My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.

The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God EnginesPublished: December 31, 2009
Publisher: Subterranean
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.

Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.

After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.

The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.

The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.

The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.

The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.

To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.

In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.

Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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A Few Bad Days

Just got back from a trip to BookPeople and wanted to share these striking covers for the “Bad Day” books by Sophie Littlefield.

I love these designs. They’re eye-catching but minimal, and tell you everything you need to know about the book’s premise. You can guess that the main character is feminine but still dangerous with a weapon. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to see a woman in a summery dress holding a handgun or a baseball bat. You can tell from her stance that she means business. The second book’s design immediately made me pick it up and read the synopsis.

Interestingly enough, the third book’s cover changes up the formula a bit:

Instead of a woman standing facing us with her feet planted, she’s turned around with her hip cocked, holding a more traditionally “female” weapon, a frying pan. Where the first two covers seem to hint at an intensity and violence at odds with the heroine’s dress, this one seems to be playing up her sex appeal and implying that this story will be more lighthearted than the first two.

The setting also appears to be slightly less country and more suburban than the first. Instead of a backdrop of peeling paint, we see a beautiful house off in the distance. In my mind, the first two covers clearly say “crime novel with a female protagonist”, whereas the third seems to imply that the story might be more like Desperate Housewives.

It’s really fascinating how they’ve used the same basic elements in the third book’s cover to market the book to slightly different audience. I wonder how the author feels about the shift in design?

LA Noire: The Collected Stories From Mulholland Books

I really don’t mean to be a Mulholland Books fanboy, I swear, but they just keep announcing such cool stuff that I can’t help myself. Their newest announcement ties in two of my favorite things: videogames and crime fiction. It turns out they’re going to release a tie-in volume of short stories involving characters from LA Noire, Rockstar Games’ upcoming game about a 1940s police detective.

I’ve already pre-ordered the game, after hearing only a handful of details. For example, it stars Aaron Staton from Mad Men, and is reported to have some of the most detailed facial animations in any game to date. It also has a fascinatingly complex interrogation gameplay system that immediately piqued my interest. I may very well end up reviewing it on GamerSushi, the gaming website run by some of my friends.

However, this announcement regarding a short story collection has cemented my firm belief that Rockstar knows their stuff. Writing is one of the areas where videogames still feel a bit anemic, but the calibre of talent assembled to write stories in the LA Noire universe makes me hope that the game will also have a robust and well-developed story.

Right off the bat, they’ve got my attention with Duane Swierczynski, who recently became my new favorite author after I read and reviewed his upcoming book, Fun and Games. However, I’m blown away to see such luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Joe Lansdale, Lawrence Block, and Andrew Vachss included as well. Mulholland will be releasing each story online over the next few weeks, and I look forward to reading and discussing them. I only wish all media tie-ins would bring this much quality to the table.

Hugo Nominees from Orbit Books On Sale

Orbit Books has a great monthly deal called the Orbital Drop where they put digital versions of one of their books on sale for the whole month.

Last month it was Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks for 99 cents. This month, Feed by Mira Grant and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin are both on sale for $2.99 a pop.

Someone at Orbit must have read my post about the Hugo nominees and decided to make things easy on me. I now own 3 out of 5 of the best novel nominees, and I might actually pull off my reading goal.

It’s definitely worth subscribing to the Orbit newsletter. Most of the previous deals have at least been interesting, and some of them have been fantastic. The deals seem to alternate between newer books and archive titles, and I’ve ended up buying almost all of the ones they’ve listed just because $2.99 is a price point I can’t resist.

Dear Orbit: keep up the good work!

Sadist or Romantic?

A few weeks ago io9 posted a list of series that put their characters through the wringer, and half of it is made up of series that are some of my all-time favorites. The other half sound like something I should check out at some point.

It seems especially appropriate to put The Dresden Files at the top of the list. I started reading it recently, and although I’m only three books in, Harry Dresden has gone through so much punishment that I shudder to think at what happens to him over the rest of the series.

The first book in the series, Storm Front, was decent but not great. It was entertaining enough that I wanted to keep reading, but nothing to write home about. It wasn’t until the third book, Grave Peril, that it felt like the series really hit its stride and started running on all cylinders.

The funny thing is that the quality of the books and/or my enjoyment of them seems almost to correlate directly with how thoroughly Harry Dresden gets the shit kicked out of him. Jim Butcher raises the stakes every time, and seems to enjoy throwing one horrible escalation after another at Dresden, usually just after he’s barely gotten back on his feet.

Although I absolutely enjoy series that occasionally punch you in the gut, there’s a flip-side to that darkness, too. The best series temper unrelenting punishment with an occasional moment of cathartic emotional release, usually of the romantic kind. Nine times out of ten, if they play that card right, it turns me into a blubbering mess. Butcher hasn’t quite pulled off this particular type of emotion yet; he’s great with mayhem and darkness, but romance doesn’t seem to be his strong suit. Awkward descriptions of sex scenes definitely do not work in his favor.

It doesn’t help matters that Harry Dresden is a self-admitted chauvinist, and the world of the books ends up being filtered through that lens. Women in the series are variously treacherous villains, one-dimensional crusaders for justice, or oversexed damsels in distress. I’m hoping that Butcher eventually works in a stronger female character, because I feel like the series can only have a real emotional moment if Dresden meets his match.

A friend of mine mentioned that she thought it was funny that I’m both extremely dark and very optimistic at the same time. I firmly believe in the power of love, but I also enjoy love stories that have incredibly tragic endings. At the time, I told her I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that, but after some consideration I don’t necessarily think they’re contradictory. I think I just love operatic storytelling, the kind with big emotions and dramatic twists.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the Dresden Files books. I’ve already heard one spoiler about the very ending of book twelve, but I have a feeling it’ll be a wild ride getting there, and I’m curious to see what Butcher is capable of as a storyteller.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Published: March 8, 2011
Publisher: Viking Adult
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery, Satire
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

If you happen to be a book nerd who likes fantasy, mystery, satire and a healthy dose of metafiction, the Thursday Next series will be right up your alley. It quickly became one of my favorite series after I read the first five books in a mad rush over the last year. However, after finishing the sixth installment, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I’m unsure how I feel about the future of the Thursday Next books.

On one hand, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is a reboot with a different viewpoint character, but on the other hand it’s also the most self-referential of the entire series so far, and probably the worst possible place to jump into the series as a whole. Also, because it’s a Jasper Fforde book, telling you that there is a new viewpoint character is a huge oversimplification.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s about Thursday Next, a police detective in an alternate universe who is able to leap into fiction and uses her powers to solve mysteries both in the “RealWorld” and the “BookWorld”. That’s only scratching the surface, however; Fforde overstuffs the books with an insane number of alternate-world details and odd little touches. It makes the books almost impossible to accurately summarize.

The short version is that Thursday’s adventures were novelized by ghost writers in her world. What this means is that there is a “real” Thursday and a “fictional” Thursday. The fictional Thursday is sort of a cross between an actor and a clone of the real Thursday. Fictional Thursday only has to perform when someone in the RealWorld is reading one of her books. However, readership numbers are dropping and she finds herself with too much free time on her hands. When she hears rumors that the real Thursday may have disappeared, fictional Thursday begins a surreptitious investigation, and almost immediately finds herself in over her head.

Much like her RealWorld counterpart, fictional Thursday is driven to solve this mystery at all costs. However, she isn’t exactly like the real version; in the book series, her husband, Landen, was killed off in the first book to “raise the stakes”, and she finds herself envious of the real Thursday’s family. She also doesn’t consider herself quite as talented a detective, especially since she flunked her entrance exam for the BookWorld police force.

The overall portrayal of fictional Thursday is my main problem with this book. When we were initially introduced to this fictional version of Thursday in the fifth book, she was portrayed as a hippie do-gooder who is too much of a pacifist for proper police work. However, in this book she mostly just behaves like a less confident version of the real Thursday. She tells us that she would probably solve problems by hugging everyone, but it felt like I never really saw the differences in her personality in action. Mostly she just seemed like a diminished version of the real thing. Fforde takes away a lot of the real Thursday’s defining characteristics and doesn’t give us anything truly compelling in their stead.

Also, a word of warning: Fforde really likes to throw in little metafictional jokes. Some of the stuff in this book relies on a fairly thorough knowledge of previous events in the series. It was definitely a huge help that I’d read all of the books in short succession. I’m not sure I would have caught all of the little details that Fforde throws in otherwise. However, even with all of that knowledge, I was occasionally a bit confused by events, and wondered if Fforde knew what he was doing. My best advice is just to try to relax and enjoy the ride.

Ultimately, I have to say that this is my least favorite of the Thursday Next books. A lot of what I love about Fforde’s books is present – his incisive touch for satire, madcap plotting, and crackpot world-building – but it just didn’t have the same heart as the previous installments. I never really warmed up to the fictional Thursday Next as a protagonist. In my opinion, she doesn’t rise above her status as a stand-in for the real deal.

As for the future of the series, I’m not quite sure where it will go from here. The first four books are a sort of loose quartet, and when I finished the fifth it seemed likely that he was setting up another trilogy or quartet. Instead, Fforde made a complete left turn and gave us this book, which doesn’t really follow up on the fifth book and mostly ends up being a bit of a standalone story and/or narrative cul-de-sac. My hope is that Fforde has further adventures planned for the real Thursday Next, or that he at least does more to make the fictional Thursday’s perspective distinct if she returns in future volumes.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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My New Reading List: The 2011 Hugo Nominees

I always look forward to the yearly announcement of the Hugo Award nominations. Unlike other awards (even the Oscars), the Hugos are almost always relevant to my reading interests, and for the past few years I’ve made an effort to read as many of the books nominated for best novel ahead of time so I can be well-informed when the winner is picked. One of these days I may even pay for a membership so I can vote for my favorites.

The 2011 nominations were released over the weekend, and the novel selections are an interesting bunch:

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Blackout/All Clear is a two-part novel about time-traveling historians who get stranded in WWII England. Cryoburn is the fourteenth novel in the Vorkosigan saga, a scifi/military/space opera series generally focused on the exploits of a diplomat named Miles Vorkosigan. The Dervish House is a kaleidoscopic story about the interconnected lives of six people in near-future Istanbul. Feed is (yet another?) zombie novel about bloggers following a political campaign in a future trying to recover from the undead apocalypse. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an epic fantasy about politics, racism, and gender roles in a world where gods walk the earth.

Of the five, I already own The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, so it’ll probably be first in my reading queue. I’m especially intrigued by The Dervish House, so I might pick that up next, then Feed. After that, things get a little tougher. I’ve recently started reading the Vorkosigan saga, but I’m not sure which is a more daunting prospect – reading all fourteen books this year, or jumping a dozen books ahead and reading Cryoburn. As for Blackout/All Clear, it has gotten some fairly mixed reviews, but I’ve loved all of Willis’ books that I’ve read so far, so it’s possible I’d still enjoy it.

In any case, I’ve decided that I’m going to make it my personal goal to read as many of the nominated works as possible, including as much of the short fiction as I can get my hands on. It seems like the best possible way to keep current on the state of modern scifi is to read as many of the nominees as possible. Also, it sounds like a fun challenge. Watch this space for my reviews of the nominated works!

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Published: February 12, 2008
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 244

I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.

It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.

The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.

They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.

The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.

The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.

Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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