Monday, November 30, 2015

When the lights turned down, they don't know what they heard.

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nora hasn't heard from her friend Clare in over 10 years, until she receives an invite to her "hen party" (bachelorette party for us Americans) from one of Clare's friends. Clare and Nora were the best of friends in school, until a series of events brought them apart, and she eventually decides to attend, along with their friend Nina. However, when Nora and Nina arrive, they gather with a group of Clare's friends at an isolated house in the woods. Things seem off from the beginning and go downhill from there.

This book was a juggernaut that I couldn't stop reading. It was a fast read with a captivating plot that overcame some of its other flaws, mainly some mildly annoying characters who lacked development and performed some outlandish actions based on the past. The book unfolds from Nora's point of view in bits and pieces, and she's an unreliable narrator as well (suffering from some memory loss), which really allows the suspense to build. Note that despite the title, it's not a scary book, per se, just a thriller or mystery. It's a fun read, trying to piece together the various threads to reach the conclusion. I felt a little bad for those caught up in the schoolhouse games of the characters, for sure.

Overall, would have liked to have gotten to know the characters and their motivations a bit more (some very high stakes actions occur, which are a little hard to believe - a lot of the plot requires suspending disbelief at times, if you really think things through), but still an enjoyable and fast-paced thriller. 3.5 stars.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

All of the bright colors that live inside of me are now just tiny pieces of what used to be.

The Night SisterThe Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As children, Amy, Piper, and Margot were thick as thieves until an incident at the Tower Motel, where Amy and her family (including her mother and aunt) grew up, tore them apart. Now Piper and Margot, her sister, have moved on. Piper has moved away, while Margot lives in the same town with her husband, Jason. But when Margot calls Piper in the middle of the night, with some horrible news about Amy and her family, the two sisters are forced to revisit their childhood, and the incident at the Tower Motel that ended their friendship with Amy. What exactly happened to Amy and her family? And is it related to Amy's mother Rose and her sister Sylvie?

As seems to be the case a lot late, this novel weaves its story through a variety of perspectives, including Piper, Rose, and even Margot's husband, Jason. This means jumping back and forth in both perspective and time period. It does this frequently enough that, while suspense does build, it's a little hard to get into the characters or even story momentum at times.

McMahon has a track record of bringing in spooky elements into her books. I'm torn on whether this one almost would have been better with just the human element. Or, conversely, I would have liked to have seen her run with the supernatural aspect a little bit more. As the story was written, you had to suspend your disbelief a bit (so be prepared for that; if that's not your style, you won't enjoy this book). However, it was so lightly woven in that it almost seemed like everything could be pushed onto to other elements. Hard to explain, but I would have liked to have seen the book fall more in one direction or the other.

Still, it was an interesting story and definitely creepy. I certainly found myself a little skittish that night in bed, after finishing the novel.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

But it's a little too late to do the right thing now.

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cadence (Cady) grows up slightly insulated from the world - the first grandchild born to the weathly Harris and Tupper. Her mother is one of the Harris' three daughters, all of whom have their own children and each of whom vie for their father's affection (and eventual inheritance). During the summer's, Cady stays on a private island with her family, growing up with her cousins - including a group they call the Liars, composed her herself, her cousins Mirren and Johnny, and Johnny's friend, Gat. Thick as thieves during the summer, it seems like nothing can separate the quartet - but is that really true?

So, this is a tough one to review. I'd heard a lot of glowing things and this had a ton of positive reviews from my friends. Even my stepmom (who lent the book to me) liked it. So maybe my expectations were just too high when I read it, but I felt "eh." That's not to say that I didn't find the big *ahh spoilery ending* to be amazing and shocking. I did, and I felt wowed and, yes, a bit amazed, and did sort of want to re-read things in that context.

But, I don't think I could. Because, overall, I found the book kind of annoying. I certainly don't think you have to like every character you read about, but good grief, I just found Cady whiny and deplorable. She and her entitled cousins were so irritating. Johnny's friend, Gat, attempts to bring them back to reality (Gat's heritage is Indian, meaning Cady's grandfather despises him and also forbids Cady's aunt to marry Gat's uncle, or risk being disinherited), but he definitely fails. The aunts are selfish and petty and only care about their inheritance, not their children. Lockhart's prose is lovely in many places, but in others just confusing - the metaphors and use of language to refer to Cady's illness (she suffers from migraines and such) is borderline confusing.

The ending was jarring, yes (don't read any spoilers - it won't be worth it), but the rest of the book didn't seem to be matched to it. I didn't see the point of all Cady's whining and the family squabbles. Just because the family was rich, they weren't interesting, nor mysterious. Perhaps I missed the larger point, but I was left shaking my head.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

And in my head I paint a picture.

My Name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucy Barton is a New Yorker. She's also a writer, a mother, and wife. At one point in her life, she spends over two months in the hospital, recovering from what should have been a basic operation. Lucy had a difficult and impoverished childhood and she has a distant relationship with her parents and siblings. We learn all of this in Strout's latest novel - through Lucy's "recordings" and musings as she talks about her life and memories.

This is a lovely book. Note that it is rather short and really comes across as a series of connected and interwoven short stories, each presented as a recording, or story, from Lucy. Many originate as Lucy is in the hospital and her mother visits her for five days, telling her tales about people from their hometown.

The stories give you an interesting insight into Lucy - you're left feeling as if you know her extremely well, and yet not at all. Some of them leave you with a staggering feeling, especially short bits about her childhood. It's not a happy book, at all, but a beautiful one, if that makes any sense. It also provides an amazing look at how one's childhood can affect you and the impact of your parents on your life. (If you're looking for a book that follows a narrative thread from point A to point B, however, this one isn't for you.)

I loved Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" - it was also a lovely, touching book. I didn't think this book was a good as "Olive," but it's still poignant in its own way. I feel like pieces of it will stay with me for some time.

(Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mend your own fences and own your own crazy.

The New NeighborThe New Neighbor by Leah Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elderly Margaret Riley lives alone in rural Tennessee. She seeks comfort in her mystery novels and her memories - not other people. One day Margaret looks across her pond and realizes she has a new neighbor. Margaret becomes intrigued and eventually meets the young woman, Jennifer, and her son, Milo. Margaret begins telling Jennifer about her past and finds herself increasingly curious about Jennifer's own past. Why are she and Milo in Tennessee? What is Jennifer not telling her? Fancying herself a detective similar to those in her beloved novels, will Margaret unveil Jennifer's secrets?

The novel reveals its stories (and secrets) through varying narratives - mainly those of Margaret and Jennifer. We see Margaret's increasing curiosity about Jennifer's life and Jennifer's own increasing reluctance to share why she and Milo have left their old life behind. Further, we see that the two women may not be as different as they appear. Margaret begins telling Jennifer about her life as a nurse during the War, while we learn about Jennifer's life with her drunken husband. Suddenly, the parallels between the two women -- especially when pushed to the brink -- seem surprisingly clear.

This was an intriguing book, in many ways. Neither Margaret nor Jennifer are incredibly likable characters (Margaret is often your classic "old biddy" for sure), but they are interesting. In some ways, nothing really happens in the book - a lot of the action has happened in the past, and we're simply learning about it as Margaret and Jennifer reveal their respective pasts and secrets. Still, it's an insightful look into the two woman's lives - I found it quite compelling. The end was somewhat fascinating, though it did seem to fall a bit flat after all the buildup. Still, a solid 3.5 stars.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

We've been so busy, keeping up with the Jones.

Pretty GirlsPretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claire Scott leads a seemingly perfect life - she's beautiful and adored by her wealthy husband, Paul. However, Claire's life is shadowed by the disappearance of her eldest sister, Julia, over twenty years ago. Julia went missing while in college and was never seen again. In the aftermath, Claire lost not only Julia, but her other sister, Lydia, as the sisters have been estranged for years. As a result, Claire has clung to Paul and the comfort and security he provides . However, a new tragic event changes everything for Claire - and will eventually lead her to look at everything in her life differently, including Julia's disappearance and her relationship with Lydia.

I really enjoyed this novel - it's engaging and suspenseful: filled with twists and turns. Sometimes you see them coming and other times you don't. It's a quick read, but not a particularly light one - be prepared for a dark read. The book is raw, violent, and even heartbreaking at points. Most of the story unfolds from Julia and Claire's point of view, but we also hear a little bit from their father between chapters. As the novel progresses, we learn not only about the present day mystery (which is captivating) but what happened to their sister, Julia, so long ago.

The book's strength is that it presents not only a compelling and interesting mystery tale, but a chilling portrait of its characters, as well. You get a good look into the lives of Lydia and Claire and their own psychological motivations. It goes beyond a thriller into a story of parenthood and sisterhood. Frankly, as a parent, there are parts of this book that break my heart and made me want to never let my children out of my sight! But, truly, that was what made it so good - it deftly portrayed the evil that can befall them in the world.

Some of the plot points are a bit fantastical and it suffers from the trope where Claire and Paul Scott just have unlimited financial resources, but overall, I found this one fascinating. Definitely a worthy read.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know.

Angels BurningAngels Burning by Tawni O'Dell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dove Carnahan is Chief of Police in a rural Pennsylvania town. Her job is typically more administrative than investigative. So when a girl's body is found beaten and burned in abandoned part of town, Dove must rally her team's limited resources to find out what has happened. In addition, she must work with the state police, including Chief Nolan, with whom she has a past, to solve the crime. In doing so, Dove becomes entwined with a local redneck family. The crime also brings up memories of the murder of Dove's mother many years ago. Will Dove be able to bring justice for this crime, without getting sidetracked by her own past?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it took me by complete surprise. Part of it was that I felt that I knew the characters. I've grown up with families like these - gone to school with them, live near them now. O'Dell portrayed the town dynamics flawlessly and she did a magnificent job of bringing each character into full detail.

Dove is an interesting character - flawed in many ways, but you cannot help but root for her and like her. The entire book felt somewhat familiar, like I'd picked up in the middle of series. (Speaking of, when this ended, I thought, oh I hope O'Dell writes another book featuring Dove.) Dove reminded me a little bit of Kate Burkholder, from Linda Castillo's excellent series - another strong female detective fighting for her hometown.

There were a few plot points that seemed a bit unbelievable (at one point, Dove shoots out the tires on a boys' pickup truck, just because he's annoyed her - something that would no doubt get her fired in this crazy media/viral video age we live in), but O'Dell's writing and plot gets you past any missteps. I thought Dove focused a bit too much on worries about her age (she's just turned 50) and her gender -- pointing out how men wouldn't treat her a particular way if she was actually a man. But really, Dove is so excellent at her job that she really just manages to prove that she can do anything - age or gender be damned.

The plot is intriguing and compelling and you find yourself drawn into the deceased girl's family and acquaintances, as well as Dove's own family and past. Honestly, when this one was over, I felt sad, which is a rare quality anymore. 4.5 stars.

(Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wanda looked all around this town and all she found was Earl.

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper: A NovelMovie Star by Lizzie Pepper: A Novel by Hilary Liftin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lizzie Pepper became a famous actress as a teen -- growing up before America's eyes on her TV show. Eventually Lizzie meets America's most famous movie star, Rob Mars -- and quickly their courtship and marriage becomes tabloid fodder and her life changes forever. At first, Lizzie is head over heels in love with Rob and all that he brings: romance, lavish trips, and instant stardom. But soon, her life is taken over by Rob's wealth and fame -- his constant absences, a complete lack of privacy, and a world overshadowed by Rob's total commitment to One Cell Studio, a form of study and practice that nears cult status. Once they have children, Lizzie begins to doubt everything about their relationship -- and what her husband stands for.

This was a fun book. Written by Hilary Liftin, a celebrity ghostwriter, Lizzie is a really enjoyable and insightful character. The book is clearly supposed to be based on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I kept imagining Rob Mars as a creepy twist between Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe, which was a little frightening. The One Cell piece is oddly disconcerting, as it's supposed to be, and made me want to delve more into the weirdness that is Scientology. Lizzie's evolution was fun to read about (I enjoyed, on a personal level, that she had twins) and she remained a realistic and relatable character, despite being elevated to movie star status. It truly makes you think about some of the insanity that movie stars have to go through, especially those that have children. It also gets you thinking about various religious cults and the power they have over people. In the end, probably a 3.5 star book, as it's a quick, fun read, but with a surprising depth behind it in places. After all, in the end, a marriage crumbling is a marriage crumbling, even in Hollywood.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A small voice keeps repeating deep inside my soul.

The Word GameThe Word Game by Steena Holmes

Due to a traumatic event in her past, mom Alyson Ward keeps a protective and close watch over her ten-year-old daughter, Lyla. So when she allows Lyla to go on her first sleepover--to another friend's house--it's a big deal for Aly. Her fears are somewhat calmed by the fact that Lyla will be staying with Aly's sister Tricia and a group of her friends from dance class. All in all, it seems like a fun sleepover. But after Aly picks Lyla up, she has some troubling things to tell her Mom. Have Aly's worst fears come true after all?

This book was a quick read with a timely plot. It's always horrific to read about abuse, especially at it relates to children. In many ways, I would have enjoyed this book more if Aly was simply an overprotective parent and the story unfolded based on what happened at the sleepover, without involving Aly and Tricia's past. The novel unwinds from both their perspectives, as well as that of their mother, Ida, and their friend, Myah, who teaches the girls' dance class. For me, the messed up family tale involving Aly, Tricia, and Ida simply became too much after a while - the constant bickering and allusions "to things in the past." When all is revealed, it's shocking and horrible yes, but really just poorly overshadows what was otherwise a fairly well-written and interesting (albeit sad and horrific) story about the women's daughters.

Also, while we get a lot of arguing among the elder sisters and their mom, and whispers about their troublesome upbringing and childhood, there's no real character development, so I wound up feeling more annoyed by them (especially Tricia and her mom) versus sympathetic. It seems especially appalling that no one listens to Aly -- you'd think one would rather be safe than sorry when the subject is potential child abuse.

I'm giving this three stars for the story that focuses more on the younger generation and Myah, but feel the book needed to better deal with Alyson and Tricia's backstory and character development.

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It's just an elementary simple case of heart over mind.

The Crossing (Harry Bosch, #20)The Crossing by Michael Connelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harry Bosch is back on a case - but for the first time, it's no longer for the LAPD. After being forced to leave the LAPD (before they could fire him), Harry is "retired" and looking for a way to occupy his time. He reluctantly agrees to work for his half brother, Mickey Haller, a well-known defense attorney. Mickey brings an interesting case to Harry's attention - a reformed former gang member is in jail for a crime he swears he didn't commit (and for which Mickey is convinced he's innocent). It's a brutal rape and murder, and Bosch isn't sure he can stomach working for "the other side." Is this case worth his reputation and betraying the morals Bosch has lived by for his entire life?

So, full disclosure, I have an incredible sense of love for Harry Bosch. I stumbled upon Connelly's books in my dad's basement and picked up "The Poet" (of all books) first. I became addicted to his writing and eventually read every book in the Bosch series. I read the majority while pregnant - huge and uncomfortable, unable to sleep at night - with my twin girls. I still maintain to this day that if they'd been boys, they would have been named Hieronymus and Bosch.

So I read this book with a bit of trepidation... what would my beloved Bosch be like without his LAPD badge? I'm glad to say he's still the Bosch we know and love. In the novel, Bosch certainly struggles with the new and different mindset he must face on the other side -- the struggle of seeing the case versus the bigger picture. His brother, of course, cares only for how the facts affect the case and his client. But Bosch, being Bosch, has a bigger end state in mind - if Mickey's client didn't do it - who did?

This helps propel Bosch as he wrestles with his morals and where he belongs now, without the LAPD to back him up. That's not to say the book is simply about Bosch struggling with his own issues. Connelly presents his usual well-structured and plotted mystery, with a cast of interwoven characters. We follow along as Bosch uncovers clues from his perspective and also hear from the so-called bad guys. It's a compelling and layered mystery.

It's also interesting to see Bosch and Haller interact - this novel does an excellent job of setting up just how different the two (half) brothers really are. Still, it's always a treat to have them both in the same book.

Overall, an excellent book. Always wonderful to have Bosch in our lives again, even if briefly. I hope Connelly continues his story (hopefully he'll have to, as Bosch and Haller's lawsuit against the LAPD is still unresolved).

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Monday, November 09, 2015

If I could sing like Frank Sinatra, I would rather sit and talk to you.

ForgottenForgotten by Catherine McKenzie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emma Tupper leads a busy life as a corporate lawyer. But after her mother passes away, she takes a month-long leave of absence (basically unheard of in her firm) to visit Africa -- the dream trip her mom never had the chance to take. But things go awry and Emma gets sick in Africa. Shortly after, an earthquake hits the region where she's recuperating, and her one-month trip becomes a six-month odyssey. Unable to communicate from her remote village, Emma finally returns home, only to find out that everyone thinks she died in Africa and that life has gone on without her.

This was an interesting novel. It's a fun and diversionary story, to say the least, even if not much of it seems too rooted in truth. Emma is so easily declared dead in a mere six months? When she returns back to find her apartment rented, the new tenant has no issue with her staying with him, and even wearing his clothes? Hmm. Okay. A romance triangle is thrown in, of course, with Emma's pre-Africa boyfriend having moved on (or has he?). So much of the book seemed downright silly to me, but I found it oddly addictive. Emma's a little irksome from time-to-time, but I'm not sure what I would do if I came back from vacation and everyone thought I was dead and had sold my life out from under me! It's a good exploration on how we often lead our lives out of habit and ease, versus truly going after what we truly want. Nothing earth-shattering here, but an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Goodreads for giving me a copy of this book through their First Reads/Giveaway program.

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Friday, November 06, 2015

Make your wildest wish and watch it come true.

Deal BreakersDeal Breakers by Laura    Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Devyn and Riley are best friends-- they survived four years of college together. Devyn is focused on graduation and the paid internship that awaits her. Riley is headed to grad school, but he had fun in college as well, including a string of non-serious girlfriends. Riley's not exactly known for monogamy. However, before they head their separate ways, Devyn has one request of Riley - she wants him to help her lose her virginity (yes, seriously). She doesn't want to head into the next phase of her life a virgin and she thinks Riley is the perfect person to assist. Riley is thrilled to help, of course, and plans a special evening. But will that special night change everything for Devyn and Riley?

First of all, I don't know why I keep reading these "New Adult" books. This genre apparently exists on stereotypes and tropes and the ending is basically transparent. In my defense, I picked it up after reading two tough books, with a lot of murder and darkness. Sometimes you just need a fluff book to lighten things up.

For instance, sample dialogue: "I may have just jizzed in my pants a little. How can a woman this hot possibly know football? I think I'm in love." We're not even going to talk about all the things wrong with this.

Still, this book was more compelling than some of the recent New Adult books I've read. If you like New Adult, you'll enjoy this book - it's a fast read and somewhat cute. If you're like me and still adjusting to the genre, you'll roll your eyes at a good deal of the plot and dialogue, but potentially still enjoy the quickness and silliness of it all. 2.5 - 3 stars depending where you fall on the spectrum

(I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

You're in my heart, you're in my soul.

Vanishing GirlsVanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oliver's novel covers the story of sisters Nick (Nicole) and Dara, who grew up close, but have drifted apart as teens. Then they are in a terrible accident, which pulls them even further apart -- to the point where they aren't even speaking. However, when Nick eventually thinks Dara has disappeared, she goes on a quest to find her sister and help her.

This book was just sort of eh... I don't think it's really a spoiler to say that the "vanishing" part for Dara doesn't take place until well into the plot. The story is more the tale of Dara and Nick's lives before and after their accident (told in their own voices, jumping between time). It's actually rather compelling as is and the whole "vanishing" almost seems like an unwelcome distraction once it arrives.

It's not to say the whole book is bad. I struggled with the rating, really. There's a lot of suspense that simply captures the sisters' lives and tumult surrounding the accident. Oliver does a good job portraying Nick's teen life and her growth as she works at an amusement park over the summer.

Still, the "vanishing girls" part feels contrived at times and parts of Dara's life, as it unfolds, seems forced. Overall, I'm still sort of unsure about this one, truly. It leaves you a little uneven, which who knows... may be the point!

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Monday, November 02, 2015

I've forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet + Giveaway!

This Is Where It EndsThis Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On a chilly day, the principal of Opportunity High School is giving a speech to her students, kicking off the new semester. The majority of the school is gathered in the auditorium, listening to her speak. As she finishes, they prepare to head to their next class, but the doors are stuck. Then, suddenly, someone begins to shoot.

The book is told from the viewpoint of a handful of kids (four) from Opportunity High and basically unfolds in less than a hour -- the time it takes for a horrific tragedy to fall upon their school and community. We hear from Sylvia and her twin brother Tomas. We also get the perspective of Autumn, Sylvia's best friend, who is struggling with the death of her mother and her abusive father, all the while watching her brother, Tyler, an Opportunity High dropout, drift away from her. Finally, we see things from Claire's perspective; a member of the track team - Claire is outside practicing when the tragedy begins, but worried about her brother Matt, who is inside.

I read this book in a few hours - its short time span makes it terrifying and you want to speed through to find out what happens to these kids. It's an all too horrifying and realistic account of what can happen with school shootings (and beware, some of the descriptions can be very graphic). The interwoven stories of the kids do a good job of telling the story and portraying the strong bond of family and friendship that can exist -- especially at the hyper-sensitive stage of high school, where everything truly does seem like life or death sometimes.

There's an added LGBT angle to this story, which is a nice twist, as it's very natural to the book. The kids' tales, overall, seem true to their voices, but some of the writing is stilted and tough to read (not from the subject matter, but the way it's written). The author overuses the play on words with "opportunity" far too much - it would have been better to just let the story play itself out. We get the parallels - no need to spell them out (over and over and over) for us.

Still, this is a powerful book - it's heartbreakingly lovely, really, and will leave you hoping and praying that no more children *ever* have to go through this experience. It's a worthy read, even if it leaves you hurting, but I would make sure you talk about it in detail with your teens. It's a tough subject matter that needs to be discussed.

This is definitely a book worth reading - if you're interested in winning an advanced copy, please check out the publisher's tumblr page here at the Sourcebooks Fire Tumblr

(I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

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