Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

>> Thursday, October 19, 2017

This one's a bit of a new one for my blog, in that it's a review of a podcast. I do book reviews here, but the only difference between this particular podcast and a non-fiction audiobook is that while it's scripted, there's clearly an element of ad-libbing in how the script is delivered. So, why not?

Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts a couple of very popular podcasts. The one I'm looking at here is called Hardcore History, and in it, he explores different historical topics. Sometimes he'll do a single podcast episode on a single topic, but what I'm reviewing (because it's what I've listened to so far) are two separate series of podcasts, both of which are basically military history.

The first one is called Wrath of the Khans, and it's a 5-episode series covering the history of the Mongol empire, from the rise of Gengis Khan to the decline of the empire. This series came out in a 6-month period from mid-2012, and it's about 8:30 hours long.

The second, Blueprint for Armageddon, is considered by many to be Carlin's magnum opus (so far!). This 6-episode series is about World War I, concentrating on the war itself. The episodes here are massive, clocking in at around about 4 hours each. The whole thing is 23 hours. The episodes came out between October 2013 and May 2015.

Carlin often makes it clear that although he loves history, he's not a historian. I suppose he means that he's not going to the primary sources to bring in new knowledge, like a professional historian would. What he does, and I think it's just as valuable, is to take the work from professional historians and make it into an incredibly absorbing story. He's a storyteller.

Actually, he's a wonderful, masterful storyteller. Here's what I love about Hardcore History:

1) Carlin takes a huge range of sources and creates a coherent story that makes sense. He simplifies, obviously, but in a way that doesn't seem simplistic. He's very good at signposting the bits that are missing (e.g. how he's concentrating more on a particular front during WWI, and that at the same time stuff was going on in this other front).

2) It's not that he takes only the cool, fun bits, but that he makes even the dry bits fascinating. This includes things like descriptions of military manouvers, which I previously thought could not be done in a way that wouldn't put me to sleep.

3) Explaining is just as important as bringing events to life. I already knew intellectually that the trenches in WWI had been horrific, but it was not until I listened to Blueprint for Armageddon that I felt that in my gut and could really picture it. I'd never stopped to think about what it might have been like to know that the Mongol hordes approached your city. I felt that horror.

4) Carlin has a knack for zeroing in on just the right little detail that illustrates the big picture, just the right personal perspective from a person involved.

5) He does not forget about the impact of these big historical things on the individual. Just because something horrific happened long ago, it doesn't magically become appropriate to take it lightly. When I read The Handmaid's Tale long ago, the bit that unexpectedly changed how I look at things forever was the epilogue. It takes place many, many years after the events in the story, and features a male historian who's discovered Offred's record of her experience. He makes jokes and cheeky puns. We've just experienced the traumatising pain of Offred's life, so this feels extremely jarring. And yet, that's how so many modern historians deal with their material, particularly sexual violence. I just listened to another historical podcast where the (female) historian who was being interviewed was describing how a Scottish nobleman had broken into an estate and "forced a marriage" upon the widow of the former owner in order to gain the property. He made sure he consummated the marriage, and all hell broke loose the next morning. And this historian felt it appropriate to joke that she hoped the wedding night had been worth it, hahah. She was talking about rape. Dan Carlin emphatically does NOT do this. When he's talking about how Mongols would often take the women of their defeated enemies as wives, he stops to say that this is the way they referred to it and that it is a euphemism, a euphemism that hides sexual violence. He does not let us forget this.

6) Carlin somehow manages not to glorify war, while at the same time creating pictures that make the listener go "wow!" These pictures stick in my mind. The German army marching through Belgium. The Mongols in a battle with Polish knights. Wow.

7) He's got a very idiosyncratic way of speaking (if you say to any Hardcore History listener "Ageeeen. And ageeen. And ageeeen", they'll laugh knowingly). I love it (however, YMMV).

There are now 60 episodes of Hardcore History, and the last 10 or so are available for free on the website. This includes the Blueprint for Armageddon series, but also a series called Kings of Kings (about the Achamemenid Persian empire), a single episode called The Celtic Holocaust (about Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul) and what he calls a Blitz episode (I think these are more explorations of a theme) about the development of nuclear warfare and how humanity has dealt with having the power to destroy itself. The remaining 50 episodes are available for "a buck a show, that's all we ask". I've bought them all, even though I hear the earlier ones are not as good (Carlin was apparently still developing how he does things), and call it a bargain.

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Man Booker Prize 2017 round-up

>> Monday, October 16, 2017

The Man Booker Prize winner will be announced on Tuesday, so I'd best write up my usual summary and (always wrong) guesses! This was a strange year. I was really excited by the longlist, and I think that excitement was shared by lots of people. Several of us dove into the list and read one after the other, posted review after review. I didn't like all the books I was reading, but there were quite a few books I really loved that I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on my own, so it felt like a really good longlist.

And then the shortlist was announced, and it felt like all that excitement just drained away. It felt to me like a really blah shortlist. There were several sets of 6 books that could have been drawn from that longlist and would have made an exciting and interesting shortlist, but this particular set wasn't one of them.


Starting with the shortlist, the one book I really loved was Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. It's a short book, but it packs a very powerful punch. It's a very "now" book, in that it looks at a topic that's never far from the headlines these days: that of refugees. The thing is, rather than concentrating on the journey and the difficulties in making a new life, it looks at how leaving their birthplace can change people and make them grow in unexpected directions. I loved it. I even found really effective the fantastical element (which had made me a bit wary) of the mysterious magical doors that appear and allow people to move around the world just by stepping through them. This is the book I hope will win.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

The only other book on the shortlist that ended up being my thing was a surprise. Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has received very mixed reviews, probably tending more towards the negative. People mostly think it too long and a bit old hat in terms of its themes. The experimental elements in the structure (we get 4 different versions of the protagonist's life, as variations in how something works out during his childhood lead to differences in how everything else follows) are not felt by most to add much innovation.

Now, I'm still reading this one, as it really is very long and not particularly gripping, but I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I like the detail and the low-key, undramatic writing, and I'm liking how the small variations lead to very different consequences. Do I feel it deserves to be on the Man Booker shortlist, or even the longlist? So far, not really. But at least I'm having a pleasant time reading it, and I intend to keep going.


The only other one on the shortlist that I finished was Autumn, by Ali Smith. I'd tried Ali Smith before (when an earlier book was nominated for the Man Booker as well, in fact), and I just didn't get it. I hoped I'd feel differently about this one, but I didn't. There were several different strands. There's the protagonist's grief for her former neighbour, an old man who is about to die, and who was a huge part of her life growing up. There's a lot about a forgotten pop artist called Pauline Boty. And there's also the fact that the present-day story is set in the summer of 2016, and the effect of the EU exit referendum is being felt.

I was interested in each of those strands, but I felt what Smith did with them didn't resonate with me at all. Also, I didn't think they came together at all. To me, they did not make up a satisfying whole.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.

And now for the DNFs. I promise, I really did try with these three books. I kept picking them up again and again, but I had to force myself to do so. After a couple of weeks each of that, I gave up.

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo was the one I made least progress with. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices, and I found that literally unreadable. I tried and tried, both in audio and ebook, but to no avail.

I'm all for working hard on a book if there's a pay-off, but the thing is, in the sections I read I didn't feel Saunders was saying anything particularly interesting or insightful.

My review is here.

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund wasn't my thing, either. It's a story about a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her parents, the last ones left after a commune disbanded. A family with a small child moves to the closest other house, and the girl quickly becomes more and more involved in their lives. The book is being narrated from many years later, so we know from the start that things are going to go badly wrong.

I never got to the point of caring about anyone or anything in this book, possibly because the protagonist and narrator's reactions were flat and dry. And it might be a flaw in me as a reader, but I do need to at least care for a book to work for me. I did read about half of this one, but that was as far as I could push myself.

My review is here.


Finally, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, which felt to me a bit similar to History of Wolves. The child protagonist lives with his sister and father in rural Yorkshire, away from civilisation after his father decides to withdraw them from school (with good reason, actually).

From what I read, this seemed to be addressing some of the issues with property ownership and capitalism, but when the book turned into that the change felt a bit abrupt. Also, I felt the evil character who seems to symbolise the entire capitalism system was too cartoonish.

I was interested in some of the ambiguity about sexuality and gender roles suggested in Daniel, our narrator, but that didn't seem to ever become anything, as Mozley seemed more interested in the political elements.

I did read most of Elmet, but in the end, I just didn't care enough to push to the finish. It was another DNF.

-o-o-o-

So, half the books in the shortlist were DNFs, one I did manage to finish but was perplexed by, one I'm liking well enough, but hardly blown away by, and the final one was the single one I was genuinely wowed one. I really want Exit West to win, but I fear there's little chance of that. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably Ali Smith's year and Autumn will do it.

-o-o-o-

So that was a bit of a depressing tour through the shortlist. Fortunately, things will get a lot more positive as I discuss the other books on the longlist, several of which I think are much better than the titles that made it. Do settle in, as I actually read or attempted all but one of the books on the longlist (probably the most I've ever got to -the only one I didn't read was Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness). This time I will start with my least liked, so that I can finish on a high note :)


Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry was my single DNF. I was really excited about this story of a two men who adopt a young girl and form a family, all set around the time of the US Civil War. And I did enjoy those bits, it's just that there was a lot more of killing and senseless violence, as the two men are soldiers.

The Civil War sections were bad enough, but I actually found the sections before, when they're basically killing Native Americans all over the place for no good reason, much worse. It wasn't so much the violence but the way in which it was described, in a dreamy, matter-of-fact sort of way. It jarred me in a bad way, and at the same time, kept me from engaging in the story.

My review is here.

I'd never read Zadie Smith before, although she's been on my list to try for quite a while. Swing Time wasn't really the best place to start. Smith had two main strands going through the book, and I felt she concentrated mostly on the wrong one.

I really wanted more about the unnamed narrator's relationship with her childhood friend, particularly to see more exploration of that as she grew up. Instead, I got more than I wanted of the narrator being a sort of fixer for a huge pop star who has decided to do charity work in Africa. It's satire, but not very good satire, as it says nothing very new and mocking these people is basically shooting fish in a barrel.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.


The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead was one book that was already on my TBR, as I'd heard so much about it. It's a bit like Exit West in that the author takes something real and adds just a touch of the fantastical in order to focus and amplify what he wants to explore. In this case, we get an Underground Railroad that is a real railroad, with tracks and train stops and everything. And it allows Whitehead to explore the many different manifestations racism can have, as his heroine, escaped slave Cora, travels from one Southern state to another and experiences their different approaches to dealing with their black populations. It goes from the brutality of a state determined to get rid of blacks altogether, to the benevolent (but almost as pernicious) 'scientific' racism of another.

It's insightful and quite powerful. The only misstep, I thought, was in the figure of the slave-catcher, a man with almost supernatural powers to find Cora, whom he's become sort of obsessed with. I find that trope pretty tiresome, and the character felt cartoonish and strained credulity. This contrasted badly with the painful reality of the rest of the book and was also completely unnecessary.

No review yet. I rated it a B+.

Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack is just as experimental in style as the Saunders, but my experience of reading it was completely different. The book is narrated in a single sentence by an Irish man called Marcus, as he stands in his kitchen and contemplates his life. I kind of dreaded reading this one, as I'm quite wary about this sort of thing. Too often it feels like a gimmick, almost like an author trying to make things challenging for the reader for no good reason.

Well, that was not the case for Solar Bones at all. First of all, it wasn't really challenging. All the hard work was basically done by the author, who somehow managed to make his single sentence narration feel natural and just right, not even particularly difficult. And although I did wonder at the beginning, I was gradually convinced that this was the right way to tell this story. The device of the single sentence, with the way it reflects the state of the mind it's supposed to come from, added quite a bit to the narrative.

And I should add, this book was not just about the writing. I particularly loved reading about Marcus's relationship with his children, a baffled love which felt so like my father that it made me tear up at points.

No review yet. I rated it an A-.

And now we come to my two favourites. I loved Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. It's an exploration of the life of a village in rural Derbyshire, as the effects of the disappearance of a young girl who was staying there on holiday with her parents ripple through the years. It's not a plot-driven book at all, but it's not a character exploration either. We get small vignettes of a large cast of characters, the many people who live in the village, but it's not in depth. We get almost as much about how the village itself and the nature in and around it lives and grows. You might think this would feel a bit distant, but it doesn't. It's undramatic, but profoundly affecting.

It's also beautifully written, almost like poetry in prose, and quite hypnotic. This one really, really should have been on the shortlist, and I think it would  have been a worthy winner, even.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

And still, I think I might have loved Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire even more than Reservoir 13. It's a retelling of the Antigone story, but it feels completely non-derivative. Shamsie really makes the story her own. Any connections to the original only add richness, rather than feel like shortcuts.

Shamsie also makes it feel completely 'now', without it having that awkward 'ripped from the headlines' feel to it. It's the story of two British-Pakistani families and what happens when a young man decides to join IS, setting everyone on course for disaster.

With fascinating, flawed characters who feel completely real, and very interesting things to say about what it's like to be Muslim in Britain today, this book punched me straight in the gut. I couldn't stop thinking about it or talking about it. It's my favourite of the Booker dozen.

My review is here. I rated it an A.

-o-o-o-

So:

I hope Exit West will win

I think Autumn will win

I think Reservoir 13 should have won

But I loved Home Fire most of all. It may not be as innovative or structurally adventurous as Reservoir 13 (which is why I think the latter is more of a 'Booker winner'), but it's brilliant, and finding books like this is the reason why I do this every year.

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Two more from the Man Booker shortlist

>> Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wow, for all that I loved this year's Man Booker longlist, I'm really not liking the shortlist. Well, I did love Exit West, but Autumn wasn't for me, and these two fell in the same category.

TITLE: Lincoln in the Bardo
AUTHOR: George Saunders

I'm not even going to try to explain what Lincoln in the Bardo is about. Mainly, that's because I'm not sure. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices. It's set in a crypt, where Lincoln's young son Willie lies dead. But it's also set in a realm inspired in the Tibetan tradition of the 'bardo', a place where spirits linger in between life and death, not quite ready to take the next step.

It's an intriguing concept, but I found this quite unreadable. My brain was trying to turn the different voices and fragment into a single whole, but it could never quite do it. I tried to listen to the audiobook first, but the constant reading of the citations (after every little fragment, we get a citation explaining where it's from... what book, what letter, etc) kept breaking my concentration. I really should have listed to Sunita, who had a similar problem. So I returned the audiobook and bought the ebook. It solved the problem of the citations, but it still didn't bring this any nearer to working for me.

I persisted for much longer than I should have, but after several days of forcing myself to keep turning pages, I accepted this wasn't for me and gave up. In addition to the difficulties with the way the book was written, I wasn't getting anything from it. I didn't feel it was saying anything insightful or new about... well, anything, really.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: History of Wolves
AUTHOR: Emily Fridlund

Fourteen-year-old Madeline and her parents are the last remnants of a commune in the woods of Minnesota. With almost no supervision in her life, Madeline spends her days roaming in the forest. When a family with a young child move into the nearest house, Madeline (calling herself Linda) befriends them, and ends up spending a lot of time with the little kid. And we know as we read that it all ended in some sort of tragedy: death, a trial, trauma.

History of Wolves strongly reminded me of a book in last year's shortlist, Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen. Fortunately, the obsession with ugliness and bodily fluids wasn't there, but there was something about Madeline that felt very much like Eileen, at least in the sections I read: the unfeelingness, the lack of involvement with what's around her. She walks around observing and barely reacting. She doesn't seem to care, so why should I?

And that was my main problem and the reason why I found reading this a struggle. I found it really hard to care at all, particularly because I didn't quite buy the characters (both Linda and the mother in the family she befriends). The characterisation felt inconsistent and a bit shallow. Not one for me.

MY GRADE: And another DNF.

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Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

>> Tuesday, September 26, 2017

TITLE: Reservoir 13
AUTHOR: Jon McGregor

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Even the Dogs. Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss.

Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.

Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.

Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying.

An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside.
When the Man Booker longlist was announced, I was reading Val McDermid's A Place of Execution. Reading the description of Reservoir 13 was a bit startling: Derbyshire village setting, 13-year-old girl going missing? But that's exactly what I'm reading! Well, it's been fun reading Reservoir 13 and seeing just how differently the same basic plot can be developed.

In Reservoir 13, the disappearance of the girl is only the departure point for an exploration of the life of a small village. There is no main character, just short vignettes (or not even that, sometimes; in some cases it's just a couple of sentences) about a group of people, showing their life and how it changes. It's not about the disappearance, but the disturbance created by it can be seen in many of the characters.

As much as about the people, this is about nature, and how a small village interacts with it. We'll get a sentence about a particular character, and the next one will be about how this particular buzzard is now starting to build a nest. It's very effective.

There isn't really a plot propelling anything forward, but I never felt this was a problem. It's beautifully written, like reading poetry in prose. Reading this book was almost hypnotic and strangely relaxing, almost like slipping into a warm bath. I took me a while to finish it, because it felt right to read a single chapter every day, right before going to bed. Reservoir 13 was a lovely way to wind down the day and transition into sleep. I realise this might sound like damning it with faint praise, but I don't mean it that way at all.  I loved it, and I'd recommend it to anyone.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Autumn, by Ali Smith

>> Sunday, September 24, 2017

TITLE: Autumn
AUTHOR: Ali Smith

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 264
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts a quartet

.
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Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever....
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.
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After a couple of very busy weeks (lots of travel, and then visitors), I'm back to my Man Booker reviews. Unfortunately, I'm starting with one which I didn't expect to like, and turned out to fulfil those expectations.

I've tried to read Ali Smith before (most recently her previous Booker-nominated book, How To Be Both), and decided I simply do not get what she does. But there have been so, so many really positive reviews of Autumn, including by people who are not big fans of her, not to mention the Brexit element, which is something that I expected to resonate with me. So, almost against my will, I started to think maybe I would like this one.

Well, my experience with Autumn was almost exactly the same as my experience with How To Be Both: bafflement. I have no idea what to make of this book. I didn't hate it; I just didn't get it.

There's our protagonist, Elisabeth, and her grief at the decline and likely upcoming death of her friend, Daniel Gluck. Daniel was Elisabeth's neighbour when she was growing up, an old man already, and yet the only person in Elisabeth's life to make time for her and pay her attention. Now he's 101 and in a nursing home, floating in and out of consciousness, and Elisabeth spends her time at his bedside.

Interspersed with this, we get a lot about a little-known pop artist, Pauline Boty, who is the focus of Elisabeth's work in Art History. We find out some really interesting stuff about the artist and about her work alike. I did enjoy that, but didn't quite get why it was part of the book. Daniel was the one to introduce Elisabeth to Boty's work, but beyond that, I couldn't really see what the two threads had to do with each other.

And then there's Brexit. The present-day sections of the novel take place right after the referendum, in the summer of 2016, and there's a lot about how the country is feeling divided and half are feeling alienated, while the other half are feeling jubilant. A house gets spray-painted with "Go Home", a mysterious fence pops up in the outskirts of the village and aggressive men threaten people who go anywhere it, and the renewal of Elizabeth's passport turns into a vaguely threatening bureaucratic nightmare.

This element will probably be effective for most readers, but didn't move me in the way that I'd expected it to. Elisabeth's feelings didn't really resonate with me, which was most surprising. I've witnessed first-hand the devastation of some of my British friends at the referendum result and really felt for them. They had the same "this is not the country I thought it was" reaction that I had, only for them it was something that shook up their entire identity. I should have been able to feel for Elisabeth in the same way I felt for them. Instead, she didn't move me.I also wanted more, in other ways. I wanted to hear from the people in the spray-painted house. I wanted to understand why their response was so different from mine (they spray-paint "We are already home, thank you" right back, while my response has been more along the lines of "I'm not sure I want to stay where I'm not wanted"). Eh, well. This might be the first "Brexit novel", as it's been billed by some, but it's not going to be the one that really shows how it all felt.

And, like with the other two elements, I struggled to see how all this connected with Elisabeth's relationship with Daniel and with all the stuff about Pauline Boty. Everything was interesting enough in its own right, but just didn't make a whole for me. The bits didn't fit together and coalesce. I didn't feel there was a story here, no character development, just a collection of stuff that felt kind of pointless.

Yes, Ali Smith is definitely not for me.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

>> Tuesday, September 19, 2017

TITLE: The Lost Book of the Grail
AUTHOR: Charlie Lovett

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Viking

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman's Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile's quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail.

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library's manuscripts, Arthur's tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books and a fellow Grail fanatic.

Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral's founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany's search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves.
This book is The Da Vinci Code's shy, bookish cousin, the one who doesn't get out much.

Arthur Prescott is right where he wants to be. He's forever loved the city of Barchester, with its quaint centre and its beautiful cathedral. Arthur's grandfather, a retired clergyman, lived there, and Arthur would spend his childhood summers with him and feel he was home. So when a job as an English professor became available in the University of Barchester, Arthur didn't hesitate to take it, even though he despises its glass and concret campus in the outskirts of town. After all, he doesn't have to live there. Arthur has a little house in what used to be a medieval close, and spends all his free time in the cathedral, mostly immersed in the Cathedral Library, surrounded by all those lovely manuscripts and old books.

Being in Barchester Cathedral allows Arthur to work on his secret lifelong project, the search for the Holy Grail. See, his grandfather confided in him his belief that the Grail came to Barchester at one point, and there are several suggestive clues in paintings and old books.

And then a threat arrives. American Bethany Davis shows up to digitise all the manuscripts in the Cathedral Library. The nasty tech element would be bad enough (Arthur is very much in the "only physical books are real books" camp), but Bethany's work is being funded by a millionaire known for his determination to find Biblical objects, including the Holy Grail. Clearly Bethany must be kept at a distance.

The thing is, Arthur ends up discovering in Bethany someone who loves books just as much as he does, and soon they're working together to find, not just the grail, but the lost book of Ewolda, Barchester Cathedral's founder.

The Lost Book of the Grail was really good fun. It's low-key fun, without over-the-top thrills or glamour. There are puzzles to solve and clues to follow, but no evil villains or huge, unbelievable conspiracies. And we also have one of my favourite devices, the group of friends working together to solve a mystery. In addition to Arthur and Bethany, we've got Oscar and David, who have been meeting weekly as part of as book-lovers group. Initially looked like they'd be the sort of blokes who went all "euww, girls", but they accept Bethany as a fellow bibliophile really easily, and it was lovely to see them all become friends.

I also liked the nuanced treatment of a couple of topics. First, the issue of "real books" vs electronic. I thought I'd get really annoyed at Arthur's attitude, but he's made to realise and admit quite quickly that yes, although there's something unique about books as objects, there's all sorts of value in the digital. Second, the issue of faith. Arthur is a non-believer who attends services just because he loves the music and ritual so much. Throughout the book, he thinks about faith quite a bit, and this might be a minor spoiler, but he comes to believe by the end of the story. As someone who wavers between atheism and agnosticism and who also loves old churches and church music, I very much identified with early Arthur. So it's probably worth mentioning that I liked how his coming to faith was handled. It's not preachy, and dealt with as something that is very personal, not to mention that not having faith is not treated as a moral failing. I do disagree with Bethany's "you can choose to believe" stance, but didn't have a problem with any of it.

On the more negative side, Bethany is not as well-developed as I would have liked. She never really completely gelled, and her characterisation seemed to be almost as an accessory to Arthur... someone to challenge his narrow-mindedness about digital aspects of books, someone to move the plot along and help him make discoveries, someone for him to fall in love with.

This was not a huge problem for me, though, and on the whole, I enjoyed this. I'll be looking at Lovett's backlist next.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Sector General, by James White

>> Sunday, September 17, 2017

TITLE: Sector General
AUTHOR: James White

COPYRIGHT: 1983
PAGES: 196
PUBLISHER: Del Rey

SETTING: Space!
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Part of Sector General series

The incredible floating intergalactic hospital, where exotic beings receive treatment from equally exotic doctors and nurses. Each new species brings new problems, but no case is too big, too small, too hopeless - or too weird - for Sector General.

Accident: A spaceship crashes and two war heroes must decide how many - and which - victims can be saved...

Survivor: A doctor contracts a fatal illness and his only hope lies in a colleague's courage...

Investigation: The victims have all lost their limbs and the medics think they have the answer - but they are wrong...

Combined Operation: To reassemble a living jigsaw puzzle, Dr Conway needs an alien's cooperation - but first he must learn to communicate with it...

Four fabulous stories from Sector General Hospital - including the story of the birth of the great hospital itself.
Random read, a collection of short stories halfway through a series I knew nothing about. Probably not a great idea. There were 4 stories in this omnibus, and I read only the first 2.

The first one, Accident, is a kind of origin story. I gather the series is set in an intergalactic hospital for all species, and this story shows how the concept of it came to be. It stars two people who are war heroes, each from a different side. They were brought forward into the future (not sure if cryogenically frozen, or what), into a peaceful time, and so they are the only two people alive in their time who have known war. And in spite of the existing peace, they are worried. Relationships between species are now characterised by extreme, careful politeness. Every species is terrified of doing something that will offend other species. As a result, there is a great deal of distance between them. People from different species don't get to really know each other. And the men's fear is that, at some point, this will lead to war.

And then the men are involved in an accident in a spaceport. A vehicle crashes into one of the buildings, and it's all hands to the pump trying to rescue people and keep them alive. And the idea of the right forum for species getting to know one another is sparked.

I liked the concept of this, and had fun with the weird and wonderful alien species on show, but it felt kind of slight. Some parts of it also felt a bit confusingly written. Mostly, it was fine.

The second story, Survivor, is set once the intergalactic hospital is already in operation. An ambulance on a rescue mission finds a single survivor from a ship that had a really bad accident. It's an alien of a kind they've never seen before, and an extremely weird one (and that's saying quite a lot, given some of the characters here). On the way back, one of the medics, an empath, starts not feeling well, and her condition deteriorates worryingly quickly.

This one wasn't particularly good. It's a mystery, trying to figure out what happened to the sick medic. I like that concept, but felt the answer was a little bit too obvious. For me, the story really suffered because there were a lot of elements there that I felt I was supposed to understand how they worked, but I had no idea. I spent a lot of time feeling confused. I didn't dislike the story, but it didn't feel satisfying.

After those two, it didn't really seem worth it to read the other two. I felt I got a good sense of what this series is like, and it's not really my thing.

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.

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Genealogy and translation

>> Friday, September 15, 2017

TITLE: Blood Atonement
AUTHOR: Dan Waddell

When I read the first one in this series, which I loved, I sort of thought of it as a series following genealogist Nigel Barnes. The two detectives, Heather Jenkins and Grant Foster, were important characters, but I felt the main focus was Nigel. Well, in this one, it's clear they are protagonists as well!

The case in this one revolves around the murder of a woman and the disappearance of her 14-year-old daughter. A combination of forensic evidence and Nigel's genealogical investigations lead to events in the US many years earlier, and Nigel and Heather head across the pond to investigate.

I liked this one almost as much as book 1. The characters (both our detectives and Nigel) are interesting, the mystery is intriguing, and the genealogy aspect is really cool. At one point we visit the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City, and that is a fantastic moment for anyone with even a passing interest in genealogy.

It's too bad there are no further books in this series available. Blood Atonement was published in 2009, and the next one is nowhere to be seen. The annoying bit is that it looks like it does exist... Waddell's blog has a post explaining that it's been published in French, and that the English version will likely be self-published soon. Unfortunately, this post is over 3 years old, and One Soul Less is still not out :(

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

TITLE: Is That A Fish In Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation
AUTHOR: David Bellos

Translation has always been a topic that fascinates me, but it's not one I've ever looked at in any orderly way, or read much about. All my experience has been in actually doing it, so part of the joy of reading this collection of essays on different aspects of translating was in putting into words concepts I recognised intuitively. Another part of the joy, however, was in discovering things I'd never noticed.

The book itself wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think I'd assumed it would be more of a "pop science" sort of thing (probably because of the title), but this was quite technical and philosophical. It wasn't the breezy, funny read I was expecting; in fact, at times it was hard going. We get into topics like the meaning of "meaning", the different schools of translation and just what translation actually is. It's still an accessible book (in the sense that you don't need a background in linguistics to understand it), but you do need to put in a bit of effort and attention.

The required effort and attention are well-rewarded, though. This is one I'd recommend.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart

>> Wednesday, September 13, 2017

TITLE: Airs Above the Ground
AUTHOR: Mary Stewart

COPYRIGHT: 1965
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: 1960s England and Austria
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

Lovely Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, did not think it was a strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. She never thought to look for her missing husband in Vienna -- until she saw him in a newsreel shot there at the scene of a deadly fire. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister.

Vanessa is propelled to Vienna by the shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve. But her hunt for answers only leads to more sinister questions in a mysterious world of white stallions of Vienna. But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel. And what waits for Vanessa in the shadows is more terrifying than anything she has ever encountered.
After feeling a bit lukewarm about Mary Stewart when I read her 10-15 years ago, reading This Rough Magic made me realise I'm a different person now, one for whom Mary Stewart's "thing" is right up her street. I'm going to start out by reading the ones I hadn't got to 10 years ago and then move on to rereads. Airs Above the Ground was top of the first list. Dancing horses, Austria and the circus? Yes, please!

Vanessa March is a young, relatively recently married woman. She and her husband are at that stage in their relationship where they are still working out how their marriage will function. Things are basically good, but there are annoyances -as the book starts, Lewis has cancelled a long-planned holiday to take a business trip to Stockholm, even though he and Vanessa had agreed that he was moving to a job requiring a lot less travel. Still, it's nothing serious. Or so Vanessa thinks.

At the cinema one day, while watching the newsreel they play right before the film (I loved that detail!), she catches sight of a man who looks just like Lewis, hovering round the scene of a deadly fire in a circus. Problem is, the fire happened in Vienna, not Stockholm. Vanessa becomes convinced this actually was Lewis, and when an opportunity arises to travel to Vienna, escorting the son of a friend who's going to his father, she grabs it.

I'm not going to say exactly where we go from there, because it's just too much fun finding out, but it won't surprise any Mary Stewart readers that, through a mix of sensible detective work and the odd coincidence, Vanessa ends up finding the right circus, and involved in much adventure and danger.

When I started this, I was a bit iffy when I saw we had a heroine already married to the romantic interest. The only other Stewart I remember like that is was Wildfire at Midnight, and I absolutely detested the romance there. I wanted to murder the cheating scumbag ex-husband. Airs Above the Ground is nothing like that. Lewis does have a bit of an arrogant streak, but he is refreshingly respectful of Vanessa and appreciative of her competence. He was also much nicer, and definitely not a cheat! So, you can be assured, the romance is a nice one!

Everything else is just as lovely. I really enjoyed the characters. Vanessa is the usual Mary Steward trademark plucky, resourceful heroine, which is always a plus. She's a vet, and extremely capable. Her expertise in that area is actually crucial in some of the plot developments, which was great. I did find it a bit disappointing that she did not practice her profession, but well, this is set in the early 60s, so that sort of thing wouldn't have been uncommon. And although we're not told anything at the end, I decided that after her adventures she would decide to do work in her area.

I also really liked Timothy, the young man Vanessa is escorting. Mary Stewart's children characters are always great fun, and though Tim is older than most of those characters (he's an older teenager), he fits that bill well. Tim has got his own agenda, and provides some really valuable help, and not just in helping Vanessa seem particularly harmless!

The setting is as wonderful as ever. Both the world of the circus and the Lippizzaners, I could see and smell and hear in my mind (although, unlike the original readers of this book in the 60s, I did have the advantage of YouTube to see just what Lippizzaner horses doing "airs above the ground" looks like -and wow!).

It's also quite a nice suspense plot. Well, the actual crime going on was a bit prosaic and not really interesting to me, but the adventure it sparked off was great.

This is Mary Stewart in good form, and one I'm sure I'll return to!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Rush Me, by Allison Parr

>> Monday, September 11, 2017

TITLE: Rush Me
AUTHOR: Allison Parr

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 246
PUBLISHER: Carina

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: New Adult romance
SERIES: Starts New York Leopards series

When post-grad Rachael Hamilton accidentally gate-crashes a pro-athlete party, she ends up face-to-face with Ryan Carter, the NFL's most beloved quarterback.

While most girls would be thrilled to meet the attractive young millionaire, Rachael would rather spend time with books than at sporting events, and she has more important things to worry about than romance. Like her parents pressuring her to leave her unpaid publishing internship for law school.

But when Ryan's rookie teammate attaches himself to Rachael, she ends up cohosting Friday-night dinners for half a dozen football players.

Over pancake brunches, charity galas and Alexander the Great, Rachael realizes all the judgments she'd made about Ryan are wrong. But how can a Midwestern Irish-Catholic jock with commitment problems and an artsy, gun-shy Jewish New Englander ever forge a partnership? Rachael must let down her barriers if she wants real love—even if that opens her up to pain that could send her back into her emotional shell forever.
Rachael Hamilton is a postgraduate student living in New York. One evening, while out with her roommate, she gets lost and walks into the wrong party. That party turns out to be hosted by Ryan Carter, an NFL player, and full of his fellow players and their entourages and groupies. Rachel is the intellectual, arty type, even a little bit snobbish. This is definitely not her scene, so she tries to extricate herself asap. But it's not easy, as one of Ryan's teammates, Abe, gloms onto her and is determined they should be friends (he's Jewish, like her, and no one in his peer group shares that background).

So as she helps him host Shabbat dinners and ends up slowly being sucked into the group's social life, Rachel is forced to see more of Ryan than she wants. And in spite of a really, really bad first impression, she starts to like him.

What I like in general about books in the New Adult genre is seeing young people starting to build a life in today's world. It's a different world to what it was like 15 years or so ago, when I was doing the same thing, and I love seeing this explored. I've really enjoyed the few NA books I've found that did that well. Unfortunately, this is not where the subgenre has gone, mostly. Instead of focusing on regular people who happen to be young, NA seems obsessed with celebrities. It's all 'regular girl falls in love with the rock star, the famous actor, the quarterback'. I find that tiresome.

Still, everything, even the most unpromising storyline, can be done well, so the fact that Ryan's a millionaire athlete is not necessarily a problem. It raises really interesting issues in terms of dealing with certain inequalities in a relationship. And to be fair, this was an element of the story. Rachael does find it hard to strike a balance between not wanting to sponge off Ryan and distancing herself from him (e.g. she never attends his away games because she can't afford to and feels uncomfortable asking him to pay, and Ryan feels this as Rachael stepping away from a real relationship). I just wish they had had a proper conversation about it, though, because I didn't feel these issues were resolved in a satisfying way There's a big fight which kind of skirts around these issues, but while Rachael, as the narrator, is very articulate about her feelings to us readers, she can't seem to communicate them to Ryan, and instead strikes out at him and is very hurtful (he's hurtful right back; it's an ugly fight).

The problem is, when they reconcile, they don't even touch on these issues. It's all 'I love you' and that's it. No acknowledgment that there are areas they still need to do something to resolve, which was worrying.

The other issue I had was the lack of chemistry. There's banter and there's hostility, and their relationship sometimes felt closer to the latter. It's mostly Rachael who's pretty bitchy, although Ryan can give as good as he gets (in his case, though, it's mostly defensive!). I did get a kick out of Rachael being so rude at times (as a general rule I'd much rather a bitchy heroine than a sweet, demure one), but she went over into properly mean and cruel in certain situations, and that wasn't ok. I couldn't really get what the attraction was, on either side. On Ryan's side, I could understand, I suppose, that here's one woman who doesn't fall all over herself to get to him, and that might have been a novelty, but that would only have gone so far. And if Rachael was honest about who she was and what she cared about, being with a celebrity football player would be the last thing she wanted to do. I didn't really feel they had made a connection below the surface and the physical attraction, I guess.

MY GRADE: It was a C+ for me. It had its moments, but didn't really work.

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The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, September 09, 2017

TITLE: The Reluctant Queen
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Fantasy
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 2nd in the Queens of Renthia series

Filled with political intrigue, violent magic, and malevolent spirits, the mesmerizing second book in Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia epic fantasy trilogy.

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

And those spirits want to kill you.

It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.

Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.

Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.

But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.

Sarah Beth Durst established a place of dark wonder in The Queen of Blood, and now the stakes are even higher as the threat to the Queen and her people grows both from within and beyond the borders of Aratay in this riveting second novel of the Queens of Renthia series.
Spoilers for book 1 in this review! I suggest you don't start here, go back to The Queen of Blood. It's worth it.

The Reluctant Queen starts as Deleina, still new in her role as Queen, discovers she's gravely ill. She's got something called the False Death, and seemingly a quite advanced case. It's an illness without a cure, which is bad enough, but the situation is particularly dangerous to the whole Kingdom of Aratay for two main reasons. One, the nature of the False Death means that when a fit is triggered Daleina falls into a sort of short-lived coma so intense that she appears to be dead, even to the spirits. And when the Queen is death, the spirits consider themselves released from her orders not to kill humans and go on a rampage until an Heir orders them to stop, or, in this case, until the Queen revives. Two, this is happening so soon after the Coronation Massacre that killed every heir but Daleina, that there hasn't been time to even find suitable Candidates, let alone Heirs.

Being the level-headed and responsible person that she is, and someone who always puts her Kingdom first, Daleina's first reaction is to tell her Champions and task them to do their best to find her a suitable Heir. It's going to be a challenge. They've got just a few months. So many of the best died in the Coronation Massacre, and after seeing what happened, there's been a bit of an exodus from the Academies, so most of the students there are basically children.

Champion Ven, accompanied by Captain Alet, of the Queen's Guard, soon realises there's no point in following the usual ways and trying to find his Candidate in one of the Academies. He decides the way to go is to find someone with power that somehow "missed out on her chance", as he puts it. Someone who, for whatever reason, didn't go the Academy route.

He finds just such a person in Naelin. A fully grown woman, married and with two young children, Naelin has a huge amount of raw, natural power. The thing is, she "missed out" on her chance to be a Candidate quite intentionally. Naelin has no interest in putting her life and that of her family in danger by mucking about with spirits. She knows how that turns out -with death and tragedy. She wants nothing better than a simple life where she can protect her children. So when her useless and ambitious husband betrays her by making her power clear to the visiting Champion, she's not at all interested in meekly going with them.

This second book is maybe not quite as fantastic as the first one, but that might be simply because that one surprised me so much with the freshness of its worldbuilding and the subversiveness of Durst's plotting and characterisation. Much of that is still the case here, the subversiveness most of all.

I just adore the way Durst refuses to do the expected, and that can be seen really clearly in how Naelin deals with her husband. He is truly bad as a husband. He's not mean or evil, but he's not at all interested in who Naelin really is and what she wants. When that becomes clear and Naelin realises she has given him one too many chances, she cuts him out of her life. She will not make him into a villain, since she knows he's not one, but he's just not the man for her. I still expected much angst about how the children need a father, and how horrible to destroy the family. I didn't get that. Naelin knows she's important as well. When she wavers, it's only for a minute, till she remembers the very good reasons why she left him in the first place.

I also liked that the book turned into a sort of mystery at one point, one related to Daleina's illness. It was all quite intriguing, and I really liked the way Durst found out of the seemingly impossible situation she'd created for her characters. It all clicked really well and made sense. There's a lot of darkness along the way (the spirits are still not light and fluffy), but as with the first book, things don't feel oppressive.

There was a particular storyline that I started out hating. It did improve, but it was still probably the weakest element in the book. Hamon, ready to try anything if it increases the chances of finding a cure for Daleina, grits his teeth and gets in touch with his mother. See, his mother is an incredibly amoral and just as incredibly talented herbalist. She can create potions to do pretty much anything, and she does. Hamon ran away from her after she used his developing talents in her crimes, and he's taken pains to avoid her finding out where he is, but needs must. So the woman arrives at the castle and is set to work, in a tower room with several guards at the door, to analyse Daleina's blood. I found myself really disliking this. First of all, Hamon's mother is portrayed as a bit too all-powerful. There's nothing she can't do, including pretty much mind control. I hate having characters like that in my books. Secondly, Hamon's precautions are a bit lackadaisical. He warns the guards about her, but he does it in a way that seems calculated not to have the right effect. Just "do not touch her, do not take anything she tries to give you", but no explanation as to why. It's as if he's trying to make them not take him seriously. Would it have been so difficult to explain that it's because she can create and has previously been known to use potions that can do this and that, and that she can administer them in very creative ways? As a result of Hamon's poor communication, Daleina's sister pretty much immediately falls under his mother's spell, her mind manipulated by potions. Sigh. Fortunately, this does get resolved before I feared, but it goes on for half the book.

Still, that is a relatively minor flaw. It's a very satisfying book, and I really enjoyed the last little bit, right after all had been resolved. It's a very clear instance of sequel-baiting, but it was so intriguing that I didn't mind.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Kulti, by Mariana Zapata

>> Thursday, September 07, 2017

TITLE: Kulti
AUTHOR: Mariana Zapata

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 570
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

“Trust me, I’ve wanted to punch you in the face a time or five.”

When the man you worshipped as a kid becomes your coach, it’s supposed to be the greatest thing in the world. Keywords: supposed to.

It didn’t take a week for twenty-seven-year-old Sal Casillas to wonder what she’d seen in the international soccer icon—why she’d ever had his posters on her wall, or ever envisioned marrying him and having super-playing soccer babies.

Sal had long ago gotten over the worst non-break-up in the history of imaginary relationships with a man that hadn’t known she’d existed. So she isn’t prepared for this version of Reiner Kulti who shows up to her team’s season: a quiet, reclusive, shadow of the explosive, passionate man he’d once been.

Nothing could have prepared her for the man she got to know.

Or the murderous urges he brought out in her.

“Sal, please don’t make me visit you in jail. Orange isn’t your color.”

This was going to be the longest season of her life.
I should have known better. I did supect from what the reviews (even those from people who loved the book) said about the writing style that this wouldn't be for me. But I was seduced by the football plot and by other comments people made: about the heroine, about the set-up. And there were no surprises. I liked what I expected to like, but the writing was too big a problem for me to be able to even finish the book.

Sal Casillas is a soccer player (I had to get over my instincts to use the word 'soccer' rather than 'football' here, but this does take place in the US, so that's the right term for what Sal does). She plays as professionally as the vast majority of women players do, which means she juggles a day job around the very professional training and playing schedules. I liked that the struggle of doing this this is not what the story is about. This is a fact of life, and Sal deals with it. She likes her day job (running a landscaping business with a friend), it's not a big deal.

As the book starts, Sal receives the news that her team has hired Rainer Kulti as a coach. Kulti is a recently retired football superstar. I'm not sure who to compare him to -maybe Zlatan, but better looking? Possibly David Beckham, only a properly good player? (Sorry, Liverpool fan here). Sal has a bit of a complicated history with him, only one he's not really aware of. She idolised him when she was a girl, but that flew out of the window when her brother (also a pro football player) got a career-damaging injury at Kulti's hands (or rather, feet).

Still, Sal can't help but be super excited about working with Kulti. That is, until he actually arrives. He is, undeniably, a bit of a dick. He doesn't engage with people, he's abrupt and rude, and he doesn't coach, just criticise. But then circumstances bring them together, and a friendship begins to develop.

I tried, and tried, and tried with this book. I just couldn't. There was so much to like here (like Sal herself, and the plot), and in the hands of a more polished writer, or someone with a more forceful editor, I might have loved it. The way Zapata actually wrote it, sorry, but no.

For starters, it's slow. I don't mind a low-key, leisurely pace, but this was ridiculous. Whole paragraphs of extraneous, pointless detail. Description of events and conversations that added nothing to characterisation or plot. And way, way too much time spent inside Sal's head. Which brings me to...

The writing style really, really wasn't for me. It's from the EL James school of writing. No, no, it's not as horrendously awful as 50 Shades, but it reminded me of it in that it's very heavy on the snarky stream of consciousness interior monologue and the heroine talking to herself. There's tons of that in between pretty much every line of dialogue, to the point that you forget what was the last thing said by the time you get to the next one. It didn't help that Sal's mind, as portrayed on the page, is really chaotic. I liked her fine, but being in her mind was exhausting, and I hated being there. I was reduced to almost screaming at the book "Stop saying 'poop'!!!" (that was her very mature way of trying to prevent freaking out when confronted with Kulti: saying 'poop' in her mind a lot. Not as part of sentences, just 'poop').

Beyond that, Kulti never came alive as a character for me. That might have been because any development of his character happens after I stopped reading (at about the 40% mark), but in the parts I read, he's just mysterious and dickish. I also didn't really buy him as a professional footballer. His career didn't quite make sense (it doesn't help that in this world the biggest competition seems to be something called the Altus Cup, played by club teams, not national teams, and happening every 3 years. It was hard to relate it to anything real), and his post-career choices were pretty much inconceivable for a man supposed to have been such a superstar.

I did love Sal and her no-nonsense, take-no-shit attitude towards Kulti (when she was not freaking out in her mind). I was also interested in what was going on in her career, why she'd been elbowed out of the national team and how that was going to be resolved. That made me keep going for longer than I should. Ultimately, though, it wasn't worth it.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Steerswoman series (books 1-4), by Rosemary Kirstein

>> Tuesday, September 05, 2017

I picked up the first in the Steerswoman series after reading a review in Eyrie.org (this is a site I don't see mentioned much at all, probably since it's pretty low-key, but I've been following it for many years it's led me to quite a lot of wonderful books, mostly in the fantasy/sci-fi and non-fiction genres). I had never heard of Rosemary Kirstein and never heard of this series before reading the review. Having finished all 4 available books now, I can tell you they should be much better known!

The books were written over quite a long period. The first two came out in 1989 and 1992, while the last were published in 2003 and 2004. And I really should note here that the series is not yet complete (I didn't know that when I started, as I only read the review of book 1). We do have a fair bit of resolution and closure by the end of book 4, so it still feels satisfying, but if you don't want to get into a series that might never been completed (I think Kirstein is supposed to be working on another book, but it's been 13 years...), this might not be for you.

Onto the books themselves, then! They are set in a world that feels vaguely medieval. Rowan, our main protagonist, is a Steerswoman. Steerswomen are part of an order devoted to seeking out, sharing and preserving knowledge. Some of their number work in archives, doing mostly the preserving part, but Rowan is one of the many who spend their time travelling. She talks to people and finds out stuff, basically, which she then makes sure is written down and gets to the archives. If she finds anything interesting or remarkable, her job is to investigate it and understand it, using her extensive training about how to think and reason.

Steerswomen have some fascinating rules about how they operate. They must answer truthfully any questions they are asked. In exchange, anyone they interact with must, in turn, answer Steerswomen's questions just as truthfully. If anyone refuses to answer a question, or the Steerswoman realises they have lied, then that person is placed under the Steerswomen's ban. No Steerswoman will answer any of their questions. This is a world where the Steerswomen's knowledge is considered extremely valuable (they are welcomed pretty much everywhere and will often not have to pay for anything), so the ban is something most people want to avoid.

The exception are the wizards. The wizards are the only ones in this world who have magic, and they hold themselves apart. They are extremely powerful, and operate sort of as a kind of nobility, the ones who control territory and have carved up the entire country amongst themselves. The wizards refuse to answer any questions from Steerswomen, and no one knows what they're about. They're, as a class, all under the ban.

So, that's the setup. As the first book starts, Rowan is puzzling over some strange flat blue jewels she's found over the years. They're like nothing she's seen elsewhere, and she's very intrigued by the pattern of where they've been found. It seems almost as if they've been flung with great force and from a strange point of origin. As she begins to investigate in earnest, it becomes clear wizards are trying to kill her. And it's just as clear this has got something to do with the jewels, which only makes Rowan more determined to find out what they are.

Right at the start of the book, Rowan meets an Outskirter named Bel. Bel owns a belt with some of the blue jewels encrusted in it, and it's her information about where those were found that leads to Rowan deciding to investigate properly -and consequently, puts the wizards after her. Bel is intrigued by the whole thing, and suggests she join Rowan on her travels for a while. The Outskirters are a nomadic people who live in, well, the outskirts of the 'civilised' world. They are known for being fierce warriors, and those of the Inner Lands who leave close to the edge fear them, as they are prone to raiding. Someone like Bel is useful to have around when people are trying to kill you, plus, Rowan recognises and likes the curiosity and intelligence in Bel.

Later on they're also joined by a young man named William, who comes from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. William has managed to teach himself some magic, and is determined to parlay that into a better life and become a wizard's apprentice.

The books all follow Rowan, sometimes with Bel and/or William, sometimes not, as she works to solve the mystery of the jewels. And what she finds out is quite earthshattering, something that will change her entire conception of how her world works.

It's a fabulous series. The worldbuilding is fresh and complex, and really intriguing, which I hope will be obvious from my description above. But what really makes these books are the characters. The worldbuilding and revelations are perfectly integrated into the story of characters who feel well-developed and who we come to care about very deeply. It's not just about what we find out, it's about the process, and about how that affects people and their worldview.

Rowan is just awesome. She's intelligent and determined and brave. I loved her complete devotion to knowledge, because it's driven by a very ethical and idealistic and, well, humanistic worldview. She's devoted to knowledge because she believes it will make people's lives better, and because she therefore believes they have a right to it. I just loved seeing her think. She's an extremely logical person, and Kirstein made me believe in the thought processes that led her way, way out of her sphere of experience and into the completely inconceivable.

Bel is also fantastic, and makes a perfect foil for Rowan. She's just as intelligent, but more intuitive, more adventurous. She brings Rowan back to Earth when she occasionally goes off into the abstract plain, and her real-world knowledge and understanding of people are crucial in helping Rowan achieve her mission.

Book 1, The Steerswoman, functions as set-up and introduction, but without it feeling like mere worldbuilding. There is a proper plot and we get enough resolution, and we also find out some initial answers (e.g. we find out what the jewels are and have a pretty good idea of where they came from). So it's one where, even if you decide not to go on, you'll have had some satisfaction if you stop there. But you really shouldn't stop there, because...

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret, is by far the best out of all four. I'm not sure how Kirstein gets it to work so well, because the set-up is not necessarily promising. Having found some answers in the previous book, Rowan decides she needs to go visit the area where the jewels in Bel's belt were found. This is way beyond the civilised world, in an area of the Outskirts that is remote even to Outskirters themselves. It's a dangerous journey, so she joins Bel's tribe, which is headed in that general direction, for part of the way.

There is a lot of travelling here, and a lot about Rowan exploring Outskirter culture and customs. That's the bulk of the book. That can be episodic and boring, but here, it absolutely isn't. It's all fascinating and gripping, and there are several moments that brought me close to tears (the scene where new people are brought into the clan, and the way the recitation of ancestors worked to do that... wow!). And then we come to the resolution of the book, which was just awesome, full of danger and massive revelations, and left me gasping in astonishment. It's a wonderful book, and one where, weeks later, I still relive certain scenes.

Book 3, The Lost Steersman, was a bit of a letdown, after the wonder that was The Outskirter's Secret. Rowan is back to the Inner Lands, and stops at one of the Archives. The Steerswoman who was supposed to be in charge of it has died and no replacement has been sent, which is a problem, since the woman had done a piss-poor job of organising and preserving new material. Rowan's efforts to sort out the records, while finding anything that will help with her mission, are interrupted by increasingly frequent attacks on the town by monsters from the Outskirts, and Rowan is determined to use her skills as a Steerswoman to help the town survive.

There's a lot of good stuff here. I liked Rowan's conflicted relationship with the townspeople. They were used to the previous Steerswoman, who might have been terrible at her job, but was the beating heart of town life. When Rowan comes in, with her efficiency and proper Steerswoman attitude, they resent her. I also loved seeing Rowan using her logic to solve the problem of the monsters. Unfortunately, at one point the book becomes all about the monsters, and there's a much-too-long section of exploration related to them. There's also the Lost Steersman of the title (yes, there are some male ones, although not many at all). All in all, although enjoyable enough to read, this one felt like a bit of detour, with little progression on the overarching plot.

Book 4, The Language of Power, brings us back to the main plot. Rowan has realised she needs to find a particular wizard, and the book builds up to a major confrontation. The focus here is in what we find out about the wizards and what they do, and there are many, many revelations here about the main plot (even if not everything is resolved, Rowan does get a long way towards understanding). For the first time since book 1, we get Rowan working together with both Bel and William (who's spent several years working with the wizards and has learnt a whole lot), which felt lovely.

I think my favourite element about this book is (again!) seeing Rowan using her reason to grasp stuff that is just out of her experience completely. Kirstein manages to make it feel believable. It's not easy, and yet when Rowan makes leaps, it feels plausible. It was great fun to read.

And now we get into a more spoilery part, which is one of the main attractions of the series: the particular idea it explores. I'll mark this section with a spoiler warning, but I will say that it was obvious to me that this was the theme being explored from relatively early in the first book, so it's not something that will ruin the books if you find out.

Ready? Spoiler starts: So, basically, Kirstein is playing with Arthur C. Clarke's third law, which states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Turns out that this is some sort of post-apocalyptic world, where the secrets of the extremely advanced technology of the civilisations that came before were somehow (and we don't quite learn how yet) preserved by a small group of people, the wizards. Those people have kept a monopoly over that knowledge, and turned it into the basis of their power.

It's a simple premise, but it lets Kirstein do so, so much. There's the contrast between the Steerswomen's attitude to knowledge and that of the wizards. There's the fascinating process through which theories are formed and then accepted about the unexplained. And in almost opposition to that, there's the exploration of the power of logic and reason in the face of the same unexplained. It's beautifully done, and I got enormous amounts of satisfaction from it.Spoiler ends.

I was also particularly impressed by how Kirstein handled a main character who knows less than the reader. As soon as we cotton onto the basics of what's going on, we're able to make very good guesses about explanations for certain things that leave Rowan and her friends baffled. Seeing them gradually almost stumble towards what is obvious to us could have felt frustrating. It never is. Instead, I felt wonder and admiration for Rowan's sharp, sharp mind.

In sum, read this. It's worth it.

MY GRADES:

Book 1, The Steerswoman (1989): B+

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret (1992): A-

Book 3, The Lost Steersman (2003): B

Book 4, The Language of Power (2004): B+

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Dukes Prefer Blondes, by Loretta Chase

>> Sunday, September 03, 2017

TITLE: Dukes Prefer Blondes
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 372
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: 1830s England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Dressmakers series (a bit of a spinoff of it).

Biweekly marriage proposals from men who can't see beyond her (admittedly breathtaking) looks are starting to get on Lady Clara Fairfax's nerves. Desperate to be something more than ornamental, she escapes to her favorite charity. When a child is in trouble, she turns to tall, dark, and annoying barrister Oliver Radford.

Though he's unexpectedly found himself in line to inherit a dukedom, Radford's never been part of fashionable society, and the blonde beauty, though not entirely bereft of brains, isn't part of his plans. But Clara overwhelms even his infallible logic, and when wedlock looms, all he can do is try not to lose his head over her . . .

It's an inconvenient marriage by ordinary standards, but these two are far from ordinary. Can the ton's most adored heiress and London's most difficult bachelor fall victim to their own unruly desires?
Loretta Chase has written some of my favourite books (I'm in the "Lord of Scoundrels is the best romance novel ever" camp), but in the last few years, she's become a bit hit or miss for me. I liked the first book in this series, but Chase does seem to have gone on the typical Avon preposterous, historically laughable, punnily-titled books route. I have to be in exactly the right mood to be able to stomach those, and even then, they don't always work for me. This one had elements that I really liked, but a bit too much that I didn't.

Lady Clara Fairfax is a woman dissatisfied with her life. She comes from a rich, aristocratic family and is incredibly beautiful (not to mention well-dressed, as the Noirot sisters have taken her under their wing), so she receives several wedding proposals a week. However, she feels trapped in the life expected for her. She wants to do something meaningful, and she's latched onto the idea of helping one of the girls attending a charity school she patronises. The girl's brother has been lured into a dangerous gang, and Clara is determined to rescue him.

To do that, she appeals to Oliver Radford, a barrister known for prosecuting cases protecting street children. He's an extremely intelligent man, known for not suffering fools gladly and making that obvious to anyone around him. He knows he should ignore Clara's request, but he can't quite ignore her. It's not that she's beautiful enough to make him dizzy, but that she clearly does have a very well-functioning brain.

The one thing I really liked about this book was the relationship between Clara and Oliver. These are two people who see each other very clearly and love what they see. They banter and quarrel, but both give as good as they get. It was actually loads of fun to see them spar. I also loved that Oliver really does get Clara's dissatisfaction with the restricted life of a noblewoman, and supports her in her desire to break out of it. There are a couple of instances where his protective instincts overrule what he knows is right in that respect, but as soon as he can think straight he's willing to admit he was wrong.

The problem was pretty much everything else outside of the romance. And unfortunately, Chase doesn't really do as much with Clara and Oliver as she could (e.g. I enjoyed the idea of the trial, when basically Oliver puts himself on trial before Clara's parents to defend himself against their "charges", the reasons why they don't think he's a good prospect for their daughter. But that is dispensed with in just a couple of pages). That means there is a lot of other stuff. And this stuff goes from pointless and boring to offensive, sometimes all three.

There is a truly tedious and preposterous plot about this guy who's head of a criminal gang who wants to kill Oliver. I'm really not quite sure why he's so obsessed with that idea, particularly as it's a very good way of getting all the police after him, but we're supposed to accept this. So we get a lot of this guy and his young minions plotting to get Oliver and how they're going to use Clara to get at him. None of it made much sense, and there was something about the tone in which this plot is told that felt really distasteful. It's this arch, snarky tone, trying but failing to be funny, because it's clearly showing the ways these people's lives are horrible. I hated every sentence of this plot thread, and unfortunately, this crap takes over the entire last fifth or so of the book. I was very tempted to skim.

There's also a subplot about Oliver's father unexpectedly inheriting a dukedom, and Clara having to help them cope. She's been basically trained to be a duchess, so she's supposedly in her element, organising their household and their new social position. It was boring, and I resented the fact that this had happened at all. The message is that being the wife of a relatively prosperous barrister is not good enough to be a happy ending for a romance heroine, that it's not a happy ending if there isn't a title involved. Sigh.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, September 01, 2017

TITLE: Home Fire
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother's death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can't stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters' lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz's salvation? Two families' fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.
More reading from the Man Booker longlist.

This is a novel with a message. It has points it wants to make. Too often, books for which this is the case end up being diatribes, or they end up being purely novels of ideas, with characters who feel like puppets, only there to make particular points or represent a particular viewpoint.

Home Fire is that rare beast where the message is just as strong as the story and the characters. The message is revealed through characters who feel real and act in ways that are well-motivated and understandable. They are human, people who may want to do the right thing, but often make decisions that are not so great, but for understandable reasons. And through their feelings and actions, the message shines through powerfully.

The book is also a retelling of a classical story, the myth of Antigone. The theme explored in Antigone is basically the conflict between the law of the land and natural law. What happens when our obligations to the state and our obligations to those we love clash? That's the background theme in Home Fire as well, but it's not quite what the book is about. That background theme is used to illustrate what the book is really about: what is it like to be British-Pakistani in today's Britain? We explore this through the eyes of several characters, all of whom bring a different perspective.

Isma is the older sister in the Pasha family. Their father was a jihadi who died on his way to Guantanamo when the children were very young (and this particular plot point made me feel quite old!). Isma and the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, grew up with only their mother, who died herself when the twins were still very young. Isma was in university at the time, and had to give up further education to raise her brother and sister. As the book starts, the twins are 19 and Isma feels they're old enough that she can go back to her own life and follow her dreams. She's been accepted to do a Master's degree in a university in the US.

While there, she befriends a young man called Eamonn. Eamonn happens to be the son of a well-known politician in the UK, Karamat Lone, who's also of Pakistani background (the name Eamonn does make sense: his mother is Irish, and the use of a non-Pakistani name for his son fits very well with Karamat's personality). Karamat has just been named Home Secretary (for American readers, this is sort of like being head of Homeland Security in the US, or Minister for the Interior, in the case of several other countries). This leads to Isma being a bit nervous about becoming friends with Eamonn, as there's not just the issue of her father, but that of her brother. You see, not long before Isma left, the family found out that Parvaiz had not travelled to Pakistan to visit family, but had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to join Islamic State. And the story goes from there.

Isma is 'the good immigrant' (she's not an immigrant, she's British, but you know what I mean). With her it's all about conciliation and following the rules to show she's well-integrated, nothing to fear. When she's interrogated in Heathrow airport for such a long time that she misses her flight to the US, she's annoyed, but she still answers the questions straight, no matter how offensive. Her attitude is very much "Accept the law even when it is unjust.".

Aneeka is very different. She rebels against the injustices her sister accepts,and doesn't hesitate to let that be known. To her, the injustice in the ways she's treated for being a hijab-wearing Muslim is something to be resisted and fought against, even if that makes those around her uncomfortable.

Karamat is the immigrant whose strategy to be accepted and respected is to become more Catholic than the Pope. He renounces his background and, as Home Secretary,  he's tougher on those he sees as betraying Britain than many native-born people would be.

Eamonn, Karamat's son, was probably the least distinct character for me. He's the one who feels like he has integrated fully, and his Pakistani background means very little to him. He's part of Britain's elite, and he feels perfectly comfortable, if somewhat unsatisfied there.

And finally, Parvaiz. Parvaiz is the unmoored, a young man desperate for belonging, for a community where he's accepted, for a family. He's naive, and his desperation leads him to believe what he shouldn't have and end up in Raqqa, where all his illusions about what he's joining are quickly destroyed. He wants to come back home. But because of anti-terror laws passed by people like Karamat, he can't. For people like Parvaiz, a single mistake made as a teenager will destroy his life.

Or at least, that is what the narrative is telling us. I struggled with the character of Parvaiz. I don't think I had as much sympathy for him as I was supposed to have. Yes, I understood his motivations and bought that he'd acted out of idealism and naivete. Shamsie's portrayal of the grooming process rang true, and I could believe that even a good young man in Parvaiz's situation would have been vulnerable. His groomers use the void that exists where his father should have been. I also found interesting that they paint a very idealistic picture of what life in the caliphate is, and they do this by using exactly the sorts of arguments a that would appeal to a young man whose previous political activities have been limited to campaigns to save the local library. "Look at all those cuts here, the Tories are destroying the wonderful welfare state that was this country, wouldn't you love to live somewhere where this is done properly?" Of course they wouldn't emphasise the barbarity, the religious oppression, to someone like Parvaiz.

And yet! All that being said, I couldn't quite travel all the way to the idea that his mistake should be forgiven and he should be able to come back, as I suspect I might have been meant to. It's not so much a matter of the fact that he's associated himself with agents who oppose what's supposed to be his own country, betrayed Britain, so to speak, but the fact of the brutality and barbarity of IS. That is just too much. And I kept thinking 'He should have known. At every point when I felt sympathy for him, my brain just went to the accounts of Yazidi women who have been captured by IS and forced to become sex slaves. And my brain would go 'Nope'. Just no.

At the same time, I suspect I sympathised with Karamat more than I was meant to. I think I may have been supposed to consider him an egotistic monster, who only cares about power and doesn't care about who he destroys to get it. I didn't. I thought he was a man who was genuinely trying to get the best outcome for British Muslims, only with a very dogmatic idea of what the best way to accomplish acceptance as an integral part of Britain is. He's taken a particular approach, and thinks it's the one everyone should take. Those are not the actions of a monster, but of an arrogant man. He is trying to do the right things, it's just that his values were not quite the same as mine.

The wonder of Home Fire, though, is that this did not affect my enjoyment of the book one jot. I didn't need to agree with a particular viewpoint to feel the power of the story. Even not agreeing with Aneeka that it was an absolute injustice that her brother should not be able to return home to her, her plight still resonated. Even if my own view was a little bit closer to Karamat's than the narrative assumed, the plot worked. The book made me think and made me feel in ways that very few books achieve, and it felt profoundly satisfying.

Before I close, a quick note on the Antigone connection. I knew when I started that this was supposed to be a retelling of that story, so I had a very good idea of the basics of where the plot was going and what the conflict would be. I read Jean Anhouil's WWII-set version of the story for my French class when I was in secondary school, and that was seared in my mind. I think this might be even better. The motivations felt even more understandable, and the story didn't feel derivative. Shamsie takes the themes and basic setup from the Antigone story, but does not feel beholden to follow them exactly. She eliminates the character of one of Antigone and Ismene's brothers, and thus changes slightly the nature of the crime the other brother has committed and is being punished for. She also creates a father for Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz whose backstory is key to Home Fire, but has very little relationship to that of OEdipus. And most of all, she does her own thing with the ending, which makes much more sense and is possibly more powerful with the changes Shamsie makes. It's wonderfully done.

This one shoots up straight to the top of my favourites of all the ones I've read from the longlist so far, and I'd be shocked (and delighted) if I like any others as much.

MY GRADE: An A.

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