest books ever written. To say that Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE- 17 CE) known as Ovid, was possessed of a monumental genius, is to somewhat understate his influence on writing, painting, sculpture, music and poetry for the last two millennia. There are few if any artists of worth, certainly of the western tradition (indeed other traditions have such geniuses from whom we could all learn), who have not been enthralled by his brilliant imagery, his insight into the human condition, the sweep of his epic narrative, his capacity to depict the depths of human depravity and the heights of love.

The cover of this Penguin edition, with its very clear and lyrical translation by David Raeburn, has a picture of Bernini’s incredibly beautiful sculpture of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne (1622), a scene from the dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses that are all threaded together by the theme of change, as life is indeed change, capturing the touching moment of Apollo and Daphne’s agonized frustrated lovemaking as she is transformed into a tree. The Metamorphoses weaves a difficult path brilliantly through Ovid’s vast knowledge of history and mythology, borrowing and rewriting Virgil, Lucretius and Homer to suit his own ends. This makes a great deal of sense, for in the life of an artist there comes a point of re-evaluation – an assessment and acknowledgement that she or he has arrived at the point they have through the influence and insights of others.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reacting somewhat to the Roman idolized image of the gods, depicts them as deeply ambivalent beings. Some of the stories show them as monsters, vicious cruel murderers and rapists. Jove or Jupiter, is a dreadful being. As the king of the Gods with weighty responsibilities on him, he is also a psychopath, a serial rapist who uses his power to tryst with females of his fancy, fathering countless offspring to his wife’s horror and vengeful rage. This is hardly a sterling example of a moral life, an example of the kinds of godly behaviour in the Metamorphoses that leaves much to be desired.

So we are left with a dilemma. The world order, the nature of existence, is terribly out of joint. How does one live? What constitutes a moral existence? What hope is there for humanity when the gods are mad or corrupt or all too human? Ovid describes the world and leads us to the doorway of moral choice. He describes these beings, these gods, largely products of a complex evolutionary cultural anthropomorphosis, as being as capable of horrible acts as they are equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness. When the sun god, (Helios to the Greeks, also Apollo to the Romans, but Phoebus to Ovid) allows his all too overconfident ambitious son Phaeton to take the reins of his sun chariot on its daily journey round the Earth, things go terribly wrong. This is when Phaeton, filled with cock-sure ignorance, loses control of the sun-chariot and sets the world on fire, almost burning the earth, is killed by a bolt from Jupiter to stop the destruction of everything. Thus the Earth is shrouded in darkness as the heartbroken Phoebus covers his radiant being with his cloak in inconsolable sorrow at the loss of his beloved son. It is a terrible time, a tragic moment, handled with incredible tenderness by Ovid.

Pain, joy, ambition, jealousy, longing, loneliness, the burden of giftedness, overwhelming infatuation, the loss of love, lies, deceit, moments of hilarity, power politics and horrific acts of revenge – in other words the full sweep of the human condition – mark his subject matter, and in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals more than anything else with what it means to be a human being, trapped in time, a mere plaything of the fickle and vengeful gods. He deals with this subject with a level of emotional and psychological accuracy that leaves an unforgettable mark on the reader. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare was a lifelong reader of Ovid, and returned to him over and over to seek new themes for his plays and poetry.

Rome remains the cultural centre of Ovid’s personal universe, and the glory of Rome is his joy and love. Despite all its horrors and imperial cruelties it remains his personal point of reference. It is a mark of the poet Ovid’s truly extraordinary self-assurance that at the end of this very large and very readable book, filled as it is with super heroes and gods, monsters and victims, saints and mystics, he modestly asks Emperor Augustus to immortalize him. After all, he argues, he has written the Metamorphoses. This same emperor, disdaining Ovid’s tendency to write rather explicit poems about sex and seduction and taking lovers and, moreover, how to keep ones lover, as in the Amores and the Ars Amatoria, had exiled the heartbroken poet (a banishment celebrated by Turner in a painting in 1838). Ovid, who found the world of Rome his inspiration, never got over his exile and he never stopped wanting to go home. The cliché of an artist never being fully understood in his own time is very true of Ovid, who died in what is now Romania, where he is celebrated as one of their own.

BIO ORAN RYAN

Oran Ryan

Oran Ryan is a novelist, poet and playwright from Dublin.  His poetry, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in magazines worldwide.  His novels The Death of Finn and Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger, both published in 2006, and One Inch Punch, his third is to be published in 2011.  His work has also appeared in the anthologies Census 1 (2008), Census 2 (2009), Living Streets, Anthology of the Ranelagh Arts Festival (2009), Dublin 10 Journeys, One Destination (2010).  His play Don Quixote Has Been Promoted was performed at the Ranelagh Arts Festival 2009; his has been shortlisted for the P J O’Connor Award; his words were performed on stage at the Stone Theatre in Manhattan, New York in 2008 and in 2010 his Radio Play Christmas 1947 was performed live as part of KRCB FM 91.1 Twisted Christmas 8 Live performance in California, as well as broadcast on KRCB over Christmas 2010.

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