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2017-06-17 10:23 pm

For Real by Alexis Hall

For Real

DNF. M/M romance about the uptight emergency services doctor who sort of accidentally picks up a nineteen-year-old top at a kink mixer.

I should have liked this. It's well-observed and thoughtful and unashamed of its kinks, of which it has many. And it's playing with tropes in a way I appreciate – the financial and class and experiential power in this relationship is all with the sub, which is frankly refreshing. But it also hit a lot of my hard cringe embarrassment squicks. There's the classic 'mistaken for father and son,' for one thing.

The thing is, though, that I'm having one of those years where I don't seem to like half the things I'm reading, and I have no idea if that has anything to do with the actual books. Instead of just being an artifact of the year I'm having. As an example, June is on pace to be the month with the highest billable hours in my entire career, and my father is about to die, and my dog is retiring. So what the fuck do I know at this point? Not much.
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2017-06-17 10:09 pm

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

The Whitefire Crossing

2/5. Fantasy about the smuggler hired to get a runaway mage across the mountains to the sort of rival magical city.

Meh. It's not just that this book alternates between first person and close third, which is one of those things you can totally do . . . if you have a reason for it. There is no reason here.

It's not just that. It's mostly that there's a pattern to the women in this book, such as they are. They're either tortured and murdered to fuel male angst . . . or kept as an unwitting hostage by one man to control another . . . or lied to and shuffled offstage the moment the plot starts happening to keep them safe or . . . actually, I think I've run out of women.
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2017-05-21 09:17 pm

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes

3/5. Locked spaceship mystery in which six clones wake up with missing memories on a generation ship lightyears from earth in the bloody wreckage of their prior deaths.

When I say that this book is "fun" and "a palate-cleanser" it should be understood that includes stabbings. Lots of stabbings. And six cagey, pissed off people running around an enclosed space alternately feeding and attempting to kill each other. There's this vague philosophical underbelly going on about the things you might expect – immortality and the ways it changes you – but let's be real, I was here for stabbings and plot twists and revenge schemes.

But I mostly wanted to talk about the fact that the author reads the commercial audio. This is a thing that is happening more often, and I get why it seems like a good idea. But you know what? Audio narration is a skill, and it takes practice, and probably also some innate talent. Mary Robinette Kowal has been doing it for a while, and she was pretty good reading her own stuff. Same with Emma Newman, who has extensive experience and who really knocked her own Planetfall out of the park (and who has the advantage of a lovely voice to work with). Lafferty does podcasts, but that really isn't the same thing as performative reading, and well. She's just not that good. She's also not bad, but she's a little affectless, a little forced. And this is how she'll get better, I guess, but it really pointed out how a mediocre narrator can make awkward writing truly thud. The dialogue in this book is, well. How do I put this? A really good, seasoned performer probably could have saved a lot of it with effort. Lafferty could not.
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2017-05-21 01:21 pm

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Maria McLemore

When the Moon Was Ours

2/5. A girl with a complicated past grows roses from a wound in her wrist; the local "witch" girls want the roses for their own ends.

Well, on the plus side, this is a great example of a book where representation works so much better when it's not done on the 'one and only' model. There are two trans characters in this book who are in very different places in re their identities, their bodies, and their transitions. And because there are two of them, it is so much easier to take each of them where they are, as a person, rather than – unfairly but inevitably – as some sort of comment on trans people in general, or transition in general, or or or.

On the other hand, this book is 70% symbolism by volume, with a plot tossed over top. These are not the proportions I like my fiction to have. I spent this whole book like, "Wait, that wasn't a metaphor, the pumpkin literally turned to glass? Oh-kay . . . what does that mean? What do the paper moons mean? What about the – oh, for fuck's sake."

Either this novel really ought to have been novelette length, at most, or it is so so so so not for me. Or both.
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2017-05-20 10:12 pm

The Iron Hunt by Marjorie Liu

The Iron Hunt

3/5. Urban fantasy about the loner woman with demons who live in her tattoos trying to slot herself into a life with a partner and friends while the potential apocalypse comes.

Yeah, so, most people probably know Liu now through her comics, but I knew her from a long-ago series of recs from several different people that left me with the strong impression that she writes delightfully batshit stuff with, like, hot gargoyle-on-lady action. So I finally grabbed this book – being one of the few options available in audio – and. I am saddened to report there is no hot gargoyle-on-lady action here. I mean, it's nice? There's lots of plot and cool worldbuilding and oodles of backstory barely hinted at. And a central relationship that is established and quietly awesome (he's so respectful of her, it's actually confusing!)

So I went and looked at Liu's website and it turns out this series is listed as "urban fantasy," and she has another series listed as "paranormal romance" which I suspect is what was recced to me.

And here's my question: why oh why oh why can't I have lots of plot and worldbuilding and interesting backstory and hot gargoyle-on-lady action? This does not seem so hard!*

And yet. Genre rules, kids.

*Aside from the gargoyle dick.
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2017-05-14 08:37 pm

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough

4/5. Alt universe that I'm calling fantasy for lack of a better label. A queer intelligence operative reluctantly turns traitor against his government and supports the rise of a conservative coup, partly in an attempt to get a way out for himself and his not-really-ex, the burlesque-dancing drug smuggler.

Oof, this is good. It has the ugly brutality of a really good spy novel (the only sort of spy novel I can generally stomach). And, well. It miiiiiight not have been my best idea to read this book – about the things freaks and queers do to survive the fall of democracy and the rise of fascism – on the train every morning on my way to work. But I did, and in the end I'm not sorry.

This is sad and angry, and it has a big dose of if only they'd talk to each other, and I have complicated feelings about the ending, which is spoiler ). But I'm not mad about it because it turns out this will be a trilogy, and also it was . . . earned. In several different senses.

One of the smartest things this book does is introduce Cordelia – the desperately poor former prostitute – as a POV character. She's brought in as a beard at one point, and in most spy stories she'd be disposable. In this one her arc is towards increasing agency, increasing anger, increasing righteousness, increasing courage. She brings a really good angle to this book, which would otherwise be far too much about well-connected, very rich men moving chess pieces around a board.

Recommended. Not for the faint of heart.

Content notes: Torture. Written in a style that, were it filmed, would manage to be disturbing without actually showing you much.
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2017-04-30 09:52 pm

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky

4/5. She's a witch; he's an engineer. They find each other in the pressure cooker of junior high, lose each other, then come together again as adults in the weird petri dish of San Francisco on the brink of climate? Apocalypse.

My pick for the Hugo. (The Jemisin is also great, but it's middle-book-of-a-trilogy great, so). This is just weird and not quite like anything else and prickly. And surprisingly sincere. I tried to describe it and was deeply irritated to hear myself saying "it's sort of about genre," which is true in only the least interesting sense of this book. I mean, yeah, she lives in a fantasy novel and he lives in a science fiction novel, and their stories bleed together, but whatever, that's not interesting. And yeah, this book is slippery as a fish – it eels through a sort of grimly humorous A Series of Unfortunate Events phase, and then does this incredibly and specifically San Francisco twenty-something romance thing, oh and then there's an apocalypse, but whatever, lots of books change their spots. So then I asked myself what exactly I meant by "genre," and.

This book is about different modes of not just nerdiness, but of freakishness. And it's about different ways of approaching the big problems of humanity. Those are both pretty good definitions of genre, in this instance.
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2017-04-22 09:55 pm

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Iron Cast

3/5. Boston on the brink of prohibition. Two girls – one black, one white, one the poor daughter of immigrants, one the daughter of wealthy socialites, one an empath through her music, the other able to bend reality with poetry – exercise their powers for good and for profit as the political tides turn against them.

I liked this. And, unusually, I liked it more the more I thought about it. I did spend the first third grumbling to myself about why this wasn't the queer romance it so clearly should be, but ultimately both of the male love interests turned out to be acceptable. Well . . . 1.5 of the love interests turned out to be acceptable.

This is jazzy and a bit flimsy to start, with more speakeasy! Gangster! Atmosphere than, you know, actual book. But it grows and turns and deepens as our heroines start to question themselves and the things they do. I mean, it could have deepened a lot more – for a book partly about bigotry, this one comes down awfully hard on the personal responsibility side of the scales, without giving adequate shrift to the role being the object of discrimination plays in a person's choices. But. I liked this.

Content notes: Some frankly disturbing depictions of institutionalization, medical torture, medical experimentation, etc.
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2017-04-22 09:28 pm

Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

Kinda Like Brothers

3/5. It's all well and good for our protagonist's mom to take in foster babies. But the most recent baby comes with the baggage of an older brother, and that just doesn't work for our protag thank you very much.

I think this was a disabilityinkidlit rec? It had to be a rec from somewhere because I don't pick non-specfic YA lit without a prompt these days. But this is great. Well, okay, it's cringily great. Our protagonist is terribly eleven – he's convinced everything is criminally unfair and he's a little shit roughly 90% of the time, with the other 10% being overwhelming sweetness. And he's eleven, and this book is super honest, so there's enough social embarrassment going on here to make me use my one-minute audio skip button more than once.

But really, it's great, particularly if you have a thicker skin than I do. Non-traditional families of all sorts, relationships that don't fit a tidy box, complicated adults doing their best. And there's a lot in here about being a community of color, from the overt – a totally wrenching scene in which an older man teaches a roomful of pubescent black boys how to act when they are stopped by the cops because it might save their lives one day – to the more subtle work embedded in the unfolding of everyone's backstories. I'd definitely buy this for a kid.

P.s. The commercial audio is A+++. John Clarence Stewart is hilarious and pissy and sad and just perfect.
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2017-04-12 10:09 pm

If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

If Then

2/5. Post economic collapse. A small community lives under the rule of The Process, an algorithm programmed to run their lives to maximize fairness and happiness. Then there's a lot of brain implants and philosophical arguments and violently awful World War I battle simulations, and it's all weird as hell.

The best book that I've viscerally disliked in quite a while. It is good – there's all sorts of chewiness to this. Pieces that you can keep turning and turning after reading. I could go on about self-determination and collective violence and collective inaction and whatever.

But. But I didn't like it's smug omniscient slant. And I really didn't like the way my back had tensed up by the 20% mark. I'm not sure I can put my finger on all the subliminal cues I was picking up, but I was just waiting for a steaming pot of misogyny right to the face. Which didn't quite happen – in so many words – except. You know when a dude writes a woman thinking about sex, and it is just so incredibly a dude writing a woman thinking about sex? Like, you can spot the dude component of that from space? Yeah.

Basically, I felt totally vindicated when I discovered, around the 75% mark, that the author is the sort who will publicly complain about a review of his book that he doesn't like. Which is just. Never ever ever a good look. Particularly when the reviewer is a woman who called out some potential misogyny.
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2017-04-02 03:15 pm

The Naming by Alison Croggon

The Naming

3/5. Epic fantasy. Young girl is rescued from slavery and turns out to not only be magical but also the key to defeating the rising dark.

Things this book has:
• Original poetry by the author as epigraphs
• An interest in tracking when the heroine gets her period
• Swords with names
• Evil people whose evil is marked by their gender politics
• A prophecy.

And I liked it? IDK, here I was just speculating that I can't read epic fantasy anymore, and along comes this, so straight-faced, so Lord of the Rings with menstruation, so thematically significant weather and loving descriptions of the stones in everyone's magical rings, and I liked it.

Also published as The Gift
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2017-03-25 04:36 pm

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

4/5. Middle grade novel prequel to the popular comic. My wife loves the comic but hasn't read this. Below is a rough transcript of my commentary to her:

Ahaha, Squirrel Girl has just happened to a bunch of LARPers. . . . Aw, her parents are adorable. So supportive! They remind me of your parents when you came out*. . . . Aw, her deaf new best friend is crabby and adorable. . . . For the record, the villain's name is The Micromanager, just so you know. . . . Aw, she is adorable. . . . Oh now she's chatting with a bad guy about his poor life choices and how he really should be wearing a seatbelt when he's driving like that. . . . Ahahaha, she is texting with The Winter Soldier. Oh, now she's texting with Tony Stark about how she needs help from someone smart and resourceful, and she asked him for Bruce Banner's number, I'm dying, I'm dead. Ahaha she is trash-talking and her trash talk is that the villain "is going downtown without a bus pass."

There was also a longer conversation in there about how it seems that Squirrel Girl exists in a different genre than most of the other people around her. It's actually really interesting – the closer a person gets to her like her parents or her bestie, the more they become realized in Squirrel Girl's genre. That is, aggressively, unstoppably cheerful with a streak of zany. Whereas people in the background – like the mean girls at school – exist in a more typical high school novel whose rules Squirrel Girl doesn't so much ignore as just never notice. My wife says the comic has a similar function in the wider comics universe – Squirrel Girl is a streak of off-beat color in a grimdark sea. And that's the joke. And the not joke.

I loved this.

*She came out when she went home over her first winter break in college and when she got back to her dorm there were congratulations flowers waiting for her. How cute is that?
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2017-03-18 09:26 pm

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Borderline

3/5. Millie, a double amputee, is recruited out of the psych facility where she is being treated in order to work for the organization monitoring the flow of fairies into Los Angeles.

This surprised and challenged me in a good way. For one thing, when you have a lot of friends with disabilities, as I do, you can't help but notice how often disability abhors a vacuum. It brings friends. And, yeah, no shit living in this world with a physical disability can precipitate a psychological disability, too. In Millie's case it's the other way around – her injuries are the result of a failed suicide attempt – but people don't like to write about multiple disability. It's "too much." But reading about Millie felt very familiar to me, particularly how the Nexis of oppression for her could shift from the physical to the psychological depending on the circumstances. I know this girl. I've known this girl a lot. She's had a hard life, every version of her. Her narrator voice does have an unpleasant tendency to 'splain Borderline Personality Disorder in such sweeping terms that she seems to reduce herself to her diagnosis, but it's in the service of explaining a lot of the things she does to readers who would mostly really not understand her, otherwise.

The challenging part is, well. Confronting my own internalized ableism as I read about Millie and screamed internally at her a lot and just wanted her to get her shit together, oh my god woman. But she can't. That's the point. And that was hard for me, whose presentation to the able-bodied world depends so heavily on having my shit together epically. I'm working on it.

Anyway. It's a good, surprising urban fantasy. The plot sort of runs on rails and you can, like, see where the author was working through her index cards or whatever, but it's good. And there's something rich to this world, to the link between fairy and the inspiration of creative work in Los Angeles. I will be interested to see where this goes.
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2017-03-18 10:56 am

Infomocracy by Malka Older

Infomocracy

3/5. A scifi thriller about a messily contested election in a future "microdemocracy," where the units of government are one hundred thousand person "centenals," each of which can vote in its own government – corporate, idealist, religious, policy-based, environmentalist, whatever. The supermajority is up for grabs, and the "neutral" information organization that makes the whole system run just wants to keep it standing.

More thriller than scifi. The world-building is both great and not – I kept going Okay, but… over things, but to be fair, if you take several steps back, you really ought to go okay, but… over our current concept of nation state nationalism too, so. And bits of this did make me snort painfully. Like how you can lead a citizen to information, but you can't make him think. But it's mostly a thriller with thriller problems: the women are compulsively sexualized, the male lead is a dull doof, there are weird and gratuitously pointless action sequences in evening gowns, you know the sort of thing. I think Ada Palmer's micro non-democracy in Too Like the Lightning is going similar places, and that's a much better book.

But. It did finish with this, as two of our main characters, both political operatives of different sorts, tiredly contemplate their post-election futures, and maybe, just maybe, leaving politics.


"You really think you could live like that?" Mishima is trying to imagine what it would take to slow her pulse down, how it would feel. She imagines the problematic mountain range of her psyche smoothing into a gentle, dull plane, the colors overlapping into blah. Even if she survived like that, even if she liked it, she can't imagine it would last. There would be an emergency somewhere, someone would call her, offer her payment and per diem, tell her she's the only one who can help, and that would be it.


Shut up, I thought savagely. You don't know me.
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2017-03-11 10:12 pm

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to Noise

2/5. In 2009, Meche goes home to Mexico City upon her father's death. In 1988, Meche and her friends discovered that she could do magic with her father's record collection.

Oh man, I so wish I could recommend this, because parts of it are really good – the portrayal of several different and contrasting kinds of poverty, for one. But the structure here so completely did not work, I feel like it should be an example in someone's class. The 1988 story is tense and mean; Meche's parents' marriage is imploding, and her friend group is splintering around teenage hormones and bad decisions, and the magic takes Meche to some pretty dark places. She does things – everyone does things – that are scary and awful (I actually kind of hoped at one point that the twist of this book would be that it was Meche's villain origin story). And the 2009 story moves in the opposite direction, to a slow kind of grace and forgiveness. Except that turn to hope at the end is structurally placed right along side the destruction at the end of the 1988 strand and it just . . . nope. It does not work. The two strands slide off each other, and the gulf of years in between is a blank. Could it have worked? Oh yeah. It could have been good, too. But it doesn't, and I was so frustrated by the structure that it dulled the enjoyment of so many of the small vignettes in this book, and the love of music.
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2017-03-05 11:38 am

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

4/5. A strange, rather inexplicable short short novel about a trade caravan passing through a jungle where, if you leave the path, you could end up in another time or another universe.

Which is only the palest description of this weird, frustrating book. It's a queer love story whose queerness is part in gender, part in the alienness of the protagonists with their "godlike" heritage. It's an exercise in code-switching from the trappings of epic fantasy to a very specific kind of scientific discourse to a range of equally specific dialects, most particularly African-American slang. It's playful and deliberately dislocating – there's this great joke that Wilson plays where the reader is caught out with all of their startled attention on the word "nigga" in a sentence, while the narrative lays attention on a completely different word. It plays games like that with language and the code-switching, and it is beautiful and playful and interesting.

Reviewers have said this is a novella questioning the underpinnings of traditional fantasy – its whiteness in a linguistic and cultural sense. I think that's right, but I also think there's a broader genre playfulness going on here. If you go off the path, who knows where you could end up, and this book goes way off the path.

And it ends ambiguously in exactly the way that I hate, but I'll let it go this time because this was otherwise such a unique trip.
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2017-02-26 09:47 pm

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library

3/5. Irene works for a transdimensional library, which tasks her with retrieving a unique manuscript from a steampunk Britain with magic and fae and a Sherlock Holmes analog.

I liked this! I needed something uncomplicated – protip: don't read Illuminae when you are having a bad month – and this hit the spot. Bonus points for a protagonist who is some kind of queer, as yet unspecified; minus points for doing a lot of telling about the development of an unlikely friendship and not enough showing. But more bonus points for the actually terrible villain; minus points for the really really obvious setup for a later reveal which is going to be deeply wearisome Spoiler )no idea so mysterious gosh.
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2017-02-19 09:35 pm

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae

3/5. Is anyone else old enough to remember the documentation challenge from SGA Flashfic way back in the day? That's what this is. A story of two teenagers, who happen to be exes, who survive the destruction of their illegal colony and flee the planet with the evil corporate ships chasing them, but then the zombie plague starts running through their ships like wildfire. Except this is told entirely in documents – interview transcripts, chatlogs, various military files, intelligence summaries, AI data, etc.

This is about 80% extremely effective space horror/fight-for-your-life and about 20% facepalmy teenager terribleness. I do, however, want to pause to say that the commercial audio of this is excellent. It's a multi-voice production, with people playing parts so the chat logs sound like conversations. But the real power of the production is in a few, tiny sections, put in purely for the emotional impact. Like the excerpts from a casualty list near the beginning, or fragments of the messages a couple dozen people we never actually meet send out into the dark when they know they are about to die. The audio bleeds one voice into the next for the reading, so it's just this wall of – yeah. It works.

Much of the book works. It's awful and scary and grim as our heroine begins to suspect she is being lied to, and the plague heats up, and the ship AI starts to go . . . a little weird. But it's sprinkled through with such poor choices. Like blurring out the profanity – it's supposed to be an ironic commentary on the blah blah blah. It's mostly just irritating. And the teenagers are so cringily teenagers. Like, I kept telling myself it was good writing that they're so melodramatic and emo and ridic, but that didn't mean I rolled my eyes any less.

Still. This book got me in the end. The last quarter is so … harrowing is the only word I have. This is what young adult is allowed to be now, after Hunger Games. I do think that massive spoilers for the end )
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2017-02-19 05:37 pm

The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

The Memory Garden

3/5. In her late seventies, Nan orchestrates a reunion with her childhood friends. They have ghosts that need to be put to rest, and there are things Nan's daughter needs to know.

A deceptive book. I was impatient with the first third. Yes yes, I thought, they have dark secrets, their friend died under mysterious circumstances, Nan and her daughter both have a magical power, the garden is a symbol, yes. And all of those things are true, but none of them are quite what I expected. Yes, they have secrets, but they're much more complicated than the mere facts of what happened. And yes there are witches in this book, and they have a certain power, but the place where that power most readily intersects with the world is in supplying access to abortions. And yes, the garden is a symbol.

This book complexified and ramified as it went, and swerved into weird and back out into domestic, and over the other direction into scary, and then back to a quiet bittersweetness. It is exactly what I guessed it to be when I was impatient with it, but much more interesting and quietly rich. Lovely.

Content note: spoilers )
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2017-02-09 09:03 pm

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair

2/5. Alt history turn of the twentieth century story of a nation state founded in the Belgian Congo by a mixed bag of black and white socialists and proselytizers, and how they aim for "utopia" and . . . miss.

Yeah, it's inadequate to say that this book did not get my attention. More accurately, this is the book I read on the cross-country flight I took a week after the Inauguration in spite of the metaphorical trashfire in my work inbox out to see my parents, from whom I have been estranged for years, and specifically to say goodbye to my father, who went from having a bit of pain to being told he is dying in the course of a week. So like. There's some stuff going on.

This book is okay? I think? It's not to my taste – it is written in hundreds of tiny fragments loosely strung over thirty years. Not so much a tapestry as a bunch of carefully placed but unwoven pieces of thread. The fantasy elements are strange and, as they are rooted in religious practice and conflict, somewhat off-putting to me. Oh, and there's a long, painful central lesbian romance between AU E. Nesbit and AU Colette which would probably have meant more to me if I knew anything about either of them. I wanted to like their conflict over not!E. Nesbit's racism, but I found its resolution unsatisfactory.

Basically I described this book to my wife, who got more and more excited the more I complained about the bits I didn't get, so clearly there is an audience for this who is not me. But mostly, let's be fair: I read this two weeks ago and for the life of me can't clearly remember a damn thing that happened in it now, so. Don't take my word on anything.