At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

 At the Water’s Edge is a glorious novel written by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants. Written in the same rich, historical style, At the Water’s Edge follows the life of Maddie and Ellis Hyde, as well as their friend Hank. Maddie, Ellis, and Hank have always been friends. They’re wealthy, beautiful, and carefree. Well, until all three go and muck their lives up royally of course. At a major high society event in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank get together and have a rolling good time. Maddie thinks nothing happened out of sorts until the following morning when countless people call her mother-in-law’s house where she and Ellis are staying to tell her about the major embarrassment that Maddie, Ellis, and Hank caused. Devastating repercussions follow and Maddie and Ellis soon find themselves cut-off financially with no clue what to do. Enter in Hank with a master plan!

Hank proposes they head to Scotland in the middle of the war to look for the Loch Ness monster. This trip had always been thrown around as a somewhat joke given Ellis’ father’s infamous dealings with the monster, but given the fact that Maddie and Ellis have no money, it is their only option. Finding that monster will get all three back to the lifestyle that they are so accustomed to, as well as clear Ellis’ father’s name. Plus Hank is massively wealthy, so he’s going to bankroll it! Even better. Once decided, all three head off to Scotland in the middle of the war. Seemingly oblivious to the war and how it is affecting the city and the people they deal with every day, Hank and Ellis hunt the monster, leaving Maddie behind most everyday at their hotel to deal with everything. Left alone, Maddie is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about herself, her companions, and her way of life. Add in the fact that both Ellis and Hank both seem to be able-bodied men who are avoiding the war to hunt for a fictitious monster and this book is rife with conflict.

What I most enjoyed about this book was that readers can clearly see Maddie’s character develop into something more well-rounded as the book progresses. As soon as she leaves Philadelphia, she seems to awaken out of her privileged state where everything is glossy and perfect to see all the harsh realities that surround her. Maddie also starts connecting to more meaningful things, be they people, nature, or life in general, than she had previously in Philadelphia. Maddie’s metamorphosis hooked me into the book and kept me reading.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it. The narrator did a fantastic job of giving each character their own separate voice. Given that the majority of this book takes place in a foreign country and also during war time, she was also able to give the necessary characters a very believable foreign accent.


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22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I have been reading a lot of World War II fiction recently, purely by chance. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson fit so neatly into the timeline of a previous WWII book that I had read that I noticed myself mixing storylines. Once I realized, I paid more attention and started taking notes (Taking notes is more than okay to do! Even when you’re not in school.) This novel was enjoyable and I found myself connecting to most of the characters.

22 Britannia Road tells the story of a family’s rediscovery of each other after World War II. Silvana and Janusz were married right around the beginning of the war. Their marriage began sweet and full of promise with each other’s past left fully in the past. Silvana’s family was less than caring about her, while Janusz is very close to his. Silvana and Janusz settle in Warsaw where they work at keeping their marriage together. Janusz leaves Silvana and their young son to join the military. Years pass, both during the war and after the war, with Silvana and Janusz doing whatever they have to in order to survive.

Once reunited the family moves to England where they struggle to put the past behind them. Both Sylvana and Janusz have secrets though, plus the area where they are living brings its own issues to the surface. Janusz has very much adapted to the English way of life, while Sylvana and their son still mostly speak Polish and have troubles adapting to their new normal life. Settling into their new house, Sylvana and Janusz begin a tentative new life, rediscovering each other and their new home after the ravages of war. Each of them carry secrets that even before they are voiced begin to eat away at Silvana and Janusz inside. What did Janusz do those six years that he was gone? Where did Sylvana and their child end up? How did they survive?

This novel juxtaposes both the present day and the past to show what happened to Silvana, Janusz, and their son during the time when they all were separated from each other. I greatly enjoyed the flashbacks because it helped me to justify and see some of the reasons that each family member behaves the way that they do. This psychological fiction really had me thinking about the secrets we keep from the people we love and the secrets that we’ve become so accustomed to that they eventually feel like our normal life.


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Photo Essay: Summer at Eastern

Even though it feels like summer has been here for more than a week already, as of 11:24pm last night it is now officially summer. And that means the prairie meadows at the Eastern library are coming to life.

The tall grass prairie (which originally encompassed Iowa) is incredibly beautiful and complex, full of life and surrounded by birdsong. Rainforest ecosystems get a lot of press and support to preserve and save and while I have no problem with protecting rainforests, don’t forget about the eco-system in our own backyard – the tall grass prairie, which is almost virtually extinct, is just as valuable, complex and beautiful.

Monday night, between rain showers and with dramatic clouds as a backdrop, I took a little time to enjoy these wild gardens along the edge of the Eastern library.

The purple flowers around Eastern’s sign are catmint which is not an Iowa native, but blends well with the wild garden beyond.
Dramatic rain clouds above the Eastern library
Purple coneflowers (echinacea) among the grasses.
As part of the Green City initiative, the city of Davenport has planted and maintains the prairies at Eastern.
Grasses and sky, the simplest definition of the prairie.
Butterfly weed  (asclepias) is popular with bees too.
Sunny black-eyed susan (rudbeckia)
The barn isn’t actually very old (about 3 years old) but fits perfectly in this setting. Living Lands and Water rents it from the city.
A stand of wild yarrow.
Milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterflies, about to bloom.
A meadowlark visits the edge of the prairie. You’ll see – and hear – lots of birds including redwing blackbirds, plovers, song sparrows and red-tail hawks.
This is blue vervain, a member of the verbena family.
Prairies support lots of beneficial insects like this bumblebee.

Interested in learning more about tallgrass prairies? Check out Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie by Aimee Larrabee or Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: the Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle. Or grab The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed Collard which is about the efforts of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge which is located a few miles east of Des Moines.

I also highly recommend visiting the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – they have a visitors center with excellent exhibits, offer educational programs about restoring the prairie (it’s much more complicated than throwing out a few seeds), have an easy walking trail for up-close views of flowers and grasses and a scenic drive where you’re likely to spot the Refuge’s bison and elk herds. Even though it’s located just a few miles from I-80, there are a few places in the Refuge where you can stop your car and, if you turn your back to the road, all you see is prairie and sky. No cars, no roads, to telephone wires. You can almost – almost – imagine what it was like before the first pioneers arrived.

All photos by Ann Hetzler, 6/19/2017

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff has a gorgeous cover. I have been wanting to read this book since it came out because I wanted to figure out if the blue on the cover was supposed to be waves or feathers. (It’s waves, guys!) I listened to this book through OverDrive and was very glad that I did. Fates and Furies is told from the point of view of two separate people and the audiobook has two separate people doing the narration! That allowed me to fully invest in each character’s life and imagine them more vividly. On to the explanation!

Fates and Furies is all about relationships and stories. Lauren Groff has woven a masterful novel about relationship dynamics and the representation of both sides of a story. Each story always has two sides, while each relationship always has two perspectives. The outside world only sees the relationship as one flat surface, while each person in the relationship is really only fully aware of their side of the relationship. It’s rare for people outside a relationship or even for people within the relationship to fully know the complete truth of what is happening in the relationship. Unless a letter is left after one person dies or one person in the relationship writes a memoir, little will be known. (And yes, I know there are those who swear that they don’t keep anything from their partners. Really? You tell them everything? Hmm.. This book examines the truth behind that principle perfectly.)

Fate and Furies tells the story of a marriage over twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde fell madly in love at the tender age of 22. At the very end of their senior year of college, Lotto spots Mathilde at a party, pushes through the crowd, falls to his knees and proposes marriage. She says yes on the spot. Two short weeks later, they’re married. Lotto and Mathilde are both glamorous and gorgeous people and separately are the envy of their friends. Put them together and their relationship is unstoppable. Lotto and Mathilde are destined for greatness. Years later, their friends are still in awe of their marriage, but through this book and the side conversations presented, we realize that their relationship has developed some intricate complexities that has twisted them. Lotto and Mathilde have grown over the years and their relationship has matured to encompass a number of layers that have mixed, mashed, and changed the foundation of their marriage and who they are as separate people.

This novel is told from the point of view of multiple people and flashes back to the past. These different viewpoints and histories allow readers to form a better understanding of Lotto and Mathilde as separate people and also as a whole. I enjoyed seeing Lotto and Mathilde’s dynamic change over the years. The examination of how both inside and outside factors can change a relationship was really insightful. The little and big truths and lies a person has can either make or break a relationship. Our past selves also influence how we present our current selves and then our future selves as well. Highly recommended.


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Halfway Home : San Francisco

Hello Fellow Readers!

How are you liking our trip to San Francisco so far? Do you have an overwhelming urge to eat Rice-a-Roni? (omg that aged me!) Have you managed to soak up some of the atmosphere and culture and history of this lovely city?

If you’re having trouble settling on a book, you might want to try a movie. Some great classics are set in San Francisco including Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood and Vertigo with James Stewart. Or check out the award winning Milk starring Sean Penn (who won an Oscar for his performance) about the first openly gay man to hold an elected public office. Or try a TV series set in San Francisco such as Monk starring Tony Shalhoub as a private detective with OCD.

And don’t forget, we have lots of Books on CD, especially nice for a summer road trip. Or check out Overdrive which has both ebooks and audio books – your local library is never far away, no matter where you are in the world!

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain had been sitting in my wish list in RiverShare OverDrive for a few months before I decided to give it a listen. The plot grabbed my interest, but every time I scrolled through my list to find a new book, I never picked it because the cover wasn’t appealing. Well, I finally decided to read it when I discovered that our Info Café Blog’s Online Reading Challenge had Kenya listed as the country for May. Circling the Sun takes place in Kenya! It was a win-win. Now that I’ve finished it though, I wish I had started reading this book a lot sooner.

Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham, a real-life record-setting aviator who lived a life of adventure full of strife and unconventional desires. She was born in England and then brought to Kenya by her parents because her father wanted to farm, despite the fact that he had no experience doing so. Her mother left her and her father in Kenya when Beryl was very young to move back to England. As a result, Beryl was raised in a very unconventional way by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who worked on her father’s estate and lived close by. Growing up without what the English considered to be a ‘traditional’ female role model, Beryl because a bold young woman who was not afraid to share her opinions, to try new things, and who understood the balance of nature, something that her father passed down to her.

Once Beryl reached a certain age, her father decided that she needed to have a more traditional life and thus threw the cozy life Beryl is familiar with into utter chaos. Her relationships began to dissolve and she was left floundering and confused about what exactly she was supposed to do with her life. Taking the skills she learned from her father as a horse trainer, she decided to become the first woman horse trainer in Kenya, which of course proved to be a very tricky process. Her decision to become a horse trainer led her more deeply into the European Expat community in Africa where she met and became entangled in a messy love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixon, who was the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa. Their tangled relationship and Beryl’s continuous desire to try more, to do more, and to be able to fend for herself leads her to journey all over the world and to meet many remarkable people.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find myself confused sometimes about who different characters were referring to. I know this was probably because I listened to the book and missed seeing the names in print, but I still was able to figure it out at the end. I also highly encourage you to listen to/read the epilogue where the author gives readers a glimpse into the real life of Beryl Markham and what happened to her, her friends, and family after the book ended.

The author also mentioned the book West with the Night that Beryl Markham actually wrote! She praised it highly and Ernest Hemingway even reviewed it with his quote directly on the cover. This book is on my to-be-read list and I can’t wait to read more about Beryl’s life from her own point of view.


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Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon is not what I thought it would be, but I was pleasantly surprised! (To be honest, I picked this book purely based on the cover, something I’m guilty of doing a lot.) This book is a literary thriller that tells the story of the far-reaching consequences of identity theft. Await Your reply begins by introducing the three main characters: Miles, Ryan, and Lucy.

Miles is on a mission to find his missing twin brother, Hayden. Hayden disappeared over ten years ago, leaving Miles desperate for clues. His search takes him everywhere and has Miles deciphering letters and clues that will hopefully lead to Hayden. The brothers’ relationship and their shared childhood is a major driving factor in Miles’ concern over where his brother is.

Ryan is struggling in college and basically in his life in general. He doesn’t know what to do. Add in that he just realized that he’s adopted(how could his parents hide that secret from him his whole life?!) and Ryan is even more lost than before. His desire to learn more about his past and figure out what he wants to do with his life lead him down a dark road.

Lucy is completely over her small country hometown. She wants to escape, travel the world, and find her purpose. Lucy is presented with a way to leave her hometown in the dust, something that she jumps on! Lucy’s escape quickly proves more dangerous and mysterious than she initially thought. The consequences of her rash decision will leave her reeling and confused over just who she should trust.

I found the plotlines and each character’s timelines to be a little tricky to follow at first. If you decide to read this book, I urge you to not give up because everything becomes clear towards the end. I honestly was very surprised about some of the connections and the twists/turns that the author came up with. I didn’t see them coming! Highly recommend (If you can listen to this book, do it! The narrator was very good.)


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The Subtle Art OF Not Giving A F#*K: A Countnerintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

What is bright orange, shiny, and maybe half as cool as Miles Davis? (and that’s pretty cool–just sayin’).  Though the title of the book itself isn’t an obvious indication, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F%ck isn’t exactly a throwback to 90s slackerdom. On the contrary, my contrarian friends, this book is for anyone who could benefit from being strategic and mindful about prioritizing how–and to whom–we give our precious time.  And that’s probably just about everyone. This book is for those of us who care too much.  This book is essentially about choices and in turning a widely-held assumption about happiness on its head.

In many ways, Mark Manson concisely re-packages the basic tenants of Eastern philosophy and religion in a hilarious and concise self-help guide . “In case you haven’t heard of him,” Manson says of the Buddha, “he was kind of a big deal.” Manson continues:

There is a premise that underlies a lot of our  assumptions and beliefs. The premise is that happiness is algorithmic, that it can be worked for and earned and achieved as if it were getting accepted to law school or building a really complicated Lego set. If I achieve X, then I can be happy. If I look like Y, then I can be happy. If I can be with a person like Z, then I can be happy. This premise, though, is the problem. Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and, as we’ll see, necessary components to creating consistent happiness (26).

What Manson offers in his book is the strangely comforting idea that striving for happiness is itself a negative act. Yep. And his ideas make a lot of sense. Manson seamlessly weaves in Alan Watts’ “backwards law” which says that “the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place” (9). Kind of makes sense, right? Manson ultimately rejects the established dogma in the self-improvement literature in favor of recognizing and even embracing suffering. You can thank the Buddha for that.

Charles Bukowski, a poet known for his irreverence and salt-of-the-Earth writing style kicks off Manson’s book, and for good reason. Bukowski–offering up all kinds profane-yet-sage wisdom noted that there is no way around the fire: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”. No sugarcoating here, folks. And that’s a welcome and refreshing approach to the happiness conundrum. Is it at all ridiculous and miraculous that Charles Bukowski turned out to be a self-help guru? (And not the self-appointed kind). If you haven’t read any of the late great Bukowski, do yourself a favor. Sometimes the sacred & profane are two sides of the same coin.

If suffering and struggle is inevitable, Manson frames the happiness dilemma like this: for what are you willing to struggle? Those things–the things you’re willing to do the hard work to attain–those are the things that define you. In other words, you have to choose where to ration out your four letter words. And this book has all the 4-letter words, be sure. You know how your mother or sister or aunt or best friend told you to choose your battles” ? Yeah–that. Because life is short. Maybe you figured that out already, and maybe one of your employee-sponsored motivational speakers reminded you that you yourself are what appears between the two dates on your tombstone. You are the hyphen. Make it count.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I found Manson to be a sort  of new-breed George Carlin, and if you are a fan of comedy and satire, look into adding some George Carlin comedy sketches to your list of library holds (of course, not if you’re easily offended by expletives and socio-political satire). One of my personal favorites, George Carlin,  makes no appearances in Manson’s book but poignantly asks in one of his comedy sketches: “why do we call them self-help books when we didn’t write them ourselves?” Aw, the best comedians were and are some of the most insightful poets and philosophers of our time, indeed.  But for a moment ponder the implications of writing your own self-help book. Writing it would require the type of self-reflection and self-awareness (and Manson would say self-doubt) required of self-improvement and even, ahem, tracking down the big, elusive Happy Dragon that lives in the distant castle of your mind. Even more: Manson discusses how the “pursuit of certainty” is a barrier to living a good life.

While this little book contains many noteworthy nuggets of insight, I’ll highlight my other favorite: namely, that action is not the result of being motivated, but rather action is itself motivation. Mmm hmmm. I’m sayin’. Do you feel inspired by that? Manson outlines a sort of flow-chart to illustrate his point, and it looks like this: Action ——>Inspiration——>Motivation. Instead of waiting around for the spirit to move you or for a lightening-strike of inspiration, just simply do and the rest will follow. And the rationale is quite simple. Manson calls this recipe for motivation the “do something” principle, and he credits a former Math teacher. Many of the impediments to living a good life can simply be removed by the “do something” principle.

A personal example of the do-something rule in action in my life: when I’m not doing work in the library, I’m a songwriter and performer. I personally enjoy the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment I derive in bringing a song into the world–in crafting something completely new and original that only I can produce. And the way to craft something new and original is not to wait. On the contrary: I write. so. many. songs. They’re really just poems or short stories or sketches, anyway. Or notes on my iPhone app. Or doodles. But that writing begets more writing. And one idea or concept leads to the next, and so forth. And before you know it, you’re a writing machine, churning out all kinds of new songs. Like, lots of new, really crappy songs. But guess what? The more songs you have, the higher your chances of writing a song that is great.

You remember the 10,000 hour rule from the wildly popular book Freakonomics? The rule is simple: what you practice, you become. If you practice something for 10,000 hours, like the Beatles relentlessly practiced and performed their music, you’re bound to get really good at it. Manson has a similar idea which is namely this: “The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement” (61). Here again is the resounding mantra that what defines us is what we are willing to struggle for–whether that be in cultivating a family, excelling in our careers, painting a masterpiece, or juggling flaming tennis rackets while balancing on a unicycle.

It’s no-doubt time for me to wrap up my ramblings. Check out this book if you like Eastern philosophy, suffering, pleasure, pandas, inspiration, self-defeat, self-improvement, the F word, Pakistani freedom fighters, the other F word: fun, Dave Mustaine from the band Megadeath, and hilarity in general.

You’re welcome!

 

 

 

The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

The Hamilton Affair tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler. The book begins with young Alexander living in Christiansted on the island of St. Croix (one of the U.S. Virgin Islands). Hamilton and his mother run a small store. They own a slave Ajax who is the same age as Alexander. The boys have been friends growing up but now his mother is coaching Alexander on how to be a proper gentleman. This includes giving orders to Ajax instead of being his friend. Alexander works very hard on his manners and his deportment. If he looks and acts like a gentleman, perhaps the people of Christiansted will forget that he was born out of wedlock. After his mother dies, Alexander Hamilton moves to New York and goes to school to college. The Revolutionary War begins and the reader finds young Alexander Hamilton a captain for the American Army. Captain Hamilton is close to General George Washington and works with him regularly. On one of his errands, he stops at General Schuyler’s house. This is when he first meets the General’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth cannot stop thinking of the young captain. She is impressed with the way that he carries himself. Also, her father, General Schulyer, had recently lost command of his army to General Horatio. Hamilton does not agree with the situation; neither does Elizabeth. While Elizabeth is visiting relatives, she finds herself at a dance with Captain Hamilton. The two begin a courtship and they are married. The author Elizabeth Cobbs gives us Alexander and Elizabeth’s viewpoints throughout the book. Usually, the chapters alternate their respective stories which I enjoyed. It was nice to see how each one viewed an incident or a historical figure. Of course, this book is historical fiction, so the author took some liberties with parts of the story.

Alexander Hamilton was an interesting person. He was born an illegitimate child but desperately tried to prove himself a gentleman. As a child, his mother owned slaves, yet Hamilton did not believe in slavery. One of his closet friends was a man named Ajax Manly whom he met during the Revolutionary War. They were friends until Alexander’s death and Ajax and Elizabeth remained friends. Ajax falls in love with a slave woman and Hamilton helps the woman gain her freedom. George Washington liked Hamilton a great deal and promoted him to General during the Whiskey Rebellion. But Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe did not like Hamilton. Some people believed that Hamilton’s insistence on a centralized government was a sign that he was a monarchist. Jefferson especially took issue with Hamilton’s views on central government and a federal bank. The two would be rivals until Hamilton’s death in 1804 at the hand of Aaron Burr.

I believe that most Americans take for granted all of the work that the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) did to create this nation. We forget about how long the war was or long it took to ratify the Constitution. The date July 4, 1776 is engraved in our minds but we forget that other events transpired in order to form our government. Reading a book like The Hamilton Affair is a reminder of the hard work, the disagreements, the stress and the worry that the Founders faced.

The Whistler by John Grisham

John Grisham is an author whose name, when I was younger, always had me cowering because he seemed to write SO MANY BOOKS. He’s up towards the top of the famous author list in my head alongside Nora Roberts, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. Those five authors are all ones that I never really felt the need to read when I was younger because everyone was talking about them or reading them. Now as a librarian, I’m making my way through the authors that I previously steered away from. Current author choice: John Grisham.

The Whistler by John Grisham is a darkly mysterious, dangerous, and suspicious read. We all expect our judges to be ethical and balanced, but what happens when one goes rogue? The Florida Board on Judicial Conduct is responsible for investigating complaints that deal with judicial misconduct. Lacy Stoltz has been an investigator for the Board for the last nine years, something that gives her great joy, but also can give her headaches. Lacy is a lawyer, not a cop. This distinction is key to her job. The cases reported to her usually end up on her desk due to sheer judicial incompetence, not actual corruption. One case, however, lands on her desk that is so corrupt and a bit convoluted that Lacy and her coworker believe it may be made up. Investigations ensue!

Greg Myers, a previously disbarred lawyer with a new identity, has dropped this bombshell case on Lacy. He alleges that a judge in Florida is stealing millions of dollars and is more corrupt than any judge in the entire United States. Lacy must figure out where that money is coming from. That investigation leads her to the shady dealings and construction of a large casino built on Native American land. The Coast Mafia helped to build the casino and, as a result, is skimming money from the till. The leader of the Coast Mafia felt it would be best to have a judge in his corner, so in return for looking the other way and making sure certain cases fall the way of the Coast Mafia, the judge is getting some money too. How Myers’s informant came to know this information is messy, but the informant is keen on the fact that under Florida law they can collect millions by being a whistleblower. Lacy and her colleague are immediately suspicious of this complaint, but once it’s filed, they must investigate. Full of dark twists and turns, this book had me on the edge of my seat a few times. I’ll admit that it took some time for me to get into the plot, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I had listened to a very light and fluffy read before this. Highly recommend.


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