Three

Title: Three

Author: Annemarie Monahan

Summary: One yellow April morning, a 17-year-old girl asks herself, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” What she decides will send her life in one of three directions.

That morning is long past. Now she is 41.

On one life path, she is Kitty. She’s been happily married for 23 years. Happily enough. Until Faye, her professor, kisses her.

On another path, she is Katherine, a physician. After the death of an old love, she contacts the one lover who still haunts her: a woman who renounced her for God.

On a third, she calls herself Antonia. She’s barely survived the implosion of a lesbian utopian commune, one built on an abandoned oil rig.

Who are we? Who haven’t we been? Have we dared? Three of one woman’s possible lives are about to collide.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I can’t remember when, where, or how i came across this book, but i’m so glad i did, because i loved it. I was immediately sucked in, instantly fascinated by these three women in their opening chapters and ready to read more.

The chapters alternate between the three women and their lives, sharing their pasts and presents. As different as they all are, there are traits they all share. For example, they are all very observant: Katherine as a doctor, noting symptoms and concerns to easily diagnose the ailment and the patient’s motivations; Kitty as an expert shopper, getting the best bargains and stocking piling while she can; and Antonia as a clairvoyant on a psychic telephone hotline, using her ability to read people so well even over the phone to rack up the longest call times and the biggest pay cheques. I loved all three of them, in their own ways. I was never disappointed when one character’s chapter ended, only happy to dive right into the next.

Although all, originally, the same woman, that peach took them each on different journeys. And despite the fact it is relationships and love that each of them are struggling with in their stories, they are all exploring different aspects of that. Antonia wants to help save the woman she loves from herself as well as a group of well-meaning but self-destructive earth child hippies, but at the expense of herself. Katherine is contemplating lost love, things left unsaid, and the different experiences people have of the same events. Kitty is finally allowing herself to wake up and explore aspects of her own desire she has kept so well-hidden. There is something here everyone should be able to relate to.

The writing is wonderful. It is clever and witty and poetic and meaningful–and i’m still not sure how it manages to be all those things at once, but it does. And it reads so effortlessly that it was simply a joy to pick up. This was a book i didn’t want to put down, but it was also a book i was enjoying enough to want to make it last. I think i managed quite well, finishing at a sedate pace of 10 days. But i still want to be reading it now.

The only place the book faltered was in the final few short chapters, when each woman’s story was, in a manner of speaking, ‘wrapped up’. At this point the writing became overly poetic and lost some of its meaning; it veered from the story and the point a little in an attempt to be sincere and significant, but succeeded only in being vague and inconsequential.

As far as i’m aware this is the only book by Monahan, but it want more of her words. They were, on the whole, perfection.

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Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Title: Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Author: Adam Marek

Summary: Robotic insects, in-growing cutlery, flesh-serving waiters in a zombie cafe… Welcome to the surreal, misshapen universe of Adam Marek’s first collection; a bestiary from the techno-crazed future and mythical past; a users’ guide to the seemingly obvious (and the world of illogic implicit within it). Whether fantastical or everyday in setting, Marek’s stories lead us down to the engine room just beneath modern consciousness, a place of both atavism and familiarity, where the body is fluid, the spirit mechanised, and beasts often tell us more about our humanity than anything we can teach ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I don’t even remember how, where, or why i came across this book, but it obviously intrigued me enough to add it to my wish list, because i got it for my birthday a couple of years ago. It was recently moved swiftly up the ‘to read’ list when it was mentioned at a short story workshop i attended. One of the exercises was to take two things that you would generally not mix and write a story about them (which his how i ended up writing about a first kiss at an exorcism!). This is, seemingly, what Marek does with these stories.

None of these stories are about what you expect. My favourite was Cuckoo, i think, because its elusiveness works so well; it has a well-rounded story that doesn’t give all of its pieces up at once. Robot Wasps and Meaty’s Boys are two that also sit strong in my mind. Meaty’s Boys is one of the longest stories in the book, but seemed to fly by in no time at all. It is also the story with the most well-built world. Though the world we glimpse in Robot Wars was fascinating and left me wanting to know more about it.

These weird little glimpses into strange quirky worlds are what i love about the best short stories. They don’t all make sense, they don’t all have an underlying message or meaning, and they don’t follow any kind of pattern. They’re mostly just light-hearted gems to while away a few minutes while you’re waiting for the bus. And if a few of them have any kind of depth to them, well, that’s a bonus for those who want to search for it.

I mostly dived into this book looking for inspiration for my own short story writing, and while i did find some of that, i also found doubt and uncertainty. What i found these stories mostly lacking was feeling. I found it easy, once i’d finished a story, to let go of it–to move on. I think that’s perhaps not the feeling i want my own stories to leave readers with, but i write things that are also a little off the wall and i’m starting to wonder… but that’s a whole other post.

The only other problem i had with some of these stories were a few of the male characters, who were off with other women, trying to recapture some bullshit emotions or shit, while leaving their long term partners at home literally holding the baby. I just can’t with these characters, and it makes me side-eye Marek a little that this is obviously so easy a character he can fall into writing.

But yes, silly, weird, and inspired short stories that made me laugh, intrigued, and inspired. Definitely want to read more.

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The Wendy Project

Title: The Wendy Project

Author: Melissa Jane Osborne (Writer), Veronica Fish (Illustrator)

Summary: What forces us to finally grow up?

16-year-old Wendy Davis crashes her car into a lake on a late summer night in New England with her two younger brothers, John and Michael, in the backseat. With Michael missing, Wendy struggles to negotiate fantasy and reality as students and adults around her resemble characters from Neverland. Given a sketchbook by her therapist, Wendy starts to draw “The Wendy Project.”

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I was drawn to this book both because of my own name in the title, and because of that gorgeous cover. The beauty continued on the inside, both in terms of the art and the story.

Following a car accident and a missing, presumed dead bother, Wendy begins to draw and write. She chronicles her life, emotions, and ways of coping. People in her life become characters–good, bad, mischievous–her trauma and loss becomes a story, a fantasy, a mystery to be solved. She tries to make things easier by fitting feelings and events into a narrative she can control, but she can’t control her characters.

The art is wonderful, whirling and fading between a grim reality and a bright make-believe. The use of colour is magnificent–it emanates from her journal and seeps into the life around her, into the people and places and objects. The colour is both what her life is missing and her escape from life. It’s just… really amazingly done, okay?

Wendy deals with so much, so beautifully in this book. Loss, love, depression, guilt, teenage romance, teenage angst, loneliness… and it’s all dealt with and portrayed in heartbreaking simplicity with a thread of hope throughout. I felt the depth of Wendy’s emotions, but not so much that i became upset myself. And i’m happy with that.

I devoured this book. It flowed so easily, i couldn’t help but keep reading. The story, the art, the colour… I couldn’t look away.

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A Closed and Common Orbit

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit

Author: Becky Chambers

Summary: Once, Lovelace had eyes and ears everywhere. She was a ship’s intelligence system – possessing a personality and very human emotions. But when her ship was badly damaged, Lovelace was forced to reboot and reset. Now housed in an illegal synthetic body, she’s never felt so isolated.

But Lovelace is not alone. Pepper, an engineer who risked her life to reinstall Lovelace’s program, has remained by her side and is determined to help her.

Because Pepper knows a think or two about starting over.

Pepper was born Jane 23, part of a slave class created by a rogue society of genetic engineers. At ten years old, she had never seen the sky. But when an industrial accident gave Jane 23 a chance to escape, she jumped at the opportunity to leave her captivity.

Now, recreated as Pepper, she makes it her mission to help Lovelace discover her own place in the world. Huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I loved everything about the first book in the Wayfarers series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And i am indescribably happy that i can say the same thing for this stand-alone sequel.

Where Angry Planet gave us several main characters, flew us all over the galaxy, and introduced us to multiple worlds, species, and cultures, Common Orbit focuses on two main characters and remains firmly on the ground of two planets. The book still offers so much about this universe–more species and cultures and day-to-day details–but along with that, it focuses more on the depth of and the connection between the two main characters. It immerses the reader more fully into the lives and planets of these two, and they are fascinating places to be.

I loved all the characters, which was a surprise and a delight. Sidra was intelligent and thoughtful, though at times quite stubborn and short-sighted. She occasionally read like a selfish teenager having a tantrum, but as a freshly re-booted AI in a new synthetic human body, i read it as her developing much like biological humans do–and being a moody, selfish teenager is a part of that. Pepper was brilliant. Caring, selfless, intuitive. We see her literally through her moody teenage years and out the other side. The parallels drawn and differences highlighted between Sidra and Pepper, and their respective time lines, were the true essence of the book for me. What it means to be human–what is means to be alive–what it means to be. The supporting characters were all wonderful. Sweet, steadfast Blue; cautious, open-minded Tak; and my favourite… patient, selfless Owl.

The book switches between Pepper’s past, and Sidra’s present. Pepper’s story made me cry. Many times. Her story spans both time lines, and knowing what’s to come in the past, and what’s driving her in the present… I won’t lie, i had to skip ahead to make sure things worked out for her.

It’s the themes explored and represented in this book, as with the first, that really excite me and set this book apart. Sex-shifting, cloning and genetic modification, multi-parenting, bartering, the ethics of artificial intelligence… These things are such a part of the world and the story, and approached in such respectful, thought-provoking ways. I can’t explain how much i love this.

This book is just as good as the first, and has cemented Chambers as an auto-buy author for me. With a third book in this series on the way, i am rather freaking excited for more!

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A Monster Calls

Title: A Monster Calls

Author: Patrick Ness

Summary: The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4.5/5

Review: When i bought this book from my local comic book shop, the guy behind the counter warned me to have a box of tissues nearby when i read it. He wasn’t wrong.

The story is a simple one, but one well told, with depth and meaning not immediately obvious. It’s hard, reading about Conor coping (or not) with his mother’s illness whilst also trying to navigate life with a grandmother he doesn’t get on with, fights with friends, stand offs with enemies, and an all but absent father. His visits from the monster are almost a relief… taking him out of that world, but still, abstractedly, dealing with the issues from it.

This is a book that deals so well with grief, and loss, and change, and all the messy human emotions that people experience. And it does that so, so well. Never heavy-handed, never too vague. The story is a dark one, but manages to tell it with a certain lightness–an approachable ease; it wasn’t really until three quarters of the way through that it hit me in gut and pulled hard at my emotions.

And the artwork… they are something to get lost in. The full page spreads are packed with detail and texture, while the smaller pieces blend and weave with the words to make a more immersive reading experience. All the artwork is in black and white, and though in some ways that seems stark, in more ways it only enhances the importance of the story being told. The images are striking and bold while never drawing too much attention away from the words.

The end… well. The reader knows what’s coming, just like Conor. And just like Conor, it’s not easy to go through. But it is important.

I do think this is a five-star book, but i just can’t bring myself to give it five stars. It’s a very good and important book, but it’s also a hard book. It’s sad, and although i loved and appreciate it… i can’t celebrate it. If that makes any sort of sense?

Nimona

nimonaTitle: Nimona

Author: Noelle Stevenson

Summary: Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic.

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: In contrast to the last book i read, i had no expectations of this one. I heard about it somewhere, thought it looked fun, bought it. By the time i finally picked it up to read, well… i was in love by the end of page two.

Where do i start? It’s hard when i really did love everything about this book. Its premise is wonderfully subversive. Our two main characters are the villains, working to expose and overthrown the heroes and their institution. It’s been said that to the villain of a story, they see themselves as the protagonist–in this book, they are the protagonists. And this book is funny. Perfectly, wonderfully, brilliantly funny. Just the perfect about of silly, heartfelt and witty.

Nimona is an absolute joy. She’s straight-talking, smart, silly and brave. She can be any shape she wants to, and as standard she chooses a plus-size, shaven-head, short-skirt-wearing kick-arse woman. She is my favourite. Blackheart is a bloody sweetheart! Sad and angry about his past, he’s a villain who lacks the passion for evil, while constantly showing compassion. I could happily read about this crime-committing duo for many, many more comics.

Ambrosius… has a fantastic name. He was purposely vapid at first, i think–a play on the attractive but ultimately dull hero. As his past with Blackheart is revealed, however, he becomes more complex, interesting, and likable. His and Blackheart’s relationship was wonderfully played out, so subtle but with such depth. Blitzmeyer is another delight. Incredibly smart and incredibly peculiar, she won me over swiftly. I only wish there had been more of her.

The art in this comic was enchanting. Bright, bold, and clear, with cute little details like Nimona’s piercings, Blackheart’s scars, and subtle use of shades. I often wanted to whizz quickly over panels to follow the story i was so engrossed in, but i kept making myself pause to fully appreciate the action- and emotion-focused panels. They are gorgeous. The sketches at the end of the book are lovely, too. To see the development and evolution of Nimona, and how that is reflected in her various hair dos, poses and facial expressions was nice to have.

Honestly, i don’t have a bad word to say about this book. Which is why it’s got five stars. The only (very mildly) annoying thing about the entire experience is that i’ve spent the last few days with Guster’s Ramona in my head… “Nimona, where have you been?”

Lagoon

lagoonTitle: Lagoon

Author: Nnedi Okorafor

Summary: A star falls from they sky. A woman rises from the sea. The world will never be the same.

Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria’s legendary mega-city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.

But when something like a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they’ve never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: Science fiction, gorgeous cover, female POC author–i was all over this book! I also already had my eye on several other books by Okorafor, and really wanted to enjoy her writing enough to want to rush out and get them. Suffice it to say, my hopes and expectations were high, and i think it was those expectations that let it down the most.

The opening was great. Being in the point of view of a sea creature, but not fully knowing which, why or what they were doing was intriguing. It was these small, seemingly random points of views throughout the book that i enjoyed the most. The swordfish, the bat, the monsters, spider the artist, the unspecified humans and aliens amongst the chaos of Lagos. I could have read and enjoyed the entire book told this way, to be honest. On the flip side of this, I found the point of view shifts between the main characters a bit choppy. Sometimes the point of view would switch mid-chapter or even mid-paragraph, which could be jarring and hard to following. Though overall i did enjoy getting to know all the characters through their own points of view.

The characters were… lacklustre, honestly. Adaora, Anthony and Adu all felt rather composed (both in themselves and as works of fiction). They expressed emotion, but in very muted and controlled ways–i never felt it along with them. Ayodele i enjoyed much more. She was also quite dispassionate, but as part of her character. She was rational, pragmatic, and realistic about events (most of the time…). After Ayodele, my favourite character by far was Kola. She was so curious and brave and lovely.

There were a lot of characters, but despite reading it quite bitty chunks and not picking up the book for stretches of days, i had no problems remembering who was who and what their story lines were. And of course, as the book’s cover suggests, the ocean creatures are important characters themselves–ones i would have liked to get to know a little more!

There is a lot going on in the book, a lot of threads and themes and ideas. They don’t all get fully explored; some are dropped in with little explanation and others barely hinted at. The concept of the monsters that were already here on earth and Udide Okwanka was one of the threads that interested me the most. The idea that they are here, that humans didn’t even know it, but the aliens seemed to understand them perfectly. We get very little information about them, and that both pleases and frustrates me.

In some ways, i was annoyed that the main storyline took away from these other themes and ideas–the parts of the book i wanted to know more about. The bulk of the book focused on our four main characters, but the plot did not seem to move very quickly. At times it felt like a struggle to pick up the book, not because i didn’t enjoy it, but because there was nothing driving it; i was not often left needing to know what happened next.

I definitely think i would have enjoyed this book more without putting so much of my own hope and expectation on it. And with that in mind, I do plan on venturing into more books by Okorafor. The question now is, which ones?

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Undermajordomo Minor

umdmTitle: Undermajordomo Minor

Author: Patrick deWitt

Summary: Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, he is a compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling. When Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, forbidding castle of the Baron Von Aux he meets thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and a puppy. He also meets Klara, a delicate beauty who is, unfortunately, already involved with an exceptionally handsome partisan soldier. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe. But Lucy must be cautious and lock his bedroom door, because someone, or something, is roaming the corridors of the castle late at night.

Undermajordomo Minor is a riotous blend of Gothic romance and macabre European fairy tale. It is a triumphant ink-black comedy of manners and a timeless account of that violent thing: love.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This is deWitt’s third novel. I adored the other two, which left me with high expectations for this one. Thankfully, i was not disappointed. If i had to choose one word to describe this book, i think i’d pick ‘weird’, but oh what a wonderful weird it is!

Without a doubt my favourite thing about this book are the conversations Lucy has with his boss, the majordomo, Mr Olderglough. They were just so… concise. Questions were asked, answers were given, and no judgements were ever made. They just seemed to click, but in a way where they never truly bonded, as that would require more words and expression than was necessary. Their dialogue stretched pages, and i spent the entirety of it smiling.

In each of his books deWitt has had a different, distinct and immersive narrative voice. This book’s, i think, is the most innocent. Lucy is young, starved of love and affection, but does not feel sorry for himself. He’s always looking forward and striving for better things, but without being obnoxious. He’s just… such a straightforward character and i kind of adore him.

All the characters were likeable, in their own ways. Even the ones i wasn’t supposed to like, i sort of did. I think it helped that there was no real tension in the book; even when something went badly, things were generally still okay. There were no heart-in-mouth moments, just a gentle bobbing of emotion. It made the book such a joy to read.

I really did feel the fairy tale vibe to the book, with the castle, the very large hole, the armies fighting over nothing they could articulate, and the general easy going flow of the narrative. Of course there were bits that wouldn’t belong in a children’s fairy tale, but those were the bits that added an eerie, dark and comedic aspect to the story. Love and death were the two big themes of the story, and despite the generally light and tension-free narrative, i think it dealt with them wonderfully. Mirroring and contrasting points within three different love triangles and rivalries, it all unfolds by the end.

And the end is perfect. For Lucy it is neither happy nor sad; it is the kind of ending i love. The kind of ending where i can imagine several ways things play out past the last words in the book, and i love all the options.

I’m already pining for the next book by deWitt. My expectations are only getting higher, but my fear of disappointment is cheerfully low.

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Castle in the Air

castle-in-the-airTitle: Castle in the Air

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Summary: Far to the south in the land of Ingary, loves Abdullah. By day he is a humble carpet merchant, but in his dreams he is a prince.

Abdullah’s dreams suddenly start to come true when he meets the lovely Flower-in-the-Night. When a hideous djinn carries her off into the sky, Adullah is determined to rescue her, if he can find her, and if he can avoid all the ferocious villains who seems to be after him. But how can he possibly succeed, with only a bad-tempered genie and an unreliable magic carpet to help him?

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: After being left nearly incoherent by my love for the first book, Howl’s Moving Castle, I was excited to get into this book. I soon came down to earth with a bump–this book is sadly not nearly as wonderful as the first.

My expectations had a big influence on my enjoyment. I wanted to see a lot of Sophie and Howl, after all they were the things i loved most about the first book. The blurb may be about Abdullah and his genie, but I’d imagined a lot of help or involvement from Sophie and Howl. Instead, they were only in it right at the end and not nearly enough to sate my want. Their missing presence is the really the biggest qualm i have.

However, despite the lack of my favourite characters, this book wasn’t perfect. The start dragged too much for my liking, with not enough excitement or disruption to keep me completely engrossed. When things did finally get shaken up, it was far too briefly and the narrative soon settled into doldrums for several more chapters. It isn’t until the final handful of chapters that things finally start happening, but then, because everything is happening, it all happens too quickly!

I did like most of the characters in this. Abdullah is a little timid, but endearingly determined, and his expressive and complimentary epithets were some kind of wonderful, often making me grin. Flower-in-the-Night, other than having a ridiculous name, was wonderful. A level-headed, intelligent female who didn’t need rescuing so much as she needed a few items to aid her own escape. In fact all the princesses were pretty awesome with getting on with shit, rather than bemoaning and waiting to be rescued. The solider was intriguing enough to keep me guessing, and i loved his love for the cats. Of course, by the end of the book, Sophie and Howl steal the show.

Despite a strong showing of capable and independent female characters, there was a certain aspect of the book i couldn’t quite stomach: the subtle sexism. The idea of men ‘owning’ women; of marrying several and giving daughters or relatives away to other men. I don’t care what era or culture is being represented, don’t include aspects like that if you’re not going to critiquing them. Also fat-shaming! Just… so many details that, though small and seemingly throwaway, disappointed and upset me.

As i own the third (and final!) book in this series, I do think i’ll read it. However my expectations will be suitably curbed following this reading experience. Is more Sophie and Howl really too much to ask for!?

Show Me the Map to Your Heart & Other Stories

comix-coverTitle: Show Me the Map to Your Heart & Other Stories

Author: John Cei Douglas

Summary: A collection of stories ranging from nostalgic coming of age tales to long distance relationships, being stranded on desert islands, coping with mental health problems and the childlike wonder of exploring fantasy worlds.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I picked this little book up at my local comic shop on a whim, and I’m utterly delighted with it. The whole book has this quiet, slowness about it. Reading it, i felt safe and warm and understood.

Several of the stories don’t have any words–no narration or dialogue–just the images of each frame to progress the story. I loved that, because it made me focus on the images more, to tease out what was happening through visuals alone. It also leaves the details of the story much more open to interpretation. Footnotes, for example, shows a couple in a long distance relationship gradually drifting apart, but without insight into their thoughts or conversations it’s left to the reader to decide how and why they ended up drifting apart.

One of my favourite stories was Living Underwater, which uses the idea of living underwater as a metaphor for depression and mental health problems. How you can slip into the water without realising it’s happening, how it can become an isolating ocean, and how you might be able to find the direction to dry land.

The title story, Show Me the Map to Your Heart, is wonderful. It puts a fantasy adventure twist on a new relationship, to explore the ideas surrounding discovering each other and yourself. The middle pages of the book are a large fold-out image mapping the trail the lovers take, it’s quite beautiful. And this story included my favourite line of the entire book:

Her heart was hole but lost

She was so caring she had left pieces of it behind, not thinking that one day she might need them herself.

This book was as comforting as a soft blanket and a cup of tea. I felt like I had those from reading alone, and for a book to evoke that kind of calm feeling was lovely to experience.

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