“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


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The LitenVerse by Nino Cipri – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When an elderly customer at a big box furniture store slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but our two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

-“Finna,” on Goodreads

To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing. Helping him is the inventory team — four strangers who look and sound almost exactly like him. Are five Dereks better than one?

-“Defekt,” on Goodreads


This is actually a series of two (so far) novellas, “Finna” and “Defekt.” They both take place in the same root location, which is a fictionalized/surrealist version of Ikea. Specifically, these stories take place at a store – LitenVarld – outside of Chicago. They also take place on overlapping days. But we’ll get to that…

“Finna” was released in 2020, and centers on Ava and Jules. Ava, much like the famous line from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” “wasn’t even supposed to be here today.” She had arranged her schedule specifically to avoid seeing her recent ex, Jules, at work. But, a character we don’t meet in this book named Derek has called out, and so Ava heads through the cold MidWestern February to do a job she hates.

A customer comes to the service desk saying she can’t find her grandma, and Ava inexplicably feels for the young lady. Then things get weirder, as she learns that it is not entirely uncommon for wormholes (maskhals) to open in LitenVarld. It happens frequently enough that there are policies in place – and Ava, as the employee with the least seniority, has to go into the wormhole to find the missing grandma. Unfortunately for her, Jules volunteers to go with her.

The two go into various parallel universes looking for the missing grandma. In some, they are in different versions of the store. But they also find themselves in a jungle, and in the water. They encounter threats from other beings, as well as from things that should be inanimate objects (in our own universe, at least).

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say… different people return than the ones who went in.

“Defekt” allows us to finally meet Derek, and we even learn why he called out on the day Ava came in for him. He spends most of his day off asleep, but then comes back to work the next day – the day after the wormholes had opened – to find a whole new slew of issues at the store.

Specifically, a specialized team has been called in to eliminate defective merchandise – furniture that has come alive – and Derek is chosen to work with them. What’s even crazier is that everyone on the team is a different version of Derek. Are they clones? Is he manufactured to be a “company man?”

Both stories explore the ideas of belonging, finding your “people,” and sacrificing your life – or deciding NOT to sacrifice your life – to your job. Overall, it’s a zany surrealist satire that does not hold back on its disdain for minimum wage corporate jobs that demand assimilation to the corporate culture.


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“The Secret History of Food” by Matt Siegel – Review

By: Angie Haddock


An irreverent, surprising, and entirely entertaining look at the little-known history surrounding the foods we know and love.

Goodreads


This was a quirky book I found randomly on NetGalley. It was a short and fun read, with ten chapters covering:

How the history of food/agriculture is intertwined with human history, pie, cereal, corn, honey, vanilla/ice cream, celebrations surrounding food and drink, having too many choices, chili peppers, and how we fall prey to misconceptions about (or willful mislabeling of) the foods we eat.

Some of my favorites were the sweet chapters, like the ones on pie and ice cream. For example, did you know that ice cream’s popularity in the U.S. skyrocketed during prohibition? Apparently, we needed an alternative method of drowning our sorrows. And ice cream became a staple of soldiers’ diets during WWII – good for both fast calories and boosting morale.

The chapter on chili peppers was also entertaining, as it basically points out the craziness of doing things that hurt us. Various kinds of peppers were used in early agricultural days to keep animals out of the crops – by planting them around the perimeter, the would-be pests would encounter the hot peppers first, and turn the other way. And yet, we eat them on purpose. Are we just adrenaline junkies, or do we feel we have something to prove?

The last chapter is a bummer, though, as it gets into how much of our food is mislabeled, not as healthy as it claims, or doesn’t get inspected as much as it should. Specifically, vitamins and seafood are often not what they purport to be.

The book is so meticulously researched, though, that the footnotes take up HALF of the length. So, as I said earlier, it’s a quick romp to get through the ten chapters.

This book comes out today, August 31st. (The full title is “The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat,” but that seemed a little long for the header of this post.)


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“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

Goodreads


This is a book that most “book fiends” have probably tackled – or at least heard of – by now. In fact, it was named the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction Book of 2020.

Among the many online reviews and posts I’ve seen people make about this one, I’ve really only seen one complaint – the fact that the main character tries to commit suicide can be depressing/triggering for some people. And while I would never fault anyone for their personal triggers, I do have to say – if you don’t get past that part, you will miss the entire story. The act happens near the beginning, and is what propels the main character to find the Midnight Library. So, I would say this – know that this is something that happens in the book, and proceed accordingly. While this is a fabulous story, it may not be for everyone.

Our main character is Nora Seed, and as it says at the top, she gets to try on many different versions of her life. But she doesn’t get to just pick them by what they are today – she has to change something in the past, not knowing what else might be different in that alternate reality.

To give you one example: our “root” Nora believes that she let her brother down by leaving the band they were in together. So, in one instance, she finds the life where she never left the band. The band is huge, global rockstars. She got to date her celebrity crush. But, her brother isn’t in the band anymore in this life.

Most lives, as this example illustrates, don’t turn out exactly like Nora envisioned. After seeing this play out a handful of times, Nora begins to have less and less regrets about the decisions she made in her root life.

The real key to what she learns from this experience can be found within the following quote:

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are the result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood that there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness… there is not life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.

This is a fun story, with a good lesson. They do actually talk about the multiverse theory a little, but not so much that the book on the whole feels like science fiction – I’d call it closer to magical realism, maybe? Very real people and messy lives, with a little bit of the fantastic thrown in.


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“Millennial Nuns” by the Daughters of St. Paul – Review

By: Angie Haddock


More and more people—especially millennials—are turning to religion as a source of comfort and solace in our increasingly chaotic world. But rather than live a cloistered life of seclusion, the Daughters of Saint Paul actively embrace social media, using platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to evangelize, collectively calling themselves the #MediaNuns.

In this collective memoir, eight of these Sisters share their own discernment journeys, struggles and crises of faith that they’ve overcome, and episodes from their daily lives. Through these reflections, the Sisters also offer practical takeaways and tips for living a more spiritually-fulfilled life, no matter your religious affiliation.

Goodreads


This book appealed to me just from the description, as I’ve had a fascination with nuns for years! But these aren’t the nuns your parents complain about from their Catholic school days… these ladies are young and on Instagram.

Even though I grew up Catholic – and around nuns – I hadn’t heard of the Daughters of St. Paul before. Having been a media/broadcasting major back in my school days, I can’t help but be attracted to their mission.

From the intro: “The Daughters of St. Paul reflect deeply on how people interact with the media and are formed by it.”

(Good thing for my husband that I didn’t find this order in my formative years!)

After an introduction, the following chapters of the book are each written by a different member of the order. Almost all of them tell the story of how they came to learn about the Daughters of St. Paul, discerned their calling to be a nun, and maybe what they do within the order now.

I read a lot of memoirs, and love a good personal story. But, after a few chapters, I felt like the format started getting repetitive. Obviously these women have different backgrounds and details to their stories, but most came to discover their longing to be a nun around college age. Many of them confirmed their belief in this calling by visiting the order’s Mother House in Boston.

But about halfway through the book – right when I started feeling the repetitiveness – we meet a nun who is in charge of helping curious young women with this act of discernment. So now, we can see the process from the other side. It was exactly the change of pace that was needed at that point.

I would also say that one of the most compelling personal stories comes in the back half of the book – so it is worth moving through the slight repetitiveness.

There are a lot of good thoughts and quotes in here, many of which are about faith. But there are also inspiring thoughts on finding and pursuing one’s calling in life, which could appeal to people of any (or no) faiths.

This is a fun and uplifting read. I have even looked up a few of the contributors on Instagram – and from there I learned that they also have a podcast!

This book releases today, July 6. I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley, and Tiller Press.


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“The Tea Dragon Tapestry ” by Katie O’Neill – Review

BY: ANGIE HADDOCK


“Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!”

Goodreads


I had been seeing the illustrations from this series floating around on some bookish sites for a bit, and thought it looked cute. When I got the chance to preview this new installment, I took it! First, since this is the third in a series, I eagerly devoured the first two through Hoopla. Then, I read the galley of this one, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry,”distributed from Oni Press.

All the reviews and blurbs I had seen about the series used the term “charming,” and it’s actually apt here. Katie O’Neill is both the writer and illustrator. The world she’s created is full of diversity – main characters are of various genders, roles, colors, abilities, and even species. But it’s also full of tradition. Characters learn trades from their elders, and interact with dragons who have centuries-long lifespans. The major themes within the series include friendship and family, finding your path/place, learning, and caring for others.

The illustrations are warm and rich. Each story takes place over a period of time, and often different color schemes are used to denote the season or place of different threads within the story. There are sweeping vistas, character shots, and pictures of everyday home life. Even the margins are often filled with little doodles and details.

In the first book, we meet main characters Greta and Minette, who are just learning to take care of some tea dragons. Hesekiel and Erik are their teachers in this endeavor.

In the second book, we step back in time to when Hesekiel and Erik are a bit younger, and have not yet settled into their home that we saw in the first book. They are traveling, and visit Erik’s home village. We meet his niece, Rinn, and a full-sized dragon, Aedhan.

In the third book, we are back in the village where Hesikiel and Erik are settled down and teaching Greta and Minette about tea dragons. But Rinn (now an adult) and Aedhan also come to visit here. Since this book is the final one, it’s nice that we can check in on the characters from both of the previous books.

The main threads of this story, however, focus on Minette and Greta. In Minette’s case, she is haunted by her past – which she only can remember in vague glimpses. At first she is frustrated with the feeling that she isn’t living the life she had started before. Eventually, she accepts that both her past and her present are important parts of her path.

In Greta’s case, she is trying to impress a blacksmith that she wants to apprentice for. At the same time, she is trying to bond with her tea dragon, who is depressed and not eating. She decides to make the dragon its own bowl, with her name and a cool design on it. The blacksmith is ultimately impressed that she chose to use her craft to communicate with another being, instead of making a battle instrument, and agrees to teach her.

The story ends with a little epilogue from Hesekiel, who is relieved that the girls are carrying on the tradition of caring for the tea dragons – an art he was afraid would be lost over time.

These three graphic novels are aimed at a middle grade audience, so they are fairly easy reads. But, they are a great respite for times when the world feels harsh. I would definitely recommend them if you need a little pick-me-up.

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” was originally supposed to be published in October, 2020. It was delayed due to a printing issue, however, and is now releasing on June 1, 2021.


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“The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan” by Zig Zag Claybourne – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Saving the world one last damn time. When the Brothers Jetstream and their crew seize the chance to rid the world of the False Prophet Buford other evils decide they want a piece of him too. A wild race ensues to not only destroy Satan’s PR man…but make sure no one else gets to him first. Mystic brothers. Secret cabals. Fae folk in Walmart — and the whale that was poured into the oceans when the world first cooled from creation. Adventure doesn’t need a new name. It needs a vacation.

Goodreads


This was the April selection for my group #DiverseSFF read, and… I think I was the only person to actually finish it.

I really wanted to like this one – and at some points, I did. But I admittedly had to push myself to stay with it at times.

The first thing that stood out was the language. The book has its own rhythm, or way of speaking. It’s not just that the characters speak in this rhythm, in the dialogue, but the entirety of the book is written in it. At first, it was fun and different. But after a while, it wore on me. This could very well just be my own mental state – I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I would.

(I think the author is hilarious on Twitter, but maybe the patois is more entertaining in shorter doses.)

Most of my fellow readers, however, seemed to struggle with the story. We jump right into the characters and action without much explanation. While this can be a challenge, we’ve dealt with this before (most recently, in “The City We Became“). Because the characters talk fast, and throw in all sorts of references to other things that have happened, it can be difficult to mentally tie all the things together. However, as I stuck with the story, and got more acquainted with the characters, this mostly resolved itself. Even if I didn’t have the clearest picture of what happened before, I was now tracking the most recent events – the ones within the book – and had a full picture of those. So I didn’t let it weigh me down. And, around the half way mark, they finally offer some exposition!

The story involves a diverse crew of “Agents of Change” who are trying to stop a big baddy named Buford, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of one of their crewmates. The action takes them to Atlantis, which is a real place.

Our main characters are the Brothers Jetstream of the title: Milo and Ramses. We also meet characters who are immortal (or close), vampires, Atlantideans, clones; people who can teleport, who can jump into different realities, who can communicate telepathically, and who can communicate with creatures of the sea.

To that end, we meet Leviathan about a quarter into the book. He is an ancient beast who lives in the Atlantic and is massive in both size and psychic ability. At this point, he appears pretty briefly, but he comes back for the final battle later.

I would call this fantasy – maybe even urban fantasy? – more than sci-fi. The action takes place on Earth, present day, but involves a lot of creatures and concepts that are generally thought to be fictitious (like the city of Atlantis, or vampires). There are some fun bits here and there – good lines of dialogue, colorful characters. As I said, I did like it in parts. But overall, it felt like it was trying to throw too many things at you at once.


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“Twice a Daughter” by Julie Ryan McGue – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Julie is adopted. She is also a twin. Because their adoption was closed, she and her sister lack both a health history and their adoption papers―which becomes an issue for Julie when, at forty-eight years old, she finds herself facing several serious health issues.

Julie’s search for her birth relatives spans years and involves a search agency, a PI, a confidential intermediary, a judge, an adoption agency, a social worker, and a genealogist. By journey’s end, what began as a simple desire for a family medical history has evolved into a complicated quest―one that unearths secrets, lies, and family members that are literally right next door.

Goodreads


The Goodreads description gives away the entire plot of this memoir, really… but of course, there are tons of juicy details and emotional entanglements within the pages.

When the story begins, Julie is actually resistant to the idea of trying to find her birth parents. She is largely afraid of rocking the boat with the parents who raised her. Her husband, Steve, pushes her into starting this journey, though – for her own health, and that of their four children.

She gets her twin sister to agree to split the costs with her, but Julie is going to be the person doing the work. Her dad is supportive from the beginning, but her mom is not.

While initially interested only in medical histories, Julie becomes more engrossed in the emotional aspects of her search – wondering why her birth parents gave her up, if they’ll want to meet, and whether or not she has half-siblings.

Even after trying to obtain her original birth certificate, she hits one road block after another. The first one is a big one: Her mom used an alias on her original birth certificate, and the father isn’t listed at all. Apparently this was easier to do back in the 1950s.

Working in her favor, as far as the records are concerned, is that she is a twin. There could only be so many sets of twins born on a given day at a given hospital, right?

Also working in her favor are a lot of sympathetic people within the courts, Catholic Charities, and other avenues Julie tries to reach out to for help. In addition, the family members she eventually locates often bristle at the intrusion at first – but then soften because they have adopted members of their current families, and can understand the issues from both sides.

The issues at play are, of course, the birth parents’ rights to privacy versus the adoptees’ rights to know their history.

Most of Julie’s search takes place around a decade ago. She and her sister do use a DNA-testing kit to see if that gets them any leads, but to no avail. I have to imagine that the increase in use of such sites (and kits) in recent years is now shaking up the implied privacy that birth parents assumed they had in earlier eras.

(Backlist bump on that topic: “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro.)

Overall, this was a good read. Not too heavy, but it can tug at the heartstrings here and there. It might be even more emotional for you if you’ve gone through something similar.

This book comes out today from She Writes Press, and I was able to read an Advance Reader’s Copy through Books Forward.


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“Firekeeper’s Daughter ” by Angeline Boulley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Goodreads


I was interested in this one as soon as I saw the gorgeous cover, but the title and the description also added to my intrigue. My first reaction was, “This book has everything!” It’s YA, and from an own voices/BIPOC perspective. It has romance, sports, crime. There are other very relevant issues at play, as well, so let’s dive in.

Our main character is Daunis Fontaine, who is half Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and half white. She lives in the Upper Peninsula area of Michigan – which is significant, as people in her town cross the Canadian border with ease. A lot of the action actually takes place on Sugar Island, which is in the river that acts as the international border in this area.

There is quite a bit of the usual teen drama here, including hating on exes and contemplating jobs/colleges. But Daunis has some extra weight hanging around such decisions, as her mom is currently taking care of her own mom after the loss of her brother (Daunis’ grandma and uncle, respectively). She has a complicated family history, in which her white side hasn’t always been kind to (or even accepting of) her Ojibwe side. She is close to her half-brother, who is a local hockey star. Daunis herself played, until an injury cut her hockey career short. She is still close to the players, though, both past and present.

She is also close to her father’s sister, who plays a prominent role in the story. Aunt Teddie is one of Daunis’ closest ties to her Indigenous side’s histories and traditions. Her best friend Lily, and Lily’s grandma, are also great windows into this culture.

The action really picks up after Daunis witnesses a murder. She hadn’t realized that the FBI had been running an undercover investigation in her area already, and gets roped into being an informant. The investigation is concerned with drugs being made and distributed in the area. I felt like this was another layer that made this book super relevant, as the opioid epidemic has affected many communities over the past decade or so. The effects that drugs are having on her friends and former teammates is the primary reason Daunis agrees to get involved. She questions her involvement often – especially as it involves not being honest with her family at times – but keeps coming back to the idea of helping her community.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, but there is a lot going on. Some parts are gut-wrenching. Other parts made me cheer. (The elders in the community are kick-ass on several levels.) This book definitely had a huge emotional impact.

There are some hard truths presented at the end that are very frustrating, but realistic. Not every strand in this story gets wrapped up in a positive or convenient fashion. That’s not to say there isn’t sufficient wrap-up here, because I think the author leaves Daunis in a good place, ultimately. But you will be angry at some of the injustices left bare.

I loved this book, even when I wanted to yell at it. There is a whole community of interesting characters, which feels a lot like the reality of growing up in a tight-knit community. The females are mostly fierce, which I’m all for. While the main characters are in their late teens, there are good representations of people of all ages.

This book comes out today, March 16th, through MacMillan. I was able to read an advanced digital copy through Netgalley. Also, it is already slated to be adapted for the screen on Netflix.


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“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

Goodreads


This was my diverse sci-fi group read selection for the month of February. The book came out last year, and was immediately on my TBR, so I’m glad I finally got around to it!

We jump right into the action, with no explanations. There is a fairly long intro section, and we don’t reconnect with the characters in this section until quite some time later. This really threw me at first, so I went into the rest of this book with a “just go with the flow” attitude.

The action all takes place in New York City, in the current time. So, that helps. Of course, this version of NYC is being attacked by an avatar/being from another plane of existence who wants to take the space over for herself. But, each borough of New York claims its own avatar to fight back.

We spend a decent amount of time being introduced to each avatar, and learning why they are emblematic of the borough they represent. Each one has some encounter that tips them off to the problem going on, and lets them know that they have perceptions and powers in relation to this (that not everyone else has). Then comes the realization that there are others like them, and that they need to find each other and work together.

The avatars are a pretty diverse crowd – Black, Indigenous, South Asian, multiracial – and some are also within the LBGTQ spectrum. Only the avatar of Staten Island is Caucasian, of Irish decent. The female avatars are all feisty and forceful, as well, while one of the male ones doesn’t have any memory of who he is.

As they come together, there are some personality clashes. But the biggest clashes here are with the enemy – who often appears as a white woman, but changes form slightly depending on who she’s appearing to – and the people she has under her influence.

One major clash that really struck a nerve with me was between the staff of the Bronx Art Center (where our Bronx avatar works) and a group of Neo-Nazis who call themselves the “Alt-Artistes.” The group makes art that they deem edgy and provocative, which can be exploitative of women and minorities. Their entire purpose seems to be getting these pieces rejected so they can claim they’re being censored, and flaying the censoring parties on the internet. Under the influence of the enemy, they take this battle into the real world and actually attack the Bronx Art Center, in addition to their online hi-jinks.

Even though this was written over a year ago, this really felt similar to the recent crackdown of the alt-right on Twitter, and discussions around whether or not that constitutes “censorship.” (Like real life, I think it’s sad that it had to tumble over into real world damages before anyone really drew some lines.)

There are many themes in this one that seem equally as current. The tone of the book is often fast, sometimes fun, and sometimes full of anger. The language is one of the most fun aspects to me, but might not suit people who don’t like liberal use of cussing.

I did feel that the ending was a little fast. Overall, though, this was an interesting and often fun read, full of very vibrant characters.


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