The Flame Alphabet

( 16 )


In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.
A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look ...

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The Flame Alphabet

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In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.
A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.
With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.
The Flame Alphabet invites the question: What is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this intellectual horror story ensures Ben Marcus’s position in the first rank of American novelists.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness. Outside Rochester, N.Y., Sam and Claire are a normal Jewish couple with a sullen teenage daughter, Esther. But Esther and other Jewish children begin to speak a toxic form of language, potentially deadly to adults: with “the Esther toxicity... in high flower,” Sam watches in horror as the disease spreads to children of other religions, quarantine zones are imposed, and Claire sickens to the point of death. Heeding the advice of enigmatic prophet LeBov, Sam manufactures his own homemade defenses against his daughter’s speech. But he and Claire are soon forced to abandon Esther in order to save themselves. The novel’s first part plays like The Twilight Zone as a normal community becomes exposed to this mysterious infection. The second part reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare as Sam, separated from Claire, winds up in an isolated research facility, where he is put to work creating a new language that will be immune from the virus. The third part finds Sam living in the woods near his home, where he becomes a haunted creature out of a Yiddish folk tale. Marcus (Notable American Women) proves equally inspired in sketching Sam’s underground religion of “forest Jews” who pray in individual huts and receive sermons via a special gelpack called a listener. Although characterization plays second fiddle to vision here, in LeBov, a silver-tongued, authoritarian, flimflam man, Marcus has retooled a classic American archetype. Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent . . . Formally inventive, dark and dryly comic . . . [The Flame Alphabet] reads like a dream.”
—J. Robert Lennon, The New York Times Book Review
“To people who just want to read a good yarn and who think Ben Marcus is too weird for them, I’d say: Think again . . . The novel can operate on multiple registers: as metaphor, sociology, conventional thriller, and, at bottom, discourse on parenthood and family that is freakishly sad and incredibly good.”
—Fiona Maazel, Book Forum

“There’s something profound about Marcus’s exploration of the power of language and the life-affirming nature of human breathing. He turns both these normally positive ideas on their heads, but that only makes the sound of a loved-one’s voice, the feel of a child’s breath against the skin, seem that much more precious.”
—Tyrone Beason, The Seattle Times
“In the guise of a horror novel (albeit one written by a supremely intelligent literary novelist), Marcus has delivered a subtle meditation on the necessity as well as the drawbacks of human communication . . . in searing, sometimes hallucinatory prose.”
—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“An apocalyptic nightmare. Its vision is eerie, droll and heartbreaking, both lavishly written and haunting to behold. Language may be killing off the characters that Marcus invented, but his use of language could hardly be more vibrant.”
—Joan Silverman, Portland Press Herald
“Incandescent . . . [The] apocalyptical plot serves as a vehicle for Marcus’ blazing metaphysical insights inquiry into expression, meaning, self, love, and civilization.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness . . . Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review and Pick of the Week)
 “The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel—kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth—back towards the track it should be following. Ben Marcus makes language as toxic as it is seductive— a virus that comes from  much closer to home than we suspected.”
—Tom McCarthy
“Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one.  It's become impossible to imagine the literary world—the world itself—without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer
“Echoes of Ballard’s insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka’s terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes and re-echoes—I mean our world—out of which the sanely insane genius of Ben Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of.  And yet as I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic.”
—Michael Chabon
“I want the English language to do things it hasn't done before, and I want American fiction to do things it hasn't done before, and I want to be in a state of arrest at the moment of gazing upon a page of text, and Ben Marcus is one of those very few writers who can do that for me.”
—Rick Moody
Library Journal
Fierce, scary, hurtful, unsettling, and brilliant, this new work by award-winning novelist Marcus (Notable American Women) reminds us that language is dangerous and that we'll do anything to protect our children, even when they are (literally) killing us. In the world imagined here, a terrible epidemic has descended: whenever children speak, adults sicken and eventually die. At first, only Jewish families are stricken, stirring echoes of history's uglier sentiments. But soon every adult is affected. Near death, with her ailments graphically described, Claire still longs for daughter Esther, a standard-issue obnoxious teenager who's hardened with the knowledge of her power. A scene of her crouching over a fallen man, pouring poisoned words into his ear, is positively chilling. But what terrifies Esther's morally tough father, Sam, is that soon Esther will be an adult—and subject to the same horrors as her parents. When a quarantine is called, Sam and Claire prepare to leave, but Claire collapses, and Sam must go on alone; he ends up in a creepy laboratory where a cure for language toxicity is being sought. What keeps him going? The vision of his family. VERDICT Highly recommended, though not for those wanting easy thrills; demanding writer Marcus wants us to think. [See Prepub Alert, 7/18/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Beware of children--their language will kill you. That's the premise of this offbeat disaster novel from Marcus (Notable American Women, 2002, etc.). Had something bitten them while they slept by the ocean? That would explain, think Sam and Claire, their itchy skin and lethargy. But how come Esther, their 14-year-old daughter who'd napped beside them, is doing just fine? Then a pattern emerges in their upstate New York community. Adults are getting sick while kids stay healthy. The symptoms include shortness of breath, facial hardening and immobilized tongues, all caused by children's speech. Narrator Sam and Claire belong to an obscure Jewish sect. Their synagogues are two-person huts that enclose holes for transmission cables; there they listen to anti-language sermons that advocate a freakish quietism. The virus is its horrifying, unintended actualization. A prominent medical researcher, LeBov, blames "the toxic Jewish child." His canard doesn't goose the plot, but the novel's first, better half is nonetheless compelling. The panic spreads. Sam and Claire are victims twice over. They have pampered their beloved Esther. Now the teenager turns on them, maliciously spraying them (and others) with words. Marcus is at his best evoking their physical decline and helpless unconditional love for their brat--warmth amid the ashes. In time there's a mandatory evacuation order for adults; children are quarantined. On their way out of town, officials detach the desperately sick Claire from her anguished husband. In the novel's second half, Sam is a researcher in a medical lab, tasked with creating "a new language to outwit the toxicity." This is dull and clinical, though the appearance of the sharp-tongued anti-Semite LeBov perks things up momentarily; he points out that Jewish researchers are needed for their "conductive" skills. A short final section has Sam back at his hut coping, barely, with a grim post-apocalyptic world. Marcus has imagination to spare, but the religious Jewish theme is not a comfortable fit with a raging epidemic, and the suspense ebbs away.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In Ben Marcus's chilly yet passionate novel, The Flame Alphabet, the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but because of lingering collateral damage from daily speech — communication as a killer. Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, imagines a sudden universal plague, originating with Jewish children, in which the words of the young render adults sick and then dead. The ghastly symptoms include retching, speech fever, yellow skin, and bruising around the mouth. Victims eventually turn into "leaking sacks of mush."

A man named Sam relates the particulars of the affliction, stage by stage. He also chronicles the erosion of his relationship with his wife, Claire, and their twinned resentment and love of their teen daughter, Esther — a defiant, sentimental hell-beast typical of the species — whose words would be knives even without the arrival of a seemingly inexplicable epidemic. As Sam struggles to preserve his loved ones, the narrative continually turns in on itself to share in ever more poignant detail the paralysis of the family unit. The wider crisis is described just well enough to imbue the novel with the necessary semblance of reality, but no more than that.

The particulars of Sam's faith stand out in sharp relief against this backdrop of crisis, and the two seem linked by a second fabulist element in the book — a network of secret huts through which Jewish couples receive "religious transmissions." The complex process by which Sam and Claire assemble the necessary equipment, attaching uncomfortably fleshy "listeners" to the orifice in the hut floor, would make William Burroughs smile in recognition.

The huts may serve as Marcus's bleak yet humorous comment on the eccentricity of religious ritual, but they also function as an important part of the plot. A man named Murphy believes the huts may hold the solution to the plague and has been "canvassing Jewish families?cornering, manipulating, extracting." After meeting Sam supposedly by accident, Murphy stalks his family and gives him The Proofs, an eccentric collection of documents documenting historical cases of deadly language. Murphy wants Sam to give up the secrets of the huts. This needling presence often sparks more reaction from Sam than his wife or daughter, because Murphy is an acceptable outlet on which to vent his anger, grief, and frustration.

Eventually, Sam's town is evacuated, left to the children, and Sam in turn abandons Claire, finding his way to Rochester, New York, where he begins work at a laboratory devoted to finding an antidote. The lab is run by a "toxicologist by training," the brilliant Anthony LeBov. There, Sam devises language tests to see if "the alphabet could be thinned out, shaved down, to trick the brain somehow." Meanwhile, LeBov seeks more robust but ethically corrupt solutions that involve extractions from children. He also goads Sam to help recreate a Jewish hut so he can access "a territory of wisdom we don't own." LeBov's often grotesque delight in his own cleverness makes him profoundly unsympathetic. However, Marcus wisely also shows us LeBov's human side: exhaustion from overwork and a willingness to conduct experiments on himself.

When, against the odds, Claire appears at the same facility, Sam makes a series of disastrous choices that lead him to escape LeBov in a nightmarish journey down through an orifice in LeBov's Jewish hut. The orifice opens up onto a series of tunnels that he hopes will lead him home and back to Esther. The consequences of his decisions for Claire, and thus later Esther, are terrible and form the real revelation of The Flame Alphabet.

The dying fall of Sam's retreat from solutions other than those of the most personal nature helps explain the sometimes meandering opening to the novel. Sam knows he is becoming more like LeBov than he ever imagined and creating misery in pursuit of a cure for his soon-to-be- adult daughter, even as he uses emotional terms like "secured possession" and "extraction shed." The dreadful clarity that often accompanies moments of transgression, when a boundary is crossed that cannot be uncrossed, haunt the final pages. What narrator would hasten to reach the end of this particular story?

The Flame Alphabet is not really about language or the search for a cure to the ravages of words, but about the efforts of a father to cope in the face of impossible circumstances. The unfolding, grim personal tragedy is unfolded for the reader to interpret much like the Hebrew letter Sam dissects and pins in LeBov's laboratory. His story is a harrowing, unrelenting, and painful read. It is also a masterful examination of love and of endurance that may make many readers think more carefully about the words they share.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of The Steampunk Bible. He is currently working on a novel entitled Borne. With his wife, Ann, he recently edited The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic).

Reviewer: Jeff VanderMeer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307379375
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/17/2012
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.86 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

BEN MARCUS is the author of three books of fiction: Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String, and he is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Conjunctions. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and awards from the Creative Capital Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City and Maine.

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Read an Excerpt

By early December we huddled at home, speechless. If we spoke it was through faces gripped in early rigor mortis. Our neighborhood had gone blank, killed down by winter. It was too cold even for the remaining children to do much hunting.

I don’t know how else to refer to their work, but sometimes they swarmed the block, flooding houses with speech until the adults were repulsed to the woods.

You’d see a neighbor with a rifle and you’d hear that rifle go off. The trees stood bloodless, barely holding on in the wind. We sat against the window and waited, spying out at the children when they roved through. The children— they should have been called something else—barking toxic vocals through megaphones as they held hands in the street.

I hoped they wouldn’t turn and see us in the window, come to the door. I hoped they wouldn’t walk up the lawn and push their megaphones against the glass. And always I hoped not to see our Esther in these crowds, but too often there she was in the pack, one of the tallest, bouncing in the winter nighttime fog, breathing into her hands to keep warm. She’d finally found a group of kids to run off with.

If there was an escape to engineer we failed to do so, even while some neighbors loaded cars, smuggling from town when they’d had enough. The quarantine hadn’t been declared, but in our area they weren’t letting children through checkpoints, except by bus. Basic containment. If you wanted to leave, you left alone.

Even so, bulky rugs were thrust into trunks. Items that required two people to carry. Usually wrapped in cloth, sometimes squirming of their own accord, a child’s foot poking out. A clumsy game of hide-and-seek, children sprawled out in cargo carriers, children disguised as something else, so parents could spend a few more minutes with what ailed them.

Claire retired as my test subject. She stopped appearing in the kitchen for night treatments, declined the new smoke. When I served infused milk she fastened her mouth shut. If she accepted medicine from me she did so unwittingly, asleep, whimpering when the needle went in.

I couldn’t blame her, falling away like that, embracing the shroud of illness. But I did. I conducted nightly campaigns of blame and accusation, silently, in the monstrous internal speech that is only half sounded out, a kind of cave speech one reserves for private airing. In these broadsides Claire spun on a low podium and absorbed every accusation.

If I prepared a bowl of steamed grain and left it on the table for her, salted as she liked it, pooling in the black syrup, she passed her spoon through it, held up a specimen for study, and could not, just never could, finally slide it in her mouth. For Claire I cut cubes of meat loaf, and at best she tucked one or two in her mouth, where she could suck on them until they shriveled to husks.

Claire no longer slept in her bed and she seemed too listless even to maneuver to the crafts room, to the guest room, to anywhere she might be able to fall unconscious in private.

I was always trying to offer her shield, a modesty curtain, so she could come undone alone and unseen. She shouldn’t have to collapse in hallways. If necessary I helped her along, at least to a corner, where I could erect a temporary blind.

Once I found her asleep in the bathroom, one eye stuck open, leaking a speckled fluid. I crouched down and closed the eye, blotted it with my shirt. It opened again and she whispered at me.

“Hi there.”

I looked down at her and she blinked, perfectly alert.

Claire must have thought she was smiling, but that was so far from a smile. With my fingers I tried to change the feeling, to reshape her mouth. I couldn’t have her looking at me like that.

Her lips were cold and they would not stay where I arranged them. Her face had the weight of clay.

“Go back to sleep” was all I could think to say, and I draped a bath towel over her, leaving her to rest on the cold tiles.

At home I took charge of what remained of our dwindling domestic project, the blending of food into shakes, the cleaning of all our gray traces. I formed a packing plan, a strategy with regard to the luggage, mapped a route to outskirt lodging. Our pajamas, robes, towels, dishrags, these I washed every day, closing myself in the laundry room where the hot engine of the machine drowned out noise and thought. Against the hum of the washer I was, for a little while, nobody much, and this was how I preferred it.

I left Esther’s warm, folded clothes in her bedroom. Often they went untouched. Or later, after Esther had plowed through the house before returning to her gang, I’d find the pile toppled onto the floor, a heap of black crumbs, like someone’s ashes, dumped over it.

Claire’s robe went mostly unwashed, because she didn’t like to take it off, and if I ever found her half asleep and staring into nowhere from her resting place, she wouldn’t respond when I asked if I could do any laundry for her, she’d just smack her lips to indicate thirst.

“It’d be nice to have fresh clothes, right? I could clean these and have them right back to you.”

I tugged at her robe and she pulled away from me, threw an arm over her face.

“Your robe will be nice and warm out of the dryer. We could get you covered in extra blankets in the meantime. It’ll be nice to be clean. You’ll feel better.”

I spoke to Claire as if she understood me, but she only stared. I spoke to her through a stiff, heavy face that seemed fitted on my head solely to block me from speaking. I sounded like a man underwater.

As our tolerance departed for the speech of children, so, too, did our ability to speak. Language in or out, we heard, produced, or received. A problem any which way.

To keep Claire hydrated I’d have to peel back her hospital mask,  prop her upright, and press the sippy cup straw through the gluey seal of her lips.
I lowered the mask when she was done and flowery welts of orange juice soaked through the fabric.

When it was time to clean her, I filled a bowl with warm water, settled it over a towel at her bedside. With a washcloth I soaped her neck and face. She lifted her chin, gathered her hair out of the way. I squeezed little pools of water over her throat. I placed another towel under her feet, then lifted and washed each leg, rubbing as softly as I could, watching the little streaks of redness follow my cloth.

Claire’s legs rose too easily in my hands, as though they’d been relieved of their bones.

With the last of the water I reached into Claire’s robe and washed her stomach, the skin that once held her breasts. I peeled her from the bed so I could wash her back, pushing the washcloth under the robe, feeling each hollow between her ribs, a sponginess I did not want to explore. Then I settled her back down again, pulled up her covers, lifted the mask from her mouth so I could replace it with a clean one.

She forced a smile, but a shadow had spread under her gums, a darkness inside her mouth.

When I brought her soup, warmed the long bread she loved, or offered Claire some of the candies that usually she could never refuse— baby amber globes with a cube of salted caramel inside— at most she would roll over, heave, pull the quilt above her head.

It was only when the front door swung open and Esther came in the house sweating, crazed, in clothing I’d never seen, that Claire sat up, drawing on some last reserve of power. She always wanted to catch sight of Esther, to watch her from a doorway, so she followed her from room to room, keeping her distance, and Esther tolerated the stalking. You could see in her whole body the effort she made to endure this attention she loathed.

Esther had changed. Her face was older, harder. Filthy from her outings, but spectacularly beautiful. Of course I must think this, I’m her father. Fathers do not easily succumb to assessments of ugliness where their children are concerned. Esther had never been a cute child, but she’d grown threateningly stunning in the last few months. She let her mother watch from a safe perimeter and she was considerate enough not to turn on her with speech, to stop and speak until Claire fell. Esther saw her mother in doorways, looked away, said nothing. It was her greatest kindness to us, that silence. I will always appreciate the restraint she showed in those last days.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2012

    Not a novel for lovers of plot; rather, a novel for lovers of words

    I greatly enjoyed this read. It ranks as one of the weirdest that I have read in a long time, sure. But, the use of words and language were fantantastic; it had the expressive power of poetry and the compressed force of short fiction with a creepy, organic, off-kilter steam-punkish sci-fi atmosphere.
    It is a mistake to read The Flame Alphabet looking for conventional plot and character. I thought it was pretty obvious from the first chapters that this book was going to fall into the "none of the above" bin for traditional novel, sci- fi or not.
    An alternate reality, where language and meaning itself are toxic, is relayed by a 'survivor' who is guilt ridden by his failure to communicate his love to his wife and child. His only goal is to bridge that divide but the tools of communication are lethal, adults susceptible, and children virulent.
    The whole story explores the power of language and does it wonderfully, through a strange and rich and expressive and disturbing and rewarding journey. It is not a novel for lovers of plot, its a novel for lovers of words. It seeps into your brain and works wet, messy, mysterious magic.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2012

    Painful and without reward

    If you are hoping for character development, plot, or an over riding message, this novel is not for you. The author freely changes style which is jarring. The characters are under developed and the plot contains more serious questions than answers. This novel made me wish it caused physical illness so I could put it down and not muscle through to the end. Which was not good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2012


    This book is terrible, I can't get past the first hundred makes no sense and just plain stinks...don't waste your money or gift card on this one...i gave it 1 star only because you can't submit a review without choosing a star...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2012

    Dont read

    Not worth your time

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  • Posted May 6, 2012

    Wouldn't suggest for anyone!

    I read this book as part of a book club group. To a person, none of us liked it. The characters never really developed, the storyline went nowhere, and we all struggled to even complete it. There are so many better books out there, don't waste your time!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2012

    Much ado about nothing

    After waiting with great enthusiasm for this one, I am sad to say that I am disappointed. Ingenious concept, but Perotta doesn't leverage the Sudden Departure theme to make this the page turner it could have been. The character development is-- as would be expected from the author--relatively rich. But where's the story? It ambles along only to meet a narcoleptic end. It was a bit like Little Children with all of the characters' names changed.

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  • Posted March 1, 2012


    Very hard to get into. I quit half way through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2012

    I had higher hopes

    The story had potential but just couldnt deliver. It seemed scattered like an incomplete train of though.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2012

    Weirdly promising with no payoff

    This book has a very interesting premise, but has repeated imagery that isn't explained well. It got too far into internal ramblings, and the last few chapters go absolutely nowhere. I am fairly disappointed with the story overall.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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