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Dangerous Ground

3/5. Collection of novellas about partners in a made up government security service who do a lot of running and shooting punctuated by sleeping together. And good grief, he really really likes his law-enforcement/military guys, doesn't he?

There's nothing wrong with this – Lanyon can write, which distinguishes him from a lot of people in this genre – but there's also nothing right, specifically for me. My favorite thing about Lanyon is that he likes established relationship as much as I do, because he understands that the hard part doesn't end when you get together, it's just starting. So his established relationship stories are full of negotiation and work, and I love that.

But the particular work here is the work of a couple where one of them is way more into it than the other is – or at least that's the way they both perceive it, at various points – and it's just . . . not what I came for. Not what I come to this genre for, specifically. Other people may really enjoy this, because it is a grown up, thoughtful examination of that dynamic. I just don't like that dynamic. Probably because the worst relationship of my life, in retrospect, was the one where I was the one way less into it, and argh, nope, that is not the fun relaxing brain candy place.
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All In with the Duke (Gambling on Love Book 1)

2/5. M/M historical inexplicably titled with reference to gambling when it's actually about a duke and a prostitute.

This is competently written, and appears to have pleased people who like the duke/prostitute thing, but. There is just something intensely claustrophobic about this book. It contains two main characters, who spend most of the book shut up together alone in the country, and roughly 0.75 other characters. I started developing suspicions halfway through, checked, and yup: the only other two characters in the book with more than a couple of speaking lines are product placement main characters for the rest of her series.

And I just, look. Publishing is a business, and the business is selling books. But for real, if you can only ever be bothered to create a character for the purpose of selling a book he headlines, you have a problem.

And you also write shallow stories, with no depth or texture.
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3/5. Urban fantasy London cops sequel to the well-received London Falling.

People I follow almost entirely enjoyed the first book, and then diverge sharply on the second. I avoided all reviews, so I didn't know why. Now I do, and it's . . . awkward.

So like Neil Gaiman is a character? And not just an in-jokey walk-on, but a recurring character? With, like, a plot line and motivations?

And if I take several steps back from this, I can go yeah, okay, that's doing something. Cornell talked about the space Gaiman is filling in this story in re magical underground London and access to its spaces, and if you think about the landscape of these books – this genre niche, I mean, as it has grown over the past fifteen years or so –incorporating RPF for the author of Neverwhere makes a certain amount of sense.

But the truth is I'm not taking a few steps back from this and viewing it from that vantage. Because close up, within the pages of this book? The Neil Gaiman RPF was super fucking awkward and super fucking weird, and it made me so uncomfortable for nebulous, inarticulate reasons that it nearly ruined this otherwise entertaining book. I don't care whether he got permission (he did) or how good of friends they were (not that close, as far as I can tell). It's . . . sort of about how Cornell thinks he's doing something groundbreaking and interesting when he's, uh, really not. And sort of about a man profiting off of RPF while so many women push boundaries in much more interesting RPF as part of a maligned subculture. And sort of about how secondhand embarrassing it all came off, particularly in light of Cornell's self-confessed celebrity crush. And sort of about the role Gaiman is playing and what Cornell thinks he is saying about access to magical spaces and fannish spaces via Gaiman when I am one of that apparently rare clique of people who don't like Gaiman's stuff and don't think it represents us and our fannish experience.

And just . . . nope.
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Back to text links for now.

The Boy With The Painful Tattoo: Holmes & Moriarity 3

4/5. M/M, third in the mystery series featuring two writers.

I started this last night when I took the dog out for her evening constitutional, and then it kept me company through the 4 a.m. insomnia. I didn't read this for the mystery (fine, but not engaging) or the genre jokes (many and charmingly bad). I sorta read it for the relationship, which is delightful and unusual in that these are two grownups who often fight with each other about things that grownups fight about! Imagine that.

Really, I read it for the protagonist. He's forty with a bad back and a vicious streak and a career on the rocks and a commitment to misanthropy that delights me. He's got piles of baggage and he doesn't fight fair, and he's the sort of guy who will say, "You're only hearing this once," over some romantic expression. He is just so cranky and vivid, and he doesn’t like kids, and he snarks on absolutely everything. He is aging ungracefully and he's a lot of work to love, but he's still allowed to be sexy. And falling in love has nothing to do with learning to smile or love the kid: it just involves wrangling boundaries at every turn. And I dig it.

Ugh, I really needed good satisfying M/M with actual human beings in it. Josh Lanyon is here for me.
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Playing with posting formats.



2/5. M/M of the married with kids with law enforcement entanglements variety. Points for boring me, rather than actively pissing me off. I mean, these guys appear to have one kind of sex in the physical sense (always penetrative, same guy always tops) and about 1.5 kinds of sex emotionally (quote claiming end quote) but the kids are actually a realistic amount of work and disruption so whatever, fine, be that way.
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Parting Shot (A Matter of Time, #7)Parting Shot by Mary Calmes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


It's the first grudge read of 2015! …That didn't take long.

Grudge read, btw, meaning a book you desperately want to throw across the room less than halfway through, but you continue on to the bitter end just for the satisfaction of knowing for sure that it really is that terrible. And also so you can slam it in full knowledge.

So yeah. M/M of the cop and billionaire variety. This book is an unholy mess – disorganized, confused about who its unlikeable protagonists are, full of random BDSM content with no accuracy or emotional context or, uh, sexiness.

But whatever. A bad book is a bad book. Here's what's offensively bad about this one.

So both our heroes were closeted, right, very purposefully and to the detriment of previous relationships. Until – you can see this one coming – they meet each other and that all changes. Here's what our narrator, the cop, has to say about it: "It made me almost sick that I had waited so long to be brave and stand up. That was crazy, but I felt like I owed someone an apology."

That's right, kids. A queer person staying in the closet is failing to be brave and stand up. Coming out being, you see, entirely a function of the queer person's courage (and also whether he is in real love) rather than, say, oh just some random options – physical safety, job security, maintaining familial stability, I could go on.

Staying in the closet isn't a failure of courage. It is often a carefully calculated decision, and an essential or very smart one. This book and it's repeated refrain of how coming out was so much easier than expected – the executive board doesn't care! The police captain doesn't care! – isn't just erasing homophobia, it's placing responsibility for the consequences of homophobia on queer people. Queer people aren't in the closet as a random cultural artifact! The closet exists because of a vast and terrifying history of oppression and violence which is still alive and well today!

But, well, if only those queer people would be braver. Problem solved.




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All Kinds of Tied DownAll Kinds of Tied Down by Mary Calmes

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I generally like Calmes's contemporary romances more than her fantasies (which in my experience are epically batshit). This one, about two federal marshals, is a decent bit of vaguely power dynamic-y porn wrapped around some boring action/adventure nonsense, sprinkled with, like, every character from other books of hers she could awkwardly shove in. This book is almost interrogating the usual Calmesian tropes – she takes a vague stab at mixing up which of her usual types tops, and for her that's, like, serious subversion because she's one of those authors who is deeply, deeply concerned with who penetrates and who gets penetrated, that being, like, an intrinsically and vitally important aspect of everyone's personality or whatever. Not that this genre is fucked up or anything….

Anyway, whatever, it's fine, a little incompetent around the edges, nothing exciting.




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In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.




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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.




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The Dickens With LoveThe Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M Christmas novella about the antiquarian book dealer with a tragical past and the British professor selling a lost Dickens book. Cute, with all the expected grace notes – deception, misunderstanding, self-hatred, the sort of resolution where everything works out because people just spontaneously decide to trust each other. So, you know, fine.

But man oh man, don't read Josh Lanyon for the porn. Don't get me wrong, at his best (which this is not) he's totally worth the investment for the depth of character and emotional range. But there's something so very dated about his style of sex scene -- the writing gives me intense nostalgia for late 90's fanfic, back when everyone was still scared of using the word 'penis.' And by dated, I mean hilarious.

That pump and pull was like a hammer striking the golden frame of angel wings, pounding them into shining, glinting pennants. Perspiration sheened our bodies, and our breath grew harsher as we bent our backs and worked this forge. And then the wings began to beat, trying to take flight, moving faster and faster, and we seemed to lift right off the ground, right off the pillows and bedding and hang there, transfixed as warm white halle freakin lujah surged through.


…Loooool.




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Smoke and Shadows (Tony Foster #1)Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Trilogy about a gay production assistant on a, by all appearances quite terrible, Canadian vampire detective show.

Hey, check it out, these are books I actually finished!

So, I could just say 'too much boyfriend: not enough production assistanting,' and leave it at that. But actually I don't think that really gets at the problem.

These are quirky, well-intentioned, fun little books about a former street hustler turned PA turned wizard. I remember people talking excitedly about them ten years ago, the way we did when we had so little commercial LGBT fiction to read, let alone genre fiction. But the thing is, even if I hadn't checked the copyright dates, I could have accurately dated these books by the shape of the romance.

See, this is one of those 'gay guy falls for beautiful unattainable straight guy' stories, except oh wait maybe he's not so straight – oh wait he totally is – touch me – touch me not, where the allegedly straight dude plays mind games and is generally an all-around dick, but hey it's cool guys, finding out you like guys is really hard okay. And you just don't see that much in LGBT fiction anymore. At least not played for romance, as it is here.

I'm tempted to make some sweeping statements about cultural esthetics of queerness, and how allegedly straight dude's convulsions and reversals and spewings of internalized homophobia are actually a larger commentary on the place of queerness in the general psyche, or in genre fiction. And I think that's pointed in the right direction, though it's painting with too broad strokes. I mean, there's a reason the esthetics of queer romance shift over time – when's the last time you read an actual we're not gay we just love each other story written in 2014? But that was, like, the narrative of the 90's – the trappings of queerness without ever having to use the word. The shifts over time reflect the cultural reckoning that a lot of straight writers were doing with queerness, and it's not as if queer writers like Huff are immune to the tides.

Anyway, my point being that the particular esthetic of queer romance in these books is pretty uncomfortable to read now. It was better when I flipped gears to read as historical document, but still. Yikes.




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Taste (Horizons, #2)Taste by Mickie B. Ashling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


DNF halfway through. Why yes, I'm cleaning out my unfinished books, how can you tell?

M/M that I started out quite liking. Contemporary romance/drama set around a huge Chicago food festival. But then we got to the kink.

Look, here's the thing. A lot of M/M subscribes to the notion that what you are is how you fuck. You know, the smaller dude always enjoys being overpowered, that sort of thing.

Which is screwed up and uninteresting in equal degrees. But the thing is, you can't separate sex from character. And you definitely can't separate something as specific and personal as kink from character. I mean, you don't have to explain it, you don't have to draw nice straight lines from someone's specific trauma to why he likes asphyxiation. Really, it's better when you don't.

But kink doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's an expression of some really intense and fundamental emotions – desire sure, but also antipathy, pain, joy, you name it. The kinky person doesn't have to know why, but there is a why, and the shape of that why – often done in the negative spaces by the writers who are really good at this – is what makes the kink vital and interesting. Also hot. This stuff gets installed in us in, like, the root directories. It's so deep in the operating system that looking at it is also looking at how we function. Or don't.

Which is what makes it interesting. And thus why this book, which wandered along doing food festival/family things for a while, and then basically out-of-the-blue was all, hey, these dudes like to wear women's panties! was so, so boring. I don't care. This is the sort of writing about sex that is all bodies and no brains. Sex acts aren't by themselves hot. Personal, contextual sex acts can be blazing.

And thus endeth Light on kink. For today.




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London FallingLondon Falling by Paul Cornell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Man, the subgenre of urban fantasies about London cops dealing with the supernatural is hitting it out of the park lately, isn't it?

I was hearing about this book before it was published, and to be honest, for the first thirty pages, I couldn't tell why. I was reading a well-executed but not-my-thing book about an undercover operation staffed by a bunch of really unpleasant people. And then it all dislocated bloodily hard to the left. And then did it again, more viscerally and frighteningly. And where we ended up was a magical London whose rules remain largely unknown, and those four cops I didn't really like were much more complicated in its weird light. The obvious comparison is to the Peter Grant books; that's fair, superficially, but the esthetics here lean way more towards horror and less towards detective. I like them both quite a lot, though with different parts of my brain.

This is about accessing power through trial and error and pain. Uniquely in the genre, there's no mentor here. No one explains shit to these people, which means shit just don't get explained. It's a book, a little bit around the edges, about how already being the other – black, queer, traumatized – can make it easier to slip into the cracks of a world beneath ours.

And if nothing else, this book managed that oh-so-rare trick of signaling the awful truth to me over and over again, but only letting me figure it out a page before the characters did, so I spent that whole page going "no no oh no oh no." That stuff never works on me – I always figure it out too early or not at all.

Basically: aces.




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Ball & Chain (Cut & Run, #8)Ball & Chain by Abigail Roux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Another M/M FBI caper, this time stranded on a tiny Scottish island for a wedding, at least until the bodies start dropping.

Hm. This made me think about series structure and the necessity of releasing tension in order to build it again. Because, I think for the first time in my life, I was hoping for a mystery-of-the-week, and I didn't get it. All the markers were there – last book was over-the-top intense! This book started with hints of whacky hijinks! – and I thought oh good, we can all decompress a bit. And then no. It's like Roux couldn't stop herself from injecting a whole new set of interpersonal dramas, with yet more awkwardly back-filled history.

And, I mean, I don't read M/M just for the porn, okay? For one reason, that would be really fucking sad, considering the abysmal quality of most published LGBT erotica (this series being a pleasant surprise there). I also read it for the personal drama, to wallow in it and – yeah – to mock it a lot. But I'm genuinely in this for people having complicated, difficult feelings at each other.

But seriously. Once in a while? Have a freaking caper. Remember the thing a couple books ago with the tiger and the terrible, terrible puns, and how hard I laughed on a flight home from London? Can't we do that again?



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HildHild by Nicola Griffith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Fictionalized account of the early life of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon woman who would later become a pivot point in the conversion to Christianity, and a saint.

I read this directly after Kay's Under Heaven, which was accidentally brilliant. Both are fictionalized historical accounts of great cultural transition, and yeah they're set about half a world and a century apart and their respective projects are different, but sometimes contrasts are the most illuminating.

This was a subtle, very human endeavor set against all Under Heaven's contortions and greek choruses, and I liked this much more. Hild straddles multiple spheres: she is a member of the queen's inner circle, and thus embedded in all the political, gynecological, marital machinations thereof; she is the king's seer and the only woman to attend his councils; she is an owner of slaves; she is chattel to be dealt or withheld. The historical accuracy or inaccuracy here is of no interest to me, except that my definition of good historical fiction is the kind where the people feel simultaneously real and familiar, and also dislocatingly alien because their world is not ours in fundamental ways. Griffith got at that.

All that said, this book is the very definition of a thing that is good and that is also not my thing. What I said above about not caring about the historical accuracy? I seriously don't, and will glaze over at anyone who attempts to buttonhole me about it (not a guess, I have tested this out). (Though I will pause to say that I eyeroll at all the people complaining the LGBT content is inherently anachronistic. Yeeeeeah. Because, as we all know, the twenty-first century invented queerness and absolutely no one was queer and unbothered by it before then.) Anyway, I suspect you do have to care about the historical accuracy to really enjoy this book. You also probably need to be the sort of person who likes maps, family trees, the intersection of politics and religion, and keeping track of roughly two hundred people with similar names. (Though I did enjoy a rousing game of 'guess the Anglo-Saxon spelling' in which I would look up words from the audiobook and then goggle.) So basically, not for me, but I can see why a bunch of people really, really dig this.




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Living Promises (Promises, #3)Living Promises by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M modern romance of her usual 'make lots of melodramatically bad things happen to these people and stick a wedding at the end' variety. I can't think of another M/M dealing with HIV off the top of my head, so there's that. And I did like this in a distracted, way-more-important-shit-going-on-give-me-a-book way. Even with all the emotional breakdowns and nonsense.

But – and I realize I sound like a broken record here – but. This genre does not understand homophobia. According to this genre, there are two kinds of people: there are homophobes who disown their queer children in dramatic fashion, and then there's everyone else who isn't homophobic. Riiiight. I mean, those homophobes do exist. But writing about that is writing the most cartoonishly villainous face of it, and entirely missing the grinding, subtle, every day corrosion. You know, the complicated parts. Like how a friend's mother gave the old family silver to the straight daughter and not the queer daughter because – and mom didn't articulate this or probably even know – because the straight daughter had the sort of family/table on which ancestral silver belongs, and the queer daughter and wife did not. When the M/M genre defines homophobia only by violence and blatant hate, it fails to get its hands around some fundamental truths of what it is to be queer. And also perpetuates homophobia, but it does that in a hundred other ways too, so.

I'll stop bitching about this eventually.




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Kindred HeartsKindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M historical. Flighty nineteenth-century party boy becomes involved with his wife's twin brother (without any of the infidelity kink that implies). Fine, until it ruined itself with a subplot. I appreciate 'reconciling with an estranged family member' plots as much as the next girl, but there's that and then there's 'reconciling with an abuser' plots. This book thought it was doing the first and was really, really wrong. I have kind of a raw nerve in this general vicinity right now, but when this book started in with the pressure from everyone for forgiveness because he loves you really despite the years and years of emotional abuse (apparently it's not abuse if he didn't . . . mean it really?), with a side dish of 'of course you must forgive, he is family and you have to forgive family' – yeah, no, I'm out, and also fuck right off, book.



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Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin, #1)Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M "historical" horror mystery where the introverted museum philologist teams up with the ex-Pinkerton (why is it always an ex-Pinkerton?) to investigate a paint-by-numbers plot involving mummies and chimeras in basements and blah blah. This is a cut above the usual commercial M/M standard, which isn't saying much, because . . . well, but it's still worth noting. And yet, this roundly bored me. Many other people are way into it, though, so don't let that stop you. But do take the quotes around "historical" advisedly – I swear to God when I wasn't paying attention my brain was fooled into thinking this is set in the 1990's or so, only to be surprised when the main characters take carriages instead of cabs and occasionally call each other "old fellow." Some day when I have a little more time you guys are getting a full-fledged essay on queerness and historicity in romance fiction and how our stories which portray queerness as an entirely modern invention transplanted into the hostile soil of the past are really messed up, and then you'll be sorry, but today is not that day.

I am, however, deducting a star as a penalty for one of the stupider pet names in recent memory. Ival? For Percival? Really? That just hurts my soul.




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Caught RunningCaught Running by Abigail Roux

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M. This didn't work for me, but it was apparently good for the embryos.*

*A friend and I have an agreement to read M/M romance during IVF hell rather than do any of the other internet-recommended activities (praying, using cutesy sayings like "babydust," weeping). So I read this for her, and so far, it was apparently successful. So there's that!

Aaaanyway. This is otherwise bland M/M about the high school baseball coach and the science teacher hooking up. This has many of the faults of the genre, most notably bizarre and dizzying POV shifts so we can experience things from both sides, and trust me, they weren't that interesting the first time around. Also, the only role for women in this book is to throw themselves in exaggerated and creepy fashion at the dudes. What is that? I see it all the time in M/M, but can't put my finger on what it is supposed to be doing.

Anyway, there's a nice lack of stupid external impediments (oh noes, we can't be together because your twin brother's ex fiancé's cousin kidnapped my niece and blackmailed us!) but when you strip out all that nonsense, you do actually have to replace it with internal conflict. And, well . . . nope.

Good for the embryos, though.




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Touch Me GentlyTouch Me Gently by J.R. Loveless

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


M/M. The sort of romance that starts – and I mean the very first sentence – with a rape. Because that way we can get to all the saccharine declarations of love by hot cowboy and repeated instances of trauma being healed by the application of cock. This book is abysmally awful on nearly every front, and dangerously so on matters of sexual trauma, queer identities, and disability. But I am weary, so let's talk about the ways this book is hilarious awful, as opposed to really unfunny awful.

The protagonist of this book: has "violet eyes," is named Kaden, writes his feelings in song lyrics in a series of notebooks, is "delicate" and "tiny" and "feminine," can tame abused horses because he understaaaaaands their pain, is a cutter, can cook for twenty with no preparation or recipes, weeps at the drop of a dime, and did I mention the violet eyes?

Any one of those things, if written well, could be interesting or funny. Taken together, and written by this author? Utter hilarity.




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