Dope by Sara Gran

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of noir
★     ★    ★    ★  

Dope reminds me of that time I fell off the monkeybars. I landed on my back, hard enough that the wind was knocked out of me and for a second–it seemed forever–I couldn’t breathe in or out, just laid there, floundering.

That’s the end of Dope, a book about an ex-junkie who gets asked to find a missing college dropout who happens to be a current junkie. It makes a certain kind of sense to Josephine Flannigan; besides, this is 1950s NYC, and the cops don’t care much about some missing junkie girl. It doesn’t hurt that her parents are offering Jo more money than she’s seen in her entire life.

“‘Josephine.’
Maude said my name flatly, like I was dead or she wanted me to be. I sat across from her at a booth in the back of the bar, where the daylight never reached and the smell of stale beer and cigarettes never cleared. Maude had been the mistress of a gangster back in the thirties and he’d bought her this bar to set her up with something after he was gone.”

The narration is from Jo’s point of view, and is both direct and strangely emotionally stark. As Jo traces Nadine Nelson’s footsteps, she also traces her own past. It’s a quick read, scarcely more than novella length, but powerful. Woven through it in Gran’s straightforward prose, is a demonstration of the far-reaching effects of addiction. The miracle here is that it doesn’t even sound like a sermon. Other reviewers compare it to Raymond Chandler; I haven’t read him in decades so I can’t speak to that, but if you want to feel like you are reading a slice of history we’d rather forget, this is the book.

“I’d never been to the campus of Barnard before, and after spending the morning there I didn’t plan on ever going again. The buildings looked like courthouses, and the place was so far uptown I thought I was in Boston. The closest I’d been tot it before was up to 103rd Street, where a fellow I knew sold junk in a cafeteria. When the subway had stopped there I’d almost gotten off the train out of habit.”

Somehow Josephine has retain–or rediscovered?– her humanity after getting off the dope. It was kind of heartbreaking watching her maneuver through the city in search of Nadine, and listening to her dispassionate detail of who will end up where and why. You want something that will help you find some compassion for a junkie, this might be it. For me, it didn’t stand up to one of my favorite books ever, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, but I can understand why this book made Gran a force to be reckoned with.

 

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Surviving the Evacuation: London (book 1) by Frank Tayell

Read July 2018
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse
★     ★    ★    ★   1/2

The only thing Tayell can’t do is catchy titles. Oh, and cover design. Besides that, this is easily one of the better apocalypse I’ve read in years (mentally reviews prior reads…). Yep, that’s true. It’s too bad the cover design is so pulpy, because this is pretty much the opposite type of story: the diary of an intelligent but perhaps unimaginative person as civilization begins to implode.

Bartholomew–Bill, to his friends–is at home recovering from a broken leg as he watches the London evacuation. Jennifer, Bill’s closest friend, former business partner, and rising star in the London government has told him to stay put until she can send a car for him. She’s the one that broke the news of what appears to be an attack of the living dead when he awakened in the hospital, and told him to stay home instead of evacuate. What follows is Bill’s gradual realization that he will have to save himself.

“I made another assumption about our situation, one that’s only just starting to dawn on me. I assumed that one day, one day soon, that these things outside, undead, zombies, infected, whatever, that one day They would die, and that we could just take back our island. What if we have to fight for it?”

I think it’s closest analogy in stories would be I am Legend, Zone One, or perhaps Day of the Triffids, particularly in the sense that this is one person’s journey and evolution of understanding about himself and about the crisis. Bill has a likeable, vaguely self-depreciating voice that was engrossing. At first, he is an intelligent Everyman, albeit with insider information, with a trust in government and society that is admirable, even if a little naive. He is a modern white-collar professional and city dweller, suddenly made aware of the inadequacies of his skill sets. Some reviewers note that he felt ‘whiny,’ which is a description that surprised me. Occasionally little despairing, perhaps, and at war with himself over what to be done next. Like Hamlet, he is indecisive over his course of action, his broken leg preventing him from easy maneuverability.

I purposefully only did a rough headcount. I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to know exactly how bad my situation was.

One aspect that sets Tayell apart as a writer is that this is free of the sexist trappings. One reviewer even notes that she thought the narrator was a woman for much of the story. Perhaps that will change as the apocalypse progresses and issues such as survival and continuation of society come into play, but I really enjoyed the gender-free approach. I also appreciated the seemingly slow dissolution of society, although if one keeps strict track of days, the breakdown still works out to be quite fast. There questions Bill faces are quite real, quite similar to the range of responses for a hurricane, for instance. Should I shelter in place? What will it take? Should I evacuate? How to plan beyond the next few days? I had noted in a recent review of the EMP series how fast society broke down into looting/rioting/burning, and appreciated that Tayell didn’t make that mistake.

“Out of all the job descriptions I’ve ever had, I think looter sounds the best. It’s more proactive than survivor.”

The writing is exceptional for what appears to be a first book. In fact, I’ll note that I judged this on a mass-published scale; there were no instance of the awkward phrasing or contrived dialogue that I associate with a beginning writer. There was a nice balance of humor, description and introspection in the narrative–this was definitely not a young-adult level read. Flashbacks were well integrated. If there were shortcomings, it is perhaps an ending that feels a bit rushed, and two over-contrived bits in terms of plot development. Bill has access to someone with a surprisingly wide information base, and that also feels a bit over-convenient, but I think that will play a more significant role in the following books. On the whole, however, this was an admirable apocalypse tale, and one deserving of far greater attention. On to the next.

 

Shoutout to John for his review on the fourth book, pointing the way towards this series.

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Midnight Curse by Melissa F. Olson

Read July 2018
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy twenty-somethings
★     ★    ★   

A very, and somewhat surprisingly, good popcorn read.

You know what I mean, right? How often had you had a conversation when a friend asks if you’ve eaten anywhere good lately and you say how fabulous the popcorn you just had was? (am I the only one with foodie friends?) Not at all, I’m betting; while popcorn is salty, crunchy fun, it is ultimately unfulfilling and forgettable. Though Midnight Curse was actually a bit above ‘popcorn’ in my reading scale, largely by setting up a number of tropes and then ignoring them.

You may notice the official title says, ‘book one.’ It forgets to mention its the second trilogy written with the lead character, Scarlett Bernard, which is actually a good thing. Some authors (Karen Moning, cough, cough) seem to think one needs to start with an ‘unlikable’ character in order to have the character become someone the reader likes, presumably to avoid Mary Sue characters. This worked out in my favor, because I enjoyed the current Scarlett who is apparently three years older than the last series of books. She’d make references to events earlier in her life, and sometimes I thought, “hmm, sounds like an interesting backstory,” but once or twice I thought, “ugh, glad I didn’t know her then.” Here I thought that Olson was doing a Star Wars thing (sigh; starting with book four to six, then working backwards? Okay?), but I guess that was too much credit. Somebody do that, okay? (Besides Lucas, because that didn’t work. Or is it because we don’t really want prequels in our stories? Did he break a Campbell rule?)

“There wasn’t actually an ominous creak, but it was definitely implied.”

The story is told by Scarlett, with moderately amusing commentary mitigated by tough emotional situations. I usually appreciated her attempts to navigate situations in a mature way, so score a book point for relative emotional maturity. She is finding enjoyment and security in her professional life as a Null, mediating between vampires, witches, and werewolves. She’s a guardian for Shadow, a semi-mythical wolf-hunting creature that is a smart, calm dog-hybrid when in Scarlett’s range. Shadow easily became one of my favorite characters in the story.

“But it felt more respectful to ask rather than assume, and I tried to treat Shadow with the same respect I would give a human. Okay, probably more respect than I would give a human.

Scarlett’s ex-roommate/former BFF calls her for help. She’s a vampire who has accidentally killed the ten women she’s living with. This is by far the weakest part of the plot line and never adequately gets addressed. Once I got past that, it became an engrossing story that I had a hard time putting down, despite my knee-jerk tendency to dislike stereotypical wolf and vampire urban fantasy world-building. It could be that Scarlett was a fundamentally likable character, but it could also be that my genre expectations are just so low that Olson never hit any of my trigger points.

I was tempted to continue the series, but found my enthusiasm dampened by descriptions of the next book, hints that the supporting cast is largely absent, and a friend reviewer who notes that Olson seems to drop major plot bombs and then end the book. Who knows, however–the UF mood may strike again.

 

 

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The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Read July 2018
Recommended for people who want Christie Lite ™
★     ★    ★      

Things I’ve Learned From British Mysteries

1. When a detective says, “oh, one other small thing…,” it isn’t.

2. Brush up on your vocabulary when asking the pathologist for favors:

“Alleyn went out, changed his mind and stuck his head round the door.
‘If I send you a pill or two, will you have them dissected for me?’
‘Analysed?’
‘If you’d rather. Good-bye.’

3. When dealing with nobility, it is best to mind your manners:

“‘I asked you to come and see me,’ she began very quietly, ‘because I believe my husband to have been murdered.
Fox did not speak for a moment. He sat stockily, very still, looking gravely before him.
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Lady O’Callaghan,’ he said at last. ‘It sounds rather serious.’
Apparently she had met her match in understatement.”

4. Don’t try for pretentious with the police:

“‘Do you know that Sir Derek O’Callaghan was probably murdered?’
‘My Gawd, yes.’
‘Yes… With hyoscine.’
‘My Gawd, yes.’
‘Yes. So you see we want to be sure of our facts.’
‘He ‘had no hoverdose of ‘yoscine from ‘ere,’ said Mr. Sage, incontinently casting his aitches all over the place.”

5. Get your P.M.s straight:

“‘Everybody talks to me about ‘P.M.s,’ complained Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn to Inspector Fox on Monday afternoon, ‘and I never know whether they mean post-mortem or Prime Minister. Really, it’s very difficult when you happen to be involved with both.”

 

Alright, Christie she ain’t–though the mystery is full of red herrings, including a group of Bolsheviks, it resorts to an ultimately ridiculous solution–but Marsh does write an entertaining story. Plotting here surrounded an ill Home Secretary who is rushed to emergency surgery. Per a friend review, Marsh relied on one of her doctors (her gynecologist?) for part of the story. I found that interesting; the scenes in the operating room and details with the surgery had the air of verisimilitude, and I enjoyed the trip down Historical Medicine Lane (thank <i>heavens</i> I don’t have to calculate grains of a drug for dosing!).

The dialogue, characters, and setting are all interesting and entertaining. Reoccurring characters Nigel and girlfriend Angela appear for a brief interlude, but their appearance is so short as to be amusing over distracting. As far as plotting, however, there is no real sense of impending danger; more an intellectual type of whodunnit. Still quite a bit of fun that still allows one to comfortably put down the book and go to sleep when it’s late.

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Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

Read July 2018
Recommended for people who want a slice of a different life
★     ★    ★    ★    1/2  

The only mystery here is why I thought I going to read a whodunnit after having the book brought to my attention by a friend’s reviews. And, of course, the author, Walter Mosley, best known for his mystery series staring Easy Rawlins, the first of which is the remarkable Devil in a Blue Dress (made into a movie with the remarkable Denzel Washington). Once I got over my surprise that I was reading a collection of linked short stories, I settled in to enjoy Mosley’s evocative writing and unique voice.

“Socrates made Darryl sit in the chair while he turned over the trash can for his seat. He read the paper for half an hour or more while the rooster simmered on the hot plate. Darryl knew to keep quiet. When it was done, Socrates served the meal on three plates–one for each dish. The man and boy shoveled down dirty rice, green beans, and tough rooster like they were starving men; eating off the same plates, neither one uttered a word. The only drink they had was water–their glasses were mayonnaise jars. Their breathing was loud and slobbery. Hands moved in syncopation; tearing and scooping.”

Socrates Forlow, formerly of Indiana Penitentiary, is the center of fourteen short stories, set in Los Angeles and plotted around such things as a starving young kid, a group deciding street justice, black invisibility, a dying friend, persistence, finding a home, attraction and friendship, a black-owned bookstore, God, being a man, and so on.

“There seemed to be music in the room. Music in the way the chairs faced each other, music in the sounds from elsewhere in the building. Socrates wanted to dance for the first time in his fifty years.”

Mosley has done well with the form; each story is well contained, and together they cover a very interesting period as Socrates navigates post-incarceration life. They were often moving, and usually powerful. I wasn’t really tempted to devour the whole book at once, instead treating it like a rich and filling meal that needed pauses for digestion.

“Socrates walked for miles on the curving beaches. The surface of the sand was hot from the sun but cool when his foot sank to the layer of moisture below. He went north past Malibu and on toward the blue of the water and sky. He stayed close to the ocean remembering his aunt’s sermons about how God was always beyond reach but how people were always trying to get there.”

A great read, straying from 5 stars only because it isn’t one I want to add to my library. But certainly fabulous and insightful.

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Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Read July 2018
Recommended for fans of Murderbot, AIs
★    ★   ★    1/2

“I was stalling. I would have to interact with humans as an augmented human… I had imagined it as taking place from a distance, or in the spaces of a crowded transit ring. Interacting meant talking, and eye contact. I could already feel my performance capacity dropping.”

It was with anticipation of pleasure that I picked up the second installment in the Murderbot series. After its thrilling adventures on its last expedition as a SecUnit, I was curious to see what ‘Bot would do with freedom. I read quickly, finishing in one sitting. Though the beginning felt a bit awkward, I remained confident that Wells would end up somewhere interesting. It was an enjoyable read, but suffered from a few issues.

Why not five stars, you wonder? I do enjoy the character of Murderbot a great deal, but found myself with some sticky points on my first read-through.

One, I felt Murderbot had become more colloquial in its speech without accompanying change in comfort level with others. Calling A.R.T. an ‘asshole,’ for instance, seemed odd. Funny, no doubt. But would the apathetic Murderbot really have named a mildly intrusive artificial intelligence it just met an ‘asshole?’ It set the wrong tone and in some ways, the character of Murderbot backslid to be a socially inept human, not a killing machine trying to create behavior patterns.

Two, I thought the narrative confusing at first. I’m quite used to Well’s elaborate world-building, but this felt awkward. On re-read, I decided it was smoother than I had thought the first time through. I remain extremely puzzled as to the differences between ‘constructs,’ ‘artificial intelligences,’ and ”bots’ in Murderbot’s world and why humans created ‘constructs’ as they did. At one point ‘Bot notes that “the long sleeves of the T-shirt and jacket, the pants and the boots covering all my inorganic parts,” which seemed especially weird to me. Why leave human hands on a construct? I also remained puzzled by lines such as “I huddled in the chair.” Hello, Killing Machine? Why on earth do you have any hormones responsible for fear? I feel like Wells would have done better to stick with a Star Trek TNG ‘Data’ type model.

Three, the plot was good, but uneven. Murderbot wants to see the scene of its alleged murders. It will need a pretext to get there, so it signs on with a group of naive workers hoping to regain some stolen data. This premise works at first until the workers, a family with young children, behave in incredibly naive and stupid ways, leading Murderbot to behave in naive and stupid ways. The long journey to the scene of the crime ends up being anticlimactic

To be fair, my rating might also be a case of high expectations; certainly it is much better than many 3-star books that I’ve read, enjoyed, and promptly forgot (basically every generic cop-thriller). I love much of what Martha Wells has done, and have a number of her books shelved in hardcover. Since I can still remember many of the details of Artificial Condition without picking up the book, it’s good enough to make an impression. There’s lots of humor and sarcasm, some sweet computer bonding and quite a bit of action. Definitely worth reading.

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Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Read July 2018
Recommended for people who like Christie
★    ★   ★ 

Written in 1935, this was the second book for Ngaio Marsh, theater director and eventually one of the ‘greats’ in crime fiction writers. To write it, she drew upon her knowledge of theater and the many types that surround the performing arts. Her knowledge of setting and characters is evident, and I can’t say that I thought any of it felt unrealistic or poorly done.

It opens with an unpleasant scene between producer Joseph Saint (born Simes) and his nephew, Arthur Surbonadier (also born Simes), followed by an equally unpleasant scene with Surbonadier and leading lady Stephanie Vaughan. It primes the reader for the confrontation, and gives initial insight into further interactions of the three. The story continues with Nigel Bathgate, journalist, inviting his friend Detective Inspector Alleyn to a night at the theater and a chance to meet the crew before the show. It’s a fabulous set-up, allowing the reader a bit of insight Alleyn doesn’t know yet, but also priming the tension for what is to come. So many potential targets for so many reasons. The two men take their seats and production of The Rat and the Beaver.

I’m probably a gullible reader, because I was as surprised with the murder as the audience, expecting someone else to be a better candidate. Detective Alleyn gets to work, with the faithful yet equally gullible Nigel as his note-taking sidekick. The theater is examined, the company patted down, alibis checked. A significant portion of the story takes place within the theater, and this part works well. If the characters seem a bit daffy, it’s only because they are acting types, professionally inclined to perform:

“The players walked through the wings and stood quietly in a semi-circle. They looked attentive and businesslike. It was almost as though they had needed the stage and the lights to give them full solidity. They no longer seemed preposterous or even artificial. They were in their right environment and had become real.”

I enjoyed the writing style. I noted the occasional interesting vocabulary word and but didn’t take the time to write any of them down. ‘Het up’ sticks out in my mind, as I believe the savoir and polished Alleyn used it (settle down: I’ve since looked it up and discovered it’s Scottish origins in the mid-19th c.), but it was interesting, as at least one reviewer was bothered by it. I’m not a period reader, so I couldn’t say what’s appropriate or not, but the colloquialisms seemed less ‘proper’ than expected. Still, Marsh is great at setting a scene and creating a mood.

Characters were fun, with Marsh generally stressing the larger-than-life theater type personality. Alleyn still struggles a bit, and I find my 2o18 enculturation stressed by the concept of detection mid-century. Most of it I could likely have forgiven had I been able to understand Alleyn’s personality. I think Marsh was going for a sort of Cary Grant daffy charm crossed with a know-all copper, but it didn’t work. It just felt too inconsistent to have him seriously questioning a witness, telling Bathgate he must leave, allowing him to stay, challenging Bathgate’s incorrect assumptions, and merrily baiting Fox.

Too bad about the plot, though. She keeps suspense going until the very end (literally the last six pages of my book), and perhaps that explains why I found it only mildly satisfying. The beauty of good Christie is that when the hand is shown, I say, ‘oh yes, of course; that makes sense.’ When the denouement occurs, I thought, ‘what?’ and read the motive paragraph again, whereupon I was left with a different but equally unsatisfied feeling. It also failed to explain some of the red herrings and equally odd behavior by another character.

Still, up until that last bit, I enjoyed it. The first part of the book was quite riveting, so I’ll try to focus on that instead of the unsatisfying end. I’ll certainly continue to the next.

 

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helium by rudy francisco

Read July 2018
Recommended for poetry fans
★    ★   ★   ★   ★    

“Tell me a story 
and let’s laugh like it’s the only
thing keeping us alive.

Play a song
and give the stereo
permission to use its
outside voice.

Let’s sing loudly,
offbeat and out of tune..
Let the world know
we don’t care how it sounds
because the only key we need
is already in the ignition.”

(from Drive)

The cover of Rudy Francisco’s first book of poems attracts immediate attention, but it is the poems that will slide into your thoughts and demand your attention. Divided into four sections, each roughly corresponds to a different theme. Section III was particularly good, with thoughts on race, gender and identity, deserving several reads. IV is perhaps about survival and hope, and II is about relationships, but you know how poetry is. 

His style reminds me a bit of Adrienne Rich; no particular rhyme or metre, with enough unused space to let you know each word is quite chosen. There are poems in the first section that feel a little too arch, a little too self-conscious, but not often. These are probably the ones that most benefit from performance.
Still, he charmed me with ‘Ouch’:

“Yesterday, I injured myself
and the explanation didn’t make sense.

I said, “Well, I was walking…”
and that was the end of the story.

At this age,
my body is a stranger that I
keep meeting over and over again.”

Skin II was one of the poems in the section on race that I found profound in imagery and parallels, perhaps a way for the unaware to understand the burden of racial representation.

“When you are the only black man
in the whole neighborhood,

your skin is that one friend who 
meets everyone before you do.

It wears a wife beater
and house shoes,

it knocks over the 
neighbor’s mailbox,

it cusses in front of the kids
and plays the music too loud

but you actually don’t do
any of those things.”

I also really loved Accent
and how it connected culture with food:

“My mother’s accent is
the most popular brand 
of salt in her country.

She gently sprinkles a little on
every word before she allows
them to pass her lips.

This is a ceremony that happens
every time she has something to say”

It turns out Francisco gained fame as a spoken word poet. Here’s a performance of his interesting, insightful and painful self-poem, ‘My Honest Poem’https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=…
It’s very interesting, listening to the emotion and speed of his words, as I imagine them in a much deeper, slower cadence. There appears to be more humor than I would have expected, although perhaps the audience is just aware of rawness, and the laughs are uncomfortable, or supportive; I don’t know. But I think I prefer the voice in my head. 

Two of the most moving poems in section III are on YouTube. ‘Adrenaline Rush’ takes a hard look at white privilege and gets a very deservedly hushed reception. It’s an extremely powerful, truthful poem and his performance is riveting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh09j… 
I loved The Heart and the Fist when I read it, but the performance was equally breathtaking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IHYA…

One of the only modern poetry books I’ve been inspired to purchase. Highly recommended. Remaining on my ‘currently reading’ list so I can keep picking it up. Note: all poems quoted are partial, but unedited.

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Hope Sparks (After the EMP #7) by Harley Tate

Read July 2018
Recommended for fans the non-zombie apocalypse
★    ★   ★    1/2

Well, Hope Sparks, but only After A Whole Bunch of Ass-Kicking.

A decent capstone to the EMP series. I still wish for a bit more of the survivalist basics, but now that I’ve completed the series, I think Tate’s angle is that survival is partly about a mentality rather than skills. Which is probably true, but you still need to figure out how to pick out the safe mushrooms in the wood. That shit is hard. This one felt more like thriller than survivalist, but was well done.

On a related note, I noticed a significant improvement in writing in this story. The characters didn’t feel quite as congruent across books –really, make the same mistake again?–but it all seemed to hold together alright. You write seven books, you’re gonna get better, right?

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Chaos Evolves (After the EMP #6) by Harley Tate

Read June 2018
Recommended for fans the non-zombie apocalypse
★    ★   1/2

The one where Everything Goes to Hell (despite it being only Day 30 post-electromagnetic pulse) Because Some People Just Can’t Freaking Cope Already.

In this installment, the team decides to leave the militia-run town. I immediately appreciated characters who knew when to cut ties with a town instead of fight an overwhelming force, because I was a little afraid the former Navy SEAL, Colt, would want to topple the forces of oppression. Another aspect that was a positive standout were the strategies for sourcing food and fuel early on, one of the main components of apocalypse stories. Later, however, it skimps on detail when food issues come up again near the end, relying on a (view spoiler) Tate still seems to struggle with balancing scenes in context of overall plot, as there far too much page detail of a Humvee crossing a stream. Maybe his point was that it contributed to the mental stress of the group, but I’m not sure the writing was up to the task. I’m convinced, Tate; you know your types of Humvees. Can we get back to the relationships and finding food?

I was less enamored of plotting here. While leaving the town started off well, problems along the way occasionally annoyed as they were as in-group focused as external. Blaming the protagonists continues as an eye-rolling plot strategy. And somehow, despite it being Day 30, (view spoiler) On the other hand, much like in book three, things don’t always work out despite the best planning. Still, I feel like it was all a little stacked for Day 30 or so. (view spoiler)

Okay, I admit it; I’ve overdosed. But there’s only one more, and then I can let my Kindle Unlimited trial expire!

And one of these days, I need to get around to writing my own damn apocalypse novel.

 

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