Three Excellent Novels about Bullying

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (2013)

The Goats by Brock Cole (1987)

I didn’t realize that I had a thematic link among my recent reads until I was placing a hold on The Goats a couple of weeks ago. Wonder was lent to me in February after several people in my church supper club had praised it. Not long after that, Yaqui Delgado caught my eye while I was browsing my county library’s ebook offerings. The Goats was recommended to my children’s literature class over a decade ago by a professor – and I finally read it last week. All three books involve bullying in some form, and also feature great writing and fantastic characters.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is the most popular of the three books, with nearly 260,000 ratings on Goodreads. The main character, August “Auggie” Pullman, suffers from a severe facial deformity and is about to enter school for the first time. Despite the adults’ efforts to encourage his new classmates to be a friend to Auggie, he quickly becomes a social outcast among the other sixth graders. Palacio’s novel is told from multiple perspectives – Auggie, a couple of his classmates, Auggie’s sister, her boyfriend, and a few others. Through the switches in perspective, you come to see that everyone is on their own journey, with their own struggles, even as they are aware of Auggie’s particular hardships. It’s a lovable group of characters, and it’s a story that pulls on the heartstrings without seeming manipulative. I definitely got teary sometimes reading it – but don’t worry, it’s more poignant than sad.


Meg Medina’s book Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass was a rougher read, emotionally. Piddy Sanchez’ mother decides to move them out of their dilapidated apartment to a better one in another neighborhood. Unfortunately, this places Piddy into a new high school, and soon in the cross-hairs of that school’s most intimidating bully, Yaqui Delgado. Medina convincingly portrays how bullying plunges Piddy into a claustrophobic bubble of misery. The climactic confrontation with Yaqui Delgado is terrifying in its level of humiliation – but is fortunately not the end of Piddy’s story. Piddy does find a way out that is a realistic salvation.

I can’t say enough about Medina’s characterization in this novel, and how well she writes about all the different facets of Piddy’s life. Bullying may inform the main storyline, but it’s not the only thing going on in Piddy’s world. There’s a best friend who has moved away, but is not out of the picture entirely. There’s Piddy’s former neighbor, a boy who is of romantic interest, but mostly they bond over wanting to escape from their current lives. And there is the fabulous Lila, best friend to Piddy’s mother, who fulfills a much needed role as adult confidante to Piddy. I would read more about Piddy, her family and friends. They just really came alive through this novel.


As much as I loved the previous two books, Brock Cole’s The Goats may end up being my favorite of them all. The worst happens right away: following a long-held but not condoned camp tradition, two outcast twelve-year-old campers – one girl and one boy – are stripped of their clothes and left on an island in the middle of a lake. They soon decide that they have no wish to go back to that camp and they successfully escape from their situation. Knowing that the girl’s mother will arrive at the camp in a few days’ time (and not thinking through that she will be alerted to her daughter’s disappearance), the kids must figure out how to get by on their own.

Strangers at first, the boy and the girl eventually become inseparable friends, helping each other maneuver out of the tight spots they find themselves in. In order to get food and shelter, they reluctantly commit some petty theft – but, adorably, they keep a little notebook of their debts which they plan to repay once restored to their families.

For all that the children are rarely called by their names in the book, there’s a wonderful specificity to them and to the story. The girl comes from a single-parent home, and a parallel storyline follows the mother as she pieces together what’s happened and who comprehends more than her daughter gives her credit for. The boy’s parents are archaeologists and I liked how his memories of traveling in Turkey and Greece work into the narrative.  I also identified with the boy’s picture of the forest as a representation of freedom. Trees make me feel that way too.


Wonder‘s depiction of bullying is probably the closest to my own childhood experience – kids making fun of me in cryptic ways I didn’t fully understand, being deliberately left out. However, Medina’s book so completely nailed the visceral pain of humiliation that it conjured some memories I hadn’t thought of in a while. The Goats rounds out this trifecta because it is about the moments of victory; it is about refusing to let the bullies have the final say and instead reveling in nature, new friends, and feeling the power of one’s own resourcefulness.

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Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Negroland

Margo Jefferson’s book Negroland is mostly a memoir in terms of content, but with a fair bit of cultural history as well. This is true especially at the beginning as she gives a brief history of the African-American elite. “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty” Jefferson writes. “I call it Negroland because “Negro” dominated our history for so long; because I lived with its meanings and intimations for so long; because they were essential to my first discoveries of what race meant, or, as we now say, how race was constructed.”

Structurally, Negroland is more like a collection of essays. There’s sometimes not much connection between one chapter and the next. I feel like my expectations would have been managed better if it had been labeled as a book of essays, but I’m guessing memoirs are more marketable than essays?

Jefferson, now in her late sixties, pinpoints truths about her childhood and environment with great clarity. At one point in the book, she recounts two memories. In the first, her mother overhears Margo singing a song learned at school with the word “darkies” in it. In the second, her grandmother sees Margo learning a game from a white neighbor girl where they make monkey-like gestures while saying “I’se from the jungle.” In both cases the mother and grandmother stop Margo and explain to her what is wrong with the song/game. Jefferson writes:

These memories are as much about being humiliated by adult knowledge as about race prejudice. My mother and grandmother exposed errors I’d made. I felt humiliated in front of them . . . It’s so easy for a child to feel all wrong in the eyes of adults. And when you have no idea that what you were doing is wrong . . . I hated being caught unawares. It was so dangerous, so shameful not to know what I needed to know . . . There are so many ways to be ambushed by insult and humiliation.

In Negroland, Jefferson describes the pressures and rules of living among the African-American elite, where one is expected to be twice-as-good as whites to succeed. “My enemies took too much. My loved ones asked too much. Let me say with care that the blame is not symmetrical: my enemies forced my loved ones to ask too much of me.”

Another reason I enjoyed Margo Jefferson’s book was her reflection on being a woman who never married. It’s not a big part of Negroland and I’d love to read more of her thoughts on that topic. Ever since reading Briallen Hopper’s brilliant critique/counterpoint of Kate Bolick’s Spinster, I’ve been keeping a look out for inspiring women who never married. I thought this observation by Jefferson was well put:

Because really, whatever your race or ethnicity, you knew that if your girl skills weren’t up to par, your intelligence/education/talent would become a liability – proof that your proportions were off, that you were excessive or insufficient.

Another aspect of Negroland that I enjoyed was Jefferson’s descriptions of her family watching and commenting on black performers like Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dorothy Dandridge as they appeared on mainstream television like the Ed Sullivan Show. This got me looking up Dorothy Dandridge on Youtube, and I’ve shared one of the videos below. (Also check out Dandridge’s Cow Cow Boogie video. She is super cute in it.)

Jefferson also got me to look up Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous” – a “fancifully, outrageously jaded” song Jefferson adored as a child, which I’ve also included below.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Negroland and hope to read more / hear more from Margo Jefferson in the future.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Courtney H. on Goodreads: “The book is intensely personal at times, but she also is a dispassionate chronicler, holding her readers at an arm’s length. I read this book in my book club, and someone mentioned that Jefferson essentially was carrying out an anthropological study of a specific culture–an upper class Black community in Chicago (accompanied by a review of powerful and/or wealthy Black Americans) using herself almost as a case study. And that struck me as an accurate assessment of her approach.”

Pedro Cabiya on Goodreads: “Margo hits the mark plenty of times, but it gets buried under the dizzying whirlwind of her memories, and not all of them make for an engaging read. Wisdom and insights come unannounced in little snippets and capsules.”

Reading in Color – “I understand complaints that the narrative is disjointed but Jefferson always manages to bring her tangents back to the main point. It is not simply random ramblings the author indulges in, each seemingly random thought serves a purpose that connects to the central theme of the chapter/passage.”

 

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Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore (Reading New England: Maine)

Spoonhandle Moore

1946. Reprinted by Blackberry Books. Paperback. 377 pages.

Review:

For a short time in my childhood, my family lived practically down the road from Ruth Moore in Bass Harbor, Maine, though I don’t think I ever met her. Later, living in a different Maine town, the public library had many of Ruth Moore’s books, and I have a faint memory of reading a couple of her books as a teenager.

I picked up Spoonhandle at Sherman’s bookstore in Bar Harbor, Maine last summer, determined to get reacquainted. I decided to read it now as part of the Reading New England challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review.

I assume other readers nourish the secret hope of coming across a neglected classic and becoming its champion to all who will listen. Well, I finished Spoonhandle this morning, and that seems to be what has happened here.

Spoonhandle is set in a small Maine island community during the mid-1930’s. The Stilwells are one of the central families on Big Spoon Island. Pete Stilwell owns the main grocery store but hopes to transform the island into a haven for “summer people”. A wealthy business owner has set his mind on purchasing Little Spoon Island, owned by Pete’s brother, Willie Stilwell. Flying in the face of Pete’s ambitions, Willie refuses to sell his land at any price. Throughout the novel, members of the community consider the price of transformation. Do they live independently, but in a hand-to-mouth existence? Or do they sell their land and take up better-paying jobs serving wealthy summer people?

In addition to this overarching story of the community, there is also a plotline about a boy in foster care looking to belong, and there is also a very nicely done romantic storyline between another Stilwell brother, Hod, and Ann Freeman, a young writer who has returned to the island after living in New York City.

In some ways, Moore’s writing reminds me of Anthony Trollope. Not exactly in style, but in her insights of human nature, and her handling of the complexities of human interaction. And like Trollope, she tucks her social critique into some good storytelling. (Unlike Trollope, however, she does not break the fourth wall or insert authorial asides.)

In Moore’s descriptions of Maine, however, I would link her more closely to Sarah Orne Jewett, another Maine-based author who wrote The Country of Pointed Firs in 1896. There is a fantastic set-piece at the end of Part I, where Willie and Hod Stilwell are out in their boat with the foster kid, Donny Mitchell, and they catch a large halibut.

Moore does not sentimentalize Maine coastal life. I was pleasantly surprised by her direct address of sexism and racism. Here is an excerpt taken from after Ann Freeman has had a brief interaction with Pete Stilwell:

Fog made a blurry outline of Pete’s store, as she passed it, and of the white, clapboarded house and barn belonging to Sam Grant, her father’s next-door neighbor. Under her feet, the road was sloppy with half-frozen mud and puddles.

I sure picked an attractive day to arrive home, she thought.

The fat man, with his cool, expert meddling in Hod’s affairs, the neat way in which, with three words, he had turned her into a silly interfering female, had made her angry – but something else, too. It had been a long time since she had encountered indifferent disregard of herself as a thinking human being, so long that she had almost forgotten how it felt.

I’d better begin to remember it, though, she said to herself wryly. I don’t expect pa’s changed much.

I found out online that Ruth Moore had worked for the NAACP for four years in the late 1920’s, a biographical detail that correlates with the socially aware undercurrent in her novel.

Ruth Moore apparently bristled at being called a “regional writer”; during the time of her career that was a term which had the effect of diminishing accomplishment and downplaying the universal themes present in her work. Indeed, Spoonhandle is dedicated “To Any American Town”. At the same time, she does do such a good job in capturing Maine and its people. So if you love Maine, that is an extra charm of the novel, but by no means do you need to be familiar with Maine to enjoy Spoonhandle.

After finishing the book, I came across a wonderful online essay by Jennifer Craig Pixley about Ruth Moore and her work, written in 1997. In it she writes:

What sets Moore apart from her contemporaries is her particular blend of humor, fury, and sorrow. Moore’s fiction and ballads reveal her comedic talents, but most readers understand that the other side of comedy is tragedy. Moore allows her readers to laugh, if only to keep our hearts from breaking at the spectacle of the human condition.

I hope that I’ve managed to intrigue some readers in Ruth Moore and in Spoonhandle in particular. It was a very satisfying read, and I hope to explore more of Moore’s work in the future.

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Weird Short Stories: American-style and Russian-style

Hall of Small MammalsPetrushevskaya

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce

2014. Riverhead Books. Hardcover. 294 pages.

Recommendation from: Outlandish Lit

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers.

2009. Penguin. Paperback. 206 pages.

Recommendation from: it was included in one of Eva’s Library Loot vlogs


Of the four books I was eyeing for this month’s #weirdathon (hosted by Julianne of Outlandish Lit), I read two, and they were both collections of short stories.

Thomas Pierce is a young American author and Hall of Small Mammals is his book debut. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a Russian author in her late 70’s who has had a long literary career. There Once Lived A Woman . . . served as a major entrance of her work into the American publishing scene.


 

I found Hall of Small Mammals to be really delightful and satisfying to read. The first story, “Shirley Temple Three” starts off on a good foot; it’s about a woman whose adult son asks her to keep a small mammoth at her house for a while. I loved watching the main character bond with her unusual charge. I was going to list all of my favorite stories in this review, until I realized that would mean two-thirds of the stories. I feel like I should focus on the weird stories since this was a #weirdathon pick, like “More Soon” where a man receives regular updates from the State Department on the whereabouts of his brother’s highly infectious dead body. But I also found the non-weird stories like “Felix Not Arriving” and “Ba Baboon” to be very compelling, especially the brother-sister relationship in the latter story. Perhaps the real treat of the collection is “Videos of People Falling Down” which is a string of tiny interconnected stories that are all preceded with click-bait internet video titles like People Falling on Snow/Ice Funny!!!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Outlandish Lit – “My only issue with these wonderfully strange stories was that a lot of them just kind of stopped.”

Six-Demon Messenger Bag – “what makes them so good is not the bizarre or the science, it’s that they are rooted in these terrific moments of human relationship dynamic.”

Tzu-Mainn Chen on Goodreads – “Stories are lean without being rushed, weighty without being presumptuous, emotional without being maudlin”.


 

There Once Lived A Woman . . . is subtitled Scary Fairy Tales, though I would personally classify many of the selection as ghost stories. Some of the stories were incredibly slight and not particularly memorable. However, there were a few that I found rather haunting. The nightmarish “Hygiene” follows the effect of a plague on one family. While there was probably a layer of cultural meaning I missed in “The New Robinson Crusoes: A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century”, I did really like its semi-apocalyptic feel. In this story, a family retreats further and further from the threats of civilization, taking in other strays along the way. My favorite may have been “There’s Someone in the House” where a woman living by herself begins to feel like there is another occupant in the apartment and begins to purge her belongings in an increasing manic state. I really liked the ending of this story – there was a real restorative spirit to it. It may not be a coincidence that two out of the three stories feature a cat in an important role.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Benjamin from Goodreads – “If I had to pin it down, I’d say she’s really figured out the intersection of spookily unnerving contemporary fiction, folklore, and the ghost stories we still remember and re-tell, long after we stop believing in ghosts.”

Kayl Parker from Goodreads – “Some of the stories I found too romantic, or, as the book is actually labeled a Horror Collection, I found them too safe. There were a few . . . that no reader should miss.

Stephen Durrant from Goodreads – “the closest I can come in my own lexicon for a term to describe this collection is from classical Chinese: 志怪 zhiguai. Loosely translated, this means something like “accounts of the bizarre”

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Mini-reviews: Visual treats

The Arrival Shaun Tan

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Published 2007.

Recommendation from: Regular Rumination

This gorgeous book is a wordless tale of immigration in a fantastical world. The dangers of immigrants’ homelands and the cultural strangeness of the new world are portrayed using otherworldly architecture, food, plants and creatures. In some things, one can parallel to the equivalent in our own world history, but Shaun Tan does not seem to be making everything into straightforward representative symbols. There’s quite a lot of room for whimsical expansion. It’s actually quite a moving book, especially in light of today’s fraught conversations about immigration.

Delta Deep Down Burdine

Delta Deep Down: Photographs by Jane Rule Burdine. Edited by Wendy McDaris. Introduction by Steve Yarbrough. Published 2008.

Recommendation from: Maggie Reads

I’ve been intrigued by the Delta region of Mississippi since reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding when I was in high school. I still haven’t visited, though I plan to. The photos in this collection were taken between the years of 1973 and 2006. The photo shown above was taken in 1989. The photo subjects are a good mix of people, buildings and landscapes. The selection and ordering of the photos was carefully done so that something in the right page photo subtly echoes something in the left page photo. It might be a similarity in color, or the composition, or a pattern. This was a lovely book to page through.

To see more of Jane Rule Burdine’s work, here is a link to a tumblr site:

Cat Getting Out of Bag

Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations: A Cat Book by Jeffrey Brown

Published 2007.

Recommendation: My notes say this recommendation came from Paperback Reader though I can’t seem to find the actual blog post. Simon from Stuck in the Book also likes it.

This cute little book is a collection of comic panels about common cat behavior: zooming around the house, knocking things over, getting under sheets during bed-making, folding themselves into a tidy loaf position, etc. I especially liked one page that was labeled “She Knows” and shows the owner packing a suitcase while the cat looks on. Very occasionally, I wasn’t quite sure what an illustration depicted, but for the most part, as someone who grew up with cats and owns a cat, I saw much that I recognized and could smile over.

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Weird Books from my past

I have completed one book for March’s #Weirdathon (hosted by Julianne of Outlandish Lit) and am currently reading another, and their reviews will come in a later post.

Today I wanted to reminisce about several weird books I read a few years before I started this blog. I’m going to steal liberally from my reviews that I did on livejournal and Goodreads – the approximate vintage of both the books and the reviews is 2005 – 2007.

 

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

The Children’s Hospital has a premise that is incredibly strange: the world is destroyed overnight by a flood and the only survivors are the medical staff, patients, and patients’ families of an angelically-designed children’s hospital. This is just the beginning of the story. The main character, Jemma, is a not particularly competent medical student who ends up playing a pivotal role in the destinies of all the survivors.

The Children’s Hospital is a difficult (not to mention lengthy) book, and I thought of giving up several times. I’m glad that I did finish it, because the book is a work of brilliance and mad imagination that one doesn’t encounter often. It’s incredibly epic and has passages that will sweep you away.

The Children’s Hospital is a book that I can only recommend with caution – it does not shy away from the grotesque and the despairing. The book ends up ripping you to shreds and it’s hard to be enthusiastic about recommending that experience to anyone else. However, if you’re looking for a true adventure in reading, give it a shot.


 

With by Donald Harington

A young girl gets kidnapped and whisked away to a remote abandoned farm in the Ozarks. When her captor dies unexpectedly, she must learn to survive with the help of an intelligent dog named Hreapha and a ghostly-type presence called an inhabit, both of whom narrate some of the story. I really loved this one – I put it on my year-end favorite reads list. The author was an Ozark native and set nearly all of his books in and around a fictional Ozark town called Stay More.


 

The Zero by Jess Walter

A post-9/11 novel about a first responder who is hired by the government to gather together all the paper scattered in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The problem is that there are huge gaps in his memory and he keeps finding himself in increasingly strange places and in the middle of shady transactions, trying to piece it all together. I found this book suspenseful and clever but ultimately not satisfying in how it all ended.


 

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Favorite Stories (The * marks my two absolute favorite) are listed below. I didn’t care for the other stories in the collection.

Flush – A daughter takes her resistant mother to the doctor’s for a mammogram. This story showcases one of the recurring themes in this book, that of the role reversal that occurs when children become adults and their parents become like children again.

Visitors – A daughter waiting at her home for her parents to arrive on a visit keeps receiving increasingly bizarre phone calls from her mother as their trip progresses.

*Saving Face – In a totalitarian society, an artist’s love for a webbed-feet swimmer ultimately dooms her – the swimmer – to a strange kind of imprisonment.

Miracle – A woman gives birth to a black baby but maintains that her husband (who is white) is still the father.

Sales – In a barren land, a man and his wife trap traveling salesman and keep them penned in their backyard. The man’s younger sister looks on with complicity at first until she gives way to a growing defiance.

*Motherland – An island of mothers proves to be a stultifying place for their daughters who grow up with the wrong ideas about the ways of men.


 

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This collection of stories mostly takes place on an island, somewhere near Florida. The stories are a bit surreal, full of strange customs like a camp for kids with sleeping problems (gnashers, somnabulists, sleep apniacs) or a retirement community where the elderly are housed in old boats. Russell often explores sibling relationships, as well as kids falling into friendships with trouble-making boys. Almost all of the stories end with a feeling of isolation and loneliness and this can make it hard to really want to continue to the next one.

Best stories: “Haunting Olivia” due to exquisitely written passages on ghost fish; “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” – the only story that I thoroughly liked.


 

Winkie by Clifford Chase

I did not in fact finish this one but its premise is so weird I feel compelled to mention it anyway. As the Goodreads synopsis says, it’s about a teddy bear who ends up on “the wrong side of America’s war on terror”. My small review that I wrote at the time: “I can tolerate some wackiness, but this one was way out there, even for me. Didn’t get far into it before I asked myself, am I remotely interested in what happens to this bear? The answer: no.

 

 

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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Water Knife Bacigalupi

2015. Knopf. ebook. 384 pages.

Recommendation from: Leslie of Regular Rumination

Review:

The Water Knife is one of those dystopian novels where the plausibility sucked me in right away. As Bacigalupi unhurriedly sets up the narratives of the three main characters, the details of the world-building provide the initial feelings of frisson. Scarcity of water has wreaked havoc on the American Southwest, and powerful figures use legal and extralegal means of acquiring rights to remaining water sources.

Bacigalupi releases small revelations about this future vision, often without ceremony. Mexico has been officially carved up into cartel states. Texas is no more. Chinese corporations have moved into derelict Southwestern cities and provide some of the few means for employment. People raise aid for the impoverished Southwest, but they restrict interstate migration.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Phoenix, which is teetering on the brink of dissolution. Angel Velasquez, right-hand man for the ruthless boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been sent to Phoenix to check on another of the boss’ projects. Meanwhile, Connecticut-born journalist Lucy Monroe – who has adopted Phoenix as her home – pursues a story she knows she should leave alone. And at the bottom of the Phoenix food-chain is Maria Villarosa, a smart teenage refugee from Texas who is running out of ways to survive.

The convergence of all three characters’ storylines was perfectly thrilling because, in a moment, everything escalates very very quickly, in the best way. All the preceding character and world-building provided the stakes so that when the novel gave itself over to action, I was invested. Death dogs the characters every step of the way, and there were no guarantees on any character making it to the end.

Going back to my attraction to the plausible: I liked, for example, that in The Water Knife, the U.S. government still exists and most of the states still exist as well, and that in other parts of the country, people were not living in near-apocalyptic conditions. The whole world doesn’t need to have gone down in flames for a dystopia to exist somewhere. Certainly, we already have places in the world that resemble Bacigalupi’s Phoenix.

I also appreciated the end of the novel. In a story where “saving the world” – even “saving Phoenix” – was never a real possibility, the best one can hope for is to live another day.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Rhapsody in Books – “Bacigalupi is a consistently intelligent, prescient, and compassionate writer. If we just stand by, as we are now, and watch it “all going to go to hell,” it won’t be for want of trying by Paolo Bacigalupi.”

So Many Books – “Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away.”

Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It – “The characters spring to life easily, but maybe Angel is a bit too much of the typical semi-invincible hard guy hero. It’s not that he’s flat (not at all even), but he’s just so good in what he does. Then again, a lot of action packed books are about guys that have all the luck in the world”

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