The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

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Read November 2016
Recommended for fans of Agatha Christie
 ★     ★     ★     1/2

The head of a prestigious law firm is discovered by his partners when they arrive for a mysterious, late-night meeting. The building is locked with key-card entry, so it seems likely that the killer is one of the people called to the meeting. But perhaps it could have been his new wife, a former maid in need of money? So begins The Singapore School of Villainy, with a classic murder scenario with a limited pool of suspects. Instead of the nebulous trouble in Bali in the former novel, this allows Flint to focus on character-building, including giving the reader their first glimpse at the formidable Mrs. Singh.

With the prominent case, Singh’s chief detective gives him a whole squad of officers to help with footwork, a waste as far as Singh is concerned, although it does mean he won’t have to use foot power or scuff his bright white sneakers. He’s also given the services of Fong, who is hoping to learn from the greatest but feels like he is more often reduced to waitstaff. I missed more details of the Singapore setting; I understood the issues with Singapore politics and the desire for law and order, but it lacked much of a sense of the physical, perhaps because of the limitations to the law firm. The mystery was solid, although Inspector Singh often seems to come by solutions through no work of his own.

What holds me back from loving it, however, is the general unlikability of almost everyone here, including the Inspector. With Hercule Poirot, one has perhaps a sense of his comic mustache, his rotund stomach, his mannerisms, but at least he is usually competent and occasionally kind to the suspects. Here, well–let me just say that the descriptions don’t feel as fond, and perhaps there is too much of the negative without balancing concern. For instance, I was kind of surprised that Singh would care at all about his chief learning of a relative visiting for dinner; Singh is usually blatantly disrespectful, so it seems incongruous and passes up a chance for him to positively connect with family and tweak his superior’s nose. Much of the humor comes from laughing (if one does) at character foibles, embarrassing situations (food on a tie or Inspector huffing up the stairs), and mocking the Inspector’s superior, Chen, rather than witty dialogue.

Overall, enjoyable with solid mystery plotting in an interesting setting. I’ll just have to make sure I leaven the reads with more positively heroic characters in between.

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The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

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Read November 2016
Recommended for fans of supernatural detective
 ★     ★     ★     ★     ★  

Possibly perfect.

The more I love a book, the harder it becomes to review, because I don’t want to move out of my state of enjoyment to one of analysis. That said, this was quite possibly my favorite installment of Peter Grant’s story yet. The characterization is interesting, there are developments in Peter’s personal life, and the overall arc of the series takes a satisfying and solid step forward.

I love the variety of characters and backgrounds, although this particular edition spends more time with the upper crust. Particularly for a mystery, one needs a wide enough cast for there to avoid obvious red herrings or red shirts. The broad number is appropriate for Peter balancing between his more magical life in the Folly, his personal life and his investigations. For the most part, I usually get the feeling that the diversity of characters is merely a representation of the city and not a checkbox; it is a part of who they are, but not the only important trait. DC Guleed, a female who wears a hijab, was introduced as a minor character in Whispers Underground, but is starting to play a significant role. Most of this seemed to be developed in the graphic novel, but for the most part one needn’t have read it as she starts to come into her own as the logical and level counterpoint to Peter’s leaps of logic and daredevil spirit. I particularly love her diplomatic skill on the phone:
“I heard Guleed pass this on and some grumbled swearing from Seawoll. ‘Tell him to get his arse down here pronto,’ he said. ‘He wants you to come in,’ said Guleed and gave me the address.”

Plotting remains pleasantly unpredictable for me. While the stories ostensibly have a main investigation, Peter leads a busy life. There are opportunities to learn more about magic and its practitioners, Peter’s family, the ongoing investigation into Leslie, side investigations such as hunting down the Little Crocodiles, learning about the history of the Folly and so forth. Because of it, both the plots and the pacing often surprise me. I also enjoy that it is very much a ‘police procedural.’ Peter occasionally goes to a desk, he works a computer, he explains to the reader the structure of a murder investigation within the London police. He frequently has asides to explain the approach and legality of police actions: “Guleed circled around the names and the timeline for twenty minutes, twenty minutes being about the amount of time it takes your average suspect–sorry, I mean witness–to forget the details of the lies they’ve just told you, before asking about the drugs.”

But at the end of the day, it’s always the writing that hooks me. Aaronovitch does a lovely job of giving us a scene, or Peter’s thoughts about how he is approaching something, but he rarely tells us how we are supposed to feel about it. That ability to show without telling seems particularly rare in UF. The suspect’s eyes may “glance at” something, but they usually don’t “furtive” anything. I don’t precisely know how Peter feels about Inspector Seawoll, for instance, although my best guess is that it is a complex combination of respect, fear, and a tiny bit of appreciation. It’s a technique I first recognized in Agatha Christie, where people are presented, implications perhaps drawn, but it’s left to the reader to draw the conclusions, and they may be different. For instance: “Lady Ty… asked the question again in a tone I recognized from my own mum. The one that says: Yes there’s going to be trouble, but that is as nothing to the trouble you are going to be in if you continue to cross me.”  I had a crystal clear visual/audio on that one, but mine is likely going to be different from yours. There’s no “icily,” “stonily” or “scathingly” or any other of the hundred routine descriptives I feel pepper the average UF.

Ben Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant series has become one of the most satisfying urban fantasy detective novels in the field. Read it, and then listen to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith‘s audio version. You can thank me later.

 

Speaking of thanks, thanks to Caro, Orient, Milda and Mimi for letting me crash their group read. Loved the enthusiasm!

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A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul by Shamini Flint. Fair is foul and foul fair.

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Read November 2016
Recommended for fans of Agatha Christie
 ★     ★     ★     1/2

“Inspector Singh could hear the heavy groans of frogs and the harsh chirping of crickets. The sounds of Bali were so different from the din of construction sites and car engines that he was used to in Singapore. The policeman scratched his salt-and-pepper beard thoughtfully. The night-time cacophony did have a certain familiarity. He realised that the racket reminded him of his wife’s cross tones on those regular occasions when he arrived late for a family dinner or had a few beers too many at the Chinese coffee shop around the corner from his home.”

In many ways, Inspector Singh is the mirror opposite of Hercule Poirot. Though equally rotund, Singh huffs and puffs his way up the stairs, while Monsieur prefers to use the ‘little grey cells’ as he reclines. Inspector has his impeccably wound turban while Poirot has his carefully styled mustache. Singh proudly wears his white tennis shoes because they are so much more comfortable while Hercule suffers in his shining patent leather shoes. There are small differences: Poirot remains happily single while Singh chafes under the critical eye of his wife, though his stomach benefits from her cooking. Papa Poirot often invites sympathetic confidences while the Inspector aggrevates suspects into reply. Most importantly, Singh is usually at odds with the Singapore police department. Yet they both have a reputation for getting their murderer.

In the second book of the series, Singh is loaned out to the Bali police in a gesture of assisting with the aftermath of a nightclub bombing. When the Bali police discover Singh is no terrorism expert, they assign him a homicide–a single murder victim discovered among the mass carnage of the club. Doing so means learning about Bali from an assigned enthusiastic and optimistic Australian partner Bronwyn.

Flint’s view of her detective, and indeed her characters, is a touch more realistic than Christie–perhaps even detrimentally so because it becomes harder to see through the annoying frailties to the person underneath. But perhaps that is Flint’s skill, to show us that people are unhappy in so many ways and that when they open to self-realization, well, watch out. I did notice, however, that Flint seems to reach for the low-hanging ‘character flaws’ such as fatness, aging, or drinking. I prefer something a little more subtle, a little less mean, and a little more accountable as an actual trait.

Narrative jumps around from members of three expatriate couples, to Singh, to the Australian Bronwyn, to a young rural woman Nuri, whose husband brought her to Bali to start a Moslem school. Plot is enjoyable, but takes a while to accelerate to a strong finish. I think that Flint may consciously be echoing the Christie style, juxtaposing details of the local life with the interpersonal dynamics of the suspect pool. It generally works well, although I found myself somewhat regretful that it was set around a nightclub bombing, a type of incident that happens far too often in recent times. Still, Flint indirectly provided me with some education on why those sort of situation become flashpoints, and why Bali in particular seems to be a site of discontent.

The Singh series manages to be entertaining while providing gentle education into areas of southeast Asia. This one was particularly notable for how fast The Mom finished the book–a sure sign of interest (and perhaps of poor weather). Not to worry: we have the next Singh, A Singapore School of Villany, waiting in the wings.

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The Overlook by Michael Connelly. Well, yes–you can.

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Read November 2016
Recommended for fans of Michael Connelly
 ★     ★     1/2

I don’t often read from the fiction bestseller list and I periodically wonder what I’m missing. When a Connelly (oops, not John Connolly–I mistakenly thought I had ordered the next book in the Charlie Parker series) book came my way, I was looking for a light headache distraction and thought it might do the trick. To absolutely no one’s surprise, I discovered I’m not really missing anything that would cater to my own palate. This is the Arby’s of the fast food world: seemingly meaty but rather bland (unlike Nihilist Arby’s).

Harry is apparently back in action with LAPD with a new position on a special homicide team. He and his new partner are assigned an execution killing but it quickly becomes complicated when his ex-lover (I think) and FBI agent shows up on the scene on behalf of Homeland Security.

According to the jacket, this was originally a sixteen chapter serial story published in The New York Times Magazine and reformatted for video book-like storytelling. The rewrite wasn’t at all obvious, as the story seemed to smoothly flow, lacking the occasional choppiness I associate with seriels. Writing was clear but bland lacking details that build richness of character. The most evocative image was that of the overlook and it’s view of the L.A. Basin, but I can’t tell if that was the book or my own memory. There was a nice little twist near the end, but it was too late to do more than give a momentary pause in my lull.

Overall, it was Storytelling Lite, easily finished in the space of an evening, even with a headache. When I looked up the history of the book, wikipedia noted that some reviewers state it lacked the depth of his other stories. So I suppose I won’t write him off just yet.

Two and a half snoozes.

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The Translated Man by Chris Braak

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Read November 2016
Recommended for fans of Death of the Necromancer, Max Gladstone
 ★     ★     ★     ★    

Detective-Inspector Coroner Elijah Beckett is struggling. Not professionally; his team has a reputation for getting their man, or in this case, their Reanimate. Managed by the oddly omniscient Mr. Stitch, Beckett, Skinner and Valentine chase down the people and products of Forbidden Sciences in the name of the Emperor. No, in this case the struggle is from the effects of the fades, the slowly fatal disease that literally disappears one patch of tissue at a time. He’s been controlling the pain that accompanies it with veneine, but it is getting harder and harder to numb the pain without overdosing. It makes him more than a little cranky:

“Gentleman!” he called, putting a reasonable amount of effort into making his voice friendly, and still failing miserably. ‘Becket’ and ‘friendly’ could only under the best of circumstances by the kindest of observes be called more than passing acquaintances.”

A wealthy family has been found murdered in their home, and it looks like the work of the sharpsies, a sapient, human-appearing carnivore whose mouth full of teeth make human speech impossible. But Mr. Stitch is certain it isn’t sharpsies, which sets the coroners on a collision course with one of the noble families and their private armies. When they hire young Alan Charterhouse to advise them on a discovery, things get dangerous.

The city of Trowth is a fascinating place, built up by the Architecture War into crowded houses, roads and bridges built over the top of one another. Because of the layers, the bottom layer is prone to never seeing even the weak sunlight shining on the city of Trowth: “The cab was parked directly in front of the small bridge that led to the house; the front door had clearly once been a third-storey window before Bynam Lane had been built above the crumbling Thurgood Street.”

Early industrial period is clearly the inspiration for Trowth. Horseless carriages are starting to compete with ones drawn by living beasts. Beggars on the street suffer from the fades, poverty and scrave. Able-bodied men are conscripted for war at the front, opera and penny-novels entertain people and the Royal Academy of Sciences researches math.

There’s a little bit of humor here, always appreciated in my reads. Largely, its found in the banter of the team: “Skinner snorted. ‘You’re joking? Only half a dozen people understood it when the church forbid… forbade? When they had it forbidden’ ” and in mocking the mystery penny-novels Alan is so fond of reading. Beckett and Alan are nicely complicated characters. The remaining cast, if not always fully rounded out, remain dimensional enough to enjoy, though a bit short on distaff.

At this point in my life, I mistrust easy. Thanks to Mikhail’s excellent review, I ended up purchasing this engrossing mystery enlivened by a richly detailed culture and dynamic city. There are a few hiccoughs, largely with random punctuation such as hyphenated words and occasional capitalization (‘fades,’ ‘sharpsies’ and ‘church’ seem to vary from lower case to capital) as well as some Kindle formatting errors. Still, for me they weren’t prevalent enough to be bothersome, but it did make learning about the world a little more confusing as I wasn’t sure what was intentional. Braak apparently would like to write more, but is making his living by other artistic endeavors. Someone tell him about Kickstarter or Patreon, because I’d be delighted to read another of Beckett’s penny detective adventures.

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Fever by Bill Pronzini

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Read November 2016
Recommended for people who want a mystery without thriller
 ★     ★    

My mother recently retired, so I’m looking around for a new mystery series to entertain her. She rather enjoys series, so here’s hoping the Nameless Detective works out–there are 38 other books. In one of those rare moments of gender reversal, I recognized Pronzini’s name as the husband of Marsha Muller, a mystery writer I enjoyed reading for many years. Overall, I’d say it that while it is decently written, it feels very much of the old world order, full of assumptions.

It begins with members of the detective agency looking for Janice Krochek, housewife of a wealthy engineer, who has gone missing. Although it isn’t the first time, this time she’s been gone for three weeks. They track her to a seedy hotel on the edge the Tenderloin, a district of San Francisco known for prostitution. She’s enjoying her gambling binge, prostitution and all, and refuses to go home, leaving them in a bit of an ethical quandry. As they try to wrap that up, they begin a pro-bono case for a woman whose son has recently been assaulted and whose strange behavior has her worried.

“She was thirty-three, but in the dim light, and without makeup, she looked older; you could see the stress lines around her mouth and eyes. Addiction will do that to you, no matter what type of addiction it happens to be.”

“Not that you could blame him, really, after all the financial losses he’d already suffereed, but still it lowered him a notch or two in my estimation… Down another notch. Maybe you couldn’t blame him for hiding assets, either, but it’s illegal.”

Narrative is shared between Bill, the now-named ‘Nameless Detective,’ Tamara, his agency partner, and Jake, an ex-cop and widower. Each one follows their own story; in Tamara’s case, her story mostly figures on her personal life. Bill concentrates on looking for Janice and solving his team’s issues, and Jake has a mix of both personal and professional issues to cover.

Though published in 2008, there is an overall tone of <i>datedness.</i>  “The agency seldom handled that kind [of case] unless the client was well-heeled, and then with reluctance, but recently they’d started taking on selected cases involving African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities who needed investigative services but couldn’t afford them.” Oh my. First, Pronzini mixes his categories by equating people of color with economic disparity. Second, ‘minority?’ Really? You do know the ‘minority’ in California is slowly making its way toward straight white dude, right?  Then there’s the solution to this minor, low-budget mystery. Let’s just say that Pronzini has yet to fully embrace the complexity of identity and conflates certain identity issues with mental health. I remain reasonably convinced that if you are going to try and write the ‘other’ when you are from the privileged demographic, you are beholden to write sensitively and with finesse. I mean, it is the most annoying kind of position where the author and characters are self-righteous about the situations they encounter.

Then there is the dinner out, where Bill’s wife and Tamara engage in a lengthy conversation about cosmetic surgery, concluding withTamara said dreamily, ‘One thing I can see myself getting talked into, that’s the hymen reattachment thing.’Wtf. I know it is a real procedure, but I just don’t believe this conversation. Why would a 20 year old want that? Why would Tamara, who is partner in the agency? I’m not sure of the purpose of the conversation, except to shock Bill, cementing his old-fogeyness. And to shock me when the wife suggests it would be a ‘present’ to Bill to have her hymen reattached. Wtf(2). Clearly, Pronzini didn’t do much research for this conversation. Any women out there want to go back and re-live their first intercourse? Yeah, thought not.

Meanwhile, Jake is stalking a half-disfigured, half-beautiful woman. I mean, not really stalking. Just driving around the neighborhood he last saw her. He’s convinced they have a connection, so he keeps trying to ‘run into’ her. But don’t worry; she’s totally empowered and recognizes a kindred soul. Then there’s the small old-fogey moment when Bill is all self-righteous about cell phones and driving, pulls over to the side of the road every time someone calls him. –dammit, lost my contact in the back of my eye again. It wasn’t horrible enough for me to do not finish, but it did just seem… dated, with characters that haven’t been updated for decades, kind of like watching Andy Griffith. Bill’s smart, everyone else needs fixing, and we can be generous to poor minorities once we’re done helpin’ the little lady. And stalking is okay if there’s a real connection. I dunno, it could have been tolerable, even enjoyable, in the hands of a highly skilled writer. I think of early Scudder, set in the 1970s and with hookers with hearts of gold. Somehow time period dinosaurs are much more interesting than the ones I already know.

 

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One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews. Looking forward to reading in one fell sweep.

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Read January through October 2016
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy
 ★     ★     ★     ★    

First, sincere thanks to the Andrews for making this available for free as an on-line weekly serial. That was very kind and generous, as they could undoubtedly make actual large dollars. It’s a full, complicated story, the third installment in the Innkeeper series about a woman who runs an interstellar inn/sanctuary. Opening with a rescue, it quickly moves on to new external conflicts all while protecting the Inn from official notice, particularly the involvement of local Officer Marais.

Think of me as not looking a gift horse in the mouth so as much as providing my customary analysis (although I will note that it is a tricky process to give me a gift that doesn’t consist of books; I’d really rather we avoid it). One of the main problems with Innkeeper is built into the narrative structure: until it is reworked, it feels like a serial missing transitions. Chapters tend to end with a note of suspense, building a scene that would be continued the next week. I look forward to the re-written version with more transitions and details. Parts seemed awkward or rushed to me, particularly anything about Diana’s emotional life. The Andrews have a significant presence in the romance world, and although this is not primarily a romance, there remain significant romantic entanglements for a number of characters, some impossibly cute.

Dialogue is fun, although generally used for amusement or in service to the plot. There’s fun banter that often makes me smile but occasionally felt a little close to Kate Daniels and Curran. Cutesy episodes with a new character were generally just this side of hyperglycemia. Caldonia doesn’t play nearly enough of a role–her bloodthirsty personality may have provided the vinegar needed. Romance tropes remain in full play: the men are all enormous and handsome, the women devastatingly beautiful and graceful, and everyone is a competent killer with the weapon of their choice. Or adorable. Plotting does take some very dark turns as the story progresses.

Objections aside, I thought the plot entertaining, and despite wanting to wait til the full book release, I found myself eagerly waiting for each installment. I’ll surely buy the ebook when released and enjoy the experience of reading in a single sitting.

Story begins at: http://innkeeper.ilona-andrews.com/on…

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A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

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Listened October 2016
Recommended for fans of dark comedy
 ★     ★     ★     ★     ★  

Read by Samuel Jackson, this was an absolute auditory treat, keeping me transfixed on the drive from Georgia to Kentucky.

Expecting something more of the snoozy literary bent, I discovered a tight little story of the dark comedy-thriller school set in Harlem in the 1950s. Jackson has scraped together every last cent to get his money ‘raised up’ from $10 bills to $100 bills. Though he has a job in a funeral home, he would like to make a good life for his new girlfriend… at least, once she gets divorced from her missing husband. As the money ‘cooks,’ the stove blows up and a FBI agent raids the kitchen. Jackson finds himself holding the bag and driven to contact his twin brother who operates in the fringes of the criminal world. What follows is a bunch of escalating craziness as everyone tries for a cut of the action, and poor ol’ Jackson the character is the simpleton pivot on which it all turns.

It turns out that hidden beneath the rather madcap plotting is a great deal of social commentary. I loved Himes’ sly insinuations through rich characterization and setting. Instead of the “it was this way, we were so poor that way, racial inequity was terrible that way,” he uses solid and more emotionally powerful examples to demonstrate various realities. For instance, at one point someone is being chased by a white policeman and there’s a bit of back-and-forth about what it means to give any information to the police.

I was a little exhausted by the escalating insanity by the end (driving as much as listening, I expect, as the audio comes in under 6 hours), but the voice acting by Jackson the actor was effing a-ma-zing. I loved his drunk ‘Fats’ voice at the railway station and his pompous Reverend voice. The acting was excellent and brought a flavor to it that I would have missed reading on my own. There was a time or two when quality of the recording changed between chapters, but it soon resumed enjoyable. Himes’ writing is very descriptive, meant to evoke a flavor of a time period in Harlem and the lives of various residents. Himes makes various points about ‘black dialect,’ country versus city, and the ‘educated’ voice, and the skill of the voice acting absolutely added to the quality of the experience.

Five stars for the audio.

A large chunk of gold for Kemper for reviewing the audio and bringing it to my attention. Just check under the coal chute.

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Dark Hollow by John Connolly

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Read October 2016
Recommended for fans of horror/thriller
 ★     ★    ★     1/2

I ordered this from the library with ambivalence; though I enjoy Connolly’s writing, I didn’t find the first book of the Charlie Parker series particularly enjoyable (body count was a little high for me). However, book 8, The Lovers, was engrossing and well done, so I thought it was worth finding out more about Parker’s timeline. Also, his Samuel Jackson series is excellent. I found a rather solid mystery-thriller, peppered with the descriptive passages I’ve come to love.

The plot centers around Parker doing a pity-favor for a old childhood acquaintance. She’d like child support from her husband Billy Purdue so she can take their son and head out of state. Billy thinks he’s gonna make good if his latest plan works: only trouble is that it means stealing from a desperate mob boss. Billy and the money disappear, Rita and her son are killed, and everyone’s on the hunt for the money. Parker is ready to let it go when the ghosts of the dead start haunting him. As he works to find Billy, Parker runs into a local horror legend and the case that haunted his grandfather back in his policing days. Like good friends do, Angel and Louis come to keep an eye on Parker’s exposed back.
That’s the rough set-up, frequently peppered with conflict. The body count is high: about 2/3 through when I realized we were in double digits of witnessed deaths, not counting stories about people who have been killed (seriously–it was easily in the 20s). I’m unsure why many of these were necessary to the story, as they don’t particularly bring added suspense. The mob plotline seemed a little bit… I don’t know. Extraneous? Dated? Passe as a villain, although Parker certainly recognizes that’s why they’ve become so desperate. On the more positive side of the body count, Connolly he doesn’t seem as absorbed in the details of the deaths as in the first book, which made them easier to tolerate or skim over. And why skim over? Because tucked into the thriller is a clever mystery, even if I did figure it out, as well as Connolly’s engaging writing. There are beautiful passages of description creating both the love for the Maine area and the acceptance of its old and bloody history.

“‘I’m sorry,’ I said, the words so small that they were quickly lost in the enormity of what he was facing.”

Parker continues to evolve emotionally as he faces the one-year anniversary of his family’s death. Connolly avoids wallowing in angst and starts to take it to the next step. Angel and Louis play significant roles, and part of the enjoyment in the story is the dynamic between them and Parker. There are moments where they each open up about their own darkness to Parker, and I absolutely got the sense of connection and of friendship between a trio who have started to morph into avenging angels.

Overall, it’s worth my time to continue checking it out, although my problems with the genre mean it isn’t one I’ll devour back to back.

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Just a few more pictures

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Amazing reef tank at Tennessee Aquarium

 

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Chattenooga Choo-choo lyrics on the track

 

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Cave pictures are hard. But look at the ribbon formations.

 

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Black rhino. Almost extinct.

 

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New Echota, Georgia. Cherokee Nation settlement.

 

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Inside a one-room home in New Echota. Not seen:fireplac

 

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