Throne of Jade (Temeraire, #2) by Naomi Novik

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: February 17 to 22, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

I have never audiobook’d a whole series before, but I might have to for this one because Simon Vance is simply amazing. He should read all the books that way I could enjoy them all, even the ones I probably wouldn’t like–pretty sure he could make me like ’em. So 5 stars for him and 4 stars for the book itself because, honestly, I don’t know how far I’d get or how much I’d enjoy if I’d read these books on my own.

The writing is very descriptive, with long passages about early-19th Century culture and society of both Britain and China, and then there are more long passages about politics and intrigue. The previous book was mostly about Napoleon and his continued efforts to take over the rest of Europe; this book expands on that some more, but now there’s also China thrown into the mix as both Britain and France fight for the Celestial Emperor’s favor.

In middle of all of that, you have Temeraire and Laurence and their unbreakable bond. Or, well, what we thought was unbreakable. It was revealed at the end of the first book that Temeraire is a Celestial, the most prized breed of Chinese dragons, and here we learn that Celestials are companions only to Emperors and crown princes. Laurence is most definitely not royalty–he’s barely nobility–and so the Chinese disapprove of his bond with Temeraire, and they would very much like their dragon back. The British aren’t willing to comply with the request, but they see it as an opportunity to gain an alliance with the Emperor–and to one-up the French–and so they ship Temeraire, Laurence, and the rest of their crew halfway around the world.

Peking and Macao of the early-19th Century are a sight to behold for the British envoy and a whole new world full of wonder, for Temeraire especially who’s eager to learn of his birth country and discover his roots. The lives of dragons of the East are fascinating to him, and the more he learns about them, the more he’s pulled away from Laurence. Laurence, too, is fascinated by the treatment of dragons in Peking, and not just of the Imperials and Celestials, but of the smaller and less important breeds too. He’s surprised that they all can live among people so peacefully, and thus comes to understand why Temeraire is so taken in by what he sees. At the end of this book, Temeraire and Laurence are still in China.

I’m most impressed by how Naomi Novik inserted dragons into actual history, and with just a little adjustment, she’s inserted dragons into the tides of Chinese politics that will forever change the landscape of China for centuries to come. Colonialism is on its way, gradually at first but it’s coming nonetheless. I can’t help feeling a sense of dread, knowing what’s coming in just a few years, but since this story is told from the British perspective, there’s a sense of accomplishment and celebration in the writing, especially near the end, when the British envoy have permanently established themselves in China to open up more trading opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how much Novik sticks to or deviates from history in later books. I looked ahead and see some hints of Temeraire and Laurence traveling the Silk Road, visiting the Ottoman Empire, and making a stop in Russia. Lots to look forward to, and I can’t wait.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire, #1) by Naomi Novik

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: January 15 to 23, 2017
Recommended by: book club’s pick
Recommended to:

Simon Vance to the rescue once again as he saves another book for me that I would have set aside for another time or probably indefinitely. Not the book’s fault though since it’s perfectly fine and well written for a historical fiction. It was more a case of bad timing when I picked it up, too much going on and not enough time or energy to spare and all that, but I made it through, with a lot of help from the audiobook which was superbly read by Mr. Vance, and I really enjoyed it.

The story reimagines the Napoleonic War years from the perspective of Will Laurence, an English captain, formerly of the navy, currently of the air force, and the dragon Temeraire which he took from a captured French ship. The pair bonded over a short period of time and grew to become a funny, sweet, interesting partnership by the end of the book. Some of my favorite moments consist of Laurence and Temeraire talking about books, battle tactics and strategies. There’s no magic or magic systems, no mysterious relics or quests, no coming of age farm boy set out to save the world since this isn’t high fantasy; dragons are the only fantastical elements here.

And the dragons in this world are intelligent and can communicate with their handlers and crew, and their interactions are really fun to read, or more accurately, really fun to hear Simon Vance read because he’s got a lovely voice and he has different voices for all of the characters, but the dragons’ voices are by far the best. The historical aspects of the story are well done and really immerse you in the time period, save for the part where there were dragons involved and both England and France used them like fighter jets, intelligent fighter jets with personalities and quirks. But this too, inserting dragons into this part of history, was also well done and really added to the overall historical feel of the story.

The reason I switched to audio was because of the slow beginning. Not much happened following the capture of the French ship as Laurence and his crew waited for Temeraire to hatch, and not much happened afterward when they left the navy to join the air force. While Temeraire was interesting, Laurence was not, unfortunately. Although a captain and in his thirties, he still had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of personal obstacles to overcome, and he didn’t become interesting until he fully gave in to the life and culture of the air force and dedicated himself to Temeraire (and dragons in general). By this point, more than half the book was over, and without Mr. Vance’s reading, I most definitely wouldn’t have made it this far or past all of Laurence’s shortcomings to really get into the story.

I’ve only read one other book by Naomi Novik and that’s Uprooted which was mostly okay, so I went into this book expecting it to also be mostly okay, but found myself enjoying it a lot, especially once more characters and dragons were introduced. They’re all a lot of fun except for Rankin whom I’d like to stab–repeatedly, but that’s another matter, unfinished business, saved for another time. Since there are 8 more books of dragon adventures, I look forward to continuing this journey with them.

“How did you come to see it?” [Laurence] said with interest, turning it over in his hands and brushing away more of the dirt.

“A little of it was out of the group and it was shining,” Temeraire said. “Is that gold? I like the look of it.”

“No, it is just pyrite, but it is very pretty, is it not? I suppose you are one of those hoarding creatures,” Laurence said, looking affectionately up at Temeraire; many dragons had an inborn fascination with jewels or precious metals. “I am afraid I am not rich enough a partner for you; I will not be able to give you a heap of gold to sleep on.”

“I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on,” Temeraire said. “I do not mind the deck.”

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Romancing the Duke (Castles Ever After, #1) by Tessa Dare

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: September 06 to 07, 2016
Recommended by: the Vaginal Fantasy group
Recommended to:

A very light and sweet tale that’s at times adorable, but not precious or twee.

What started off as a light Beauty & the Beast retelling turned into something unexpectedly sweet half-way through the story.

After having lost her father to old age and his whole estate to a distant male cousin, Izzy is left penniless, save for a strange inheritance from an estranged godfather. He left her a castle, but not a dreamy, happily-ever-after kind of castle. It’s old and decrepit and on the verge of becoming a pile of rubble–so more of a fixer-upper–but it’s her castle officially, she even has the paperwork to prove it. However, there’s one big problem. The castle also comes with its previous owner, Ransom, Duke of something or other–I forgot, it’s been a few months. Anyway. He’s brooding, snarling, infuriating man who’s determined to kick Izzy out so he could reclaim his castle, but since the castle is her only shelter, she fights him for it.

They get off to a rocky start, but of course there’s simmering mutual attraction and I have to say their battle of witty repartee is pretty funny. Romance isn’t my preferred genre; cutesy historical romance written with the modern audience in mind is even less so, if that’s even possible, but I’ve been trying to read more to broaden my horizon and whatnot. When it’s done right, when there’s a balance between plot and romance, it’s pretty good. So I’ve been following along with the ladies of the Vaginal Fantasy book club for most of the year now and… meh. Their book picks have been all over the place in terms of content and quality of writing, and not one book has impressed me yet. That is, until this one came along. I found it very engaging, even with the rocky start at the beginning, and Izzy and Ransom are pretty good together. But still, I have yet to find books with that balance I’m always looking for.

Another thing is I don’t normally enjoy traditional happily-ever-afters romances–which is basically all of them, right? They contain too many unnecessary explanations of things that should be left up to the reader to infer or figure out, such as the heroine’s and the love interest’s mutual attraction, sexual tension, and budding relationship. No need to spell it out. I can’t stand it when these things are explained, sometimes almost to death, because it’s too much telling and gets to be repetitive further into the story. Another thing I can’t stand is how strickly heteronormative these types of romances are. It’s expected that the main couple are, but must every other character in the book be so as well?*

So in spite of all of that, I did like this book and found myself enjoying it for its many, rather noticeably modern, details and embellishment, which were definitely a bit jarring and took me out of the Victorian setting (or was it Edwardian?), like the characters’ modern sensibilities, specifically Izzy’s open-minded views of sex and relationships and her noticeably lack of uptight-ness, and the hilarious cosplaying troupe of devoted fans following the her around the country. And the humor. It was, once again, unexpected and enjoyable. I found it neither cheesy nor eye-rolling, and it was one of the things I liked most about the read.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

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Izzy was utterly convinced. Never mind Arabian horses, African cheetahs. No creature in the world could bolt so quickly as a rake confronted with the word “marriage.” They ought to shout it out at footraces rather than using starting pistols.

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Why must this be so mortifying? Oh, that’s right. Because its my life.

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Astonishing. In the morning, when she sat working at that table of correspondence, silhouetted by sunlight . . .

Her hair truly did look like an octopus.

It was the way she wore it, he thought. Or maybe the way it wore her. It all sat perched atop her head in that big, inky blob. And no matter how strenuously she pinned it, dark, heavy curls worked loose on all sides, like tentacles.

Of course, it was an entrancing, strangely erotic octopus. Ransom worried this might be how fetishes developed.

*And must they all get their own spin-off novels so they could all live out their own happily-ever-afters which pretty much mirror the first book’s plot? Why can’t some of them end up divorced or widowed and spend the rest of their lives partying from one country estate to another, from one affair to another? Oh, wait, that’s not a romance… but definitely something I would read.

Review (and reread): The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 3 to 10, 2015
Read Count: 2
Recommended by:
Recommended for: I honestly don’t know

The good news is I don’t hate this book. The bad news though? I still don’t like it. Everything I said after the first read still stands. It’s beautifully written but executed without the depth this story needed (or deserved?). There’s a ton of potential here, TONS, but very little of it is explored in the storytelling. Plot and character development become stagnant and level off half way through the story, and I think that bothers me most of all, that there’s a lack of progress, a lack of tension building up, as the story moves forward. However, there’s a fascinating dreamlike quality to the prose that makes the reading experience quite surreal. So don’t read for story, read for the lovely words that conjure such lovely images in your mind.

Even though I didn’t like this book the first time around, it’s always made me wonder if that was my fault for not putting in enough effort. But now I know. It isn’t because the timing was bad or that there had been too much going on. It’s because this book isn’t for me. We’re too incompatible in too many ways. Now that I have that figured out, I can stop wondering. Even if I’d read it while in a better mood and at another time, I probably wouldn’t have liked it more. And I so wanted to like it.

The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now.

The writing is lovely.

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.”

The setting is also lovely.

You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.
You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.

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They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent. They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars… When they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they go their separate ways they feel less alone than they had before.

The vivid descriptive details are very lovely.

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that…there are many kinds of magic, after all.

And cover art is just gorgeous.

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It’s gorgeous on the inside too. I wanted to like it so much for the hardcover.

 

I think this book would have worked better as a collection short stories. Each character could be featured in their own short story with the rest of the characters as supporting cast, and the stories could share one common link that tie all the characters to the Night Circus. That nesting style that worked so well for Cloud Atlas could work for this book as well.

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: July 9 to August 20, 2014
Read Count: 2
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: people who like short stories that weave

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Mostly historical fiction with a few sci-fi and fantasy elements mixed in. It’s cleverly done and the overall effect is very interesting. David Mitchell has a wondrous way with words. Highly recommended.

I finished reading for the second time awhile ago, but ended up sitting on this “review” for some time now because I could not find anything to say, other than “highly recommended.” This one of those books you have to experience for yourself. No review can can sum it up or give you an idea what’s inside. How anyone think they could turn this into a big-budget star-studded movie is baffling to me. (“This book defies a lot of things, so let’s turn it into a movie??” Because that always turn out amazing.)

So what is this book like? I’ll try to give an overview. There are six novellas nested inside and each story is set in a different place and time period, with one set in a distant apocalyptic future, which isn’t as strangely out of place as you’d think. There’s a common thread woven through these six stories linking them to each other across time and space, and each story is told by a character from the next story. The writing is unique in that all characters have well-defined voices that reflect their time periods. Mitchell experiments with different styles and genres, and the result is six distinct stories that actually read like they’re written by six different authors.

The beginning was slow for me though, mainly because it’s fragmented and difficult to follow. It wasn’t until I got to the second story that I could sort of grasp what was going on. During the first half of the book, I had to push myself to read on, which I’m glad I did, because when I reached the end of the sixth story and the beginning of the second half of the other stories, things started coming together methodically, almost magically, to form the big picture, and it was at that moment that I finally saw what Mitchell had been doing all along. And it’s beautifully done. I’m still in awe.

There are so many quotable passages–Mitchell really does have a wondrous way with words–that I could fill this whole space with quotes, but I think these will do.

The mind abhors a vacancy and is wont to people it with phantoms.

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People are obscenities. Would rather be music than be a mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.

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Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

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To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you assume we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

I won this book from a Goodreads Giveaway and would like to thank the people at Random House for sending a copy.

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: October 16 to December 12, 2013
Read count: 1

This book is one of the few that works better as an audiobook because it’s got lovely flowing sentences that sound great when spoken aloud, especially by the great Jim Dale. There so many lovely fantastical sensory details that suck you right into the dreamy magical world of Le Cirque des Rêves. The downside, however, is it’s a chore to read on your own, as I found out (more below the spoilers).

I started out reading and I really enjoyed the first few chapters, but then the story went on and on for too long without much happening, and so all those lovely fantastical descriptions lost their luster and became grating. I lost full interest somewhere in the middle, right around the time I realized the competition between the two rival magicians was going nowhere and that it wasn’t actually a competition, more like an awkward one-up-man-ship.

So I ended up finishing the read via Jim Dale on audio. He’s amazing, so amazing he saved this book for me. Anyone who’s interested in this book should try it on audio first.

Now for the hard part. I’ll try easing into it.

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Review: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: January 22 to 27, 2014
Read count: 1

This is a book for book clubs, which is fine since it’s advertised as such and even got a stamp from Oprah herself. What I like about that is it doesn’t lead you to believe it’s anything other than a book written to be discussed in book clubs. I like to call them “book club bait” because book clubs just love ’em.

The story is about a WWI veteran, his wife, a lighthouse, an infant, and some moral complications following the couple’s decision to keep the child and raise her as their own. The veteran, Tom, marries a young woman, Isabel, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, on the tip of Antarctica, south of Australia. The scenery and life on the island are described in lovely flowing language that takes on a sweeping effect that’s so often found in turbulent historical fiction romances. The only thing steering this story away from becoming another sweeping romance is infertility. Tom and Isabel have trouble conceiving and suffer through many miscarriages which leave them childless. The truly crushing thing here is they are on an island in the middle of the ocean with only each other for comfort. What follows is lovely flowing language about isolation, desolation, melancholia, and ultimately hopelessness. Isabel spends much of this period weeping, and Tom spends all of it trying to console her.

Just when all hope seems lost, a “miracle” happens in the form of a boat washing up on the beach carrying a dead man and a living child. They name the infant Lucy, and together they become a family. Every few years, the couple return to the mainland to visit friends and family and gather news of the world. This year they bring Lucy along only to find out that she has a mother, stricken with grief and madness, who still searches for her and her dead father. And issues of debatable morality ensue.

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Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: December 26, 2013 to January 4, 2014
Read count: 1

This book was a Christmas present. I always make an effort to finish gift books, and I usually do because it’s the thought that counts, but this one was difficult to get through. I think it comes down to the book being not right for a reader like me, who requires historical fictions and their writers to be smart, or at least smarter than me.

If you’re a writer and you want to bring old legends and ancient creatures to contemporary times, then at least make them interesting. The least you could do is make them a little frightening and somewhat creepy because, after all, these are monsters.

Vlad Țepeș was a horrifying person when he was alive, and his legend as the Impaler is an echo and reminder of who he was. One does not “achieve” the name “the Impaler” and become a legendary monster that lives on in modern horror stories by feat of imagination alone; there’s actual history that shows the sort of bloody monarch he had been.

What Elizabeth Kostova does to Vlad Țepeș is similar to what urban fantasy writers have been doing to vampire tales in recent years: she sanitizes him by romanticizing his history and nature and presents him as a “stranger” with a huge secret living quietly among us. This is a huge disappointment to me not because it’s simple and naive, but because it brings up questions like why would he do that? what’s to gain by living among humans? Unfortunately, the story leaves me with more questions than answers, but none I’d like to explore further.

Another huge disappointment is this book could have been a great contemporary horror story or even as urban legend, and maybe in the hands of a stronger writer who understands suspense and thriller, it would have been something chilling. The problem lies in the focus of the book being on research and setting up events for a Dracula figure that isn’t even a little bit intimidating. I think that’s what bothers me most, that it’s an attempt to bring Dracula to contemporary times, but the elements of horror and suspense are missing, and so the result is a long-winded lackluster tale about unraveling family histories.

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Review: The Bronze Horseman (The Bronze Horseman, #1) by Paullina Simons

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: November 20 to 23 , 2013
Read count: 1, more than enough

This book came highly recommended by friends and reviewers, but I kept putting it off. Not because of the genre or anything about the book particularly. It just never looked that interesting.

The story is set in the USSR during the German invasion. Not a setting I’m familiar with, so I had to do some background research beforehand. I had read Doctor Zhivago awhile ago and loved it because it had that perfect union of engaging story and lyrical prose that I always look for in any book, regardless of genre. The Bronze Horseman seemed like it had similar themes or, at the very least, a contemporary echo of Doctor Zhivago, which in this case I wouldn’t have minded at all.

For some reason, there had always been something holding me back from this book, and I couldn’t figure out why. The star ratings were high, like unbelievably so across the board, and reviews by critics and average readers alike were glowing (they still are). Still, I never really felt like picking up this book and didn’t know why.

And then I started reading. And everything that held me back suddenly made sense. Simply put, this book is just not for me, and I must have known that on a subconscious level.

Let me interrupt this review by saying the writing by itself is not terrible. The execution of the story, characterization (especially the two main characters), and the “romance” angle, on the other hand, are almost unbearable. I say “almost” because I did finish reading, so it wasn’t completely unbearable.

I’ll start with compliments and then ease into shortcomings.

The author’s depictions of pre-siege and post-siege Leningrad (St. Petersburg) are well done and very close to actual accounts from people who lived through the siege. A great number of people died of starvation within the city during this time. Those who survived had to scour for food any way they could. The way in which the author represents this particular era, through the perspective of one individual family, is well written and shows that she had done plenty of research. Had the story focused on the siege and its aftermath, I would have found this book a lot more interesting. So in other words, if the setting and context remain the same but the story is told from a different POV, accompanied by a completely different set of characters, it would be a richer story.

I read historical fiction for a different (hindsight) perspective of historical accounts. Already knowing what happens and the how’s and why’s of it only makes the stories more interesting, to me. History strengthens fiction by adding multiple perspectives into the mix which adds more depth to an already familiar event. When this is done well, fictional accounts read somewhat like actual historical accounts but with more depth, and this is what I look for in well crafted historical fiction. I think the Paullina Simons not only captured the events of the Siege of Leningrad but also the tense atmosphere of the era, the plight of the people, and the hopelessness of a city starving to death. If only she had approached characterization and plot with the same care.

Next comes the hard part because I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me because the things that bothered me far outweighed the things that didn’t. So here goes.

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Review: Drums of Autumn (Outlander, #4) by Diana Gabaldon

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: June 07 to 24, 2013
Read count: 1

3-stars upon finishing, but now that I think about it, 4-stars because of how well crafted the book is.

There are a lot of things I liked about this book, but there are also a few things I didn’t like. Right now, the things I didn’t like stand out more than the things I did like.

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