Posted in adventure and mystery, general and welcome

Dark Dawn Over Steep House

As the name of my blog suggests, my reviews usually focus on children’s and young adults’ books. However, my reading does stretch beyond this remit and I particularly enjoy thrillers, crime and ghost stories, especially those set in Victorian times. Therefore, it was a real treat to discover a series that included all those elements, with a feisty, intelligent and wonderfully dry-humoured heroine to boot. I am talking of M.R.C. Kasasian’s ‘The Gower Street Detective’ series, narrated by the admirable and independent March Middleton, who details the always interesting and often bizarre crimes that she and her guardian Mr Sidney Grice (a personal, not private detective, if you please) set out to solve. Today, I am delighted to participate in the blog tour celebrating the new, and fifth, book in this excellent series by M.R.C. Kasasian.

Dark Dawn blog tour

What the book’s about

Dark Dawn Over Steep House opens in London, in 1884. Sidney Grice is restless – his latest case remains (unusually) unsolved and he turns to his book A Brief History of Doorstep Whitening in Preston for solace. Meanwhile, his ward, March Middleton, vows to find out what happened to Geraldine Hockaday, the daughter of a naval captain who was ‘outraged’ in a murky part of London and whose attacker is still roaming the streets. A chance encounter with two women – Lucy Bocking and her female companion Freddy – in a crowded café brings a new victim to light – it appears London has a serial offender on the loose. As Middleton and Grice recommence their investigations, their investigations lead them to the dining room of a Prussian Prince, the hangout of an Armenian gangster, and the ruin of a once-happy family home, Steep House.

Fancy a drink, March?

Slipping into this latest instalment by M.R.C. Kasasian was like coming home. The familiarity of the writing – dry, deft, humorous – and the characters – well-drawn and instantly recognisable – meant that I easily fell into the action and the story (not literally of course, just to clarify for Sidney Grice’s pedantic sake). March’s narrative voice is one that I could happily read endlessly, and is a testament to Kasasian’s writing (he teased another blogger by saying he wouldn’t reveal why he had chosen a female narrator instead of male – perhaps he might be tempted now?).

March is the kind of woman I’d like to go out and have a drink with, although I doubt I could keep up with her. Additionally, I’d probaby forego her favourite tipple of gin (it makes me morose and gives me a whopping headache) but we could hit a few cocktail bars and she could tell me about ‘Edward’ – her once husband-to-be. She might not like the smoking ban in drinking establishments, though, so we might spend the evening standing outside in the smokers’ area.

What I admire about March is that she sticks two fingers up at the Victorian establishment who, in the first book of the series, called her ‘a mere girl’ and wins the respect of her ward and even members of the police force, with whom she frequently liaises. She’s clever, sympathetic, determined and funny – and is a perfect contrast to Sidney Grice whose rudeness (or blunt honesty) knows no boundaries. In that way, he’s rather similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, although he does not drink, smoke or take drugs (heaven forbid) – preferring, instead, a nice cup of black tea made to very strict specifications. He is also a strict vegetarian, which means poor March must take her cravings for meat pies or pork chops out to lunch occasionally. Grice is also an avid inventor, seeking to trademark many of his creations (including a Victorian version of a thermos flask for Grice’s beloved tea).

He ain’t no Sherlock Holmes

A comparison to Sherlock Holmes would have incensed Sidney Grice. As March explains, in the opening sentence in this book:

“I was approached by a man from the London County Council yesterday. They want to put a blue plaque on the front of 125 Gower Street, commemorating Sidney Grice’s many years and countless triumphs here. I can only imagine how my guardian would have revelled in such glorification, especially as his detested rival Sherlock Holmes, being fictional, will never qualify for one.”

Yet, when reading the Gower Street series, you can hardly fail to notice the similarities between the two. Like Watson to Holmes, March is Grice’s recorder of tales, and the voice of sanity when he threatens to become too eccentric for his own good. Like Holmes, Grice has an amazing ability to tell things about people from the minutest of details (in this latest book, the age of a woman severely injured in a house fire when she was young, by the state of her teeth and skin on her hands). It has been said that the series is a pastiche of the works of Sherlock Holmes and I can see why this comparison was made. But be under no misapprehension that it lacks originality – the allusions serve to add to the richness and humour of the stories.

Sometimes a strong stomach is needed

While there is a great deal of humour in these books, crimes are still at the forefront of the action, and many are not for the fainted-hearted. When talking about the women who have been ‘outraged’ (Victorian euphemism for violated) in Dark Dawn Over Steep House, we see a side of sadism that makes for, at times, very uncomfortable reading. In previous books, there have been gruesome murders and disfigurements and stomach-churning visits to the mortuary that have had me squirming. The details are never salacious or unnecessarily grim but there is honesty about the crimes in this story, and the previous four, that can make you wince. Victorian London was, after all, a city of two sides – the squalor of the slums that encouraged both crime and cholera, and the wealth of the upper classes, who viewed visiting the slums as a kind of extreme sport (hence the women in this story being ‘outraged’ when visiting disreputable opium dens). March Middleton constantly battles with her conscience about this, handing out money when possible to street urchins and others in need, struggling to live a life of comparable luxury against a backdrop of abject poverty.

Characters that grow

Sometimes in series – book or television – and especially ones with a comic element, characters must remain frozen in a particular role in order continue playing their bespoke part in events. However, with this series, March and Sidney do grow and change, more specifically in relation to each other. In this latest instalment, the book commences with March challenging Sidney to tell her the truth behind his relationship with her mother – is he her father? Sidney denies it strenuously, but both March and the reader aren’t satisfied; there is something in her past that he’s not revealing. However, the guardian and his ward have definitely become closer as the series has progressed, and despite his often deprecating tone, it is clear that Sidney is very fond of his God-daughter.

March has also moved on from mourning the loss of her fiance… but she’s now mourning the loss of another suitor, Inspector George Pound, with whom she fell in love, somewhat against her will. Pound is still in her life but will not enter a relationship with her because of financial pride; her wealth is larger than his own. It seems as if March is destined to live life a reluctant spinster.

Molly the maid resides in the Shakespearean role of jester – providing comic relief at various points in each story. Her fidelity to her master is undeniable, as is her naivety in mistaking an insult for a compliment from her irascible employer.

Bedtime stories

I first came across the books on audible, during a difficult family time when I was driving to and from Devon on most weekends. The first book in the series had me enthralled, and meant I was mainly unaware of the miles I was clocking up in our grumpy and temperamental Citroen. Since then, I’ve introduced my husband to the series, and he’s now also become a huge fan – in fact we read them to each other at night like bedtime stories. When I asked him what it was he liked about the books, he said he liked the combination of humour and crime, and the interaction between March Middleton and Sidney Grice. In short, the books are a perfect recipe of action, characters and narration, although in this latest book, there is a fair amount of sadness too.

Dark Dawn Over Steep House, by M.R.C. Kasasian, is published by Head of Zeus.

@MRCKASASIAN

@HoZ_Books

 

Please note that while I was given a copy of Dark Dawn Over Steep House to review by the publishers, the views expressed in this post are entirely my own.

 

Posted in adventure and mystery

The Lie Tree – a true award winner

It’s been a little while since I’ve written a review for my Popsugar Reading Challenge but today I’m pleased to write about my choice for the National Book Award category. However, I’ve cheated on this, not being based in the USA, and have chosen Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, which won the Costa Book of the Year 2015.

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Sometimes, I am wary of awards. Like anything else, they are subjective and a book that wins doesn’t necessarily make it any better than others that were or weren’t shortlisted. However, reading The Lie Tree, I could see what made it worthy of such validation.

About the book

The story centres around Victorian heroine Faith, whose family flees mainland UK for Vane Island, in the midst of a scandal. Shortly after arriving, her natural scientist father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is found dead in suspicious circumstances. The locals, who have shunned him and his family after hearing of his misdoings, insist that he has committed suicide and refuse to allow him to be buried in sacred ground, but Faith’s mother is desperate to convince them otherwise and Faith is determined to help.

While she is investigating, Faith discovers an unusual tree that her father hid before his death – one that combusts in direct light and will only bear fruit if you whisper lies to it. The more the lies spread, the more prolific the tree grows. And whoever whispers the lies to the tree will be rewarded with a vision of a hidden truth if they consume the fruit.

With this knowledge, Faith starts spreading lies far and wide to discover what really happened to her father, whom she believes was murdered. However, while she finds she has a talent for lying, she also learns that untruths need little fire to spread uncontrollably. She also discovers that, sometimes, the truth isn’t what you really want to hear.

Why it’s a winner

The story starts atmospherically, as the family journey by boat to their new home. There is a sense of unease, unhappiness and discomfort and this never really leaves the family throughout the tale. The characters all seem to be uncomfortable in themselves and Faith’s father is a typical Victorian patriarch – dismissive of his daughter whom he says will always be a financial burden, to him and then to her younger brother Howard, unless she can marry well. Faith, though, has other desires – mainly to follow in her beloved father’s footsteps in the natural science world.

Faith is a stubborn but gutsy heroine, full of indignation at the future in store for her. Despite her father’s cruel words, she idolises him, often scorning her mother who she sees as weak and ineffectual. What Hardinge does so well is to show how Faith wants to break the rules for Victorian womanhood and scorns her mother’s femininity, but eventually realises that feminine wiles are essential to survive in a world where men call the shots. The reader roots for Faith – she is an admirable heroine – clever, brave, loyal and uncompromising. She has her faults, of course, as every heroine must, but she does realise these as the story progresses and learns to adapt her behaviour to manipulate others. In all, The Lie Tree exposes Victorian womanhood and then shows how females discretely subvert it, in contrast to Faith’s more blatant approach.

I really loved this book, especially as the story got going. The beginning felt slow at times, perhaps drawn out by the high usage of similes and metaphors (which I have discovered is a feature of Hardinge’s writing in general). However, as Faith travels deeper into her quest, the tension ratchets up, and the story becomes more of a thriller than perhaps a fantasy. The ending was very clever and very satisfying.

I’m glad I picked this book for the award-winning category. It mixes elements of the ghost story, fantasy, thriller and historical fiction through a feisty character. Perhaps it will appeal more to girls than boys for this reason but it deserves to be on the bestseller lists. One to get for my school library I think!

If you would like to read an extract from The Library Tree, check out this link:

http://extracts.panmacmillan.com/extract?isbn=9781447264118

Have you read The Lie Tree? What did you think of it?

 

Posted in adventure and mystery, MA stuff

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers: a reflection on the decline of the British empire?

One of the texts we looked at last week as an introduction to our MA module on British Children’s Literature, 1960s to the current day, was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (although this was written in 1959). I thought I would add a few observations about the book as a kind of review and a summary of what I think I learned about it this week!

Image courtesy of goodreads.com

What it’s about:

This is the third in a series of historical books about Britain under the Roman empire, often referred to as the ‘Marcus’ or ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ series, the first of which was recently made into a film called ‘The Eagle’. 

The Lantern Bearers is set during the fifth century, as Roman troops completed their withdrawal from Britain during increased Saxon attacks on the island. The novel’s hero is Aquila, a young Roman soldier who, after being asked to leave England and return to Rome with his troops, abandons his regiment to return to his family in England and help protect them against the Saxon invaders. However, after shortly after returning home, his family home is ransacked by Saxon marauders, his father, dogs, and servants are murdered and his sister is carried away, screaming. Aquila is beaten and left for dead, tied to a tree, until more invaders discover him and bring him home to serve as a slave in Ullasfjord.

After three years of servitude, the Saxons he is in thrall to return to Britain to live after disastrous harvests. Shortly after arriving, Aquila plans his escape and is aided by none other than Flavia. He begs her to join him but she refuses, saying she has a son and husband now and her place is with them. Aquila flees but with a heavy heart, carrying bitterness and rage as he vows to avenge his family alongside the Prince of Britain, Ambrosius Aurelianius. He is not only furious with the Saxons, he is also bitter towards his sister, whom he thinks has committed the ultimate betrayal. The book then focuses on how Ambrosius’ Roman sympathisers forge allegiances with the Celts to overcome Saxons but is mainly an intimate portrayal of one man’s struggle to come to terms not only with the new order in the country but also with his own demons.

The book won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, which recognizes the year’s best children’s book by a British writer.

Empirical evidence

When I first started reading The Lantern Bearers I admit I struggled – I found the language rather stodgy to begin with. However, I soon started appreciating the book for its incredibly poetic narrative – Aquila’s love for his land shines through Sutcliff’s beautiful natural descriptions – and the depth with which Sutcliff portrays Aquila’s struggles. It’s not just about who wins on the battlefields – enough proof is given to show that victories are short-lived and allegiances even more tenuous.

What astounded me about the book is Sutcliff’s ability to convincingly portray the psychological anguish of a male protagonist, and a Roman one at that. She makes him a believable and rich person and it is hard not to take on his pain as your own as you read.

Our course materials suggest that ‘Sutcliff constantly uses the past as a safely distanced environment in which to explore her concerns about the present time’ (Pinsent). I didn’t necessarily get this when I read the book and only could draw parallels when I read in the course materials about the issues affecting authors of this time, a large one being the decline of the British Empire. Apparently the book can be seen as mirroring the experience of British colonialists, especially in countries such as Kenya, where they were torn between staying behind as Britain withdrew or returning home to what would seem like a strange culture.

Realistic relationships

Another big theme running through the book, which I could see more clearly, is that of the tensions in familial relationships. What is interesting is that while Aquila has a good and solid traditional relationship with his father, built on mutual respect and admiration, his son Flavian turns into something of a rebel. He chooses to ignore his father’s wishes for him to remain with his group of soldiers during a major battle and rides off with a younger soldier he admires more. This is teenage rebellion in Roman times and the awkwardness between father and son is gently and non-judgementally portrayed as Aquila wishes for a closer relationship, suspecting his taciturn nature and bitterness as a cause for their estrangement. Their difficult conversations and the scowls Flavian shoots at his father can be found in any age, one imagine, but certainly have been featured more heavily in more modern books.

Our materials state that there is a ‘good deal of contrast between the situation of Aquila and his sister Flavia’  but I am not entirely in agreement with this. What we witness mainly are Aquila’s anger and hurt towards Flavia for choosing her Saxon husband and son over her Roman brother, particularly in light of how she was captured and forced into marriage, and one would assume she would be desperate to escape this predicament. Instead she simply says that her husband is her husband and she feels bound to him.

Aquila cannot grasp this until his wife, Ness, refuses to leave him to live again with her people when they abandon Ambrosius’ cause. There is no love lost between Aquila and Ness – they were both thrown into the marriage to prove allegiance between her father and Ambrosius – but she declares herself true to Aquila because of their son Flavian. Slowly, Aquila starts to realize that his sister’s decision was not one of betrayal of her old family but of being tied to her new one. When he rescues her son – his half-Saxon nephew – from almost certain death, his bitterness dissipates and he finds the peace that has eluded him for so long.

Since all this is shown through the eyes of Aquila and not much space is given to the women’s predicament, one cannot really say that equal treatment is given to Aquila’s and Flavia’s situations. This is not a criticism – this is, after all, Aquila’s story – but I think there’s not enough to support any claims of equal balance between the two.

Slaves and servitude

The main message (or was it a feeling?) that I got from reading The Lantern Bearers was that everyone was in thrall to someone else – even the leaders of the warring sides:

  • Aquila was literally in thrall to his Saxon captors for three years
  • Flavia is in thrall to her Saxon husband
  • Ness is in thrall to Aquila to seal her father’s commitment to Ambrosius’ cause
  • Ambrosius is in thrall to his father’s reputation and legacy in trying to keep Britain in the hands of the Romans instead of falling victim to the Saxons.

Being a slave isn’t just about being captured and forced to work for another. It’s about being tied to an emotion, as Aquila is in his bitterness, about being dependent upon the fluctuating loyalties of others, as Ambrosius is, about knowing your place and not being able to physically escape it, as are Ness and Flavia, who cannot shake the shackles of servitude off as Aquila is when given the chance. It’s how these characters deal with their situation that makes this book so fascinating and gripping and makes it more than a simple war story.

Fred Inglis said in his notes to the 1976 edition, ‘Aquila is much less confident, much more morally adrift than the earlier heroes…’ (pp 171-172). He is a hero in many more ways than brandishing a sword and cutting down the enemy; he is flawed but sympathetic and certainly not one-dimensional. I take my hat off to Sutcliffe for creating such depth, warmth and sadness in such a great, male character.

 

Have you read any books by Rosemary Sutcliff? What are your favourites? What do you think of her characterization?

Posted in adventure and mystery

Review: The Girl Savage, by Katherine Rundell

Tonight’s review is of The Girl Savage, by Katherine Rundell

 

Image courtesy of faber.co.uk

 

What it’s about (from the publishers): Wilhelmina Silver’s world is golden. Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey and her best friend, every day is beautiful. But when her home  is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes  impossibly difficult. For lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of  schoolgirls. Where can a girl run to in London? And will she have the courage to survive? An extremely special story of bravery, hope and the  wildness that lives in us all.

Holly’s review: This book is about a little girl who grows up on an African farm with two English parents. Her mother dies when she is little and leaves her with her father who she loves but when he dies she is sent off to boarding school in London. This book is daring, dangerous and treacherous. It is also very sad but with joys lying there in wait and that is why I like this book. This book is like a computer game. You don’t want to stop playing that game but instead you don’t want to stop reading the book. When I read this book, I feel like I am there watching it all unfold like a map. Uncover the life of this poor little girl under all the little flaps that are waiting to be read.

Sam’s review: Holly really took to this book and couldn’t stop reading it. Her dad and I didn’t get to read much of it with her because of her eagerness, which is surely the sign of a great children’s novel. The descriptions and style of writing are quite poetic in places and evocative not only of Wilhelmina’s sadness and fierce spirit but also of the environments in which she finds herself. You can feel her yearning for Africa and wish with her that she were back there with everyone she knows. Holly’s right – this is a sad book but the ending is optimistic and I wonder if we will be treated to more stories as part of a series? It doesn’t look like it but it would be intriguing to discover how her life unfolds.

Posted in adventure and mystery

Review: Mystery of the Whistling Caves, by Helen Moss

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Image courtesy of http://www.amazon.co.uk

 

What it’s about: Scott and Jack Carter reluctantly arrive at their great aunt’s house for the summer while their father is away on work matters. The quiet Cornish town where she lives looks like it will be the most boring backdrop for a vacation ever until they meet local girl Emily Wild and her lively dog Drift. The four set off to explore the local attractions, including the lighthouse, castle and the amazing whistling caves which, according to legend, only stop whistling when the castle comes under attack. And, of course, this is what happens when treasures are stolen from an exhibition at the castle. Can Jack, Scott, Emily and Drift solve the mystery? This is the first in Helen Moss’s adventure series.

Holly’s review: I like this book because it is quite like a sort of Scooby Doo mystery and I like Scooby Doo. But I think the writer Helen Moss tries to make it sound cool and it is very obvious that she is trying to. In this book, Jack, one of the main characters, appears to be stupid in the way Helen Moss describes him. I also think she tries to make the book sound cool and funny which does not appeal to me. Because you can tell she is doing it and overdoes the coolness and funniness. The mystery is quite confusing but has a good storyline. Overall, I think this book has more downs than it does ups. I think this book is aimed at boys as I think the writer is being cool for their benefit.

Sam’s review: It has been interesting to see how Holly has reacted to this story. She finished reading The Mystery of the Vanishing Skeleton (the 6th book in Moss’s series) and immediately started on this, so I thought that she would work her way through this series in the same way as she would Enid Blyton’s mysteries. However, I am not sure this will be the case. She says she would like to read more to see if they get better but after the rather scathing review she’s given above I need convincing! I know what Holly means about the way in which Moss characterises the boys. Their rather ‘moody’ teenager attitude makes me roll my eyes as an adult but it appears that it has the same effect on Holly, so perhaps she is right and these are aimed more at boys. Or perhaps not. Sometimes writers try hard to make their characters appeal to children or teens by writing in their voice. However, if this isn’t done convincingly enough it unfortunately has the opposite effect. Perhaps Holly and I are just too devoted to Blyton to read a similarly written but modernised book and enjoy it but one thing that strikes me is that Blyton’s characters aren’t portrayed as lazy or moody or sarcastic (generally speaking). They are motivated, excited and interested and that helps interest the reader. Maybe it’s a stretch too far to think that modern children/teens would act in the same way as Blyton’s when presented with an adventure, in which case perhaps it’s time to either decide to write an adventure story featuring modern young people acting in the way they would normally in life rather than expecting them to morph from sulky teens to enthusiastic, ice-cream-eating versions.

Posted in adventure and mystery

Review: The Mystery of the Vanishing Skeleton, by Helen Moss

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Image courtesy of waterstones.com

 

What it’s about: The small Cornish town of Castle Key is suddenly hit by a number of minor crimes but the perpetrator appears to be less than human – it’s a skeleton! Crime-solving trio Jack, Scott and Emily, aided by Drift the dog, set about trying to solve who or what is behind the spate of occurrences in the sixth book of the ‘The Mystery of the…’ series by Helen Moss.

Holly’s review: I liked this book because it is amusing and adventurous, because of the little jokes Helen Moss puts in and also because the children have to discover who is behind a glowing skeleton mystery. The story is about a girl and two boys who meet together and have all these adventures. I would definitely recommend this to people who love mysteries. This book also includes a sticker on it saying ‘if you like Enid Blyton you’ll love this’. I don’t believe that this is true because to me it’s more like a Scooby Doo mystery.

Sam’s review: I ordered this book from our local library as I saw it recommended for fans of Enid Blyton. While the structure is similar – the children are sent away during their holidays because their parents are too busy to look after them, and then they fall into a series of adventures and mysteries, along with a dog – I also agree with Holly in that they aren’t quite like Enid Blyton in the way in which the characters are drawn. The two boys are of course more familiar to modern audiences in their tastes and attitudes, but they can be irritating at times when they are doing their ‘moody teenager’ bit. Or maybe that’s just the grumpy adult reader in me! Holly also remarked to me that, while she liked the books, she felt the author was trying a little too hard to make the kids sound cool, to the extent that they actually didn’t. I guess this is always a danger when you try to write adolescents from an adult perspective. That said, Holly galloped through this book and is now reading the first in the series, so she must be enjoying them! I am happy reading them with her too. The plot moves at a quick pace, the boys are a little stereotypical in portrayal but are differentiated from each other and the mysteries are exciting enough without being too scary. I expect we will be reading more of the same very soon!

 

 

Posted in adventure and mystery

Review: The River of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

This review is of The River of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

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Image courtesy of waterstones.com

 

What it’s about:

The four intrepid adventurers – Jack, Lucy-Ann, Dinah and Philip (and not forgetting Kiki the parrot) – have flown away to Syria for rest and recuperation after a nasty bout of influenza. While enjoying a fascinating river trip, their family holiday, as usual, turns into a nail-biting adventure when Bill and Mrs Cunningham are kidnapped. The children follow in hot pursuit to rescue them but instead stumble upon a forgotten temple dating back 7,000 years. Will they find their way out and rescue their parents?

 

Holly’s review:

I like this book because it is daring, mysterious and puzzling; for example, when the parents got kidnapped. This book is about four kids who have had flu going on a holiday to get some sun to make them feel better. But while they are away, they fall into another jaw-dropping adventure. This is an absolutely gob-smacking book. I love it.

 

Sam’s review:

Yes, readers, I can attest that Holly’s gob is very much smacked (oh, horrid vernacular!). She devours any Enid Blyton book she gets her hands on but this one has been treated to an immediate re-read. She told me there was something about it that made it even better than any other book she has read. Perhaps the element of danger is greater here as the children travel further away from home and the sights and sounds portrayed are very different to the usual offerings (although tinned fruit is very much in evidence, to the point that we had to go to Lidl and buy catering-sized tins of pineapple, grapefruit and peaches). I don’t remember reading this particular adventure when I was young so it’s been great to discover it now with Holly – if she will ever let me near the book long enough to read it! We only have one more of the ‘Adventure’ series left – The Castle of Adventure – so I don’t know WHAT we are going to do when we’ve finished them.

Until then, let’s open another tin of peaches…

Do you like the Adventure series?

Do you like tinned fruit?!