Serena’s Review: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan”

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Book: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” by Liz Michalski

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: eARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Life is looking up for Holly Darling, granddaughter of Wendy–yes, that Wendy. She’s running a successful skincare company; her son, Jack, is happy and healthy; and the tragedy of her past is well behind her . . . until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly a decade, has gone missing from the estate where she’s been long tucked away. And, worst of all, Holly knows who must be responsible: Peter Pan, who is not only very real, but more dangerous than anyone could imagine.

Eden’s disappearance is a disaster for more reasons than one. She has a rare condition that causes her to age rapidly–ironic, considering her father is the boy who will never grow up–which also makes her blood incredibly valuable. It’s a secret that Holly is desperate to protect, especially from Eden’s half-brother, Jack, who knows nothing about his sister or the crucial role she plays in his life. Holly has no one to turn to–her mother is the only other person in the world who knows that Peter is more than a story, but she refuses to accept that he is not the hero she’s always imagined. Desperate, Holly enlists the help of Christopher Cooke, a notorious ex-soldier, in the hopes of rescuing Eden before it’s too late . . . or she may lose both her children.

Review: There are a few fairytales (for lack of a better word, I guess) that are particularly hard to re-tell. In my opinion, “Peter Pan” is notorious for this. Not only is the original very much of its time with a plethora of modern pitfalls for a contemporary adaptation, but the entire situation is bizarre. How much of a child is Peter really, given his long life? Is it kidnapping, what happens to the Darling children? How does one balance the whimsy of the entire situation with a story grounded in real emotion and energy? In my experience, it seems that the more successful an adaptation is the more it has deviated from the original story. All of this to say, while I’m always excited to check out a new version of the story, it’s definitely one of those tales that I go into with the quite a bit of wariness.

Secrets linger in Holly’s past, though she has become an expert at hiding this fact. And these are more than the ordinary familial secrets. For what many think is just a story, Holly knows as a pernicious but very real part of her own family history: that is, Peter Pan. And when her daughter, Eden, who has long existed in a comatose state suddenly disappears, this shadow-ridden past comes roaring back into Holly’s life. Desperate for help, Holly turns to an ex-soldier. But will it be enough to confront the magical forces aligned against them?

While this book wasn’t quite the smash hit that I was hoping it would be, there were still quite a number of things going for it. For one, I really liked the generational aspect of the story. I’ve read a number of books about Wendy herself or her daughter, Jane. But instead of focusing on these characters, the author chose to remove the story down another step, focusing on Holly, the granddaughter of Wendy. We then even go a step further down the family line with the inclusion of Eden and Jack, Holly’s children and Wendy’s great-grandchildren. Through this focus, we truly see the effect of a character like Peter who never ages but is a persistent presence in one family’s life. Each woman has had a different experience of him. Indeed, part of the focus of the story is reconciling these various experiences with the truth of who he is.

This isn’t the first dark!Peter story I’ve com across. Indeed, the once-popular TV show “Once Upon a Time” is partly best-know for its creepy take on Peter (or perhaps its very attractive take on Hook, who knows?!). So this wasn’t unique ground solely found in this book. But I will say it was much, much darker than I was expecting. Perhaps even too dark for me. I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with some of the themes at the heart of the story, but I do think the author handled them well. Mostly, if you love Peter Pan, be prepared to kill your lovelies, because there’s nothing redeemable about this character. For as bad as he is, I do wish we actually got to see a bit more of him. In some ways, his villainy was a bit too easily hand-waved away as “he’s just always been bad.” Instead, it might have been a more interesting take to see how a character that might have been morally ambivalent originally could be corrupted by the nature of Neverland and this existence.

I did struggle a bit with the pacing of the story. It starts out well enough, but I felt like things began to drag a bit by the middle of the tale. Part of this was my own lack of real connection to Holly. I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but I never felt fully invested in her arch. When the action and the mystery were at the forefront, I sped along. But when the story slowed for some of the character moments (usually my bread and butter), I found myself having a harder time focusing. I also wasn’t super invested in the romance, though, again, there was nothing obviously wrong here.

This was definitely an interesting retelling of “Peter Pan.” It’s definitely on the darker side in some ways, but I think the decision to focus on Peter’s impact on several generations of women in one family was very interesting. Fans of the original (and those not too attached to Peter himself!) will likely enjoy this one.

Rating 7: A bit lacking on the character front, but an interesting reimaging of the effects that Peter Pan would have on a generation of women whose lives become entangled with the magic of Neverland.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” is on this Goodreads lists: Peter Pan Retellings.

Kate’s Review: “Burn Down, Rise Up”


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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Burn Down, Rise Up” by Vincent Tirado

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Stranger Things meets Get Out in this Sapphic Horror debut from nonbinary, Afro-Latine author Vincent Tirado.

Mysterious disappearances.
An urban legend rumored to be responsible.
And one group of teens determined to save their city at any cost.

For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances.

Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a terrifying urban legend called the Echo Game. The game is rumored to trap people in a sinister world underneath the city, and the rules are based on a particularly dark chapter in New York’s past. And if the friends want to save their home and everyone they love, they will have to play the game and destroy the evil at its heart—or die trying.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

If I had a dollar for every moment I saw firsthand someone kvetch about the horror genre ‘becoming woke’ or other such nonsense, I don’t think I’d have a LOT of money, but it would be enough to buy me a nice dinner downtown. I do know that people have been complaining about how more and more horror stories seem to be bringing social issues into plots, but that’s just a dumb frustration because horror has always had its political and sociological angles, for better or for worse. I haven’t heard any such beef with Vicent Tirado’s new teen horror novel “Burn Down, Rise Up”, though I wouldn’t be shocked if it was out there. But the political and sociological possibilities in the horror genre are things that I am always on the look out for, so when read the description for this book I was VERY intrigued. This country has a lot to reckon with when it comes to racist policies and ideals, and putting some of those issues within The Bronx at the forefront WHILE mixing in a deadly Internet game horror story was too interesting to miss. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a solid history lesson for readers of any age. “Burn Down, Rise Up” has that to be sure.

Given that I am a huge fan of Internet Creepypastas that have these urban legend game factors (such as The Elevator Game or Hide and Seek Alone), there was a lot to like about “Burn Down, Rise Up”. I thought that Tirado did their due diligence when it came to inventing an Internet urban legend game, with nods to real life inspirations while still feeling fairly unique and fresh. I liked the rules, I liked the eerie creepiness of the game itself, and I liked how Tirado worked history of racist policy, violence, and destruction of the Bronx into the game. It’s the history of the Bronx and the violence directed towards Black and Latine people that has the most horrors here, as the beings in this Echo are victims of the fires that plagued the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s and were the result of redlining, inadequate infrastructure, slumlords, and other systemic oppression that made for a dangerous situation in which many buildings burned and many Black and brown people were displaced. Some of the creatures and ghouls that Raquel and her friends meet in The Echo are very clear representations of this, with many burned entities wandering around to a Slumlord antagonist to black mold-esque infections ravaging people beyond the Echo into our world. In terms of actual action and mythos of the Echo, I thought that those points were a bit underdeveloped, with the metaphors being really strong and interesting but the actual supernatural parts being undercooked. I also would have loved a bit more exploration into Raquel’s father’s connections and devotions to Santeria, and more exploration of her own psychic abilities.

As for the characters, I liked Raquel a lot, as she is trying to navigate a sick mother, a despondent friend/crush, and the conflict between her and her best friend Aaron as they both have a crush on Charlize (though he doesn’t know of her feelings). A lot of the obstacles and conflicts she faces of being a teenager, especially an Afro-Latine teenager at that, felt pretty well thought out. Whether it’s anxiety about her feelings for Charlize and whether they are reciprocated or the understandable skittishness of dealing with the NYPD as they investigate Charlize’s cousin Cisco’s disappearance, I knew Raquel as a character and understood her motivations and feelings in the moments of the plot. I was also very interested in one of the entities in the Echo that has been connecting with Raquel referred to as a Man in Corduroy, as while he is creepy and mysterious there is an intriguing essence to him through his dialogue and actions, a morally grey feel that I really liked. Everyone else was serviceable, though perhaps not as well rounded.

All in all, “Burn Down, Rise Up” had some good mythos and some well thought out connections to some dark and racist social history in the Bronx. I liked how Tirado examined this while showing how vibrant and close knit her characters, and the Bronx itself, are. A fun horror that I will definitely be recommending to teens.

Rating 7: A fun horror tale that takes Internet urban legends into politically conscious territory, though some of the supernatural elements are a bit underdeveloped.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Down, Rise Up” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Black Lives Matter”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

Book Club Review: “The Roommate”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Publishing Info: Berkley, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Forced Proximity

Book Description: House Rules: Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

Kate’s Thoughts

I thought that this book had some good jumping off points for our book club discussion, which is good! But I think that part of that is because it seemed like it wasn’t overall well loved by our members. I fell into that camp as well. But I’ll start with what I did like, and there are two things that stand out for me. Firstly, I liked how this book tried to show that porn actors and actresses, and sex workers in general, are people who are doing a job and who deserve not to be dehumanized or stigmatized because of it. I liked that Josh enjoys his job, views it as a business that he excels at, and didn’t fall into any pitfalls of being shamed for his profession. Along with that, I liked that his acting partner and on again, off again girlfriend Naomi was ALSO a well thought out and interesting character, when she easily could have been used as a contrast to Clara and depicted in negative ways. Overall, I felt like Danan was doing her best to address sex positivity and the importance of remembering sex workers are people and deserve rights and respect, and not to be mistreated or shunned because of their profession. I also liked Naomi a lot as a character. As mentioned above, she isn’t used as a snide or antagonistic villain, and she was probably the most interesting character in the book.

I guess that kind of brings up the things that didn’t work as well. I thought that “The Roommate”, while setting out what it wanted to do, was kinda ho hum in other ways. Clara was fine as a main character, Josh was fine too, but neither of them were super interesting to me. I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship, and I wasn’t terribly invested in the conflict that they met along the way. The sex scenes were serviceable and were written pretty well, but I didn’t get the kind of fun buildup I like in romance novels (however this is probably more about preference: like I’ve said in the past, I like a slow burn build up and a lot of cute and snarky banter).

I think that “The Roommate” does what it wants to do. I would have liked more oomph and chemistry between the main characters.

Serena’s Thoughts

Once again, I agree with everything Kate has already laid out. I think this book had lofty goals attempting to address sex positivity and destigmatize sex work. However, even here, I feel like the book brushed up alongside some of these issues but then didn’t really get into some of the real challenges. For example, there are a lot of factors that go into sex workers being forced into situations where they’re pushed back their comfort levels. Much of this has to do with power structures and stigmatization. However, here, we pretty much just had a “big bad” who, once dealt with, cleared the way to smooth sailing ahead. Likewise, Josh is conveniently not working when he meets Clara and then transition into a different role by the end of the book. So the author neatly sidesteps the issue of addressing sex workers who still work in the industry but are part of a committed, monogamous relationship.

Also, like Kate said, neither of the characters were particularly enthralling. I didn’t actively dislike either of them, but I never felt invested in their individual arcs or their romance as a couple. The “romance,” such as it was, felt more like falling in lust than falling in love. By the end, yes, they get there. But like Kate said, without the buildup, it’s harder to really feel any satisfaction when the romance is settled by the end of the book.

Kate’s Rating 6: I feel like it sets out to do what it wants to do, and I liked the sex positivity. But overall it was kinda lackluster.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me. The romance lacked any real connection and while I liked some of the topics tackled, I think there were some other missed opportunities.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you think that the forced proximity trope in this story worked well within this context?
  2. Did this book subvert any romance tropes (forced proximity or not) in ways that you liked?
  3. Besides Naomi, were there any side characters that you would have liked to see more of? Any that you’d read another book about?
  4. What did you think of Clara and Josh’s business idea of porn that teaches about giving women pleasure during sex? Do you think there would be a market for it?
  5. What were your thoughts on how this book handled the themes of sex work and sex workers? Do you think it would make people think differently about sex work?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Roommate” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “My Favorite Trope”.

Next Book Club Book: “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper

Monthly Marillier: “The Well of Shades”

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“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “The Well of Shades” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, May 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Juliet Marillier continues the epic fantasy begun with” The Dark Mirror, ” which” Interzone” called: “A fascinating evocation of life in Pictish England and an emotional roller coaster of a story.” King Bridei is a man with a mission. His wish to unite his kingdom seems almost within his grasp but there are forces working to undo his dream. He sends Faolan, his most trusted advisor (who is also a master assassin and spymaster) out into the world to ferret out the truth of who is friend and who is foe. Along the way Faolan will uncover many truths. Some may hold the key to Bridei’s future. But more important, they may unlock the secrets that Faolan has held deep within his soul for decades. And offer him the chance of redemption.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Mirror” and “Blade of Fortriu”

Review: While there are some books by Juliet Marillier that I feel confident I could review perfectly without even reading them again (due to the millions of re-reads I’ve done over the years), there are others where I have practically no memories. The Bridei trilogy is probably my least-read series of all of her books, and thus I have the fewest memories of these books individually. I had a few vague ideas about the first one, a fairly good memory of the second one (the only one I’ve re-read of the bunch), and now absolutely zero memory of this third book. I mean, I guess I remember there being a mom and her kid involved, but you can also see that from the cover, so that’s really no props to my memory. So it was fun getting to almost read this book again for the first time.

After his recent adventures (and disappointments), Faolan is sent on yet another task by his king, Bridei, in his continuing mission to bring together his country. With dark secrets that have plagued him, Faolan has made a life for himself focusing solely on these missions. But this time, the mission brings him up against that which he has sought to run from for years. Along the way, he meets a young mother with secrets of their own. Together, can they find a way to heal their pasts?

While I didn’t particularly care for Faolan in the first half of the previous book, by the end, he and the situation he find himself in is quite sympathetic. That being the case, it’s no surprise that Marillier chose him as a focal point for this last book in the trilogy. She does love her broken heroes, doesn’t she? She’s also excellent at writing this type of character, so it naturally follows that Faolan continues his trajectory as an increasingly compelling character in this story. His arch of personal reconciliation and redemption is both compelling and emotional. There were a few twists and turns in his story that I remember being fairly surprising, and, in the end, I really liked what the author did with this character.

Ellie and her daughter, Saraid, were also excellent characters. I’m always a bit of a hard sell on child characters. And while Saraid did have her moments of “preciousness” that I struggled with, overall, I did like her quite a lot. Ellie’s story is also dark, and her journey to trusting both herself and, in particular, Faolan, is slow but emotionally fulfilling. Their romance is definitely of the “slow burn” variety, which is just what I like.

The story also switches between Faolan’s journey and Bridei’s court. There’s a lot of work to be done in this book to wrap up all the various plot lines, and Bridei’s ongoing political conflicts do make up a good amount of the story. There were also a lot of twists and turns here that were fun to see, serving as good payoffs for groundwork that was laid down earlier in the book. It’s also always nice to revisit our favorite characters from the first two books.

Due to the nature of this story, with its flip-flopping between two narratives, I did struggle a bit more to fully connect to either story line. I never really felt myself being fully drawn into the book. But I still enjoyed it! It just wasn’t as immersive as some of Marillier’s best books are. Fans of the trilogy should definitely complete the series and should enjoy this final entry!

Rating 8: A satisfying conclusion to this trilogy that focuses on two broken characters learning to find a safe haven with each other.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Well of Shades” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Character Driven Fantasy Books.

Kate’s Review: “Trailed”

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Book: “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” by Kathryn Miles

Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, May 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received and eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A riveting deep dive into the unsolved murder of two free-spirited young women in the wilderness, a journalist’s obsession, and a new theory of who might have done it.

In May 1996, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were brutally murdered while backpacking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, adjacent to the world-famous Appalachian Trail. The young women were skilled backcountry leaders who had met—and fallen in love—the previous summer while working at a world-renowned outdoor program for women. But despite an extensive joint investigation by the FBI, the Virginia police, and National Park Service experts, the case remained unsolved for years. In early 2002, and in response to mounting political pressure, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he would be seeking the death penalty for Darrell David Rice—already in prison for assaulting another woman—in the first capital case tried under new, post-9/11 federal hate crime legislation. But two years later, the Department of Justice quietly suspended its case against Rice, and the investigation has since grown cold. Did prosecutors have the right person?

Journalist Kathryn Miles was a professor at Lollie Winans’s wilderness college in Maine when the 2002 indictment was announced. On the 20th anniversary of the murder, she began looking into the lives of these adventurous women—whose loss continued to haunt all who had encountered them—along with the murder investigation and subsequent case against Rice. As she dives deeper into the case, winning the trust of the victims’ loved ones as well as investigators and gaining access to key documents, Miles becomes increasingly obsessed with the loss of the generous and free-spirited Lollie and Julie, who were just on the brink of adulthood, and at the same time, she discovers evidence of cover-ups, incompetence, and crime-scene sloppiness that seemed part of a larger problem in America’s pursuit of justice in national parks. She also becomes convinced of Rice’s innocence, and zeroes in on a different likely suspect.

Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders is a riveting, eye-opening, and heartbreaking work, offering a braided narrative about two remarkable women who were murdered doing what they most loved, the forensics of this cold case, and the surprising pervasiveness and long shadows cast by violence against women in the backcountry.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve mentioned before, I really love visiting National Parks, even if I do so in a way that doesn’t involve camping or roughing it much beyond a hike or two. I’m just not a camper. While I hope to visit a lot of National Parks throughout my life, I am also always compelled by the darker things that have happened there. I actually hadn’t heard of the Shenandoah Murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams, two women who were murdered in Shenandoah National Park in 1996 and whose murders are still unsolved today, in spite of some movement in 2002 when John Ashcroft announced that a man named Darrell Rice was being charged with their murders under new hate crime legislation… which quietly fizzled out. So when I saw “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” by Kathryn Miles, I was very interested. National Parks and true crime, two things I really find fascinating. But “Trailed” is more than a typical true crime book, as it not only presents a true crime story, it also looks into very bleak issues when it comes to this unsolved case.

Miles does a really good job of laying out all of the things in this case that made it go cold and stay cold, and how it ranges from a killer in a remote place to prejudice to just a good old fashioned inept group of investigators from the jump. I’ve read a bit about violence, murder, and death in National Parks and on public lands before, and how bureaucracy, lack of funding, and red tape can really slow down investigations when time is of the essence. There is definitely a bit of that here, though there is also rangers at Shenandoah who didn’t want to admit that a violent crime could have happened and dragged their feet. Or the investigators who decided that since these women were lesbians it was obviously a violent dispute between the two of them gone awry. There is also the fact that once investigators zoned in on Darrell Rice, who was charged with the crime but never went to trial, they weren’t interested in looking into anyone else. Even as Miles tries to get information regarding DNA (as Rice’s DNA did not match that found at the scene), or whereabouts of another very probable potential killer, she is met with pushback and hostility from the government and people she had been working with prior. And let me tell you, Miles makes a VERY good case as to why Rice probably didn’t do this, and how a serial killer named Richard Evonitz very well could have (who was murdering women and girls in the area around the same time Lollie and Julie were murdered). I was seething by the end, as Miles is going to great lengths to try and get answers, but is being stopped at every turn.

But Miles also takes care to give a lot of time and space to give the victims, Lollie and Julie, a voice and to let us get to know them as people. One of the very fair critiques of true crime as a genre is that it objectifies the victims of violent crimes by centering the killers instead of those that were killed. In “Trailed” that is already inherently less of an issue because of the fact the crime is unsolved, but in many ways that’s even more horrific because two women’s lives were cut short in a horrendously violent fashion and no one knows who did it. At least not officially. I liked that Miles gave us a lot of information on both Lollie and Julie, as well as their families and friends, and what kind of holes their deaths left in many peoples lives. It felt to me like Miles was very respectful of them as people and was very careful in how she told and framed their stories, and it makes things all the more maddening that these women were so failed in this investigation almost from the start and then repeatedly, even up through the past couple of years as Miles has tried to find something, ANYTHING, that may give them families some answers. And unfortunately, as we’ve seen before in other cases where law enforcement and the justice system would rather double down on a theory that doesn’t hold weight rather than find actual justice, I just don’t see that happening.

“Trailed” is a well researched and compelling true crime story about a justice system failure and the dark realities of violence against women in wilderness and rural settings. Maybe someday Lollie and Julie’s families will get the answers they seek. I sure hope so.

Rating 8: Thorough, heartbreaking, and at times maddening, “Trailed” is a look at justice long overdue and the failures of a system that is supposed to seek justice, but gets caught up in ineptitude, politics, and refusal to admit mistakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” isn’t on many lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “National Park Non-Fiction Books”.

Blog Tour: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray

Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In a tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.

Review: There is a truth universally acknowledged: the more ardent a fan of Jane Austen a reader is, the more critical that fan will be of any and every Jane Austen adaptation/sequel. I feel fairly confident making a generalization like that, and I would easily include myself in it. There have been times when my snobbery has reached levels not seen in any other favorite genre or beloved series of books. But I’m glad that I didn’t let this lesser self dictate whether or not I picked up this book, cuz, man, other than “Death Comes to Pemberley,” this is probably my favorite Jane Austen continuation yet!

In Emma’s view, a house party is always just the thing to cheer matters up! So she and her husband, Mr. Knightley, gather a large group of friends, acquaintances, and family members to share in a visit at their home. This cheerful event is made much less so, however, when the disreputable Mr. Wickham shows up one dark and stormy night. And what’s worse than an unwelcome guest? One that is rude enough to get themselves murdered on the premises, thus leaving all the remaining guests left as suspects. With so many members of the group having motives for thinking the world would be better off without Mr. Wickham, the Darcy’s oldest son, Jonathan, and the young Juliet Tilney decide to tackle the mystery themselves. But as they get closer and closer to discovering the murderer, the more horrifying the truth becomes, because it must have been one of their dear friends!

It’s immediately obvious that the author is herself a huge fan of Jane Austen. This book is so clearly a love letter to all of these characters and to all of the fans that it’s impossible to miss. This also makes the reading experience entirely dependent on one’s familiarity with these characters and stories. There are so many small nods and inside jokes that will only be appreciated by ardent fans, that the reading experience will likely be vastly different for those familiar with these stories and those who have been less-exposed. And because the story includes characters from all of the books, the reader pretty much has to have all six novels well under the belt to appreciate the work the author has put into creating in this story.

As fun as all of these Easter egg clues were to spot, what really made this book stand out was how well the author understood the characters she was working with, in all of their strengths and weaknesses. Most especially, she envisioned how these personalities would play off one another, both between each other and within their own marriages (since, due to the nature of Austen’s books, we see very little of what these characters’ lives are like in the marital state). Gray doesn’t shy away from pointing out some of the flaws in these characters that could drive wedges into their marriages. However, everything is handled with such care that you never feel like any of these choices or actions are out of character with the originals. Instead, we see how many of them grow even further once some of these characteristics are exposed to the harsh light of day.

From a purely preferential state, I was glad to see that Emma and Knightley were by far the most stable of the couples. Not only do they know each other much better than anyone else (Emma having grown up with Knightley as a good friend from the very beginning), but the original book does a good job dealing with each of their flaws to begin with. Fans of “Mansfield Park,” however, may be dismayed to see that Fanny and Edmund, on the other hand, probably have the most work to do. Again, this never feels like an overt critique of the original story, but instead seems perfectly in line with these two characters and the way their romance played out (honestly, one of the more weird ones when you think about it). It’s satisfying to see Fanny come more into her own and Edmund be forced to reckon with some of the ways that he didn’t do his best with regards to Fanny and their relationship.

All of this written and I haven’t even touched on the mystery! I honestly can’t say enough good thing about this as well. It’s truly impressive how well Gray managed to work Wickham into all of these characters’ lives in ways that felt completely natural and inline with their stories. Not once did his relationship with these characters feel forced or shoe-horned in to fit the narrative. Instead, it felt completely organic and believable. Thus making the entire thing so stressful! It starts to become truly horrifying wondering how this mystery is going to be resolved without vilifying one of our beloved main characters!

I also really enjoyed the original characters of Jonathan and Juliet. It’s tough work to create new characters and stand them up against classics like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, but Gray manages it! For one thing, the book features so many viewpoints that Jonathan and Juliet are by no means the sole focus. We get plenty of time with our other favorites, but I also began to appreciate both Jonathan and Juliet in their own right. I was also pleased to see that while there are hints of a potential romance between these two, the story didn’t commit to anything in this arena. There simply wasn’t enough time in this book to not do a disserve to the mystery by trying to force in a fully-fledged romance as well.

All of this to say, I highly recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan out there! The more familiar you are with the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy this!

Rating 9: Simply excellent and sure to please even the most picky Jane Austen fan!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Murder of Mr. Wickham” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Jane Austen Sequels and Pastiches.

Kate’s Review: “The Hacienda”

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Book: “The Hacienda” by Isabel Cañas

Publishing Info: Berkley, May 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Mexican Gothic meets Rebecca in this debut supernatural suspense novel, set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence, about a remote house, a sinister haunting, and the woman pulled into their clutches

In the overthrow of the Mexican government, Beatriz’s father is executed and her home destroyed. When handsome Don Rodolfo Solórzano proposes, Beatriz ignores the rumors surrounding his first wife’s sudden demise, choosing instead to seize the security his estate in the countryside provides. She will have her own home again, no matter the cost. But Hacienda San Isidro is not the sanctuary she imagined.

When Rodolfo returns to work in the capital, visions and voices invade Beatriz’s sleep. The weight of invisible eyes follows her every move. Rodolfo’s sister, Juana, scoffs at Beatriz’s fears—but why does she refuse to enter the house at night? Why does the cook burn copal incense at the edge of the kitchen and mark its doorway with strange symbols? What really happened to the first Doña Solórzano?

Beatriz only knows two things for certain: Something is wrong with the hacienda. And no one there will help her. Desperate for help, she clings to the young priest, Padre Andrés, as an ally. No ordinary priest, Andrés will have to rely on his skills as a witch to fight off the malevolent presence haunting the hacienda and protect the woman for whom he feels a powerful, forbidden attraction. But even he might not be enough to battle the darkness. Far from a refuge, San Isidro may be Beatriz’s doom.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I am a little embarrassed to admit that Isabel Cañas’s debut Gothic horror novel “The Hacienda” was just sitting on my Kindle for months. I requested it pretty early out from the release date, and I know that when I do that books do tend to just sit. By the time I deemed it right to pick up, the chiding ‘downloaded on ___’ indicator was staring at me and making me fidget. And then when I started it, I felt myself all the more annoyed because holy COW. This book was immediately awesome! With a description that has “Mexican Gothic” meets “Rebecca” I knew it was going to be a treat, but boy howdy was I not ready for the treat that it was. I absolutely LOVED “The Hacienda”.

It bears repeating. (source)

Right off the top I want to say that the ghost story and Gothic elements are ON POINT. Cañas knows how to set the scene and slowly build the dread, pretty much starting right from Beatríz’s arrival to Hacienda San Isidro when she sees gutted rodents strewn about the courtyard. Cats are the culprits, she is told, though there is tension in the air, and it slowly builds and consumes until the tension is unbearable. There are plenty of haunted house moments applied here, from cold spots to slamming doors, to glowing eyes seen in the darkness for a fleeting second, to skeletons found in hidden places. It soon becomes clear to Beatríz that there is something haunting this estate, and as she tries desperately to get someone to believe her, it’s the servants and the locals who have the most insight. When most Priests scoff at her, one, Padre Andrés, answers her call for an exorcism. I loved Beatríz as a tormented and determined protagonist, as she both fits the bill for a Gothic heroine while also pushing against stereotypes as she refuses to be gaslit over what is happening in the home. And I also really liked Andrés, whose Father Karas-esque test of faith hides the fact that he is, at his heart, a witch whose practices have been hidden and repressed by the colonial culture that has taken root (more on that soon). They make a great horror story team, as they are easy to root for a relate to and make you become very invested very quickly. Which makes the haunting they are dealing with all the scarier. And makes the forbidden attraction between them even more high stakes. And yes, SWOON WORTHY.

But there are also a lot of underpinning themes regarding classism, racism, colonialism, and political upheaval that make “The Hacidenda” all the richer when it comes to the story it aims to tell. The aforementioned priest/witch, Andrés, basically went into the priesthood to hide his witchcraft and folk healing that has been passed down through the generations, as the Inquisition came to Mexico and practicing such would make him a target. The previous mistress, Doña Catalina, was abusive and cruel to her servants, who are of lower social standing and are also mostly mestizo in their heritage, and she sees them as subhuman. Juana, the half sister of Don Rodolfo, is a child of a hacendado but as a woman with a mysterious family background has no social claim to his wealth. And even Beatríz has connections to these political themes, as her father was murdered by Don Rodolfo’s party, and as a woman has few options and sees marriage to him as a way to keep herself safe. It’s when these real life horrors and injustices are applied to the horror tale that it really stands out, bringing in a critique of colonized Mexico and the damage it has done to the people who live there. Cañas has a fantastic authors note at the back of this book that really puts it all into context, and she weaves it in perfectly.

And on top of all that, I really loved Cañas’s writing style. She has the right flow, the most haunting and at times beautiful imagery, and paces everything just right. This is a fantastic debut.

“The Hacienda” is can’t miss horror fiction. Scary and thoughtful and a must read to be sure.

Rating 9: Gothic and creepy with ghosts, witchcraft, and commentary, “The Hacienda” is a great horror novel that can’t be missed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hacienda” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinix Horror/Fantasy”, and “2022 Gothic”.

Highlights: May 2022

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According to the poets, May is the month that we can hold in contempt if it doesn’t not provide the necessary number of flowers to make up for all of the April showers. But, in the meantime, we’ll take the fact that the trees are showing signs of life as good enough for now. There have even been a few tempting days of sun that promise of days to come when reading outside will once again be an option. Until then, here are some books we’re looking forward to his month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray

Publication Date: May 3, 2022

Why I’m Interested: I think most Jane Austen fans are probably one of the snobbier groups of readers when it comes to adaptations of their beloved original novels. But as “Death Comes to Pemberley” proves, miracles can happen and good book (even good mini series!) can come from continuations of these stories. Here, we have a murder mystery that takes place in the home of Emma and Mr. Knightley. The suspects? All of our beloved main couples from the other novels! And who better to solve the mystery than the oldest son of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Jonathan, and the young daughter of the Tilney’s, Juliet. I’m so nervous and hopeful for this book!

Book: “Wind Daughter” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publication Date: May 17, 2022

Why I’m Interested: After really enjoying “Echo North,” it was a no-brainer to jump immediately on to the sequel that was conveniently coming out this month! We even met the main character, the daughter of the North Wind himself, in the first book! Here, we follow the story of Satu as she travels the land trying to reign in her father’s magic that has gone wild after the death of the evil queen in the last book. But is she gone for good? Or is she controlling the actions of the mysterious Lord of Winter, a man who seems to pop up wherever Satu finds herself and clearly has plans of his own. I really enjoyed “Echo North,” and it’s always great to find a series of books that exist in the same world but are each stand-alones in their own right.

Book: “The Stardust Thief” by Chelsea Abdullah

Publication Date: May 17, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Will I ever get tired of reading books based on “The Arabian Nights” or reimagining the world of jinn? No, no I will not. So I was so excited when I received an ARC of this one in the mail. This is a three POV book featuring a thief, a merchant of magical goods, and a storyteller prince. Thrown together against all of their wills, they are sent on a perilous journey to recover a magical lamp said to house the most powerful jinn of them all. But in a land where jinn are hunted for their magic, there are more powerful figures scheming behind the scenes than any of them could imagine. The entire thing sounds super exciting and right up my alley. Can’t wait to dive in!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “The Hacienda” by Isabel Cañas

Publication Date: May 3, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Gothic ghost stories always catch my attention, and when the comparisons to “Mexican Gothic” and “Rebecca” were added to the description as well, my attention was less caught and more snared. When Beatríz marries Don Rodolfo Solórzano she moves to his home of Hacidena San Isidro, with the hopes that this marriage will provide her with the security that she lost when her father was murdered by opposition forces. But when strange and terrifying things start to happen in her new home, she wonders if the rumors of his first wife’s demise are perhaps true, and turns to a young priest for help. I’m always looking for new Gothic stories, and when they go beyond the typical conventions with themes and characters it’s all the more interesting.

Book: “Hide” by Kiersten White

Publication Date: May 24, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Serena and I have reviewed Kiersten White on this blog a number of times, though admittedly she’s been more in Serena’s camp, genre wise. But we’re back to a suspenseful and/or horror story from her, and I am very excited about that! An old abandoned amusement park is the setting for a high stakes hide and seek game that goes on for a week. If you aren’t found, you will win lots of money. Mack has entered because she has had to hide from serious danger in the past, so she feels she could easily win. But when her competitors start to disappear, Mack starts to think that things are even more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. This all sounds supremely strange and creepy, so I’m very excited for this one.

Book: “The Last Comic Book on the Left” by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, Henry Zebrowski et al

Publication Date: May 10, 2022

Why I’m Interested: If the “Last Podcast” guys are involved, I’m going to be 100% on board. Given how much I loved their first book “The Last Book on the Left” (and how much I love their podcast), when I heard that Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski had pulled together a comic book with various odd tales from their show, I was amped. And you REALLY have me when you make promises of Mothman in any form, so this promised sexy Mothman has be vaguely nervous but also very interested. I’m also very curious to see who they all bring on board in terms of comics people, and what styles they are going to bring to these stories.

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Echo North”

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Book: “Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Publishing Co., January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.

In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

Review: I’ve always loved the fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but for some reason, it’s one of those stories that has proven difficult to adapt and reimagine. I’ve read quite a few re-tellings over the years but have never found one that really clicked for me. But hope springs eternal, so I’ve had my eyes on this one for a bit. When I saw that there was a companion book coming out in May, I knew now was the time so that I’d have a chance to read that one, too, if I ended up liking it. Well, I have my ARC in hand for book two, so there’s your spoiler for what I thought of this book ultimately!

Echo believes her father is lost forever when he leaves home and doesn’t return for six months. So she is shocked to discover him one day in the woods, near death. More surprising still, he is guarded by a talking wolf who promises to save her father if Echo comes and lives with him for a year. She agrees and so starts a year filled with magical wonders and horrors, all found in a mysterious house within a hill. There, Echo grows closer and closer to the wolf and a mysterious man found in the magical library. But she strains against some of the magical rules of this realm, and when she breaks one near the end of her time, she begins an entirely new adventure.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read a decent number of adaptations of this fairytale. One of the particular challenges of this story, I think, is the turn it takes about halfway through the tale. The heroine is instructed to never look at the face of the man who sleeps beside her every night. And then, of course, she does, and this is what sets off the second act of the story where she must travel north to battle the troll queen to save her love. So it’s a bit challenging to write a heroine who is doomed to make what seems like a really silly mistake. Of all the magical challenges that you see heroes/heroines tasked with in fairytales, simply not looking at someone at night is about as easy as it gets. And the reasoning for these heroines making this mistake is often weak and hard to recover from. But that’s one of the best things this book did!

Echo’s story is different than the classic tale in a few ways, and I don’t want to spoil them all here. But I do think the author did a much better job than her contemporaries have for providing Echo with a reason for making this mistake. It’s both understandable and doesn’t harm our perception of her going forward. Instead, it’s easy to understand making the exact same decision she does, given the circumstances of her year in the magical house and her connection with the wolf and mysterious man she meets in the library regularly.

The story also took a very surprising twist in the final third of the book. I don’t want to spoil it, so I can’t say much about it. But it was an aspect of the story that I didn’t see coming at all, and one that also managed to tie up a few loose ends that I had been wondering about previously. There was, however, another revelation that came about in this twist that I thought impacted the romance in a pretty negative way. The book works through Echo’s thoughts and feelings pretty well, but as a reader, I was less forgiving of the fall-out of this twist than she seemed to be. It left a kind of sour note in my mouth, all the more disappointing because it came right at the end as the story seemed to be ready to end on a super high note.

Overall, despite this last second reveal that I disliked, the book was an excellent retelling of this fairytale. Definitely the best one I’ve read so far (I’ll just scrub my mind of that last little bit). That being the case, I’m very excited to read the second book! We briefly meet the protagonist of that story here, and her situation seems just as compelling. Fans of fairytale retellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Despite a misstep at the end (a very subjective one, at that), the best “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” story I’ve read so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo North” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Polar Fantasy and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Kate’s Review: “Homicide and Halo-Halo”

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Book: “Homicide and Halo-Halo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Things are heating up for Lila Macapagal. Not in her love life, which she insists on keeping nonexistent despite the attention of two very eligible bachelors. Or her professional life, since she can’t bring herself to open her new cafe after the unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen. No, things are heating up quite literally, since summer, her least favorite season, has just started.

To add to her feelings of sticky unease, Lila’s little town of Shady Palms has resurrected the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which she won many years ago–a fact that serves as a wedge between Lila and her cousin slash rival, Bernadette. But when the head judge of the pageant is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two must put aside their differences and solve the case–because it looks like one of them might be next.

Review: I was truly kicking myself when I realized that I had missed the publication of the second book in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries Series, “Homicide and Halo-Halo”. Given how much I enjoyed Mia P. Manansala’s first book in the series, “Arsenic and Adobo”, and given that it’s a cozy mystery series I actually like, I immediately put it on hold at the library. It took a little time to arrive, but when it did I was thrilled! Not only was a eager to revisit the town of Shady Palms and the character of Lila Macapagal, I was also eager to read up on all the delicious Filipino food that Lila and her family makes in her Tita Rosie’s restaurant.

And it was a nice return at that! Manansala has once again put together and enjoyable and not so intense mystery involving murder, gossip, and small town beauty pageants! After the head of the judging panel of the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant is murdered, Lila (who was asked to be on the judging panel as a former winner) can’t help but be sucked into investigating, especially when her cousin Bernadette is a prime suspect. It’s the kind of mystery that, while indeed high stakes, doesn’t seem too stressful, and it has the elements of being complex and well thought out without being convoluted or too zig zaggy. I liked following Lila as she investigates like a snarkier Jessica Fletcher, and how she goes about investigating in her own way. It just flows effortlessly, and it did keep me guessing, though going back Manansala did lay the clues out in clever ways.

It’s still the characters that really make it for me. Lila remains a fun and flawed protagonist, who has a little more to work with this time around given that Manansala decides to not shy away from the emotional and mental fallout of the previous novel. Lila is having emotional and mental struggles after having nearly been killed in “Arsenic and Adobo”. I liked that we actually address how traumatizing this was for her, and how that has had some real consequences for her in her personal and professional life. But given that this is, in fact, a cozy mystery, we also don’t get too bogged down in it, and Lila is still a fun, plucky, and snarky detective with a whole cast of characters who act as her foils. From her supportive (though sometimes judgmental) aunties to her friends to her colleagues at the pageant, we have an enjoyable cast of characters, some of whom serve as some probable and potential perpetrators to the crime at hand, as well as other scandals and mysteries that surround it. I especially liked seeing Lila and her nemesis cousin Bernadette interact, as their relationship is… complicated. And we kind of get to explore why that is, and how perhaps they themselves aren’t solely to blame for it. And hell, even though there’s a bit of a love triangle (still with the love triangle, gracious), it wasn’t too focused on that I found it terribly obnoxious. Not terribly, anyway.

And once again, the recipes!! Since this is a library book that will have to be returned I can’t have it at the ready if I want to try them out…. So of course I took pictures of the recipes and sent them to my email recipe folder! Manansala introduces the readers to more Filipino foods and easily gives them background and context within the story, and then adds a few to the back to try at home. I said it last time and I’ll say it again, THIS is the kind of cozy mystery perk I can get behind!

I challenge you to read the description of Halo-Halo and NOT want to eat it immediately! (source)

I continue to be completely charmed by the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries! Bring on the next! My hunger for both well done mysteries and delicious food is ever present!

Rating 8: Another entertaining and delectable cozy mystery with yummy recipes, “Homicide and Halo-Halo” continues a fun series following a fun protagonist!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Homicide and Halo-Halo” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Liked ‘Dial A for Aunties’ Try…”, and “Filipino Fiction (English)”.

Previously Reviewed:

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