Mini Reviews (and a Reading Woe): The Shadows by Alex North & Red Heir by Lisa Henry

How does one…read a book?

If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to mail out a note to my brain detailing step-by-step instructions, as the poor thing has clearly forgotten. Which, turns out, is a bit of an inconvenience when you’re trying to run a book blog.

It’s not that I don’t have the time – quite the opposite, really. It’s not that I don’t have a good selection of books to read, or that I’m not excited to get to them – because I have and I do. It’s just that I open a book, read the first couple of chapters, and then think, “Oh look, squirrel!” and proceed to chase the squirrel instead. And in this case the squirrel is a text message or a cute YouTube video or a dark blotch on my ceiling that I swear is a spider. I feel like, at this point, if I were stuck in a 10 ft x 10 ft room with nothing but the clothes on my back, some water, and a Kindle on my lap, I would still manage to find an excuse to NOT read.

Sigh. It’s a maddening puzzle, my friends. But one I’m determined to crack this month. There are so many incredible-sounding books coming out in the next couple of months, and I do not want to miss them.

In the meantime, here are a few mini reviews that I’ve been procrastinating on!

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Title:
The Shadows
Author:
Alex North
Publisher:
Celadon Books

Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Childhood, Dreams
Representation: N/A

Release Date: July 7th, 2020
Page Count: 326 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile–always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet–and inspired more than one copycat.

Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree–and his victim–were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and suffering from dementia, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.

It’s not long before things start to go wrong. Paul learns that Detective Amanda Beck is investigating another copycat that has struck in the nearby town of Featherbank. His mother is distressed, insistent that there’s something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.

It wasn’t just the murder.

It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again…

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The Shadows is less of a thriller-horror than what the blurb suggests, and a more reflective story of a man who returns home to reconcile with a traumatic past. It’s got the tone of rifling through a box of old photographs, with all the tension and melancholia that accompanies it, which I absolutely vibe with – sad trips into the fictional past are my jam – but it wasn’t quite the skin-crawling experience I was hoping for.

It is, however, still a solid atmosphere-driven tale and, in a weird way, there’s this magical lustre to it. Maybe it’s just that my brain has a tendency to categorize all stories involving dreams as fantasy-adjacent, but this feels like it exists in that grey narrative space between reality and not-quite. It’s in the way that the characters long for things they know they can’t have, and long for them hard enough to stitch their own world, their own stories, into existence. And I love it when stories do that – grounded in the real world but still dangling a thread of “But what if?”

Aside from the main character, the rest of the cast kind of fade into the background. I understand why the author chose to alternate Paul’s chapters with Amanda’s. His narration is so entrenched in old memories and biases, and the detective offers a more outside-in look into everything with better objectivity (the thriller/mystery aspect definitely becomes sharper with her chapters). But I couldn’t help but feel that she’s mostly there to serve as a mirror for all the strangeness that’s going on, and not so much as a fleshed-out character. A narrative device, really, albeit an effective one.

Creepy handprints on the cover notwithstanding, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone looking for a high-octane horror story. It’s the quiet exploration of childhood traumas and our compartmentalization of them that truly shines throughout.

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review


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Title:
Red Heir
Author:
Lisa Henry and Sarah Honey
Publisher:
Self-published

Genre(s): Fantasy, Romance
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Fake royal, Road trip
Representation: Gay MC and side characters

Release Date: July 28th, 2020
Page Count: 234 (ebook)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Imprisoned pickpocket Loth isn’t sure why a bunch of idiots just broke into his cell claiming they’re here to rescue the lost prince of Aguillon, and he doesn’t really care. They’re looking for a redheaded prince, and he’s more than happy to play along if it means freedom. Then his cranky cellmate Grub complicates things by claiming to be the prince as well.

Now they’re fleeing across the country and Loth’s stuck sharing a horse and a bedroll with Grub while imitating royalty, eating eel porridge, and dodging swamp monsters and bandits.

Along the way, Loth discovers that there’s more to Grub than meets the eye. Under the dirt and bad attitude, Grub’s not completely awful. He might even be attractive. In fact, Loth has a terrible suspicion that he’s developing feelings, and he’s not sure what to do about that. He’d probably have more luck figuring it out if people would just stop trying to kill them.

Still, at least they’ve got a dragon, right?

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A dwarf, an elf, a human, and an orc crash into a prison where two redheads await. One of them is the lost prince, you see, and these unlikely band of rescuers are determined to snatch him away to safety and earn all the glory. A case of mistaken identity, however, lands the wrong guy as the prince and his cellmate as his grumpy tagalong. Cue adventure.

This was….okay, in every sense of the word. It’s a simple story; it doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting with the imposter royal trope, the worldbuilding is sparse, and the side characters are cute and provide some extra banter. In terms of queer fantasy adventures, it’s nowhere near the kind of funny that Lightning Struck Heart is, but it definitely has its witty moments.

I was just rather bored with it. I mean, the book knows what it’s about – it’s not meant to be a sprawling fantasy epic – but everything from the characters to the relationship to the plot felt surface-level and derivative compared to other stories that tackle this premise in a more interesting way. It plays safe and doesn’t attempt to be anything it’s not, but damn, I sure wish it’d at least tried.

But if you’re looking for quick and light-hearted fantasy that you want to squeeze inbetween heavier reads, or you just really love red-haired protagonists, then this might be one for you.

Thank you to Gay Romance Reviews and the authors for providing the review copy

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Review: Burn by Patrick Ness – Dragons, Prophecies, and the Cycle of Violence

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Title: Burn
Author:
Patrick Ness
Publisher:
Quill Tree Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons
Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC

Release Date: June 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…

Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.

The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.

Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself. 

CW: racism, homophobia, graphic violence, near-assault

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Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.

Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.

It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.

There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.

And they all work.

Well, mostly.

Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.

I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.

The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.

I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.

While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.

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Joint Rainbow Review: Felix Ever After | Return of the Kathy (Again)

Hello everyone!

I come out of hiding once again like an anxious little mole. The thing I learned about staying home during this darkest timeline is that “extra free time” comes with a HUGE disclaimer that’s deviously written in tiny scrawl, and in Papyrus to boot. As free time goes up, productivity plummets. Hard. So my schedule has been thus: waking up all pumped up and wanting to be productive, getting heavily distracted, staring off into space, remembering I have things to do, rinse and repeat. Everyone who’s been able to tackle dozens and dozens of books during quarantine, my hat goes off to you and I very much want to steal the secrets to your superpower, because I’ve barely been able to read four books per month since April.

There was also the niggling anxiety of feeling like I’ll be erased from the blogsphere if I don’t post consistently during this time when everyone is home, which led to more anxiety, and…. well–that’s a topic for another day.

But I hope you’ve been well and keeping safe, and I’m looking forward to catching up with you all! ❤

Today I have a special buddy read collab review (collabview?) with the darling Pei of Pei Reads, who is sunshine and starlight stirred into a pot and poured into an adorable mold.

We hope you enjoy!



Yahoo, gentlefriends and gentleenemies and gentleenemies-soon-to-be-lovers (we see you). On this fine post-Pride day we have double the reviews and double the fun. Peikat (Pei + Kathy = delicious chocolatey wafery goodness) here with our first ever buddy read and review! 

We’d planned for June to be an entire month of Pride buddy reading and reviewing, but plans are for people with a better grasp on reality and time than either of us, so we’re extending it to a full summer of rainbow goodness and joy. 

Our first book is Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, released May 5th, 2020 by Balzer + Bray.




What starts out as a revenge story, an anger-fueled story, becomes an introspective, heart-forward narrative about experiencing love and life to the fullest, and flipping the lens to see where you fit in this world. Felix Ever After isn’t a romcom fairy tale where the hero collects all the friends, defeats the baddies, and rides off with the love of their life. Mistakes get made. Bridges get burned. Life offers its slivers of heartbreak and casual pain on a platter because that’s typical behaviour for life and no one’s going to convince it otherwise. But the dark moments make the eventual triumphs burn all the brighter, and the interplay of the two makes Felix my favourite YA contemporary of the year so far

Callendar’s approach to the narration is a beautiful example of what first person can achieve, especially in YA. It’s raw. It’s winding. It’s messy to its bones. And with a story that tackles so many of the nuances of queer adolescence, and the confusion and wild joy that comes with it, messy is the minimum of what it needs to be, and the author fully delivers on that. Felix is layers of flaws and wonder, all of which Callendar portrays vividly, holding the latter up to the sky without downplaying any of the ugliness. He’s a teenager sitting in the middle of a trifecta of personal markers – trans, demi, black – that he tries to get comfortable with. He’s the soul of every artist with dye-stained fingers and sleep-deprived poets who talk about love like it’s something you need in order to breathe. He’s a hurt kid who lashes out in anger because that’s the one thing he can control in that moment, and because anger is preferable in the face of helplessness. When it comes to her lead–and any of the characters, really–Callendar never takes the shallow route. It’s gorgeous, heartfelt stuff. 

The notion of art is so entwined with the narrative, of the self-portraits that we all paint in our minds, and the way Felix explores it makes my heart soar. Whether it’s his love for a particular piece, or doubts regarding his own work, or him trying to reconcile with the thought that he’s surrounded by peers who seem to be naturals, whereas he has to work so hard to match a fraction of their talent, there’s passion and longing wedged into every word. My boy is so relatable that it hurts to read at times. 

And quite often I was reminded of Keating’s lines from Dead Poet’s Society. This one in particular: 

To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

This story is Felix’s journey in trying to figure out what that verse could be, in all facets of his life. Of wanting to feel secure in his skin, but challenged with walls of bigotry and confusion; to create art but getting tangled up in his insecurities; to experience love but fearing ghosts present and future. And what I loved especially is that for every cut he receives–every blind ignorance and hatred that’s thrown at him–there’s a counterbalance of warm support, casual acceptance, and acknowledgments that while this is not a world they’re familiar with, they’re still willing to learn more about it and grow. 

My one gripe is that the last stretch of the book feels abridged in terms of character work compared to the rest. It’s probably the slow-burn maniac in me shaking fists, but it could have easily been longer to better highlight some of the relationship transitions, because for someone who ruminates on everything Felix moves on from certain events without much of a thought. 

In the end, Felix Ever After is a fierce reminder of love existing in all shape and form, and that your identity, cast in stone or not, questioning or not, is a thing to hold to your chest and nurture and let loose into the world with pride. 

Rating: 8.5/10 (Excellent)

Felix Ever After is a beautiful celebration of trans identity and discovery. The writing is engaging and poignant, with emotional and deeply personal scenes that tug at your heart and make you feel. The story follows Felix Love as he sets out to get revenge on the anonymous student who’s been trolling him online with transphobic messages and a gallery displaying Felix’s deadname with pictures of him before his transition, and along the way, ends up developing feelings he has to sort out while trying to figure himself out. 

Felix’s character is wonderfully nuanced, with layers of confusion and confidence and yearning interwoven, and the side characters, each with their own secrets and motivations, balance out the cast well. There is Ezra, his best friend, fiercely loyal and protective, and Marisol, complicated and haughty. Their relationships aren’t always perfect in the way they sometimes are in fiction. There are fights and betrayals and tears, and that resonated painfully with me, making this story hit even closer to home. It was a jagged reminder of the growing pains that comes with discovering yourself, in shedding toxic friendships and entering new chapters in your life.

Callender’s writing is engaging and honest, and one of my favorite parts of the book were the text conversations Felix has, where his longing to be loved and as his fierce pride for his identity are laid out in a beautifully poetic way. The book walks the reader through Felix’s quest to understand himself as well as develop his identity as an artist while he navigates complicated friendships. I loved the depth in which these relationships were explored, but when the book comes to a climax in the latter pages, the resolution of certain relationships seemed a little bit rushed. 

This book made me laugh and cry and cycle through thousands of emotions in between, and I absolutely loved it. The story is messy and complex, punctuated by lost friendships and pain, but the end result is heartachingly lovely. It’s the story I wish I could have read as a queer teenager struggling to understand herself, and the story I hope everybody can come across because it still reaches into your chest and touches you in a way that is so wonderful and special. It’s a celebration and such an absolute joy to read. I cannot recommend this book enough to all readers in all its raw, unfiltered queer glory.

Rating: 9/10



Overall, we both really enjoyed this book and had a lot of fun reading it together. First buddy review was a success! Please stay tuned for part 2 of our review where we ask each other invasive questions regarding how the themes of the book relates back to our own experiences! Peace out, sleep well.

Mini Reviews: Untamed Shore & Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – A Shark and a Wolf Walk(?) into a Bar

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Publisher: Agora Books
Genre(s):
Historical Fiction, Crime
Release Date: February 21st, 2020
Page Count: 339 (hardback)

Rating: 6.5/10

This is an odd one. One of those books that send your brain into a bit of a lull. And I enjoyed it (with a faint question mark attached). But I think I enjoyed it as I’d enjoy sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake for five hours, fishing line cast out, the sun dipping in and out, and catching a single minnow at the end of it all. I can’t decide whether it was meditative or just plain dull, but then I remember that it was a nice day and the birds were singing, so I decide on the former. I probably wouldn’t try it again, but I appreciate the one experience.

It’s an atmosphere-driven book first, character second, and plot third. Moreno-Garcia shows why she’s one of the best when it comes to immersive settings. Baja California is a slow and stifling shoreside town and you can practically feel the heat emanating through the pages as you read. It’s no big city offering glitzy displays of culture, but small places can have just as much character and magnetism, and this story shows that. And Viridiana is a realistic, if unlikable, product of such a place: a little impulsive, a little adventurous, and teeth-grindingly naive. The book definitely works better as her coming-of-age story than a thrilling crime novel because the latter aspects, with the American tourists and their secret troubles, rather underwhelming and a side attraction to the Viridiana Show.

Overall, it’s a lazy immersive sprawl of a story that was worth the read but nothing that really stayed with me afterwards. A brief, quiet fling.

 

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Series: Big Bad Wolf 4
Publisher:
Carina Press
Genre(s):
Paranormal, LGBTQ Romance
Release Date: March 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 268 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

Two of my most pressing questions in the last few years (pre-COVIDapocalypse): 1) When will Blackpink get the respect they’re due from their company? and 2) When will Charlie Adhara release a mediocre book?

The answer is probably the same for both.

We are sitting at book 4 in the Big Bad Wolf series, and I continue to be impressed and delighted by Adhara’s ability to write consistently at the top of the game. She dives into the shapeshifter trope with fresh eyes, creating characters who feel like real people navigating traumas and insecurities, not cardboard cutouts doling out conflict for conflict’s sake, and each book adds new lines and shading to the image that is Park and Cooper. And that continues here. An undercover mission to a couples resort. Murder upon murders. Cooper figuring out that there are so many layers to a relationship, and huh, isn’t that a scary thing, but also a massively wonderful thing?

It wasn’t the strongest of the series in terms of plot and secondary characters, but “not my favourite” for a BBW story equals “really friggin good” for most other paranormal romances. Overall, a solid, solid entry to the next chapter of Cooper’s life.

Expect an overdue Why You Need to Read this Series post in the next week or so!

 

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Review: Docile – Important and Poignant Enough to Write a Poem For (Which I Did)

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Title: Docile
Author:
K.M. Szpara
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Speculative Fiction
Subject(s): Consent, BDSM, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
March 3rd, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

 

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I tried writing a long review for this. I really did. On my first attempt I stared at the screen for a few hours and wrote a poem about it instead. On my second attempt I wrote a rambly essay that got way too personal and I figured I should just save that for therapy.

This is a book I feel deserves a long review, but well–sometimes my brain says, “I don’t think so.” And who knows? Maybe it’s right.

My favourite formula for storytelling is “Present it big, but tell it small.” As in, I love stories that offer a grand concept, but instead of focusing on the big pieces, it goes through the intimate details–the minutiae of everyday life. That’s one of the main reasons why I love this book so much. Because Docile commentates on a broken system that feels too-adjacent to our own–a Black Mirror-ish look at class divides and capitalism–but it does it through a story about healing and self-discovery, and a relationship that was built terribly wrong and brittle but nonetheless became real.

The other reason is Elisha.

It’s funny, because I don’t really know who Elisha as a person. He’s not as present or as bold as Alex is on the page. Which is, to be fair, kind of the point, as he spends most of the book getting scrubbed away, and the rest trying to figure out who he is as an individual. But a blank slate is a blank slate, so there’s really no reason for me to be attached to him, or relate to him. Except I am and I do. It’s his journey that I looked at and said, “Oh, this rings a bell.” Not the rape and the mindfuck, thankfully, but the aftermath and the healing process. The pain of being lost and looking over your emotions and feeling like you can’t trust any of them. And the use of bondage and power play to help reclaim his sense of control and autonomy (seeing BDSM in a therapeutic context in fiction makes me a happy otter). This was a case of the journey shaping the character, rather than the character shaping the character. If that makes sense.

I broke for him. And I was proud for him.

“I’m still in here.” I curl my finger against my sternum. “I need help. I need someone to love me and be patient with me.”

The thing with stories about sexual servitude is that there’s a very fine line that you need to toe, otherwise the whole thing devolves into an uncomfortable cousin of torture porn, and the point you’re trying to raise about consent–if that was even a point you set out to make–becomes moot (Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau is one example).

Docile toes that line decked out in Wes Anderson pastels and vintage floral prints.

It heats things up, but never condones. It presents you with kindness and care and love, and then asks how much they’re worth when, at the end of the day, your body isn’t yours and your mouth is sewn and there is never an option to say “No.”

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


💔💔💔

Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

 

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DNF Reviews: Tarnished are the Stars & The Good Luck Girls – Why does YA Hate Me? (I’m Open to Suggestions)

Here’s a fun stat for you: I DNFed 5 books in the past month and a half, and four of them were YA SFF. And I’m pretty sure they’re at least 60% responsible for the reading slump I’m currently in.

Conclusion?

1) Recent YA SFF is just missing a lot of the stuff I crave. Also, I should be more selective about the books that I request, and for god’s sake, read some reviews beforehand.

or

2) I’ve been (VERY UNFAIRLY) cursed by the bookish gods and now I must travel to the heart of the Northern Canadian woods to capture a Wendigo and make an offering–

Yeah, clearly 2 is the way to go.

 

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(Stopping point: ~45%)

You say “steampunk” and “divided loyalties” and “cat and mouse” and “queer”; I say,  “Please–I offer you my first born.”

Well, I hope the bookish gods accept cancellations because Tarnished are the Stars is definitely not worth my first born. Or any of my born for that matter.

I always say that I can forgive poor worldbuildng if I’m able to connect with the characters. But there’s a limit to that. And my limit is this book. I found the writing to be so sparse of detail to the point where it felt like a slice-of-life contemporary than a sci-fi–heavy with dialogue and a vague sense of setting, which isn’t at all helped by how short each POV chapter is.

And a slice-of-life-esque worldbuilding is fine if the story itself is slice-of-life. This book? Nothing close to that. It’s a steampunk space opera with intrigue and a organics-versus-technology plotline, and therefore I want to see something more than Scene A – generic store, Scene B – generic mansion, and Scene C – generic field.

 

 


Now, this next book has the exact OPPOSITE problem. So at least my DNF reads were…varied? Yay?

The Good Luck Girls

(Stopping point: ~38%)

ME: So, it’s kind of weird how there are no characters in The Good Luck Girls…but at least the setting is neat!

*vague whisperings in brain cavity*

ME: Uh, what do you mean I’m looking at the characters?

Ah yes. The good old problem of “interesting worldbuilding, flat/invisible characters.” This is a more familiar territory for me.

Let’s get to the positive first: the worldbuilding and the general premise of the story is super fascinating. There are two groups of people who live in Arketta, dustbloods and fairbloods, and they’re more or less alike in appearance minus one little detail: dustbloods don’t cast shadows. And while fairbloods are offered privileges and opportunities, dustbloods are forced to live in indentured servitude–as prostitutes, for example, which is what the Good Luck Girls are.

The writing itself is really solid and descriptive, and all the little details about the setting are a nice touch. Also, copious descriptions of food equal a very happy Kathy.

All of this was negated by the characters. Holy friggin’ coconuts, the characters. You have this cool western setting–rich and dusty and unforgiving–and it’s somehow populated with characters with less personality and depth than the back of a cereal box. They were just…blank. And eerily so. I couldn’t find myself caring about any of them, or their predicament, and well, that was that.

 

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So. What books should I pack for my Wendigo-hunting trip? And what’s your go-to remedy for bookish curses?

(I’ve been a BIT sleep-deprived this week–I don’t know if you can tell??)

Join The Hanged Man Street Team (#ScionsOfAtlantis) | A Tarot Sequence Promo Event

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☀️ SIGN UP HERE ☀️

 

Welcome to New Atlantis. An island once known as Nantucket, now a happily stitched-up landscape of skyscrapers and historical buildings stolen borrowed from all over the globe. A place where modern capitalism walks hand-in-hand with old world sensibilities. It’s also home to a kitchen sink of magical beings (if you imagine a kitchen sink the size of five football fields), including the most powerful and deadly entities on the planet: the Arcana.

Now, let’s zoom in on this map.

We come to an unremarkable little district at the heart of the city, and within that, an apartment nestled between a bookstore and a coffee shop. It’s a cute place, really. The perfect marriage of self-assured bohemia and “I have anxiety and decimal figures in my bank account.” Dilapidation with a wary, crooked charm.

Zoom in a bit more, a couple of floors up, to a painfully generic bedroom–and that, my friend, is where our story begins. That’s where you woke up this morning not knowing who you are.

No, not in an existential sense (though that will probably come later), but rather in the sense that you can’t recall one damn thing about yourself. Your name. Your age. Your past. Your lot in life. Nothing. If blankness had a shape, it’d look exactly like you.

So you did what any amnesiac in a fake RPG intro would do: hit the streets and start asking invasive questions to strangers.

Now here you are, going through the “Please Tell Me Your Life Story So I Can Figure Out Mine” routine–and it doesn’t take long for you to realize that something is very, very off. I mean, other than your memory situation.

New Atlantis is not unlike most big cities in the world, so there’s no shortage of billboards and posters and graffiti plastered across your view every dozen steps. That in itself isn’t strange. What is strange, however, is how those billboards and posters and graffiti are all saying the exact same thing:

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Yeah. Not creepy at all.

The words also come with a little symbol at the corner: sometimes it’s a SUN, other times a SCALE, a TOWER, or a SKULL.

And the strangest bit? It seems that you’re the only one who can see them. You confirm this when you grab a flyer and thrust it at a person nearby, asking, “Are you seeing this?” To which they reply, “Uh. Fifty percent off on large pizza?” before sidestepping away.

So you do a little digging–you’re getting to be quite good at that–and you begin to find out some things. You find out that the Arcana are the de facto rulers of New Atlantis. You find out that “Scions” are the children of such Arcana, all with varying degrees of entitlement and magical powers. You find out that those four symbols represent four of the major Arcana Thrones: Sun, Justice, Tower, and Death. You find out that what you’re seeing is essentially a recruitment call.

And this is what you find out about the Thrones:

 


(The following are overviews of Sun and Justice. To read about Tower and Death, hop on over to SIA’S BLOG! Tarot Meanings written by Sia; Court Details written by K.D.)

The Sun Throne

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Image source: biddytarot.com

Modern Family Name: Saint John
Notable Members: Rune, Brand

Tarot Meaning:

In a tarot deck, the Sun card represents strength and fierce, bright joy. It is a sign that things are about to change for the better, and a reminder that you contain immense light and power within you. In fact, it often appears in a reading as a message that it is time for you to share your light with others—to step up to the plate and let the whole world see you blaze bright.

 

Court Details:

The former Lord Sun rose to power in the golden era of Atlantis, well before Atlantean society was revealed to the human world. His was a court of artists and musicians, scientists and philosophers. The Sun Throne has always been invested in research and discovery, in the exciting evolution of culture and civilization. To a certain extent, though, this was a facade. The Tower speaks of Lord Sun as an ally–which has always indicated to Rune that his father had a much deeper connection to the running of New Atlantis.

 

The Crusader Throne (Justice)

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Modern Family Name: Saint Nicholas
Notable Members: Addam, Quinn

Tarot Meaning:

If you are currently seeking justice, the Justice card appearing in a reading means it will be served. But it can also mean that you must face justice—for your wrongdoings against others, or against yourself. Justice is fair and unbiased, and if you have worked for the greater good, the judgement will reflect that. If you haven’t, however, you will have to own up to your actions and face the consequences. Justice seeks out the truth, and that isn’t always an easy path—or one with simple and obvious answers. Bear that in mind if you are to walk Justice’s road.

 

Court Details:

Four major Arcana—sometimes called the Moral Certainties or Moral Virtues—have always formed a power bloc in Atlantean society, including Justice, Strength, Temperance and the Hermit. Justice is the traditional patron of judges; the others are patrons of religious leaders and the guarda. They are the Arcana who broker peace talks and ceasefires, and are heavily represented in the elected Convocation. Their carefully-constructed neutrality and piety translate well into the larger Corporate world; they are also among the most globally wealthy courts.

 


As you learn more and more, there’s a steady feeling rising in your bones-a primal radar we’re all born with–screaming that yes, this is what you are. Scion.

You can, of course, ignore it. That is absolutely a choice you can make. Life isn’t a reel of heroic action scenes, no matter what the stories say, and we’re not obligated to charge headfirst into every firefight that comes our way.

However.

There’s a rumbling along the fault lines of New Atlantean society, and it tells you of a storm brewing on the horizon. You don’t know when it’ll arrive, or how big it’ll be, but you know it will test everything you have.

And the glory? The glory will be monumental.

 

Sun. Justice. Tower. Death. They’re ready for you, Scion.

Are you?

 

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Hello, hello, everyone!

Thank you so much for indulging that intro. I’ve been in a major RPG mood lately (well, more so than usual) and you can blame Disco Elysium for the inspiration (an incredible game, go play it). And you can thank Sia and K.D. for writing those wonderful Tarot and Court descriptions!

So. Street team.

The street team is part of The Hanged Man Promo Event that Sia, K.D, and I will be running from November to December. We’ll be officially announcing the whole affair on October 31st. I’ll explain then what inspired me to create the event and what I’d hoped to get out of it, and give you an overview of what you can expect in the next two months.

Now, the goal of any street team is to promote something through virtual and/or physical means. As a member, you’ll help spread the word about K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man, and the Tarot Sequence series in general, through reviews, word-of-mouth, social media posts, distribution of physical swag to friends and acquaintances, and whatever else you can think of.

It’ll be a small but firm commitment on your part, and there are going to be awesome rewards for your efforts, including:

  • special access to deleted scenes & behind-the-scenes content from the series
  • stickers of your Court emblem
  • a special letter of welcome from your Court’s head
  • AND MORE

You’ll “align” with one of four courts–Sun, Justice, Tower, and Death–and we’re hoping to make this into a fun competitive affair, where each team can earn points by completing tasks (which we’ll send and explain via email), with the winning team getting something special.

And I KNOW you all want to join the Sun Court and become a Saint John–I totally get that–but for the competition system to work, the team distribution has to be fairly equal (or at the very least, not overly skewed). So please consider Justice, Tower, and Death as well! They’re all exciting Courts, and each come with interesting, lovable characters.

Sign-up form will be open until November 5th, and the street team campaign will officially close in January 2020.

I’m so ridiculously excited for this, and for everything that’s to come later this week, and I hope you can join us!

 

☀️ SIGN UP HERE ☀️

 

Blog Tour Spotlight + Giveaway (US): Tarnished are the Stars | Feat. Character Art

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Tours, tours, tours! I forgot that I signed up for so many of them. I’m still on a semi-hiatus right now, but there are majorly exciting news coming in the next couple of weeks, and I CANNOT WAIT to tell you all about it. I’ll just say…if you’re a fan of a certain fantasy series that revolves around tarot cards, then you might want to keep your eyes peeled on the blog and on Twitter. *goofy grin*

Now, for the book in question! Tarnished are the Stars is an ownvoices steampunky scifi story (which is the best kind of story, really). It wasn’t for me, unfortunately, and that’s 100% a “ME” thing–I’ve been intensely picky about books lately, and if I can’t get into the writing style, I just can’t get into the story.

I’ll be posting a mini review after the tour ends, so in the meantime, enjoy this spotlight!

 

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Author: Rosiee Thor
Release Date: October 15, 2019
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre(s): YA Science Fiction
Subject and Themes: LGBTQ+, Steampunk

 

A secret beats inside Anna Thatcher’s chest: an illegal clockwork heart. Anna works cog by cog — donning the moniker Technician — to supply black market medical technology to the sick and injured, against the Commissioner’s tyrannical laws.

Nathaniel Fremont, the Commissioner’s son, has never had to fear the law. Determined to earn his father’s respect, Nathaniel sets out to capture the Technician. But the more he learns about the outlaw, the more he questions whether his father’s elusive affection is worth chasing at all.

Their game of cat and mouse takes an abrupt turn when Eliza, a skilled assassin and spy, arrives. Her mission is to learn the Commissioner’s secrets at any cost — even if it means betraying her own heart.

When these uneasy allies discover the most dangerous secret of all, they must work together despite their differences and put an end to a deadly epidemic — before the Commissioner ends them first.

 

 

About the Author

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Rosiee Thor began her career as a storyteller by demanding that her mother listen as Rosiee told bedtime stories instead of the other way around. She lives in Oregon with a dog, two cats, and four complete sets of Harry Potter, which she loves so much, she once moved her mattress into the closet and slept there until she came out as queer.

 

 

 

Character Art

 

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Left to right: Anna, Eliza, Nathaniel

 

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The Commissioner, Thatcher

 

Giveaway

The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. Ends October 29th. Enter HERE.

 

 

Tour Schedule

You can check out the rest of the tour stops HERE.

 

Review: The Infinite Noise – Fine with a Dash of Soft & Sweet and a Landing that Doesn’t Stick

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Title: The Infinite Noise
Author: Lauren Shippen
Publisher: TorTeen
Release Date: September 24th 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Mental Health, Superpowers
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy―he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.

Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist―who seems to know a lot more than she lets on―and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

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First of all, if you haven’t check out the The Bright Sessions podcast, please please please do so. From a bird’s eye view, it’s a story about superpowered people attending therapy, but really it’s so much more than that.

Second of all, I highly, highly recommend listening to the audiobook for this (narrated by the VA’s who play Caleb and Adam in the podcast). That might be presumptuous, seeing as how I haven’t even tried the audiobook version yet, but…. *whispering* Shippen’s prose just isn’t as engaging in print form as it is in audio form (TBS fans can skewer me for that). I mean, it’s fine–very casual and conversational, which fits her teenage characters–but it’s also kind of plain, and I had a hard time differentiating between Caleb and Adam’s narration. And a multi first-person POV book in which the narrators blend together is Kiss of Death territory for me.

Well, at least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that (1) this is a Bright Sessions story, and (2) this is a Bright Sessions story. And TBS at its core has always been about the power of empathy and human connections, which remains very true in this adaptation.

Caleb is the jockish empath with the heart of gold, kind in a way that obliterates the typical jockish stereotype (I would go to war for him), and Adam is the quiet bookish boy who’s dealing with more mundane but still very real demons of his own. It was nice to see a more in-depth look at their relationship that we don’t get in the podcast. Shippen nails the messiness of being a teenager, psychic or otherwise, and her descriptions of anxiety and depression are some of the best I’ve seen.

It’s not dark, it’s…the absence of light. Like some sort of void. It doesn’t weigh down on me, suffocate me. It’s empty–just total nothingness. But it’s sucking me in and I feel like if I go inside of it I’ll stop existing entirely, and that scares me but at the same time it would be a relief. 

The Infinite Noise talks about feelings–their shape, their depth, their colour–probably more than any other speculative book I’ve read. And I so, so appreciate that, not only because rifling through emotions and assigning imagery to them is something I always do (because that makes it easier for me to process them), but also because it goes such a long way towards normalizing vulnerable masculinity in media.

So the majority of the story is slow-burn relationship building with bits of sci-fi elements, which is good. The last 10% or so is really where things fall apart for me. And most of that has to do with the structure of the podcast, and how some of it doesn’t translate to a two-POV book environment. Sequences that are interesting and well-paced in the podcast come across as incredibly abrupt and jarring here, and…I don’t know, I just think the book could have benefited from an extra 40-50 pages to flesh things out.

Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It was nice to revisit these characters in novel form, but I don’t think if it brought anything majorly new and exciting to the table that the podcast didn’t. That being said, I…still recommend checking it out. I think it’s a fine intro to the TBS universe for newcomers, and the way I see it, any story that champions kindness and empathy is worth at least a quick browse.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review