Hidden Blade by Pippa DaCosta

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of action!UF!action!
★    ★

 

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I’m a bit bummed, because my friends have such enthusiastic reviews and now I’m going to harsh all over their mellow. It could be the Kindle; I’m not known for loving the format. But the writing was awkward, the plotting scattered, and DaCosta relies on titillation over world-building.

“Instantly told two of the worlds’ most powerful deities exactly what I didn’t want them to know: that I’d prefer to be anywhere else but here with them.”
Believe me, they know. Because you’ve already told us you hate them, and when you follow it up with “There was a time I’d screamed at him, raged, thrown my fists, and gotten myself strung up for my efforts,” it makes the previous statement pretty much meaningless drama.

“Somehow, I smiled, and not for the first time, I secretly wished Osiris had.
Could that sentence be any more awkward?

We have a number of problems/crimes, beginning with lead Ace Dante following some kids from a summoning and now possessed by a demon; an ex-wife wanting a favor investigating the deaths of pregnant women; his mom requesting he visit her in the Underworld; and a hard-core favor for Osiris. There’s also a spoiler thing (view spoiler). Too many plots jammed together in one book does indeed make for “non-stop action” as DaCosta claims, but to make it even more “fun,” only one of those is completely resolved in this book. I knew it was going to end in a cliffhanger from my friends’ reviews, but I didn’t think there would be quite so many sub-plots. Speaking of plotting, although the opening scenes sort of set up a detection scenario, Dante does very little actual detecting. His ‘investigation’ consists of asking deux ex machinas his agency partner or his police contact for information.

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I honestly didn’t get develop much feeling for the main character either, consumed as he was by regret, self-loathing and hate, in between periods of frustrated sexual energy and ecstasy at eating souls (really, George Costanza in a nutshell). Dante lacks any agency; through most of the book he’s only reacting to situations he is ordered to by others, acting because he sees no other option (view spoiler) and acting because other people pushed him into it (view spoiler) That ends up requiring a lot of back-story to justify, which isn’t always done. Upside: less filler. Downside: lots of incomprehensible “I’m forced to do it” in ways that don’t create sympathy or understanding.

I finished, although largely out of obligation to book OCD, making it just above one star.

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Blood Trail by Tanya Huff

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of vampires, werewolves, female PIs
★    ★    ★   

Huff takes on werewolves, 1992 style. Henry tempts Vicki with a case needing discretion–a possible murder of werewolves. Since they were shot in wolf form while guarding sheep, it could have been a case of mistaken identity, until the most recent victim was hit with a silver bullet. City girl Vicki needs to head out to the country, and Henry goes to provide the night support. Back in the Toronto, Mike Celluci is digging deeper into Henry’s past and discovers how little anyone really knows about him.

It’s an interesting risk, taking characters out of their developed urban setting, and introducing a new species in only the second book. It turns out to be rather prescient, as a number of writers end up following in the same footsteps (Patricia Briggs Mercy series, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie series). Here, the werewolves are known as wer, preferring to stay isolated with their own kind and only leaving established packs for genetic diversity. They made and broke their own mold, however, because these are the only werewolves I’ve seen who are more like human Labradors then vigilant meat-eating warriors. Their idea of patrols? Peeing on a fence post.

The mystery is straightforward, but keeping them safe is complicated by the wer’s intense zen-ness. Vicki wanders around the land, eventually encountering a number of possible suspects. The killer was obvious to me as soon as they were encountered, leading to some frustration with Vicki for being so dumb. It’s apparent that sometimes Huff makes the mistake of forgetting Vicki’s police officer/investigator skills when it’s convenient for plotting. However, at least the telephone does not have as crucial a role. This installment also has developments with Henry and Vicki, so when Mike arrives to share concerns with Vicki, it takes a somewhat predictable turn.

Should you read it? I find myself in a hard place on this series. I think, if one enjoys the genre and enjoys more detailed writing, it might be worth it. I can see this series appealing to Sookie Stackhouse fans. It’s a pleasant read, though it stays rather firmly within genre lines, both in terms of mystery and in terms of romantic triangles.

 

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Blood Price by Tanya Huff

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of vampires, female PIs
★    ★    ★   

 

I wish I had found this series when it was written, way back in 1991. One of the earliest entrants in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, it preceded even Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. In the 2005 combined book edition, Huff remarks that when she was working in a sci-fi bookstore, she noticed that “vampire readers are very loyal,” and hoping to acquire a mortgage, she shopped the idea for this book when submitting another one to DAW. At some point, I think after reading Huff’s Enchantment Emporium, I was motivated to look up the rest of her catalog and found this series. Now, however, I’ve been mulling over what books to cull and am at the point where (re)reading is required. I pulled this out as a possible candidate. It’s interesting to read this in 2017, decades after the growth of urban fantasy.

Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto Police Department due to a debilitating eye condition. She’s about to get on the subway when she hears a scream. Racing to the scene, she saw a shadowy, dark figure disappearing. Homicide detective Mike Celluci is one of the first on the scene and he wastes no time at the opportunity to yell at her for leaving the force. Meanwhile, Henry FitzRoy is struggling with his latest bodice-ripper. When he learns of the series of deaths, he starts wondering if a vampire could be the culprit. It sounds crazy, but he should know, as he’s been one for over four hundred years.

Narration primarily flips between Vicki and Henry, with short insights into the murder victims, the killer, and Mike Celluci in a third-person omniscient view. It builds slowly, perhaps too slowly compared to the modern UF, but people who enjoy a richer story should enjoy the pacing. Unfortunately, land-line telephones play a major role in plotting, a conceptual barrier that may be hard for the smartphone generation to grasp. There’s a mild twist that the Goodreads blurb gives away, but the remainder of the story is a straightforward ‘figure out who is doing the killing and stop it.’

“At the top of the short flight of concrete stairs, she paused, her blood pounding unnaturally loudly in her ears. She had always considered herself immune to foolish superstitions, race memories, and night terrors, but faced with the tunnel, stretching dark and seemingly endless like the lair of some great worm, she was suddenly incapable of taking the final step off the platform. The hair on the back of her neck rose as she remembered how, on the night that Ian Reddick had died, she’d been certain that something deadly lingered in the tunnel.”

Characterization is enjoyable, fuller than is normally done in the genre, but still following general tropes of a stubbornly independent woman, a fiery, upstanding lawman, and a dreamy, debonair vampire. Its funny to me, thinking about the timeframe–if this is one of the early UF books, then my guess is that some of these stereotypes come from romance books. It turns out Henry is the bastard child of King Henry the VIII, so his points of view allow Huff to go back in time and dabble in historical romantic fiction.

All that said, I’m not sure this deserves space in my personal library, mostly because I’ve largely moved on from the genre and am looking only for books that stand the test of (my) time. However, it’s also not an easily found book. Any takers?

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IQ by Joe Ide

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of detectives
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

About of a third of the way into IQ, I was strongly reminded of ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown, Boy Detective (real name: Leroy). IQ is on his latest case, a rapper whose life is threatened, and a giant dog had just entered the house through a dog door in an attempted attack. Why the very junior and white- bread Encyclopedia? Although they both have a reputation for intelligence beyond the norm, it may seem a stretch–-on page one of IQ, the reader is introduced to an incompetent but scary man stalking a young girl, most definitely not the sort of case one thinks of in connection with Encyclopedia Brown. But I think it comes down to their similarity in genuine goodness, faith in trying to be better, and honesty in IQ being exactly who he is. IQ operates around the law, in the spaces the law doesn’t have time to reach.

“Isaiah didn’t have a website, Facebook page, or a Twitter account but people found him anyway. His priority with local cases where the police could not or would not get involved. He had more work than he could handle but many of his clients paid for his services with the sweet potato pie or cleaning his yard or one brand new radial tire if they paid him at all.”

I.Q., born Isaiah Quintabe, needs a client that will pay him in something more than a chicken. His estranged friend, Dodson, comes to him with a payday client, a rapper who is afraid a hitman is after him. But does he really want a crazy client and a ‘partner’ whose only contribution is lines from Law & Order? As the situation develops, the story shifts from 2013 to 2005, a twist I didn’t expect, but ultimately enjoyed.

With the L.A. setting and prevalence of gangbangers and crime, it could have easily felt like a stereotype or a urban version of Sherlock Holmes. But Ide is able to avoid the easy tropes and give the reader an inside peek at how a young man survives and his complicated friendship with a man who walks a different path. I appreciated Ide avoiding the stereotype of the guy on the wrong side of the law trying to make right. The contrast between the larger-than-life rapper and the upbringing of IQ and Dodson is done well. I love the side characters as well:

“When Isaiah was in his teens, he worked for Harry Haldeman and wondered even then how the man could stay in a state of perpetual indignation; his fierce dark eyes glaring through the Coke-bottle bifocals resting on his great beak of a nose, his snow-white hair sticking up like a toilet brush.”

The style was entirely readable without being simplistic, and I had to pace myself so I wouldn’t devour in one night (sometimes, one likes to linger a little). Really, one of the better and more interesting books I’ve read, not to mention one of the ones that left me feeling quite satisfied. I’ll be hoping for more books about IQ.

Four and a half stars, rounding up because it’s GR average is too low for a book this enjoyable.

 

 

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Voodoo River by Robert Crais

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of detective thrillers
★    ★    ★     1/2

Crais surprised me again. Not so much with the mystery as a very sweet subplot that I didn’t expect in a mystery-thriller. Connections from the last book have given Elvis more referrals from the movie world, and a famous small-screen actress Jodi Taylor is looking for the parents who gave her up as an infant. The trail takes Elvis to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, giving readers a change from the familiar L.A. scene.

When Elvis landed in a small town and started getting a feel for the place, I felt like I was there with him, from the local storefront BBQ and the people lined up during lunch, to the nosy librarian to the flavorful etouffee to the endlessly flat fields of sweet potatoes. Suddenly a lot of ‘podnah’ started seeping in. Turns out Crais is from Louisiana, so he comes by it honestly.

I enjoyed characterization quite a bit in the first part of the book. There’s a lot of emotional complexity to Taylor. I appreciate that it wasn’t just used to set up the investigation, but continues throughout the story. The case brings Elvis into contact with a lawyer (as always), and I appreciated the way Crais developed their interaction. I thought Elvis’ excitement quite sweet, nostalgically recalling such moments myself.

Once again, Crais does interesting things with the typical mystery plot, where solving one issue leads to another. This time, however, it worked less well, feeling like it veered off into a very different direction, both in plotting and in atmosphere. Joe Pike makes his usual appearance for the action. He’s fast becoming a sure-fire sign that things are about to come to a head.

 

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Sunset Express by Robert Crais

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of detective thrillers
★    ★    ★    ★ 

I should probably be embarrassed, but I didn’t realize until reading other reviews that the plot of Sunset Express, sixth in the Elvis Cole series, was a take on the O.J. Simpson case. Probably means 1) kudos to Crais for not being too obvious, and 2) I don’t pay attention to celebrity drama.  I remember the part about the white bronco, and about the obviousnessness of OJ’s guilt, but Crais puts enough twist on the details that it wasn’t initially recognizable.

This was easily one of the stronger stories of the series, with solid plotting, characterization that felt both real and appropriate, and an ending that dared step outside the mystery format box. Once again, the L.A. landscape and cultural enclaves come to life. For those who might be tempted to read out of order (as I did), there is a sub-arc through the series about a woman Cole meets in book 5 that continues to develop here. It brings a human touch and gives Cole moments of emotional depth beyond the smartass World’s Greatest Detective. I ended up doing one of those ‘just one more chapter’ and staying up too late on a work night.

 

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Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of detective thrillers
★    ★    ★     ★ 

Wow, I really am addicted to this series. Although I had the next book in order coming from a library, I stopped at my local branch to see what was in stock and found Elvis Cole #12. It was a fast, interesting read with a couple of unpredictable twists.

A fire is spreading through Laurel Canyon, so two cops are going door to door to alert people to the danger. A woman notes that a man with a bad foot hasn’t left his place in days. When they break in, they discover him dead, gunshot wound to the head and a book with seven photographs of brutally murdered women in his lap. Detectives soon pay Elvis Cole a visit, blaming him for finding the alibi that set the man free after murder number five. Elvis is racked with guilt and tries to find out what he can about the murdered man and his album. Unfortunately, a LAPD chief has the investigation wrapped within a week. Elvis continues to dig, weaseling information in any way possible, from bribes to families to a little B&E.

This is one of the first times I’ve deliberately jumped around a series instead of reading each book as it came out or going back to read in order. It’s interesting; the things that I enjoyed about book three are still here, but there’s been a shift. Elvis is not quite as much of a charmer as he is in the earlier books, and seems uncharacteristically moody and affected by guilt. There are still moments where he is compassionate and gentle, but are fewer, as is the humor. I’ll miss it if that’s the case for subsequent books.

Plotting was interesting. Initially I felt as if Elvis’ involvement hung on the thinnest of pretexts, but I ended up appreciating the various methods Elvis uses to remain involved, always a challenge when one’s lead is a private detective. Crais had a couple of fat red herrings, one of which I fell for. I especially enjoyed being surprised because it felt reasonably plausible.

There were also some moments of solid atmospheric writing. I definitely had the feel of the dry heat and the L.A. landscape.

“Our office was a good place to be that morning. There was only the tocking of the Pinocchio clock, the scratch of my pen, and the hiss of the air conditioner fighting a terrible heat. Fire season had arrived, when fires erupted across the Southland like pimples on adolescent skin.”

“The canyon behind my house was pleasant during the midday hours, with a slight breeze that brought out the hawks to search for rabbits and mice. Somewhere below, a power saw whined in the trees, punctuated by the faint tapping of a nail gun. Someone was always building something, and the sounds of it were encouraging. They sounded like life.”

Another solid entry into a series with above average writing. Sadly, though this one did involve both a serial killer and a cat, Crais is smart enough to keep the focus on the mystery and the character interplay, not reliving each murder. Very enjoyable because of the plot twists and solid writing.

Rounding up from 3.5 stars because it deserves it on the P.I. Detective Scale

 

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Notorious RBG by Carmon and Knizhnik

I’m still mad at RBG.

Appointed by Clinton in 1993, Ruth was only the second female on the Supreme Court (That’s right, kids: the mens used to think that mixing a career and family was too much for us. It wasn’t until 1993 that we had enough juice to play in the most powerful court. Did you vote for Hilary?).

Ruth Bader Ginsberg has acquired a bit of a cult following since then, perhaps because our perceptions of both petite, reticent women, and elderly women don’t always square with the powerhouse legal mind and workhorse Ruth so obviously is. The book, Notorious RBG, came out of a Tumblr started by two women who admired her work, particularly her dissenting opinions when the Supreme Court eroded the Voting Rights Act. (http://notoriousrbg.tumblr.com/)

Notes about the book: structurally, it reminded me of a cross between the ‘Dummies’ series of books and a biography. The biographical bits were broken down by subject focus, such as her very early years, academic life, family life, her work pre-Supreme Court, her relationships with other Court members, and her relationship with her husband. Being older and of a more traditional literary discipline, I tend to like my biographies to follow along a more chronological order. I feel it builds a better conceptual idea of how someone becomes who they are. Instead, it jumped around, mentioning her academic work in that section, but then talking more about the personal sacrifices in the family section. So it didn’t work as well for me.

I appreciated the authors’ attempts to make law more interesting and to provide some historical context, but inclusions often made the topical sections feel even more disjointed. For instance, one chapter has a timeline of major decisions affecting women, and one has a short brief she wrote with red notations on the side, commenting on Ruth’s paper. I greatly appreciated the collected pictures, both personal and professional.

So here’s the deal: I’m irritated as hell she didn’t step down during President Obama’s second term, particularly as a person who believed that cultural change comes from small, progressively stacked, well-founded decisions. The trend of the country was obvious. She had faced two cancer diagnosis and turned 80 his second term. Had she retired as Sandra Day O’Connor did after dealing with breast cancer, she would have had a solid 20 years on the court and a remarkable career by anyone’s definition. But no one–not even powerhouses–lives forever, and I felt like she had a duty to her feminist, populist and legal principles to ensure a better successor than one we will be likely to get.

However, in context of her life, it absolutely makes sense from her perspective, that of a woman who is passionately dedicated to law. She worked while her children were young, at one point trading positions with her husband so he could stay home with the kids and support her. I can’t remember, but believe she either worked the day he passed or the day of his funeral. She was meticulous, thoughtful, and prepared. I think she’s an amazing person, but a truly noble act would have been to help shift the court away from the conservative legal minds who erode her own goals.

 

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Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire. Nothing to see here.

Read  October 2017
Recommended for Srs Fans Only
★   

 

Magic for Nothing, whether intended or not, has the plot of a classic spy caper: an agent belonging to Group One needs to infiltrate Group Two. In the context of the Incryptid series, it is a strategy that makes little sense. In the five preceding books, readers have been told a great deal about the nefarious Covenant, and about the Price strategy of living in vigilant secrecy under concealed identities. The family is reacting to the shocking events of book four, Chaos Choreography, and their brilliant plan is a Cold-War era maneuver based on information from ‘tradition’ and from Verity’s husband, Dominic, who left the Covenant in book two and was literally an orphan. Let me repeat: their grand plan is to infiltrate an organization based on ‘lore’ and the knowledge of one person, after “two to four” generations of aggressive hiding.

Not only is it an abrupt reversal in the Incryptid storyline, it is incredibly stupid. What about using the resources of, oh, I don’t know, say the entire magical Incrypid community who has a lot to lose if the Prices are wiped out? There’s also ordinary information gathering resources like GPS tracking, spyware, plain stalking, etc. But whatever. McGuire has a plot to move along, so let’s just accept the premise that a group is willing to change “two to four” generations of behavior overnight.

What really became a sticking point for me was the writing. We’re on book five in a series; presumably most people aren’t grabbing it for the first time. If they do, well, it’s fair to weave in some backstory, and as a series reader, I’ve come to expect it. But McGuire is incredibly unskillful resorting to her main character repeatedly explaining these things to herself. She does this not once, but repetitively, particularly in regards to the Covenant:

Page 22: “See, either two or four generations ago, depending on which branch of the family you start counting from, we were part of an organization of asshole monster hunters called, wait for it, the Covenant of St. George… The Covenant felt, and presumably still feels, that anything they considered ‘unnatural’ should be wiped from the face of the planet, preferably with extreme prejudice…”  This continues for another page and is thorough enough to fall into ‘full backstory.’

Page 29: “Of course, if the Covenant came for us tomorrow, all the thinking ahead in the world wouldn’t save us.” Stressing how lethal the Covenant is. Again.

Page 33: “Thanks to Dominic, we know the location of three Covenant recruiting facilities in the U.K… none of them will take you without a strong background and referral, but those are easy enough to arrange. The referral doesn’t even have to come from a standing member. They’re so wedded to their ‘knights errant’ self image that if you just show up and say an old man told you to go there to fulfill your destiny, they’ll take it.” I’ll allow it under ‘mission briefing,’ although honestly–your lethal killers will recruit you with that story?

Page 36: “The Covenant is made of traditionalists, which is another way of saying that they’re set in their ways. If something isn’t broken, they don’t go out of their way to fix it. Fascinatingly, being traditionalists working off of a centuries-old model doesn’t make them sexists. The Covenant off St. George has been recruiting women since the Middle Ages, apparently recognizing that sometimes the most effective warriors are the ones no one would see coming. My gender wasn’t going to be an impediment. My background, on the other hand, was.” More explanobabble about the Covenant, who although pretty conservative and regressive, apparently were progressive enough to allow women to fight. But wait–I thought they would accept Antimony on her ‘destiny’ story.

Mind you, this is all in the pre-infiltration. We get a lot more of her thinking about “the Covenant this” and “the Covenant that” once she actually meets up with them and has dinner with them while they hint at killing her.

Oh, I know: you think I’m exaggerating. No, really–check this example out:

“‘Priestess, the Driver of Buses has announced our stop. If you do not wake, I fear we will journey onward to Parts Unknown.’ A sharp tug on my earlobe punctuated the words.

Aeslin mice have remarkably sharp little claws on their handlike paws. When an Aeslin mouse grabs something sensitive, like an earlobe, it’s hard not to pay attention.

‘Ow,’ I muttered, and opened my eyes.”

Seriously now–was that entire second paragraph redundant, or what? Why would Antimony even think that? Why does it need to be written out for the reader? We have the mouse–who we’ve met, and the mice have appeared in every book to date–we have the action, and the response. Why explain it??

Then there’s the Aeslin mouse Antimony smuggled in with her. Despite concealment in her backpack with ‘days of supplies,’ the Covenant doesn’t find it when they search Antimony’s things. Later, the mouse and Antimony have whispered conversation, in the same room as her Covenant roommate/minder/antagonist while her room mate was sleeping. But it’s okay, because her roommate’s snores were regular and loud, so it must be safe.

 

You never see that plot in James Bond. There certainly aren’t any kind of special devices that might be able to record picture and sound.

Honestly, the infiltration plot was stupid. The book relies on a lot of other material to keep it going, including a poltergeist in chapter one that has nothing to do with the plot, and roller derby practice in chapter two. I was reaching a quit point around page forty when McGuire suddenly followed up on hints she had thrown out earlier, and had a sort-of confrontation between sisters Verity and Antimony. Having a somewhat challenged relationship with my own sister, I was intrigued to see where it would go, but apparently a quick hug and apology solves everything (thanks for tuning in to this week’s After School Special).

Unbelievably logic-impaired within its own world, and with almost every page filled with telling, it wasn’t worth my time. I skipped ahead, was genuinely shocked at the ending–because it again messes with the series’ premise, not because it was good–and decided it really wasn’t worth my time.

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Free Fall by Robert Crais

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of detective thrillers
★    ★    ★    ★

 

A solid James Garner on the GRS-MV*

1– Peter Falk
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2–Tom Selleck
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3– Tony Shalhoub
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4– James Garner

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5– Benedict Cumberbatch
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Robert Crais is my new BFF. Maybe I exaggerate a bit. But I’ve been looking for a new detective series for so long, I’m a bit like an addict who has found a new fix. It didn’t even bother me that this one was clearly set in L.A. in the 90s. I was in L.A. in the 90s, but Elvis Cole clearly visited different parts than I did and spent a lot more time in Watts, especially watching X in the park. Although we did hang out with a uniformed cop one time. I’m not even sure how that happened–who lets a uniformed cop hang out with campus kids in the dorm? Clearly something untoward was happening in the L.A.P.D., as Crais elaborates. It also didn’t bother me that this felt almost entirely like a t.v. episode, because I happen to like over-the-top happy endings. Maybe that didn’t come out right. I mean, I don’t mind if there’s some property damage and liberally distributed roundhouse kicks as long as everyone pays for their crimes in the end, even if it’s only three days in county.

*Genre Rating Scale (Male Version).
(thanks Dan 2.0 for being the catalyst there)
(scale edited to provide clarification for certain friends. You know who you are, Jilly)

 

 

 

 

 

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